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The Tribe's challenge in closing the gap in AL Central (Part 2)

The Tribe's challenge in closing the gap in AL Central (Part 2)
Lonnie Chisenhall (Photo: AP)
October 31, 2014
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In yesterday's first part, we compared the lineups of the American League Central’s three leading teams, the Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians and the American League Champion Kansas City Royals.

We deduced that with the Royals’ youth, defense and speed, and the Tigers’ ability to hurt you in all aspects of the game, the Indians have a difficult task ahead of them if they hope to make a dent in the AL Central in 2015.

When comparing the three lineups side by side, the Indians had strong entries in Michael BrantleyYan GomesCarlos Santanaand even Lonnie Chisenhall when looking at numbers alone.

So, where do the Indians need to improve?

One of the most glaring deficiencies is in the area of defense. The Tribe was the worst team in the league defensively, committing 116 errors that cost them 72 unearned runs, with the worst offenders being Chisenhall (18 errors), Gomes (14) and Santana (11).

Many of the Gomes errors came early in the season when, after signing a contract extension, he appeared to lose all sense of how to catch in April and early May. After the slow start, Gomes got back to being what he has been for the Tribe, a solid receiver with a cannon arm. Six of Santana’s errors came during the ill-fated third base experiment, which saw Carlos move across the diamond where he showed great defensive improvement as a first baseman. Both should improve upon their numbers in 2015.

This leaves Chisenhall.

Manning a weak left side of the infield at third, Chiz and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera’s defensive inconsistencies killed the Tribe over the first half of the season. When Cabrera was shipped out to Washington at the trade deadline, youngster Jose Ramirez stepped in and quickly righted the ship at short. But while Chisenhall was hitting, his defense seemed to cost the Indians at all the wrong times.

Looking at the infield defense, the Indians will be exceptional at shortstop whether Ramirez or top prospect Francisco Lindor man the position. They’re a bit weak at second due to the limited range of Jason Kipnis (only six errors) and Santana should be solid if not spectacular at first.

So, how important is it to remove Chisenhall from the hot corner?

Was the first half of last season a fluke? Was Chisenhall’s growth as a hitter a mirage? While Manager Terry Francona seemed to put Chiz in a position to succeed, he still had to hit in those situations. But why the huge drop-off offensively after the All-Star Game? Lonnie pounded out a .356 average before the break, but scuffled to the tune of .218 in the second half. You might think he could be a platoon candidate, but he actually hit left-handed pitching better in 2014.

Let’s compare Chisenhall’s 2014 slash line with two desirable free agents, Pablo Sandoval and Chase Headley:

Chisenhall:     .280/.343/.427  (13 HR/59 RBI)
Sandoval:       .279/.324/.415  (16 HR/73 RBI)
Headley:         .262/.371/.398  (6 HR/17 RBI)

As much as I would like to “upgrade” at third base, the available upgrades aren’t worth the added expense. Period. Now, if you want to go the “Oakland will trade us Josh Donaldson to save money” road, then we can talk. But it’s going to cost you a Lindor/Salazar package. Are you willing to do that? Are the Indians? That would be a short conversation from both sides, whether it should or shouldn’t be is another story.

Regardless, the Indians defense should improve if for no other reason that they can’t be that bad again, can they? A healthy Kipnis and his contract will most likely be at second base, but if he scuffles with the bat again, don’t overlook the possibilities of a Lindor/Ramirez combo up the middle, which would vastly improve the Tribe defensively. But if Kipnis hits, it’ll never happen.

So, where then can the Indians actually upgrade? Right field.

The rest of the outfield is set with Michael Brantley and Michael Bourn, but David Murphy and Ryan Raburn have been disappointing in right field where they can be liabilities. And while the Indians finally have some good, young outfielders coming, there may be another answer.


Sign Alex Rios – Rios is still a solid right-handed hitter, although his power has been dwindling. But a professional bat from the right side could be a great addition to the Indians’ lineup and solid defense is always a plus. If you could get him on a cheap one- or two-year deal, Rios could be a great value sign.


Get Drew Stubbs back – Kansas City’s outfield defense was vaunted as the best in the bigs when Gordon, Dyson and Cain were all in together. I recall thinking to myself that it was the Indians that had that same scenario in 2013 with Brantley, Bourn and Stubbs. The Tribe made a huge mistake in dealing Stubbs for lefty reliever Josh Outmanlast offseason. Stubbs had a nice year for the Colorado Rockies as a backup, going .289/.339/.482 with 15 homers and 20 stolen bases. Stubbs has always been known as a great defender with a good arm, and while he has too many swings and misses at the plate, the defensive upgrade and speed he brings to the game would greatly help the Indians both in the field and on the basepaths.  Plus, when Bourn goes down with his annual injuries, Stubbs can slide over to his natural CF spot and leave the Gold Glove caliber Brantley in left field, where he is a much stronger defender. The Rockies are in great need of pitching and Stubbs wasn’t starting for them. The Indians, meanwhile, have a man without options and without a position in Zach McAllister, who could be a decent fit in this kind of a deal. And, seriously, do we really want to see Mike Aviles in the outfield again?

In the end, the Indians need to just play better, regardless of any moves they make. The upgrade at short will translate well over the course of the full season, as it anchors the rest of the infield. A Stubbs reacquisition could make more of an impact on the Tribe than some realize, and while it would hurt the depth to lose McAllister, the Royals showed how great speed and defense can impact a game.

So, heading into the offseason, Cleveland still has some question marks, but odds are they will ride the strength of their young rotation and hope for improvement from the likes of Nick Swisher, Bourn, Kipnis and Murphy. If they get even career average production from that bunch, it could be an Indian summer once again in 2015.

User Comments

November 12, 2014 - 3:24 PM EST
Way late to the party but Chisenhall had a horrible year defensively this year, but had positive dWAR years in his previous stints at the majors and was never considered that big a liability with the glove in the minors that the projection was he would be a future 1Bman or DH, IOW, I, and probably more importantly the FO is probably willing to bet another season that Chisenhall is not as bad as he looked this year and will be an average defensive 3Bman.
John M
November 1, 2014 - 11:24 PM EDT
Just note from Pluto:

5. As a first baseman, Santana batted .274 (.912 OPS) with 20 homers and 63 RBI in 94 games.
November 1, 2014 - 8:31 PM EDT
you realize stubbs hit .211 outside coors field. unless you find a way to elevate progressive field.... having said that. he did post a respectable .266 .361 OBP against LHP in 2013. and i wouldn't mind having him back in a platoon role but its an odd numbered year and raburn is due to bounce back. but if we could make the roster work, i'd platoon stubbs with bourn and raburn with murphy.

but we don't need to score more runs as much as improve the defense. we scored more runs than the royals & giants. scoring runs will get you to the playoffs, but keeping opponents from scoring is what wins championships. the royals gave up 565 earned runs. the giants, 564. we were at 581 but we also gave up 79 unearned runs. the royals 60, the giants, only 50. if our young starting pitching continues to improve (and there's no reason to think it shouldn't,) and tighten up the defense, we can challenge the royals.

if we want to improve the defense, we need to re-think santana at 1B. there's a reason the average height of a MLB first baseman (minus swisher and santana) is about 6'2.5". santana is generously listed at 5'11" some places but he's probably no more than 5'10" tops and his arms are not particularly long. add half the height difference in wingspan and we're talking 6-8" decreased reach. who knows how many close plays at 1B might have been outs with a taller player? or how many bad throws that were charged as errors might have been eliminated by a defender who could scoop those throws out of the dirt or someone a little bit taller who could make the catch and keep his foot on the bag? or how many times an infielder might be tentative on a throw because he knew santana couldn't come up with a bad throw?

unfortunately, i don't have a good answer - unless you find a way to move bourn allowing us to move brantley back to CF and give santana a chance to earn a spot in LF.

the only way i could see us moving bourn is in an exchange of albatross contracts. maybe a 3 way with the orioles and cubs. we send bourn to the cubs (for whom bourn would be an upgrade). the cubs get a chance to dump edwin jackson who would go to the orioles who would save something like $10 mil if they sent us UJ and another $5mil to the cubs to cover the difference between bourn & jackson's contract.

1) cubs dump jackson and get a viable contributor to their lineup
2) the orioles save eight figures trading UJ's contract for jackson's.
3) we break up a logjam by giving santana another spot in the lineup and give the 6'2" aguilar a chance to win the 1st base job. and in exchange for that 3rd year of UJ's contract, get a chance to have a viable starter for 3 seasons assuming callaway can re-fix UJ's delivery. that third year of the contract is the risk. the other two years we were going to pay bourn that much anyway. that also gives us a chance to put someone else at the top of the lineup with a better OBP. maybe a rebounding kipnis?

November 1, 2014 - 6:24 PM EDT
Salazar is way more valuable as a starter. They need to exhaust every opportunity of him as a starter before even considering him in the bullpen.
C L Who
November 1, 2014 - 6:09 PM EDT

What do you think about making Salazar the closer and moving Allen back to set up?

The Tribe could then go get Fausto back for around 4 million to add to the rotation.
November 1, 2014 - 5:07 PM EDT
While I agree the Indians could use a bat, the talk that it is their number one need is a bit overboard. If anyone was paying attention this season, while the offense was frustrating at times, it was still around a top 10 offfense in the game. I've written at length how the game is different now. Offense league wide is way down. Power is down. Pitching and defense are way up in value.

So while I would love to add a bat, the number one need is a late inning pen arm. The Indians went from one of the best at holding mid-inning leads in 2013 to one of the worst....all because they lost Joe Smith to free agency and Cody Allen moved to the closer role. Having just Shaw in that role and Allen miscast as closer cost this team dearly, arguably more than anything else as they led baseball in blown saves. The starting pitching was a problem early on but righted itself. I'd like to see some pitching depth. But as for a bat, outside of a complementary pickup, I wouldn't expect much. The Indians are locked into too many guys.
November 1, 2014 - 3:15 PM EDT
Message to Dolan and Antonetti...We can't hit. We waste too much good pitching. We have too many holes in the lineup. (Giambi,Swisher,Murphy,Chisenhall) they cannot hit. We need an impact bat. Nelson Cruz,Cespedes,Donaldson or Martinez...players like them, not another cheap utility type player, like we see year after year.
November 1, 2014 - 3:08 PM EDT
We are not going to close the so called "gap" in the Central Division unless they bring in a right handed impact bat. It is as simple as that. Not another utility infielder, not another relief pitcher and not another marginal minor leaguer. We NEED AN IMPACT BAT. Anything else is just an attempt by management to appease us fans and will not make this team any better.
November 1, 2014 - 9:10 AM EDT
No no no.. Michael Brantley isn't a solid to good defender according to the same defensive metrics that point out Chisenhall being one of the worst defender in MLB that qualifies.. Brantley has rated as a -10.8 and -10.4 dWAR for the past two season and has "stunk it up" with a -4.1 and -5.7 UZR and -4.9 and -10.1 UZR/150 over the past two years, respectively.. It's Michael Brantley who is the sucks with the leather according to the method used to evaluate defensive ability.

I.O.W...Chisenhall, has his issues with the leather.. mostly throwing, but using this HORRIBLE statistical presentation of his ability.. makes little sense.. If Lonnie should be moved anywhere.. it's not to the OF.. it's to where Carlos is playing, 1B. Getting Josh Donaldson and or Chase Headly.. isn't the answer either..

w/r to Rios.. never lived up to his ginormous contract.. always underachieved.. and has moved through three systems.. His K rate is climbing.. his walk rate is declining. The power he once displayed, albeit briefly, (ISO .212, .154, .118 over the last three seasons) is declining.. This is the classic "get a guy who was once.. and hope his talent can be rekindled" player.. Pass even at the bargain price of $ 7 MM - $ 9 MM..

Free agents don't work for the Indians.. If the Indians want a slugging RH who can play 3B or RF.. they need to trade for one or draft and develop one. Buying one just isn't in the cards...
Jeff P
November 1, 2014 - 8:43 AM EDT
Rios just signed up with Scott Boras. Not exactly something you do if you are looking for a 1 year deal. Still think he's a good fit but that does not bode well for us
October 31, 2014 - 11:20 PM EDT
Robert, that is the difference though. The Indians are committed to $50M the next five years to Kipnis. THey are committed to absolutely ZERO right now with Chisenhall. So he is easier to move off a position or in the lineup if need be. It's unfortunate. It's just like with Swisher making $14M+ the next two seasons....they are committed to it so have to play him and have to find ways to improve the roster at other positions when really his position is the one that needs to be addressed.

I am fine with Chisenhall staying in the lineup. In fact, I think that is ultimately what happens. If they sign a 3B on a one year or two year deal, then he moves to RF and also gets time at 3B, DH and maybe even 1B. If the Indians go out and sign a RF, then he stays at third base for the time being and Aviles plays some there until Urshela is ready to mix into things. Ultimately, the guy I think who may be the odd man out if the Indians do sign a bat, is Murphy. It was a nonsense signing last year and we are seeing how being stuck with him for 2015 has them in a tough spot. hopefully they can find someone willing to take him on in a deal.
October 31, 2014 - 10:38 PM EDT
This whole issue angers me. Why? Because the entire focus is on Chiz. Why - because the team has anointed Kipnis as the 2b. OMG - if we want to improve the D - and Kip is untouchable - what heck is the logic?
October 31, 2014 - 10:15 PM EDT
Sure would be nice to know what Antonetti and Co. is thinking at the moment or what might be in the works. I look for Chisenhall to improve defensively next season. I don't think he will ever be in the running for a gold glove, but could creep closer to mediocrity. His offense is what will make him or break him. If he can develop more consistency over the course of an entire season then he will be looked upon with a little more positivity. Either way, Urshela is the future at 3B and I personally hope he gets called up early in the season.

Rios on a 1 year deal with an optional 2nd might not be bad, but I would prefer to see Stubbs back. His defense and base running ability changes the game. I'm holding out hope that they can find consistent at bats for Aguilar. I think he is a better bat than most on the market, but it will be difficult to put him in the line up unless Swisher is in the OF. That doesn't help matters defensively.
October 31, 2014 - 7:03 PM EDT
I think other teams will be interested in Chisenhall and McAllister. Chisenhall did hit .280 and everybody saw the potential of McAllister in the bull pen.
C L Who
October 31, 2014 - 6:57 PM EDT
What is Chisenhall doing this off season? Venezuela Winter League? Santana went down and played third last winter.....if Chisenhall's future is in the OF, then maybe he should be getting some practice playing there.

I could see a Stubbs - Chis platoon in RF, though with Chisenhall's enhanced ability to hit LHP it doesn't make as much sense as it would have.
October 31, 2014 - 5:29 PM EDT
October 31, 2014 - 5:25 PM EDT
I'm not sure why Mcallister is just being looked at as rotation depth and not a potential bullpen arm. Once he came back up in september he was averaging 95.4mph (compared to 92.2 before) on his fastball. Being in the pen will allow him to just throw 4 seamers and his average curveball and maybe an occasional changeup. Scrap his two-seamer and slider which were atrocious last year and hope he doesn't get as unlucky/gets better fielding (.332 babip and 61.3% lob% in 2014 compared to .295 babip 72.6%lob% in 2013) and you might have a pretty solid bullpen arm. He also did have a 3.45 FIP last year which was lower than Bauer/Salazar/House so it's not like he was that bad.

The need for right-handed power might be over stated anyway. Progressive Field has historically been one of the worst ballparks for right handed hitters. I'd be interested in seeing if it is necessarily the right-handed hitters being bad or if the ballpark is making them bad. Not sure how to find that information on fangraphs. Regardless, Indians hitters are 6th in wRC in the AL against left handed pitchers (5th against RHP). It's not like left handed pitchers are killing them. Rather get another left-handed bat to take advantage of Progressive Field then try and solve a problem that isn't even there.
Roger Thomas
October 31, 2014 - 4:57 PM EDT
Very good articles. Bourn, Swish and Kip will be better in 2015, assuming they have reasonable health. I agree with Art, only small changes/upgrades are needed. I would like to see another lefty in the rotation for some depth but realize Lester is too rich for our blood. Headley would be nice if we can afford him. He would balance out the lineup better (switch hitter vs. leftie Chiz) and make the 3B defense much better. This team is close. I have confidence that the present brain trust will do the right things. Spending a little more money would help too!!! GO TRIBE!!!
October 31, 2014 - 3:12 PM EDT
I definitely believe Chisenhall has a spot in this lineup. The problem is, at the moment, he doesn't fit anywhere in the field. It would be a lot easier if Swisher was not the DH as Chisenhall and another player could more freely share the DH and 3B spot, with the "other" player getting primary time at third base. But that's not the case and why Chisenhall ultimately is going to have to prove whether he can play the outfield at a satisfactory level AND he can be more consistent with the bat. While Michael Brantley continued to improve as a hitter every year, he at least was established as a solid to good defender. He hasn't really changed much as a defender over the past few seasons, it is the bat that has evolved. Chisenhall has a bat I like, but I don't like him at third base. So many balls got by him that even an average defender reaches. So while he "only" had 18 errors or whatever, he missed at least twice that many plays he should have made which did not go down as errors because he couldn't get to the ball. With a groundball staff, the need more at third base.
October 31, 2014 - 2:02 PM EDT
Chiz's overall number were very solid this past season and thats all that matters. Over 162 games, it doesnt matter how you accumulate the numbers, they are what they are. Most players don't have the consistency to put up the same solid numbers month to month and a lot of players' solid statistical years are buoyed by a number of hot stretches. Its not fun to say we should just stand pat and to resist the urge to get out the pitchforks and run off the guys who frustrated us this year but that's really our only option at this point. Other than boosting the pen and maybe bringing in a veteran 5th starter we just have to hope for improvement from Swish/Kip/Bourne and fill in whatever gaps open up internally as the season progresses. If we get bounce back years from at least 2 of those guys then I think we've got a really good shot to contend.

P.S. I would trade Lindor/Salzaar for Donaldson in a second.
John M
October 31, 2014 - 1:54 PM EDT
For all those who think the Tigers and Royals are so much better than the Indians:

Detroit 90-72 -
Kansas City 89-73 1
Cleveland 85-77 5

Can you remember four games in the last month of the season the Tribe blew because of a fried bullpen? I can. These three teams are very close. A few games here and there throughout the season make all the difference. Detroit proved how formidable they are in the playoffs, as they were swept by the Orioles.
John M
October 31, 2014 - 1:35 PM EDT
Shy -- I agree the Tribe needs to do something to get better, but I'm not sure I agree on the assessment of the Royals. Everyone seems to be in love with the "young" talent, which in reality isn't any more young than the Indians. There's a good chance that Butler is at the end of his time, whether with the Royals or just from decline. Hosmer and Moustakas have done little to live up to the hype. Their two most promising players are Escobar and Cain, who are legitimate, good players who will both improve. I thought the Royals staff was smoke and mirrors this year with the cobbled staff led by Shields (likely gone) and the well-travelled Guthrie. Ventura is a talent who will take a step forward next year, but the Tribe has four of those guys in Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar and Bauer who are all trending up and may be tremendous. Davis has never been able to lock in as a starter. Perhaps he follows the Carrasco route and "gets it" after going to the pen, but he sure seems to have found his niche as a late innings guy. You hit it on the head, though,m in saying the Indians need to right this ship and take advantage of their young and talented staff whioch will carry them. But I think with Detroit in decline, it's going to be a two-horse race over the next four years, and it's the Cleveland Indians who have more going for them as the favorites.
October 31, 2014 - 12:36 PM EDT
I haven't seen Chisenhall in the outfield. It's all about reading the ball off the bat and taking the right route. He has the speed, the coordination and arm strength but where is the experience. I would like to say if Alex Gordon could do it, so could Lonnie. And I like his hit tool, I think it only gets better- if he gets the reps. I think if he gets platooned and shifted around in the field he will probably not hit as well as he is capable of. He also would need reps in the outfield if he is going to get proficient. That would leave the Tribe w 3 LH starting outfielders and that is not good. You get a 3 game series against the Royals w Duffy and Vargas or against the WhiteSox w Sale and Quintana you gotta problem. The Royals should be better next year. If Hochevar takes over Davis's bullpen spot and Davis goes in the rotation the overall pitching could be even better, and I would look for them to keep Shields or bring in someone similar. I also think they will be looking for a power RH bat in the OF or maybe switch Mondesi to the outfield and give him a shot. The Royals are going to be the team to beat in the division for the foreseeable future and I don't see the Indians doing it unless they can come up w a 5tool RH outfielder one way or another. And they have to do it soon, while they have the pitching under control.
Teddy Roos
October 31, 2014 - 12:06 PM EDT
The Tigers and Royals are light years ahead with of us. Every FA seems to have links to not only KC and Det but, the White Sox as well. Meanwhile Antonnetti thinks we're good right where we are. People just need to step up. The Tribe will spend another $2.50 this is ff season then wonder why everyone passed them up. The assumption by Cleve is always at everyone else will ever stand still or regress. This front office and ownership isn't joke. We'll be battling he Twins for 4th place next year.
October 31, 2014 - 12:04 PM EDT
"As much as I would like to “upgrade” at third base, the available upgrades aren’t worth the added expense. Period."

This sentence couldn't be any more wrong. Chisenhall's first half is the only reason why he looked any where near salvagable this year. His defense IS that awful, and his second half offensively was disgusting. I fail to see how the team can go into the offseason looking to stand pat at 3B. UZR/150 has him at -15, good for the second worst defensive 3B in the league! And his DRS of -14 is STILL second worst! That's not even on a per rate basis, with the sixth fewest innings accumulated at 3B, Chisenhall cost the team FOURTEEN RUNS! For all qualified 3B with less than 1000 innings played at the position, only Luis Valbuena reached the double digit mark with -10, and UZR/150 said he was worth -4.9. Given his offense this year, that means that Valbuena was actually MORE valuable than Chisenhall!

Think about that, we cast off Valbuena but he's better than our current incumbent! Valbuena walked more, hit for more power, didn't have Chisenhall's absurd BABIP luck, all at the cost of just a 20.7% K%. I'm not advocating that we pursue Valbuena as a trade target, but I'm definitely using Valbuena as an example as to WHY we need to upgrade from Chisenhall. Perhaps another team would be willing to give up something not terrible for Chisenhall, but to argue that a pursuit of Headley isn't worth it is ludacris at best. Chisenhall for his career has been right about league average offensively with HORRIBLE defense at 3B. Meanwhile Headley for his career has been ~14% above league average offensively and has been a plus defender. If he can be had right around 3/39-3/45 the Indians have no business NOT being in on him. Because yes, Chisenhall is that bad.
October 31, 2014 - 11:29 AM EDT
I agree Art. As much as I want them to improve the defense at 3B, unless they package Chisenhall and send him away in a trade, he is likely to open as the third baseman next season and will give them the time and flexibility they need to take their time with the transition of Urshela to the big leagues. If Urshela does establish himself, then I'd like to see them play Chisenhall more in right field. I could see Urshela as the regular at 3B in 2016 with Chisenhall splitting time in RF, 3B and DH since Murphy will be gone. The key is finding a right-handed RF bat to fit into the regular picture there this season. As suggested in this piece, that guy to me is Rios. I've been big on him all offseason. He's not a world beater, but would be a solid option to go after who should not cost more than a one year deal for $7-9 million, which is well within their price range.
October 31, 2014 - 11:22 AM EDT
Nice couple of articles you wrote here. My own perspective is the Indians should just have a very quiet winter and work on getting guys like Swisher, Bourne and Kipnis back to their average offensive performance, and keep Chiz at 3rd until Urshela pushes him off the corner (if he can).

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