Upgrade The Outfield Part 1: Internal Solutions & Free Agency
The Indians' outfield during the 2015 season was a Frankenstein-like monster, with the only real bright spot being Michael Brantley. Despite an incredible comeback season by Jason Kipnis, Brantley was once again the best hitter in Cleveland and is the star player on this team outside of the rotation. Over 137 games, Brantley batted for a .310 average, 379 OBP, .480 SLG and a .859 OPS. He hit 15 homes runs, 84 RBIs, stole 15 bases and drew 60 walks, all contributing to an outstanding OPS+ of 130, a team high among batters with at least 200 at bats.
Brantley did all this whilst playing hurt and getting very little help from the rest of the Indians lineup. Not only does Brantley need help but his injuries eventually led to him being shut down towards the end of the season and he's since had arthroscopic shoulder surgery that will see him miss 5-6 months, almost certainly ruling him out for the beginning of the season. His rehab from that kind of surgery could be lengthy, so I'm not expecting a 100% healthy Brantley until late May/early June at best.
So the Indians are in a tricky spot, especially since the front office decided not to retain outfielder Ryan Raburn for $3 million, buying him out for $100,000 instead. Excluding Brantley, the current outfielders on the Indians 40 man roster right now are:
A major league outfield looking for a division title that list does not make. Half of those guys are still Triple-A players and as much as Almonte endeared himself to me after coming over to Cleveland via trade, I'm still not entirely sold that he's a long term answer. I'd be willing to give Ramsey a chance to shine at the MLB level, but only if we already had the luxury of three healthy, productive outfielders (we don't). And Lonnie, well we know he's had his ups and downs, but he was remarkably decent in right field in 2015 which was a pleasant surprise. Can he stick there? On his previous experience with consistent production at the plate, the odds are he won't but I'd be willing to see if he can finally put it all together one final time. Cleveland has two potential star outfield prospects in Clint Frazier and Bradley Zimmer but realistically neither of them will contribute to the major league team in 2016, and they would have to post exemplary numbers in the minors for the Indians to even consider rushing them up the ladder to the big league club.
What can the Indians do to fix the outfield then? The club usually have a limited budget for free agents (rumored to be around $15 million this winter) but the market for outfielders is quite deep this off-season. There's a lot of guys who are likely out of the Tribe's reach but here's some outfield help I've singled out that could be picked up:
Nori Aoki will be 34 on Opening Day but he's been very consistent over the course of his four year career in the majors since arriving in the States. He's averaged a .287/.353/.386 battling line (BA/OBP/SLG), has great speed (81 stolen bases over four years) and plays good defense. Katrina Putnam over at Wahoo's On First believes the club could get Aoki for somewhere in the range of $10 million over 2 years and I'd be happy with that. I'd probably prefer a 1 year deal with Aoki not getting any younger but if a 2 year deal is what it would take to get him, I'd sign him to it there and then.
However, if I had to make just one free agent signing this winter, a big splash of a signing, I think I'd go for Dexter Fowler. The premium outfield free agents like Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward, Alex Gordon and Justin Upton are all going to fetch a price tag out of the Indians' range but Fowler might be in reach. He recently declined the Chicago Cubs' qualifying offer of $15.8 million for 1 year but if the Indians could put together a deal of around $15 million per year over 3 or 4 years, that might tempt him to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. Committing between $45-60 million over that time frame is a risk that a small market club like the Indians are likely hesitant to make but Fowler could be worth it.
The switch-hitting center fielder has a career OBP of .363 and showed signs of power last year, hitting 17 home runs, a career high. He has great speed as well, stealing 20 bases in 2015 and plays a passable defense, although defensive metrics don't rate him. Fowler will be 30 years-old on Opening Day so he still has some youth left, plus he's remained remarkably healthy during his career, playing in a career high 156 games in Chicago last season. Apparently the Indians would only lose a second-round draft pick, not a precious first-rounder, if they acquired Fowler (due to him declining the qualifying offer) so that's a bonus too. Fowler could be a terrific leadoff hitter for the Tribe and if the club are willing to push the boat out just a little bit, I think they could bring him on board.
If the Indians don't want to spend that much and would also like somebody a bit more defensively-minded, then Gerardo Parra would be a suitable alternative. Parra is a Gold Glove caliber outfielder who can play across the entire outfield and he's also handy with the bat. He's a career .277 hitter and finished 2015 with a .291/.328/.452 batting line, despite his production falling off quite a bit after his mid-season move to Baltimore. Still, the 28 year-old Parra presents a significant upgrade and is within the Indians price range, reportedly around $27 million over 3 years. Both Fowler and Parra will have plenty of suitors during the off-season but if we could sign either one, I would be incredibly happy.
Rajai Davis and Drew Stubbs are strictly back up options, who I would both like to see offered minor-league contracts with invitations to Spring Training. Davis could provide a bit of pop off the bench and can still steal a base (20 SBs in 2015) and I really liked Stubbs in 2013 and would like to see him given another chance, despite an awful 2015 (a batting line of .195/.283/.382). Neither of these guys are the answer to Cleveland's outfield woes but some veteran insurance for depth can't hurt.
Thanks for reading.