The Current Crop
Currently atop the center field depth chart sits Tyler Naquin. The 25 year-old finished third on the AL Rookie of the Year ballot last season after exploding onto the scene during spring training. Naquin took his opportunity last spring and ran with it; he played in 116 games and batted .296/.372/.514 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 14 home runs, culminating in an impressive 135 WRC+ and 2.5 WAR. Naquin was especially effective against right handed pitchers and slashed .301/.372/.526 in 289 at-bats (in fact he only faced a lefty 32 times). Not too shabby for a rookie and he'll be forever remembered for that unforgettable inside-the-park homer against the Jays. If he goes on to have a Hall of Fame career in Cleveland, you can already picture that fist pump immortalised as a statue.
Yet despite Naquin's prowess at the plate (and my wishful thinking), his defensive abilities leave something to be desired. This was noticeably obvious in Game 6 of the World Series but Naquin's flaws in the field were evident throughout the regular season as well. According to Fangraphs, Naquin graded as the second worst defensive center fielder in the majors with a -17 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). Now I don't entirely trust defensive metrics as I feel action in the field, especially somewhere so open like the outfield, can be hard to quantify with accuracy, but the numbers don't make for pretty reading. Even the casual fans among us noticed that his routes to the ball were rather, err, wobbly all season. Even so, he rarely looked like a complete novice out there, despite what the numbers would indicate. When you weigh up the pros and cons, overall I felt that Naquin's bat compensated for his mistakes in the field.
Naquin's closest rival is Abraham Almonte, who this time last year was the clear favorite to play center field on Opening Day. That was before it emerged Almonte had violated the MLB Drug Policy and was suspended for 80 games, paving the way for Naquin's emergence. Almonte returned to the team on July 3rd and played in 67 games, slashing .264/.294/401 over that span and played solid defense. He had a decent stretch as a starter in August and September but was eventually relegated to a pinch hitting role as the regular season came to an end, due to his postseason ineligibility.
Unless Naquin struggles right out of the gate (he was looking more and more susceptible to high fastballs as 2016 progressed) and Almonte gets off to a fast start, I can't see the 27 year-old Dominican becoming the permanent center fielder for a while. He'll likely platoon with Naquin and probably play some left field until Brantley is ready to take over full time again. I grew to really like Almonte in 2015 when his addition to the club jolted the team to life but his 2016 suspension left a sour taste in the mouth, even if it turns out he was innocent. Almonte will be hoping for a lot of reps this spring so he can stake a claim for center field but I can't see Naquin regressing to such an extent that he's not gonna be the everyday guy out there to start 2017.
Naquin and Almonte should feel pretty secure in their jobs but they will face some outside competition this spring; some men will have their eyes on that center field spot whereas other will satisfy themselves with a place on the roster.
Austin Jackson signed a minor league deal with the Tribe just prior to his 30th birthday and the veteran outfielder will be hoping for a late present, a spot on the Opening Day roster wrapped in a box with a bow on top. Jackson only managed 54 appearances in 2016, thanks to a left knee injury that ruled him out of action from June onward. He's a career .272 hitter and has primarily featured in center field during that time. I think Jackson could be a very useful addition to the team. He'll start the spring with a point to prove, to show the league he can still be a productive everyday player for a top ballclub. He certainly lends some much needed depth to the outfield at the very least but he'll likely need an injury from a rival or a drop in performance to firmly earn his place.
As it currently stands the only other outfielder on a minor league contract with hopes of making the team is Daniel Robertson (unless Wily Mo Pena wants to return to center field!). The 31 year-old journeyman outfielder has primarily featured in left field so won't realistically be expected to figure much in center. Robertson played in just 9 games last year for the Mariners in 2016 but had a decent season at AAA Tacoma. With all of the Indians' other outfield options, I don't see Robertson featuring for the Indians on Opening Day and unless injury strikes, I don't imagine we'll see him figure at all in 2017.
Last but not least we come to the prospects. These guys have been cooking nicely down on the farm but are they ready for a big league job?
The honest answer is no, they probably are not. The top dog for the center field job is Bradley Zimmer, who has been developing nicely in recent years. I've already covered Zimmer and his chances of making the team in part two of my spring wishlist, which you can read here. I think Zimmer will need a bit more maturing in Columbus this year before he's fully prepped for the show. A September call-up should be his goal in 2017, although a nice showing this spring wouldn't hurt his chances.
Greg Allen is the Tribe's dark horse to take over center field in the next year or so and the young speedster received a spring training invite for his sterling work in the minors last season. The 6th round pick from the 2014 MLB draft announced himself in a big way in 2016, leading all of minor league baseball in runs with 119. That's completely insane considering he has yet to reach the AAA level. The switch-hitting 23 year-old began the year at A+ Lynchburg before getting a promotion to AA Akron in late July but his performance didn't suffer at all. Between the two leagues he slashed .295/.416/.413 with 7 home runs, 44 RBI and 45 stolen bases (the highest in the Indians' entire system). You may as well call him Barry Allen as he's so frickin' fast on the basepaths.
Allen had 77 walks to 78 strikeouts, a fantastic ratio and the polar opposite to Zimmer (77 walks to 171 strikeouts). So far in his career Allen has displayed all the attributes of a perfect leadoff hitter. He plays a superb center field too, collecting the 2016 MiLB Gold Glove award for that position, an impressive feat given Rawlings only award this to one guy in the entire minor leagues. Overall I think the dude is a surefire stud and fans should be paying attention to Allen in 2017. He'll likely start the year in Akron but don't be surprised if he gets promoted to Columbus sooner rather than later. Here's hoping we get to see a September cameo from him before the season concludes.
The final center field prospect is Yandy Diaz but realistically he's unlikely to compete for that position this year, if ever. I took a look at Diaz when I analysed Zimmer and despite how versatile and effective Diaz has been throughout his career thus far, his time in center has been limited. He played all of 2 innings there in Columbus, the first time he's featured in center in his professional career. Whilst I think Diaz may have a future in the outfield ahead of him, it's more than likely going to be in the corners.
Who do you think will claim the center field mantle in 2017? Can Naquin rediscover his early 2016 form and fend off the future advances of prospects like Zimmer and Allen? Or will Almonte and the other veterans elevate themselves during the spring and force their way into Francona's plans? Or could the position feature a revolving door of candidates, rotating in and out of center field depending on whether they're hot or cold?
Whatever happens the center field position should be a topic of conversation all year long.
Thanks for reading.