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Placing the Replacements

Placing the Replacements
April 25, 2012
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They may not attract the type of media buzz that other higher-profile players garner, but the trio of Jason Donald, Jose Lopez and Aaron Cunningham are the exact type of role players that Cleveland fans admire as the blue collar members of the team. Sure, none of them are everyday starters, nor will they rack up the stats that make them fantasy baseball forces, but these glue guys are a lot more important than one might think.

Without enough of a right-handed presence in the lineup, the Tribe’s offense will surely sputter all season, especially against top notch left-handed pitching (i.e. Sabathia, Price, Lester, the three respective aces of top AL East foes). Coincidentally, the three aforementioned bench players are all righties. So, while they might not be the driving force that upends Detroit for an AL Central title, they certainly can make a difference in making the Indians a deeper squad.

April affords baseball fans the opportunity to start matching jersey numbers to last names and last names to positions. These lesser-known bench guys are worth getting to know a little better. All three players will be expected to plug holes at a multitude of positions, when rest or injuries insist. We’ll start with the hero from the red-letter comeback in the opening game at Seattle, Jason Donald.

Last Tuesday, with the Tribe clawing back from an eight to one deficit, Donald registered two key runs batted in: a clutch sacrifice fly in the fifth inning to tie the game and the go-ahead RBI single in the seventh to cap off a very impressive comeback, albeit against a not-so-fortuitous opponent. Regardless, an important point to take from the win is that Donald, a natural shortstop, was sufficient in replacing Asdrubal Cabrera, who missed six games on the bereavement list.

If the 27 year-old Donald is going to offer the Tribe a consistent threat off the bench, he’ll likely need to improve on his season’s hitting line of .212/.222/.212. On the flip side, from a numbers perspective there wasn’t much, if any, of a defensive drop-off with Donald (career shortstop fielding percentage of 95.6%) starting at shortstop for Cabrera (career shortstop fielding percentage of 97.5%), as both players have one error through the first few weeks of the season. Of course, if you watched the Oakland series, you could clearly see that Donald is not an everyday shortstop option.

In spite of not having glamorous early season stats, Donald has earned praise from Indians manager Manny Acta, “He has done a nice job. He’s contributed on both ends […] It’s good that he’s got some extended playing [time] and consistent at-bats”. Also, known for his hustle, Donald endears himself to the Cleveland faithful by running hard on ground outs (one infamous instance particularly stands out), adding to the working man persona.

Donald has plenty of time left in his career’s hourglass to forget about an underwhelming 2011 campaign, in which he battled a broken middle finger, strained groin, and sprained MCL—all in the first six weeks of the season. Donald could eventually develop into a very solid, if not good, utility player for the Tribe if he can build on his rookie hitting line from 2010: .253/ .312/ .378. Donald, like Lopez and Cunningham, can make the Tribe a much deeper team by subscribing to the team wide approach of patience at the plate, thus, at least, running up the opposing starting pitcher’s pitch count.

Speaking of taking more pitches, Jose Lopez stands to gain the most of the three, if he can improve his over-aggressive plate approach, as he has numbers and an award the other two players don’t. The 2006 All-Star is now a textbook utility infielder, capable of handling any duty in the infield that isn’t pitching or catching, with the vast majority of his career starts coming at second base.

It’s not often that you see a 28 year-old, former All-Star sign a minor league contract with a new team, but such is the case for the free-swinging Venezuelan that the Tribe picked up in the offseason, after spending last season with Colorado, and then Florida.

Fans might be thrown off by his rather pedestrian name, but this is the same Jose Lopez that spent seven seasons with Seattle, while possessing a career hitting slash of .263/.294/.398. He had his best offensive years during the not-so-distant 2008 & 2009 seasons, in which he hit .297 & .272, respectively. He had 17 homeruns, 89 runs batted in, and 80 runs scored in 2008, and 25 homeruns, 96 runs batted in, and 69 runs scored in 2009.

The disorienting thing is how Lopez devolved into a player that couldn’t even keep a major league job last year, while batting an anemic .216. Early on in the 2012 campaign, Lopez wilts below the Mendoza line, with a paltry .176.

The knock on his plate approach is his lack of walks; yet, for a hacker, he strikes out a remarkably rare amount: once every 8.38 at-bats (compared to Donald’s once every 4.08, and Cunningham’s once every 4.18 at-bats). So, if his aggressive hitting approach doesn’t preclude him from hitting for a mediocre to decent batting average, then what does? Baseball is a funny game that way.

No one wants to solve the puzzle more than Lopez, who watched a lot of video last year, during his snake-bitten tenure with Colorado. Struggling with his swing, in May of last year Lopez studied game tape from the ’09 season. Lopez concluded that the key to success was keeping his elbow higher and his chin on his shoulder.

This season could represent a proverbial crossroads for Lopez, who could ascend to his former All-Star greatness—although it’d obviously take an injury to a starter for him to see enough at-bats— or fall even further into the journeyman category.

Finally, we have the human trade chip, Aaron Cunningham. Traded four times since being drafted back in 2005 by the White Sox, the Alaskan-born outfielder has also spent time with the D-backs, A’s, and Padres, whom the Indians traded with last December to acquire the former top prospect. At 26 years old, he’s watching the sunset on his dreams of being a difference-making big league player.

Astoundingly, in 2011 Cunningham hit .329/.398/.532 in 384 plate appearances in triple-A, only to proceed to a .178/.257/.367 hitting line in 101 plate appearances with San Diego. Big league pitching has continued to stymie him into this season, as he has a .176 batting average in his first 17 at-bats of the season.

The tough thing for Cunningham is it’s hard to say when he’s going to get another 17 at-bats, with Johnny Damon’s call up looming, the smart money says a he’s bound for the minors—or a fifth trade. Having an able-bodied Cunningham isn’t the worst idea for a team that needs insurance policies on its outfielders, but there is little chance that he has a masterstroke of genius and starts to put it all together.

Good teams are often deep teams, so having a crew of reserve players, who don’t mind not getting the features on Baseball Tonight is essential to building a winning team. Donald flashed brilliance against Seattle; Lopez has flashed it over multiple major league seasons.

Together, the bench can solidify the team as a whole if it is able to step up in spot start replacement roles. If they continue to wallow along with batting averages near or below .200, then Cleveland will definitely have its lefty-heavy lineup exposed. However, if they can do the dirty work, and do it well, then the Tribe can keep opposing left-handed pitchers honest.

If nothing else, as fans, we can enjoy learning about some of the new or lesser known faces, while the April days quickly give way to summer.

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