Last summer I stood on the field before the Eastern League All-Star Game and spoke with Francisco Lindor about his life, his development and his future with the Cleveland Indians. When I asked him if he received the call to the big leagues, if he felt he was ready, his answer was like most every thing he does; outstanding and far better than you would expect from a 21-year old.
“If they feel I’m ready, I’m ready,” Lindor said of the Indians organization. “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.”
Just five weeks ago, we wondered when Lindor would eventually make his debut. Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonetti, Terry Francona, Ross Atkins and anyone else a part of the decision, it’s time for Francisco Lindor in Cleveland. He’s ready.
Close your eyes and try to think of how many players you’d rather see at the plate needing a hit to help the Indians win before Lindor. Chances are, you can’t name nine. Now think of how many players you would want the ball hit to with the game on the line before Lindor. There are only a handful, if that.
On paper, he’s a non-roster invitee to big league camp. He was a spring invitee a year ago also, and an occasional call-up from the minor league fields two years ago. This year is different, however. The reality is that he’s in big league camp competing for a job, playing as hard as he can and attracting the attention of those around him. With less than two weeks before the season begins, and even less time before the Indians set their Opening Day roster, Lindor remains in big league camp. The minor leaguers and non-roster invitees without a chance of making the roster have been optioned back. Just the players seriously competing for the Opening Day roster, veterans and Lindor remain.
In January, Indians manager Terry Francona was quite clear that they wanted Lindor to finish his development and that he would all but certainly open the season in Triple-A Columbus.
“Lindor gets talked about a lot and it’s kind of cool because he’s such a high-profile prospect,” 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.”
“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.”
He’s not a prospect any more. He’s ready. It’s time.
Lindor has played as much as any player in spring training games and excelled, hitting around .300 or above for most of the spring. He’s played solid defense and provided a speedy spark. While spring training statistics are often taken with a grain of salt, Lindor has achieved much of his success against other team’s big league players at the beginning of games. For a non-roster invitee, he’s earned more than the normal amount of starts.
And part of what makes Lindor special is he’s used to excelling against older, more experienced talent. When he was promoted to Double-A at 19-years old, he was the youngest player at that level in all of baseball. The same was true last year at 20-years old when he was promoted to Triple-A Columbus. He hasn’t just played well at those levels, he’s been one of the best players on the team, sparked those around him and improved the team as a whole. He’s a player that makes everyone around him better.
Before the 2015 season opens, Lindor has the chance to do the same thing for the Indians beginning in two weeks. He’s ready. It’s time.
Roster decisions could be made any day and it appears the Indians only have four infielders slated to make their roster to play three infield positions. On paper, it might seem Lonnie Chisenhall, Jose Ramirez, Jason Kipnis and Mike Aviles are all the infielders the Tribe will need, but that creates a very dicey situation if anyone has a day-to-day injury like the back spasms Kipnis has been nursing for the last week. Cleveland wouldn’t want to be forced to move any of those players to the 15-day disabled list if they could be back in just a short amount of time, but playing with no back up infielders is a bad omen for trouble.
If Lindor makes the Indians Opening Day roster, he’ll be the starting shortstop. They aren’t promoting him, nor should they, to be a back up or part time player. It would allow Aviles and Ramirez to play all over the field and would make the Indians much more versatile. For a team that’s biggest question mark entering this season is their defense, having Ramirez, Aviles and Lindor on the field—two or three at a time—will make that weakness stronger. With Nick Swisher expected to open the season on the disabled list, at least for the short term, the designated hitter spot could be a revolving door and get below average defenders, like Chisenhall and Kipnis, off the field while keeping their bat in the lineup.
In their yearly spring training Q & A session for The Diatribe, Team President Mark Shapiro admitted to Al Ciammaichella that Lindor and Ramirez’s development and progression have never been contingent on one another. Long term, their roles are likely very different.
“At this point, we’re looking at those guys exclusive of each other,” Shapiro told Ciammaichella. “There may be a time when that doesn’t happen, but at this point Francisco Lindor’s development path says he should be in Triple-A completing his development and his foundation. Jose Ramirez, with his major league debut last year, justifies his opportunity to be our everyday shortstop. So although things can change; that’s the nature of professional sports and major league baseball, at the moment their trajectory doesn’t impact each other.”
The decision to go to Lindor and move Ramirez to the bench may seem like an unfair one to Ramirez, but it’s something the Indians have expected all along as both have progressed through the minor league system. Ramirez has played much more second base than shortstop in the minor leagues and has the versatility to play third base or even the outfield if asked to. Ramirez has always been thought of by the organization as a versatile player that is likely at his best when he’s playing around four days a week. Lindor has always been perceived as a future Gold Glove shortstop with All-Star potential. Each could settle into their long term roles.
“Jose is an interesting guy,” Shapiro tells Ciammiachella. “He’s a guy who’s not conventional in much that he does. You can’t teach the game the way he plays it. He’s got a great motor, incredible hands, good instincts, he picks great hops. He’s fearless in the way he plays the game. He’s obviously got well-above average speed. So he’s a guy that adds a dimension to our lineup and to our team that we really haven’t had, and I think a jolt of youth and energy to our team last year when he came up and did a great job.”
Surely the Indians don’t want to acknowledge if they’re giving serious thought to putting Lindor on the Opening Day roster, but they obviously have a plan to how Ramirez and Lindor can co-exist on this team, this year.
Shapiro continues to tell Ciammiachella that Lindor needs to continue his consistency both mentally and physically to finish off his development. For a young man that moved to the United States at 12-years old, learned English as his second language, played full season minor league baseball at 18-years old and has thrived at every level, Lindor seems very refined both mentally and physically. In 2014, Lindor played 126 games between Double-A and Triple-A. Add in the time played last October in the Arizona Fall League and he has already endured the length of a full major league season, complete with 140 games played.
Mentally, Lindor has excelled for years against competition older and more mature than he’s supposed to be facing. Granted, the final step to the big leagues is the largest hurdle, but this is a once-in-generation player when it comes to work ethic, humility and focus. Lindor has been known to get to the ballpark and be taking ground balls as early as 3 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game in the minor leagues.
“I’m always impressed by the combination of his maturity, focus and humility,” Akron RubberDucks manager Dave Wallace said last summer. Wallace has managed Lindor through most of his minor league career.
“He is gifted and talented and works as hard as anyone. He’s not an ‘I’ guy. He says it’s about the team and he believes it and backs it up.”
“That leadership role for him comes natural,” Wallace said. “Players follow him because of the player he is but also how hard he works. He loves to laugh but knows when to be serious and to do some work. No one out-works Francisco.”
One of Wallace’s favorite stories of Lindor is their first week together at Short Season-A Mahoning Valley in 2011. Fresh off signing a record $2.9 million signing bonus to fore-go a scholarship to Florida State University and instead become a professional, Lindor joined the Scrappers. On their first bus trip together, then 17-year old Lindor helped clubhouse attendants and the coaching staff load the bus before taking a late-night drive through the New York-Penn League.
“I was never raised like that,” Lindor said of the gesture. “My family did not come from a lot, but my mom and dad did whatever it took to make sure I was fine in life. That’s one thing though, my mom and dad would never let me get out of line.”
“I thank my dad and my mom every day also,” Lindor said. “They’re the ones that have been keeping me on the right path as a person, as a human being.”
He’s physically tested. He’s mentally prepared. He’s humble. He’s grounded. He’s ready. It’s time.
The final hurdle between Lindor and the big leagues is probably the one he has the least control over, service time. If the Indians promote Lindor and make him their every day shortstop, his service time begins. Service time mounts until players become arbitration eligible and eventually free agents. Obviously the longer it takes to start that clock, the longer the Indians control Lindor’s rights. If the organization delays his debut until just early June, it likely eliminates any chance Lindor would achieve “Super Two,” arbitration status. He would not be arbitration eligible until after the 2018 season. He wouldn’t be able to test the free agent waters until after the 2021 season.
But for a team with mounting expectations and a fan base that continuously questions ownership’s dedication to spend money, making a move in the next 10 days to save money three years down the road will not sit well. More important than dollars and cents to the Indians should be wins and losses. Picked by several national writers as the best team in the American League, and yesterday’s proclamation by Sports Illustrated that the Tribe will win their first World Series since 1948, having their best available players on the field seems of the utmost importance toward winning. In a wide-open Central Division and American League, the crown is there for the taking. After an April that left the Indians 11-17 a year ago and running uphill the rest of the summer, getting off to a good start should be imperative.
Furthermore, worrying about Lindor’s arbitration clock should be something of little concern to the organization. No one in the Indians’ organization will say a bad word about Lindor—on or off the record. They’ve known of his ability and work ethic on the field, professionalism and humility off of it, for several years. He’s become the #4 prospect in baseball all before he was old enough to legally have a beer. At a time most young men are finding their way in the world and making boyish mistakes, Lindor has had the maturity to be the kind of guy you’d bring home and introduce to your daughter.
No one knows all of this better than Shapiro, Antonetti, Francona and Atkins. They’ve watched Lindor develop as a player and a person. They shouldn’t be worried about arbitration clocks, they should be planning to make him a long term part of the organization. Last spring the Indians agreed upon long-term contracts with Michael Brantley, Kipnis and Yan Gomes. This spring their working to get a deal done with Corey Kluber.
After just 15 months in the organization, the Indians felt strong enough about Gomes to give him a six-year deal, buying out all his arbitration time and then some. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays gave Evan Longoria a six-year contract just six days after purchasing his contract and promoting him to the big leagues. They had faith in their top prospect. The Indians have no reason not to have that same faith in Lindor. If Lindor plays a solid 2015, give him his own long-term deal to buy out arbitration years and add him to the core of Brantley, Kipnis, Gomes, and hopefully Kluber, that will be a part of the Indians into the 2020’s.
No player has made their Opening Day big league debut with the Indians since Andy Allanson in 1986. No Indians prospect has come with Lindor’s billing since C.C. Sabathia or Manny Ramirez. Each of those were a long time ago. Sabathia and Ramirez were special players who each pushed the organization to let them play before they originally planned. Lindor, too, is a special player, with a chance to be a part of a special team.
He’s ready. It’s time.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer