Lots of competition for left field
By Andy Nichols
March 19, 2012
Probably the most interesting position battle occurring in spring training for the Indians is in left field.
About three weeks ago left field wasn’t very interesting, and in fact, there wasn’t a battle at all. When Cleveland players officially arrived for camp in mid-February, the outfield for the Indians was already set: Michael Brantley in left, Grady Sizemore in center, and Shin-Soo Choo in right.
As the Indians learned last year, injuries have a way of destroying the plans made by a team. This time, in a sort of deja vu fashion for the Indians, Sizemore went down with a lower back injury. Sizemore will be out of action for 8-12 weeks after undergoing a surgical procedure to correct his back issue. With Brantley shifting over to center field to fill in for Sizemore in center, Sizemore’s injury opens up a starting spot in the outfield. And with that all eyes are on the potential candidates to fill the spot in left field.
General Manager Chris Antonetti’s goal this offseason was to provide solid depth to the ballclub. Injuries are a part of the game, and the Indians have learned that the hard way the last two seasons. During those campaigns, Cleveland was forced to rush prospects to the big leagues and turn players better suited for utility roles into everyday players. Antonetti wanted to make sure that wouldn’t be as much of an issue this year, so he brought in several players on minor-league contracts in order to compete for bench roles and to provide that much needed layer of depth.
That approach looks smart now as Antonetti has brought in a number of outfielders that the team believes would be more than capable of filling in during Sizemore’s absence.
Russ Canzler: Canzler may not have the best shot of being the starting left fielder, but he may have the most upside. Canzler was acquired this winter in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays after the Rays designated him for assignment to make room for free agent-signee Jeff Keppinger. Canzler has only five plate appearances in the Major Leagues, so more time in the minors seems likely.
Last year with Triple-A Durham, Canzler won the International League MVP after he hit .314 with 18 HR and 78 RBI. Canzler is a right-handed hitter, which would be a welcome sight in the Indians left-handed heavy lineup. However, the big knock on him is his defense as he is seen as more of a first baseman. He has played the corner outfield spots in the past, and the Indians are giving him a chance this spring to prove that he is not a liability in the outfield. Still, Canzler’s chances of being the starting left fielder on Opening Day seem unlikely, but his strong spring showing to date could change that.
Ezequiel Carrera: Carrera is a long shot to win the job. Manny Acta has said that if Carrera wins a starting job this spring, he would be the center fielder, with Brantley sliding back to left. The more likely scenario, though, is Carrera being the starting center fielder in Triple-A Columbus. Carrera showed flashes of being a solid player during his 68 games with the Tribe in 2011, but consistency was an issue. In his 202 Major League at bats, Carrera sported a .243 batting average, and his on-base percentage and slugging percentage were only slightly higher at .301 and .312, respectively. The speedy outfielder also added 10 steals in 15 attempts.
An issue that a lot of people noticed last year was the shaky defense turned in by Carrera. When called up from Columbus, Carrera was labeled as a speedy, sure-handed outfielder, but in 506 innings in the outfield with the Tribe he had four errors and a .970 fielding percentage. Those numbers do not even include several misplays that led to runs or extended an inning. His performance was not exactly Gold Glove worthy, but for a young rookie thrown into the fire after several outfielders went down due to injury, it was not that bad. Carrera is seen as more of a depth option right now and could benefit from more seasoning in Triple-A.
Aaron Cunningham: Cunningham is an intriguing candidate. During the offseason Cunningham was acquired in a trade with the San Diego Padres for minor league reliever Cory Burns. Cunningham bats right handed and is thought of as a solid hitter against left handed pitching, which is what the Indians are looking for. In the minor leagues Cunningham has put up great numbers, especially against left handed pitching, and in 129 career Major League at bats against left handers he has hit .256 with 2 HR and 14 RBI. In 226 career Major League at bats against right handed pitching he has hit .217 with 4 HR and 30 RBI. Those numbers are not jaw-dropping by any means.
So what makes Cunningham so intriguing? Well, for starters, he is out of options. If Cunningham had minor league options remaining, I would say his chances of being the starting left fielder would be slim. Seeing as how Antonetti traded for him knowing he was out of options to me shows the front office must see potential in him. The fact that every other player in this position battle either has options remaining or was brought in on a minor league contract (except for Shelley Duncan), means Cunningham may have the inside track on everyone else for the a spot on the Opening Day roster; possibly as the starting left fielder.
Felix Pie: Pie may have a good shot at making the team as a fourth outfielder. The defense and speed are there, which are two things the Indians love, but little offense has been shown from the left-handed hitting Pie. When Antonetti inked him to a minor league contract this winter the hopes were that Pie would find the stroke that once made him a top prospect. Even with Pie doing little in terms of offense this spring, his defense and potential may win him a spot on the roster.
In his career, Pie has performed adequately in the majors in a platoon-type role. His best year came in 2010 with the Orioles where in 288 at bats he hit .274 with 5 HR and 31 RBI, and also scored 39 runs that season. Pie’s ability to play all three outfield positions, and play them well, may give him a leg up on the competition. Acta loves good defense, and Pie may be the best defensively out of the group.
Ryan Spilborghs: Spilborghs is coming off of an injury-plagued 2011 season with the Colorado Rockies where he saw his average drop to .210. This is a guy that has done some very good things at the major league level, and may be one of the favorites for the open starting spot in the Indians outfield. Spilborghs is a righty, and another guy that can play all three outfield positions, and he’s no slouch with the bat either.
During the Rockies run to the World Series in 2007, Spilborghs batted .299 with 11 HR and 51 RBI in only 264 at bats. A year later, Spilborghs hit .313 with 6 HR and 36 RBI in 233 at bats. After a down year in 2009 when Spilborghs was given more playing time, he bounced back in 2010 and hit .279 with 10 HR and 39 RBI in 341 at bats. If the Indians can get numbers from Spilborghs this season like any of the above mentioned years, the minor league contract Antonetti signed him to will look like a steal.
Fred Lewis: Lewis was brought in this offseason on a minor league contract. He spent last season with the Cincinnati Reds and only hit .230 with 3 HR and 19 RBI. His best season came in 2008 with the San Francisco Giants when he hit .282 with 9 HR and 40 RBI in 468 at bats, and also added a .351 on base percentage and 21 steals. That’s the kind of production the Indians were hoping for when they signed him this offseason. Lewis is another left handed hitter and only has a .233 career average against left handed pitching. If Lewis were to make the team, it would most likely be in a platoon role.
Shelley Duncan: One thing is for sure, barring injury Shelley Duncan will be on the Opening Day roster. Over the past two seasons with the Tribe he has proven his worth filling in in numerous roles vacated due to injury and hitting a combined .246 with 22 HR and 83 RBI over 452 at bats. On top of that, he’s a favorite in the clubhouse, and he displays leadership not often seen by role players.
The power from the right side of the plate is what makes Duncan such a solid option off of Acta’s bench. With Duncan being out of minor league options, the Indians will not be able to shuttle him back and forth between Triple-A and Cleveland like they did the past two seasons. So in 2012, expect Duncan to play a big role in the success of the ballclub.
Duncan may be the starting left fielder, or he may serve as more of a utility player between first base, designated hitter, and the outfield. With Duncan taking a spot on the roster, that leaves only one opening for the fourth outfielder or, potentially, the starting left field job. Look for it to come down to either Cunningham or Spilborghs. With that being said, there’s still plenty of time for the other candidates to show that they are the one worthy of being the starting left fielder.
With about two weeks to go, the competition will get even more fierce as players make their final cases to be the opening day starting left fielder.