Tribe could promote prospect Zimmer in 2017

Tribe could promote prospect Zimmer in 2017

CLEVELAND -- The Indians made one of the boldest moves of the offseason with the free-agent signing of slugger Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million contract that has the club flirting with a $130 million payroll.

Cleveland's financial resources appear to be tapped out for major additions, but the team could still use help for the outfield. Maybe that will lend itself to this bold prediction: Top prospect Bradley Zimmer will make the Opening Day roster.

"There may be an opportunity for Bradley at some point," Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, said last week. "The question is, 'Is he the best option for us, and does he take advantage of it?'"

Hot Stove Tracker

The 24-year-old outfielder -- rated the Indians' No. 1 prospect by MLBPipeline.com -- debuted at Triple-A last summer, hitting .242 with a .654 OPS in 150 plate appearances. That was a noticeable dropoff from his career Minor League numbers (.268 average and .817 OPS), and came with a heightened strikeout rate of 37.3 percent. Prior to Triple-A, Zimmer had a 24-percent strikeout rate.

Two years ago, Cleveland stuck with its plan and kept top shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor at Triple-A until June. Since reaching The Show, Lindor has blossomed into one of baseball's bright young stars. Like Lindor, who was picked in the first round of the 2011 Draft, Zimmer was the team's top selection (21st overall) in the '14 Draft.

Next Big Leaguers: Zimmer

There is a precedent for a prospect with no Major League experience cracking Cleveland's Opening Day roster. One year ago, Tyler Naquin (the Indians' No. 1 pick in the 2012 Draft) used a torrid spring to win a job in the Tribe's depleted outfield.

"It's really hard to put any sort of timetable on players," Antonetti said. "There needs to be an opportunity, and there needs to be a player prepared to succeed with the opportunity that he's given. I think we saw a great example of that last year. No one was writing Tyler Naquin's name to be a regular outfielder for us, but there was an opportunity, and he took advantage of it."

Cleveland plans on using Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer as a platoon in right field. Naquin projects as the team's regular center fielder, though he may be limited mostly to facing righties, as he did in 2016. Switch-hitting Abraham Almonte can play all three spots, projects as the main backup in center and is a leading candidate to be on the team. For left field, the Indians are hoping Michael Brantley will be healthy and recovered from August surgery on his right biceps following a season in which shoulder issues also contributed to limiting him to 11 games.

Zimmer improving in Fall League

Prospect Yandy Diaz will be examined closely this spring, while third baseman Jose Ramirez can play left, if needed. There is also the chance that the Indians trade for an affordable player to handle center or left field.

If the Indians do not add to their current mix, maybe that could increase Zimmer's chances. Overall, Zimmer hit .250 with 15 homers, 25 doubles, six triples, 62 RBIs, 38 steals and 76 runs scored in 130 games between Double-A Akron and Columbus in 2016. 

Zimmer's sliding catch

"From a Minor League standpoint, he certainly had a lot of production. He was an outstanding player," said assistant general manager Carter Hawkins, who was the director of player development this past year. "But he took steps in his awareness of the things that he's going to need to do from the standpoint of his approach, from the standpoint of how he's going about each at-bat, so he's able to tap into all that natural talent that he has.

"I think we learned a lot this year, he learned a lot this year, and as we look back and hopefully as we're thinking about success at the Major League level, we can look back at this year as one where, 'Hey, this a year that I really got an idea of the type of player I want to be.'"

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.