Cleveland Indians: Projecting the role of Delino DeShields

On how the speed and defensive ability of Delino DeShields fits into the bigger puzzle that is the Cleveland Indians outfield.

Of all the players jockeying for Opening Day roster spots with the Cleveland Indians, no group or position is more up in the air than the outfield.

Oscar Mercado will presumably remain the Indians’ regular center fielder to start the year, and the addition of Domingo Santana figures to bump Franmil Reyes to left. Neither is a sure thing.

Mercado was not the most consistent offensive player in 2019, and it remains to be seen how well Reyes holds up as an everyday defender. In any case, both are near-locks to break camp with the MLB club. The rest of Cleveland’s outfielders will have to compete with each other for the right to man the third and final outfield spot, and at least one of them will make the team as a bench player.

Among them is Delino DeShields, whose speed will certainly keep him in the mix. DeShields has appeared in 100 or more games in four of five MLB seasons, and he’s stolen at least 20 bases in all of them. With regular playing time, DeShields could join three other Indians players–Mercado, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez–for whom 20-plus stolen bases can be considered a reasonable bet.

For what it’s worth, 80 combined stolen bases from those four alone would add up to more than the season total for 18 MLB teams in 2019. If the Indians are looking to gain advantages in the margins, there are worse ways to do so than by book-ending their lineup with exceptional base-running ability.

Defensively, DeShields and Mercado together could turn the outfield grass into a graveyard for fly balls that don’t leave the park. Since the start of 2018, DeShields ranks sixth among center fielders who’ve logged at least 1500 innings in defensive runs saved with 15.

Naturally, one of them would have to transition to a corner outfield spot in order for the two to play together. Considering they are both right-handed, a platoon in center makes no sense. Still, in the absence of a proven outfield star, the Indians could choose to maximize the value they do have at their disposal by fielding the best defensive alignment possible.

Unfortunately, while DeShields can provide solid value on defense and the base paths, his bat is likely to make a regular starting role difficult to come by. DeShields has never posted a wRC+ above 100. His career high is 95, a mark he set all the way back in 2015. His average wRC+ over the last three years is slightly above 72.

Because he is not an especially productive hitter, regularly giving him three or four plate appearances in a game probably results in a net loss after his speed and defense are taken into account.

Jordan Luplow is the most obvious obstacle standing in DeShields’ way from an offensive standpoint. As another right-handed corner outfielder, Luplow’s great equalizer in the competition with DeShields is his ability to decimate left-handed pitching. Much like with Mercado in center, a platoon of DeShields and Luplow doesn’t make any sense.

Because Luplow was in fact platooned in 2019, the clear-cut candidate to share time with him this season is left-handed Jake Bauers. Bauers is a work in progress, but possesses untold upside if he’s able to turn the corner in 2020. Bauers also has the inside track to a roster spot based on his ability to spell Carlos Santana at first base.

What this could all add up to for DeShields is a role as the most frequently utilized bench player in the entire league.

DeShields could theoretically enter as a defensive replacement in just about any game the Indians are winning late. None of Bauers, Luplow, or Reyes are as adept defensively as DeShields. It wouldn’t be surprising to see DeShields give new meaning to “everyday playing time” in this regard; he just wouldn’t necessarily be in the starting lineup on a regular basis.

His ability to pinch-run speaks for itself. When the Indians get a non-base-stealing threat on late in a game, DeShields might as well meet him at first with a helmet on.

Not to be discounted is DeShields’ versatility. He can play two outfield spots well (center and left), which will allow Mercado the occasional day off without giving anything up defensively, and will permit Reyes to DH from time to time.

Next: Where should Oscar Mercado hit in 2020?

The Indians knew they weren’t getting a deadly bat from DeShields, the complementary player coming back in the Corey Kluber trade, which means they likely planned all along on getting the most out of his legs and glove.

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