The defensive woes of the Indians were some of the more frequently noted problems plaguing Cleveland throughout their third place finish last season.
There is an expectation that the team will be improved from a defensive standpoint for 2015, and while it may be difficult to determine where on the field the Indians will be better behind their pitchers, there is one spot on the diamond that the team should be stronger than the year before.
Twenty-two-year-old Jose Ramirez is set to open the season as the Indians’ new Opening Day shortstop. Asdrubal Cabrera had started each of the last five seasons in the six spot on the field and Jhonny Peralta the four years before him and neither were wowing the world with their glove work. Omar Vizquel had locked down the role for eleven years and set the fielding bar high before Peralta replaced him in the lineup.
Unlike his predecessors, Ramirez does not appear to be the solution at the position and is instead just a stopgap, keeping the shortstop spot warm until the heir apparent, Francisco Lindor, is ready to take his seat in the middle of the infield for the foreseeable future.
Where does this leave Ramirez long term?
Ramirez has value, some of which he has been able to showcase during his two seasons of contributions to the Indians’ Major League roster. Even when Lindor arrives on the scene, whether it be in a couple of months to prevent Super-2 status, or by September when rosters expand, Ramirez adds more to the team than just a part-time shortstop.
He can start now, but has the versatility to come off of the bench as a pinch runner or as a depth middle infielder. His speed can change a game instantly, and his glove work and range are upgrades over what the Indians have seen at short in recent memory.
Ramirez was a bit of a surprise add to the club as one of the call ups when rosters expanded in September of 2013. Making the jump from Double-A Akron with zero experience at the Triple-A level and two weeks shy of his 21st birthday, he provided the Indians with an instant speed jolt to the lineup. In 15 games, he started just twice, three times entered as a pinch hitter, and seven times came into the game as a pinch runner. While he did not steal any bases, he personally crossed home plate five times out of 14 plate appearances and it was clear to those watching that other teams recognized the potential effect his speed could have on a game.
He began last season in Columbus, but was called up by the beginning of May. He started six of his eleven games and worked primarily at second base, filling in for the injured Jason Kipnis, but his hit stick was broken. Two singles in 25 plate appearances led to a .080 batting average and on-base percentage, making him generally absent from the base paths and a near automatic out in the batting order.
He fared much better after rejoining the roster in late July and earned regular playing time at short, replacing the traded Cabrera. He made 55 starts and two late-game entries in the final two-plus months of the season and hit .283 with a .325 on-base percentage. He injected some chaos into games, scoring 23 times, driving in 16, and picking off ten of the eleven bases he attempted to steal.
In the minors, Ramirez ran recklessly with a bit more abandon, stealing 19 of 30 (63.3%) at Columbus in his first foray in Triple-A, but when combined with his MLB production, that stolen base success rate for the season increases to 70.7%. The previous season, he stole 38 of 54 (70.4%) at Akron.
What may have been even more surprising to those watching was Ramirez’s ability to move runners along on the bases.
Despite playing in what amounted to three months of a season, Ramirez was on the top of the baseball leaderboard in sacrifice hits with 13, tied with New York outfielder Brett Gardner, who played 80 more games than Ramirez, and St. Louis starting pitcher Shelby Miller. Ramirez also added in a pair of sacrifice flies in the final week of the season.
Ramirez will be better than Cabrera was with the glove and the arm, and that will make the Indians defense better. Will it be enough to pull Cleveland from the dark depths of being the worst defensive team in the league? He cannot do that alone, but his presence should not hurt.
In eight seasons of work at shortstop with Cleveland, Cabrera topped out with a .982 fielding percentage in 2013 in one of his better defensive seasons from an error perspective, yet not surprisingly, while also occurring in the season when he earned his worst career ratings for range factor with marks per game and per nine innings that both were below league average that season. He made 14 errors in 92 games with the Tribe in 2014, good for a .963 fielding percentage, while that total placed him eighth amongst all American League shortstops despite playing the final two months of the season in the nation’s capital with the Washington Nationals. The Nats smartly deposited Cabrera at the second base position, one he played at for each of his first three seasons with the Indians, and he rewarded them with just one error in 49 games.
Ramirez, by comparison, earned a .983 fielding percentage in his first season of work at short at the big league level, making four errors in 235 chances. He had a range factor per game of 4.17, better than the league average of 3.98. He is still young to the position (and young in general), logging just 74 games of minor league work at short with a career .963 fielding percentage in his three seasons of work at the position, so as he continues to play and acclimate to the role, there is hope that he could improve further.
Ramirez is undoubtedly in a tough spot. He has the team’s top prospect, and one of the league’s most anticipated arrivals, chomping at his heels. Ramirez may be playing for a starting job to begin the season, but he is playing for his future on the club as one of the essential utility players off of the bench. His ability to alter a game with his speed, range, and even his ability to drop down a bunt in a crunch situation improve the likelihood that he remains a contributing member to the team even after the star of Lindor lands in downtown Cleveland for good. It also allows the Indians to be flexible in future trade discussions, where Ramirez’s name could come up for teams in need of a versatile, multi-tool middle infielder, or could allow the team to consider moving any of the slew of middle infield options at the minor league level in trade discussions, as they were able to do with the trade of second base prospect Joe Wendle to Oakland in the Brandon Moss deal.
In the meantime, Ramirez fills a need until the Indians’ brass feel that the equally young Lindor is ready to proclaim himself ready. That day could come soon, but Ramirez has shown that he deserves one of the 25 spots on the Tribe’s active roster right now.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer