Francisco Lindor has been touted as the Cleveland Indians shortstop of the future ever since it took him eighth overall in the 2011 amateur draft.
The future will finally arrive at Progressive Field in 2015.
Recently ranked as the sixth-best prospect in the game by Baseball America, Lindor should give the Indians something the team hasn’t had since Omar Vizquel: an elite defensive shortstop. His glove is, and possibly has been for a while, major league ready. While his bat isn’t quite as potent, he has been more than serviceable in the minors and has shown the ability to make adjustments at every level. He projects to be an anchor defensively with the ability to hit at the top of the lineup.
There is still a possibility the Indians will call Lindor up next month to give him a taste of the big leagues before next year. Since sending shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera to the Washington Nationals in a deadline deal, the position has mostly been filled by Jose Ramirez, who is no slouch of a prospect himself. While he is only slashing .209/.261/.256 at the plate, his range defensively has been a breath of fresh air for Indians fans who have watched Cabrera kick dirt for the past eight years. He also runs considerably well, swiping 38 bags last season in AA. Still only 21 years old, Ramirez has plenty of time to develop as a hitter. If he continues to improve and take advantage of regular playing time this season, he will certainly be a useful piece for the Indians heading into 2015.
Mike Aviles has done a bit of everything for the Indians since coming over from the Toronto Blue Jays before the start of the 2013 season. So far this year, he has played 21 games at second base, 29 at third, 11 at shortstop, and 27 in the outfield. While many thought Aviles would be holding the “Lindoor” for Francisco after the Cabrera trade, he has only played three games at shortstop since Asdrubal left town. This is probably less of a knock on Aviles and more of a sign that Terry Francona thinks pretty highly of Ramirez. However, with the recent emergence of guys like Tyler Holt and Zach Walters in the outfield on top of Ramirez and the arrival of Lindor, we don’t know if the club will decide to pick up his $3.5 million option for next season.
Among all these question marks, one thing is for certain: Jason Kipnis will be back with the Indians next year and beyond. The club locked up Kipnis in April to the tune of $56 million over six years, with an option for the seventh year. An All-Star in 2013, this season has been a bit of a disappointment for the young second baseman. An oblique injury has clearly hurt his power as he is slugging a measly .351. He’s expanded his strike zone this year, swinging at about four percent more balls than in 2013. More of those balls he swings at are being put in play, too. His O-Contact% has risen from 58.6% last year to 64.2%. However he is still walking a decent amount with a 9.7 BB%. He’s hitting a good amount of line drives (22 LD%). And he’s still hurting teams on the base paths, as he is 17 for 19 in swiping bags. I’m perfectly fine with chalking up this year to Kipnis pressing after the injury began to affect his production. It’s pretty clear the Indians feel the same way and view him as a cornerstone for the club moving forward.
So what will the Tribe look like up the middle next season? Lindor, if the team is prepared to start him in the big leagues, will be locked in at short. That one is easy. Aviles, if he even comes back, would most likely return to his role as commander-in-chief of the Goon Squad. Kipnis will retain his position at second, leaving poor little Jose Ramirez as the odd man out, right?
Kipnis is, for good reason, a part of this team’s long-term plans. I’m not denying that one bit. But what if, what if we let him turn back the clock to his days at Arizona State? What if we saw what he could do with a glove an inch and a half bigger? What if the Cleveland Indians moved Jason Michael Kipnis to the outfield?
Stay with me here. A middle infield of Lindor and Ramirez would have more range than any duo in recent memory. Kipnis’ -9.8 UZR at second base this year is borderline horrific. That’s way above his career average, but even that at -5.8 is well below average. He played the outfield all throughout college and even during his first year with the organization in 2009. His speed, one of his best tools, would benefit him a lot more defensively in the outfield than it does at second base. And “core” players changing positions isn’t out of the question for Terry Francona, as evidenced by the Carlos Santana third base experiment earlier this year.
But where will the team put him? Michael Brantley is about as locked in as you can get in left field. Michael Bourn is getting paid too much money to not be in center when he’s healthy. And although he’s in the back-end of his career, he’s still not too far removed from being one of the better defensive centerfielders in baseball.
So that leaves right field. It has been David Murphy’s job for the majority of the year. Ryan Raburn has seen some time out there. Recently, Chris Dickerson, Zach Walters and Tyler Holt have been roaming the green grass in some capacity.
Murphy will be back, as he signed a two-year deal last winter. Raburn has a deal with the club through next year as well, although he is due much less money ($2.5 million) than Murphy ($6 million). Dickerson will be a free agent after this season and I’d be very surprised if the Tribe brought him back. Walters and Holt are probably a coin flip at this point whether they will start with the big-league club or in AAA Columbus in 2015.
Is Kipnis playing full-time in right field next year crazy? Maybe. But Murphy can find ABs when Bourn gets injured. Or if Ramirez needs rest and Kip moves back to the dirt. Or if Ramirez proves he’s nothing more than a utility man. The same goes for Walters, Holt or any other young buck Tito falls in love with in the spring.
I have no idea if it would work. But these are the types of things you can’t rule out when you’re a small market team. There were fans that thought Francona was crazy when he tried Santana at third base this past spring. I’m sure there are some who think moving Kipnis to the outfield would be crazy, too.
So crazy, it just might work.