No one envies the roster decisions Terry Francona has to make as Cleveland prepares for the 2017 postseason. Once upon a time, life was simpler – Jose Ramirez was Cleveland’s third basemen, Jason Kipnis manned second base, and Bradley Zimmer was the team’s unquestioned center fielder.
Then, Kipnis, who had already dealt with hamstring issues in July, re-injured his hamstring on August 22:
Just as Kipnis was working his way back from his hamstring problems, Bradley Zimmer broke his hand, on this play on September 10.
As a result, two players who ordinarily would be penciled into the lineups at their respected positions were suddenly question marks. Zimmer, at best, could return for the World Series. Meanwhile, Kipnis missed two months in the middle of the season, and in his stead, Jose Ramirez moved to second base to replace Kipnis and played like an MVP.
When Ramirez moved to 2B, the team turned to Giovanny Urshela and Yandy Diaz at 3B, and they preformed admirably. Diaz has carried an .813 OPS in 28 games since Kipnis hurt his hamstring on August 22, while Urshela has continually saved Cleveland runs by making dazzling defensive plays:
As Terry Francona put it, Cleveland “had a really good thing going” in the infield. With Zimmer’s injury leaving a gaping hole in CF – and Kipnis’ experience playing there in college – Francona decided the best course of action would be to try playing Kipnis in the middle of Cleveland’s outfield.
To date, Kipnis has logged 45 innings in center field, according to FanGraphs – far too small of a sample to make any real statistical judgments. That said, the early numbers don’t favor the former All-Star second basemen: he’s already accumulated -2 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). For reference, Kipnis has just -11 DRS in nearly 7000 innings at 2B.
To boot, the eye test hasn’t been good: baserunners have already exploited Kipnis’ weak throwing arm multiple times by going first-to-third on singles. We also know Kipnis’ sprint speed in 2017 (27.2 feet per second) would currently rank 53rd out of 58 center fielders to qualify for Statcast’s leaderboard.
Frankly, there’s little doubt Kipnis will be a major liability on defense if he plays in center.
There’s also little doubt Kipnis’ bat has the potential to be a major asset for Cleveland in October.
So, how should Cleveland balance the potential impact of Kipnis’ bat against the reality that his defense will cut away a significant part of his value?
The answer seems to be simpler than you’d think. If you’re confident Kipnis can be the impact hitter he’s been through his career, he should return to 2B, and Jose Ramirez should shift back to 3B.
Why? Because neither Diaz or Urshela truly deserve starting positions in the postseason, so long as their presence displaces an All-Star from his primary position, while he’s still in his prime.
As good as Ursula’s glove is, there’s no avoiding how poor his bat is. In 448 career major league plate appearances since 2015, Urshela is carrying a 58 wRC+ – that’s good for 9th worse in baseball during that stretch (min. 400 PAs). No doubt, Urshela should serve as nothing more than a late-inning defensive replacement in the playoffs. Considering his below-average speed, there’s an argument Urshela isn’t even worth a playoff roster spot.
Meanwhile, Diaz’s last month has been impressive, but there are still glaring concerns over his batted ball profile. He’s continued to beat the ball into the ground – 57% of the ball’s he’s put in play since his return have been grounders. As a result, he’s been reliant on several of those grounders to sneak through gaps in the infield to get on base, and a .377 BABIP is responsible for his success.
Once that normalizes, Diaz’s bat probably is fringe-average (ZiPS actually believes it will be markedly sub-par, projecting just an 87 wRC+ going forward). Diaz is solid at 3B, but not as spectacular as Urshela. At the moment, Diaz’s true player profile looks something like a low-end regular, or a high-end utility man. That’s not the type of player that should force an All-Star into another position, where he’ll be a huge liability on defense.
So, who should play CF? The Indians have Austin Jackson, who according to UZR and Statcast’s new Outs Above Average leaderboard, has been mediocre at best in CF. Defensive Runs Saved actually views Jackson as slightly above average, at +2. All things considered, Jackson probably isn’t going to be an asset in center, but he isn’t likely to make catastrophic decisions, either.
The team also has Greg Allen, who made his MLB debut last month, and has largely served as a defensive replacement for the Indians. He’s unquestionably the best healthy defensive CF on the 40-man roster right now, and his 82% success rate on 176 stolen base attempts in the minor leagues demonstrates how he can be a weapon on the bases.
The only question with Allen is his bat – despite a strong offensive track record in the minors. He’s only managed a 72 wRC+ so far in the MLB, but he’s only received 37 plate appearances, usually 1-2 per game in the late innings. On-and-off playing time isn’t conducive to someone trying to grow accustomed to MLB pitchers, but it still can be debated whether Allen should be thrown into the fire by starting in CF during the postseason. That said, together, Jackson and Allen can and should hold down CF during the playoffs, instead of an All-Star second basemen.
There are other arguments to be made – Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs pointed out here that since a relatively small number of balls are hit to Cleveland’s center fielders, the team can afford to punt their defense at the position. There’s also no doubt Cleveland’s infield is stronger with Ramirez at 2B, while Diaz or (especially) Urshela plays 3B.
Another complication is whether Kipnis actually returns to form on offense – this whole article assumes that he will. But, if Kipnis is on the roster, he can’t play CF, because that is the single-most damaging move the team can make. Austin Jackson and Greg Allen in CF won’t kill the Indians, and neither will Ramirez playing 3B while Kipnis returns to 2B. However, Kipnis misplaying a ball or two (or three) in CF will likely hurt the Indians more than anything else.
It’s a complicated list of pros and cons, but this author’s strategy would be to avoid the biggest con.