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Indians looking for outfield upgrades

By PAUL HOYNES • Jan 8, 2019 at 11:00 AM

CLEVELAND — As manager Terry Francona said at the winter meetings in December, the Indians still have work to do before opening the regular season.

In the outfield they've lost Michael Brantley, Brandon Guyer, Rajai Davis and Melky Cabrera to free agency. Guyer and Cabrera are still unsigned.

At catcher, the Indians traded starter Yan Gomes to Washington for three young players who aren't expect to impact the big-league club in 2019. The Indians acquired catcher Kevin Plawecki for right-hander Walker Lockett and minor league infielder Sam Haggerty on Sunday, so it's likely Roberto Perez and Plawecki will handle the catching duties in 2019.

If the Indians traded a starting pitcher such as Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer, the return would help them fill the outfield holes. But following the trades of Gomes, Edwin Encarnacion, Yandy Diaz and Yonder Alonso they have conceivably saved enough money where they could keep the rotation intact.

If that is the path they take, the only way to improve the roster would be through free agency or secondary trades.

As the first week of January drew to a close, the Indians really don't have a proven everyday outfielder or catcher. Seven outfielders, including spring training invitees Brandon Barnes and Trayce Thompson, are headed for spring training. That does not include swingmen Jake Bauers or Jason Kipnis, who are expected to spend most of their time in the infield.

Roberto Perez figures to replace Gomes behind the plate with Pawecki or rookie Eric Haase behind him. Perez basically shared the job with Gomes since 2014, but in doing so he's never played more than 73 games in a season.

Outfielders on the 40-man roster include Greg Allen, Jordan Luplow, Leonys Martin, Oscar Mercado, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer, who won't be ready for opening day as he recovers from shoulder surgery.

There are still several free agent outfielders available, but the Indians can't afford to play at the top of the list where Marwin Gonzalez, A.J. Pollock and Nick Markakis reside. But perhaps Robbie Grossman, Avisail Garcia, Hunter Pence (on a minor-league deal) or Derek Dietrich make sense.

Baseball is slogging its way through another slow free-agent winter. The Indians have always been patient in these situations and it could work to their advantage.

 

Hope for Aiken?

The Indians took a chance on left-hander Brady Aiken in the 2015 draft. They made him their No.1 pick and paid him a $2,513,280 signing bonus even though he was coming off Tommy John surgery on his left elbow.

Aiken's progress has been spotty. Last year, he didn't pitch in a game. The Indians kept him in Goodyear, Ariz., to get stronger and increase his velocity. He also worked on his command and mental approach.

The Indians made that decision after Aiken went 5-13 with a 4.77 ERA in 27 starts at Class A Lake County in 2017. He struck out 89 and walked 101 in 132 innings.

This year they are hopeful he'll be able to pitch in games. Houston took Aiken with the first pick in the 2014 draft, but didn't sign him because of concern about his elbow. He enrolled in IMG's baseball academy and suffered the injury.

 

Cody Allen's market

The interest in former Tribe closer Cody Allen has increased following the signing of free agents Andrew Miller and David Robertson. Miller signed a two-year, $25 million deal with St. Louis and Robertson signed for two years and $23 million with the Phillies. Both contracts included an option year.

Saturday night offered another indication that Allen could draw more attention when the Yankees reportedly signed reliever Zach Britton to a three-year deal worth $39 million with an option for a fourth year worth $14 million. Britton reportedly can opt out of the deal after two years.

Closer Craig Kimbrel still shares the market with Allen, who leads the AL with 149 saves over the last five years. Kimbrel, seeking a deal worth $100 million, isn't signing anywhere soon.

Allen, 30, finds himself in an interesting situation. He had to expect a lucrative mulityear deal would be waiting in his first venture into free agency. He'd never signed a multiyear deal with the Indians and had pitched exceedingly well until stumbling a bit last season. Allen went 4-6 with a 4.70 ERA and 27 saves in 32 chances.

He made $10.575 million last year so the deals for Miller and Robertson don't give him much of springboard. If they'd included one or two more guaranteed years, they would have been more beneficial. Britton's deal, however, should give Allen hope.

As it is Miller, 33, has been on the disabled list five times in the last two years. Robertson, 33, hasn't been a full-time closer since 2016 with the White Sox.

Where all that leaves Allen, who has never been on the disabled list, remains to be seen.

 

McKenzie the next Bieber?

Around this time last year the question was asked what minor-league pitcher was closest to helping if the Indians needed a starter? The answer was Shane Bieber, who hadn't pitched above Class AA Akron.

Bieber made his big-league debut on May 31 against the Twins. He finished the season at 11-5 with a 4.55 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 114 2/3 innings.

The same question was asked this year and Triston McKenzie was mentioned. McKenzie was drafted out of Royal Palm (Fla.) High School in 2015 as the 42nd selection.

Last year McKenzie, 21, stayed in extended spring training because of right forearm problems. He made his first start at Akron on June 7 and went 7-4 with 2.68 ERA in 16 starts. McKenzie struck out 87 in 90 2/3 innings and held the opposition to a .191 batting average.

 

Names on the move

— Kevin Howard is expected to be named the Indians' minor-league hitting coordinator. Howard was the hitting coach at Class AA Akron last year.

— Pete Lauritson is expected to be named the Indians' lower level hitting coordinator for 2019. He was the hitting coach at Class A Lake County in 2018.

— It's still unclear if the Indians will fill Mark Budzinski's job on the big-league staff. Budzinski, an assistant with the Indians last year, was hired by Toronto to be its first-base coach.

— Right-hander Kyle Zimmer, brother of Indians center fielder Bradley Zimmer, has signed a split contract with the Royals. KC drafted Zimmer with its No.1 pick in 2012, but injuries have slowed his career.

— Oliver Drake, who pitched for the Tribe last season for about five seconds, has been traded from Toronto to Tampa Bay. In November, the Rays claimed Drake on waivers from the Twins. Last season Drake set a record by pitching in the big leagues for five different teams — Milwaukee, the Indians, Toronto, the Angels and Twins.

— Mike Napoli, who recently announced his retirement, interviewed with the Cubs for one of their coaching positions. Napoli helped the Indians reach Game 7 of the 2016 World Series before losing to Chicago.

— Texas claimed right-hander Luke Farrell, son of former Indians right-hander and farm director John Farrell. Luke Farrell was recently designated for assignment by the Angels after they signed free agent catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

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