Indians outfield mess a predicament of their own making

While he still won’t earn the title as the most fraudulent Almonte, Abraham Almonte's 80-game suspension for testing positive for PEDs won’t help the Indians’ outfield when it sprints out of the Progressive Field dugout on April 4.

Though the Tribe weren’t exactly their own best friends in that regard either.

With the news breaking Friday of Almonte being busted for use of the anabolic steroid Boldenone— typically used for treatment of horses— the Tribe really finds themselves saddled with a whole slew of problems out of the gate.

For starters, they will be without two of their starting outfielders for long stretches to start the season.
Almonte laid claim to the center position when he outperformed his predecessor, Michael Bourn for the final 51 games of 2015, batting .264 with 20 RBIs and a .776 OPS. While his lapse in judgement— despite a lame excuse — is disappointing, it’s merely the latest salvo that highlights a painfully thin outfield depth and compounds a series of gaffes that put the Tribe in such dire straits.

The first of those blunders occurred shortly following the season.

Michael Brantley, who will miss at least the first month of the season, inadvertently set the dominos in motion when he injured his shoulder at the end of the season. Brantley hurt his right labrum while diving for a ball on Sept. 22 and was shut down for the final week of the season.

Under the guidance of the Indians’ medical staff, Brantley attempted to rehab the injury but without success. By early November, Brantley sought a second opinion from Dr. Craig Morgan, who recommended and performed the surgery. However, in the meantime between the end of the season and his surgery on Nov. 9, Brantley lost six weeks—approximately the same amount of time he figures to miss to start the season.

While this oversimplification plays Monday morning quarterback of a complex medical scenario, the Indians’ decision to rehab the injury immediately after the season backfired and, it, according to AP reports, required Brantley to consult Morgan to rectify the situation.

Brantley’s recovery is progressing — he began hitting off a tee in the last week — but the Indians’ best all-around player’s impending absence had far reaching ramifications long before Almonte’s infraction Friday. It’s what coaxed the Indians to lock up Rajai Davis in hopes that the 35-year-old can hold down left field while Brantley is out.

In a strange twist of fate, Brantley’s extended absence could provide a silver lining; assuming he was ready for opening for the start of the season, the Indians wouldn’t have bothered signing a proven vet like Davis. They would’ve likely only been able to lean on the likes of spring training invitees such as Robbie Grossman, Collin Cowgill, Joey Butler, Michael Choice, Shane Robinson and most recently this week, Will Venable.

In this sense, the Tribe is lucky to have Davis, who is undoubtedly their most proven opening day outfielder and figures to see his workload significantly increase for at least the first half of the season without Almonte in the fold.

As it stands now, the Tribe’s opening day outfield is slated to be a combination of Davis, Lonnie Chisenhall and several of the aforementioned minor league signees. Yeesh.

This is much more an indictment on the Indians’ failure to upgrade the outfield than it is a testament to their outfield depth. After all, suddenly being without the services of a player like Almonte, who brings to the table a .244 average with 10 homers in barely more than 500 at-bats over a three-year career should be a disappointment, not a reason for panic.

Regardless of how they got here, the Indians must now deal with the consequences of potentially fielding what appears to be one of the weakest outfields in baseball. And aside from pulling off a late major trade, their options appear limited with just six weeks until opening day.

There are still free agents available and names like Austin Jackson, Alex Rios and Marlon Byrd are a few of the names that have been floated out there. But since they cost, ya know, money, it’s unlikely the Indians would bite.

Looking into the minor league reserves, it’s unknown whether the likes of Tyler Naquin or James Ramsey would provide anything more than what the minor offseason signees could offer. And other fellow former first-round draft picks Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier, who are more highly regarded as legitimate prospects, are still likely a year away.

Although a middling player like Almonte wouldn’t exactly have solidified the Tribe’s outfield as among the game’s best, playing without your starting center fielder on an already thin group makes filling out a respectable lineup card that much more difficult for Terry Francona.

Such challenges will make it curious to see how the Indians scramble to field a starting outfield worthy of a Major League team each night for the first month and change of the season. It will be a challenge, however, to match the curiously clumsy offseason that put them in this position.
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