There’s A Surprise Candidate For The Cleveland Indians’ Outfield
How bad was the Cleveland Indians’ outfield last year? So bad that one of the candidates for the center field job this year is the New York Mets’ shortstop from last year.
With opening day two weeks away, Cleveland’s still-under-construction outfield is one-third settled, two-thirds where’s Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez when you need them?
Left field is settled. It’s been settled since February 4, when the Indians signed former Minnesota Twins slugger Eddie Rosario, as a free agent, to a one-year $8 million contract.
The other two outfield starters? That’s what the next two weeks are for.
The most interesting outpost in the orchard is centerfield, where shortstop Amed Rosario, whose resume as a major league outfielder consists of three innings in left field for the Mets in 2019, has suddenly been thrown into the fray.
The other candidates for the center field job are Oscar Mercado, Bradley Zimmer, and non-roster invitee Ben Gamel. That Amed Rosario has become a late addition does indeed speak volumes about the comfort level Indians officials have with the other three.
Rosario joined the Indians, along with another Mets shortstop, Andres Gimenez, plus two minor league prospects, in the offseason trade in which the Indians sent their two most expensive players, shortstop Francisco Lindor and pitcher Carlos Carrasco, to the Mets.
The hitch there for the Indians is that they traded for two shortstops, but they only needed one. They’ve apparently chosen Gimenez. But given that Rosario, in 2019, hit more home runs (15) than all of the Indians’ outfielders combined hit in 2020 (11), Cleveland officials understandably would like to get Rosario’s bat, and speed (43 stolen bases in his two full major league seasons) in the lineup somewhere. Center field might be an option. Then came Rosario’s first game, ever, at that position, on Tuesday, in a 17-8 Indians loss to the Angels. It was not a pretty sight. Rosario made three errors, dropping two fly balls and making a wild throw to the infield.
Indians president Chris Antonetti said the club isn’t going to overreact to Rosario’s rocky debut in the middle garden.
“We don’t want to judge it off his first game,” Antonetti said. “We know it was a tough start. He continues to be on board with this. He’s embracing the opportunity, putting in great work with our coaches to continue to get comfortable out there.”
To be fair to Rosario, he was the Mets’ starting shortstop in 2018 and 2019, and in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season he started at shortstop in 37 of the Mets’ 60 games. Gimenez started 22 games at short.
At the time of the Mets-Indians trade earlier this year, it was not thought that the outfield could be a part of Rosario’s future. At the time of the trade, the consensus was that Gimenez and Rosario would be the starting middle infielders for the Indians, with spring training being used to decide which one would start at shortstop and which would start at second base.
At the time, the Indians had no second baseman because Cesar Hernandez, who last year won a Gold Glove at that position for the Indians, became a free agent after the season. But three weeks after the Indians’ trade with the Mets, Hernandez was still an unsigned free agent, and he eventually re-signed with the Indians.
The return of Hernandez at second meant that either Gimenez or Rosario would start at short, with the other player perhaps being used in a utility role. So far, the other player appears to be Rosario, which led to his messy debut in center field on Tuesday.
“He’ll continue to get opportunities out there (in center field), and we’ll continue to work with him and give him a chance,” Antonetti said.
After a day off Wednesday, Rosario got back on the horse in Thursday’s game against the Cubs. He played five errorless innings in center field before being removed from the game.
Antonetti said the Indians are willing to live through some growing pains with Gimenez in center, if that’s what it takes to get his bat in the lineup. He’s been hitting in the leadoff spot in the order, which was Lindor’s spot for much of his time in Cleveland.
“What we tried to do is take the pressure off him and let him know that we expect mistakes,” Antonetti said of Gimenez, the outfielder. “We know things aren’t going to go perfectly from the outset. What we’re hoping for is continued progress from him.”
If Rosario doesn’t claim the center field job, thereby preventing Cleveland from having the most Rosarioish outfield in the majors, he would presumably slide into a utility role.
In right field, it appears that Josh Naylor, acquired from San Diego in a mid-season trade last year, is closing in on the starting job, or perhaps as the left-handed half of a platoon with right-handed hitting Jordan Luplow.