By Sheldon Ocker
Beacon Journal sports writer
There can be more than one way to solve a problem.
The Indians discovered it would be difficult to produce runs after it became clear that Mark Reynolds was not going to be the man to fear in the middle of the 2013 lineup.
Manager Terry Francona tried several players in the cleanup spot, none of whose games were ideally suited to performing that role.
It was assumed that General Manager Chris Antonetti would fill the hole by signing a free agent or making a trade for a hitter who reliably hits at least 30 home runs and amasses at least 90 RBI per season. That might be the easiest way to initiate a fix, but also the most expensive.
And as any fan around here knows, opening a vein and letting the cash gush out is not the Tribe’s preferred method of adding players. Consequently, it appears that Antonetti has opted for another way to generate more runs.
By signing David Murphy (for two years and $12 million plus an option season), the Indians can work a platoon in right field. It’s possible that two players can be more productive than one, even if the total number of plate appearances remains the same over the course of the schedule.
Antonetti hasn’t announced his master strategy, so maybe he still will seek a big hitter to upgrade the lineup. However, that is not likely. The roster of free agents is thin on muscle, and the asking prices for the few players who qualify are not far from astronomical. It is not the Indians’ style to (read, capacity) to shell out $15 million per season on a four- to six-year deal.
Moreover, Antonetti does not have a surplus of players coveted by other clubs enough to give up a top quality hitter. The question then becomes what are the chances that a platoon in right field will deliver 30 or more home runs and 90 or more RBI.
Murphy is nobody’s idea of a prime run producer. In the six seasons he has been allotted at least 400 at-bats, he is averaging 13.5 homers and 56 RBI. He is a contact hitter with modest power, who strikes out only once every 5.7 at-bats and whose batting average the past six years is .269. It would be .279 if not for a precipitous decline in 2013.
That’s one of the problems. Murphy is coming off the worst year of his career, compiling a .220 average with 13 home runs and 45 RBI.
Murphy is the kind of player often targeted by the Tribe, a guy who has to take less because he fell off the face of the earth the previous year. Of course, there’s a catch. Nobody knows if Murphy’s sub-par season was an anomaly or whether at 32, his skills are beginning to decline?
Or maybe Murphy’s numbers dropped because his former club, the Rangers, no longer possessed a monster lineup in which virtually every hitter was protected by every other hitter.
At any rate, Murphy is not expected to carry the burden himself, though as a left-handed hitter, he will get the majority of at-bats in right field. Who will be his accomplice? Drew Stubbs was the regular last season, but he is hardly an RBI machine and likely will be traded (apparently, there is a market for him).
That leaves the right-handed part of the job to Ryan Raburn. Nobody deserves it more. Raburn was one of those guys who fell on hard times in 2012 and signed with the Indians for $1 million.
In a stroke of genius and good luck, Antonetti signed a hitter for next to nothing that made more of an impact per at-bat than any player on the club. It didn’t take long for the GM to offer Raburn a midseason two-year, guaranteed contract worth $4.75 million plus a $3 million option for 2016.
That means manning right field for 2014 will cost the Tribe about $8.25 million, probably not much more than half of what Antonetti would have had to pay for a free agent. But that doesn’t mean it will work.
Raburn came off the bench, mostly against lefties, for 243 at-bats, delivering 16 home runs, 18 doubles and 55 RBI. Those are high-end numbers, as evidenced by his .543 slugging percentage and .901 OPS.
It would be unfair to expect him to repeat that level of production two years in a row. And by the way, as the right-handed half of the platoon, Raburn probably will again receive fewer than 250 at-bats.
If Raburn did repeat his excellent season of 2013 and Murphy returned to his normal level of production, the platoon would generate 29 homers and 111 RBI. That’s what Antonetti is hoping.
Is this a realistic scenario? Maybe not, but it could happen. And more often than not, the success of the Indians depends on what is possible rather than what is probable.
But first things first: Murphy must pass a physical. The good news is that satisfying the team’s medical staff is probable.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.