Questioning the Cleveland Indians’ outfield has become a bit of a habit this winter. They have no shortage of options to work with, sure, but very few of them bring anything beyond mediocrity.
For now, it appears Cleveland is heading into spring training with the cast it has on hand, hoping a few standouts surface and alleviate some of the outfield issues. One would think Bradley Zimmer is someone the Tribe is especially hopeful with.
Just a couple years ago, Zimmer was one of the Indians’ marquee up-and-comers. In the time since, injuries and struggles at the plate have brought him back to square one.
On the surface, 2020 doesn’t seem like a now-or-never year for Zimmer. However, it’s hard to argue otherwise when considering his continued inability to make an impact with the Tribe.
No, Zimmer isn’t coming up on any crucial points of his team control. Next winter marks his first year of arbitration eligibility, and he doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2023 season. With two minor league options left, it would seem as though he has plenty of time.
Of course, that all depends on how long Cleveland is willing to wait him out.
At age 27, Zimmer is starting to face some pressure, especially considering he’s yet to prove he can consistently hit big-league pitching. It’s unlikely the Indians are willing to wait patiently while he tries to figure it out in the minors before turning 30.
When it comes to making strides in 2020, he’s already stacked the deck against himself by passing on winter ball this offseason. It was a questionable call considering injuries sidelined Zimmer for all but nine games last year, something manager Terry Francona hammered home with him.
“We expressed to him that he’s missed basically a year and a half of at-bats and that at some point we may be asking him to go get more,” Francona said. “Does it mean he can’t make the team? No. But it could happen that way and we just wanted to be upfront with him about that.”
In order to ensure he doesn’t open the year in Triple-A, Zimmer will need to demonstrate some significant offensive improvement. Doing so will require much more patience at the plate.
Strikeouts have been a concern with Zimmer since his 2017 rookie season. For his career, he has more strikeouts (150) than hits (96). However, in 2018, the frequency of his whiffs increased dramatically.
Year-over-year, his strikeout rate ballooned from 29.8% to 38.6%, as he averaged over one K per game. Zimmer’s inability to make contact that season resulted in a pedestrian slash line (.226/.281/.330) and a WAR of just 0.3.
The rate at which he whiffed was bad enough. However, the astounding lack of patience he showed just made matters worse.
Zimmer fell to an 0-2 count in 25% of his 114 plate appearances in 2018. Only four times did he find himself facing a 3-0 count.
In the 29 plate appearances he fell behind 0-2, Zimmer was punched out 21 times.
Even just facing two strikes in general, Zimmer went above and beyond to make life easy on opposing pitchers that year. Just look at his strikeout rate when facing counts of 2-2, 1-2 and 0-2 in 2018 compared to the previous season.
2-2 – 46.9%
1-2 – 55.3%
0-2 – 57.4%
2-2 – 68.0%
1-2 – 66.7%
0-2 – 72.4%
Fielding will always give Zimmer an advantage. For his career, his UZR and DRS in center field both come in above average.
Those numbers only help him so much, though. His worth with the Indians will continue to be questionable if, outside of defensive value, all he offers is declining plate discipline and an inability to stay healthy.
You could argue that’s a bit drastic. You could even use Tyler Naquin’s presence as Exhibit A. After all, the 28-year-old former first-round pick has been in Cleveland’s system since 2012, with offensive struggles and injuries hindering his ability to claim an everyday role.
That said, after a rocky couple seasons, Naquin began trending back up last year. He posted his best slash line since 2016 (.288/.325/.467), his strikeout percentage was at a career low (22.4%) and his DRS (8) and UZR (9.7) have never been better. Though an ACL tear ended his season in the final month, Naquin at least showed Cleveland he could overcome his struggles.
Zimmer has yet to do so, and it’s unclear how many more chances he’ll have.
He’ll be 28 after this season. If he’s still whiffing every third plate appearance, if he hasn’t earned an everyday role in Cleveland by the end of 2020, you have to wonder if he ever will.