Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Ryan Raburn, and Jason Giambi—four players who were all significant contributors on a 92-win playoff team last year that featured just twelve hitters1. This season, all four have spent time on the disabled list, and three of them have missed significant action2. So just how are the Cleveland Indians still standing and in the AL Wild Card race? Much like the core of their team, it’s in large part to unlikely contributors.
With the trades of Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera, coupled with the significant injuries to Swisher and David Murphy, the Indians have to see what they have not only to hang in the race this summer but to set their roster up for 2015. Throughout different stretches of the season, the Tribe has had winning hits or hot weeks from the likes of Nyjer Morgan, Justin Sellers, Chris Dickerson, Zach Walters, Jose Ramirez, George Kottaras, Roberto Perez, and Tyler Holt. Only Morgan was on the Opening Day roster, and none of these guys were in anything but contingency plans for 2014, if that. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that the upper levels of the organization were completely devoid of serviceable position player talent.
Let’s assume for now that the Indians have a returning offensive core next year of Gomes, Brantley, Santana, Kipnis, Bourn, Swisher, Murphy, and Chisenhall. The starting position up for grabs could potentially be shortstop, third base, and right field/DH. Mike Aviles has a $3.5 million club option ($250k buyout), and Ryan Raburn is under contract for $2.5 million. Assuming those ten make it, that’s two (maybe three) spots to round out the hitters (backup catcher, shortstop, utility man likely).
Let’s talk about some of the candidates. First is Francisco Lindor, the Indians’ 20-year-old top prospect. With just 26 games under his belt at Triple-A Columbus, what once seemed likely (a September promotion and a chance at winning the job out of spring in 2015) seems much more far-fetched now with the acquisition of Walters and the presence of Ramirez. I’m probably as anxious as anyone to get Lindor up at the big league club, but I also understand the arbitration games the Indians need to play to make sure Lindor isn’t a “Super Two” player. That means the Indians probably don’t want to bring Lindor up to the club full-time until the end of June or early July as the Top 22% of players with 2-3 years of service get the “Super Two” label. Lindor’s also the type of player that should be up here for good once he’s promoted. Jhonny Peralta was in his age-21 season when he played 77 games filling in for Omar Vizquel in 2005, Brandon Phillips saw significant time with the Tribe at age 22 in 2003, and Asdrubal Cabrera was 21 when he sparked the Indians postseason run in 2007. Lindor should be worth the wait in the second half of his age-21 season.
The Indians can afford to wait because of their multiple options at short even after trading Asdrubal Cabrera. While Mike Aviles is a known commodity, his value comes from being a key cog of the bench. He’s a pseudo-everyday player because of his flexibility and because of his ability to stay healthy, but I’m not as keen on sticking him out there at short every single day. Instead, it’s Jose Ramirez that just quietly continues to work himself into the discussion. We have to keep reminding ourselves that Ramirez isn’t yet 22 years old. Since returning to the club about a month ago, he is 16-for-63 (.254) and his speed and defense can be a weapon going forward. He stole 38 games in Akron last season (113 games) in 54 attempts; he stole 19 in just 60 games at Columbus earlier this year. J-Ram also hit .302 with a .360/.441/.801 line at Triple-A.
Infield power is an elusive thing sometimes. Zach Walters definitely has it. Small sample size warning, but six homers this season in just 75 plate appearances at the big league level this year show that power is going to translate to this level. With 29 homers last year and 23 this year, the Indians need to find a place for Walters to showcase that punch. Is that position third base? Lonnie Chisenhall’s fantastic first half of the season seems like a distant memory, and he’s a Mendoza-flirting hitter for the last couple months. Walters also now has experience at short, second, third, and corner outfield in the minors. If the Indians do believe in Ramirez and Walters for 2015, that could open the door for the Indians to decline the Aviles option, despite his contributions and the team-friendly contract.
Speaking of third base, someone that has just progressed through the ranks under the radar is 22-year-old Giovanny Urshela. All he’s done this year between Akron and Columbus is hit 18 homers, drive in 83, and OPS at .858 clip. Of course, it could be a little bit of “Huntington Park inflation beware”, but the right-handed hitting Urshela should get a look at third in September. Chisenhall is hitting just .174 since July 1st with a .569 OPS and certainly isn’t over there for his defense. Urshela meanwhile has just 4 errors in 88 games at third with a .979 fielding percentage.
Tyler Holt will be 26 next season, but between Akron and Columbus, he’s put together a .300+/.800 OPS/30 steal season. The 10th rounder of the 2010 draft can play all three outfield positions, and while I don’t see him filling a starting role in 2015, he’s got potential to be a good fourth outfielder in my opinion. As it stands this year, Holt is due to see time in right mixed in with Chris Dickerson until Murphy returns.
The crowded list of outfield guys that could be in the picture for 2015 continues with James Ramsey, dealt for Justin Masterson by St. Louis. He was the 23rd pick in the 2012 draft, and he’s hitting .298 this year with a .905 OPS. Ramsey had come along quite slowly prior to this season, but he’s said to be quite a leader and a high character individual.
So, to recap, the Indians have quite a list of guys to choose from in terms of playing time for the rest of the stretch run and into 2015: Lindor (20), Ramirez (21), Urshela (22), Walters (24), Ramsey (24), Holt (25), and Perez (25).
The teams that Chris Antonetti and Terry Francona have built over the last two seasons have focused on winning at the margins with an active and engaged bench, positional flexibility, and ensemble casts rather than focusing on a few star performers.3 It’s all a good problem to have given the state of things a short while ago. Now, it’s just a matter of seeing what the team has assembled in this critical stretch run.
(Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)
- Swisher, Bourn, Raburn and Giambi combined for a 7.6 WAR, 74 doubles, 53 homers, 199 RBI, 24 steals, and 433 games just to name a few stats [↩]
- The same stats? -2.9 WAR, 38 doubles, 16 homers, 90 RBI, 8 steals, and 252 games [↩]
- Down the stretch, I’m on board with Walters getting the daily at-bats he is currently holding down, and next year, I’d like to see him get a shot at the starting third base or shortstop slot. I want to see Ramirez daily at short with a shot at the same spot next year. Holt and Ramsey should be in the mix for a fourth or fifth outfield spot next year, and I’d like to see Urshela in September with a shot at third against Chisenhall and Walters next year. Perez should be a backup catcher that can spell Yan Gomes and give him an occasional chance to DH. As for Lindor, he can wait for at least a few months into 2015. [↩]