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Getting offensive about the defense

Getting offensive about the defense
May 2, 2012
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With the arrival of Johnny Damon, the time feels right to take a look at the curious makeup of the 2012 Cleveland Indians roster.

Looking at it objectively, there is something that feels just a little dyslexic about it.

A basic baseball axiom preaches for a team’s defensive strength to be built up the middle while the offense comes from the corners.

Doesn’t exactly sound like the Tribe, does it?

At catcher is Carlos Santana.  A converted third baseman, Santana is still a defensive work in progress.

Another work in progress is the Indian’s second baseman as Jason Kipnis is a converted outfielder.  He has even less experience at his current position than Santana does at his.

At shortstop, Asdrubal Cabrera makes some spectacular plays in the field and would appear to be a defensive strength. That is until you take a look at just about every measure of fielding metrics.  Cabrera consistently rates as a below average defender.

The final position up the middle is centerfield, where current centerfielder Michael Brantley is average at best.  Of course Grady Sizemore was supposed to be the starting centerfielder so perhaps being critical of Brantley is a little misguided.  Then again, if the Tribe seriously felt Sizemore was going to be a plus defender manning the outfield after all of his injuries, than I’ve got some magic beans I’d like to sell to the front office.

All of this would be okay considering all of these players are or have the potential to be above average offensively at their respective positions, with the exception of Brantley of course.  It would also be okay if the Indians hadn’t spent the offseason and the better part of the early season droning on about the importance of defense.

Jack Hannahan at third base over the more offensively minded Lonnie Chisenhall is actually a defensible decision.  The hot corner is no place to have a fielding liability, no matter what the Angels or Tigers will try and tell you.  Hannahan has been a revelation over the past two years.  His offense a surprising bit of gravy. 

In right field, Shin-Soo Choo is an offensive and defensive stalwart when healthy.  No problems here.

But is first base actually a place to sacrifice offense for defense?  Manny Acta has claimed Kotchman “has saved a few runs for us already.”  Perhaps.  But figuring out how many he has saved that an average defender at first wouldn’t have saved is kind of hard to quantify.

What isn’t hard to quantify are his offensive stats.  Kotchman has scored 8 runs and driven in 4.  Sabermetrics will tell you he has created 3.4 runs scored, ranking 37th out of Major League first baseman. Generously adding two or three runs to that total thanks to his defense still leaves the Tribe with a player ranked near the bottom of his positional rankings. It is actually insulting the intelligent of the fans to suggest the sacrifice is warranted.

Which brings us to Damon, who is going to platoon with Shelly Duncan in left field.  At first glance adding Damon to a corner outfield position for his offense would seem to follow the axiom.  Honestly, it probably is a good move.  Duncan looks overmatched as an everyday player and Damon has a long track record of being a quality offensive bat.  But for a team preaching defense, throwing a 38-year-old outfielder with limited range and a popgun arm into the mix just seems a little off kilter.

The curious makeup of the Indians defense is even more striking when you look to the minor leagues.  The Tribe’s front office looks like it is building the system to be defensively strong up the middle where catcher, shortstop and center field all seen an influx of talent to the lower reaches of the pipeline in recent years.

So perhaps the front office truly does believe in what they preach about defense.  But for now, the defensive alignment has something of a Frankenstein feel to it. The good news is, it is working so far with the Tribe in first place in the AL central.

Will it continue?  It is possible.  In most cases the player’s liability in one area is more than compensated by their abilities in the other.  Except for Kotchman.

Now it is time to find out if Damon’s offensive output will be able to overcome his defensive liabilities.  The answer to that question and a few other positions defensively just may hold the answer to the Tribe’s succes this season going forward.

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