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Interesting battle starting to brew in the Indians middle infield

Interesting battle starting to brew in the Indians middle infield
Francisco Lindor (Photo:
December 15, 2014
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It’s not really a big issue at the moment, but the Indians have a very interesting battle brewing among three players for two spots in the middle infield. While Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis are set to open the 2015 season as the Indians keystone combination, top prospect Francisco Lindor is expected to change all of that a month or two into the season.

It is a battle that is going to take on a bigger scope once spring training commences. Once Lindor and Ramirez practice side by side on a daily basis and the two show their skills in games, lots of media and fans will begin the campaign for Lindor to be the shortstop in Cleveland. While that campaign is going on there will be others campaigning for Ramirez and Kipnis to stay at their positions.

It’s a good problem to have but one that should make for interesting theater as the season unfolds. The players will be held accountable for their performance and injury will factor into things as well.

Lindor vs. Ramirez

The Indians especially have an interesting shortstop predicament brewing, one that should gain more traction as spring training opens.

Lindor is the hot shot shortstop prospect ready to come up and impact in Cleveland at any time in the upcoming season. The Indians say that he needs more development so he won’t make the opening day roster, but while there is some truth to that everyone knows he is not opening the season in Cleveland simply so the organization can manage his service time clock. There is no other reason for an organization to effectively take him out of the running for an opening day spot as Terry Francona announced last week.

Even so, Lindor could be up in Cleveland as early as the end of April when he will be guaranteed to finish with less than a full year of service time and provide the Indians with an extra year of control through the 2021 season rather than the 2020 season had he opened the season in Cleveland. As a highly regarded prospect with such outstanding leadership qualities, makeup and defensive abilities, he is going to get an extremely long leash and every opportunity to make good on his promising future whenever he arrives.

So where does that leave Jose Ramirez?

At the moment, Ramirez is set to be the Indians opening day shortstop. That is a certainty barring him being traded this offseason or him getting hurt in spring training.  But beyond that nothing is a given.

That doesn’t mean Ramirez is not valued, it just means the Indians are pretty strongly committed to Lindor as their everyday shortstop of the future and for good reason. Both have a lot of potential as players, but Lindor is a superior defensive shortstop with the better actions, range, arm and intangibles at the position. That means Ramirez could be in for a role change when Lindor comes up to Cleveland. Speaking of such a role change for Ramirez is not to cast a shadow on his potential, but to bring about realistic expectations about his short term future with the Indians.

Unless Lindor falls flat on his face at Triple-A next season or is hurt, he is going to come up to Cleveland as the everyday shortstop. Ramirez playing out of his mind for an extended period of time along the lines of what Lonnie Chisenhall did the first half of last season could delay that until after the All Star break, but if he is healthy Lindor is coming at some point.

Kipnis vs. Ramirez

The Indians and Kipnis locked themselves into a long term deal this past spring signing him to a six year $52.5 million extension through the 2019 season. The marriage between club and player means that Kipnis is the Indians everyday second base option for the foreseeable future. Barring injury, there is almost nothing that can happen during the season which would result in him moving off of second base.

As we know, we can project things out all we want over the long term, but what happens in the short term has a way of getting in the way of such projections. So while Lindor and Kipnis may be considered the tag team duo at shortstop and second base for the next half decade, injuries to either player or a red hot breakthrough showing from a player like Ramirez could change all of that.

This is why it is important not to get too caught up in how Ramirez ultimately fits into the Indians roster. Right now he is the starter at shortstop and Kipnis is the starter at second base. Once the season starts then performance, injuries and such will have an impact as to who plays where. If all three of Lindor, Ramirez and Kipnis are healthy and playing well, it’s a great problem to have and it probably means Ramirez is either optioned to Columbus or is on the roster in a utility role. If Lindor, Kipnis or Mike Aviles is hurt, then Ramirez fills either one of their roles.

Assuming Lindor settles in at shortstop, what happens if Kipnis rebounds to his old form? Well, obviously, if Kipnis gets back to hitting and handling the glove somewhere around his 2011-2013 levels then he is staying at second base for the long haul. But what if his struggles continue into next season and Ramirez continues to settle in and prove to be at least a solid player? If that happens then the Indians will have a difficult decision to make at second base - though one that likely would not be made until after the season.

If the Indians consider a trade of Kipnis they would need to balance the negative hit they would get in the clubhouse and with prospective players they want to sign to future long term deals. Trading a player not even two years after making a long term pact with him could be damaging to such negotiations in the future.

The other problem is another poor year from Kipnis could make him tough to trade as he would still have four years and $43 million left on his deal. I am not sure how many teams would be willing to take on that kind of deal for a player who is trending in the wrong direction both offensively and defensively.

Yet another issue would be that the Indians would need to find another position for Kipnis. He was drafted as an outfielder but was moved to the infield after his first pro season to take advantage of his plus bat at a position which typically lacks offense and at the same time hide some concerns with his arm and glove. He’s not really an option for third base, so he would really only be an option to move to left field – a position currently held by MVP candidate Michael Brantley.

None of those issues exist with Ramirez. He brings no long term financial commitment and he is quite versatile where he could be a suitable option at almost any position on the field.

Either way, Ramirez is going to get an extended look to prove himself with the bat and defensively for the first month or two next season. That is all the Indians will need to consider his placement on the roster when Lindor arrives.

But in the meantime it should create a great middle infield competition that will be more front and center once spring training begins.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

December 17, 2014 - 4:45 PM EST
IF ZMac "wins" a spot in the rotation out of ST, Columbus will be loaded offensively and on the mound. Salazar, House and Tomlin all there along with Marcum if he stays or Bauer if he gets his extra option granted and Marcum wins a spot in the rotation.
A rotation of Bauer, Salazar, House and Tomlin would be as good as probably at least 15 other team's 2-5.
John L.
December 16, 2014 - 1:55 PM EST
A lot of interesting points being made but the one thing that will really impact Jose Ramirez is the rest of the 25 man roster. It's pretty early to try to speculate on the roster crunch because it could be very different before by Opening Day but as it stands the Tribe will have a 4 man bench with Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles, David Murphy, & Roberto Perez. If Francisco Lindor comes up and everyone is healthy I would think J-Ram gets sent down, he needs to play everyday not ride the Major League bench. Also the rotation and bullpen are not going to be as flexible as the previous 2 seasons making roster moves difficult. We all know that Tito loves having an 8-man bullpen(as opposed to the standard 7) for the bulk of the summer but Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Zac McAllister, & Nick Hagadone are all out of options and guys like Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, & Marc Rzepczynski who do actually have options won't be sent down unless they are struggling and/or Francona absolutely needs a fresh arm. That leaves Kyle Crockett, Austin Adams, & CC Lee to bounce back and forth more than normal, although I also expect the Tribe to add a few veteran relievers to minor league deals with invites to Spring Training that could surprise much like Atchison did last year.

My point being we do not have the roster flexible we have in the past. But I think David Murphy gets moved before the season allowing the Tito-standard 3 man bench, which would allow J-Ram to ride the pine as the 4th bench member IF Lindor ascends rapidly.
December 16, 2014 - 12:01 PM EST

Throwing around money is one thing (as all of MLB seems flush in cash), but teams are still incredibly protective of their prospects. I still don't see him netting anything other than maybe a A or AA reliever, which isn't much.
Devin M
December 16, 2014 - 11:25 AM EST
Mark, I thought at the beginning of the offseason we couldn't of gotten much for him, but FA prices are insane this year. $7 million seems like market value on Murphy's skills and I think the Indians will be able to get something of value for him in a trade.
December 16, 2014 - 10:40 AM EST
I 53,

Murphy doesn't get you a seventh or eigth inning guy after his performance last season. Murphy gets you a bag of balls (tennis balls. Not even baseballs) or a meh prospect currently in Low A ball, and the privilege of not needing to pay him in 2015.
I 53
December 16, 2014 - 9:08 AM EST
The bullpen was weary at the conclusion of last season. Trade Murphy for a right-handed seventh or eighth inning guy.
December 16, 2014 - 6:12 AM EST
When Lindor is ready, they should kick JRam into the UTL role. The long term commitment to Kipnis means they will stay with him better / worse. Aviles should be traded, but since he's one of Francona's boys, they likely keep him around and send JRam back to AAA to play everyday. I don't agree with that idea, but, I think it's possible. As for Walters, he's probably stuck in AAA for a large portion of the season unless some injuries pop up. He needs more time there anyways, hopefully he'll learn the strike zone a bit better while there. His power is intriguing but he has to make contact to make a difference with the power he does have.
December 16, 2014 - 6:07 AM EST
IDK if it's me or if FA has gone a bit insane this yr. These relievers getting insane amounts, some vast overpays by several clubs to get a guy they like.

It does make Swisher and Bourn's bloated deals look better. Murphy's $6M looks like a better deal when compared to the $11M Rios got. I thought at the very highest he'd get $10M on a one yr deal, but that that was pushing it. Maybe the Royals overpaid to get the one yr deal, it seems like Rios could've gotten a two yr deal somewhere. That leaves Nori Aoki as the best RF on the mkt and several clubs - the Rangers, Mariners, and Orioles still in the mkt. Of course, Colby Rasmus (CF) is probably the best OF available past Aoki. It should mean the trade mkt will start heating up with Upton, Byrd, and Murphy all available.
December 15, 2014 - 11:51 PM EST
Lindor is really not rushed. He's had a full year at every level but High-A. Spent parts of two seasons in Double-A and had a handful of games in Triple-A.....but went to the AFL in the offseason and got experience there. He's about ready. Just depends on the service time thing. He's set to get a guaranteed 20 or so games in Columbus, but the rest after that really depends on how he's doing, his health and how Ramirez is doing in Cleveland. The Indians have not mandated that Lindor get over 300 at bats in Columbus.
December 15, 2014 - 11:31 PM EST
If Murphy's contract is a steal then they should be able to flip him (dare I even say Bourn) for something of value. That is how I think of this at least.
December 15, 2014 - 9:59 PM EST

Agreed, I'm glad the Tribe has been quiet. As much as I liked Anderson, Headley, and Rios, those are questionable deals at best.

Maybe, Jung Ho Kang is the best option for the Tribe, then again, he's likely to get some crazy deal now too.

Right now, I hope the Tribe stats quiet, maybe deal Murphy, but, I'm starting to think his contract is a steal looking at some of these others guys getting crazy amounts.

I have no clue who the tribe might check into in FA, but, I suspect they may try to add a RP to fortify the BP and a cpl SP projects. Some RP I think the Tribe might have interest in....
Casey Janssen, Rafael Soriano, and KRod.
Devin M
December 15, 2014 - 9:37 PM EST
I can't believe the prices that we are seeing in free agency for players who had a down year or two. Good year not to touch free agents
Canadian Joe
December 15, 2014 - 9:00 PM EST
Actually all the proposed lineups right down to Low A look very intriguing. There are a lot of prospects down there with some nice up side. Will say it again. Been a looooong time since we have seen this much strength in the system.
December 15, 2014 - 8:59 PM EST
Even IF Francisco Lindor absolutely crushes it in Spring Training ( Now just 61 days away from Pitchers and Catcher's reporting).. he's going to AAA where he'll get at lease 340 AB's.. The only thing that will change that will be an injury or an unbelievable productive stay in Columbus..

Zach Walters could be groomed at AAA as a back up catcher/corner IF'er.. that big bat needs a spot.. and Roberto Perez.. has been less than impressive.. A super utility role could be in the offing for young Mr Walters..

We shall see..

BTW.. Alex Rios signed with the Royals.. good for us..
December 15, 2014 - 8:47 PM EST
I don't think Walters was forgotten about. He's an interesting piece going forward because he offers such intriguing pop, but as far as an infielder, he's well behind the rest on the depth chart. Not because he can't play, I think he can, but his bat leaves a lot to be desired, even as a bench player right now. Just my opinion anyway.

Having Walters as depth at Columbus is a good place for him at this point. Lineup at Coumbus should be fun to watch.
Rich S.
December 15, 2014 - 8:33 PM EST
I wouldn't forget about Zach Walters either. He wouldn't be a starter, but could be a sub at most positions other than shortstop and catcher. He might be a good platoon player at 3rd with Chisenhall. He would be a nice power hitter off the bench in pinch hitting role also.
December 15, 2014 - 7:24 PM EST
Not in favor of rushing hot-shot infield prospects. Especially with the Indians history. Think Brandon Phillips for one.
December 15, 2014 - 7:16 PM EST
If Kip is trending up he's valuable to the Tribe. In which case Aviles should go with Ramirez taking over at UTL. He could get lots of PT and ABs in that role.
C L Who
December 15, 2014 - 6:54 PM EST
I would let Kip play into June before making a trade decision. If he is playing like last year, he won't be grossly less valuable in trade, but if trending up he could become very valuable.

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