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Lopez’s Renaissance: A Rise to Relevance

Lopez’s Renaissance: A Rise to Relevance
June 2, 2012
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With a rash of untimely injuries plaguing the everyday lineup, the Tribe is craving a spark from one of its reserve players.  Moreover, the lineup is in desperate need of a consistent right-handed bat to break up the glut of lefties.

Manny Acta recently expressed his angle on the situation: “Hey, we can't just throw our arms up … We have to move on and get on with it. Somebody needs to step up. More guys in the lineup need to do their thing."

Infielder Jose Lopez - possibly the unlikeliest candidate - has stepped up and filled a significant void in the Cleveland offense.

After he was designated for assignment on May 1st in order to make room on the roster for the addition of Johnny Damon, Lopez looked like he was left for dead. After all, Cleveland is his third stop in the last year, so fans had every reason to write off the 28-year old Venezuelan. What a difference a month makes, as now Lopez is the one who finds himself with a more secure position on the roster as the elder and more accomplished player, while Damon continues to scuffle with a batting average south of the Mendoza line.

Lopez was recalled by the Indians on May 12th, and since then he looks nothing like the player who had a brutal batting average of .190 in April. Ripping off a ten game hit streak, the new Lopez posted a .279 batting average and .733 OPS in 61 at-bats during the month of May, raising his overall average to .256, thus proving he belongs on the roster. Now, with the injury bug burying its teeth into the Tribe lineup, the former All-Star finds himself in an opportunistic situation to solidify his role on the team, especially with Travis Hafner shelved potentially until the All-Star break.

Provided that he continues to maintain a sufficient level of production, Lopez should have no shortage of playing time at his disposal with Hannahan and Hafner sitting out. Lopez’s offensive presence is highly relevant because the Tribe lineup is begging for a solid right-handed hitter to combat their last place ranking in the American League in team batting average versus left-handed pitchers (.215). To that end, it is imperative that Lopez is in the lineup for as long as he can prove that he’s a viable starter; otherwise, opposing managers will continue to trot out left-handed arms out of their bullpens to batter the lefty-heavy Tribe lineup.

To address the critics who say Lopez is just on an ephemeral hot streak that will fizzle out, returning him back to the hitter he was in April, think about this: Lopez only had 21 at-bats in April, hardly enough of a sample size to deem him incapable. He nearly tripled his April at-bat total in May (61), and with consistent playing has shown that he’s capable of recapturing some of his magic from years past. One must imagine that after his breakout years in Seattle, the league got a read on Lopez and his propensity for free-swinging. Opposing pitchers made the adjustment, avoiding giving him pitches he could mash and his performance suffered, even through last year.

Over the month of May, Lopez has readjusted, and it’s starting to pay off. Sure, his batting average, .256, isn’t exactly setting the baseball world on fire (however, it is better than four regular starters: Santana, Hafner, Kotchman, and any left field platoon you can concoct), but his immense strides of improvement over a relatively short period of time should give Tribe fans some optimism regarding the lineup.

Lopez's success since being back on the big league roster hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Tribe’s manager, who recognizes the potential that Lopez possesses: “He’s done a very good job picking up for Jack,” Acta said. “He’s been a weapon in the past. He’s a valuable guy.” Acta’s assessment is spot on, as Lopez had hits in 14 of his 16 starts in May. 

Therefore, there is no other option, for the time being, than to start Lonnie Chisenhall at third base and Jose Lopez in the designated hitter spot. Lopez’s season splits versus righties and lefties (.250/ .269) indicate that he merits a starting spot, until he hits a prolonged slump and another player shows he can top that. For a player who has never had a consistent home on the defensive side of the ball, Lopez isn’t wasting any defensive prowess by DH’ing.

More importantly, 23 year-old Chisenhall is the future at third and needs to start sharpening his defensive comfort level with the hot corner. Looked at it through a wider scope, Chisenhall’s success at third is crucial because it reaffirms a necessary cornerstone to this franchise’s success: drafting and developing prospects into big league players, as opposed to fishing for free agents at a lake where many of the other fishermen have much more alluring bait & tackle.

Lopez’s role with the team is different; he’s one of those good old fashioned reclamation projects, in which the Tribe scoops up as a castoff with the hope that he can regain form and plug a hole until the long-term answer pops up through the pipeline ready to bring stability to the area of need. No one is asking him to be a Cabrera or a Kipnis, rather they just need him to be a solid big league hitter. Something near Lopez’s career batting average of .263 should do just fine, especially with the staggering number of players on the Indians roster who are struggling to reach or keep an average of .200.

Lopez's season trajectory is certainly very curious. Most players who get the DFA stamp from an organization are rarely heard from again, until a ten-word blurb pops up somewhere on the back of the sports page, stating that the unlucky player has been released or traded. Lopez beat the odds just by getting another shot with the Indians, something he did not get last year in Colorado or Florida.

As a parting thought, and maybe it’s just the optimism talking, consider that Lopez was just 18-years old when he started professional baseball in a foreign country, with his family and friends still on the continent he left behind. Obviously, he did not attend college; and for most prospects fresh out of high school, the learning curve is different (i.e. longer), with the exception of the miniscule sliver of high school prospects, who ride their elite talent to success in the majors.

Point being, Lopez could very well be on the cusp of starting to put it all together, as he is still on the right side of 30. Or, maybe he’ll just be a solid bench player who can fill-in admirably when it starts raining injuries. Either way, the Indians should have no problem finding a spot on the roster for a player who has clearly shown he’s not ready to give up.

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