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Indians preview capsules: The middle infielders

After a down 2013, will Cabrera bounce back?

Indians preview capsules: The middle infielders
Asdrubal Cabrera (Photo: MakinThePlay.com)
March 10, 2014
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As a part of IBI's beginning of season festivities, we have preview capsules on all 55 players currently in major league camp with at least some chance of helping the big league team (it was 54, but the acquisition of Justin Sellers added one more). The next batch of these running today are the middle infielders.

There is just not much more to it; spring training is here and real baseball is just around the corner. Enjoy!

Mike Aviles, INFMike Aviles (Photo: ESPN)

Thanks to Cleveland keeping Asdrubal Cabrera as its starting shortstop for the 2014 season, Mike Aviles will stay right where he should be: coming off of the bench. Aviles is a decent player, but given his positional flexibility, he is much more useful to a team filling in at second base, shortstop, and third base throughout the week. Aviles has never been much of a hitter (he posted a .252/.282/.368 line in 2013) and swings at too many pitches outside of the zone to post a high BABIP, but even given his slightly-lacking hitting line, Aviles adds value with his glove. You do not have to hit very much in order to make the cut at shortstop (major league shortstops posted a collective .254/.308/.367 line in 2013), allowing Aviles to only be a little below-average with his bat even though his raw offensive statistics are not so hot.

Defensive metrics like Aviles at shortstop (7.2 career UZR/150), but not so much at third base or second base (-18.2 and -6.1 career UZR/150 respectively). Part of the poor metrics at second and third could be a small sample size issue -- Aviles has played less than a full season's worth of innings at each position -- but it could also be that he has not worked at those positions much in the past. Coming off of a 2012 season with the Red Sox where Aviles spent all but 18.1 innings at shortstop, expecting Aviles to play quality major league defense at different positions may have been asking too much. If Aviles is able to hone his skills at second and third in the offseason and in spring training -- given that he can play a harder position in shortstop well -- he should be able to raise his defensive ability at different positions around the diamond.

The presence of Aviles should, in part, allow Cleveland's bench to be an asset again in 2014. Especially without a guaranteed full-time designated hitter -- depending on the ultimate result of the Carlos Santana third base experiment -- a functional, flexible bench featuring Aviles will be vitally important for manager Terry Francona.

Asdrubal Cabrera, SSAsdrubal Cabrera (Photo: ESPN)

Asdrubal Cabrera was very consistent in his offensive production in 2011 and 2012, posting .273/.332/.460 and .270/.338/.423 lines respectively and making the All-Star team in both seasons. That changed in 2013 as Cabrera's offense dipped to .242/.299/.402, which when combined with his below-average defense, left the shortstop looking like a replacement-level player. Plus, Cabrera's struggles in high leverage situations (.186/.258/.254 in 68 plate appearances) left a bad taste in the fanbase's mouth regarding its starting shortstop.

Cabrera saw both his strikeouts rise and his walks fall from 2012 to 2013, something that contributed to his drop-off in performance. As a left-handed hitter, Cabrera's issues came from swinging at too many pitches low and away while also making less-than solid contact on those swings. On the other side of the plate, Cabrera started missing pitches thrown within the strike zone as a right-handed hitter. Cabrera's issues as a left-handed hitter were less pronounced in his splits (.730 OPS against right-handed pitchers, .633 OPS against left-handed pitchers), though it would help him to swing at more hittable pitches.

Everything listed above -- Cabrera's high leverage performance, his strikeouts, his walks, his issues with low and away pitches as a left-handed hitter, his issues with pitches in the zone as a right-handed hitter,  and even his offense in general --  are all candidates for some positive regression in 2014. The same goes for Cabrera's BABIP, which dropped from .303 to .283. It could be as simple as that; 2013 was just everything going wrong at one time for Cabrera. If that is the case, then Cleveland was smart not to sell low on him this offseason and to wait for him to reestablish some market value. At 28 years old, there is a pretty good chance that this will happen.

But there is also the chance that Cabrera is simply trending downward. Though players normally seem to peak around 28 years old, every hitter is different. As our own Jeff Ellis hypothesized back in September, what if Cabrera is heading for a Carlos Baerga-like collapse around the same age? Though Jeff noted the differences between Cabrera and Baerga, these things can happen. Cabrera looks like a strong rebound candidate for 2014, but you can never be 100 percent sure.

Jason Kipnis, 2BJason Kipnis (Photo: ESPN)

When you look at Jason Kipnis, one stat does not jump out. His batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in 2013 were all above-average, but not elite. He walks fairly often, strikes out a little more than league average, and has pretty good pop. He stole 30 bases, and while that is a great number, it was not top-10. He does not excel on defense, but Kipnis is certainly serviceable at second base.

But the beauty of Kipnis is that while he is not elite in the different facets of the game, being good to great at all facets add up to a very valuable player. There is a reason that Kipnis finished with 4.5 fWAR in 2013 -- good for fifth among all second basemen -- and it is that he is a well-rounded player without any glaring holes. Though this will only be Kipnis' third full season as a major leaguer, the second baseman has already established himself as one of the key cogs in Cleveland's lineup.

A big part of what makes Kipnis special as an offensive player is his line-drive stroke and willingness to take the ball the other way. Though a normal player gets better results from pulling the ball, Kipnis is actually the complete opposite (269 wRC+ when taking the ball the other way in 2013 compared to 152 up the middle and 121 pulled). There is plenty of value in realizing how to use the opposite field and Kipnis routinely exploits that by hitting line drives into left field.

Entering his age-27 season, Kipnis is in his prime and should continue to maintain his All-Star-level performance into the 2014 season. His BABIP spiked in 2013 to .345 -- well above the league average -- but his consistent line-drive approach should actually allow Kipnis to sustain that mark. If the second baseman's power remains even close to his 2013 level (Kipnis' ISO went from .122 in 2012 to .168), then look for him to continue to be the best overall player in a Cleveland uniform in 2014. Kipnis is not the master of any trades, but being the jack of them all is working out perfectly.

Jose Ramirez, INFJose Ramirez (Photo: MiLB)

An important thing to always keep in mind when evaluating baseball players is context. On the surface, Jose Ramirez's .272/.325/.349 line in 113 Double-A games last year is not all that impressive. But when you take into account that Ramirez was only in his age-20 season and had completely skipped the High-A level, the fact that he was even decent offensively becomes significantly more impressive.

Ramirez is not a big guy by any means -- he is listed at 5'9", 165 pounds -- but he more than gets the job done despite his smaller frame. The infielder only struck out 41 times in Double-A, and while he only walked 39 times, making that much contact typically leads to positive results. Ramirez's BABIP dipped to .290 in Akron -- a mark significantly below the .360s he put up in lower levels -- which is probably a combination of some bad luck and a need to get stronger. It is not too much of a stretch to expect Ramirez's body to mature a little more as he is enters his age-21 season, but it is something the infielder will need to be sure to work on.

Speed is something that sets Ramirez apart -- he stole 38 bases in Akron and made plays with his legs following a September callup to the majors -- and he has good range in the field. His arm is not the strongest, but Ramirez has a quick, accurate release that makes him at least serviceable at shortstop. The worst case scenario for Ramirez is he becomes a utility infielder, but given his youth and his ability to at least play some shortstop, I am optimistic Ramirez could develop into something a little better than that.

Knowing that Ramirez has always been young for his level and always found success, it would be foolish to bet against Ramirez in 2014 and beyond. His overall upside may be limited, but Ramirez has the kind of makeup that you want to bet on. He will likely start in the minors due to the presence of Mike Aviles and a thumb injury he suffered in winter ball, but he should be up again sometime in 2014.

Justin Sellers, INFJustin Sellers (Photo: ESPN)

Acquired from the Dodgers for cash on March 2 to further boost the team's middle infield depth, Justin Sellers split his playing time between second base, shortstop, and third base in his brief major league career. The infielder has a strong reputation on defense, though his bat leaves plenty to be desired. With a .199/.278/.301 line in 266 major league plate appearances, Sellers needs to hit better to be a real option for the major league club. He hit better in the minors (.285/.363/.484 line in 1040 Triple-A plate appearances), so there could be some hope for the 28-year-old yet, but he is still likely just a depth option who will spend most of the year in the minors.

If you want to follow Jim on Twitter, he’s @JimPiascik. If you want to e-mail him, you can do so at jpiasci1@gmail.com

User Comments

Hermie13
March 12, 2014 - 11:07 AM EDT
"At this point the best play for the Tribe is to hope Cabrera puts up a helluva walk year (ala Jimenez) since any yield from a trade would be minimal."


Still think you're being too harsh on Cabrera (odd coming from me). Not as terrible overall as you're making him out to be. Stephen Drew was way worse in 2012 than Cabrera was last year and still got a deal worth nearly what Cabrera is making this year. I wouldn't expect multiple top prospects for Cabrera but don't think you'd get nothing for him at this point.
Hermie13
March 12, 2014 - 10:51 AM EDT
Kind of funny that we are calling OBPs over .330 as not good....yet sooooo many people seem to think Bourn is a good leadoff man and his career OBP is in the .330s....
Joe Chengery
March 11, 2014 - 11:35 PM EDT
Autocorrect led to "Alan Robbie Alomar" - it was supposed to say "ala Robbie Alomar."
Joe Chengery
March 11, 2014 - 11:34 PM EDT
Hermie,

Two things:

1. It's nice that he was getting on base (though his numbers aren't that good- see point 2), but that was even fleeting, and everything else fell off- BA/HR/RBI, even plate discipline- he disappeared too much during those other months to be considered "MVP-caliber" or even good. Robbie Alomar's years in Cleveland, for the most part were MVP-caliber- Kipnis hasn't come close to those numbers, mostly because he hasn't been able to stay consistent offensively throughout a whole season. When Kipnis starts doing that, especially in multiple, then you can make the argument about him being "MVP-caliber"; at this point, he's reached a little above-average, but not close to MVP.

2. Most consider a .350 OBP to be a solid starting point for OBP proficiency, with higher being good. We've already discussed that Bourn did not do a solid job in the lead off role in terms of getting on base- .331 or .335 OBP is not considered good no matter who's doing it.

Here are his OBP stats by month:

April: .267
May: .331
June: .517
July: .333
August: .345
September: .367

My original point still stands: Outside of June and September, the other months don't account for an above-average season. Even looking at the stat you're wanting to focus on, OBP, he doesn't even reach the .350 Mark that most consider to be solid/decent, what you'd want from someone who's considered to have solid on-base skills, in four of the six months in 2012.

As I said, Kipnis must show full-season consistency to really reach his potential and to have any legitimate show of being an MVP-caliber candidate, Alan Robbie Alomar. Kipnis has NOT done that yet, and without showing consistency month to month, he won't. He has not shown the last two seasons, something I want to see from him in 2014. That is why I am not ready to lock him down as immovable from 2B and why a move back to the OF is not out of the question, not with Ramirez on the horizon, and Wendle a little farther down the road.
Themaven
March 11, 2014 - 7:37 PM EDT
At this point the best play for the Tribe is to hope Cabrera puts up a helluva walk year (ala Jimenez) since any yield from a trade would be minimal.
Hermie13
March 11, 2014 - 8:58 AM EDT
"I'd trade Cabrera in minute,but who would give you anything for a year of bad shortstop and average offense for ten million dollars?"

Definitely a few teams that could still use him...let's not forget that Cabrera can play 2B in addition to SS. Mets, Nationals, Yankees, Red Sox, etc all could consider him to fill a need up the middle IMO. Not expecting a great return but you can sign Drew and give up a draft pick or get Cabrera and maybe get a draft pick (though I highly doubt he gets a QO).
Hermie13
March 11, 2014 - 8:55 AM EDT
"Only those two months really made it looked like he had an above-average year"


Disagree here. Kipnis was above average every month but April and August last year. Was terrible in April but outside of that the worst OBP he put up was a .331 OBP in May....consider Bourn, the guy we are probably using as our leadoff hitter, has a career OBP of .335. Kipnis is proving that he's at worst a good player....at his best he's MVP-caliber.
Jimmy
March 10, 2014 - 10:25 PM EDT
I think Terry will wait and see how each player as hit and played and make the correct decision on which player to keep. I mind that management should sign Masterson, and remember that Terry really like having a starter that can do relief pitching when ask and does anything to help the team. I hope manager can own see that we have a very good team. Let the middle infielders fall where Terry thinks will be our best chance to win.
Remember that a good regular someday becomes a very good bench player ask Jason G. Go Tribe
Themaven
March 10, 2014 - 9:55 PM EDT
I'd trade Cabrera in minute,but who would give you anything for a year of bad shortstop and average offense for ten million dollars?

Keep Kipnis at second for the next three seasons and then deal him to a big market club(at age 30) and Ramirez is 24 yo and ready to step in.I'm guessing that's plan A or B for the Tribe.

Small market clubs have to constantly cycle through talent before it gets too expensive.
See Masterson,Justin.
Joe Chengery
March 10, 2014 - 7:16 PM EDT
Bernie,

Good point about Kipnis' June- was trying to recall last year, and I know he was erratic. You're right on he didn't start it well, and really disappeared for long stretches last year- really, his June is what allowed his numbers to look as good as they did last year; outside of June, and to a lesser extent, September, Kipnis was largely erratic and a non-factor offensively. Only those two months really made it looked like he had an above-average year, when really Brantley, Santana, and Raburn (and Gomes when he played) were the main keys to the offense having any consistency last year (and we all recall that the offense struggled to score runs for stretches last season, and Kipnis was nearly as big a factor as Cabrera, Swisher, and Bourn on why the offense was so erratic and disappeared for long stretches).

Therefore, I'm not as ready to anoint Kipnis as the heir apparent to 2B long-term just yet. Would I sign him to a long-term deal? At the right price, I'd consider extending him, yes, but I'm not convinced he's the long-term fixture at 2B, not with both Ramirez and Wendle on the radar screen.

Keep in mind that 2B is still not an offensive position; yes, it's nice when you can have it, but I don't think Kipnis has hit at such a level and/or plays defense at such a level that he is immovable from 2B. I'd consider Kipnis in LF and Brantley in CF for Ramirez or even Wendle down the line (though Wendle is a ways away, while Ramirez isn't that far away).
Hermie13
March 10, 2014 - 3:20 PM EDT
In Kipnis's defense he did have a good September...his .287 with a .367 OBP and 117 wRC+. Numbers overall were definitely down in the 2nd half but wouldn't say he got off to a hot start (was terrible in April)....that insane June of his really helped those 1st half numbers. Does need to get more consistent, that I agree with completely. What was good to see was walk rate over 10 in the 2nd half...still was finding ways to get on base in the 2nd half even if the bat cooled off.


It's been mentioned before on moving Kipnis back to the OF and using Ramirez at 2B (believe Jim Pete was a big fan of this idea). If Ramirez shows he must be in the lineup then maybe you consider that but he still has a lot to prove IMO.

Plus Kipnis was not a good CFer at ASU and one reason he wasn't as highly regarded in the draft was because most felt he'd have to move to a corner OF spot and the bat wouldn't play as well there. Maybe it's a moot point as you could move Brantley to CF (if you got rid of Bourn) and put Kipnis in LF (doesn't have that great an arm) as his bat at this point would play well there (though obviously not as well as 2B). Wouldn't be completely opposed to it but again, think Ramirez has a ways to go before he can bump Kipnis to the OF.


I agree people shouldn't limit JRam's value to a utility guy though.
Joe Chengery
March 10, 2014 - 2:23 PM EDT
I think this idea has been mentioned before, but I would be open at some point down the road if Ramirez continues improving to insert him at 2B and shift Kipnis back to the OF (possibly CF, which I think Kipnis played at ASU). Yes, that would drop Kipnis' value initially, but could help the team long-term, since there are concerns over Bourn's ability long-term in CF. Of course, some of this will depend on Naquin and Moncrief's development as well.

I'm just not sure we should limit Ramirez's ceiling to just a utility guy, not especially with his hit tool, speed, and defense, especially at 2B (which I believe is above-average to Gold Glove, and higher than Kipnis'). Time will tell, but I know the idea was floated around not long ago about moving Kipnis to the OF to play his natural position and making room for Ramirez down the road. I certainly don't think that should be taken off the table, certainly not while Ramirez is not a finished product (all of 21 this year).

One concern I have with Kipnis that I'd like to see him erase this year is the fact that he's had two poor second halves the last two years- he seems to get out of the gate at a fairly strong to strong clip, but then around the All-Star Break, his production falls off considerably. For him to reach those elite levels or close to those elite levels, he needs to put together a complete season offensively, not one where he largely disappears in the second half. Hopefully, we will see that in 2014; then, I think we will see Kipnis take that next step forward,
Jim Piascik
March 10, 2014 - 1:30 PM EDT
Oh yeah, they removed Cooper after the NRI hitters piece ran. Screwed up everything. Freaking Antonetti. Haha
Hermie13
March 10, 2014 - 1:04 PM EDT
ah, ok. Saw David Cooper on the catcher/corner infield one and didn't realize you were separating the two (my mistake).
Hermie13
March 10, 2014 - 1:03 PM EDT
I mostly agree with your assessment on Aviles...does fit better as a bench guy. However...still a part of me that wonders if the Indians as a team wouldn't be better with him starting at SS (with EJ on the bench) and dealing Cabrera. The defensive upgrade may outweigh the negatives on offense. It's not just UZR that likes Aviles at short and hates Cabrera either. DRS has +28 runs saved in his career at SS....Cabrera is at -15 runs. Total Zone has Aviles as a +19 at short....Cabrera has a -6 TZ. Then of course there's the eye test (which obviously shows Cabrera is below average).

Would depend on what you could get for Cabrera I suppose...but with a few groundball guys in the rotation and possibly a newbie at 3B...really wish we had a good defensive SS in there. For what it's worth, Aviles did start at short for the Red Sox in 2012 (123 starts) and posted a 1.5 fWAR and 1.0 rWAR thanks to that plus defense of his (had a 2.0 dWAR according to BR). He can still be an asset as a starter if needed as a stopgap....
Jim Piascik
March 10, 2014 - 1:02 PM EDT
Yep. Here's that link:

http://www.indiansbaseballinsider.com/blog/indians-preview-capsules-the-non-roster-invite-hitters-62091
Matthew
March 10, 2014 - 12:54 PM EDT
The way these have been rolled out, I'm guessing there'll be a separate piece for non-roster guys like Elliot Johnson
Jim Piascik
March 10, 2014 - 12:54 PM EDT
He was in the NRI hitters section. Kept the 40-man guys separate to try to keep each article shorter.
Hermie13
March 10, 2014 - 12:43 PM EDT
No Elliot Johnson?

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