Let’s just be honest. The Tribe has issues. Many, many issues. Those issues will hopefully be solved quickly so that the team can re-enter the race for the American League Central sooner rather than later. The biggest, most gaping holes on the roster heading into the 2011 season are 2nd base and 3rd base. Almost every other spot on the roster is more or less spoken for, but that does not mean that there is no room for improvement. Coming off of the 2010 season the team’s injuries and poor performances of “Top Prospects” exposed the team as being farther away from contending than many believed. I, however, am a perpetual optimist and I think that if the team stays healthy and the players play to the potential and the expectations, than the Tribe could be a surprise contender in the tough AL Central. We will cover some of the other position battles and issues as we move closer, such as who will fill out the Tribe’s rotation and bullpen, and backup Outfield and Infield roles. Today I’ll just stick to looking at the 2nd and 3rd base spots, running down the main competitors and talking a little about the 1st base job and Short Stop Asdrubal Cabrera.
I have to start with the positive. Asdrubal Cabrera is a stud, he is probably one of the best, if not the best, defensive Short Stops in the American League. He makes all of the routine plays and he makes the tough plays look easy. We all know that play he made last summer where he slipped and fell backwards, grabbing the ball barehanded after it kicked off of Justin Masterson’s large foot and still gunned down the runner. What the Indians need from Cabrera is for him not to collide with Jhonny Peralta and for him to return to his high batting average and high on base percentage ways. He has the ability to be a great #2 hitter in the lineup, much like Omar Vizquel used to be. In 2009 he batted .308 with an OBP of .361. If he can get back to that it will be a huge boost for the Indians who need to get production from the guys who we all know can do it. Cabrera’s line last year was pretty rough, but even though he had a few injuries was not really that bad. His .276 average left something to be desired, but his OBP fell to .326, and his steals fell from 17 to 6, but that had a lot to do with his missed time. The lack of steals was also a trend of losing, as losing teams can rarely afford the fortune of being able to push the tempo on the base paths. If the Tribe sees Cabrera return to his .310/.360 form the combo of him and Michael Brantley at the top of the lineup can really set the table for Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner in whatever order they fall behind the two, assuming of course that my projected lineup is what we see on opening day…..
1. Brantley, CF
2. Cabrera, SS
3. Sizemore, LF
4. Choo, RF
5. Hafner, DH
6. Santana, C
7. LaPorta, 1B
8. Nix, 3B
9. Donald, 2B
As far as LaPorta goes, the importance of 2011 to him has already been pretty well documented it. Anthony Castrovince would agree with me that this is a make or break year for the “slugger” the Tribe gave up CC Sabathia for. The Indiand NEED him to produce at a high level if they are going to compete in 2011, and this season will likely decide his future with the club. I have harped on that fact for the past few months and voiced my disappointment in his performance thus far as a big leaguer.
While the performances of Cabrera and LaPorta are no sure thing, they at least have their jobs in hand. 2nd base and 3rd base are a different story. They will see a competition at each to start Spring Training in a month. At 3rd we will see Jayson Nix, Jack Hanahan, Cord Phelps and Jarod Goedart compete, with possibly Jason Donald factoring in. While I would love to see one of the youngsters, Phelps or Goedart take the job, it will be short lived as I predict Lonnie Chisenhall getting the call up to the big leagues after the All-Star Break. My prediction now is that Jayson Nix wins the job, despite the poor defense. He wins it because of his potential power punch out of the 8-hole, but if he struggles than I think it will be Goedart’s job to lose. My thoughts are that Nix wins it out of Spring Training, but by June Goedart’s power in AAA make it so the Tribe calls him up and let’s him get MLB at bats until the “Chiz” is ready. What might we expect to see from Nix? Well likely more poor defense and some power. I don’t think he will come as close to leading the team in homers this year as he did last year, but I think he might play a role in the offense early. The only other likely scenario that I see him getting time this year early on is if both Adam Everett and Jason Donald fail to nab the 2nd base job and Jason Kipnis shows he needs time to grow at AAA, then we might see Nix go back to his original 2nd base spot and let Goedart or Phelps handle the hot corner.
If Adam Everett does not win the 2nd base job from Donald, he will certainly be the utility infielder. His defense and veteran leadership will be appreciated, and he could help teach the young players how to play a little bit. I foresee that Luis Valbuena makes no impact in Spring Training and will probably not be seen again in Cleveland unless the Tribe gets desperate. I really do think that Jason Donald will end up being a pretty solid 2nd base option, but in the long run he will be the Tribe’s utility guy, because I think Adam Everett will get dealt by the end of the summer like Kearns last year, and Jason Kipnis is the 2nd baseman of the future. Donald will be a serviceable big leaguer eventually, even if it is in the utility role. I predict though, that he does win the every day job this Spring over Everett, but much like with 3rd base, I see Jason Kipnis taking over the job after the All-Star Break. By the end of the summer, I see the Indians infield looking like this, Chisenhall, Cabrera, Kipnis and either Goedart or possibly Jordan Brown at 1st base. Yeah, thats right. I think Matt LaPorta lets us all down. I hope he proves me wrong, but I think the Big Gator struggles to fit the bill of the star slugger. Jordan Brown, though a year older than LaPorta, I think he has another strong campaign at AAA and will eventually swap places with LaPorta if he struggles at the plate like I think he will. But man, I really do hope I’m wrong. I also think, on a somewhat un-related note, that the Indians start to groom the big Canadian outfielder Nick Weglarz to play first base. Just a thought, since the Tribe seems to always be log-jammed in the outfield.
But like I said, I think Jason Donald and Jayson Nix start things off at 2nd and 3rd respectively, but don’t expect them to log 162 games there. I think Donald wins the position based on his speed and defense, his offense will be just barely better than Adam Everett’s. Nix will provide the Indians with a little added punch, but I think they get sick of his inability to play defense at third base and replace him with Goedart by the All-Star Break, unless they just bite the bullet and call up Chisenhall early. It really is not the brightest image on the roster, but I see a very bright future for the Indians infield. I would not be surprised if Cabrera garners some All-Star recognition this summer if he gets his offensive game caught up with his plus glove work, and I think he takes the reigns this season as the Gold Glove Short Stop in the American League. My bold prediction for the Indians infield unit is that by August, Matt LaPorta will no longer man the 1st base spot, and will either be playing elsewhere or limited to back up duty. And we will see the Major League debuts of probably all 4 infield prospects this year, Phelps, Goedart, Kipnis and Chisenhall while the Indians try to figure things out for the 2012 season and beyond.