How Will the Cleveland Indians Handle Their Outfield Situation?

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The AP reports (via ESPN) that Cleveland Indians OF prospect Tyler Naquin will make the Opening Day roster, his first trip to the majors. Earlier in the week, Fox Sports reported that the Indians, despite the earlier-than-expected return of Michael Brantley (pictured) and the minor-league signing of Marlon Byrd, were still seeking help for their outfield, but this seems to clear that up. The Indians had an abundance of options and as the AP article mentions, they expect to carry 5 outfielders to start the season. Currently on the Indians Spring Training roster, there are at least 9 legitimate options to make the Opening Day Roster. These choices include probable starters Rajai Davis, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Naquin as well as some combination of the aforementioned Marlon Byrd, Joey Butler, Collin Cowgill, Will VenableRobbie Grossman, and Shane Robinson.

The Starters

Brantley is clearly one of the league’s emerging stars, and his offseason surgery was a blow to the team. With his return not expected until a few weeks into the season, the Indians will try to manage without him, and Naquin’s spot on the team is certainly a good step forward. The Indians look to have a stellar defensive outfield, even in Brantley’s absence. Although Davis has the speed to play CF, he will likely be occupying the LF spot left vacant by Brantley, as Naquin is also a natural CF and much younger than Davis. These two should be able to cover a lot of ground in Progressive Field’s smaller outfield. Chisenhall, who started out as an infield prospect, moved to RF part time last year, with good results. Baseball-Reference credited Chisenhall with 11 defensive runs saved above average in 354.1 innings (~40 games) in RF. This pace would be good for about 4 wins defensively in RF over a full year. This is very impressive and would certainly put him in the upper-echelon of defensive outfielders if he is able to maintain the pace.

The downside to Davis and Chisenhall’s defensive presence is that their respective offensive performances have lacked luster. Davis the past two years has turned in approximately league-average performances across the board in batting, with a remarkably consistent 103/104 OPS+ and 103/101 wRC+ in 2014/2015 respectively. It’s also possible that he has lost a step as he has aged, as his formerly prodigious base-stealing ability waned in 2015. His 36 SBs (at 76.5% success rate) were good for third in the AL in 2014, but this number decreased to 18 SBs (at 69.2%) in 2015.

Chisenhall had similar problems in that he was not able to follow up his very solid 2014 season (115 OPS+, 119 wRC+), posting a much less serviceable 78 OPS+ and 80 wRC+ in 2015. Despite this, he was still able to increase his bWAR output from 1.4 to 2.3, but upon further examination, this is misleading. In 2014, Lonnie posted 3.0 bWAR on the offensive side, while posting -1.5 bWAR defensively playing in the infield (a quick reminder that offensive WAR + defensive WAR does not equal total WAR). But in 2015 with his previously mentioned move to RF, he posted 1.9 bWAR defensively and a mere 0.3 bWAR offensively. Essentially, in exchange for his elite outfield defense, Chisenhall traded the progress he had made at the plate the year prior.

It isn’t all doom-and-gloom for the outfield situation however, as Davis produced 1.6 bWAR in 112 games with the Tigers last year, and 1.3 the year before that in 134 games. On a $5.25MM contract this year, and with the above track record of production, Davis is certainly a quality outfielder at a good price for the Indians. Chisenhall similarly comes cheaply, as he just entered his second year of arbitration and is set to make $2.725MM. Between these two, the Indians should get approximately 3.0 bWAR for about $8MM, or 1/3 of the market rate.

In addition to this, they will get a better look at the rookie Naquin, who MLB.com ranked as the Indians’ #9 overall prospect this offseason. With a 1st-round pick pedigree, and having hit .300 last year in the minors, he certainly looks to be a legitimate long-term option for Cleveland in CF. He only reinforced this further with his stellar performance in Spring Training. If Naquin plays well in Brantley’s absence, he could easily force Cleveland’s hand into keeping him on the roster once Brantley returns as the Indians look to contend.

The Bench and Role-Players

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the outfield situation plays out. As stated before, the Indians mentioned that they’re looking to keep 5 outfielders on the roster as the season begins. The minor-league free agent Byrd should likely earn one of the spots, as his power seems to persist even into the twilight of his career. Byrd has knocked 20+ HRs each of the last 3 seasons while averaging 145 games each year, impressive as he heads into his age-38 season. In addition to this, as an owner of a career .802 OPS against LHP, he makes for a good platoon partner with the lefty Chisenhall. To top it all off, the Indians were able to grab him late in Spring Training for $1MM, so any contributions Byrd is able to provide will make his presence a huge steal.

The fifth spot (and the first to go upon Brantley’s return) will likely be Joey Butler. This is simply because he is already on the 40-man roster, and still has one option left, so the Indians will be able to keep him in their system. (Update 2:30pm: It looks like Butler has actually been optioned. With this in mind, Collin Cowgill seems to be the favorite to take the fifth roster spot as he can play all three positions. Most of what follows below applies to Cowgill just as accurately). Butler is an older player who got his first extended look in the majors in 2015 with the Rays, with a 105 OPS+ in 276 PAs. The fact that he only plays the corner positions and also bats right-handed (the same as Byrd) is what makes him vulnerable to Brantley’s return.

Provided that Brantley starts the season on the DL, the Indians will probably be looking at the below OF depth chart:

Against LHP
LF CF RF
1. Butler (R) 1. Davis (R) 1. Byrd (R)
2. Davis (R) 2. Naquin (L) 2. Chisenhall (L)
Against RHP
LF CF RF
1. Davis (R) 1. Naquin (L) 1. Chisenhall (L)
2. Byrd (R) 2. Davis (R) 2. Byrd (R)

Once Brantley returns, Butler would move to AAA Columbus. Davis would become the 4th OF, backing up each position (and possibly platooning with Naquin), with Chisenhall and Byrd remaining in a platoon in RF.

Predictions

The Cleveland Indians’ outfield situation for 2016 is predicated almost entirely on 2 things: how soon/effective will Michael Brantley return to the lineup, and can Tyler Naquin play well enough to stick in the majors? If the answers to both questions are positive, the Indians could be serious competitors to the defending world champion Royals in the AL Central. Brantley’s early return is important for the Indians to start hot in April, while an encouraging performance from Naquin solidifies the outfield. While Davis, Byrd, and Chisenhall are all productive outfielders, their use is best limited to platoon or reserve situations to limit exposure to their weaknesses. If Naquin does not continue his Spring Training success, the Indians may be forced to proceed with Davis starting in CF, and the relatively unproven Joey Butler remaining in the big leagues.

All told, an outfield of Brantley, Naquin, Chisenhall, Byrd, and Davis could be one of the most effective and efficient outfields in the league this year. The collective 5 are projected to accrue somewhere between 8 and 9 WAR, for a cumulative cost of $16.85MM to the Indians, a phenomenal rate of $2MM/WAR. If the Indians can pull this off and sustain the success of their pitching staff and young infielders, 2016 could prove to be a truly special season for the Tribe.

What do you think? Will Tyler Naquin play well enough to stick in the starting CF spot? Will the Indians ultimately need to make another move if he doesn’t? And will Michael Brantley return to All-Star form after his injury? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @SaberBallBlog. Don’t forget to subscribe to SaberBallBlog by clicking the green “Follow” button in the menu, and follow on Twitter for all of the latest updates on the MLB!

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