Could a Lineup Shuffle Ignite Indians Bats?

It is only April.

The weather across the country has been inconsistent at best. Players are acclimating to new managers, coaches, and teammates on their respective rosters. Some players are still just finally getting into game shape.

Ten games is hardly a large enough sample size to truly assess players, especially with no scheduled days off and the unpredictable weather dumping across the Great Lakes region.

Despite these factors, several key bats in the Cleveland Indians lineup have failed to produce, and the lack of consistency on offense has hurt the team and the pitching staff. How long should manager Terry Francona wait before making a move or a series of moves to illicit more production from an inconsistent lineup?

Already, the Cleveland Indians have had to shuffle their rotation around, albeit not by design.

The injury to Scott Kazmir days before his first start for the club forced a call-up of minor league prospect Trevor Bauer. The Indians sent him back down to the minors quickly after his erratic start and plugged Carlos Carrasco, coming off of his suspension, back into the middle of the rotation.

The move appeared to benefit Brett Myers, who had been tagged plenty in his first start, and Zach McAllister, giving both men an extra day off during a hectic April schedule that does not give Cleveland an off day until April 15th.

Two rain outs, an insufficient effort (and subsequent second suspension and demotion) by Carrasco, and a recall and demotion of Corey Kluber before he could even step foot on the mound at Progressive Field later, the rotation is a scrambled mess of what it once appeared to be.

The offensive side of the ball has seen fairly consistent participation across the board from its starters. Each of the starting nine has played in at least seven games, including the injured Carlos Santana. Two players, Nick Swisher and Asdrubal Cabrera, have appeared in every game thus far.

Three players have batted in the exact same spot in the lineup in each of their starts (Michael Bourn – leadoff; Swisher – cleanup; Santana – sixth). Cabrera (second), Jason Kipnis (third), Lonnie Chisenhall (eighth), and Drew Stubbs (ninth) have made all but one start outside of their most prevalent spots in the lineup so far. Michael Brantley (fifth and sixth) and Mark Reynolds (fifth and seventh) have bounced around a bit in response to the injury to Santana.

Despite having a fairly consistent every day lineup, it has been the production that has been inconsistent.

Four different times already in the first ten games the team has scored one run or less. No matter how the Indians pitching performs, that level of run support more often than not will equate to another mark in the loss column. Two of these games were back-to-back shutouts against the Tampa Bay Rays’ Matt Moore and Alex Cobb during a scoreless stretch of 20 innings by Cleveland. The Indians are 1-3 in these low scoring games, thanks to Friday night’s 1-0 complete game shutout by Justin Masterson.

Four other times the Indians’ batters have given ample support of six runs or more to their starting rotation, despite the 2-2 record in these games. Masterson has been the recipient of one of these efforts as well, a 13-0 win over the Rays last Sunday.

The Cleveland offense has been an all-or-nothing, feast or famine experience so far.

Is this reason enough for Francona to tinker with the lineup?

The Indians have faced and defeated some good pitching so far. The most obvious examples are reigning Cy Youngwinners R.A. Dickey and David Price, who were both ousted by Masterson. Chris Sale could be on that list as well after his 17-8 season last year for the White Sox; the offense took him out Saturday afternoon, giving McAllister a much-deserved win.

Cleveland has been on the losing end against two returning eleven-game winners from Tampa (Moore, Cobb) and three veterans (Mark Buehrle, Hiroki Kuroda, and Andy Pettitte).

Not a very easy task for the Indians offense to undertake.

Even though there have been clear challenges on the schedule, some of the Indians’ batters have been unaffected by the various pitchers staring them down. But the lack of production from two players at the top of the lineup, expected to set the table for the heart of the order, may have helped to keep the runs off of the board.

Kipnis is one of those big table setters. He missed Saturday’s game with a sore left elbow. He struggled through soreness in his right elbow during Spring Training.

It is possible that these injuries have been affecting him at the plate in the early going. He has just four hits in 32 at bats (.125) and with three walks, has an on-base percentage of .171. He has had several hard hits in recent games and three of his four hits on the season have been doubles, but he has provided the Indians offense with just one run scored and two runs batted in.

Would Francona consider dropping Kipnis down in the order?

The 26-year-old second baseman is beginning just his second full season in the Majors. His 2012 batting average was down 15 points from his 2011 rookie season and his on-base percentage dropped nearly 30 points. It could be blamed on the sophomore slump. Or it could be that hitting at the top of the order is proving to be a heavy task for the young hitter.

The sizable jump in his early 2013 strikeout rate could be indicative that he is pressing too much at the plate. With all of the offseason moves designed to bolster the offense, could he be experiencing too much pressure to be a big contributor to this offense right now?

On the plus side, three of Kipnis’s hits (.176) have come off of left-handed pitching this season. He has been far more productive throughout his career against righties (.273) than he has against lefties (.220), not at all a surprise for the left-handed hitter.

The three-hole batter, the lineup spot Kipnis has occupied all but once so far this season, is generally known for being a team’s overall best hitter, able to get on base frequently and to drive in runs while also helping to provide extra base runners for the cleanup hitter behind him. It is a big responsibility for an otherwise young player, in terms of Major League experience. Moving Kipnis down in the order could take an immense amount of pressure off of him while allowing another hitter (Cabrera, Brantley) to slide into the role and provide base runners for the big boppers in the middle.

Dropping Santana down in the order, out of the cleanup spot, has had instant benefits for his efforts at the plate. He is leading the team with a .500 batting average, .567 on-base percentage, and .885 slugging percentage. He has hits in six of the seven games he has played. It has been a stark contrast to his recent beginnings – in each of the last two seasons, he has struggled early, batting .208 in 2012 and .205 in 2011 through April 13th of each year.

If Cabrera were to be part of the process for helping to awaken the offense in Kipnis, his bat will need to come to life as well. While he has seen nearly two and a half times as many plate appearances as the number two hitter than the number three hitter, he has reached base more frequently and has similar power numbers as the third man up.

After a 2-for-24 start to his season, Cabrera has hits in three of his last four games. His slow start has him sitting at a .132 batting average to start the season, but his on-base percentage is almost 100 points higher thanks to five walks. He has been hitting the ball on the ground more than in the air and has been rolling the ball over right at the opposition. He has had four separate games in which he has struck out twice, but the recent contact at the plate gives some hope that he may come out of his mini-slump soon.

His splits are essentially even. In 19 at bats from each side of the plate, he has two hits as a lefty and three hits as a righty. He has reached base five times from each side total, including walks. He is a lifetime .294 hitter against lefties and .270 against righties.

Proof of the importance of Cabrera reaching base comes in the fact he has scored six runs despite his struggles to get on base. Only Reynolds has scored more times (eight) than Cabrera, and five of those times he has driven himself in with the long ball.

Another bat towards the top of the order, like Brantley, may be able to jolt the offense more consistently. In limited action in the three spot, Ryan Raburn has scored four times in nine plate appearances.

The new guys in town (Bourn, Swisher, Reynolds) have done a great job of carrying the load while some of the mainstays have struggled to be as productive as they can and likely will be in the lineup. If the Indians can find a way to get more base runners on from the top of the order, the totals in the win column may just start piling up.

Photo: John Kuntz / Cleveland Plain Dealer

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