In years past, the Cleveland Indians have struggled to field a collection of everyday infielders capable of producing on a consistent basis.
Jason Kipnis has roamed second base for the last four seasons, but the corner infield slots have cycled through names like Jack Hannahan, Matt LaPorta, Casey Kotchman, Nick Swisher, Asdrubal Cabrera and Giovanny Urshela.
Thanks to the emergence of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, this loop of under-performing veterans has come to an end.
Even with the departure of Mike Napoli, the core of the Indians infield remains intact for a highly anticipated 2017 campaign.
Round two of positional breakdowns has arrived...
SS Francisco Lindor
There is no debate when it comes to the starting shortstop position.
In the span of just two major league seasons, Lindor has slashed .306/.356/.454 with 27 home runs and an .810 OPS in 257 games played. Add an All Star game appearance and Rawling's Platinum Glove to his resume and Lindor has become a toolsy infielder with developing power numbers.
There is little to suggest that the Puerto Rican native is due for any major regression, making him an impactful player and integral piece of the Indians’ World Series puzzle in 2017.
What to expect: Lindor is a budding superstar and his nomination onto the 2016 American League All Star team justifies that notion. Heading into his third MLB season, Lindor will look to assert himself as a leader in the clubhouse while facing the pressure of performing at an elite level for more than just two years. As a fan favorite with a charismatic smile, Lindor is the new face of the franchise for 2017 and beyond.
2B Jason Kipnis
Ever since Kipnis broke onto the scene and clubbed a home run in four consecutive games in August of 2011, Tribe fans have become enamored with what the former Arizona State standout brings to the table.
Kipnis offers speed with as many as 31 stolen bases in a year (2012), power with a career-high 23 bombs last season (2016) and durability with a minimum of 129 games played over the last five campaigns.
If his base-running numbers rise from previous totals of 12 (2015) and 15 (2016) stolen bases, then Kipnis could be the club's first 20-20 guy since Michael Brantley did so in 2014 (20 HR, 23 SB).
What to expect: Despite a fluctuated batting average over the past three seasons, Kipnis has displayed an uptick in power with elevated success against left-handed pitching (.282 vs LHP in 2016). In other words, the 29-year-old has corrected flaws from the earlier stages of his career and become more than just a two-time All Star. Expect Kipnis to sustain his everyday role and become even more of a complete player as he enters the prime of his career.
3B Jose Ramirez
From an afterthought of a utility man to a player who recently finished ninth in MVP voting, Ramirez has lived a tale of two drastically different seasons.
Whether it was his orange hair or competitive flair, the 24-year-old embraced his role as a left fielder and third baseman amid manager Terry Francona’s lineup. Now that Juan Uribe’s ship has sailed, Ramirez is set to join Francisco Lindor once more as part of a youthful left side of the infield.
Ramirez slashed at a .312/.363/.462 clip and delivered in high-leverage situations by batting .355 with runners in scoring position. The Indians have three years before many of their premium talents hit the free agent market, forcing younger players like Ramirez and Lindor to take on substantial roles and play beyond their years.
Both proved they were up for the task in 2016, now they have to repeat it and win one more game in the World Series to achieve greatness.
What to expect: It is hard to predict exactly what kind of season Ramirez is going to have, but his keen ability to thrive in clutch situations is encouraging to say the least. Unlike 2016 when he bounced around the infield and outfield, Ramirez will be penciled in as the everyday third baseman in 2017. As he develops in just his second full season at the big league level, Ramirez will be challenged with higher expectations from the coaching staff and fan base.
1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion
The moment Encarnacion steps onto the Progressive Field grass for the first time, there likely will be an uproar from the Cleveland faithful. With attendance incentives attached to his new contract, Encarnacion aims to boost crowd sizes and please his new fans with the right-handed power bat they have eagerly been waiting for.
Similar to Mike Napoli’s role in 2016, Encarnacion will slot himself amid the likes of Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley and/or Carlos Santana depending on Francona’s lineup construction.
Now that David Ortiz has retired, the 34-year-old is one of the game's best first base/DH's and second to Chris Davis in the home run department over the last five years (193 home runs). Encarnacion featured a .263/.357/.529 slash line, .886 OPS and league-leading 127 RBIs in 2016 as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. Couple those jaw-dropping numbers with the fact that Encarnacion only has two seasons with 100+ strikeouts and you have an invaluable veteran presence on a roster that is thirsting for another World Series appearance.
What to expect: Encarnacion wants to win and will do everything in his power to spearhead the Indians offense. As a free agent acquisition with a hefty three-year contract, the ownership is hoping their “leap of faith” will pay off in the form of a World Series title. Expect Encarnacion to bat cleanup with a defensive rotation between the first base and designated hitter.
DH/1B Carlos Santana
Lost in the prosperous stat lines of Ramirez, Lindor and Kipnis was Carlos Santana's career year.
Now 30-years-old and having spent time as both a leadoff and fifth hitter in Francona’s order, the versatility of Santana has come full force, especially when he played left field for the first time in Games 3, 4 and 5 of the World Series.
Santana registered a career-high 34 home runs, 151 hits, 87 RBIs and 290 total bases in 2016. Couple these statistics with a career-low 99 strikeouts and Santana quietly outperformed all expectations placed upon him.
With Encarnacion being added to the mix, Santana should thrive in a lethal lineup that is capable of hitting on all cylinders.
What to expect: Santana holds one of the longest tenures as a member of the Tribe (six seasons), making him a household name in the city of Cleveland. Not only is Santana a good friend of Encarnacion, but he also figures to split time with his former WBC teammate at first base and designated hitter roles. The only real question is where he hits in the lineup if a healthy Michael Brantley returns to the lineup.
SS/3B Erik Gonzalez
It was a small sample size, but Gonzalez showed glimpses of hope for the future of the organization. The Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic native batted .313 (5-16) with two runs and one walk in 21 plate appearances in the closing stretch of last year's campaign.
Gonzalez’s everyday opportunity might come further down the road, but his size (6 ft. 3 in.) and defensive capabilities allow for him to play shortstop, second base, third base and some outfield. His respectable .274/.316/.395 slash line over the course of eight minor league seasons could be enough to prove he is ready to take the next step toward a Major League opportunity as the Indians utility player this season.
What to expect: Barring any injuries from the five aforementioned players, Gonzalez is the leading candidate to win the utility spot on the opening day roster this spring. Now that Michael Martinez is off the 40-man roster and is only around on a minor league deal at the moment, the door has been opened for a player with more potential and a higher ceiling than players from who have filled the utility role in previous years.
UTL Michael Martinez
More remembered for being the final out in Game 7 of the World Series, Martinez represents a switch-hitting utility man that has struggled to do more than play six different positions. In fact, his .197 career batting average is among the worst in the history of the game.
At 34-years-old with two seasons in Cleveland, Martinez is entering this year’s spring training as a secondary utility option. He may not make any substantial contributions at the plate, but he is suitable for Francona when defensive replacements are needed in the late innings.
What to expect: If Gonzalez does not pan out, then Martinez could very well be the next man up. With Yandy Diaz shifting to more of an outfield role last season at Triple-A Columbus, the need for an accountable utility infielder remains. The fact that the Tribe kept Martinez despite an abysmal career at the plate shows the organization is not sold on their other infield options and how they like Martinez's attitude and defensive versatility.
3B Giovanny Urshela
After logging 81 games at the big league level in 2015, Urshela was confined to Triple-A due to the signing of Uribe and emergence of Ramirez in 2016. The positive take away from his .274/.294/.380 season at Columbus is the fact that he still resides on the 40-man roster heading into spring training.
Urshela plays more of a depth role and will likely start the year the same way he began 2016, at Triple-A Columbus. The Indians are well aware of Urshela’s brief stint at the MLB level, which could play to his advantage when a spot opens in the infield due to injury or poor performance.
What to expect: There is no doubting the glove of Urshela at the hot corner. Unfortunately, Ramirez has bumped the Columbian native out of the conversation to make the club out of camp. Urshela lacks speed, consistent power and the natural hitting ability to be a consistent threat at the major league level as shown by his performance at the Triple-A and MLB level the last two years. With that said, Urshela has a half year of MLB experience under his belt and there is still upside in the bat where if an injury comes along he could make for an interesting fill in option if given the opportunity.
1B Richie Shaffer
The latest addition to the Tribe infield, Shaffer offers plenty to be excited about given his scouting report and minor league accolades. Shaffer is still only 25-years-old, powerful (25 MiLB home runs in 2015) and somewhat experienced in the big leagues (51 games, 122 at bats).
Shaffer is the only player on this list putting on a Tribe jersey for the first time this spring. That may not bode well for a team looking for reliable players who can be trusted in any situation. Martinez, Gonzalez and Urshela have all played for Francona and could have priority when it comes to roster cuts and minor league designations.
What to expect: Shaffer is intriguing in that he is a former first round pick and the 2015 Rays' Minor League Player of the Year. Gonzalez (38 HR), Martinez (33 HR) and Urshela (64 HR) have played many seasons in the minor leagues, but do not possess the same power numbers Shaffer has posted in just 501 MiLB games (71 HR). Based on potential alone, Shaffer is a candidate to be a utility man at the corners of the infield and outfield, which makes him attractive as a depth option at any of those positions. The Clemson product will have to make a strong first impression on his new team if he wants a crack at a Major League opportunity at some point this season.
John Alfes has covered the Indians for IBI since August of 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAlfes for breaking news and in-depth coverage all season long.