IBI's 2013 Cleveland Indians Infield Preview
By Jim Piascik
February 7, 2013
Editor's Note: In the interest of keeping things fresh and not bland here at IBI, Jim Piascik and Steve Orbanek decided to preview the 2013 Cleveland Indians in an unconventional way. Steve and Jim sent e-mails back in forth over the past few days -- a la Bill Simmons -- hashing out what they thought about the team in the upcoming season.
Up today, the infield.
So here goes nothing.
I'll go ahead and start this up with a softball. Jason Kipnis, 2013. Go!
Ah, good ole Jason Kipnis. Who doesn't love themselves some Kipnis as we are all Kipnises after all. In his first full season as an Indian, Kipnis had a solid campaign. Yet, as you and I both know, there were some obvious downsides. In the first half of the season, Kipnis showed himself to be the second baseman that he Indians had long coveted. From April 5 to July 8, he hit .277/.345/.419 with 11 home runs, 49 RBI, 33 walks and 57 strikeouts. Pretty nice, right? But let's take a look at his second half of the season. From July 13 to Oct. 3, Kipnis hit .233/.322/.328 with three home runs, 27 RBI, 34 walks and 52 strikeouts. So basically, aside from his plate discipline, Kipnis' numbers took a staggering fall.
Now maybe this doesn't matter anymore this season as new hitters like Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher will almost assuredly help take some of the load off of Kipnis. However, as I'm sure you'll agree, one of the Tribe's greatest problems over the past two seasons has been players faltering during the second half of the season, and Kipnis was no exception in 2012. Listen, I like everything Kipnis has to offer. He can steal a base, plays sound defense and has come up with plenty of key base knocks. But the bottom line is he's gotta find some offense consistency between the two halves of the season. I think the hope is that the team's new acquisitions will allow Kipnis to relax more and take away the notion that he has to be the guy to carry the team.
I'm also willing to give him a bit of a pass on the late-season breakdown. 2012 represented Kipnis' first full season at the major league level. Maybe it's just me, but I can't believe he's only played in 188 big league games. It feels like he's been around for so much longer than that. I assume he'll know how to pace himself better and how to make adjustments in essentially year two of his major league career.
But something I want to touch on: where did all those steals come from? Kipnis stole 24 bases in 254 minor league games. He had 31 in 2012 in the majors. Can he keep that up? Or will 2012 just be a fluke in the steals department?
Well, l don't know if he can keep it up, but I sure hope he does. As a team, the Indians stole 110 bases last year, which was in the middle of the pack, ranking 12th in the MLB. The thing that was so nice about Kipnis is that as you alluded to, it came out of nowhere. How does a guy total 24 stolen bases in the minors and then grab 31 in his first full season? It's crazy. Here's what I noticed about Kipnis. He is by no means a speedster, but his steal attempts were always in good situations. He's a good base runner, and he never seemed to force a steal if it wasn't there.
But with that being said, I think 31 may be an unrealistic expectation. I think we can expect somewhere around 20, which is still plenty good. Kipnis' base-stealing skills have helped make up for Michael Brantley's lack of base-stealing skills, which is what many of us expected from Brantley when he made his Major League debut a few years back.
He's just a great player, always going all-out. That's a great player to build around.
The thing that will always stand out to me about Kipnis comes from when I saw him regularly in Akron back in 2010. That team had Lonnie Chisenhall, a higher level prospect due to his 1st round pick status. Yet I was always drawn to Kipnis. For some reason, I was convinced he was the better prospect. And it turns out, at least to now, I'm right. I see Kipnis being a consistently, above-average to good player and a cornerstone for the foreseeable future. He isn't a superstar, but he's someone I want on the team.
Well, unless there's anything you want to add, I'll let you throw out the next infielder.
Well since you mentioned him, why don't we move onto third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall. Chisenhall, affectionately nicknamed Chiz, arrived in Cleveland during to the 2011 season to much fanfare. It was also easy to see why. Chisenhall had flown through the minor leagues and was impressive at every stop, but it's been a bit more difficult for Chisenhall since making it to Cleveland. We watched last year as he failed to take over for the incumbent Jack Hannahan during the battle for the starting third base job during spring. Then Chisenhall does eventually make it to Cleveland, but the injury bug bites again, which also proved to be a problem for him in 2011.
To me, this is somewhat of a make or break year for Chisenhall. We often hear how the Indians new acquisitions (Reynolds, Stubbs, Swisher) will be key to the Indians making the postseason, but it is also crucial that a guy like Chisenhall takes the next step. The book on Chisenhall says he's a guy who may not be a great in any one area, but he'll be very good in every area. The problem is that we just haven't seen that yet. We've seen glimpses, but they are also short glimpses. So, what do you think Jim? Is Chisenhall the future at third base? Or do you see a guy who ultimately winds up being not much more than a replacement-level third baseman?
It's funny how fickle the prospect game can be. Chisenhall was twice in Baseball America's Top-31 (25th and 31st), yet Kipnis is the one who has established himself.
I have faith in Chisenhall, though. Age is a big factor for me here. The colloquial wisdom is that at age 22 stars establish themselves in the majors, followed by regulars at age 24 and bench players at age 26 (I think that came from Fangraphs' Mike Newman. Or maybe not. I honestly can't remember who said it first).
Chisenhall will be 24 this year. He may have two false starts under his belt, but he is still the youngest position player on the team. Kipnis and Brantley are heading into their age-26 season; Santana and Asdrubal their age-27, and so on.
So there's plenty of hope for Chisenhall. Plus, when he's been healthy, the results haven't been all that bad. In his 109 major league games, Chisenhall owns a .260/.295/.421 line with 12 home runs and a 100 OPS+. The on-base is still weak (driven by a 76:16 SO:BB), but his bat has been average.
He's not a sure thing, but I'm encouraged. He should establish himself, with his prospect pedigree and all, but he is an unknown right now.
I hear what you're saying Jim, and we do have to remind ourselves that Chisenhall is still a youngster at just 24-years-old, but I unfortunately just do not share your level of optimism. There's obviously a lot to like about the left-handed hitter, starting with his laser arm, but there are also plenty of question marks.
Let's take a trip down memory lane. Do you remember when the Indians acquired a young slugger by the name of Matt LaPorta in the summer of 2008? Well, LaPorta made his debut the following season, and while there were some positive signs, his performance still left a lot to be desired. I remember that I kept thinking that all LaPorta needed was more seasoning. I kept thinking, "Okay, this is going to be the year that he puts it all together." But guess what? He never put it all together.
There are obviously major differences with Chisenhall and LaPorta, starting with the positions they play. Obviously as a third baseman, Chisenhall will not be expected to be the offensive anchor that LaPorta was supposed to be. However, the two players are similar in the regard that they have both been two of Baseball America's top prospects (LaPorta 23 pre-2008, 27 pre-2009), and they both got off to underwhelming starts to the Major League careers. Also, there are simply some areas where Chisenhall struggles immensely. You previously alluded to the plate discipline, but keep in mind that he also owns a career .227/.253/.443 line against left-handed pitchers.
I suppose the point that I'm making is that you can often tell when a player is going to be special. For reference, think back to Carlos Santana's debut in 2010. Immediate spark. The same can be said when Jason Kipnis made his debut in 2011. Yet, I unfortunately have not seen that special quality in Chisenhall. Could it still be there? Certainly, and I hope that it is. However, I have to say that I still am not sold. But with that being said, I also will say that no one player may be more important to the Tribe's contention plans in 2013 than Chisenhall. He simply has to take that next step and cement himself as the team's regular third baseman. I'm certainly rooting for him, but I just don't know if there's evidence to say that it's in him.
Bringing up that "spark" issue is interesting. All through 2010 at Akron, I wondered whether the buzz around Chisenhall was overblown. I never did get that sense from Chisenhall, though he was hurt for at least part of the season if memory serves me right. A big part of me was worried when he was being thrown around in potential Ubaldo Jimenez deals, though I was terrified of losing Kipnis. That has to count for something, right?
I think he'll be an average player this year, maybe slightly below, though I of course can't be sure. And Chisenhall has to be, looking at the state of third base in the organization. Tony's depth chart has Luis Hernandez as Columbus' starting third baseman. I loved what Hernandez did in the winter leagues, but I do not want to see him starting in Cleveland.
So you're saying that you don't believe Luis Hernandez is the next coming of Al Rosen!?!?!? Say it ain't so Jim!
Well, I suppose this might be a good time to transition into our next player. How about we talk about the Tribe's new first baseman Mark Reynolds. There is certainly a yin and a yang to Reynolds. You have to love the power he displays and his massive home run potential, but this is a guy who literally strikes out more than any other player in baseball. Just take a look at these totals:
2008 — 204, 2009 — 223, 2010 — 211, 2011 — 196, 2012 — 159 (in 136 games).
Not only is this guy striking out, but he's striking out at an almost unprecedented rate.
But... I am still enthusiastic over the move. Reynolds gives the Indians a legitimate home run threat, which is much needed when you consider that Carlos Santana led the team with a measly 18 home runs.
Also, on a side note, I find it somewhat ironic that first baseman Jesus Aguilar is among the five Indians minor league players who have received non-roster invitations to spring training. As you know Jim, Aguilar seems to take after Reynolds in the fact that he hits a lot of dingers and strikes out a ton. Who knows, maybe it may benefit him to spend some time around Reynolds this spring training. After all, if you're going to be a player that hits a ton of home runs while also striking out at a startling rate, why not learn from the best, right?
Why on Earth would you want Aguilar to be more like Reynolds?
Joking aside, I do like the Reynolds signing. Look at the list of first basemen since Jim Thome left. Ryan Garko, Matt LaPorta, Ben Broussard, Casey Kotchman, etc. It's a who's-who of below-average major leaguers.
That isn't to say that Reynolds doesn't worry me. I'm actually not all that concerned about the strikeouts, as I'll take that tradeoff for the power. I'm more worried about Reynolds in the field.
Thankfully, I'm pretty sure Terry Francona took Reynolds' third baseman's glove and burned it the moment he stepped foot into Cleveland. He is a certifiable butcher at the hot corner. Per Fangraphs, Reynolds has cost his teams 54 runs with his defense at third alone. 54!
He's not an emergency third baseman. He's never allowed to play there again. Ever.
That said, I'm still a little wary of his defense at first base. The easy thing to say is there isn't enough of a sample size to judge him yet. I've heard some reviews saying he's a Gold Glove first baseman. Fangraphs has him at -11 runs in about a full season's worth of time at first base.
There's obviously some disconnect there. First base defense is hard to measure, so that -11 figure could be wrong. But with his history, I don't trust Reynolds to be good on defense.
I think he's an upgrade from recent years and am glad he's in Cleveland, but he's certainly got his warts.
I hear your argument about his defense at first base. Makes plenty of sense. This is kind of magnified by his career dWAR of -7.1. Ugh.
The thing about Reynolds is that even with all of his power, I'm not sure how much better he makes the team. Keep this in mind. For a guy who has 181 career home runs and 501 career RBI in 853 games, Reynolds only has a career WAR of 5.1. How is that even possible??? Obviously, we know the reason for that low number is because of his high strikeout totals and poor defensive play, but I think his career WAR is kind of a sobering statistic when you think about this coming 2013 season. How much better is this team with Mark Reynolds over Casey Kotchman? They're obviously better, but it may not make as much of a difference as we hope.
That career WAR is sobering, but a quick comparison helps:
Reynolds: 1.8 fWAR, 0.9 rWAR per 155 games in his career
Kotchman: -1.5 fWAR, -1.1 rWAR in 2012
At the very least, he should be better than what the team ran out there in 2012. Which isn't saying much, but it is saying something.
If Reynolds can hit 30 home runs, be a below-average fielder, and generally turn in an average campaign, he will help. This team isn't filled with stars, but it does have the potential to be solid. That outlook may not be glamorous, but the Oakland A's made it to the playoffs last year with a similar star-devoid lineup. It can be done.
You ready to move on to our final infielder, Asdrubal Cabrera?
Well, now this does look like a good time to move onto Asdrubal Cabrera. I have to ask, Jim, are you at all surprised that we're even talking about Cabrera now? So many trade talks centered around him this winter that it seemed as if it was highly unlikely that he would remain a Cleveland Indians.
I, for one, have to say that I am glad Cabrera is still in Cleveland. We know that he does indeed have his warts, but he still is a shortstop and provides some pretty solid production at a position that certainly is not known for its offensive playmakers. Perhaps the biggest problem with Cabrera is the fact that he was initially a shortstop known for his defense, yet his defense has been so suspect during the past two seasons. For instance, in 2011, he had a UZR of -11.8 (last among qualified MLB shortstops), and the number only slightly increased to -9.0 in 2012 (19 out of 21 qualified shortstops).
Cabrera clearly is not the defensive wizard that some of his highlight-reel plays suggest. But to his defense, he also really has never had a backup shortstop during the past two seasons, so maybe the acquisition of Mike Aviles will really help. Personally, I just hope Cabrera shows up to spring training in good shape. It seems as if poor conditioning has held him back at the onset of the past couple of seasons, which has been a problem. If he shows up in shape, Cabrera and the entire team will ultimately benefit. So, bottom line, lay off the junk food Cabrera.
I thought I was so clever calling a Cabrera trade the moment the team acquired Mike Aviles. And for a while there it looked like I was a genius. Well, at least I'll always have calling a fake field goal and a safety in the Super Bowl on my resume.
(Great game by the way. Of course, only made better by me CALLING THE FAKE FIELD GOAL AND SAFETY!)
Anyway, back to baseball. For all the frustration with his fading in the second half and his defense, Cabrera has still been worth 3.4 WAR and a 115 wRC+ over the past two years. Or, in non-nerdy talk, a pretty good player with a very good bat for shortstop.
Now, it would obviously be nice if Cabrera could be more consistent. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on conditioning, since I also think the team hasn't put him in the best position to succeed in recent years (he's played in 164 of 174 games before the All-Star break over the past two years by my count. And six of those days off were while he was on bereavement leave last year.). They have run him into the ground in the first half, never giving him days off. I think that could be contributing to his fading, if not be the main reason for it.
It's easier to blame the conditioning -- especially with reports of him being out of shape -- but the playing time factors into my opinion as well. With Aviles on board and a rotating DH spot, hopefully Francona can handle Cabrera in such a way to keep him rested through the whole season.
To me, Cabrera is a player who isn't elite, but is certainly a great guy to have on your team. A team is never going to be made up of only star players, so making sure you have plenty of above-average guys on your team is a good strategy.
I think one of the keys for Cabrera, like Kipnis, will be finding some consistency between the two halves of the season. For instance, from April 5 to July 8 last year, Cabrera hit .286/.364/.467 compared to .251/.305/.371 from July 13 to Oct. 2.
The slide was even more evident in 2011 as Cabrera hit .293/.347/.489 from April 1 to July 9, but he hit only .244/.310/.419 from July 14 to Sept. 28. Really, this has been a problem for the entire Indians team during the past two seasons. It seems as if no player has been able to sustain his momentum throughout the entire course of the season. Even Carlos Santana had the opposite type of season last year where he started out slow but finished hot.
I know we mentioned earlier how the new acquisitions will probably help Kipnis relax a bit more and take some of the weight off his shoulders, but the same can be said for Cabrera. We've had to rely on our shortstop as one of our power guys these past couple years, and that really will not be the case anymore.
Also, consider this point. I know we talked about the slight possibility of the Indians making the playoffs this season. Well, look around at the roster, and there's only one holdover from that 2007 team: Cabrera. I know there's no evidence as to how much playoff experience helps a team, but I have to believe the entire team would benefit from Cabrera's past experience if the Tribe actually does make the playoffs. Wishful thinking I know, but it's just another reason why we maybe should be happy that the Indians ultimately decided to hold onto Cabrera.
He's the old guy now. At the ripe old age of 27.
I agree though that he will need to be a leader. With Hafner gone, he is the player who has been on the team the longest. That comes with some responsibility. Hopefully he can help the other players on the roster like Orlando Cabrera helped him in 2011.
I was 100% against the Orlando Cabrera signing, as I thought (correctly) that he was washed up, but it did have one benefit. If I remember correctly, Orlando told Asdrubal to stop choking up on the bat so much because it was killing his power. Before 2011, Asdrubal hit 18 home runs in 387 games. After that, 41 home runs in 294 games.
Asdrubal has been in the majors since 2007 and I'm sure he has plenty of wisdom to give to a player like Chisenhall. We'll see how the team bonds and if they can raise themselves up to a higher level.
Well, I think it's time to wrap up. So, would you agree that we decided that:
Kipnis and Asdrubal are good to great players in 2013.
Chisenhall and Reynolds are average to slightly below-average players in 2013.
Leaving us with a slightly above-average infield as a whole. Thoughts?
I would agree, but I think we should make one adjustment. There is still room for more growth in regard to both Chisenhall and Kipnis. I really think that Kipnis could take steps to cement himself as one of the elite second basemen in baseball, and while I may not yet be a believer in regard to Chisenhall, he too could become a much better player this season.
Jim, I think you and I both will agree that for better or worse, Reynolds and Cabrera are essentially finished products. We have a pretty good handle on what we can expect from the two players this season. But Kipnis and Chisenhall are still wild cards, so imagine if those two players do continue to progress, and I'm also certain that Kipnis will do just that. Before the season is done and over, we could be looking at an elite infield. The key word there is could.
This kind of goes back to why I say Chisenhall may be the most important Indian in 2013. We all know the prospect hype that has surrounded him throughout his career. Now let's just hope he can harvest that hype and produce a solid 2013 campaign. If that happens, you could be looking at the best infield in the American League Central outside of Detroit.
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What is it good for
Uh-huh...Say it again, y’all"
Replace Hannahan and Lozez with a bulked up Chisenhall, replace Kotch with Reynolds, and replace the Duncan/Daman left field platoon with Stubbs, and I'm confident we'll see a lot more balls going to Souvenir City this year.
But a lot more players walking back to the dugout after Strike 3 as well.
If you can add them to established guys like Swisher, Asdrubal, Reynolds and hopefully Thome we could be on to something.
Another thing I really like about the infield is Aviles and Raburn. Two guys who have been starters in the past. They are not young but are also not old. I think having them around will reall help Chiz-Asdrubal-Kipnis. Hopefully McGuiness can combine with Reynolds to give us a solid power source at first base.
I am still for moving guys around at DH but the team needs another Vet source of leadership, power off the bench and proff hitter who can DH when no one really needs to be rested. Like who needs to be rested on opening day? Thome can help lead from the bench, brings good karma and gives us another veteran power bat to help balance out the lineup.
You also said that he struggles against lefties, which is true, but according to that slash, his ops is .700 against them, which isn't bad at all. There is no reason to say this is a make or break year, he's only 24 and has done nothing at the major league level for his prospect status to be doubted yet in my opinion. The key for him is obviously to stay healthy. The broken forearm is a fluke injury so I don't see durability as a major concern yet.
One thing about Reynolds' defense is that about half of his errors have been of the throwing variety, so I wouldn't read too much into his career dWAR. He did have four fielding errors (out of his five total) at 1B last season in 108 games, but his fielding percentage was right at the league average. I know that fielding percentage is far from an ideal defensive metric, but I think defensive range is really hard to judge for 1B - holding runners, playing in for bunting situations, etc - and so am optimistic that Reynolds will be far more valuable thatn predicted. And as noted above, WAR should be replaced with wins above Kotchman for the Indians.
I think the move to first base actually helps his value. His WAR has him as a below-average player over the last two years, accumulating only .8 WAR between 2011 and 2012 combined...but so much of that has to do with his negative value on defense. Over that time span, he's been worth almost -30 runs as a third baseman, and that factors big time into his WAR. On offense, he's been above average in every season, despite his K's:
108 wRC+ in 2012 and 117 in 2011.
Since there are so many differing opinions on his defense at first, for now we should really just assume that he's average there, meaning he wont provide much surplus value, but he wont hurt you either. If you assume he's average, he's probably more of a 2.5 WAR player or maybe a little better...that's a huge upgrade over Kotchman last year.
The second half fades of Cabrera and Kipnis to me is a big reason why the Indians went out and acquired Mike Aviles so that 1.) they have a more than capable infielder to replace them in the field and may actually be BETTER in the field than both of them and 2.) they let Hafner go to open up the DH so that they can take Cabrera/Kipnis (and others) out of the field to give them a break.....but keep them in the lineup as DH a lot of times so that their bat is not lost for that day of rest.
Really interesting to see how the use of the DH to rest guys has an effect - if any - on guys this year and maybe helps add more consistency.
Chisenhall, I believe will be a pleasant surprise , as long as he stays healthy. He's had a taste, and knows what he had to work on. I can see .270, perhaps 20 Hrs., and 75 RBI's. I believe those numbers are within his reach.
Reynolds is what he is, and as long as he plays decent defence and provides some pop to the offence, well, that's all we can expect. Keep up the good work guys !!!!