Cleveland Indians Banking on Old Guys For Now

Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

As I watched the game between the Cleveland Indians and New York Mets Friday, it was difficult not to notice that nearly half of the starting lineup consists of guys in their mid-30s or older who are here on one-year contracts.  The Indians obviously have minimized the financial risk with these contracts, but what about on the field?

Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, Juan Uribe, and Marlon Byrd are all between 34 and 38 years old, ages when performance can plummet without warning.  All of them had OPSs last year between .734 and .746, so there is reason for optimism, but to expect all four to stay healthy all season and contribute at a consistently high level is probably unrealistic.  That leads to two questions which may be on our minds all season (especially as long as three of them are hovering around the Mendoza line): first, how patient should the front office be if any of these guys struggles; and, second, how well can the Indians recover if one or more of these guys washes out?

Obviously, the answer to the first question depends on the answer to the second question.  Byrd may be vulnerable as soon as Lonnie Chisenhall is ready to play unless he establishes himself as more valuable than Tyler Naquin or Collin Cowgill.  If he survives that cut, a second looms when Michael Brantley comes back, although a pitcher may be the victim of that roster churn.  Byrd has little value except with the bat, so it’s not like he can contribute in other ways while he finds his swing.  On the other hand, Byrd did hit 23 home runs last year, and he may get some slack because of his abbreviated spring training.  I would be inclined to keep Byrd around in the Jason Giambi role, but the Indians seem to like having extra relievers more than extra bats, so the odds may be against him.

Davis provides speed and defense, including the ability to play center field, which makes him essential, since Naquin looks like the only other option until Abraham Almonte gets through his suspension.  Davis also bats right-handed, making him a platoon partner with Chisenhall and Naquin.  There is also a significant (by Indians’ standards) financial investment in Davis, which should not be a primary consideration, since the money is spent either way, but cutting him would be a blow to somebody’s ego in the front office, and there’s no way that doesn’t have an impact on the decision.  My guess is that Davis sticks around unless he is completely brutal because he fits so well.  The interesting question is whether Almonte has a place on the roster if both Davis and Naquin are playing well in July. 

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Uribe’s future is probably directly tied to the fact that Giovanny Urshela is hitting just .042 in Triple-A Columbus (Here’s a trivia question:  name the last position battle in professional sports between two guys whose last names started with the letter “U”).  I have a hunch that if Urshela were hitting .350 by the end of April he would be in Cleveland regardless of how Uribe is doing, but at this rate, we may never know. Nevertheless, Uribe is hitting .179 and has already made two errors.  The history of 37-year-old third basemen is not exactly stellar, and the history of those who weigh 245 pounds is probably nonexistent. The only immediate option for replacing Uribe is to play Jose Ramirez full time at third base, which weakens the bench severely because you can’t go with a three-man bench unless you have someone versatile like Ramirez.  So at this point, the Indians are left hoping that either Urshela or Uribe gets it going.  If neither happens after a month or so we are probably looking at a trade for a third baseman.

Napoli is probably the safest of the four veterans, because of his track record, leadership qualities, salary, and the lack of options for replacing him.  He is also the youngest of the four veterans and the only one currently above the Mendoza line, and as a first baseman, he is the least susceptible to having his defense impacted by aging.  If Napoli washes out, the Indians are probably looking at making Santana the full-time first baseman and Byrd the full-time DH, and both of those ideas seem a little shaky right now.  Napoli is a streaky hitter, so no matter how badly he might struggle at any point, the next hot streak could start at any moment.  Or vice versa.  If any of these four guys is a lock to be on the roster the entire season, I would pick Napoli.

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Obviously, if this turns into another Nick Swisher/Michael Bourn debacle, the Indians are better off in terms of long-term costs, but still hurting pretty badly for this season.  My thinking is that if at least two of these four stay healthy and productive all season, the Indians should be able to create enough offense to stay in contention.