The Indians made a lot of changes this offseason, parting ways with veteran faces at first base, shortstop, in the bullpen and the rotation. But the biggest area the team will need to see improvement from is the outfield.
Although it was a shortened season, the Indians’ outfield group ranked among the worst of all 30 clubs in different offensive categories in 2020. The outfield crew had the second-worst wRC+ (54), average (.194), on-base percentage (.238) and fWAR (-0.9), while recording the lowest number of RBIs (62), homers (11) and slugging percentage (.300).
So, how can they improve for 2021?
“I think communication is a start,” Indians outfielder Josh Naylor said. “We want to make sure we're all on the same mindset, we're all moving out there together, we're communicating. On offense, if you see something maybe you say, 'Hey, I see this in the swing or the approach. He'd doing this to so and so as well, watch this.' Give a little pointers and tips, that's all we can do. We can just work. Hard work, there's nothing better than working hard because you're going to get results.”
Maybe it’s easier said than done to just flip the switch and find the answer to the Indians’ outfield troubles. But a step in the right direction was signing Eddie Rosario, who will be, barring any injury, the club’s one consistent outfielder in either corner. He’s been everything the Indians have been lacking over the last few years, owning a .277 average with a .788 OPS and 119 homers in his six-year career.
But how will the Tribe sift through the rest of its outfielders to determine who else will join Rosario on the roster?
“Well, if I had any answer, I would be making more money than I am, believe me,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “It’s a great question and it’s really difficult. What made it so hard last year is, with a 60-game sprint, we didn’t really have the ability to let somebody play 25 games and sink or swim. Every game was [worth], what, 2.7 [games]? You kind of had to be aware of that.”
Now, the focus turns toward Spring Training to see who can put 2020 in the rearview mirror and bring the most to the table in 2021. Let’s look at the Tribe’s options:
Oscar Mercado could be the Indians' biggest boost. He showed what he could do in 2019, slashing .269/.318/.443 with 15 homers and 54 RBIs in 115 games, but he admitted to struggling with his mental toughness through an unprecedented 2020 season.
“Honestly, just talking to the people close to me and everything, I felt like I was just constantly feeling sorry for myself, which is not something you want to do,” Mercado said. “Instead of really taking the bull by the horns and attacking things the right way, I kind of shut down a little bit, mentally, and not being able to spend the time that I wanted with my family or being able to see them at games. … But yeah, I can tell you just from being here, it’s just way better. Like I’m happy, I’m excited, ready to go get going.”
Mercado said that he was also fighting through a minor back injury last year that won’t be a factor for him heading into 2021. He made similar adjustments to his swing this offseason that he had made prior to his rookie year in 2019. It’s likely Mercado will get the first crack at reclaiming the starting center-field job with Bradley Zimmer also strongly in the mix.
But if Mercado can turn back to the 2019 version of himself, that will be the first step to pulling the Indians’ outfield crew out of the bottom of the offensive stats leaderboards.
Luplow and Naylor
Jordan Luplow and Naylor could platoon in a corner-outfield spot, or one of them could use the next six weeks to prove that they can be an everyday player. Naylor showed flashes of success last year, especially in the Tribe’s short two-game stint in the postseason.
“We’re hoping as he starts to mature, maybe that turns into a game-changing bat,” Francona said.
And Luplow has continued to show that he can crush left-handed pitching. In 269 plate appearances against southpaws, Luplow has hit .275 with a .982 OPS. But in 274 plate appearances against righties, he’s hit just .193 with a .589 OPS. He’ll need to prove he can have a more consistent bat before he’d win an everyday job.
The non-roster invitees
Both Billy Hamilton and Ben Gamel have reported to camp as the Tribe’s two outfield non-roster invitees. Francona said that the team is excited about Gamel’s versatility, being able to play all three outfield spots, which could allow him to factor into earning a spot on the bench. However, it may be a little more difficult for Hamilton to break camp with the club.
“We were really upfront with Billy Hamilton,” Francona said. “We said, ‘Billy, in a perfect world, one of our young guys probably lays claim to the job. But come in here, compete, do what you do and we’ll see where it goes and we’ll be honest with you like we always are.’”
At some point this year, Nolan Jones could join the outfield conversation. It’s more probable that the Tribe’s No. 1 prospect (according to MLB Pipeline) will start the season in the Minors. That leaves all eyes on Daniel Johnson, who made his debut last July. The 25-year-old only appeared in five games, going 1-for-12 with a walk and five strikeouts.
But if Johnson can bring the production he had between Double- and Triple-A in 2019 (.290 average, .868 OPS, 19 homers, 34 doubles and seven triples) up to the big leagues, it’ll certainly be a welcomed addition to the Tribe’s lineup.
“That’s just a little sneak peek. There’s more to come,” Johnson said. “That was one of my best Minor League seasons. … Hopefully I can do the same thing in the big leagues. Or, not ‘hopefully.’ I will.”