When will Francisco Lindor reach the big leagues?
It’s a storyline nearly as big as what the Indians’ record will be in 2015, and some feel the two may be intertwined. While when he debuts remains a question, his prospective stardom and potential is something every one seems to agree is a positive future.
“Francisco Lindor is going to have an impact because he’s so steady,” J.J. Cooper of Baseball America recently said on MLB Network. “You gaze into the future and it’s really hard to believe he won’t be a solid, big leaguer.”
Lindor has been the Indians’ top prospect in their organization since he was drafted with the eighth pick of the first round in the 2011 June Amateur Draft. Since signing just minutes before the Aug. 15 midnight deadline, Lindor has moved quickly through the Tribe’s system. After a few games at Short Season-A Mahoning Valley to finish the 2011 season, Lindor played a full season at Low-A Lake County in 2012, before splitting time between High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron in 2013 and Akron and Triple-A Columbus in 2014. Despite just 147 games between Double-A and Triple-A, Lindor’s minor league resume is outstanding. He’s been a minor league All-Star and Sirius XM Future’s Game participant in each of his three seasons.
He’s no longer just the Indians’ top prospect, but one of the biggest in all of Major League Baseball. He’s ranked as the #4 prospect entering the 2015 season according to MLB.com, with defensive range and skills at shortstop that are already big league caliber. Most scouts feel Lindor will be a Gold Glove candidate at shortstop as soon as he becomes a regular in the Indians’ lineup.
“Defensively, he could have played in the big leagues last year,” Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com said during MLBNetwork’s Top 50 Prospects countdown. “The offensive game continues to be a work in progress and he runs well. Off the chart—I give him a 90—make-up. He just carries himself like a big leaguer, in a good way.”
Since the Indians drafted Lindor, the highly-touted prospect has been thought to be the heir apparent to the shortstop position after Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera’s contract expired at the end of the 2014 season, and as Lindor has grown, the urgency to re-sign Cabrera has diminished. Cabrera struggled offensively and defensively in the first four months of 2014 and was dealt to the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline. Jose Ramirez, another Indians’ prospect, took over at shortstop for the remainder of the season to bridge the gap between Cabrera and Lindor.
The 22-year old Ramirez, however, did not just hold down shortstop, he shined. In 57 games after Cabrera was traded, Ramirez hit .283 in 241 plate appearances and led the American League in sacrifice bunts. The little sparkplug provided offense, and much needed improvement to the Tribe’s defense in the second half and was a piece that kept the Indians competing for a playoff spot until the final week of the regular season. While no one has changed their opinion on who the Indians’ shortstop of the future is, Ramirez’s second half may have pushed Lindor’s big league debut back, if only by weeks or months.
“Lindor gets talked about a lot and it’s kind of cool because he’s such a high-profile prospect,” Indians manager Terry Francona said at the team’s Town Hall meeting in late January. “There’s a reason he’s a high profile prospect, because of what he’s done through his journey in the minor leagues, but he’s still a prospect. We need to let him develop.”
Scouts and coaches agree that defensively and professionally, Lindor is ready for the big league level. His Gold Glove skills are rivaled by his professionalism and humility. He has the mental make-up to handle short-term struggles or set backs and a work ethic to always improve. But, it’s his offensive game that is still a little short of big league ready. Despite hitting .276, with 11 home runs and 62 runs batted in, he also struck out 97 times in 567 plate appearances between Akron and Columbus last season. Lindor’s 36 strikeouts in 180 plate appearances are a little worrisome. With just 38 games at Triple-A and Ramirez’s strong second half, Lindor’s climb to Cleveland may have slowed just slightly.
“Getting him here too quickly isn’t letting him develop, that’s getting him get beat up,” Francona said. “When Lindor gets here, we want him to impact our team offensively, defensively and on the bases, and for that takes time, so we’re going to let him settle in.”
So, when will Lindor reach the big leagues?
“If they feel I’m ready, I’m ready,” Lindor said last summer. “It’s plain and simple. If they think I’m ready, I’m ready. That’s why I leave it up to them because they are the ones that know what is the best time for me.”
Lindor still has a chance to become the first Indians’ rookie to make his big league debut on Opening Day since Andy Allanson in 1986, but it isn’t likely. Officially, he’s a non-roster invitee to big league camp, but Lindor should see considerable time at shortstop this spring with other big leaguers—like Jason Kipnis—flanked at second base. It seems likely that Lindor will debut at some point in 2015, and when he does, any experience with the rest of the big league infield will be valuable.
While the Indians may not admit it openly, Lindor could still win the starting shortstop job. Lindor will inevitably pass Ramirez again, at some point. It isn’t his job to win, but it could be his job out-shine and steal this spring. Lindor will have to play his normal outstanding defense, thrive at the plate and limit strikeouts. Still just entering his 21-year old season, Lindor is far ahead of the curve in every aspect of his game. If his growth continues, he’ll soon debut in Cleveland, whether it be Opening Day or not.
“I think Francisco Lindor is going to be slowed down,” Mayo said. “I don’t think he’ll be in the Opening Day lineup. Terry Francona has said that’s not going to happen.”
“They want to be sure that when they call him up, he’s ready to be their every day shortstop right away. When he does, he’s going to be one of those guys people gather around and look at as a natural leader.”
If Francona follows through on his promise and Lindor does not open with the Indians, it seems unlikely that Lindor would be promoted quickly. An early season injury doesn’t seem like reason enough to call him up if he is not assured to be the every day starter for the rest of the season. He’ll likely spend at least a few months at Triple-A. Logging the first 62 games at Columbus would just get him to the 100-game mark at the level below the big leagues. It would also push Lindor very close to June on the calendar, which would delay his big league service time enough to set him back another year before being arbitration-eligible.
But in a season where the Indians are expected to contend for a playoff spot, and some think they are the favorite to win the division, service time and arbitration clocks should not matter. The players that can best help the team win in the standings should be on the field. If Lindor produces at Triple-A early in the season, and Ramirez—or Lonnie Chisenhall or Kipnis—struggle, it will only be a matter of time before the Indians’ top prospect becomes the Indians’ starting shortstop. Even if Ramirez plays well, he has the flexibility to shift to third base or second base when Lindor is ready to assert to the spot that has been waiting for him for as long as he’s been a member of the organization.
As Lindor said himself, when they (the organization) says he’s ready, he’ll be ready.
Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer