This past season, the baseball world headed into the year figuring that the lack of depth in the Cleveland outfield might be a problem. While Michael Brantley's strong .309/.364/.468 season was a pleasant surprise, the Indians outfield as a group ranked just 22nd in the Majors, at negative-1.8 Wins Above Replacement. It was expected to be weak, and it was.
Now, start from there and look to 2019. Brantley is a free agent. So are Lonnie Chisenhall, Melky Cabrera, Rajai Davis, and Brandon Guyer, while Bradley Zimmer's right shoulder injury may cost him much of 2019. Right now, the starting Cleveland outfield looks to be some combination of Greg Allen, Jason Kipnis, Leonys Martin, Tyler Naquin, and newly acquiredJordan Luplow, and if it sounds like that's still not enough, it's probably not. Looking at the 2019 Steamer projections, they are essentially tied with the Rockies for the fourth-weakest projected outfield value.
That might still be good enough to win a fourth straight American League Central, given the state of the other four teams. But as we saw in the postseason, when Cleveland put up a historically weak offensive performance, it's going to need a little more if it's going to get past the Red Sox, Yankees, or Astros. It's going to need some bats.
"That's an area that we will have to spend a lot of time addressing," said Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, said in October regarding the outfield. "Some of it depends on how we align our returning players. Also, obviously, it will be impacted by substantial departures."
Fortunately for the Indians, this is not an unsolvable problem. Bats are available. Sure, it'd be nice to simply say "go get Bryce Harper," and they should, but you could say that for every team, and 29 of them aren't going to end up signing Harper. The floor here is low enough that even some moderately priced signings and trades could pay some large dividends. We have some ideas.
Quickly, let's start with what they have.
Lots of lefty hitters. Kipnis, Naquin, Martin and Zimmer are all lefties, while Allen is a switch-hitter. This is partially what fueled the sensible trade for the right-handed Luplow; as Antonetti said, "he complements our roster really well."
A potentially strong defender in center. Thanks to a frightening infection, Martin only got into six games for Cleveland after being acquired from Detroit, but he should be ready to go in 2019. If he is, he's a good defender, putting up +21 Outs Above Average in the last three years, though he's strictly a platoon option, as he's hit just .234/.278/.334 against lefties.
It's a start. Naquin, Allen and Luplow all have potential, and you can hold out some hope for Kipnis, because even though he's suffered through two straight below-average seasons, he was at least a league-average hitter in the second half -- though he may be a better fit on another roster. But basically the Indians have five fourth outfielders, and if you have too many outfielders, you don't have enough.
Cleveland definitely needs one outfielder. We argue that it's really two, preferably righty or switch-hitting. Where can it look? So many places.
The best free-agent fit: Andrew McCutchen
It's true that McCutchen turned 32 last month, and that he's not the same MVP-caliber player he once was with Pittsburgh. But as we investigated recently with Statcast™ data, there's not any tangible evidence of a speed-related decline yet, and McCutchen has remained durable, taking 640 plate appearances each full year of his career. If you liked Brantley's .364/.468 OBP/SLG, well, McCutchen is projected for .363/.461 -- and he's a righty hitter.
He's expected to get a two- or three-year deal at a reasonable price, so he wouldn't bust any budget. Put him in right field, add two or three wins. Easy.
The less-likely-but-still-good free-agent fit: A.J. Pollock
Cleveland should sign Pollock, who hit an above-average .257/.316/.484 with 21 homers and good defense. It should sign Pollock and McCutchen, really, and let Martin, Luplow and the rest fight it out in left field. Pollock is the only true center fielder on the market, and he's right-handed to boot. Adding Pollock and McCutchen would be something like a six-win boost; while his injury history is real, Martin is a fantastic backup option.
The Indians won't do this, probably, because Pollock received the qualifying offer from Arizona and is looking for a sizable deal that Cleveland probably isn't going to offer, at least not in conjunction with McCutchen. This is how you rebuild an outfield, though.
Other free-agent righties:Adam Jones and Carlos Gomez have had plenty of success in the past, but they are now more second-tier options who may not be obvious upgrades. Others who hit from the left side like Nick Markakis and Carlos Gonzalez probably won't work here.
There's more to life than free agency, however. What about trades? There's just so many places to look.
The once (and future?) Cleveland prospect: Clint Frazier
After some scary concussion issues, Frazier's future has become a little less certain, but we're almost obligated to include Cleveland's first-round pick in 2013 here. With all the smoke about how the Tribe may trade a starting pitcher and how the Yankees desperately need one, it's almost difficult to imagine a trade between the two sides that doesn't include Frazier, among other pieces. Still only 24, Frazier just needs a place to play -- and a little better fortune on the health front.
The blocked power-hitting Brewer: Domingo Santana
In 2017, Santana had a breakout age-24 campaign for Milwaukee, slamming 30 homers to go with a .278/.371/.505 line. In 2018, he spent most of the year in the Minors, though that says a lot more about the arrivals of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich than it does him.
In 2019, he's projected to be a league-average bat, and he's still just 26. This has seemed like a decent fit for a while, and the cost would likely be reasonable.
The slugging Tiger if you don't care about defense: Nicholas Castellanos
In 2018, Castellanos continued his breakout by hitting .298/.354/.500, which made him one of the 30 best qualified hitters in the game, similar to Javier Baez or Francisco Lindor. As far as the glove goes, well, he was a good hitter. With just one year of control remaining, the trade demand couldn't be that high; even with the negative defense, he was still a three-win player in 2018. Maybe Edwin Encarnacion can play a little extra first base and open up a DH start or two each week.
The Dodgers players they can't find enough room for: Joc Pederson and Alex Verdugo
OK, both of these guys are lefties. That's not ideal. We get it. But if you're assuming that perhaps Kipnis gets moved, or Zimmer isn't healthy, or that a new addition just takes time away from Naquin or Allen anyway, it's not that big of a deal. Pederson is a platoon-only bat these days, but he's quietly been a good one: He hit .248/.321/.522, a line that was 26 percent better than average, with 25 home runs.
Verdugo made his Major League debut in 2017, but he still remains the No. 1 Dodgers prospect at MLB Pipeline because he's been able to get only 111 plate appearances thanks to the overstuffed outfield; he doesn't even turn 23 until May, and he hit .329/.391/.472 in Triple-A in 2018.
The inevitable Padres trade: Hunter Renfroe and William Myers
Cleveland and San Diego got together on the Brad Hand / Adam Cimber / Francisco Mejia deal this summer, and it feels like a fit here, too. We keep hearing rumors about the Padres trying to be aggressive for starting pitchers, and they seem to have more outfielders than they know what to do with, with these two (no, we're not considering Myers a third baseman), Franmil Reyes, Manuel Margot, Franchy Cordero, Travis Jankowski and on and on.
Renfroe just had an above-average slugging season (.504) and has a cannon arm. Myers has rarely lived up to his immense promise, but he's had four straight average or better hitting seasons in San Diego, and average or better is an upgrade in a Cleveland corner -- assuming, of course, the Padres pay down some of his deal to move him. (They probably would.)
The unlikely-but-fascinating star trades: Mitch Haniger and Kevin Kiermaier
OK, let's have some fun. The Mariners may or may not be open for business, but they already traded Mike Zunino and are expected to deal James Paxton, so you can rule nothing out. Over the past two years, Haniger has hit .284/.361/.492 with 42 homers and above-average right-field defense; he's basically beenMichael Conforto. He wouldn't come cheaply -- this would require one of the good young starters -- but he's an easy three-to-four win upgrade.
Kiermaier, meanwhile, may be the best defensive center fielder in the game, though he's coming off an injury-plagued season that was his worst at the plate. At his best, he's a league-average bat with an elite glove, which makes him a borderline star. The Rays have Austin Meadows, Guillermo Heredia and Tommy Pham all capable of playing center; they would surely consider it if it netted them a pitching upgrade.
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This is hardly a full list, obviously. We've been trying to put together a Kyle Schwarber-to-Cleveland deal for years, though as a lefty possible DH, it might not fit as well now. Mix and match any of the names above, really. Sign McCutchen and trade for Verdugo. Sign Pollock and trade for Renfroe. Do it however you like. No matter how you go, there are upgrades out there -- and they're needed. The current group just isn't enough.