Ground Balls Aplenty in Cleveland

If you want to follow the action when Cleveland’s starters are on the bump in 2012, keep your eyes glued on the infield. The Indians exercised Fausto Carmona’s $7 million option for next season and then swung a trade with Atlanta for sinkerballer Derek Lowe. With Lowe joining Carmona, Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, Cleveland’s starting rotation will wage one serious ground war. Lowe, Masterson and Carmona ranked in the top 10 among qualified starters in ground ball percentage, and all four have a career ground ball rate north of 50 percent:

Josh Tomlin (38.2 GB% in 2011, 35.3 GB% career) is the only starter currently penciled into the rotation who takes to the air. Cleveland had a worm-burning rotation in 2011, ranking third in the majors with a collective 48.3 GB%, but adding Lowe and getting a full season from Jimenez could make the ’12 Indians one of the most grounder-heavy rotations of the past decade. If that quartet stays healthy, they could well overtake the 2005 Cardinals as the most earth-scorching rotation of the Fangraphs era:

Highest GB% among starting rotations, 2002-2011

So, what does this mean for fantasy players? If you’re going to spend a high pick on Masterson or Jimenez or take a gamble on Carmona or Lowe’s ERA’s falling in line with their peripheral stats, the quality of Cleveland’s infield defense is of the utmost importance. That could be a problem. None of the Indians’ projected infield starters is a wizard with the glove, and one could be an outright liability.

Lonnie Chisenhall has lots of work to do in terms of tweaking his plate approach, but the top prospect figures to get the nod at third base on Opening Day. Baseball America pegged him as a solid fielder in its 2011 Prospect Handbook:

Chisenhall isn’t a standout defender but scouts don’t seem to have much concern about his ability to remain at third base. He’s an average fielder who has the hands and footwork to handle the position. Though he’s a below-average runner, his range and agility are both solid. He’s still refining the consistency and accuracy of his throws but does possess solid-average arm strength. He’s also still learning some of the nuances of third base, such as improving his pre-pitch setup to be able to react to the ball better off the bat.

Earlier, BA provided an update on Chisenhall’s D on its top 20 International League prospects list:

Chisenhall continues to improve his play at third base, where he shows good hands, solid footwork and average arm strength. He still has work to do, but he shouldn’t be a liability.

Chisenhall’s 2011 UZR numbers are pretty much useless, given that we’re talking about slightly more than a third of a season’s worth of playing time, but BA’s scouting reports suggest he’ll hold his own. Oliver, Brian Cartwright’s projection system over at The Hardball Times, includes minor league statistics and suggests that Chisenhall will be a run or two better than the average third baseman next season.

At shortstop, there’s Asdrubal Cabrera. UZR is no fan of him, ranking him as the worst defensive shortstop in the game in 2011 and the second-worst at the position over the past three seasons (thanks, Yuniesky Betancourt!), rating as nearly 11 runs below average per 150 defensive games. And according to Baseball-Reference, Cleveland’s right-handed pitchers have a .272 batting average on balls put in play up the middle over the past three years, compared to the .265 American League average over that time frame. Oliver isn’t as pessimistic, but it still rates Cabrera as a couple of runs below average. Bottom line: he’s no friend of ground ball hurlers.

Jason Kipnis will start at second base. According to BA, the converted outfielder is still learning the nuances of the position:

Though he’s still learning how to play second, Kipnis doesn’t look like a converted outfielder. He’s athletic, has good range and reads ground balls well. He has a fringy arm and lacks classic infield actions, but his feet are quick and his hands are solid. His lack of experience still shows with his double-play pivots and positioning on relays.

(2011 Prospect Handbook)

It’s a tribute to his athleticism and hard-nosed approach that Kipnis has made significant strides at second base since moving from the outfield two years ago. He’s still a below-average defender by big league standards and needs to improve his footwork, but he has nice range and enough arm.

(International League Top 20 Prospects list)

As with Chisenhall, Kipnis’ UZR doesn’t really tell us anything about his defensive skill. But his scouting reports and his Oliver projection (exactly average defense at the keystone in 2012) suggest he’s a so-so fielder with perhaps a little more room for improvement, given that he has only been playing second for a couple of years.

Who’s on first? No, seriously, I don’t know. Carlos Santana figures to play the position again on days when he’s not catching, but Matt LaPorta’s lousy bat and glove (6-7 runs below average at first during his career, per UZR) give the Indians little reason to take another spin with the 27-year-old CC Sabathia trade chip. Derrek Lee and Casey Kotchman are probably the best defenders among realistic free agent additions (Albert Pujols ain’t coming to town), but it’s also possible that the club turns to Shelley Duncan.

For those of you keeping score, that’s a pair of okay defensive prospects in Chisenhall and Kipnis, a below-average to downright bad shortstop in Cabrera and a question mark at first base. Masterson and Jimenez are good enough and miss enough bats that Cleveland’s possibly leaky infield D shouldn’t ding their value too badly. But Lowe and Carmona aren’t ideal bounce-back candidates when a fair number of their grounders could sneak through the infield.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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AT

It seems that Cleveland has some more trades in the works, or else this staff & this IF don’t seem like a fit. Either (a) they deal some arms away for 1B/OF help, or (b) they sell high on Cabrera for the same. If the latter, I suppose they’d look to sign a no hit, slick fielding free agent, or maybe ship out LaPorta to anyone looking to take a flyer on him for a middling SS prospect that can at least field the position well. Does Jack Hannahan fit in here anywhere?