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Indians preview capsules: The outfielders

Can Bourn and Murphy improve after poor showings in 2013?

Indians preview capsules: The outfielders
Michael Bourn (Photo: Cleveland.com)
March 11, 2014
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As a part of IBI's beginning of season festivities, we have preview capsules on all 55 players currently in major league camp with at least some chance of helping the big league team (it was 54, but the acquisition of Justin Sellers added one more). The last batch of these is running today as the outfielders get their due.

There is just not much more to it; spring training is here and real baseball is just around the corner. Enjoy!

Michael Bourn, OFMichael Bourn (Photo: ESPN)

Michael Bourn was Cleveland's belated offseason present, signing a four-year, $48 million contract in February after his market fell apart. The speedy outfielder had been expected to get more coming off of a .274/.348/.391 line with 42 steals and 6.2 fWAR season in 2012, but a combination of factors (including being attached to draft pick compensation) limited him to the contract Cleveland gave him.

Following his disappointing offseason, the 2013 campaign was also not kind to Bourn. The outfielder was limited to 130 games after getting a finger spiked in April and ended up  needing surgery on his hamstring when he injured it in the final regular season game of the season. Beyond the injuries, Bourn was not nearly as effective when playing, only posting a .263/.316/.360 line with 23 steals and a 2.0 fWAR. Advanced metrics only rated his defense as average -- a significant drop from 2012 -- and while those metrics can be a little flawed in one-year samples, Bourn did not impress to the eyes either.

Bourn's offensive drop was not a BABIP issue (his .338 mark is right in line with his career results) and more just who he is as a hitter. Despite typically hitting at the top of the lineup, Bourn strikes out quite a bit and does not walk all that often, a combination that contributed to his average on-base percentage. Bourn's walk rate dropped from 10.0 percent in 2012 to seven percent in 2013, and when combined with a decrease in Bourn's power (.117 ISO in 2012, .097 in 2013), the result is last year's below-average offensive output.

There is a chance that Bourn's lack of steals in 2013 is more related to not knowing the pitchers and catchers in the American League and they will bounce back in 2014. Same goes for the pitchers as Bourn was a much better hitter in three of the past four years before 2013. Bourn was an average player in 2013 despite the issues, but Cleveland thought they were getting someone closer to an All-Star than a regular contributor when it signed the outfielder. There is time to turn it around, however, and much greater things are expected out of Bourn in 2014.

Michael Brantley, OFMichael Brantley (Photo: ESPN)

The best thing about having a player like Michael Brantley on your team is he is as consistent and dependable as they come. He is not likely to be an All-Star or MVP-type player, but when Terry Francona needs someone to fit into the leadoff spot, the #3 hole, the cleanup spot, or anywhere else, he knows what he is going to be getting.

Brantley has a smooth stroke, but the overall results are a little worse than you would expect (.284/.332/.396 line in 2013). The on-base percentage and slugging percentage were essentially league-average, though both could improve a little with some better BABIP luck. Brantley posted a .304 BABIP in 2013 -- a perfectly normal figure -- though his batted ball profile suggests his BABIP should have ended up around .324. The outfielder is pretty quick and hits a lot of line drives, so his BABIP could easily go up a bit in 2014, which would help him raise his overall game.

While defensive metrics disagree on how good Brantley is in the field, both see him as average at best. The eye test tends to disagree with that assessment, but either way Brantley does not stand out as an elite-level defender like a Mike Trout. Brantley plays a decent left field and can spell Michael Bourn in center field when needed, but his errorless streak aside, he is a good but not great defensive outfielder.

His offense is pretty middle of the road. Same with his defense. His baserunning rates out well, though he has never stolen more than 17 bases in a season. But when you put it all together, you get a very valuable player. Just being solid all around has value, and combined with his very low strikeout rate, if he sees a spike in his BABIP in 2014 he will be even better than the good player he has been over the past three years. Cleveland signed him to a four-year, $25 million extension before the season, locking in that consistent production at least through 2017 (with a team option for 2018 to that would give Cleveland two of Brantley's free agent years).

David Murphy, OFDavid Murphy (Photo: ESPN)

The front office came under some fire among fans for the lack of moves in the offseason, but one move Cleveland did make was bringing in David Murphy on a two-year, $12 million contract. Of course, signing an outfielder to a multi-year deal following a season in which he posts a .220/.282/.374 line and 0.4 fWAR actually can be worse perception-wise than doing nothing at all.

Not that Murphy should be that bad again in 2014. Of hitters with more than 475 plate appearances in 2013, the outfielder's .227 BABIP was the third-worst, only behind Chicago's Darwin Barney and Atlanta's Dan Uggla. BABIP is too often characterized as completely based on luck, but in Murphy's case, bad luck likely played a big role. His expected BABIP based on how he hit was .296, a mark right in line with his career stats and one that would have made his 2013 season much better.

Even assuming Murphy's BABIP bounces back, the best way to get results out of the outfielder is to sit him against left-handed pitching. In Murphy's career, he is a above-average against right-handers and a real asset (.280/.347/.469 line). Left-handed pitchers give him fits, however, as his power dries up and the results plummet to a .259/.306/.350 line. Murphy is the opposite of Ryan Raburn, and if Terry Francona consistently protects Murphy like he did for Raburn in 2013, the outfielder should be just fine this year.

The immediate reaction to signing a platoon outfielder to a multi-year deal is to think it is an overpay, but that is just the market value for a player like Murphy nowadays. His poor 2013 aside, he is a solid outfielder good for near-average production. It is unlikely that he will approach his 2012 season (.304/.380/.479 line, 3.9 fWAR), but even part of that will be an asset for Cleveland. If Murphy had become a free agent following that year, he would have signed for a lot more than $12 million total. With that and Murphy's significant bounce back potential in mind, while it is a little uninspiring for him to be the only free agent signed for more than one year this offseason, it is likely a solid contract that will help in 2014.

Ryan Raburn, OFRyan Raburn (Photo: ESPN)

If you are looking for one of the starkest comebacks in recent years, Ryan Raburn's 2012-2013 should certainly be near the top. Raburn's 2012 vital statistics: a .171/.226/.254 line, 27 wRC+, and -1.5 fWAR. Raburn's 2013 vital statistics: a .272/.357/.543, 152 wRC+, and 2.5 fWAR. Those two seasons really could not get much different.

Some of that difference comes from everything possible going wrong for Raburn in 2012, highlighted by his .224 BABIP and .083 ISO. Even more of that difference comes from everything possible going right for Raburn in 2013, highlighted by his .272 ISO. In the grand scheme of things, it is highly unlikely that Raburn is anywhere close to as bad as he was in 2012 or as good as he was in 2013; the truth likely lies in the middle.

So what should we expect from Raburn in 2014? That depends on how he fares against right-handed pitchers. Raburn has a reputation as a platoon bat given that his performance against left-handed pitchers (.308/.403/.617 line in 2013, .263/.336/.492 line for his career) is much better than against right-handed pitchers (.243/.320/.485 line in 2013, .255/.303/.411 line for his career). Both performances will likely regress in 2014, leaving Raburn as well above-average against lefties and adequate at best against righties. Raburn likely is not a strict platoon bat -- he does decently against right-handed pitching -- but limiting his exposure to it will be critical for Terry Francona.

After his disastrous 2012 season, Raburn did a great job of bouncing back and earned a two-year, $4.75 million contract for his efforts. That money is not terrible for a bench bat, though it is also a reflection of Cleveland's inability to produce quality options through the minor league system in recent years. His elite production on paper makes it look like Raburn should play more, but in all likelihood, playing Raburn more would be a case of diminishing returns. He has never been an everyday starter for a whole season (his career high in games played is 121) and that platoon split is a real thing. Like Mike Aviles, Raburn should play more than a typical backup, and having these types of players as depth is critical for Cleveland's success.

If you want to follow Jim on Twitter, he’s @JimPiascik. If you want to e-mail him, you can do so at jpiasci1@gmail.com. If you want to read his Master's thesis on college athletes and Twitter, you can do so here.

User Comments

Lenny54
March 12, 2014 - 2:06 PM EDT
Nice wrap up to the spring previews of the players in camp. As spring training runs down, how do you see the initial 25-man roster shaping up to start the season? With so few spots in play, it looks like this could be one possibility:

Cf Bourn
1b Swisher
2b Kipnis
C-DH-3b Santana
LF Brantley
Ss Cabrera
RF Murphy
C Gomes
3b Chisenhall

IF-OF Aviles
DH-OF-1b Rayburn
DH Giambi
OF Francoeur

SP Masterson
SP Kluber
SP Salazar
SP McAllister
SP Carrasco*

RP Pestano*
RP Outman
RP Rzepczynski
RP Shaw
RP Allen
RP Axford
RP Aardsma*

As long as Giambi is healthy and swinging okay at the end of spring training, I think he starts the season on the 25 man.

With Francona's repeated statements about April 1st not being some kind of ultimate deadline, I think the Tribe may be willing to take a flyer on a couple of NRIs who otherwise might go elsewhere if cut loose by the Indians. The comments about "catching lightning in a bottle" also seem to reflect the Tribe's willingness to give some veterans a real shot, at least to start the season.

I think Francouer offers a lot unless he falls on his face in the next couple of weeks. I think either Aardsma or possibly Atchison might start the season in the pen. Most of the other bullpen possibles (Lee, Wood, Price, Hagadone, etc.) have options, so if the veterans don't pan out the younger guys are always there to call on when needed.

One kicker in the process continues to be the 5th starter slot. I think it is going to come down to Carrasco or Harang. Tomlin still has an option so going to Columbus to continue his post-TJ rebuild is not a bad idea - and again, he will be there if needed early in the season. Harang might make the 5th starter if he continues to pitch well this spring, and/or if Carrasco has any struggles in the next couple of weeks. If Harang takes the 5th starter slot to start the season, Carrasco would end up in the pen, and Aardsma/Atchison are out of the picture.

Another kicker is Pestano. Francona's comments about him so far do not sound like a ringing endorsement. If his velocity continues to lag or he doesn't seem to be quite ready (and he also can be optioned), he could end up in Columbus to start the season, leaving an opening for one of the veterans (Aardsma/Atchison) even if Harang makes the club.
pathofkindness
March 12, 2014 - 11:08 AM EDT
Myself, I won't miss Stubbs at all, esp at $3m/year. He had his moments, and yes, could run like a deer, but he has major holes in his swing and quite frankly, was not that consistent of a fielder, even though he obviously has all of the tools.
pathofkindness
March 12, 2014 - 11:05 AM EDT
Thanks Jim. Nice article. I like this outfield's potential, a lot.

However, to realize it, Murphy needs to bounce back big time (I think there's a better than average chance of that), and Bourn needs to have a better year than last year. Hopefully he can stay healthy, but this is the stage in a career for a player like Bourn who depends on speed and athleticism where they start to have nagging injuries that sap their effectiveness...so I'm not as optimistic about him right now. Brantley taking the next step in his development of power hitting would help as well...
Hermie13
March 12, 2014 - 9:00 AM EDT
Meh....

Mike Aviles hit .232 with a .269 OBP and 66 wRC+ vs lefties last year. Stubbs hit .266 with a .361 OBP and 107 wRC+ vs lefties last year.

Career wise Aviles has been better but still only hit .280 with a .322 OBP and 100 wRC+ vs lefties; whereas Stubbs in his career has hit .274 with a .349 OBP and 117 wRC+. Stubbs is simply a lot better against lefties.

Again though, not faulting the Tribe for the trade, think Outman will be a key piece in that pen this year. Think Stubbs if used right though can be a very good player. Played too much against righties last year, which hurt him.
Themaven
March 11, 2014 - 7:56 PM EDT
Stubbs would fit on most teams as a fourth or fifth outfielder,but he's making 3 million more than Outman,so no way the Tribe can keep him when Aviles could give you similar or better production as the the righty part of the 3rd base platoon.

Which is also why the Santana 3rd base experiment is perplexing.
Play Santana at third instead of Aviles against lefties and lose some defense and gain.......Aviles or Francoeur(Gak!) as a DH?
They've got to add a bat that would make the experiment worthwhile,it's the only thing that makes sense.

I'm still going to miss watching Shtubbsy steaming around the bases though,guy runs like a deer!
Jwahoo
March 11, 2014 - 5:27 PM EDT
@ Hermie

Yes, sorry. Exactly. One thing I didn't seem to realize about Frenchy is that he has some speed. I believe he hit 20 homers with 20 steals in 2012 or was it 2011? Anyway, I agree that he will take that role at least until Jessie Aguiler is ready or a trade is made.
Hermie13
March 11, 2014 - 5:13 PM EDT
Yeah I have similar feelings jwahoo.

Though assuming you meant sit Chiz vs LH pitching? Stubbs would have made a nice platoon in RF with Murphy....allowing Raburn to platoon with Chiz (Raburn DH vs lefties, Santana at 3B). Did like the addition of Outman though. And maybe we get lucky and Frenchy can provide similar value off the bench as Stubbs would have.
Jwahoo
March 11, 2014 - 5:07 PM EDT
I know we need Outman and the extra cash but...... Drew Stubbs would have been the perfect last guy off the bench for us. He brings elite defense at every outfield position and could protect the three lefties with his right handed bat.

If you sit Chiz vs RH pitchers you could have DH'd Brantley and put Stubbs in the outfield for a better outfield defense. Plus, he would have provided great speed off the bench. Oh well.


I am really hoping that Raburn and Murphey can combine to form a very productive outfielder. They have the potential as long as Murphey only faces righties and Raburn only faces lefties.


Excited for Tyler Naquin, Carlos Moncrief and Clint Frazier.
Hermie13
March 11, 2014 - 2:10 PM EDT
Count me in as very intrigued by the potential of a Murphy/Raburn platoon. If used correctly could be getting near super-star level production from RF in 2014.
Jim Piascik
March 11, 2014 - 1:24 PM EDT
Most of the prospects I left for Tony's prospect countdown. Moncrief is one of my favorites though. I hope he gets a shot to help this year.
Devin
March 11, 2014 - 12:33 PM EDT
I believe you forgot Carlos Moncrief

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