With Friday’s report of Cleveland’s impending signing of veteran third baseman Juan Uribe, the lone unsettled spot of the infield portion of the Indians’ everyday lineup became a lot more clear.
As spring training opens in Goodyear, Arizona, a Cleveland team with playoff aspirations was looking at a solid core of infielders and catchers. However, third base was a bit of a sore spot.
Until Friday, 2015 rookie Giovanny Urshela was probably the Tribe’s best option at the hot corner. Defensively, that would not have been a bad thing. The 24-year-old is certainly Major League ready and a potential Gold Glove candidate in the field. However, last season showed that he may need some more seasoning in Columbus to get his bat to a caliber befitting a squad that could and should be playing meaningful games in the latter half of the 2016 campaign.
Enter Uribe. Uribe, who will turn 37 before the season kicks off, does not have the glove or range of his younger contemporary, but does swing a better stick. Last year, Uribe clubbed 14 home runs in 119 games while playing for the Braves, Dodgers and Mets. He will be a nice addition to the lineup.
As for covering ground on the left side of the infield, Uribe is in luck. Cleveland has a defensive gem next to him at shortstop in Francisco Lindor. Last year’s American League Rookie of the Year runner up has as good a range as anyone at the position. Lindor and Urshela, in 2015, combined to turn a lagging Tribe defense of the season’s first half into one of the league’s better defenses in the second half. While Uribe will be a bit of a downgrade in the field, he should be able to hold his own, as he has graded out as an above-average defender in past seasons.
While Lindor and Uribe represent two of the club’s newer faces, the right side of the diamond sees a pair of guys who have been in Cleveland since 2010 and 2011 in Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis, respectively.
Lindor’s up-the-middle partner in second baseman Kipnis also carries an above-average glove. Offensively, Kipnis and Lindor should reprise their roles from last season as the Indians No. 1 and No. 2 hitters, spots where they each thrived. Both hit over .300, helping to set the table for middle-of-the-order hitters Santana and Michael Brantley.
Cleveland is hoping for a bounce-back summer for Santana, a first baseman and designated hitter, at the plate. While, his power numbers were decent, at 19 homers and 85 RBI, he struggled to make consistent contact with the baseball, hitting a sluggish .231, matching the .231 he hit in 2014. Santana’s never been a great average hitter, but the organization would certainly like to see him get back to hitting in the .250 – .270 range as he was doing in 2012 and 2013, when he seemed headed for more of a bright offensive future than he has shown.
One issue for the Tribe last season was that Santana’s 19 bombs, while not bad, led the team, which is not good. Santana has twice hit 27 homers in his career, but has not shown the full ability to be the lone driving power threat in the middle of a batting order that team needs.
Two other guys on the infield/catching portion of the roster could well take care of that. Free agent addition and fellow first baseman Mike Napoli represents another opportunity to have a big bopper in the lineup. The veteran of ten Major League seasons has jacked 20-plus long balls six times, once hitting 30.
Napoli, 34, got off to a poor start in Boston in 2015, hitting .207 with 13 homers in 98 games. He went to the Rangers for the final month-plus and seemed rejuvenated by a playoff race. In 35 games with Texas, Napoli crushed five home runs in 78 at bats. More importantly, he refound a consistent hitting stroke, batting .295 over the stretch run.
Napoli should help take some of the offensive burden off Santana, especially early in the season while Brantley is expect to miss about the first month recovering from offseason surgery. Napoli will also help in the field, where his glove work is better than Santana’s. Santana is likely to see a lot more time at DH this season, which could help to improve his bat if hitting is his sole focus the majority of the time.
Another presence that should help Cleveland’s lineup is a healthy Yan Gomes. Gomes suffered an MCL injury in the first week of the season a year ago. He missed six weeks and never seemed to be quite right at the plate once he did return.
Upon coming back, Gomes to seemed to be stripped a bit of his hot bat that made him a Silver Slugger winner in 2014. He was viewed as one of the game’s better hitting catchers entering the 2015 season. In his breakout campaign two years ago, Gomes hit 21 homers, drove in 74 runs and batted a fine .278. Last year, he dropped to 12 home runs, 45 RBI and a .231 average in 95 games, most of which he may have been playing at less than 100 percent.
A healthy Gomes gives the Tribe another strong presence in the middle of the order, which is much needed. He can also hold his own defensively, give the Indians a solid core of defense up front.
Of course, one thing the Indians did learn with Gomes ailing last year was that they may have one of the better backup catchers in the game in Roberto Perez. Perez boasts an above-average glove at backstop and is good at working with Cleveland’s strong core of pitchers. Perez also showed that he could have little bit of pop at the plate, hammering seven home runs in his backup role.
With the additions of Uribe and Napoli, the Indians have certainly added a veteran presence to their infield side of things. Both have also had a wealth of playoff experience, which is important on a younger team in which most players have the 2013 one-game Wild Card as their only taste of real October baseball.
Cleveland has a good mix of youth and experience on the front half of the baseball field. Defensively, they should be above average. Offensively, they have the chance to make what was sometimes a slumping lineup for long stretches in 2015 far better in 2016. Among the position players, Cleveland’s postseason hopes for the coming year largely rest on what the infielders and catchers can bring to the plate, both figuratively and realistically. With this group there is reason for both optimism and worry. However, there at least seems to be too many positives to worry too much.
Backup-wise, the Indians have Perez and Urshela. There is also Jose Ramirez, who can play all over the infield. He hit well in the second half of last season and stands to be Cleveland’s utility man this year. As a utility guy, he is quality fielder, which is key.
In the end, the state of the Tribe’s infield and catchers is pretty solid.They could have three or four guys hitting 20-plus homers in Santana, Kipnis, Napoli and Gomes. Kipnis and Lindor could both hit .300 and steal 30-plus bases. It will be tough for teams to hit screamers up the middle against Lindor and Kipnis, who can cover ground pretty well. To say that playoff hopes rest with this group, in the end, is not a bad thing.
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