Over at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan wrote an article headlined "The Indians as the Anti-Royals." For those of us under the age of 40, we have spent almost our entire lives in a world in which "Anti-Royals" could only mean good things, but today we are looking up at the Royals in the standings, and so is everyone else in the AL Central.
Sullivan's piece focused on one particular area of anti-Royalty: the defense. See, the Royals are in a position to win the division thanks in no small part to fantastic defense. The Indians are not in that position thanks in no small part to defense that can be described by whatever antonym for fantastic you like.
I won't recap the article at length (go read it, it's well worth your time), but at the end of the piece, Sullivan makes this statement:
They haven't had a good defense since 2008, and it's not like this is something you can just up and fix with ease.
Since A) I am extremely competitive about things that do not require competitiveness and B) I love speculating on things I have no say or control over, I naturally took this as a challenge. Without making any crazy assumptions or wild proposals, how can we change the Indians defensive soundtrack from Yackety Sax to Swan Lake?
I came up with a relatively simple five-step program, all of which can be accomplished by Opening Day 2015:
1) Promote Francisco Lindor - The uber-prospect is struggling a bit with AAA pitching, but that is both expected (he's only 20 years old) and not a huge problem, since his primary value is leather-based. The Indians have have a-12 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and -7.8 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) for their SS this year. There is reason to believe that Lindor can and will be an elite defensive SS, and if that is the case, you can basically take the negative signs off those numbers to get a sense of where the team will be in 12 months. Even if we assume "average" instead of "elite", things just got a lot better.
2) Stop playing Michael Brantley in centerfield - Brantley has actually been an above average CF by UZR (and just below average by DRS) this year. But for his career including this year, he is about twice the liability in CF he is in LF. It is not his fault that Michael Bourn has been unavailable most of the season (and has played terribly when he has been around), but next year's backup plan can't be "play another dude out of position." Maybe Tyler Holt (a two-time best defensive OF in the Indians minor league system, according to Baseball America) can maintain enough of his offensive production to be a reliable 4th OF, or maybe Tyler Naquin is ready, or maybe there is another Tyler I cannot even think of - but having a solid defensive CF ready is a must.
3) Fix right field - David Murphy has been bad in RF. Ryan Raburn has been pretty decent, actually, but has been playing more and more LF, due to the issue noted above. And he has been awful there. LF gets fixed if CF gets fixed, but RF needs its own fix. One option is Naquin, though he does not offer nearly enough pop to hold down the position for long. James Ramsey is another, maybe better option. Like Naquin, he has the defensive chops to play CF, which means he should be an asset in RF. But he is more advanced than Naquin and his bat profiles better in a corner than Naquin's does.
4) Stick with Carlos Santana at 1B - Santana started the year by moving from bad defensive catcher to much, much worse defensive 3B, playing 225 innings (26 excruciating games) that we'll likely never forget, no matter how hard we try. But UZR likes his defense at 1B - not a ton, but enough to be a) passable and b) a massive improvement over Nick Swisher, who was atrocious in the field this year.
5) Give Giovanny Urshela, Zach Walters, and/or Jose Ramirez a look at 3B - Urshela is the most promising, in my eyes. A highly regarded defensive 3B, Urshela has come into his own at the plate this year, and figuring out AAA pitching in your age 22 season is cause to believe. If his bat can play, you turn the team's biggest defensive weakness into a strength. This means moving Lonnie Chisenhall, but there are options for that, with "DH for Cleveland" or "3B for another team" being the most obvious choices. DHing Chiz means forcing out Nick Swisher, but perhaps Swish can play the Jason Giambi role next year, assuming we have seen the last of Giambi.
The rest of the field is unlikely to change. Yan Gomes is a terrific defensive catcher - maybe the only good defensive player on the team. Jason Kipnis is not a great defensive 2B, but if you can hide him between an average defensive 1B (Santana) and an elite defensive SS (Lindor), you can continue to enjoy his bat.
This would result in the Indians fielding the following defensive lineup:
- C - Yan Gomes
- 1B - Carlos Santana
- 2B - Jason Kipnis
- SS - Francisco Lindor
- 3B - Giovanny Urshela
- LF - Michael Brantley
- CF - Michael Bourn
- RF - James Ramsey
There are really only two players on this list (Urshela and Ramsey) who are less than 75% likely to play those positions next year. If Naquin, Ramsey or Holt show they can hold down CF, I'd have Bourn on a short leash.
As bad as the Indians have been on defense this year, there are options to improve. That lineups' defense probably wouldn't be as good as the Royals, but they don't have to be, anything better than historically bad would be an improvement.