The Cleveland Indians have caught a lot of flack the last couple years over their development of quality players through the minor league system. It’s somewhat warranted, with guys like Andy Marte and Trevor Crowe as well as highly drafted pitching prospects like David Huff and Jeremy Sowers, among others, never panning out. The nonexistent pipeline hamstrung a team on a budget and forced a brutal rebuild period the past couple of years which they’re only now getting out of.
Interestingly though, two of the major pieces of the Tribe’s reemergence come because of that same developmental structure. Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, the best two players on the Indians this year, are both converted outfielders (Santana also played third) who have been moved to two of the most premium defensive positions on the diamond, second base and catcher respectively. And as a bonus, they’re shining.
Perhaps I’m caught up in hyperbole, at least in Santana’s case. It can happen, he’s pretty cool and so is Kipnis. Realistically Carlos has been, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Paul Hoynes called him earlier this year, a work in progress. His numbers haven’t been good, nailing 24% and 26% of base stealers in 2011 and 2012 and only 11% thus far this year. He also led the league in passed balls last season and his pitch framing leaves something to be desired. We all know we’re not getting Jose Molina behind the plate, but you have to think it doesn’t do his pitchers any favors.
I’ve seen several occasions where he actually pulled the ball out of the strike zone the last couple years and Fangraph’s Jeff Sullivan touched on this deficiency in a piece about Justin Masterson. They say Molina is good for saving 50 runs on pitch framing which might be a little high, but those borderline calls can lead to five or six extra strikes on a good night. That can swing a game depending on when they happen. It’s Santana’s greatest weakness and one that’s workable. I’d hope. Santana does have a cannon of an arm which does help him cover mechanical kinks as he continues to develop his running game defense, but check out Molina. As good as his framing ability is, that’s just otherworldly.
Having said all that, he’s night and day from when he first plopped down behind the dish. He admitted he was shy at first, not talking to his pitchers very much simply because he didn’t have the grip on the English language yet. Not so anymore. He doesn’t pretend to be Jorge Posada, striding out there every third batter it seems, but he does stay on the same page. Plus he’s smart, and it shows. Just look to a game earlier in the year - April 23rd against the Sox with men on first and second, he realized with Alejandro De Aza up they were going to bunt. The man on second gave it away with an extra large lead and when Justin Masterson dealt a ball he gunned it to second, nailing the Sox baserunner. It turned the tide of the game and De Aza grounded into a twin killing, leading to an Indians victory. Santana saw all this, made the move on his own, and it paid off.
He’ll never be Sandy Alomar, but he’s probably better behind the dish than Victor Martinez ever was, and Sandy is there to teach him the finer points of catching even if he doesn’t pick it all up. Combine teachings from one of the best ever with his intelligence and growing comfort behind the plate, his highly underrated athleticism AND his fearlessness out there, he’s going to be just fine. Plus he’s built like a fire hydrant, perhaps the greatest key to his success.
As for Jason Kipnis, he’s more than just a slightly below average defender like Santana is. Converted from the outfield, he still looks mechanical out there at times but just look to that slick behind the back toss to Asdrubal Cabrera earlier this year – he knows what he’s doing now.
A big piece of being a good second baseman is comfort with your shortstop and he’s got that, but his range is very good, he’s got speed and last year he was actually a positive impact, 2.1 UZR/150. Granted, it’s dove to -7.2 this year and he’s already committed seven errors this year compared to six all last season, but the way to spin that positively is that he’s grown comfortable with what he’d been doing and is pushing himself. That’s probably bullplop but if you eye test Kipnis you come away satisfied if not excited. He’s no Dustin Pedroia but he gets it done and if nothing else he won’t lose the game you, too often at least. Besides, positivity has gotten us all through some tough times with this team.
Amid their struggles to become better at such difficult positions, both players have excelled with the bat. So much so that each is in the conversation for top five, maybe even three in the league at their position despite defensive growing pains. Considering neither played that position until a couple years ago, that’s incredible. It’s a pointless thing to say, but if either of them were in New York or some other land of media hounds they’d be superduper stars. Shoot, Russell Martin was a hero while he was in New York, and Posada, a lump of wood behind the plate, would be a Hall of Famer if the Post and Daily News were the arbiters.
We’ll have to wait and see whether Kipnis and Santana’s success at their new positions is something organizational or simply because of their new work ethic. If more guys start popping up in the system that are way better than they were supposed to be or young guys like Clint Frazier who have to be transitioned to a new position to to succeed at the highest level, we’ll know the Indians are doing something right. The developmental process is shrouded in mystery for fans, so we just have to watch and hope. For right now though, they’ve done something right.