CLEVELAND, Ohio — It could be well into spring training before the Cleveland Indians add a veteran via trade or free agency to address the question of what their outfield will look like by opening day, but some outfielders already on the Tribe’s roster are hoping to take advantage of their opportunity before then.
The mass departure of established outfielders this offseason has created a chance for young guys to step in and become the answer the Indians are searching for. Gone are free agents Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Melky Cabrera, Brandon Guyer and Rajai Davis — a group that accounted for 32 total home runs and 157 RBI with 186 runs scored in 2018.
Cleveland’s current 40-man roster features five outfielders younger than age 27, with Leonys Martin, who turns 31 in March, as the elder statesman of the group. The Tribe acquired Martin from Detroit in July, and he appeared in six games before picking up a life-threatening bacterial infection that ended his season. Martin was in the midst of his best campaign since 2014 before falling ill. He was hitting .255 with 11 home runs and 33 RBI and a career-high .747 OPS in 84 games.
Now 100 percent healthy, Martin signed a one-year, $3 million contract to avoid arbitration in November. But the early part of 2019 might be more about making the most of what he sees as a second chance to play the game he loves. “I’m gonna motivate myself,” Martin said. “I’ve got a second chance, so I’m going to enjoy every single time I wear the Cleveland Indians uniform. I’m going to be out there doing my best and trying to do my job the best that I can.”
Third-year man Greg Allen, 25, said the Tribe’s young players are ready to lay it on the line for the chance to be a part of manager Terry Francona’s everyday lineup.
“Having some competition and a competitive edge as far as guys working and trying to get spots will only help us,” Allen said. “We’re going to try and put our best foot forward and have the best guys out there to try and help us win some games.”
In five different stints with the big league club last season, Allen batted .257 with 20 RBI and 21 steals in 265 at-bats. He came on strong in the final two months of the season, playing almost every day. From Aug. 9 through the end of the regular season, Allen hit .297 with just 22 strikeouts in 133 plate appearances and an OPS of .770 across 44 games.
Flashes of success like that serve as inspiration for Allen in his offseason preparation.
“Having the chance to be up here and have an extended number of games played or at-bats pushes you,” Allen said. “Trying to make sure that you’re finding ways to be as consistent as possible in order to help the team win. Looking back at last year and going into this offseason, I was definitely motivated to get back to this point and more than anything to continue improving and stay here.”
With a flurry of offseason trades, the Indians got noticeably younger in the outfield by adding the likes of Jordan Luplow, 25, via trade with Pittsburgh and Washington prospect Daniel Johnson, 23, who will come to big league camp as a non-roster invitee. Luplow appeared in 64 games for the Pirates during the last two seasons, hitting .194 in 170 at-bats while Johnson has never hit above Class AA.
Last year, the Indians picked up Oscar Mercado, 24, from St. Louis, at the trade deadline. Mercado, a former second-round draft pick, spent the rest of 2018 at Class AAA Columbus and totaled 37 steals and a .738 OPS between the Clippers and Memphis Redbirds.
General manager Mike Chernoff told fans at Tribe Fest 2019 on Saturday that it’s hard to predict which young players are going to step in and make a difference from year to year. From Francisco Lindor’s success in 2015 to Jose Ramirez’s breakout year in 2016 and Shane Bieber’s surprising contributions last year, forecasting young talent is tricky.
“If we had sat here a year ago or two years ago, none of us would have identified Shane as the guy that comes up and helps our team the way he did. He flew through our system and just took off when he got here. We never know who it’s going to be.”
Chernoff said the club feels strongly about its recent drafts and international signings based on some changes they have made in the process citing outfielders Nolan Jones and Will Benson as prospects that have shown promise.
“You see a lot of these young players start to progress and you see the signs of development and the indicators that mean they could potentially take off and help our major league team,” Chernoff said.
Meanwhile, of the outfielders that broke camp with the Indians at the start of last season, only Tyler Naquin, 27, and Bradley Zimmer, 26, remain on the roster. Both finished the season on the disabled list following surgeries (Naquin hip, Zimmer shoulder). Naquin was close to returning in September and should be ready to compete for a starting spot, while Zimmer’s recovery could last into May or June.
“Based on how I’m feeling now, I feel like I’ll be ready for spring training,” Zimmer said. “Whether they turn me lose by then or not, I feel like I’m in a really good place right now, physically.”
Zimmer said the lack of a veteran outfielder won’t make his recovery timetable any different.
“In a perfect world I’d like to be healthy and ready to play by day one because I believe I belong on this team and I can contribute from the start of the season,” he said. “But the timetable is not really in my hands as far as my progression. If everything goes the way it is right now, I should be ready by early in the season.”
Help could come from Jake Bauers, acquired along with Carlos Santana in the three-team trade that sent Edwin Encarnacion to Seattle and Yandy Diaz to Tampa. Bauers, 23, played 20 games in the outfield for the Rays and 76 at first base. He’s appeared in 146 minor league games in the outfield where he posted a .964 fielding percentage with 11 assists and 11 errors in 305 total chances.
Though first base is probably the long-term destination for the 23-year-old lefty, he is expected to contribute to the lineup early, and that could happen in an outfield role with Santana at first.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to play 162 games,” Bauers said. “Whatever is going to get me into the lineup is what I’m going to be willing to do.”