Looking at Indians' in-house options in center

October 22nd, 2018

CLEVELAND -- The Indians entered the offseason with question marks hovering over all three outfield positions. The options in center field, in particular, currently include a long list of internal names, but it is hard to predict who will patrol that part of the outfield grass come Opening Day.

"That's an area that we will have to spend a lot of time addressing," said Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations. "Some of it depends on how we align our returning players. Also, obviously, it will be impacted by substantial departures."

Cleveland has opened each of the past five seasons with a different player in center field on Opening Day. There is a chance that streak will reach six in 2019. With that in mind, here is a look at six of the Tribe's in-house options for center field.

Contract status: After earning $13.7 million last season, Kipnis is due to earn $14.7 million in 2019, which is the last guaranteed year in his six-year contract. His deal includes a $16.5 million team option (or $2.5 million buyout) for '20.

2018 recap: Kipnis, 31, hit .230 with 18 homers, 28 doubles, 75 RBIs and a .704 OPS in 147 games, marking his second consecutive subpar offensive campaign. Over the last two years combined, Kipnis has an 86 OPS+, meaning he has been 14 percent below league average offensively. He had a 114 OPS+ in the '15-16 seasons combined. That said, Kipnis did hit .295/.361/.589 (.951 OPS) over his last 28 games in '18. After opening the year at second base, Kipnis finished the season as the Tribe's center fielder.

2019 outlook: If Cleveland is unable to trade Kipnis -- a move that could help the team's bottom line as it tries to address other needs -- then he could move back to second or stay in the outfield. The most likely scenario is the outfield, allowing the Tribe to give the keys to third base. would remain at second in that scenario. If outfielder departs via free agency, Kipnis could take over in left field.

He said it: "We know he can play second. We know he can play center. My guess is he could hand left field just fine. But, we would need to see where we're at and what our needs are." -- Indians manager Terry Francona

Contract status: Martin earned $1.75 million on a one-year contract in '18, but the outfielder has one year left of arbitration eligibility. That means Martin will be due for a raise in his final season of contractual control.

2018 recap: Overall, Martin hit .255/.323/.425 in 84 games with the Tigers and Indians, though his stint with Cleveland consisted of only six games. After being acquired from Detroit prior to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, Martin developed a serious bacterial infection that ended his season in August. When healthy, he played well in center (three Defensive Runs Saved and 15.3 UZR/150 in 678 1/3 innings) and hit .279/.348/.451 against right-handed pitching.

2019 outlook: Depending on which way Cleveland plans on going with its outfield -- especially as it weighs the financial situation -- Martin could be a non-tender candidate. Part of the reason Martin was an attractive trade acquisition, though, was that extra season of control. If Martin's offseason recovery continues to go well and he is retained, he would be a natural fit to handle righty pitching in center.

He said it: "As a starting point, we expect him to be back at full health next year. Exactly where that fits in, we'll have to work through that. He's arbitration eligible again this season for the last time. We'll have to just make an assessment of how that fits within the construct of the rest of our team." -- Antonetti

Contract status: Allen is not eligible for arbitration until 2021 at the earliest and he has two Minor League options remaining.

2018 recap: Given the injuries and other issues that hit the Tribe's outfield, Allen appeared in 91 games. The fleet-footed rookie hit .257/.310/.343 with 16 extra-base hits, 21 steals and 36 runs scored. The advanced defensive metrics were not kind to Allen (minus four DRS and a minus 9.1 UZR/150 in 590 innings in center), but he made a number of dynamic game-saving plays.

2019 outlook: Allen stepped as a starter throughout last season, but the 25-year-old switch-hitter might profile best as a fourth outfielder. If he is not in the starting nine next year, Allen could have a home as a backup for all three spots, while offering speed off the bench.

He said it: "Early in the season, he was kind of getting beat up. Then, we went and got Leonys because of it. Leonys goes down and Greg -- like, right in front of our eyes -- was getting better. That's hard to do at the Major League level. He made a lot of strides. It was really, really a bright spot to see him do that in the middle of August." -- Francona

Contract status: Zimmer is not eligible for arbitration until 2021 at the earliest and he has two Minor League options remaining.

2018 recap: After a promising showing in '17, Zimmer began last season as the Tribe's Opening Day center fielder. He continued to be a stellar defender and baserunner, but his 38.6 percent strikeout rate led to a trip back to Triple-A Columbus in June. In 34 MLB games, he hit .226/.281/.330 for Cleveland. A right shoulder injury in the Minors then led to labrum repair surgery, ending his season.

2019 outlook: Zimmer's surgery came with an eight-to-12 month recovery timetable, meaning the outfielder may not be ready for the start of next season. In all likelihood, Zimmer will need to use the first half of '19 to get back up to speed. Do not expect Zimmer to be part of the Opening Day plans.

He said it: "We do expect him to be able to play for the majority of next year. Exactly when that will be will be determined by how he reaches each of those checkpoints, but he's still on track." -- Antonetti

Contract status: Naquin is not eligible for arbitration until 2020 at the earliest and he has one Minor League option remaining.

2018 recap: Naquin began last season as the Indians' Opening Day left fielder, but spent time in all three outfield spots. In 61 games in the big leagues, he hit .264/.295/.356. His season ended in August due to right hip surgery. Naquin returned in time to take part in an intrasquad game during Cleveland's preparation for the postseason, giving him some confidence going into the offseason.

2019 outlook: The late-season return to the field -- even in a simulated environment -- was a big step for Naquin, who will be contending for a spot on the Opening Day roster in '19. While he could play center, Naquin looks like a better fit for right field, especially with (a similar player) hitting free agency. Like Allen and Zimmer, Naquin could also be optioned to the Minors, if Cleveland addresses outfield needs externally.

He said it: "Nake did a great job. Sometimes when you're [rehabbing] in Arizona, you can feel kind of out of sight, out of mind. He not only came back quickly and healthy, he was swinging the bat so well. It was so obvious that he had put so much time into what he was doing. We were really proud of him." -- Francona

Contract status: Mercado has not reached the Majors, but is on the 40-man roster and has two Minor League options remaining.

2018 recap: The Indians acquired Mercado at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline from the Cardinals, adding an intriguing depth piece to the mix. He played all three outfield spots in '18, but is viewed as a center fielder. In 132 games between Triple-A Memphis and Columbus, the 23-year-old right-handed hitter turned in a .278/.349/.390 slash line. In the process, Mercado had eight homers, 26 doubles, 37 steals, 49 walks, 85 runs and 87 strikeouts.

2019 outlook: The expectation is that Mercado will open the '19 season back with Columbus, but he will be a name to monitor as the year progresses. It was an under-the-radar trade for Cleveland, but Mercado could soon find himself on the Major League radar. Francona and his staff will get a good look at him during Spring Training.

He said it: "He's a very athletic player. He transitioned from shortstop to center field a couple of years ago and has really made that transition well. We think he's an above-average defender with above-average speed that adds a very good option for us in the near-term at the Major League level in the outfield." -- Antonetti, on July 31