With the way the Cleveland Indians have assembled their pitching staff for the 2012 campaign, it’s going to be a busy time for the infielders at Progressive Field this summer. With Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Derek Lowe,
Fausto Carmona Roberto Hernandez (eventually) and Jeanmar Gomez on the hill, this group of hurlers is going to throw groundballs early and often.
The Tribe’s season is going to hinge on run prevention, and with this rotation the makeup of the infield is key. Putting offense aside, how would the Indians set up their defense to best support their worm-burning pitchers?
First base is set with Casey Kotchman. He was one of the Tribe’s biggest acquisitions this winter, but really he’s just a replacement for the failed Matt LaPorta experiment. Offensively he had a career year for Tampa Bay in 2011 (128 OPS+), but that’s not how he makes his living. Kotchman is known for being very good with the glove and is generally regarded as a top-tier defensive first baseman who makes life easier for everyone else around the diamond. His career 30.9 UZR is simply wonderful for a first baseman, and that the defense-conscious Rays picked him up last year is another testament to his solid defense.
Clustered around the keystone, your starters are Jason Kipnis at second base and Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop. Neither rates well according to advanced defensive metrics: UZR had Cabrera at 11.8 runs below the average shortstop in 1,326 ⅔ innings in 2011 while putting Kipnis at -5.6 runs worse than the average second baseman in just 305 innings. One season is not a reliable sample size for UZR and Kipnis definitely didn’t get enough action for his score to be significant, but both ratings seem to mesh with the general consensus of their defensive deftness.
Kipnis’ biggest problem is a converted outfielder who is still learning how to play second base—remember, it took quite a while for him to earn a promotion last season as the team wanted him to work on his defense. He has the obvious drive to be good in the field and at the plate. His manager described him as a “dirt dog” (in baseball that’s actually a compliment). The problem is he just hasn’t had the reps that it takes to be comfortable at a position in baseball. He’s still thinking too much, we’ve seen it with bobbling balls, short-arming throws and screwing up double plays. He should improve with experience, but until he does his glove is a real weakness.
For now, though, the Tribe’s best defensive second baseman is not Kipnis but Jason Donald, who earned a spot on the team as a utility infielder out of spring training. He’s far from a Gold Glover (whatever that means, considering how many Derek Jeter has won) but he’s not as bad as Kipnis. We haven’t seen enough of him to get a clear read on his fielding ability, but at the very least Donald has spent his career as an infielder so he’s got a better idea of how the ball looks coming off the bat from that distance. Hopefully he won’t have that advntage for too much longer, but Kipnis gains some more experience he’s the best chance the Indians have to playing mistake-free defense at second. If only he could actually give some valuable offense—but you can’t have everything.
Cabrera showed up on ESPN’s “Web Gems” as often as anyone, and made their “Top Plays” lists with even greater frequency. To someone who watches only the highlights he looks like the next Ozzie Smith, but the reality is not quite as flattering. He makes the flashy plays, but his range is an issue and he struggles with some of what should be the more routine plays.
Realistically there is no other option at shortstop on the Indians, at least until Francisco Lindor develops. He projects as a defensive wunderkind which would be a welcome change from Cabrera’s inconsisteny, but he’s also 19, so who knows when we’ll see him in the majors. Scouting reports say he has a cannon of an arm that will get even better, great footwork and quick hands. Some of this is scoutspeak, but it all suggests a talented young man who could be a fine defensive player.
Finally, third baseman Jack Hannahan is the best defender on the entire roster. There is no measurement that comes up negative for Hannahan. The eye test shows you a guy that makes every play. He may not have Alex Rodriguez‘s arm, but he has more than enough zest to get the ball across the diamond to complement his phenomenal range. His career UZR/150 at third is 13.1. He’s dazzling to watch and with him at the hot corner Cabrera’s workload is lighter. With Kotchman across from him to dig out any errant throws it will be another year chock-full of highlights and dirty uniforms.
The defensive questions up the middle make it worth questioning whether the Indians are focusing on the right things in building their roster. The front office is seen as one of the most progressive in the game, and considering the team’s financial resources they have to squeeze every bit of win out of every player. Obviously Cabrera and Kipnis will start—they’re key parts of the offense and the best overall options we have up the middle. But considering that the pitching staff induces so many ground balls one wonders why the Indians haven’t built more around defense.