Jake Bauers needs to have a great spring.
This is hardly breaking news. The Cleveland Indians’ outfielder is coming off a season during which he fell woefully below the team’s expectations. Despite being given plenty of opportunities to prove himself, Bauers instead spent 2019 putting up subpar numbers at the plate while reportedly carrying himself like an elite hitter.
So, if there’s anyone within the Indians’ clubhouse in dire need of an immediate bounce-back, it’s Bauers.
It’s a point Cleveland has been hammering home over the past few weeks, albeit indirectly.
While not coming right out and saying Bauers is potentially looking at a decreased role in 2020, the updates the Indians have made regarding their outfield have been sending that message for them. They’re clearly planning to experiment when it comes to addressing one of the weaker areas of their roster.
In doing so, they’re also limiting Bauers’ chances to get consistent playing time this season.
One might initially think the 24-year-old still has a shot at being Jordan Luplow’s platoon partner in left field. After all, Luplow’s ability to tear apart left-handed pitching has yet to translate to his bat when a righty is on the mound.
However, at Tribe Fest earlier this month, manager Terry Francona expressed his desire to get Luplow more at-bats against right-handed pitching this year. The thought appears to be that, since he hits so incredibly well against lefties (198 wRC+), he’ll eventually come around against right-handers.
No worries, though. If Luplow is getting everyday at-bats regardless of who’s on the mound, Bauers can platoon on the other corner of the outfield. He has limited experience in right (35.0 innings), but it’s the only position where he boasts a positive Defensive Runs Saved (1) for his career.
It would seem Cleveland severely hindered that possibility last week when they acquired Domingo Santana.
The signing of Santana is hardly a defensive upgrade. As noted last Friday, though, it should be seen as the Indians insisting they view Franmil Reyes as a viable option in right.
Reyes shed 18 pounds over the offseason, and has shown his commitment to helping Cleveland in the field this summer. By bringing in Santana, a player with worse defensive numbers, the Tribe is signaling it’ll be giving Reyes his shot.
Again, it’s notable experimentation with both corners of the outfield. The Indians are betting on Luplow’s bat coming around against right-handed pitching, and are assuming an increase in agility will make Reyes a better fielder.
In making said bets, the Indians are also sending a message to Bauers. They’re essentially letting him know that, if he’s expecting to be handed another 400+ plate appearances despite not earning them, he’s in for a rude awakening.
Provided both these outfield experiments work, finding an everyday roster spot for Bauers becomes near impossible. Carlos Santana has first base – the only other position Bauers plays – locked down until further notice. One would assume designated hitter will be a rotation between Reyes and Santana.
This basically puts Bauers in a utility role, which will certainly be an adjustment considering how often Cleveland gave him middle-of-the-lineup at-bats last season.
As noted, this is what the team is telling him when increasing opportunities for Reyes and Luplow. In doing so, the Indians are prioritizing those who’ve put in the work, who’ve earned more playing time.
Luplow was a monster against left-handed pitching. Reyes spent all winter getting in better shape to improve as an outfielder. As a result, Cleveland is giving each player their shot to become everyday options in the corners.
Bauers spent 2019 displaying nothing but inconsistency, wrapping it up with a lengthy exit meeting during which Francona insisted he had to be much better at developing routines.
If he felt this was just lip service, that he’d still receive preferential treatment in 2020, it appears he’ll be sadly mistaken.
It’s worth noting that both FanGraphs and Steamer project Bauers’ plate appearances to be cut in half this summer. After logging 423 last season, the former outlet sees him getting 210 in 2020, while the latter expects him to receive just 200.
Nothing the Indians have done over the past few weeks indicates these numbers are far-fetched.
As a result, Bauers will need to show notable improvement, preferably soon. Opportunities will no longer be gift-wrapped for him in 2020, as the Indians have let him know the patience he received last summer is now being given to other, more productive players.
In showing a willingness to experiment with Luplow and Reyes, Cleveland has made it clear the days of Bauers receiving the benefit of the doubt are over.