We are already a week into February. Today is Super Bowl Sunday. Time is really flying by. While the Super Bowl marks the end of the NFL season, it also marks the start of the transition from winter to spring and, more importantly, the transition from football season to baseball season. With pitchers and catchers reporting in a mere weeks, and most of the biggest moves of the offseason finished, now is the time to assess each team’s roster, and decide what they are lacking.
For the Cleveland Indians, the likely Opening Day lineup leaves a lot to be desired. With a starting field of Rajai Davis, Abraham Almonte, and Lonnie Chisenhall, it is pretty clear that the outfield currently profiles as one of the Indians biggest weaknesses. Michael Brantley isn’t included in that lineup because of his injury, and the Indians will be without him for at least the first month or so of the season, perhaps even longer. This leaves them with a void that isn’t filled by the current outfield setup.
Despite it being so late in the proverbial offseason game, there are still additions to be made in both the free agent and trade markets. For an Indians team rocking one of the best starting rotations in baseball to go along with an anemic offense, all upgrades must be considered. What follows are the two best outfield options on the free agent market and the two best outfield options on the trade market, and why the Indians should consider all of them to improve their outfield depth going into Spring Training.
Free Agent Options
Austin Jackson – 2015 Numbers – .267/.311/.385 94 wRC+ 2.2 fWAR
In terms of free agents, the clear cheapest option here is Austin Jackson. Coming off a season where he struggled mightily in split time between the Seattle Mariners and Chicago Cubs, Jackson would still provide some positive value to the Indians. He looked much improved near the end of 2015, and is looking to build off of that limited success in 2016. It may be asking too much to stick Jackson in a starting role on any team, but filling in during Brantley’s absence shouldn’t be too much for him to handle. Either way he will provide good depth once Brantley is ready to return. Some would argue having both Jackson and Rajai Davis is redundant, which may be true. Even so, Jackson looks to be an upgrade over Abraham Almonte over a full season, or at least added depth beyond that.
Dexter Fowler – 2015 Numbers – .250/.346/.411 110 wRC+ 3.2 fWAR
An even better option on the free agent market than Jackson, and likely the best outfield option still available, is Dexter Fowler. The issue here is the draft pick compensation forfeited if he is signed. Cleveland has the 15th overall pick in next year’s draft, and giving up that selection to sign Fowler may be too big of a price to pay. Even so, Fowler will provide 2-3 wins for a team next year, and could be a huge upgrade over Abraham Almonte for the Indians in center. Then, when Brantley comes back, he would be paired with Fowler and Chisenhall to create a pretty good overall outfield. Fowler may be a costly proposition, but he would certainly make the Indians better in a tight American League Central race.
Jay Bruce – 2015 Numbers – .226/.294/.434 91 wRC+ 0.1 fWAR
On the trade front the Indians also have a few options, starting with Cincinnati Reds right fielder Jay Bruce. Bruce is not the flashiest option based on his 2015 performance, but he could come at a rather cheap price given the bottoming out of his trade value. Jay Bruce has been pretty awful for most of the last two seasons, but he was an above average player as recently as 2013. Playing on a contending team with great players around him might be enough to push him over the top and back to his past success. There is an obvious risk here given the money remaining on Bruce’s contract, but the Reds seem to be willing to pay down the contract to facilitate a deal if the Indians pay the price back in prospects. Given Bruce’s struggles, that price should not be a prohibitive one at all.
Desmond Jennings – 2015 Numbers – .268/.324/.340 87 wRC+ 0.1 fWAR
The newest addition to the outfield trade candidates, Desmond Jennings seems to be expendable with the Rays acquisition of Corey Dickerson. With Steven Souza, Brandon Guyer, and Kevin Kiermaier already in the outfield, it appears Jennings may be the odd man out. While Guyer could also be a trade candidate, Jennings is the more logical choice. Jennings is coming off a season where he played in only 28 games at the big league level, and accumulated just over 100 plate appearances. Even so, he had three consecutive seasons of 3+ WAR performance in 2012, 2013, and 2014, so it is clear that he can be a productive player. For the Indians, Jennings would provide not only flexibility at all three outfield positions, but even more athletic ability than they already have. Given his injury issues in 2015, his trade value is also low, making him a cheap option.
Carlos Gonzalez – 2015 Numbers – .271/.325/.540 114 wRC+ 2.4 fWAR
While Bruce is clearly the cheaper option, Carlos Gonzalez is certainly the more all-in move for the Indians. It remains unclear if the Rockies actually want to trade Gonzalez but if they do, the Indians could be a good fit. Gonzalez would provide a two year option and certainly boost the middle of their lineup power, an area that has been sorely lacking in recent years. Of all the parts of a good offense, this is certainly the piece that the Indians are missing the most. While any of Bruce, Fowler, or Jackson would be good options, Gonzalez may just put the Indians over the top in the American League Central. If the Indians front office is serious about actually competing in 2016, this may be the move to make.
The Indians have options to improve their outfield in 2016, some better than others. Both Austin Jackson and Dexter Fowler are available on the free agent market, with Jay Bruce, Desmond Jennings, and Carlos Gonzalez seemingly available via trade for the right price. While Fowler and Gonzalez are the moves that would most drastically improve the Indians for 2016, the more likely move here appears to be acquiring Jay Bruce or signing Austin Jackson. Of all the moves, acquiring Carlos Gonzalez would be the smartest, but might prove too pricey to manage.