Sunday, March 25, 2012

The real deal on the Indians' starting lineup: The Infield

Lonnie Chisenhall (photo: IPI)
The Indians are set to break camp in less than two weeks, and there's been a lot of speculation with regards to the Indians' roster heading north. Sure, there are many that are looking at numbers alone during spring training, and perhaps even combining it with the number of options that some players may have. There are others that are focusing on last year's numbers, and taking into account how much money some of these guys are scheduled to make. Then you throw in the "potential" of some guys that we have been following as "the next chosen ones" at certain positions (eh hem...third and second). Don't forget the Grady Sizemore bandwagon, that is the new name for the Tribe's DL, and you have the mish-mosh that is with regards to who is playing where.

The truth in all these decision likely lies in the middle of all of this baseball stew, and at the end of the day, most of the players that I'll be bantering about with today will find their way into Cleveland at one point or another thanks to injuries, major slumps or minor league explosions. While who makes it on the diamond on opening day isn't really a major concern with me, it's always fun to take a look at the potential of what could be (even though we know that it won't, but likely eventually will).

So without further ado, here are my Tribe starters for 2012, and reality be damned.

Today we're looking at the infielders....

First Base: The Indians didn't take Casey Kotchman by accident. Kotchman was an explosive minor league player for the Angels from 2001-2004, and was considered their top prospect during the 2003 and 2004 seasons. He was also in their top five the two years prior to that. While the big lefty never really matched those numbers in Anaheim, Atlanta, Boston or Seattle, he did manage to garner a bit of a break-out year last season. We all know the numbers by now. He hit a solid .306, with ten homers, 48 RBI, while walking 48 times, and only striking out in 66 at bats. Even better, Kotchman only committed only two errors in the field, and his .998 fielding percentage at first base was first in the league. To even try and compare him to Matt LaPorta would be a disservice of massive proportions.

So, who will Kotchman be this year? Well, the starting first baseman, for one. He's had a respectable spring, batting .308, with two doubles and an RBI. No, we aren't talking about Prince Fielder here, or even Cecil Fielder for that matter, but we are looking at a rather sizable improvement over Matthew LaPorta, who's a bigger bust than CC Sabathia's waist size. Kotchman would have to lose his arms to not be starting at first base for the Tribe. Russell Branyan he is not. This kid can play, and I firmly expect him to be a major bonus with the Indians this year. It was a fantastic signing, and I'm glad he fell to us.

Backing Kotchman up this year will be Carlos Santana. Santana will be spending most of his time behind the plate, but will no doubt be spelling Kotchman on occasion against left-handed hitters. This won't be a regular occurrence, but with Lou Marson knocking on the door for playing time, it will happen more than I'd likely want it to. Santana hit .238 at first (compared to .242 as a catcher) last season, in 65 games. He clearly hits lefties better, however, so his numbers should take a bit of a jump at the position, as he'll likely be focusing his playing time at first to that side of the plate. No way he gets 65 starts there this year however. I'd be surprised if he gets half of that. Of course, you can never take into account injuries.

Second Base: Jason Kipnis is the guy here, and there should be no surprise with that statement. Many had Lonnie Chisenhall higher on the list of potential than Kipnis, and perhaps rightly so. I never saw it that way. Kipnis knows how to hit, and he did so at every level of the minors in his quick rise through the system. I was a firm believer that Kipnis should have either broke camp with the Indians last year, or not made it to June before getting the call up.

Kipnis wasn't called up until the end of July, and while I could complain about that, the Tribe was first place with Orlando Cabrera at second during the first half of the season, so you could make a case that the Indians decision to keep him in Columbus to learn second base was a sound one. I say it's garbage. He should have found his way to the roster much earlier than that.

Kipnis has a tendency to be an above average offensive player most of the time, who occasionally goes on offensive tears of massive proportions. He showed this off last summer with a prodigious August, that saw Kipper hit five homers and nine RBI, while batting a hefty .348. This included a streak of four games in a row with a homer, and a game in which he went 5-for-5. His average on the last day of July was .136. His average on the day he got injured was .279. Those are typical streaks for Kipnis, and when he's feeling comfortable, look out. No, he's no Roberto Alomar with the glove, but he has range, and can be a perfectly adequate fielder. As it stands, he's the one "hole" in the Tribe's defense as it will likely head to Cleveland.

Jason Donald should find himself as the primary infield back-up, and will be the "first man in" should any of the middle infielders go down. Donald is a nice little ballplayer, who really does excel as a second baseman. He hit .318 with the Tribe last season, and while it was only as a bit player, he could be one of the best utility guys in the league. I wouldn't be shocked if Donald found himself starting this year, albeit for another organization. He may be one of the Indians top commodities going forward.

Third Base: Thank you so much, Jack Hannahan, for your fantastic 2011 season. Your glove was sublime, and you even provided the Tribe with some solid offense for much of the season! You bought the Indians a year to help Lonnie Chisenhall get ready for his prime time debut. Sure, he made it last season, but we all knew that opening day, 2012 was his for the taking.

The Cleveland Indians starter at third base, SHOULD BE Lonnie Chisenhall...period. I could sit here all day long and throw numbers at you that showcase this, but c'mon. Do I have to...really? I'll never forget the day I was sitting in the stands at Kinston watching Chiz, sitting behind a couple of scouts in the stands. As Chisenhall was busy going 3-for-4, with a homer and two doubles, these two guys couldn't help but salivate over him. "This kid reminds me a lot of Longoria. He's going to be the centerpiece for a long time." While the other scout didn't agree with the haughty Longoria predictions, he did throw out a name that I liked a lot. "Nah, Longoria may be the best third baseman in the majors. I see him as more of a Scott Rolen, with a bit less glove."

Hmmm...Longoria or Rolen...not a bad choice at all.

Now, I have my own opinions about Chisenhall, and while I'm not one to compare, I'd say that Chisenhall is going to be a nice little ballplayer for the Indians over the next several years. Should his time start now? Folks, the guy in front of him is flippin' Jack Hannahan. Now, nothing against the guy, but if you would have told me that Hannahan was going to keep Chisenhall from the line-up in 2012, I'd have laughed you off the planet. I'm sick of the "seasoning" defense, and sorry, his struggles this spring aren't enough to keep the chosen one at third off the field for Jack Hannahan.

Lonnie's the starter, period. Sorry Captain Jack, but your time as a regular starter are done here. It's time for you to acquire the role that you should have for any a back-up. Whatever the deal is on opening day, and I have to believe that Hannahan is going to be the starter, Chisenhall will be starting by May. If he's not, the Indians' management will prove, once again, to have their heads so far up their asses in the clouds, that they can't see the writing on the wall.

By the way, both players are hitting like garbage this spring, with Chisenhall hitting .227, to Hannahan's .222. Who do YOU think will eventually find his stroke? Sure, I want the Indians infield to be the best in the bigs defensively with this ground-ball inducing group starting. But, at the same time, I would have to believe that scoring more runs would play a part in this as well. We shall see.

Shortstop:  This is the easy position with which we speak. Asdrubal Cabrera is the starter here, plain and simple. Last season, Cabrera reminded everyone just what he was capable of both offensively and defensively. No, he's not Omar Vizquel, who is, but he certainly has the ability to be a special defensive player at shortstop. Combine that with a break-out campaign at the dish, and you have the makings of the Indians' version of Derek Jeter (well, until the Yankees sign him when he becomes a free agent, and he becomes the Yankees' version of Derek Jeter).

Cabrera belted 25 homers, and drove in 92 RBI last year, while hitting .273. He made the all-star team, and even garnered some votes for MVP. While he finished 20th in the voting, I think you'd find it hard-pressed to find 19 players that were more important on his team than Cabrera was to the Indians.

Now, the reality of the situation is that ACab really struggled during the second half of the season. Some folks say it's because he wasn't in as good of shape as he could have been, and others would say he played down to where he should be as a player. I'm not sure that I agree with the latter, so you do have to wonder about Cabrera's shape, especially considering the state in which he came into camp.

Cabrera is playing like dogcrap offensively this spring, and while many are worried about him going foward, I'm not. No, I don't think that we are going to get a .320 hitter, with 30 homers and 100 RBI, but I would be shocked if Cabrera doesn't come through with 20 more homers, 80 more RBI, and another season in which he gives us all glimpses of Omar Vizquel in the field on occasion. He is that good.

Jason Donald will be the primary back-up here as well, as long as he's still with the club.

Catcher: The Indians are likely envied by nearly every major league club in the business for their talent at the major league level behind the plate. Starting catcher, Carlos Santana, is one of the best offensive catchers in the game. No, his average hasn't matched what many predicted of him as of yet, but his OBP remained a stellar .351 this past season, which more than makes up for any deficiencies getting hits. There's no reason to think that Santana won't be building on his offensive production of a year ago either.

Take into account that Santana's numbers jumped from the first half to the second half, and you can see that the former top prospect is finally starting to figure it all out. His average jumped 20 points in the second half, and he hit 14 homers in the second half, which was one more than in the first half, but in 13 less games.

Defensively, Santana's never going to be compared to Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate, but he doesn't call a bad game, has a cannon for an arm, and still has a bunch of upside. Who knows how far this kid can go, but offensively, he is clearly the most talented player on this team.

It would really be interesting to see what Lou Marson could do in a full season of play. No, I doubt he'll ever hit much, but as a defensive catcher, he could very well be the best in baseball. When you throw in his ability to throw out basestealers, you make him one of the hottest commodities in the game. Over his career, he's thrown out 40% of all basestealers, including 38% in each of his last two seasons. That's absolutely insane.

Marson may actually lose out with regards to playing time this year, should Travis Hafner remain healthy, and with Casey Kotchman joining the Indians infield. I also wouldn't be surprised to see him moved, if there's a deal to be made to acquire some top-notch prospects, or help in the outfield. Still, it's hard to let go of the best defensive catcher nobody's ever heard of.

Finally, there's Jose Lopez, who is just hitting the cover off the ball in the spring.   I just don't see him making the club, unless there's a move to be made that we just don't see. Say, for example, that the Phillies come knocking for an infielder to help replace an injured Chase Utley. They'll likely be looking at Jason Donald, as a young guy they are familiar with, who can take over for Utley until he's ready, then slide into a utility role. If that were to happen, Lopez would be next in line. It's unfortunate, really, that there isn't much room for a guy like Lopez. There's some potential there with past big seasons, but I just don't see him making the club over Donald.

Tomorrow, we move on to the outfield.

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