Cleveland Indians: Trying to fit Nolan Jones into 2020

(Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

Top Indians prospect, third baseman Nolan Jones, is blocked at the MLB level. Could the Tribe move him to the outfield in exchange for his bat in 2020?

Nolan Jones is the highest-rated prospect in the Cleveland Indians organization, and is the third-ranked third base prospect in all of baseball. He is believed by many talent evaluators to be at the precipice of cracking a big-league lineup despite not yet having ascended beyond Double-A Akron in Cleveland’s system.

If such a promotion does indeed await him at some point in 2020, it’s fair to wonder in what capacity he’ll serve. Barring an injury to Jose Ramirez, third base isn’t exactly a position up for grabs in spring training. The Indians also signed Cesar Hernandez to a one-year deal, meaning second base is spoken for as well.

A common measure taken by teams whose best farmhands are blocked at their respective infield positions is to find a place for them in the outfield–even if only on a temporary basis. Additionally, one of the interesting things about Jones’ prospect profile is that it includes some questions as to whether he is going to stick at third base for the long haul anyway. Jones’ draw as a prospect is his bat, and the Indians will ultimately deploy him wherever they’re going to get the most out of it.

As recently as last season, rookies Nick Senzel and Austin Riley both underwent the outfield transition, as their positions were occupied at the MLB level by Eugenio Suarez and Josh Donaldson, respectively. Nicholas Castsellanos entered the league as a third baseman, then moved to the outfield for the same reason Jones’ infield future is in doubt: his size might be better suited for a corner outfield position.

Other instances of third basemen relocating to the outfield grass include Joey Gallo and former Indian Lonnie Chisenhall. Even Kris Bryant, who won an MVP award at the position, has played his fair share of innings in the Cubs outfield. If Jones were to make a similar move in 2020 as a means to get his bat into Cleveland’s lineup, it would be far from the first such occurrence.

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Interestingly enough, the outfield is the one aspect of Cleveland’s roster that could use a massive upgrade. Oscar Mercado is the only returning everyday starter. Barring a trade, a reunion with Yasiel Puig, or a surprise maneuver to rescue Castellanos from the free agency void, the Indians will head into the 2020 season with an outfield composed mostly of question marks.

Bradley Zimmer is a post-hype breakout candidate, and there is still a ton of allure in the power bat hidden somewhere underneath what Jake Bauers showed last season. Delino DeShields, if nothing else, will likely provide solid defensive value. Jordan Luplow probably deserves a chance to face right-handed pitching on a semi-regular basis, especially if the Indians aren’t going to bring in a legitimate left-handed bat to platoon alongside him.

Maybe all of these things unfold positively in 2020, and the Indians actually find themselves with too many outfielders. As it stands now, however, an uncomfortably sizable amount of playing time is set to be given to a collection of fringe starting options. If Jones is lighting it up in Triple-A Columbus around the end of June while the MLB outfield struggles, he’ll have a case for an offense-driven promotion despite having to move off his natural position.

Now, to suggest Jones’ path past any of Cleveland’s outfielders would be a straightforward one is a stretch. For one thing, the Indians already have an actual outfield prospect who can reasonably be expected to see time in 2020, Daniel Johnson. A potential Bobby Bradley call-up could send Franmil Reyes to the outfield, for better or worse. Even as far as contingencies go, experimenting with Jones in the outfield will hardly be Plan B.

Further complicating Jones’ likelihood of playing at the MLB level this season are the inescapable shackles of service time rules. Jones is meant to be a cornerstone of the Indians’ future – a future that, in theory, isn’t supposed to begin in earnest until after Francisco Lindor leaves in 2021. Assuming the health and productivity of Cleveland’s infield as currently constructed, and at least serviceable play from its outfield options, there isn’t a great deal of incentive to expedite Jones’ clock.

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Still, it’s an intriguing possibility for later on in the 2020 season. Despite a deflating offseason, the Indians are in a position to contend this year. If the right circumstances arise in the summer, there’s a case to be made for incorporating Jones into the outfield equation and figuring out where his long-term position should be when the time comes. If giving Jones a shot in a corner outfield spot can make the difference between a playoff berth and staying home, shouldn’t the Indians at least consider it?