Cleveland baseball fans who have been begging for the return of the 1990’s kind of Indians might get a little glimpse through time, maybe for a month.
No, they didn’t sign Manny Ramirez away from his current (yes, current as in 2017) contract as a player in Japan. They might however, have a chance at fielding one of the best double play combinations they’ve had (and in baseball) since Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar.
With the Indians announcing that Jason Kipnis will not be back for at least 4-5 weeks as he heals from shoulder inflammation in his right rotator cuff, they seem more willing to move Jose Ramirez to second base, his natural position. That potentially reunites the best double play combination of Ramirez and Francisco, the best I’ve seen since the days of Alomar and Ramirez. The Indians were reluctant to move Ramirez off of third base, where he grew comfortable last season, if Kipnis was only going to miss a week or two of the regular season. Now that it’s at least a month, the Indians played Ramirez at second base the last two days to prepare for this event.
If they do indeed to go down this route, and it’s the best option in this case, this opens up third base.
Urshela is probably the favorite to open the season as the regular third basemen. Despite mediocre offensive numbers in 2015 as the club’s regular third baseman in the second half, he plays Gold Glove caliber defense. Given that he’s already on the 40 man roster and has prior major league experience, he’s the heavy favorite.
While he’s going to occupy a lower spot in the batting order and only provide occasional pop, he’s not going to get on base much. However, his glove could bring the infield defense to another level. Ramirez moving to his natural position puts this defense from good to great, Lindor is Lindor and Urshela is great, leaving just first base to be fairly average. To be fair, Kipnis had one of his better defensive seasons last year, but doesn’t match the athleticism of Urshela, Lindor and Ramirez as a 3B-SS-2B set.
This one is difficult. Shaffer is 25, a former first round pick with a power profile and ability to play third base, first base and the corner outfield positions. MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian noted Sunday that Shaffer is another believer in launch angle and that “Ground balls suck,” and has overhauled his swing to make it more productive to reach his power potential.
Would the Indians really consider turning him loose at third base for a month? He’s not considered anything more than average at third base. He’s been a little above average across the diamond in his short, short sample sizes in the major leagues. The advantage of Shaffer on the roster is that he could play third base or possibly spell someone in the outfield or play first should the Indians want to give Carlos Santana or Edwin Encarnacion a full day off. Offensively, he’s a three-true outcome player, but the question of how much power he’ll show in game is a big one. He is opening the Indians eyes this spring, so we’ll see.
If you polled most of Twitter who should play third base if Ramirez moves to second base while Kipnis is out, go to Vegas and put your life savings down on Diaz. Though some people think there’s a world where Michael Martinez is a productive everyday player, Diaz offers the most offensive upside in this scenario. He had three hits Sunday and is hitting over .400 this spring (for the very, very little spring training batting averages mean). We know he can get on base, doesn’t strike out and has experience at third base, the outfield and some at second base.
For whatever reason, the Indians have downplayed Diaz’s defensive abilities all spring. In fact, they’ve almost gone out of their way every time someone has asked about Diaz’s great spring and bright future, to mention they don’t know if he’s any good defensively anywhere. Is it a service time play or do the Indians really believe he’s a sieve with the glove? He’s 25 and this is an all-in season for the Indians, so if it’s a service time play, it’s a pretty awfully timed tactic.
Terry Francona did mention that Gonzalez could be in line to play second base in Kipnis’ absence if they opt to leave Ramirez alone at third base. Like Urshela, Gonzalez doesn’t offer much in the way with the bat other than possibly more pop and a better hit tool. Overall, he’s a lower OBP guy with more reachable pop and speed as well.
Gonzalez’s calling card is defense and versatility. He’s a natural shortstop and a darn good one. He’s played second base, third base, first base and the outfield as well. So if he does start at second, the Indians have the luxury of moving him around the diamond if they choose to maximize his great glove. He also would provide the Indians with a stellar infield defense, just a slight downgrade from the Urshela at third base option only because Ramirez’s natural position is second. The Indians seem to like Gonzalez as a utility option and he’s probably better suited for that. Having to start him everyday hurts their depth even more.
Of course, the Indians could always go with statistically one of the worst hitters in baseball history at second base. And hey, hitting a baseball is hard. Have you seen Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer throw baseballs? It’s hard for good hitters to hit them, let alone awful ones.
Look, I get that Martinez is well liked by the team as a whole. I have no doubts he’s a great person. The Indians are very careful about what kind of personalities they bring into the fold and Martinez can “play” every position but pitcher and catcher. He can probably play first base. He’s not “bad” at any of those positions and he’s OK at most. However, the guy can’t hit and no, I’m not hating on him because he made the last out in the World Series. He’s not a good hitter and he’s not a player that a World Series contending team should have to run out for an entire month of at bats.
Martinez has a better chance at making the roster than Martinez at this point. He was in contention for the utility spot but seems to have not made much progress in the eyes of the club this spring. But, he’s a solid infielder who has the most pop of the three in the “utility” options. I don’t think Kipnis’ injury really helps him anymore, however. But, Rodriguez can field third base, shortstop and second base. He can hit the ball over the fence a handful of times, but he’s also a low OBP player as well.
If the Indians do go with Ramirez at second base and Urshela at third, which I think is the most likely option at this point and it’s possible that the Indians infield defense will be so good and Urshela will actually hit enough that his bat isn’t a detriment forcing the Indians to keep him on the roster. While the Indians would like to keep Ramirez at third, given Kipnis’ injury and the fact that Lindor needs a day off from being awesome occasionally, that Ramirez becomes Ben Zobrist, like he was originally intended. Not that he’s not good enough to play a full season at one position, but he’s even more valuable because he stops prevents the Indians from having to carry guys like Gonzalez, Martinez or Rodriguez, who aren’t part of the strongest 25 guys this organization has.
I’ve also read the Indians may not want to put Diaz into a roster situation that’s temporary and he’d have to go back to AAA when Kipnis returns. The Indians are right in this regard. He does need at bats because he’s too impactful at the plate to play once or twice a week.
Maybe the Indians aren’t ready to make that decision because it looks like Michael Brantley is ready in left, some combination of Austin Jackson/Tyler Naquin/Abraham Almonte is going to make the roster in center and of course, Brandon Guyer/Lonnie Chisenhall in right field and that all blocks Diaz’s at bats.
But, all Urshela would need to do is hit .250 or .260 to not be a non-zero in the lineup (I only use batting average because Urshela is never going to post an OBP too far over .300 and an OPS of .700 would be pretty impressive for him). That’s not crazy to believe possible. So, expect to hear Urshela’s name called out by Tom Hamilton on April 11 as the third basemen in the home opener. And that’s not a bad thing. And what may come after might even be good. Either way, the Indians aren’t in a bad spot.