CLEVELAND -- Coming into 2019, the only guarantee in the Indians’ outfield was Leonys Martín.
There was no Michael Brantley, Melky Cabrera, Brandon Guyer or Rajai Davis to throw in the grass. The Indians were left with the unknown, having to turn to inexperienced and unproven players to fight for both left and right field, including Jordan Luplow.
Luplow was traded to the Tribe in November 2018, and he had just 64 big league games on his resume from the past two seasons in Pittsburgh. He understood the starting opportunity that was before him, but he didn’t think it was going to affect his mindset.
“I’ve always been fighting for a spot, and I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder,” Luplow said at Tribe Fest in January. “I don’t think it’s going to be anything new.”
Right away, Luplow didn’t earn the starting job. Cleveland’s Opening Day starting outfield consisted of Jake Bauers in left field, Martín in center and Tyler Naquin in right. Luplow got his first start in the fifth game of the year, but he was only granted 17 plate appearances (3-for-15) before he was sent down to Triple-A Columbus for two weeks. When he returned, he became one of the Indians’ most valuable bats … well, against lefties.
What went right?
If a southpaw was on the mound, it seemed like things could only go right for the right-handed Luplow. Since his return to the Majors on April 28, he went on to hit .281 with a .953 OPS in 210 at-bats. Against left-handers this season, he hit .320 with 14 home runs, 30 RBIs and a 1.181 OPS in 68 games.
It was impossible not to notice the difference in Luplow’s production when a lefty was on the mound. That discrepancy led him into a platoon role, where he’d catch himself counting the days until a left-hander was on the mound for him to get back into the action.
“At first it was a little bothersome that I was only playing against lefties, just being selfish,” Luplow said. “But I was able to fit into that role because of these guys in this locker room. They helped me out a lot. I found my stride with that.”
What went wrong?
Then came the righties.
In 54 games, Luplow hit .216 with one home run, eight RBIs and a .573 OPS. But both he and the Indians seem ready to put 2019 in the rear-view mirror. As manager Terry Francona said multiple times this season, “We don’t want him to strictly be a platoon guy.”
“Now, the next step is hopefully working towards that everyday job,” Luplow said.
Let’s tweak this category to reflect multiple moments so the answer can be: whenever Manny Bañuelos was on the mound.
Sometimes, a hitter can get a pitcher’s number (and vice versa), and Luplow had a firm grip on that of the White Sox southpaw. What became an utter slugfest of a season began on May 9 at Progressive Field, when the then-25-year-old launched his first homer of the season off Bañuelos in the second inning before cracking another in the fifth.
Just five days later, the Indians made their way to Guaranteed Rate Field, where Luplow greeted Bañuelos with a fourth-inning solo shot, tallying his first three homers of the season against just one pitcher. That changed two innings later, when he recorded his second multi-homer game of the week off Josh Osich.
Especially with Naquin out, the Indians need Luplow to be more than the “platoon guy.” To do that, it assuredly begins with him proving he’s able to square up some righties; however, the young outfielder will have to continue to prove that he’s their best option defensively as well. Of the Tribe’s outfielders who played in at least 48 games, Luplow ranked third in defensive runs saved: Naquin (8) Oscar Mercado (5), Luplow (0), Bauers (minus-3), Yasiel Puig (minus-4).
With Naquin expected to be out until April-June (torn ACL in right knee), Luplow already seems to be in a good position to be needed in the grass, assuming the team does not acquire an outfielder over the offseason. But if Naquin returns and the Indians want to keep Franmil Reyes in the field, Luplow will suddenly have to fight to earn his spot on an everyday basis.
It was the two games against Chicago in May that started the turnaround -- at least against southpaws -- for Luplow this past season. Now, he’ll need to convince the coaching staff at Spring Training that he can be trusted to take the field no matter who toes the rubber.
“Since he came back [from Triple-A], he’s been a middle-of-the-order presence against left-handed pitching,” Francona said at the end of the regular season. “Does that grow into more? Who knows? What he does for us is really important.”