Cleveland Indians outfielder Bradley Zimmer burst on the scene in 2017 but has been plagued by injuries ever since and has struggled at the plate. Thus, the shortened 2020 season may be his last chance to secure a long term role with the Tribe.
He was selected by the Indians in the first round of the 2014 draft, ranked as one of the teams’ top prospects while in the minors and quickly found his way to the majors in 2017.
In his debut season, he flashed all the potential the Indians anticipated. He made 101 appearances as a rookie in 2017 that featured highlight-reel plays in the field and was a threat on the base paths as he stole 18 bases and was caught just once.
With his size and willingness to put his body on the line defensively, he reminded Indians fans of watching another stellar defensive star in team history: Grady Sizemore.
Like Sizemore unfortunately, that willingness to sell out defensively came at a cost, and injuries have plagued Zimmer throughout his entire young career.
Since his 2017 debut of 101 games, he has only appeared in 52 major league games. A broken thumb, followed by a labrum injury derailed two seasons for Zimmer. Finally, healthy towards the end of 2019, he decided to take a rest from rehab and baseball.
The Indians wanted him to play in fall leagues to keep in-game shape, but instead, he bet on himself, believing rest was the best path forward.
This season, Zimmer has shown a new shortened swing in an attempt to increase his contact and limit strikeouts. With a hot start in both spring training and summer camp, he made the major league club, suggesting his choice to opt for rest might’ve been for the best.
Zimmer started the season as a platoon outfielder, playing against right-handed starters and also appearing as a defensive replacement when the Indians were leading entering in the seventh inning or later.
It may not be the role everybody had projected for the former first-round pick, but it is a contributing role on a playoff team. A role, that other players have used to springboard off of to get regular at-bats and starting roles over time.
So far, Zimmer has yet to make the most of this role. He is batting just .176 despite posting a .370 OBP.
So what is wrong with Zimmer? The injuries are a big factor as he hasn’t been able to stay healthy enough to make the necessary adjustments to settle in against big-league pitching.
He also appears to be uncomfortable batting lower in the Indians batting order.. In 2017, he moved around often but also drew several of at-bats atop the order where he’d have Jose Ramirez and better hitters behind him. In 2020, he’s primarily hitting in the sixth spot with lesser support behind him.
For a recent reference of how big of a change this is to hitters, look no further than the demotion of Oscar Mercado.
Last season, Mercado showed promise both offensively and defensively to make one believe the Indians centerfield position was set for the future. He slashed .269/.318/.443 with 15 HRs and 15 stolen bases and earned some AL Rookie of the Year buzz.
2020 has been a far different story as he was opted to Lake County after slashing just 111/.167/.111 batting behind Zimmer in the Indians batting order.
So is the solution to just put Zimmer back into the top third of the Indians lineup? No, his top-end batting average may only be around .260.
The Indians need to determine if Domingo Santana, Delino DeShields Jr., and Jordan Luplow are giving them enough offensively to prevent Zimmer from starting against some lefties and giving him a legitimate shot to settle into a rhythm offensively.
Zimmer’s ceiling is higher than those three players and when considering his stellar defense, he improves the team in multiple facets when reaching his potential.
He doesn’t offer a high ceiling for batting average, which is the dilemma. If his shortened swing can reduce his strikeouts, then the theory is that his legs will help his on-base percentage and give you more in the lineup.
Yet if Santana and Luplow don’t get their power swings going, then what are they offering that Zimmer doesn’t? That is something the team will need to consider.
Mercado didn’t stick in centerfield, they’ve traded for right fielders almost every season since Shin-Soo Choo was traded to the Reds, and they platoon almost every outfield position. Zimmer offers a plus base runner and a plus defender, something Luplow and Santana can not.
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The demotion of Mercado should open the door for more opportunities for Zimmer. He will need to quickly take advantage of this window if he wants to become the player the Indians and fans hoped he would be or else, he may not be in Cleveland much longer.