Earlier this week, the Indians announced the outright release of Nyjer Morgan along with the rehab assignment of Michael Bourn returning from the DL. While the release of Morgan is disappointing as the veteran outfielder brought a surprising amount of energy and ability on both sides of the ball. It was this energetic play that caused his injury in the first place as he decided too late not to dive for a ball and essentially hyper extended his knee. Ever since, he has been trying to come back, but the injury never healed and he stopped all attempts at rehab after already missing half the season.
The two things that made it easier for the Indians to release Morgan was the emergence of Chris Dickerson and apparent return of Bourn. Morgan played well, but only in 15 games, posting a BABIP of .371 that would almost certainly have brought his other numbers down in short term as he regressed towards .300. It was also hard to imagine he could get back into playing shape after missing so much time, especially considering that he is 34 years old. Even if he could make it back, he would be of limited use for the Tribe if he could only come back for the final month of the season, taking playing time away from younger players like Tyler Holt and equally talented players who have been with the team (slightly) longer, like Dickerson.
While Morgan has been a slightly better defensive outfielder compared to Dickerson (21 runs saved above average in seven seasons compared to 10), chances are his injury and age would make them much more equivalent for the rest of the season. This whole discussion would seem unimportant, remarking on the preferred fourth outfielder, except with Bourn out more often than he is in, this is actually about the starting left fielder.
The Indians have used ten outfielders in 2014, but only two have played in more than 65 games, David Murphy and Michael Brantley. Bourn, who was supposed to be the starting center fielder, has played in just 65 and has vastly underwhelmed. Defensively, he is superior to only Murphy and Ryan Raburn among regular outfielders and his speed continues to deteriorate as he ages (the constant hamstring injuries can’t help either). On the base paths, Brantley, Dickerson and Morgan have combined to steal 18 bases and get caught once. Bourn, on the other hand, has only seven steals to three times caught and has been far more tentative in his base running. As a lead-off hitter, Bourn was not ideal either, swinging too early in counts and reaching base just 31% of the time. Jason Kipnis has replaced him in that role and it has helped revitalize the offense, so where Bourn will bat upon his return is yet to be seen.
Without Bourn in the lineup, however, things have been even more dismal. With injuries to Dickerson’s knee and Brantley possibly being worn out as well, the lack of outfield depth in the Indians system has been increasingly apparent. Mike Aviles, Nick Swisher and Ryan Raburn have seen much more time in the outfield than would be optimal of late, but there have been few other options. AAA outfielder, Tyler Holt, has spent some time with the team in multiple stints, but seems unready for the Majors, only receiving two plate appearances to this point.
Once Bourn returns (which should happen later this week), he will likely be thrust back into center and placed at the top of the lineup, but this may not be the best course of action. Nyjer Morgan made the team out of Spring Training initially because of Bourn’s hamstring injury and it has caused multiple DL stints since that have lead to more days off the roster than on. If he is placed in the same situation, it is hard to imagine the same thing not happening again. A more prudent way of easing him back into regular playing time could be to keep Brantley in center, where he has excelled by showing even better range than in left and using Bourn in left.
Offensively, the Indians aren’t so lucky. Terry Francona has experimented with numerous hitters in the two hole since the trade of Asdrubal Cabrera, including Jose Ramirez, Mike Aviles and David Murphy, but none have excelled. Upon his return, Bourn will immediately become the best option for that role. It is possible that Kipnis could be moved back to two and Bourn could hit lead-off as well, but either way, putting Bourn into a role where he will need to be aggressive and use his speed would likely be a mistake. Even without his speed, Bourn has the sixth best OPS among Indians regulars and is a valuable player with a bat, irrelevant of every other part of his game. Used in the middle of the lineup, Bourn could still be a valuable asset and possibly not push himself to the point where he will miss the rest of the season as well.