Thursday, 16 March 2017

Taking Care Of Kipnis: 2B Options

When it was announced recently that Jason Kipnis was going to miss some time with a shoulder injury, fans started to worry. Not outright panic but cautious concern. Given Michael Brantley's shoulder struggles over the past couple of years, it's definitely understandable to be concerned. Kipnis will likely miss out on making the Opening Day lineup, and the Indians are doing the right thing protecting their All Star second baseman. Kipnis himself has said if this injury had occurred mid-season he could have probably played through the pain but it's better to make sure he's 100% before any long term damage can be done.

With that being said, Terry Francona and crew are already looking at their options to fill Kipnis' boots on Opening Day, and I am going to do the same thing. Let's take a look at some of the guys the Tribe can send out there:

Jose Ramirez


Considered by most to be the clear favourite to take Kipnis' place, Ramirez could slide over from his home at third base with relative ease. The versatile 24 year-old has spent time in many different positions and shown he can fill in adequately all over the infield, so second base is no stranger to him.

There is some hesitation on Francona's part however: "I think our first choice is not to (move him to second), but we'll see," the skipper said. After a few years as the Indians' utility man, Ramirez seemed to have found a nice home for himself at third base so I understand why the club are unwilling to shift him around again, especially off the back of a superb 2016 performance. In a perfect world Ramirez could use 2017 to really make third base his own but he's also the best option where this particular problem is concerned.


If Ramirez is chosen to replace Kipnis then it leaves a hole at third base. Thankfully this is a position where the Indians have some depth. Giovanny Urshela is my choice to fill Ramirez's spot and it could be a great opportunity for the 25 year-old Colombian to showcase his skills. We've seen in the past what a defensive wizard he is at the hot corner but his bat has always held him back from sticking in the bigs full time. Urshela has only appeared in 9 games for the Indians so far this spring but has hit well (he's spent the rest of the spring with the Colombian team at the WBC). He spent all of 2016 at Triple-A Columbus and had a decent year, slashing .274/.294/.380 (BA/OBP/SLG) with 8 home runs and 57 RBI over 117 games for the Clippers. I'm a huge Urshela fan and would love to see him have an impact with the club this season, so seeing him feature early on would be a plus.

The other candidate to fill in at third would be Yandy Diaz, who I wrote about recently. Diaz has been limited this spring with a right groin issue (just 8 appearances), which has likely hindered his chances to crack the Opening Day roster. I'm excited about Diaz's future in Cleveland but he's almost certain to start 2017 with Columbus, given he has no major league experience. It would be a big test for the rookie to chuck him in the deep end on Opening Day, whereas Urshela has been tried and tested.

Erik Gonzalez, Michael Martinez, Ronny Rodriguez

This trio from the Dominican Republic are Ramirez's closest competition for the second base spot. If Francona is truly against moving Ramirez from third base then one of these guys will likely be partnering Francisco Lindor on Opening Day.

So far all three of these gentlemen have seen about the same amount of action thus far this spring but let's take a look at them individually.


Erik Gonzalez is probably the best option to spell Kipnis until the All Star is ready to return, plus he's already on the 40-man roster, unlike Martinez and Rodriguez. Cleveland's number 8 prospect saw some time in the majors last year, although he only had two starts over a 21 game span where he was almost always used to pinch hit/run in the late innings. In his limited time at the plate he didn't hit well but then I wouldn't have expected him to given how rarely he got the opportunity. Down in Columbus however he was much more productive, slashing .296/.329/.450 with 11 home runs and 53 RBI, good enough for a 122 WRC+. Gonzalez is a natural shortstop but his path to the majors will be blocked for many years to come by Francisco Lindor. Second base is going to be Gonzalez's best opportunity to show off his abilities because if the Indians don't have a future place for him, somebody else will and they'll be willing to trade. If the young infielder is given the chance to play well and put himself in the shop window, then that will only serve to benefit both himself and the club. Gonzalez is certainly a safe choice if Kipnis isn't expected to miss significant time, and he can easily be optioned back to Columbus.


Michael Martinez is the veteran option and you pretty much know what you're going to get where he's concerned. The 34 year-old has spent 6 years in the majors and is now on his second stint with the Tribe. Francona has always supported Martinez, despite the player having his many detractors, and trusts him in late inning situations. He's a career .197 switch-hitter and most often suited to a bench role, but his versatility in the field makes him useful in a crisis. I would argue that the Indians have better options than Martinez and despite his usefulness, the club should be looking to move forward without him.


Ronny Rodriguez is the wildcard in this pack. He, like Martinez, is also of the utility infielder category but I just can't envision Francona opting for Rodriguez as his starting second baseman over the other options he has at his disposal. As Rodriguez is the least experienced of this trio, his chances of filling in for Kipnis are slim at best.

---------------------------------------

Ultimately the Indians and their fans will be hoping Kipnis' absence is brief and his replacement just a temporary visitor at second base. If he has to miss some time, even if just for a few weeks, I'd be much more comfortable with Ramirez covering for him, and Urshela being given a chance at third base. If Francona doesn't want to unsettle Ramirez on the corner, then I'd like to see Gonzalez be given a chance as an everyday player. He certainly looks the best option, at least defensively, and will likely emerge victorious from his battle with his compatriots.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Center Of Attention: A Discussion

For the first year in a long time the Indians' roster is fairly settled across the board heading into spring training. The lineup is strong and the pitching is top notch but there is always room for improvement. One particular area of uncertainly is in center field; with Michael Brantley penciled in left field (once healthy) and the effective platoon partnership of Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer in right field, it's the men in the middle who currently present the outfield's biggest question mark. In this post I'm going to have a look at the Indians' current options ahead of the 2017 season.

The Current Crop


Currently atop the center field depth chart sits Tyler Naquin. The 25 year-old finished third on the AL Rookie of the Year ballot last season after exploding onto the scene during spring training. Naquin took his opportunity last spring and ran with it; he played in 116 games and batted .296/.372/.514 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 14 home runs, culminating in an impressive 135 WRC+ and 2.5 WAR. Naquin was especially effective against right handed pitchers and slashed .301/.372/.526 in 289 at-bats (in fact he only faced a lefty 32 times). Not too shabby for a rookie and he'll be forever remembered for that unforgettable inside-the-park homer against the Jays. If he goes on to have a Hall of Fame career in Cleveland, you can already picture that fist pump immortalised as a statue.

Yet despite Naquin's prowess at the plate (and my wishful thinking), his defensive abilities leave something to be desired. This was noticeably obvious in Game 6 of the World Series but Naquin's flaws in the field were evident throughout the regular season as well. According to Fangraphs, Naquin graded as the second worst defensive center fielder in the majors with a -17 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). Now I don't entirely trust defensive metrics as I feel action in the field, especially somewhere so open like the outfield, can be hard to quantify with accuracy, but the numbers don't make for pretty reading. Even the casual fans among us noticed that his routes to the ball were rather, err, wobbly all season. Even so, he rarely looked like a complete novice out there, despite what the numbers would indicate. When you weigh up the pros and cons, overall I felt that Naquin's bat compensated for his mistakes in the field.


Naquin's closest rival is Abraham Almonte, who this time last year was the clear favorite to play center field on Opening Day. That was before it emerged Almonte had violated the MLB Drug Policy and was suspended for 80 games, paving the way for Naquin's emergence. Almonte returned to the team on July 3rd and played in 67 games, slashing .264/.294/401 over that span and played solid defense. He had a decent stretch as a starter in August and September but was eventually relegated to a pinch hitting role as the regular season came to an end, due to his postseason ineligibility.

Unless Naquin struggles right out of the gate (he was looking more and more susceptible to high fastballs as 2016 progressed) and Almonte gets off to a fast start, I can't see the 27 year-old Dominican becoming the permanent center fielder for a while. He'll likely platoon with Naquin and probably play some left field until Brantley is ready to take over full time again. I grew to really like Almonte in 2015 when his addition to the club jolted the team to life but his 2016 suspension left a sour taste in the mouth, even if it turns out he was innocent. Almonte will be hoping for a lot of reps this spring so he can stake a claim for center field but I can't see Naquin regressing to such an extent that he's not gonna be the everyday guy out there to start 2017.

The Outsiders


Naquin and Almonte should feel pretty secure in their jobs but they will face some outside competition this spring; some men will have their eyes on that center field spot whereas other will satisfy themselves with a place on the roster.

Austin Jackson signed a minor league deal with the Tribe just prior to his 30th birthday and the veteran outfielder will be hoping for a late present, a spot on the Opening Day roster wrapped in a box with a bow on top. Jackson only managed 54 appearances in 2016, thanks to a left knee injury that ruled him out of action from June onward. He's a career .272 hitter and has primarily featured in center field during that time. I think Jackson could be a very useful addition to the team. He'll start the spring with a point to prove, to show the league he can still be a productive everyday player for a top ballclub. He certainly lends some much needed depth to the outfield at the very least but he'll likely need an injury from a rival or a drop in performance to firmly earn his place.

As it currently stands the only other outfielder on a minor league contract with hopes of making the team is Daniel Robertson (unless Wily Mo Pena wants to return to center field!). The 31 year-old journeyman outfielder has primarily featured in left field so won't realistically be expected to figure much in center. Robertson played in just 9 games last year for the Mariners in 2016 but had a decent season at AAA Tacoma. With all of the Indians' other outfield options, I don't see Robertson featuring for the Indians on Opening Day and unless injury strikes, I don't imagine we'll see him figure at all in 2017.

The Prospects


Last but not least we come to the prospects. These guys have been cooking nicely down on the farm but are they ready for a big league job?

The honest answer is no, they probably are not. The top dog for the center field job is Bradley Zimmer, who has been developing nicely in recent years. I've already covered Zimmer and his chances of making the team in part two of my spring wishlist, which you can read here. I think Zimmer will need a bit more maturing in Columbus this year before he's fully prepped for the show. A September call-up should be his goal in 2017, although a nice showing this spring wouldn't hurt his chances.

Greg Allen is the Tribe's dark horse to take over center field in the next year or so and the young speedster received a spring training invite for his sterling work in the minors last season. The 6th round pick from the 2014 MLB draft announced himself in a big way in 2016, leading all of minor league baseball in runs with 119. That's completely insane considering he has yet to reach the AAA level. The switch-hitting 23 year-old began the year at A+ Lynchburg before getting a promotion to AA Akron in late July but his performance didn't suffer at all. Between the two leagues he slashed .295/.416/.413 with 7 home runs, 44 RBI and 45 stolen bases (the highest in the Indians' entire system). You may as well call him Barry Allen as he's so frickin' fast on the basepaths.


Allen had 77 walks to 78 strikeouts, a fantastic ratio and the polar opposite to Zimmer (77 walks to 171 strikeouts). So far in his career Allen has displayed all the attributes of a perfect leadoff hitter. He plays a superb center field too, collecting the 2016 MiLB Gold Glove award for that position, an impressive feat given Rawlings only award this to one guy in the entire minor leagues. Overall I think the dude is a surefire stud and fans should be paying attention to Allen in 2017. He'll likely start the year in Akron but don't be surprised if he gets promoted to Columbus sooner rather than later. Here's hoping we get to see a September cameo from him before the season concludes.

The final center field prospect is Yandy Diaz but realistically he's unlikely to compete for that position this year, if ever. I took a look at Diaz when I analysed Zimmer and despite how versatile and effective Diaz has been throughout his career thus far, his time in center has been limited. He played all of 2 innings there in Columbus, the first time he's featured in center in his professional career. Whilst I think Diaz may have a future in the outfield ahead of him, it's more than likely going to be in the corners.

--------------------------------------

Who do you think will claim the center field mantle in 2017? Can Naquin rediscover his early 2016 form and fend off the future advances of prospects like Zimmer and Allen? Or will Almonte and the other veterans elevate themselves during the spring and force their way into Francona's plans? Or could the position feature a revolving door of candidates, rotating in and out of center field depending on whether they're hot or cold?

Whatever happens the center field position should be a topic of conversation all year long.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 13 February 2017

2017 Spring Training Wishlist: Part 3

Here we are, at the third and final part of my look at the Indians ahead of Spring Training, and what I want to see from them before the 2017 season begins.

In this installment I'll look at the pitching staff, an area of real strength for the Indians in recent years.

Bullpen Just Got Better


When you have a guy like Andrew Miller in your pen, then you're already looking pretty good. But when you add a proven arm like Boone Logan, then things are looking downright unfair for opposition hitters. Pair those guys with the likes of Cody Allen, Dan Otero and Bryan Shaw, and you've got the makings of an elite bullpen.

When the Indians confirmed the signing of Logan on 7th February to a 1 year deal rumored to be worth $5.5 million, the team upgraded in a big way. Logan has a superb record against left handers, with lefties batting just .139 against him in 2016, with a brilliant .222 on-base percentage too. And this is from a guy who pitched in Colorado, a notorious hitter's haven with that mile-high air they have. With Miller planning to pitch in the World Baseball Classic, we might see Logan used a bit more this spring, although I'd rather he be saved for the season ahead ideally.

Ultimately there isn't a lot of competition in the bullpen this spring, not for key contributors at least. A couple of fringe pitchers will be hoping to catch on with the team when they fly to Texas for Opening Day. Guys like Zach McAllister, Ryan Merritt, Nicky Goody, Shawn Armstrong and Carlos Frias (plus a few more) will be battling it out for the final spot or two, depending on how many arms Francona wants to break camp with. Despite Merritt's postseason heroics I think the skipper will opt for the veteran McAllister, provided Zach doesn't self-destruct in Arizona, plus he's just been paid handsomely by avoiding arbitration. However I would like to see Merritt in particular have a great spring, as I'm keen to see him pitch some meaningful innings this season. Start and you mean to go on and all that.

Rotation: Steady As A Rock


The Indians return the entirety of their rotation for 2017 and there's not going to be a great deal of competition here, provided everyone stays healthy. The group is led by ace Corey Kluber, who narrowly missed out on winning the 2016 AL Cy Young award. Kluber had a stellar season, pitching 215 innings over 32 starts to a 3.14 ERA for an AL leading 149 ERA+ and 3.26 FIP.

Kluber is flanked by Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, both exciting and valuable pitchers who suffered from health issues in 2016, yet still provided meaningful innings. They'll both be out to prove their health and abilities are back to 100%.

Backing up the rotation are current incumbents Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin, who had decent if not spectacular campaigns last year. Despite Bauer's notorious drone issues (and dubious political views), he actually had a solid 2016; his walks were down to a career low 3.32 BB/9, a nice trend for any pitcher to continue going forward, and his groundball rate increased to 48,7%, which was nice to see from Bauer considering his past history of giving up homers. Tomlin had a very impressive start to 2016, going undefeated until the end of May, but when the dog days of summer took hold Tomlin fell off a cliff; he lost 5 straight in August and his ERA and home runs rocketed.


The challengers to Bauer and Tomlin are likely to be Mike Clevinger, Cody Anderson and Ryan Merritt. I rate Clevinger a lot and would really enjoy seeing him push for a spot in the rotation. The 26 year-old Jacksonville native had mixed results in Cleveland last year, compiling a 5.26 ERA in 17 appearances, 10 of which were starts. He found a lot more success in Columbus, with a 3.00 ERA in 17 starts, with an 11-1 record over that span. A hot spring in 2017 would earn him another look at cracking the big league roster but he'll have to be lights-out to get there.

Whereas Anderson is very much on the outside looking in. This time last year he was a shoe-in for a rotation spot after a breakout 2015 campaign (3.05 ERA in 15 starts, for a 141 ERA+). However a sub-par 2016 followed and now his future looks cloudy. Is he better off aiming for a bullpen spot or biding his time in Columbus as a starter? Anderson had off-season elbow surgery so hopefully he's put his 2016 demons to rest and he can return to that 2015 form that made him so effective. He'll need some impressive spring showings to prove his best days are still ahead of him.

I've mentioned Merritt before but honestly I don't see him making the rotation until later in the year, even if he has a quality spring. Ideally he can impress over the next couple of months and turn that momentum into a June/July call-up with an aim to stick around permanently.

----------------------------------------------

That's a wrap, and just in time too as pitchers and catchers reported yesterday, the first sign that baseball is officially back. We've got just under 2 months of exhibition baseball to enjoy/endure before the Indians start their work for real. It's a pleasure to have them back.

Thanks for reading.


Friday, 3 February 2017

2017 Spring Training Wishlist: Part 2

Welcome back to part two of my Indians' Spring Training wishlist, where I have a gander at what's going on for our Cleveland club in Arizona this spring. In this installment, we'll look at a couple of the team's top prospects and what I'd like to see from them going forward.

Bradley Zimmer



Zimmer is currently considered by most to be the Indians' number one prospect (although catcher Francisco Mejia is running him close), and was recently deemed so by ESPN's Keith Law, coming in at number 22 on his top 100 list (ahead of Mejia, at number 40). Drafted 21st overall in the 2014 MLB Draft, the 24 year-old center fielder has steadily progressed up the minor league ladder, impressing at every level with his slugging prowess and base stealing ability. He also projects as an above-average defender in one of the hardest positions on the field, and could potentially stick in center for many years to come. Zimmer is at the stage in his development where he's very close to a call-up to the show, and now he's earned a big league invite to Spring Training for the first time in his career.

I've read and heard a lot of hype surrounding Zimmer so I'm excited to see what he might bring to the team, even in meaningless spring exhibition games. It's this time of year fans starting projecting their dreams onto prospects just like Zimmer and it's in the land of "what-if" where we get carried away.

Zimmer spent 2016 between AA Akron and AAA Columbus, with the majority of his time being in Akron. Between the two levels Zimmer hit .250/.365/.425 (BA/OBP/SLG) with 15 home runs, 62 RBI, 77 walks, and an impressive 38 stolen bases. By all accounts Zimmer is considered to be on the right path to being a successful big league player for the Indians.

However as Zimmer has risen through each level, so have his strikeouts. It's a somewhat worrying trend, even in an age where many major leaguers can strike out a lot and still be important contributors to their club. After his promotion to AAA Columbus, Zimmer's strikeout rate topped out at 37.3% (per Fangraphs) and his long swing, despite producing good power, is missing way too often for most fan's liking. It's a concern for sure; if Zimmer is whiffing this much in the minor leagues, what chance does he stand against major league arms?

I hope to see him play well this spring but I don't realistically expect him to make the Opening Day roster. With Tyler Naquin, Abraham Almonte, Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer all currently on the active roster, and Michael Brantley's return on the horizon as well, there won't be much room for Zimmer anyway. I'll be content to see some flashes of brilliance but ultimately find his way back to Columbus. I think a full season at AAA could work wonders, and hopefully help to iron out his strikeout issues.

Yandy Diaz



25 year-old Diaz is another prospect with an invite to Spring Training. The 2016 International League Rookie of the Year spent time at AA Akron and AAA Columbus, slashing a combined .318/.408/.446 between the two levels. Diaz was such a revelation that he was even considered for promotion to the Indians last September. He continued his remarkable form over the winter, hitting .371 in 40 games in Venezuela.

The young Cuban has rocketed through the minor leagues since his acquisition in late 2013. It's extraordinary that in just a couple of years he's climbed so high in such a short space of time.

Diaz has an opportunity to find his way onto the Opening Day roster via a similar route that Jose Ramirez took only a few years ago. Like the versatile Ramirez, Diaz can play a multitude of positions. In 2016 alone he played five different positions between the infield and outfield, seeing action at 2B, 3B, LF, RF and CF. This diversity will serve him well in the short term, although I'd prefer to see him stick to an infield spot in the coming years, although he could wind up in a corner outfield position too.

An area where Diaz really shines over his fellow prospects is his great eye at the plate, with 71 walks compared to 86 strikeouts in 2016, and 198 walks to 191 strikeouts for his entire career thus far, an impressive ratio. He's yet to develop much power but I feel his plate discipline and overall ability to create contact more than make up for that.

Ultimately, depending on his spring performance, I'd like to see Diaz given a shot and make the Opening Day roster. I know Francona has a thing for Michael Martinez as his utility guy but I just feel Diaz has the potential to offer so much more. He can spot the corner outfielders if injuries strike or poor performances necessitate a change, and if Kipnis needs a day off at second base then Ramirez can cover there and Diaz can play third. Of course there is a case to be made that Diaz would be better off receiving regular playing time in Columbus rather than sitting on the bench in Cleveland but honestly, after such a great 2016, what does he have left to prove there?

Whatever happens down the road, I'm eager to see Diaz in action in Arizona.

--------------------------------------

That's a wrap on part two. I'll be back soon with the third part, where I'll be focusing on the Indians' pitching staff.

Thanks for reading.