Another year of outfield uncertainty has begun in Cleveland. As has been the norm for the past several years, Cleveland’s outfield is cobbled together with platoon players, oft-injured veterans, and converted infielders.
Through the first month of the season, the team has seen respectable production from Jordan Luplow, however, he’s typically used in a platoon role. Josh Naylor, a converted first baseman, has looked very much like a converted first baseman roaming the corner positions. Amed Rosario, a converted shortstop, has had a slow start at the plate and transitioned to centerfield late in Spring Training. Eddie Rosario has provided a modest offensive boost, but he’s on a one-year deal and may or may not be dealt before the trading deadline. Oscar Mercado and Bradley Zimmer have been unable to lay claim to the centerfield position and are currently at the alternate site.
All of this is to say, there is plenty of opportunity for Cleveland’s outfield prospects, so let’s see who’s on the radar! The obvious names are Nolan Jones and George Valera. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to avoid those two, as we know who they are and know what to expect from them. I will take a look at five other names I’ll be watching to start the year. Each one carries some level of intrigue and may be an impact player within the next few years.
Johnson has seemingly been on the cusp of making it to Cleveland for two years. He did see 13 plate appearances in Cleveland early last year, but he was sent to the alternate site and never recalled. Johnson seems to be everything Cleveland could want in a center fielder. He has the speed and fielding prowess combined with the good top-of-the-order hitting ability.
Johnson’s performance early in the year with Columbus will have a major impact on the Cleveland lineup for the next several years. If he’s anywhere close to his 2019 slash line of .290/.361/.507, the Indians may look to move Amed Rosario and one of Bradley Zimmer or Oscar Mercado by the deadline to clear the way for Johnson. I’ll be watching Johnson’s performance closely to see if he can lay claim to centerfield in Cleveland.
2021 will be Benson’s fifth year in the Indians’ organization. If he doesn’t earn a spot on the 40-man roster by the end of the season, Benson will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this winter.
The 2016 first round pick has had an interesting journey through Cleveland’s minor league system. He takes a while to settle in at each level but then shows tremendous all-around baseball ability. Benson produced a slash line of .180/.324/.370 across 506 PAs with Low-A Lake County in 2018, his first full season. However, in 2019, he slashed .272/.371/.604 including an absurd .332 ISO in 259 PAs for Lake County before being promoted to High-A Lynchburg. He coupled that with 18 stolen bases, providing a rare combination of power and speed.
Benson then struggled after his promotion. This year will be critical in his development. If Benson struggles to perform in AA Akron, he risks being left unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft. He’ll need to demonstrate his ability to translate his power to the upper levels, and he’ll have to cut down on his K%, which is over 30% for his career. Benson has the raw talent to be a star in Cleveland, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on him early on this year.
Gonzalez is another interesting player in the higher levels of Cleveland’s system. The international signee from 2014 is another player who will need to earn a spot on the 40-man roster or risk being left exposed in the Rule 5 Draft.
Gonzalez has put up respectable numbers through the lower levels and struggled when he reached AA. But there’s room for hope. He put up a slash line of .319/.342/.455 through 402 PAs at High-A Lynchburg in 2019 but saw his numbers dip to .188/.210/.271 in 100 PAs with Akron. There are several pieces of good news, however. First is the small sample size. Gonzalez only played in 29 games, so he was just starting to settle in at the end of the year. The second is his strikeout and walk rates. His BB%, while low at 3%, didn’t change across the two levels, and his K% only jumped from 16.4% to 17.0%. Finally, his BABIP dipped to .215 from a career level of approximately .350. A reversion closer to his career norm indicates Gonzalez should be in for a solid 2021.
Gonzalez is a potentially exciting name. He fills the gap between the outfield group led by Nolan Jones and Daniel Johnson and the younger group headlined by George Valera, Isaiah Greene and Petey Halpin. With early success, he may reach Cleveland at just the right time to get plenty of PAs.
#Indians 23yr old OF prospect Oscar Gonzalez currently training at the teams Dominican Academy. Look for Gonzalez to begin the 2021 season most likely at (AA) Akron outside shot at (AAA) Columbus.@EOBASEBALLCLUB #Future pic.twitter.com/JV2KyXe3iK
— Indians Prospective (@indiansPro) February 25, 2021
Kwan has held his own at the plate since he was selected in the fifth round in 2018. The Oregon State product may not have had the billing of other Beavers like Nick Madrigal and Adley Rutschman, but his bat has served him well in his professional career.
Kwan’s impressive short-season performance in 2018 earned him an assignment to High-A Lynchburg for all of 2019. He didn’t disappoint, putting up a .280/.353/.382 line over 542 PAs. Kwan’s K:BB rate is advantageous, also. He struck out 51 times compared to 53 walks. While he only brings limited power to the plate, his ability to get on base makes him an attractive bottom-of-the-lineup bat.
I’ll be looking for Kwan to improve his speed and develop a bit of power this year. I don’t expect a 20/20 hitter, but a few stolen bases and extra base hits would serve him well if he’s going to get a shot in Cleveland.
#Indians 23yr old OF prospect Steven Kwan absolutely smokes this ball over Reds CF Tyler Naquin’s head for a 2 run double scoring Rocchio & Marabell.@skwanzaa #Future #CLESpring pic.twitter.com/MZ3kwY8ICs
— Indians Prospective (@indiansPro) March 18, 2021
Planez hasn’t played a full season of professional baseball yet, but he’s the most exciting prospect of these five. The 19-year-old 2017 international signee spent 2020 working out in his native Venezuela with Indians shortstop prospect Brayan Rocchio through the pandemic. Videos from his training sessions appear to show a significant improvement in power and defensive ability.
I’m very excited to see Planez’s performance this year. If he’s able to translate the power he showed over the past year to full-season ball, he may be a star in the making. I’ll be paying close attention to see how he fares at Lynchburg and Lake County.
— Indians Prospective (@indiansPro) February 25, 2021