2011 Indians Outlook: The Outfield

While questions surround the pitching staff and infield for the 2011 Cleveland Indians, the outfield appears to be as sure as sure can get.  Good to know that despite everything we’ve seen over the course of the past few seasons the Indians brass was actually able to build a fully functional MLB outfield.  There’s even a potential all-star or two out there.  I know, it’s a crazy concept.  An Indian who actually earns his way on to the all-star team and doesn’t just get selected by default?  Holy crap, I’m excited.

Seriously, the Indians core of outfielders has a lot to offer.  Let’s take a quick look…

Right Field:

The starting right fielder for the Cleveland Indians in 2011 will once again be Shin-Soo Choo.  No complaints here.  Choo is a bona fide star in the making.  Had it not been for a freak wrist injury two days before the all-star reserves were selected, Choo would have been the Cleveland representative last year.  He’s shown substantial improvement each and every season he’s been in the big leagues and will be the main cog in the middle of the line up.

Back to back seasons of 20 home runs and 20 steals with a .300 average and 80+ RBI.  That’s not too shabby.  Of course along with that production and rise to stardom will come the expectation of a pay raise.  That’s going to be a problem with the Indians.  Couple that with the fact that Choo’s agent is Scott Boras and it becomes even more problematic…because Boras is a money grubbing snake.  Despite that, the Indians are trying to get Choo to sign an extension.  It’s a smart move, but they have also made it known that there is no pressure to get anything done until next year.

I think the moral of the story as is the case with all of out stars… Enjoy Choo while he’s still here.  It might not be that way for long.

Despite all of that, Choo is the right fielder and #3 hitter.  No need to dissect this any further.  With the exception of a rare off day here and there, expect to see plenty of Shin-Soo Choo and his double ear flap batting helmet in 2011.

Center Field:

Grady Sizemore will be the starting center fielder for this team when he returns from his knee injury sometime in late April or early May.  For those of you who might not know, Sizemore underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee last season and has been rehabbing ever since.  Hopefully he recovers.  Sizemore is somewhat of a guinea pig when it comes to microfracture surgery and baseball players.  No one is sure how the knee will respond over the long haul of the 140 or so games he’ll try to play in when he gets back. 

Sizemore needs to return to all-star form.  Plain and simple.  When Grady is healthy and playing at the level he is capable of playing this team, and more specifically the offense, function on an entirely different level.  Grady is a five tool player, six tool if you count his six pack abs.  When all of those tools are kicking on all cylinders the Indians score more runs and are about 1000x’s more exciting on offense.  He makes everything go at the top of the lineup setting the table for the likes of Choo, Santana, Hafner, and LaPorta.  If Grady can’t go at full speed of has lost a bit of his skill level… well who knows.  Can Grady shift to left field?  Can he hit lower in the order?  Would he be ok with that?  No one knows.

Until he’s healthy and ready to go, center field belongs to Michael Brantley.  In limited action over the past two years Brantley has shown flashes of what he can potentially be.  He has the speed you want out of a center fielder being able to cover a wide area of real estate in the field and he can steal bases and make life hell for opposing pitchers.  Yes, last year he struggled early in the year, but after going back to Columbus and tinkering with mechanics he came back and hit well to close out the season.  That won’t be good enough this year, though.  Brantley will need to perform from the get go while there is still pressure.  Hitting well in August when the Tribe is 18 games out of it doesn’t do anyone any good.

One also has to raise the question of what to do with Brantley if he’s playing well when Sizemore comes back.  Do the Indians move him to left?  Do they keep him in center and put Grady in left?  Does Brantley stay at the top of the order or is he the one that gets dropped down?  It’s going to be an interesting decision and I’m glad Manny Acta has to make it and not me… Although given Acta’s record… Is that a good thing?

Left Field:

The left field spot appears destined to be filled by either Sizemore or Brantley once Sizemore returns from injury once and for all.  In the mean time, left field appears to be a committee approach for Manny Acta to begin 2011.  Unlike third base, this platoon, or committee approach isn’t that bad.  It’s not even as bad as the platoon of David Delucci and Jason Michaels from 2007.  The reason being that all of the potential fill ins bring something different to the table and can actually play.

The three headed monster in left will be Austin Kearns, making his return to the Indians after being dealt away to the Yankees at the deadline in 2010, Shelley Duncan, who made a name for himself with Tribe fans last season, and Travis Buck.  Buck is the wild card in all of this.  At on point and time a few years ago, Buck was the top rated prospect in the Oakland organization.  He’s also only 27 years old.  That’s right around when most players begin hitting their primes and “figuring things out.”  If Buck can figure out major league pitching and continue hitting the same way he has this spring, .393 avg, 4 HR, 12 RBI, and an OPS of 1.165, there is no doubt he will emerge as the starting left fielder.

It’s just a question as to whether or not Acta will give him the playing time ahead of Kearns and Duncan.  Both have been around for quite some time at the major league level and it’s possible Acta will want them as a veteran presence in the line up and leaving Buck on the bench as the utility outfielder.  I hope that’s not the case.  If this is truly going to be a youth movement, why not go all out and give Buck his shot?  He’s been that good out in left and has earned the chance.  But like I said earlier, what happens if Buck, or even Kearns or Duncan is playing outstanding when Grady returns?  What then?  Who loses out?  Only time will really tell.

So there you have it.  Your outfield for the 2011 Cleveland Indians.  The most solid aspect of the entire team.  There is no doubt in my mind that this group will perform.  Now it’s just getting the rest of the roster to play along and help this team be competitive.  Is that wishful thinking?  Perhaps.  But in just 2 short days we’ll all find out for sure whether or not I’m completely insane.

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