Monday, March 26, 2012

The real deal on the Indians' starting lineup: The Outfield

Choo is the catalyst (photo courtesy
of Keith Allison, flickr)
Yesterday, B3 took a first look at the Indians' starting infield, which promises to be one of the best defensive units in the league. Today, we're going to take a close look at their biggest question mark of the season, the outfield.

Let's be honest here, the Tribe outfield was terrible last season. Michael Brantley led the club with a whopping 114 games played, which should give you a clue at how inconsistent and terrible this unit was. Brantley struggled with injuries, but his season would have been a dream come true for Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo. Sizemore played in just 71 games last season, while Choo wasn't much better, at 84. While Sizemore has made the DL his home away from home, for Choo this was something new.

Brantley, Sizemore and Choo were just the beginning of the revolving door of outfielders the Indians would use throughtout the 2011 season. Speedster Ezequiel Carrera, Kosuke Fukodome, Shelley Duncan, Austin Kearns, Travis Buck, Trevor Crowe, Jerad Head, Luis Valbuena and even Lonnie Chisenhall found themselves taking their turn through the outfield turnstiles in Progressive Field. Taking into accound that the Indians finished the season in second place with 80 wins, it's not hard to figure out that their season could have been better had there been any sort of health to their starters.

What will happen in 2012? Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonetti and Manny Acta are counting a return to form for their starters. Will that happen? That remains to be seen.

Here's a look at the outfielders:

Right Field: If everything goes as planned, Shin-Soo Choo will be the anchor of no only the Tribe outfield, but the entire Tribe offense. From 2008-2010, Choo hit .302 with 236 runs scored, 97 doubles, 11 triples, 56 home runs, 242 RBI and 47 stolen bases. Along with all the offense came a cannon of an arm. Then came 2011.

Last season, the bottom fell out for Choo.  He struggled out of the gate, got a DUI, fractured his thumb, and strained his oblique, costing him a large chunk of the season. When he was healthy, he hit .259, with eight homers, 36 RBI and 37 runs.

This year, look for Choo to re-emerge on the scene as one of the better outfielders in the league, and with that stability, will come an emerging offense. Choo hasn't pounded the ball this spring, but all the signs are there for a return to form to his pre-2011 production. Certainly a full season from Choo in 2011 will be a dramatic step up from the right field situation in 2010. Not only that, but the Indians will have the return of one of their clubhouse leaders.

Center Field: In July of 2008, the Indians made a deal that wouldn't soon be forgotten. They sent CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers for Matt LaPorta, Rob Bryson, Zach Johnson and a player to be named. While all the focus was on the "can't-miss" LaPorta, the player to be named later turned into Michael Brantley.

As a prospect, Brantley was everything you want in a potential lead-off hitter.  Brantley was known for making exceptional contact, managing the strike zone, getting on base and stealing bases. Everyone liked his make-up, being the son of a former major-leaguer. With LaPorta struggling and now back in the minors, the focus is now on Brantley to make the Sabathia deal worthwhile.

Now I don't mean to speak of Brantley in the third person because it's not like he's been a massive bust. Brantley turns 25 in May, and has yet to have a full season of games in the majors. Still, after progessing from 28 games in 2009, 72 games in 2010, and 114 games last season, it's now time for Brantley to grab ahold of the centerfield job.

With Grady Sizemore out of the lineup until at least June, Brantley will be looked upon to be the guy to stir the drink for the Indians. It's time for the young outfielder to become that guy that had a .388 OBP in the minors, compared to the .316 in the majors. It's time for him to hit the .303 that he did in the minors, and not the .265 he's hit in the majors. It's time for him to be the guy that stole 162 bases over six seasons in the minors, and not the guy that's stolen 27 bases over the past three season in his time with the Tribe. In other words, Brantley needs to be the guy that drives this team. While that seems like a lot of pressure for a young guy who's failed to find consistency in the bigs, it's not something that's out of the realm of possibility for Brantley. Should he begin to reach his potential, again, look for a drastic improvement in numbers from the centerfield position this season.

Left Field: Initially, I would have been talking about Michael Brantley here, but the injury to Grady Sizemore has left a giant hole in the left field position. Where does that leave left field? Well, in the future, look for Brantley to return to play here when Sizemore comes back. Or, even better, look for Brantley to claim center with a massive season, sending the much-injured Sizemore to left field for good. Either way, one of the two players are going to be residing in left come the end of May, or the beginning of June. Prior to that, your guess is as good as mine.

First and foremost, there's  Shelley Duncan, who's made the team heading out of spring training. He's not exactly hitting the cover off the ball (.178 in the spring), but he is leading the team in home runs and RBI. I like Duncan as a player, and it's always good to have a guy like Duncan on your roster. I'm even a bit curious to see what he could do given a full-time role. Still, Duncan really isn't that type of player, so while he's got the role now, the Indians are clearly trying like hell to make some sort of deal for someone who can either platoon with Duncan, or be the regular guy there. More on that in a second.

As long as things stand pat, the Indians are looking at two other potential outfielders to take over the fourth outfield slot. Aaron Cunningham was brought over in a deal for top minor league closer, Cory Burns. He struggled last season with his shot in the bigs, hitting only .178 in a fairly sizable 52-game sample. He's followed that up with a deplorable spring, hitting only .205. Cunningham can play either corner outfield position, and has the range to play a little bit of center if needed.

Ryan Spilborghs was signed in January to compete for the leftfield spot, as well as a potential fourth outfielder slot. His best season was with Colorado in 2010, when he hit .279, with ten homers and 39 RBI. He can also play all three outfield positions, and his big difference with Cunningham is that he's an older player that does bring a bit of clubhouse personality to the table. Like Cunningham, he's struggled this spring, and doesn't spring to mind when the final spot is taken.

So where does that leave the Indians? Well, they were so confident, that they worked out Vladimir Guerrero in the Dominican this past week, then promptly tried to trade for Bobby Abreu with the Angels. Both players are long past their prime, and the fact that the Indians are making a serious play for either lets you know how concerned they are with the outfield. Look for Johnny Damon and/or Aaron Rowand to get a look over the next couple of days. While both would really be considered stop-gaps, again  it goes to show you how thin the Indians are with regards to their outfielders. There aren't really any prospects to speak of in Columbus that are long-term fill-ins.

At the end of the day, the Indians have a solid group of starting outfielders...if healthy. Once Grady Sizemore returns, this group should be shored up, but there's no guarantee that Sizemore will ever be healthy. Will Brantley reach is potential? Will Choo return as the 2010 guy, or the one in 2011? Will the Indians find a left fielder?

Who knows, but to have any shot at overtaking a strong American League, they'll have to answer yes to all those questions.

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the starting pitchers.

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