Indians Martinize Their Center-Field Problem

The Indians’ center-field woes — which is how you describe it when four players combine for a 55 wRC+ and 0.2 WAR — earned them a spot on the center-field edition of my Replacement Level Killers series. On Tuesday afternoon, however, the club did something about that, acquiring 30-year-old flychaser Leonys Martin from the Tigers in exchange for 21-year-old switch-hitting Double-A shortstop Willi Castro, whom our own Eric Longenhagen called “Cleveland’s most realistic trade chip this summer” back in April.

The well-traveled Martin, who joins his fourth team since the end of the 2015 season — he spent 2016 and most of 2017 with the Mariners before being dealt to the Cubs on August 31 and then signing with the Tigers in December — is in the midst of his best offensive season, hitting .251/.321/.409 with nine homers and seven steals. As modest as that line looks, it’s good for a 98 wRC+, 16 points above his career mark and a strong turnaround from last year’s dismal .172/.232/.281 (35 wRC+) line, a performance so bad that he wound up making 388 plate appearances at Triple-A Tacoma. The uptick in production appears to be the result of a newfound ability to elevate the ball: his current ground-ball rate of 35.6 % is nearly 13 points below his pre-2018 mark and his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio of 0.77 basically half of what it was. According to Statcast, his average launch angle has increased from 9.4 degrees for the 2015-17 seasons to 16.8, with his xwOBA jumping a neat 100 points, from .264 to .364.

So Martin is now a slightly above-average contributor relative to the combined 95 wRC+ from all MLB center fielders this year. He’s also a legitimately above-average defender (7.1 UZR, 3 DRS) whose 13.4 UZR/150 is even in line with his 2013-15 heyday with the Rangers. His overall 2.1 WAR should soon surpass his 2016 total of 2.2 for his best season since 2014. He’s a major improvement on both sides of the ball relative to what the Indians were getting from Rajai Davis, Tyler Naquin, the since-optioned Greg Allen, and the now-sidelined Bradley Zimmer.

Heading to Detroit is Castro, whom the Indians signed out of the Dominican Republic on July 2, 2013 for a reported bonus of $825,000. This spring, he placed 10th on the Indians’ top-prospect list, with a 45 FV grade overall. Wrote Longenhagen:

“Castro is a twitchy little plus-running shortstop who could be an above-average defender and hit a little bit if he can tone down his aggressiveness at the plate… He projects as an everyday shortstop and could be Cleveland’s most realistic trade chip this summer — both because Francisco Lindor exists and because the power-over-hit prospects ahead of him aren’t universally sought after while shortstops with bat-to-ball ability are.”

Castro is currently hitting just .245/.303/.350 with five homers, 13 steals, and a 6.8% walk rate for an 82 wRC+ at Double-A Akron. As Longenhagen pointed out to me, he’s +40 defensive runs over the past two seasons via Clay Davenport’s translations, though that might owe something to the frequency with which Indians minor-league teams shift. His ETA isn’t until 2020, so the rebuilding Tigers will need a stopgap if they trade or otherwise move on from pending free-agent Jose Iglesias. But for the roughly $1.18 million they paid Martin out of his $1.75 million salary, they’ve obtained a potential everyday player, which is nice work on their end as well.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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