by Gregory Dew, IPI
|Matt LaPorta (Photo: AP)|
Note of disclosure:
The topic for this column was thought up before Monday night’s 19-run offensive explosion in Kansas City.
The basic premise was to question what needed to be done offensively by the club to maintain the lead the Indians had built in the American League Central Division. It was a question particularly pressing considering Grady Sizemore had just returned to the Disabled List.
After considerable thought in the warm afterglow of those 19 runs, it is a question that probably still needs to be raised. Throw out Monday’s game and the trends show the team’s offense is slowing down.
Sizemore’s injury, on the surface, would appear to add to those offensive problems. That is until you dig below the surface.
Sizemore is undoubtedly going to be key to the Indians across the long haul of this season. And he’s not going to be out that long. His replacement on the roster, Travis Buck, has torn up AAA since his demotion earlier in the season. Watching him in Columbus, the ball really jumps off his bat. Buck also proved in Oakland earlier in his career he can put up good numbers in the Major Leagues when he can avoid the injury bug and he’s healthy now.
There will likely be little drop off in production, especially with Michael Brantley now back batting leadoff. Even with Sizemore in the lineup, there are many who believe the offense is better with Brantley in the one hole. He gets on base, steals bases, and is quickly developing power at the plate. Improving the Tribe’s offense might just mean moving Sizemore down in the lineup when he returns.
It may also mean moving Carlos Santana down the batting order immediately. To be clear, there is little doubt he will eventually hit. He has done so prodigiously at every stop he’s made in his baseball career. But he should not be batting cleanup at this point. He needs to earn a spot in the middle of the order. Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome had to earn their spots in the heart of the order back in the 90s, and now so should Santana.
Shin-Soo Choo, though, should continue batting third. His big league track record is strong. He’ll get through this rough stretch and will be a strong contributor to the lineup by the middle of the year.
So barring any unforeseen additional injuries, the only legitimate points of concern lie with Orlando Cabrera and Jack Hannahan. Both veterans were pleasant surprises at the start of the season. They provided strong defense as expected while adding unexpected offensive production. But each man is now seeing a steady decline in that production. Cabrera’s age makes it unlikely he will turn it back around; Hannahan’s track record shows he won’t. It is doubtful Cabrera will become a complete offensive liability, while Hannahan will be.
Fortunately, Cabrera and Hannahan play second and third, the positions currently manned in AAA by the Indians best positional prospects, Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall and utility man extraordinaire Cord Phelps. Could the offense find a shot of adrenaline in the promotion of one or more of these prospects?
But keep in mind the true reason for the Indians strong start lies in the starting pitching aided by consistent defensive play behind the hurlers. Cabrera and Hannahan have only committed two errors apiece. Down in Columbus, Kipnis leads the Clippers with six errors, one more than Chisenhall’s five. The Tribe would be sacrificing defense in the name of offense. Such a sacrifice is probably not the best idea for a contending team. Phelps, on the other hand, has only two errors playing multiple positions while putting together a very strong offensive season.
The Indians should promote Phelps at the expense of Adam Everett. Let him be the primary third baseman while Chisenhall continues to refine his defense. It is the one move that makes the most sense offensively and defensively at this point in the season. When Sizemore returns, keep Buck at the expense of Austin Kearns.
Monday night was largely an aberration. Without having to go outside the organization, these are the best alternatives for the Indians at this point to improve the offense. But with Brantley at the top of the order and Santana moved down, it is going to put a lot of pressure for Matt LaPorta to build some consistency out of his performance in the Kansas City massacre. He needs to move up to help balance a left-hand heavy lineup. If he can’t be more than the inconsistent but serviceable performer he’s been thus far this season, the Indians might need to start scouring the trade market for some right-handed power alternatives.