I know we’re in a pennant race (can we still call it that, or is it a race to qualify for a tournament which may lead to a pennant?), but, being an Indians fan, my ingrained reflex around the middle of July is to start thinking about next year. Specifically, I started wondering which players are likely to be back. The Indians will be in a different position this offseason from prior years in that they will have an established major leaguer at every spot in the lineup, with some depth as well. That will enable them to make decisions from strength rather than having to make desperate moves to plug holes, which will be a different mindset for Chris Antonetti, so it will be interesting to see how he responds.
I believe the first two spots in the order will be filled by Michael Bourn and Jason Kipnis. Bourn is a no-brainer; he has little value anywhere else in the lineup and his baserunning and on base percentage play well at the top of the order. Kipnis has a skill set that is ideal for the two spot in the batting order. He can handle the bat to hit and run with Bourn, he can steal bases in front of the big guys, and he can drive the ball. A guy with some pop and speed batting second can just make the whole lineup dynamic, provided it doesn’t create a hole in one of the power spots.
I believe that Lonnie Chisenhall will emerge by the end of this season as someone capable of hitting in the middle of the order. His on-base percentage thus far doesn’t profile as a number three hitter, so he may end up fifth or sixth, but I think we will look on his grand slam last weekend as the moment when he made the transformation from prospect to core player.
Swisher is probably locked in as the cleanup hitter for the next three years. He likes being in a high-profile spot, and as long as he can get back to his normal career numbers he should fit well there. I think Swisher’s future is probably at first base. His shoulder issue feels like it may be a chronic thing, and he has been much better than I expected defensively at first. With Chisenhall and Kipnis, the infield looks like it will be a strength for the next few years.
Mark Reynolds’ salary is likely to be spent elsewhere. You won’t get a superstar for six million, but you should be able to get a bat that fits in the middle of the lineup without killing rallies. I don’t expect the Indians to be as aggressive about free agents this winter as they were last, because they are about at their ceiling for payroll, they are no longer as riddled with holes as they were, and they need to hold back some money to begin locking down guys like Kipnis.
I love Michael Brantley, but I really thought this year that he would become a bona-fide .300 hitter. It is beginning to look like what we are seeing right now is the ceiling for Brantley. He has definite value, and there is definite replacement right now, but he is getting to the point in his career when he will get expensive, and his stats don’t justify a huge salary for a corner outfielder. If including Brantley in a trade helps the Indians pick up an asset, it would not surprise me. There is some perverse logic in batting Brantley fifth. The most likely scenarios for his first at bat are leading off the second inning or coming up in the first with multiple men on base. Either way, his ability to make contact, which is rare on this team, is a positive.
I believe that Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes will alternate between catcher and designated hitter, which will free up a roster spot, so we may see a 14-man staff next year from Francona. God, I hope not. There are those who oppose playing the backup catcher at designated hitter because it would result in the pitcher batting if the starting catcher gets hurt. I don’t see this as a huge issue. Unless it happens in the first inning, you are looking at a couple of at bats, so you can pinch hit a couple of times and alleviate the damage. Speaking of that, does that rule really serve any purpose? If it’s a big worry you can keep a third catcher, but I think Francona would rather have another arm than a guy who would probably get fifty at bats. Put Santana and Gomes in the lineup at sixth and seventh.
I haven’t made up my mind on Drew Stubbs. I love the defense and the hustle, but I was expecting twenty home runs. He is still cheap for a starting major league outfielder, but the Indians may feel they can do better for the same money. I would expect them to delay this decision as long as possible. If there is a corner outfielder (or a first baseman, if they think Swisher can handle the outfield) on the market who can boost the offense without costing a bunch of money, I would expect Stubbs to be the odd man out. If they don’t see a move that can help, I don’t imagine they would see replacing Stubbs as an urgent need, unless his salary ends up significantly higher.
I think Asdrubel Cabrera will be gone this offseason, if not sooner. As frustrating as he can be, shortstops who can both hit and field competently are hugely valuable, and trading Cabrera is our best shot at acquiring a high-ceiling pitching prospect. With Aviles ready to hold down the fort until Lindor arrives and Cabrera a year away from free agency, they should trade him sooner rather than later to maximize the return. Speaking of Lindor, I get the feeling that the front office expects him to arrive in Cleveland sometime next year. Moving him to Akron this soon was way more aggressive than this front office usually is with prospects. That puts him on track to open next season in Columbus, but if he is not overmatched at the start of the year he may not be there long. He is already considered major-league quality on defense, so they can just hit him ninth and let him develop.
There you have it, your 2014 Cleveland Indians, defending American League champions. Sorry, I must have bumped my head.