The Indians wild ride has come to an end. The 2013 season was one that nobody expected. A 96 loss team turned into a 92 win club that advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. GM Chris Antonetti and Manager Terry Francona helped changed the culture of the organization and has our baseball team on the rise. There is a buzz in the city about the Indians again. It was a season to remember with so many great moments and the arrival of some new fan favorites.
Each day this week, we will look back at a different portion of the club and see where we are today, a plan for 2014, and so on. We began with the starting rotation, and then we moved onto the relievers. Today we will look at the infielders and catchers.
Carlos Santana – 541 AB/.268/.377/.455/20 HR/74 RBI/39 doubles/93 BB/110 K/.251 as a lefty/.299 as a righty/.285 with RISP in 137 AB
Yan Gomes – 293 AB/.294/.345/.481/11 HR/38 RBI/18 doubles/18 BB/67 K/.327 vs. lefties/.275 vs. righties/.257 with RISP in 70 AB
Nick Swisher – 549 AB/.246/.341/.423/22 HR/63 RBI/27 doubles/77 BB/138 K/.220 as a lefty/.295 as a righty/.234 with RISP in 137 AB
Jason Kipnis – 564 AB/.284/.366/.452/17 HR/84 RBI/36 doubles/30 SB/76 BB/143 K/.270 vs. righties/.308 vs. lefties/.298 with RISP in 131 AB
Asdrubal Cabrera – 508 AB/.242/.299/.402/14 HR/64 RBI/35 doubles/35 BB/114 K/.247 vs righties/.232 vs. lefties/.197 with RISP in 137 AB
Lonnie Chisenhall - 289 AB/.225/.270/.398/11 HR/36 RBI/17 doubles/16 BB/56 K/.241 vs. righties/.111 vs. lefties/.250 with RISP in 76 AB
Mike Aviles - 361 AB/.252/.282/.368/9 HR/46 RBI/15 doubles/15 BB/41 K/.269 vs. righties/.232 vs. lefties/.232 with RISP in 99 AB
When the 2012 season ended and the hot stove began to fire up, the Indians looked at their infield and knew that they had one, potentially two holes to fill. On top of that, there was the question of what to do with shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera who was coming off of back to back poor second halves where he completely wore down. Would Cabrera be moved with two years left on his contract and many teams searching for an offensive shortstop? First base was a complete black hole left vacant by the departure of the famed and fabled Casey Kotchman. At the hot corner, the job was going to be Lonnie Chisenhall’s job to lose. His time to prove he was a major leaguer was here.
The Indians smartly hedged their bets in their first big offseason move, acquiring utility man and Terry Francona favorite Mike Aviles along with a AAA catcher named Yan Gomes. Reliever Esmil Rogers was shipped to Toronto for the duo. Aviles was obviously the key guy. He had been an everyday shortstop and could play both second and third, along with corner outfield. Gomes was going to start the season in AAA with the organization wanting him to work on his catching.
The next domino to fall was the signing of 1B Mark Reynolds, a feast or famine power hitter who was coming off a hot September in Baltimore. He received a one year, $6 million deal with the hope that he could catch lightning in a bottle and provide the lineup with the right-handed power the team sorely lacked in 2012. The original plan was to play Reynolds at first base. That was thrown out the window when the Indians front office and ownership did an about face and handed former Yankees 1B/RF Nick Swisher a four year, $56 million deal, the richest contract ever given to a free agent in Indians history. Swish was going to be in the mix at first, but was signed to be the rightfielder. However just before Spring Training, the Wahoos shocked the baseball world, giving centerfielder Michael Bourn a four-year, $48 million contract. With Bourn now on board, the plans all changed: Reynolds would become the regular DH, which seemed to be a smart move, with Swish moving from right to first base. Drew Stubbs, acquired to play center from Cincinnati, would slide to right for the newly signed Bourn.
So the Indians entered Opening Day with this look: Swisher at first, Jason Kipnis at second, Cabrera at short, Chisenhall at third, and Carlos Santana behind the plate. Aviles would spell Kipnis, Cabrera, and Chisenhall, with Reynolds moving from DH to first or third when needed. Francona had a ton of options at his disposal.
By October, Swisher, Kipnis, and Cabrera were still regulars in their spots, but third base had become a strict Chisenhall/Aviles platoon. Reynolds was designated for assignment in early August and his regular spot was essentially taken by Gomes, who became the regular catcher with Santana bouncing between first, catcher, and designated hitter.
The Santana/Gomes duo was an extremely effective surprise for both Tribe pitchers and for the offense. Everyone expected Santana to hit, which he did all season, but nobody saw the emergence of Gomes coming. While none of us will like Tampa Bay’s Desmond Jennings for his two-out, two-run single that broke open the Wild Card game a week ago, he also did the Indians some bit of service back in April. In the opening weekend series in Tampa, Jennings leveled backup catcher Lou Marson, knocking him from the game. Marson suffered a shoulder injury, along with a mild concussion. He was soon placed on the DL and never saw the field again. Gomes came up as his replacement and spent the rest of the season turning heads.
The Yanimal quickly became a fan favorite based on both the pop in his bat and the cannon arm behind the dish. The longer the season went on, the more Gomes forced his way in the lineup, finishing the season .294/.345/.481 with 11 homers in 88 games. After the break, he really came on, hitting .319/.385/.485 in 49 games. Francona and Sandy Alomar Jr. loved the way he called games and the pitching staff really took to him, Scott Kazmir in particular. He was heavily leaned on in September and will start 2014 as the team’s regular catcher.
Gomes’s “backup” will be Santana, but make no mistake, ‘Los will be in the lineup every single day. The switch hitter spent most of the last two months either DH’ing or playing first base, and again put up nice steady numbers. Santana again showed great patience at the plate, leading the team in walks, pitches per at-bat, on-base percentage, and doubles. He was second in homers and runs batted in. I think fans expect more from him, but when you compare his consistency to that of others on the team, you should want to sign up for what Santana gives you with the stick all day.
Defensively, Santana seemed to regress as a catcher early in the year. He often looked lazy behind the plate but the good news is that Gomes is a defensive wizard and should be the guy in 2014 with Santana catching only once or twice a week.
Carlos took some turns at first, but the position was mostly manned by Swisher. The Tribe’s big free agent acquisition was one of the best clubhouse leaders and most popular players this town has seen in a long time. I’ve talked at length about what his actual signing did for the credibility of the franchise, despite the fact that they had to overpay to get him. If you want Swisher to put up numbers to match his big contract, you are probably going to be disappointed. He spent most of the year battling a shoulder problem which clearly affected his swing, particularly from the left side, but in September, Swish was one of the offensive catalysts, hitting seven jacks and driving in 17 runs. He also led the team in homers with 22, the ninth straight season he has hit at least 20. The clutch stats certainly should have been better (.234 with RISP) and an overall .246/.341/.423 slash line has to be better. But Nick’s value is more than just what he does on the field.
I think in year one of his big contract, he pressed a bit much early and even admitted as much. He just wanted to do so well for his new team. The biggest evidence came in his final at-bat of the season, when he nearly screw himself into the ground swinging for a three-run homer in the seventh inning of the Wild Card loss. A healthy, year-two-Swisher should be a better offensive player in 2014. Nick was miscast as a cleanup hitter most of the first half of the season, but found a home in the two-spot, which is where I would imagine he will be next season.
Next to Swisher is Kipnis, who parlayed a great first half into his first All Star appearance. Kipnis has a home hitting third in the Tribe lineup and at times carried a struggling offense as he did in June (.419/.517/.699/25 RBIs). For most of the season, he was the team leader in almost every offensive category, but a second half swoon for a second straight year is a concern. But take nothing away from Jason, he was terrific in 2014.
At the All Star break, Kipnis was hitting .301/.383./514 with 13 homers, 57 RBIs and 21 steals in 319 ABs. His second half was more a struggle and the lasting impression of his 0-fer in the Wild Card loss still stings, but there isn’t much more to say about Kipnis. He is one of the cornerstone players for this franchise and will be a force in the middle of the order for years to come.
While the second base position is set, shortstop has become more of a murky situation thanks to the diminishing returns from Cabrera. The Indians supposedly had offers to move their shortstop in the offseason and had a ready-made replacement on the roster in Aviles. Instead, they decided to hang onto him. In Goodyear, Cabrera showed up looking as good physically as he had in years, but unfortunately, it just didn’t translate on the field.
If you had to point to the biggest disappointment with this team, Cabrera would be near the top of the list. He spent most of his time hitting second, third, and in the cleanup spots, all of which he left a lot to be desired. Francona “tried to get him going” by moving Cabrera to the cleanup spot and it was a miserable idea. While his first half was bad (.255/.315/.421), he was worse after the break, a disturbing trend that is now in its third year. .228/.279/.380 from a guy who is supposed to be one of your better offensive players was a killer. The clutch stats (.197 with RISP) were even worse. Finally Francona moved him down to sixth, but it didn’t really help. Things came to a head in the Wild Card loss when Cabrera went 0-4, leaving five men on base, three of which came on the most ill-timed double play ball of the season. It was another in a long line of bad at-bats from Asdrubal we have seen all year.
His body language was bad, his defense was below average, and worst of all, the Indians probably missed their chance to get any sort of legitimate haul for Cabrera. He will be in the final year of his contract and slated to make $10 million. The Tribe will probably try to move him this offseason, but I think they will end up riding it out for one more year, hoping he will find himself while playing for a new contract. Whoever takes short next year is just a one year place holder until top prospect Francisco Lindor is ready.
The hot corner will also be a hot topic in 2014. The hope was that Chisenhall would take the job and run with it. He had no one looking over his shoulder and the time was now for the 24-year old to take that next step forward and become an offensive force. He started the season so poorly at the plate that the Indians sent him back to AAA Columbus to re-find his swing. Chisenhall was pressing and with Mark Reynolds tearing the cover off the ball in April, it didn’t seem like a big deal. His time in Columbus did nothing other than prove that Lonnie had graduated from AAA. He hit over .400 and returned to Cleveland in essentially a third base platoon. The reason? He still hasn’t been able to hit lefties. Two knocks on Chisenhall coming into the season were his suspect defense and his inability to hit left-handed pitching. With the glove, Chiz was average. Against lefties, he had just four hits in 36 at-bats. His patience at the plate also needed to be worked on. Chisenhall walked just 16 times in 289 at-bats. Interestingly, despite his struggles, Francona started Lonnie in the Wild Card game and he delivered with three hits.
This will be a big offseason for Chisenhall and his future with the organization. He could easily be a part of a deal to bring either another veteran starter or a big middle of the order bat to town. He could also be given one more shot to prove he is the future at third base in Cleveland.
Aviles did a nice job in his time rotating all over the diamond, but got the regular late September work at third, even against right-handed pitching. It was clear that Francona trusted him more than Chisenhall. The man they call Handsome Mike was one of the top clubhouse leaders and was the perfect teammate. Wherever he was needed, whether it be third, short, second, left, or right field, Aviles was ready “at the drop of the bat.” He was the catalyst behind “The Goon Squad” and will be back next year in a similar role, unless Cabrera is dealt this winter which would turn him into your every day shortstop.
An interesting name to watch next season was one of the September call ups who made a nice impression; 20-year old Jose Ramirez. While he played mostly shortstop in Akron this season, the speedster could become the utility man next year if the Indians do end up moving Cabrera. Mostly all we saw of him was pinch running appearances, but Francona gave him a start at third in Chicago on September 15th and he responded with a hit and two walks.
One thing you may have noticed when reading this piece was a lack of sheer volume of players who were used by the Indians in the infield this season. The core guys stayed mostly healthy and the stabilization of the utility spot by Aviles was a big help. In a big offseason for the front office, a shakeup wouldn’t surprise me one bit. The two spots to watch are on the left side.