The speculation around the winter meetings has the Cleveland Indians talking to every first base/DH free agent in an attempt to replace Mike Napoli. On the surface this makes sense. Napoli was a big part of the Indians in 2016, leading the team in home runs and RBIs while providing the type of veteran leadership that is essential to contenders. But the reality is that Napoli could just as easily have gone the other way, and the Indians have plenty of experience with that, as well, having struck out on Brandon Moss and Mark Reynolds in the recent past. The reality is that 30 homer/200 strikeout guys just aren’t that valuable. Napoli is better than most because he draws walks and can field a position, but ending 30 percent of your plate appearances without contact puts a hard ceiling on what you can contribute.
The worst thing about these guys is their inconsistency. There were occasions when Napoli would carry the offense for a week at a time, but between those times were long spans of time when the best he could hope for was a loud foul. Following guys like Carlos Santana and Francisco Lindor in the Indians’ batting order who specialized in getting on base, Napoli killed a lot of rallies.
Now the Indians are doubling down on that strategy. They have offered Napoli a one-year deal, and if that doesn’t work they are talking to Chris Carter, Adam Lind, and Mitch Moreland. A look at the roster, though, makes me wonder why they are so determined to follow this course. They will enter spring training with four players who saw significant time in the outfield in 2016: Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer, Tyler Naquin, and Abraham Almonte. They also expect Michael Brantley to return. Two of their better prospects, Bradley Zimmer and Yandy Diaz, are outfielders who could be ready at some point in 2017. Another, Giovanni Urshela, is a slick fielding third baseman who could push Jose Ramirez back to the outfield.
Add all of this up and it points to a better strategy than using a roster spot on a guy who can only DH, especially when Santana is already on the roster and better than any of them: Put five or six outfielders on the roster and rotate them through the DH spot on a weekly basis. This does several things. It keeps everyone fresh by giving them about twenty days off from playing the outfield over the course of the season. It allows Terry Francona to create more platoon advantages, at which he has proven to be masterful. Perhaps most importantly, it saves a roster spot, which is critical with Francona because of his determination to have eight relievers on his roster.
If I was running the Indians, my first priority would be finding a center fielder who can handle the position defensively. Naquin might grow into the job, but his 2016 season was bad enough defensively that they can’t risk not having another option. Almonte is better defensively, but he posted an OPS of only .695 last year and, after missing 81 games last year to a PED suspension, is one misstep away from spending the whole season watching the games on TV. A solid center fielder, combined with a healthy Brantley and Chisenhall, would give Cleveland one of the stronger defensive outfields in baseball, while also creating good depth and a variety of options that are solid offensively, as well.
I keep having these thoughts about Ramirez as a centerfielder. He seems to be the best athlete on the team, and he should be able to do at least as well as Ian Desmond did for the Rangers last year, and get better with experience. This would allow the Indians to either promote Urshela or go after a third baseman in free agency. Another option I would consider with Ramirez is second base. He has already shown that he is Gold Glove-caliber there, much better than Jason Kipnis at turning the double play, and, combined with Lindor, would give the Indians a combination that would rival the Alomar/Vizquel years. Kipnis could then move to first or third, both of which are better suited to his skill set.
Look, if Edwin Encarnacion is available on a deal the Indians can afford, I’m all for it. If Napoli figures out that nobody else will give him a three-year deal and circles back to the Indians, they should consider it. The only way I go two years on Napoli is if the money is low enough that if it’s not working, they can afford to eat it, which probably caps it at ten million per year, because the odds of a 35-year-old justifying a two-year deal for more than that are slim. Beyond that, there appears to be enough of a glut of one-dimensional sluggers on the market that one may turn out to be available at a bargain price, either through trade or free agency. If the Indians decide that Ramirez would be more valuable at another position, Todd Frazier is a guy who could give them home run power and decent defense, which is rare among the players available. Most of these guys, though, are only a bargain if their price is low enough that if you have to DFA them in July, you won’t worry about what they cost.