Zach Walters: Did The Cleveland Indians Find Cheap Power?

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The Cleveland Indians acquired infielder Zach Walters at the trade deadline from the Washington Nationals in exchange for Asdrubal Cabrera, and while Walters showed promise, is he capable of being more than a utility player for the Indians?

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Did you

know

power

is

down

across

MLB

this

season

? No, it’s not just your Cleveland Indians that struggled offensively in 2014, despite what you might hear on sports radio as someone starts howling for a mythical “right-handed power bat.”™  Offense is in decline throughout baseball, leading to teams trying new strategies and

exploiting

new market inefficiencies to find ways to win. Nothing in baseball is static, and  players who might not have had much value as recently as a few years ago are now not as easily dismissed. You don’t need to look too much further than the Indians trade-deadline pickup of Zach Walters to see an example of this.

Walters was acquired from the Nationals on July 31 for Asdrubal Cabrera and cash (the approximately $3-million or so remaining on Cabrera’s contract), and soon after joining the team he flashed just what intrigued Cleveland: big-time power:

GIF by Nick Wheatley-Schaller

Cabrera was going to be a free agent at the end of the season, and Cleveland wasn’t likely to extend the qualifying offer to him, with top prospect Francisco Lindor looming for a mid-2015 debut. Walters turned 25 in September, will likely still be a rookie next season, and won’t even be eligible for arbitration until 2017. He’s going to be cheap, and it’s hard to argue that power isn’t damn exciting.

Walters might not be the next big thing, with apologies to assistant editor Brian Heise, but it’s certainly clear why the Indians were interested in him, and willing to pay such a steep price for the rookie. Walters had 10 home runs on the year; three with the Nationals, all before May 4, and seven with the Indians, all after August 12, and six of them were in August alone. He’s got power, and he can swat em in bunches, but there’s a caveat with regards to Walters: Adam Dunn, he is not. Walters has the power, but doesn’t get on base much at all. He had a combined .241 OBP on the season, and a dreadful .223 OBP with the Indians alone, walking only nine times all season (four with Washington, five with Cleveland).

If you’re the type of fan that’s afraid of your hitters striking out, well, sorry, you’re not gonna like Walters. Calling him a free-swinger doesn’t do it much justice; dude’s never met a pitch he doesn’t think he can clobber (48 strikeouts in 127 at bats this season).But Walters is a stranger bird than just another Mark Reynolds-type. As Carson Cistulli from Fangraphs notes here, there’s some real similarities between the styles of Walters and highly-touted Chicago Cubs prospect/rookie Javier Baez, two free-swinging power types capable of playing the middle of the infield, although Cistulli and this author caution fans not to assume Walters and Baez are on the same career trajectory.

Aug 15, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians designated hitter Zach Walters (6) is congratulated after hitting a home run during the fifth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

So if the Indians don’t have a stud like Baez in Walters, what do they have? That’s the question for 2015, and though Walters came up through the minors as a middle infielder, the Indians are kinda set there between some combination of incumbent second baseman Jason Kipnis, current Asdrubal replacement Jose Ramirez, and Lindor, not to mention it seems likely Mike Aviles‘s 2015 option will be picked up, adding another one to the middle infield mix. To their credit, this didn’t exactly surprise Cleveland — Walters got the majority of his at bats with the Indians at the DH spot, played some time in the outfield (mostly left field) and a few starts at second base late in the season when Kipnis was hurt again, never touching the shortstop position. If Walters is going to find a long-term home in Cleveland, it appears the Indians will give him his first chances at DH and the outfield, possibly in a timeshare with Ryan Raburn and David Murphy.

It’s really intriguing seeing how the Indians kept using Walters as a DH; it’s a spot manager Terry Francona has used as a revolving door out of necessity; he’s used it to keep catcher Yan Gomes‘s bat in the lineup while giving him a break behind the plate, it was Kipnis’s spot for a short time near the end of the year as he was unable to play the field, and Nick Swisher was the team’s primary DH before going down with knee surgery. It doesn’t necessarily mean Francona is against using a primary DH (hell, he had one of the best in the game in David Ortiz when he managed the Boston Red Sox), but it seems to indicate that Cleveland is seriously intrigued by what Walters could provide to this team: ridiculously cheap power.

Even in a stretch run trying to chase the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals for a playoff spot, Francona kept giving Walters at bats (for better or worse at the time), and though the argument can be made Walters didn’t justify the faith Francona had in him, he certainly gave enough back to keep the organization intrigued for 2015 at the very least, and perhaps the Indians found a serious home run threat for pennies on the dollar. If that’s the case, consider the Walters deal another coup by Indians GM Chris Antonetti to turn a middling veteran into a useful young player.

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