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Building a Wahoo Winner: Improve the defense

Building a Wahoo Winner: Improve the defense
This play against the Royals was the signature defensive miscue of the season as it resulted in a Little League style inside the park home run that contributed to a 2-1 loss for the Indians. (Photo: AP)
October 22, 2014
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As Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas flipped over the rail and into the dugout as the baseball made its way seamlessly into his glove last Tuesday night amidst Game 3 of the ALCS, my mind wandered.

Could defense - the most overlooked aspect of baseball - be the reason for the Royals' remarkable run?

Sure, the Kansas City offense found its groove this offseason, their starting pitching and run game were great all year, and they have an unflappable bullpen, but could the Royals have ridden upon the wave of their countless web-gems to make it to the Fall Classic?

According to, individually, the Royals had the 9th best fielder in the league in Alex Gordon, the 13th best fielder in the league in Salvador Perez, the 31st best fielder in the league in Alcides Escobar, the 59th best fielder in the league in the aforementioned Moustakas, the 75th best fielder in the league in Nori Aoki and, finally, the 82nd best fielder in the league in Omar Infante.

That list, however, doesn't even include Jerrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain, each of whom failed to qualify due to a lack of innings throughout the season, but who are now the best and fourth best fielders on the Royals in overall defensive rating.

Sure, this doesn't "prove" that the fielding prowess of the American League Champions propelled them to the World Series, but I would argue that it helped more than it hurt. This certainly wasn't the case with the 2014 Cleveland Indians.

If you watched the Indians of 2014 for any extended period of time, you undoubtedly knew - even without knowing the numbers - that they were a terrible defensive unit.

Potential unturned twin-killings turned into two-run innings. Simple groundballs that found their way through the infield extended innings and overextended pitchers. Should be one-two-three innings turned rallies for the opposition.

While it was certainly a comedy of errors throughout the season for the Tribe defensively, the results were not a laughing matter.

The Indians .981 fielding percentage ranked last in Major League Baseball. They committed a league-worst 116 errors on the season. On the Fangraphs list of the league's best fielders - the list that housed the six Royals above - the Indians had one of the top 100 fielders in baseball in catcher Yan Gomes, who ranked as MLB's 23rd best defensive player.

Those awful numbers manifested themselves in the standings, as the Tribe finished four games behind Kansas City in the division and, therefore, eliminated themselves from any possibility of a magical postseason run. Thankfully Indians pitchers struck out a record 1,450 batters this season and took matters into their own hands, otherwise the Indians may have finished under .500 because of the poor defense.

So how can the Indians prevent themselves from being so defensively deplorable in the 2015 season?

Yes, they can spend time this offseason working. They can use Spring Training. They can even make it a point of emphasis for the upcoming campaign, but in order to truly change the defensive woes of this team, positional changes and additions are necessary.

Let's go around the diamond.

At catcher, let's face it, the Indians seem to be set for the future. Yan Gomes has proven to be as proficient a defender as he is a hitter, which bodes well for the Indians both now and in years to come.

First base needs to belong to Carlos Santana and Carlos Santana alone for a while. Santana might have proven a poor third-baseman, but upon his move across the diamond, he showed signs of brilliance. An entire season at first will eliminate Nick Swisher from playing there ever again, which is a welcome development for defensive improvement, and may even further Santana's comfort in the field and make him that much better a defender.

With catcher and first baseman solidified, then comes the rest of the infield, which has turned into quite the conundrum.

As of right now, it seems as if the Indians have a litany of options for the middle infield and hot corner spots. It's just a matter of what they decide to do.

The first scenarios is a "keep the status quo" model, in which Jason Kipnis stays at second, Jose Ramirez/Francisco Lindor man the six-hole and Lonnie Chisenhall stays at third. This scenario would be the least effective, as it is what we saw for the majority of the 2014 season.

While Ramirez provided a much-needed breath of fresh air for the Tribe upon his arrival to the field, Kipnis and Chisenhall proved over-and-over again that they're both below average fielders at their positions.

That being said, change seems necessary, which brings along the second scenario: a youth movement.

Bringing up Giovanny Urshela from Triple-A to man the hot corner, placing Francisco Lindor at shortstop, and inserting Jose Ramirez at second base would be quite the shakeup to the opening day roster. This would leave Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall without a regular position, and they are unlikely to begin the season with true rookies at the left side of the infield. This would be bold, but give them a lot of options with all players involved.

While Lonnie started the 2014 season amongst the American League's best offensive players, he quickly cooled and became what everyone felt he would be: an average-to-above-average at best bat and a below average glove. His second half led to thoughts of a trade or a position switch, both of which would definitely be at the forefront of this specific scenario.

As for Kipnis, he is still a fan favorite and former AL All Star. The unfortunate thing about this scenario is that the Indians invested in Kipnis with a contract extension not too long ago, which I think rules out any possibility of him not starting the season at second base. But maybe at some point they consider moving the former collegiate outfielder back into the grass?

Which brings about the final and most likely scenario: platoon a player with Chisenhall at third base until Urshela proves himself to be ready for a big league every day opportunity. Also, use Jose Ramirez at shortstop until Francisco Lindor proves himself ready to step in as a capable offensive player at the Major League level - at which point Ramirez would become the ultimate utility player. This would keep Kipnis at second base, who despite his defective defense at times the hope is that his bat returns to its pre-2014 form.

This scenario would be the best balance of the three positions and would allow for such things as experience and offense to play a legitimate role, rather than to base the moves solely on defensive schematics. Ultimately, I think this is what you'll see play out over the course of the 2015 season.

As for the outfield, it should remain intact.

There's no reason to make many changes in the outfield, as two of the outfielders are more than capable defenders on any given play and the other outfield spot should be manned by a somewhat productive duo.

In left, it's the assassin of the outfield assist in Michael Brantley. In center, it's the ever-aging, but still capable Michael Bourn. In right, it should be a revolving door of Nick Swisher, David MurphyRyan RaburnTyler Holt and potentially an offseason acquisition.

While Holt is the clear, clear favorite defensively, his bat hasn't proven to be worthy of a starting spot over a healthy and rejuvenated Nick Swisher or even a somewhat-productive David Murphy. There is even no guarantee he makes the opening day roster next season, especially if the Indians go out and target a right-handed bat in the outfield with good platoon splits to complement Murphy.

To review, the 2015 Indians defensively, should look as follows:

C: Yan Gomes
1B: Carlos Santana
2B: Jason Kipnis
SS: Jose Ramirez/Francisco Lindor
3B: Lonnie Chisenhall/FA or trade pickup/Giovanny Urshela
LF: Michael Brantley
CF: Michael Bourn
RF: David Murphy/FA or trade pickup/Nick Swisher/Ryan Raburn/Tyler Holt

As I mentioned prior, defense might be the most overlooked facet in the game of baseball, but as the Royals have shown the Indians and the rest of the league, it could very well be the difference between the Indians making the playoffs and not making the playoffs.

User Comments

October 24, 2014 - 10:00 AM EDT
Joseph the hitting is not the issues. Yes, while they could use a bat they have hit more than enough when compared to the rest of the league. They were a top 8-12 offense in baseball last year whereas they were at the bottom ranked defensively and the relief pitching was at the top for blown saves.
October 24, 2014 - 9:13 AM EDT
Mark, If the oblique was so destructive to Kipnis's ability - he should have sat out longer and done a better rehab.

October 24, 2014 - 4:14 AM EDT
While improving the defense should be a major goal; it is not the major concern for this team. The major concern IS and has been for the last four years is the HITTING. Far too much good pitching has been wasted because we can only manage 1 or 2 runs a game. There are too many holes in the lineup...Giambi,Swisher,Murphy,Aviles,Chisenhall...these guys can't hit. We need an impact bat or we are doomed to waste more good pitching: that is if we are fortunate to get it again next season. They have to stop bringing in utility players and reclamation projects and FINALLY make a splash. Nelson Cruz would have a tremendous effect on the offense if not Victor Martinez or even maybe take a gamble on Alex Rios... but a big bat is DESPERATELY NEEDED.
October 23, 2014 - 1:36 PM EDT
Defensive upgrades at 3b and RF would be great but look to improving up the middle. If a very poor at D 2nd basemen is to man the position don't also have a poor CF.
October 23, 2014 - 12:22 PM EDT
Johnny, bottom line, the Indians simply will not start the season with Urshela at third base. They have a history of handling zero service time rookies a certain way, and that is not going to change now. It is why Urshela and Lindor won't be up in Cleveland until May/June at the earliest. In the meantime, I expect them to look to upgrade third base with a one year deal on a player who can help defensively.
johnny football
October 23, 2014 - 10:52 AM EDT

While you say the priority is going to be defense at third base, why do you also say Urshela isnt an option due to his bat not being ready for the bigs?

Wouldnt it make most sense, if defense is the main concern at third, for the tribe to let Urshela play there and work through his at bats? And worry about upgrading RF instead?
October 23, 2014 - 8:36 AM EDT
Yep, clear as day that the position targeted for an upgrade is third base. The other three positions are not changing.

Defensive oriented player for 3B and a RH offensive oriented player for RF to platoon with Murphy. Those are the two offseason targets if you ask me.
October 23, 2014 - 8:12 AM EDT

That "some" name player did go. His name was Asdrubal.

Have any of you people tried to play through an oblique injury? I did in college, and I can tell you: you can't. It severly hampers you for about 6mths after the initial injury, so while Kipnis doesn't have world beater range, he will be better just by getting healthy in the offseason.

Also, Chisenhall didn't get normal reps for 3 months (ST, April & May) while we languished through the "Santana Experiment". Once he started getting his reps in, while still below average, he wasn't horrendous. Santana is a league average 1st baseman or better.

We won't see Swish in the infield next year, and Asdrubal has been replaced by the best defensive SS in the league in the second half (depending on which defensive metrics you look at). The defense will be better, just from having those two out of the picture, but throw in a healthy Kip and not playing Santana out of position, and this team is not finishing last in the league in defense next year. Sure, they might not finish in the top half, but I can easily see this group finishing middle of the pack. Which is perfectly fine.
matt underwood
October 22, 2014 - 10:42 PM EDT
i think what this also needs to happen is the front office needs to quit trying to put round pegs in a square hole. santana should never have played 3rd, chiz is not a third baseman, enough with the outfield platoons. get real players to man the positions that actually play the positions and be done with it. i acknowledge this was a lot bigger problem when wedge was here but the problem still persists.
October 22, 2014 - 9:19 PM EDT
I recognize that many things can happen in a year but I do not see how the Indians can add a contract longer than one year. The 2016 payroll precludes unless the Tribe trades Bourn and Kipnis. I do not think Swisher is tradeable and it is unlikely they would trade Santana. As much as no team likes to rely upon mid-year minor league replacement players, that just might be what the Indians have to do.
October 22, 2014 - 8:43 PM EDT
Why can't the Tribe draft a 3B? Other than Kouzmanoff & Chisenhall it's been shooting blanks, unless you count an unsigned Taylor Sparks. How old would Matt Whjtney be?
C L Who
October 22, 2014 - 6:57 PM EDT
This is absolutely what should happen, except that the Tribe should move Murphy and Raburn, and pick up Scott van Slyke and platoon him with Kipnis in RF.

If I recall correctly, the Tribe had a minus 69 runs saved tally in 2014. Overcoming that means the Tribe had to score a minimum of 69 additional runs up to a maximum of 138 runs.

Chisenhall's bat definitely does not make up for his defense, which is .939 FP. Yuck. He's got to go and make room for Urshela.
October 22, 2014 - 5:59 PM EDT
Tony, The most likely scenario defined above leaves us absolutely no better than where were this year.

Some "name" player has to go if there is to be real change. If Kipnis is the 2b - that means Chiz has to go.

October 22, 2014 - 12:25 PM EDT
I'm still in favor of signing Headley if he can come cheaply enough. MLBTR's expected contract seems to be too high in my opinion. Headley has a history of getting hurt, I think that it's safe to say that his bat is only a bit better than league average, and teams just don't pay for defense at 3B. I see him getting some where around 3/36, and at that price it makes all the sense in the world for the Indians to be involved in discussions with him. Chisenhall is definitely not the answer, and we don't have any clue about whether or not Ushela will be able to handle the majors, and having not seen his defense, I can't even assume that his defense will be good enough to float him in the majors.

This would obviously tie up much of Cleveland's budget for this offseason, however, we do have trade chips to try to improve the bullpen and the RF situation. I doubt that we'll be able to get a massive upgrade for RF, but it's also possible that we might be able to get Saunders from the Mariners while the team looks to be disenchanted with him, I'm sure that the Dodgers would be willing to deal Ethier, possibly even eating a huge chunk of the salary owed to him to get something back that they consider worthwhile. Perhaps Boston would even be looking to deal one of their OF's. Another option would be to try giving a pillow contract to Rasmus to play RF every day. If he busts, it won't be any worse than the current situation, if he's a success, perhaps he moves the needle just enough to get us back into the postseason.

The end result is that there are options out there that shouldn't cost an arm and leg due to their warts and not being the top talent available. But standing pat with the current defensive situation and hoping that Lindor can push Ramirez off SS or that a trio of Swisher/Murphy/Holt can provide enough value in RF is about the worst thing that this team can do. We're on the bubble, and the clock is ticking. Time to push in our chips and go for broke.

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