Uribe Not Having the Slow Start His Numbers Imply

When the Indians made the surprising addition of Juan Uribe late in February, it spelled the temporary end of Giovanny Urshela as the team’s third baseman.

By adding the 37-year-old Uribe on a one-year deal, Cleveland left the door wide open for Urshela to find his groove at the plate with Triple-A Columbus so that when he makes his return to the Indians lineup, he is there to stay. The last thing that the club wants is another revolving door at the position, which had been the case for the last five years with Lonnie Chisenhall back and forth between Cleveland and Columbus while displaying steadily inconsistent numbers at the plate and being an occasional adventure in the field.

Uribe was heralded for his leadership, his underrated play at third base, and for showing throughout his career that he could be a valuable right-handed hitter with some pop at the plate. He has 193 career home runs throughout his 16-year career, so if he continued to put the ball in the stands as he had down over the course of his career, he would rank in the upper portion of the Indians’ home run leader list at the end of the season. His 14 home runs last season would have been fourth on the 2015 Cleveland roster.

There may be some people who are discouraged by the slow start at the plate this season by Uribe, who ended the month of April with a .208 batting average, three doubles, one home run, and four runs batted in over 17 starts at third base. The offensive numbers were right on pace with his start last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, with the exception of his batting average, which was 70 points lighter. He did make up for that in the on-base percentage department, where his .306 this year was just short of his .316 mark last year, courtesy of five more free passes at the plate.

Uribe was a career .275 hitter in the first month of the season in his career. That average falls into the .240s over the next three months of the calendar.

Several things are at play, however, in looking at Uribe’s Mendoza-esque start to his Indians career.

The Indians schedule was irregular. Four scheduled off days, plus several unscheduled off days due to the horrible April weather, made it tough for both him and for several of his teammates to get going in the first month of the season. He also had four days off scattered throughout the month while making 17 starts. Last season, the Dodgers also kept him off the field four different times in April and twice inserted him into action in the middle of a game.

While his righty/lefty splits are fairly close over the course of his career, the latter years have not been favorable for the right-handed hitting Uribe against southpaws, who just so happened to make up a sizeable portion of opposing starters on the Indians’ early season slate. He had just four singles in 22 at bats (.182) this April against lefties, after hitting .272 for the year in 2015 and .291 in 2014. In each of the four seasons preceding those two more productive efforts, he failed to hit above .242 against them.

Against right-handers, Uribe hit .226 with all of his extra base production, getting three singles, three doubles, and a home run while driving in three of his four runs in 31 at bats. He hit .317 against them in 2014 and .290 in 2013, before his .246 mark in 2015.

His late arrival to the club in February was compounded by visa problems in his native Dominican Republic, forcing him out of a significant number of games in Goodyear during spring training and possibly preventing him from being as fully prepared for the season as he needed to be at an advanced age for most Major Leaguers.

It may have shown over his first eight days of the regular season with the Indians. After getting a single in the rescheduled season opener, he was hitless in his next five games. He was 1-for-19 in that stretch (.053) with a single and RBI, but struck out six times. He was out of the lineup for the first time on April 14 against Chris Archer and the Tampa Bay Rays and, maybe not surprisingly, notched a three-hit game in the series opener the next day against his former club, the New York Mets.

Since that game against his ex-teammates, he has made 12 starts and was held out of four other games. At the plate, he is 10-for-36 (.278) in that stretch and has posted an OBP of .395. Four of those ten hits were for extra bases. While he has gotten on base at a significantly better rate, the guys behind him at the bottom of the lineup card have failed to knock him in, as he has crossed home plate successfully just twice this year. In nearly twice as many plate appearances in those latter games compared to his first six, he has just seven strikeouts, a positive reduction in what appeared to be a concerning trend initially (and a theme for several other Cleveland teammates in the first month of this season).

The key to Uribe’s success may be to mix in days of rest, which becomes all the more possible with Michael Brantley and Chisenhall back from the disabled list and Tyler Naquin, Rajai Davis, and Marlon Byrd continuing to play well in the outfield. This will allow manager Terry Francona to insert Jose Ramirez, who has played well himself, into the lineup more frequently after seeing a substantial portion of his game time in left field in Brantley’s absence.

So while that .208/.306/.321 slash line heading into Wednesday’s game wasn’t what fans may have hoped for when the Indians signed Uribe, his more recent stretch of play looks much more promising when twisting the statistics in that vacuum and looking away from those first six unproductive games. With the opportunity to split time with Ramirez, Uribe can stay rested and healthy while providing the mentorship to the young Ramirez and others in the locker room and maybe even giving the lineup some more punch from the right side of the plate when getting in his regular work at the hot corner.

Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer

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