The Cleveland Indians appear intent on sticking with familiar faces in their starting outfield this season in the wake of an offseason that has depleted that aspect of their ballclub. But if they aspire to contend for the American League pennant, they need more offensive firepower, and the addition of a veteran outfielder would do wonders for manager Terry Francona‘s depth chart.
Jones has been one of the most steady outfielders in Major League Baseball this decade. While he has lost a step or two in center field, he has been one of the most reliable defenders in the sports, can get behind any fly ball hit his way, and is an outfield commander. At the plate, Jones is a reliable contact hitter. He has hit above .280 in each of the last two seasons, puts the ball in play often, and can hit at the top or in the middle of a lineup.
Sure, Jones’s power numbers decreased last season. After totaling 25-plus home runs a season since 2011, he finished with just 15 home runs to go along with 63 RBIs in 2018 — which is the fewest RBIs he has totaled since his first full season with the Baltimore Orioles in 2008 (57). But there hasn’t been a drop-off in his skill set, or in his ability to impact a game at the plate or in the field.
On the other hand, while he has been a bit inconsistent in recent memory, Gonzalez is capable of being a middle-of-the-order force. He has become one of the best extra-base hitters for his age (33), has stayed relatively healthy over the last four seasons — which has been an issue over his career — and totaled 65 home runs from 2015-16. He has a level swing, can hit long fly balls to follow through on sacrifice flies, and provides a veteran presence.
Gonzalez has played all three outfield positions. Given that he’s 33, it’s unlikely that a team would sign Gonzalez to play center field, but the veteran can man either corner outfield position. Over the last four years he has solely played right field, but he took on the majority of his team’s left field reps beforehand. That type of versatility would play well with the Indians.
The Indians starting outfield, for the time being, projects to be Jordan Luplow, Leonys Martin, and Tyler Naquin. They also have Greg Allen, who played all three outfield positions in 2018 but doesn’t appear likely to get an opening day nod, barring injury. Luplow played 64 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 2017-18 and never hit above .205; while he has hit for contact in the past, Martin is strikeout prone; Naquin hasn’t played on a consistent basis since 2016.
Now could Martin and Naquin have bounce-back seasons and come into their own as steady everyday hitters this season? Sure, but it’s anything but a given and an enormous risk for the Indians based on the individuals they’ve lost from their 2018 lineup.
This offseason the Indians have traded catcher Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals, first baseman Yonder Alonso to the Chicago White Sox, Edwin Encarnacion to the Seattle Mariners in a three-team deal — which brought back former Indians first baseman Carlos Santana and young slugger Jake Bauers — and lost Michael Brantley to the Houston Astros in free agency on a two-year, $32 million deal.
Now, the Indians do have some proven and/or premier hitters in their lineup. While third baseman Jose Ramirez saw his batting average drop in 2018, he traded in some doubles for homers, improved his plate discipline, and was a finalist for the American League Most Valuable Player of the Year Award for a second consecutive year; shortstop Francisco Lindor is the motor that keeps the Indians offense running and is arguably the best player at his position in the sport; second baseman Jason Kipnis hits for power, is a superb fielder, and is capable of playing center field; Santana was an essential source of power to the team’s lineup before leaving in free agency last offseason.
At the same time, the Indians offense is extremely underwhelming considering what it once was, and they will need larger contributions from Martin, Naquin, and catcher Roberto Perez this season. Perhaps Bauers can become more of a contact hitter and play his way into becoming a focal point of their offense, but there is little the Indians can do internally to make up for the premier bats they traded or let walk out the door. It wouldn’t completely heal it, but adding Jones and/or Gonzalez would make their lineup deeper and provide more options for their starting outfield; a high-caliber offense would make the Indians the overwhelming favorites to win the AL Central for a fourth consecutive season.
The Indians starting rotation includes right-handers Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger — who all recorded 200-plus strikeouts in 2018. Kluber is one of the best pitchers in the sport and the Indians ace; Bauer came into his own last season, recording a 2.21 ERA; Carrasco has been a steady force and one of the most reliable right-handers in the sport over the last four seasons; Clevinger has a delivery that can throw off hitters’ timing and was reliable in his first full season starting every fifth day. Plus, Shane Bieber had some encouraging starts in 2018, and an improved version in his second year would give Cleveland, without question, the best starting rotation in the sport.
Outside of re-signing veteran left-hander Oliver Perez to a one-year, $2.5 million deal, the Indians have done little to nothing to bolster a bullpen that was amongst the worst in the sport last season. In fact, they were 25th in MLB in ERA (4.60), 29th in strikeouts (478), and 19th in opponent batting average (.253) while being 30th in innings pitched (463.2) last season.
Despite alarming seasons from the two relievers, losing Andrew Miller and Cody Allen to free agency is a major blow to the Indians bullpen given their reliability in years past. Brad Hand and Adam Cimber — whom the Indians acquired before last season’s MLB trade deadline — will need to have All-Star caliber seasons to fill the void created by the departures of Miller and Allen.
The Indians opted to stick to their guns in regards to their pitching staff. Instead, they’ve significantly altered their lineup via trade. Right now this isn’t a team that’s a serious threat to win the AL pennant. Sure, they’re the best team in their division, but the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Astros, and arguably the Oakland Athletics are better assembled for a deep playoff run. Heck, maybe you could make a case for the Minnesota Twins being on the Indians tail based on their deep lineup and them being a year removed from winning 85 games.
Realistically, the Indians are a first-round, and, at best, ALCS exit in the 2019 postseason. But they’re committed to their positional core, and could watch Bauer and/or Kluber leave in free agency in the near future; they might as well sign players to deepen their roster and give them a better chance of going on a deep playoff run. At this stage of their careers, that’s likely what Jones and Gonzalez want to embark on anyway.