Is Zach Walters The Solution To Cleveland Indians Platoon Woes?

If you have been reading much offseason coverage of the Indians, including this site, you may have concluded that the fate of the entire 2015 season rests on whether they are able to add a good right-handed hitter.

It makes sense, at least intuitively; at least five spots in the lineup are expected to be manned by left-handed hitters, and of the five, only Michael Brantley seems immune to platoon splits.  To put numbers to this statement: Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, David Murphy, and Michael Bourn combined for 492 at bats and an OPS of .532 against left-handed pitchers.  Give most of those at bats to even a decent Major League hitter, and the impact on the offense would be tangible.

Now, the hope right now is that they can plug Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles into the lineup against every left hander.  Last year, unfortunately, they platooned Aviles with Lonnie Chisenhall at third when they would have benefited more by platooning him with Kipnis at second; Chisenhall actually had a higher OPS against left handers than Aviles did.

The worst aspect of this strategy is neither Raburn nor Aviles did much better against left handers than the guys they platoon with, combining for an OPS of just .609 against left-handed pitching.  Raburn, at least, has recent history of feasting on southpaws, with a 1.020 OPS in 2013.  Aviles has not been above .800 against left handers since 2011.  At this point in his career Aviles should probably be viewed as a guy who can give regulars a day off and not as a platoon weapon, and he should never, ever, ever, bat higher than ninth in the order.

Jul 11, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians right fielder David Murphy (7) celebrates with designated hitter Nick Swisher (33) after hitting a two run home run during the second inning against the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

So, is this enough?  That depends greatly on how much platooning is needed.  Kipnis, you may remember, was spectacular against left handers in 2013, so there is reason to suppose that his difficulties against them were part of his overall malaise and that a rebound against lef thanders is as likely as an overall bounce back offensively.  Swisher, likewise, has been strong enough against lefties in the past that he is as likely to be benched altogether for sucking against everyone as he is to need a platoon partner.  Bourn should probably be platooned, or at least have his days of rest scheduled to fall when a left hander is starting, but it seems unlikely that the Indians will pay him that much money and play him four days a week.

So this leaves Murphy, and maybe Chisenhall, whose excellent 2014 against left handers is enough of an outlier to at least be prepared for a regression.  In theory, Murphy will either be traded or a fourth outfielder, so his platoon difficulties should not be a big deal in limited time.

Murphy’s replacement, Brandon Moss, has a .736 OPS against left handers over the past three years, so using a roster spot for someone to platoon with him seems silly.  Let’s assume Murphy is traded, which seems likely since he makes too much money to play twice a week.  This leaves a bench of Raburn, Aviles, and the winner of the job as backup catcher.  Raburn and Aviles both bat right-handed, and have enough versatility to cover every position on the roster except catcher and center field (and if Bourn needs a day off, Raburn would play left and Brantley would slide over to replace Bourn).

Another bench player would come at the expense of an eighth reliever, so it’s hard to say what the Indians would consider more important.  Personally, Bourn has had enough injury issues that I would have someone available who can play center field well on a frequent basis, but they will probably choose to cover that by stashing someone with experience in AAA Columbus.

So, if there is a roster spot, is there a veteran right-handed bat the Indians could pursue? Most of the names they have been linked to so far a guys like the uninspiring Chris Denorfia, (who thankfully signed with the Chicago Cubs, as he isn’t a player Cleveland should have signed).  If you know that going in, why would you even spend a million bucks and use a roster spot on such a player?  However, such are the pickings when you are shopping on the scratch and dent shelf, which is all you can do when you can’t spend money.

Aug 13, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians left fielder Zach Walters (6) hits a game-winning home run in the ninth inning of game one against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Given that, the best option may be a guy who is already here.  Zach Walters destroyed left-handed pitching during his short time in Cleveland last year, and there is enough success in his minor league stats to indicate that it may not have been a complete fluke.  He also played five different positions on the major league level, at least four of which will be manned by left-handed hitters next year, so he would fit into a number of platoon situations.  He is not a Gold Glover at any position, but he is at least as good as Raburn at any of them.  We know Walters has raw power, which is always in short supply around here, and he will also be cheap (which can never be too far from the conversation when talking about the Indians).  This roster spot is essentially an insurance policy in case Raburn or Swisher starts slowly; if help was needed on an everyday basis, a veteran could be added, but until that becomes necessary, Walters seems like an ideal candidate.

Look at the options.  Spending real money isn’t really an option.  Find someone who will play cheap and hope that they exceed expectations? Isn’t that how we ended up with Elliot Johnson and J.B. Shuck in the lineup at various times last year (but never together)?  That strategy may work ten percent of the time, but in the process of finding that diamond in the rough you lose real games while you separate the chaff from the other chaff.  At least with a guy like Walters, you know there is enough upside there that you may catch lightning and ride a hot streak for a while, and at some point he may develop into an actual regular major league player, which makes him a better option than someone who has already reached a ceiling of mediocrity.