Earlier this year, I noted how 2020 served as a make or break season for Cleveland Indians outfielder Bradley Zimmer.
Injuries have hampered the development of Cleveland’s 2014 first-round pick, as Zimmer has only made brief appearances with the team over the past two seasons. He entered spring training hoping to stand out among the Indians’ hoard of outfielders, a tricky task considering how much rust he’s collected rehabbing from 2018 shoulder surgery.
Zimmer needs everyday at-bats in the majors, and needed to earn these despite having the deck stacked against him in February.
Looking back, it’s jarring how much Zimmer’s situation has changed since then. Thanks to circumstances outside his control, the hand he’s been dealt has gotten considerably worse.
Basically, whether there’s a season or not in 2020, Zimmer appears to be stuck in a lose-lose situation.
No explanation is required for why this year would be difficult for him if MLB cancels the 2020 campaign. Zimmer’s need for playing time combined with a lack of actual baseball is a pretty cut and dry scenario.
That said, even if there is a season this summer, Zimmer’s predicament doesn’t get any less complicated.
For one, Cleveland aimed to have him start the year in the minors, optioning him down to Triple-A Columbus back in March. It wasn’t ideal, but it would at least result in Zimmer getting consistent playing time.
Now, MLB is preparing for life without the minors this summer, essentially eliminating Zimmer’s best opportunity to hit the field on a daily basis.
It’s likely the proposed roster expansion for big league clubs helps his cause. It wouldn’t be surprising if Zimmer lands on Cleveland’s 30-man team, and, if not, he’d surely be a part of the 20-man taxi squad of injury reserves.
Yet, is having a start or two a week, along with various pinch-running opportunities or in-game defensive subs, something Zimmer would see as ideal?
Simply put, the biggest concern with Zimmer is that the team wants him getting frequent at-bats, and there’s no conceivable situation in which he receives these in the months ahead.
At 27 years of age, Zimmer only has 460 career plate appearances with the Indians. It’s hardly enough to get a true gauge on whether he can live up to his draft status.
Making matters worse, 72% of these occurred in 2017. Zimmer has logged just 128 since, appearing in a combined 43 games across the past two seasons.
Considering the current circumstances, it’d be quite surprising if he topped that total this summer.
Sure, there’s still a chance things break in Zimmer’s favor. Injuries happen, players struggle, a shortened season may force the Tribe to make several adjustments while trying to find an outfield combo that works.
Still, that’s wing-and-a-prayer logic. Zimmer currently finds himself low on Cleveland’s outfield depth chart, low enough that even everything mentioned above taking place may not get him consistent playing time.
Oscar Mercado has earned an everyday role, and Franmil Reyes’ offseason work and enticing power all but ensure the same for him. Jordan Luplow’s lefty splits should give him platoon duty at the very least, while Tyler Naquin is coming off a bounce-back season. Delino DeShields Jr. isn’t much of an offensive threat, but his veteran status likely spots him ahead of Zimmer on the list.
Perhaps he can leapfrog Jake Bauers, who could arguably use more time to develop into the player Cleveland thinks he can be. At the same time, is this a recipe which gets Zimmer frequent appearances in the lineup?
It may earn him some weekly cameos, but he won’t get on the field nearly as much as the Indians prefer.
So, what does Cleveland do from here?
Zimmer could realistically enter next year at age 28 and having gone three straight seasons logging less than 150 plate appearances. It’s not exactly the ideal developmental path.
Despite this, the club faces zero pressure to just trade him. Having one of your top draft picks still toiling in the minors as he nears 30 isn’t preferred. That said, considering Zimmer has two options left and the Indians’ outfield remains jumbled, you can see why they may not feel compelled to move him yet.
Provided that’s their thinking, they’ll have to address the concerns this year poses for him. Barring a lot of things breaking his way, Zimmer is facing limited playing time this season, which is the last thing he needs.
Basically, there’s either going to be no season, or Zimmer won’t be playing a ton during a shortened one. Neither outcome is good, as both would only push him further behind where Cleveland wants him to be.
It’s quite a complex situation, and one the Indians will have to resolve if they still view Zimmer as a key piece to their future.