Terry Francona knew Bradley Zimmer was going to complicate roster decisions. The Cleveland Indians manager said as much soon after the team started arrived for summer camp.
“There’s some wild cards that make it a little more difficult,” Francona noted a couple weeks ago. “Like Bradley Zimmer, a guy that we absolutely love. We love his skill set.”
Mind you, this was before the former first-round pick put forth an absolutely torrid plate performance during the team’s intrasquad games. Before he showed off how much difference a batting stance shift could make on his offensive production.
Now, with only two days before Cleveland has to finalize its 30-man squad, Zimmer has all but forced his name onto the opening day roster with his summer camp performance. On top of that, he’s also made a case to get significant playing time.
That’s where things get tricky for the Indians.
Zimmer needs a good deal of at-bats this summer, especially after spending the past two years recovering from injuries. There’s a way to ensure he gets a fair look without taking too much from the other outfielders Cleveland was hoping to prioritize. However, said route could come at the expense of an offseason acquisition.
Simply put, getting Zimmer the plate appearances he needs may involve reducing the role of Domingo Santana.
There was a time when finding Zimmer enough at-bats this summer appeared to be a fool’s errand. He entered camp having logged just 128 plate appearances over the past two years, the majority of which occurred in 2018. It wasn’t lofty to assume rust would create a disadvantage, especially considering how many outfielders he was competing against to make the final roster.
If all that time off the field had a negative impact on Zimmer’s development, we certainly aren’t seeing any proof of it.
In eight intrasquad games, Zimmer has gone 10-for-18 with four homers and seven RBI. He’s been utilizing a new plate approach which has helped quicken his swing, and it’s paying immediate dividends.
It also continues to improve Zimmer’s odds of spending summer with Cleveland.
Again, though, Zimmer needs more than just a spot in the clubhouse. He has to get more looks at big league pitching. One or two appearances per week during a 60-game campaign isn’t going to cut it.
Figuring out how to get him fair playing time isn't easy, but it can be done.
The Indians can utilize Oscar Mercado as their everyday center fielder, while platooning Jordan Luplow and Tyler Naquin in left field. From there, Zimmer can set up shop in right, potentially alternating positions with the other three to get him some time in center and left. Franmil Reyes can still get looks on defense here and there, though this setup likely shifts him into a DH role more often than not.
Which is where we run into the previously mentioned drawbacks for Santana.
The Indians’ offseason acquisition brings alarmingly little to the table defensively. Santana is one year removed from leading the league in outfield errors (12), and a flub he committed Saturday night against Pittsburgh did little to indicate those struggles are behind him.
As a result, his best role appeared to be designated hitter. However, if getting Zimmer more time in the field pushes Reyes back to DH, Santana’s fit with the team becomes quite awkward.
Designated hitter at-bats will be few and far between, and his suspect defense won’t do much to earn him playing time outside of that.
Unfortunately, when considering how much Cleveland has invested in both Zimmer and Santana, the latter ends up drawing the short straw.
In Zimmer, the Indians have a player they selected in the first round, a prospect they think highly of who’s displaying signs his bat may finally be coming around.
In Santana, Cleveland has a free agent it signed to a $1.5 million flyer late in the offseason, who also has a $5 million option for 2021 which certainly looks like a ripe cost-cutting target after a season without ticket revenue.
This certainly isn’t meant to degrade Santana, who was producing for Seattle last season before an elbow injury derailed his progress.
It also isn’t meant to imply he’s on the chopping block. With four weeks to work with before needing to trim the roster down to 26 men, the Indians aren’t facing any immediate pressure to cut ties with Santana.
However, if Cleveland is planning to get Zimmer frequent at-bats, it has to take them from someone else.
Considering how little he offers defensively, and the minimal investment Cleveland made with him, Santana sure looks like the obvious candidate here.