With Almonte out, Tribe OF full of questions

Brantley's quick return key to overcoming unexpected road bump

March 3rd, 2016

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Let's begin with the obvious observation that this is not ideal.

Actually, to be clear, the Indians' initial intent to employ Abraham Almonte as their starting center fielder wasn't all that ideal to begin with. But losing Almonte to an 80-game suspension, when they were already down one outfielder because of Michael Brantley's offseason shoulder surgery? Yeah, that's somewhere far south of optimal.

Indians Spring Training info

"Thankfully," said team president Chris Antonetti, "we feel like we did have a good group of outfielders to compete for those at-bats."

They've got Lonnie Chisenhall, who only recently made the transition from third base and who, at 27, has yet to see his Minor League numbers translate to the highest level with consistency. They've got Rajai Davis, who was a fourth-outfield type for the division-rival Tigers in recent seasons. They've got Collin Cowgill, who was brought in for his defensive value off the bench. They've got Joey Butler, coming off a solid batting line as a reserve with the Rays in his age-29 season. They've got a couple of untested prospects in Tyler Naquin and James Ramsey.

And on Minor League deals, they've got Will Venable, who brings positional pliability, as well as Michael Choice, Robbie Grossman and Shane Robinson.

This, for the record, is the full extent of the selection. The Tribe will not be signing Austin Jackson or trading for Jay Bruce or doing anything else of significance in the marketplace. Unless there's some supportive Super PAC looking to independently augment the Indians, they're tapped on the financial front, capeesh?

All right, so, knowing that, what, exactly, do you do with this mish-mash of warm bodies on a team whose pitching staff alone has inspired lofty AL Central projections?

Well, first of all, you pray to whatever deity you believe in that Brantley makes it back not just to full health but prime performance in a timely fashion. And by far the best news out of Indians camp is that Brantley, now four months removed from surgery, is swinging a bat and has progressed to soft toss.

"I think the timetable early was maybe end of April, beginning of May," manager Terry Francona said. "I don't think it's going to be that long, but I think, in fairness to him, you start putting a date out there, and then if he's a week late [it looks bad]. He's doing everything he can to be ready, so that's good enough for us."

The Indians have a long and well-established history of slow starts. Generally speaking, we're in a forgiving and flexible time in the game, and a team hovering just south of .500 at the All-Star break is anything but out of it (your 2015 AL West champion Texas Rangers will back me up on this). But if the 2016 Central turns out as deep as it looks on paper, a slow start could be particularly punitive. Great pitching is the best possible backbone you can possess in this game, but if the 1-0 losses pile up, that's going to create a mental weight that could compromise even that obvious strength.

Therefore, the Indians have to find some way to assemble a nightly lineup that, even if it doesn't inspire delusions of run-production grandeur, will at the very least rate as presentable and defensively dependable.

This will be yet another great test of Francona's valuable skill set as a clear and cogent communicator, a man who can both massage egos and maximize platoons. It's easy for those of us on the outside to dial up Baseball-Reference.com and say, "Chisenhall has a .727 career OPS against right-handers and Cowgill has a .733 OPS against lefties, so put them together and you've got a reasonable right fielder."

"In the end, it still comes down to the people," Antonetti said. "You can have ideas of how to play guys or match them up, but if they're not comfortable doing it, it's not going to be successful."

And of course, if the people in question simply aren't very good big league ballplayers, you're sunk.

With the idea that Brantley could be out for a significant period but not, say, half a season, the Indians took a calculated gamble in adding only platoon types who won't crowd the roster when Brantley returns. But Almonte's suspension understandably caught them off guard, and the lack of appealing and affordable alternatives (even if the Indians had several million to spend, Jackson's .657 OPS against righties last year would make you wonder if they'd be spending it on yet another platoon type) at this late stage leaves them with the hand at hand.

So this is going to be interesting.

If only because of the newness phenomenon, many of us would advocate for Naquin, whose arm would be an instant asset in center even if he hits a buck-fifty in the bigs, to get an Opening Day shot. This is a team that's going to have to fight for every run regardless of the outfield alignment, so a glove-first mentality is in order.

Regarding that point, Chisenhall is another early positive here. Despite very limited prior professional exposure to the outfield, he was credited with 11 defensive runs saved in 354 1/3 innings last year. Dazzling D, under the circumstances. And in the Tribe's first Cactus tilt, he picked up right where he left off. Naquin, manning center, lost a ball in that notoriously high Arizona sky, and Chisenhall, in his first Arizona game action as an outfielder, sprinted over from right field to run it down.

We might as well extend that moment as a metaphor, of sorts. Because the Indians' outfield is pretty lost in general right now and could use a pick-me-up. Brantley's progression, Chisenhall's transition and Francona's maneuvering are all essential elements in the Indians ensuring that a sub-optimal setup doesn't lead to a sub-optimal spot in the standings.