Indians’ Playing Time Battles: Hitters

Yesterday inaugurated what will likely several weeks of depth chart discussions in the form of playing time battles. RotoGraphs staff will discuss and assess noteworthy battles for playing time and/or starting gigs for position players and, separately, pitchers. Here, specifically, this author will investigate the Cleveland Indians‘ position player situations.

Third Base

As these keystrokes hit digital paper, FanGraphs and MLB.com list Giovanny Urshela as Cleveland’s primary third baseman. Outside of Rajai Davis, he projects to produce the least amount of value relative to his position; in absolute terms, second-least by a hair.

You would think the Indians have a better in-house solution, even if it’s merely a less-pathetic one. Lonnie Chisenhall, former third baseman of the future, looks to make playing right field a mostly full-time gig, with occasional spells from Colin Cowgill and others. This complicates things.

Then there’s Jose Ramirez. An adorner of zero top prospect lists and several more than zero sleeper and bold prediction lists the last couple of years, Ramirez has laid a big fat egg in terms of real-life and fantasy production. Indeed, his offensive projections are only marginally better than Urshela’s, so you can’t blame the Indians for maybe giving Urshela, a third baseman by trade, first shot at the hot corner.

Except Ramirez had something of a revelation last year. After posting almost as many walks as strikeouts all throughout the minor leagues — 8.0% strikeout rate (K%), 7.3% walk rate (BB%) — he finally managed to make it translate at the major league level in 2015, striking out 11% and walking 9% of the time. His 4.3% swinging strike rate (SwStr%) ranked 10th among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances.

It’s the .232 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) that sank him like a stone. No one deserves that — not even teammate Carlos Santana — and especially not a guy whose speed score (Spd) rated out at 6.5 last year, 17th in the MLB and ranking among the likes of high-BABIPers Mookie Betts, Adam Eaton, Alejandro De Aza and Cesar Hernandez.

That Ramirez has also generated about as much defensive value as Urshela at third base in about one-sixth the time further bolsters Ramirez’s case to begin the season as the team’s starter. It’s simply a matter of if the Indians trust him enough, and if he can manage to get on Lady (BABIP) Luck’s good side early on.

Until further notice, one should not expect competitive production from any Cleveland third basemen given their expected playing times. However, give Ramirez a full season’s worth of plate appearances and he could legitimately post a 10-homer, 25-steal, .290 season with adequate defense to boot. The excellent plate discipline has finally emerged, and it’s time for Ramirez, the Indians, and fantasy owners to make good use of it. (Is this my first, if not informal, bold prediction of 2016? That Ramirez takes the job and runs with it?)

Urshela, on the other hand, made less hard contact in his half-season debut than Ramirez did and should not be seen as a serious threat for double-digit home runs. He does have decent plate discipline himself but pales in comparison to Ramirez. And with little baserunning acumen to speak of, he’s among the lowliest third base options in 2016.

Center Field

Again, the Cleveland Offensive Ineptitude puzzle is not an easy one to solve. Slot Chisenhall at third base and you’re left with Collin Cowgill to man right field. It’s certainly not ideal, but it’s not as if the Indians are desperate for outfield depth after they signed — you hear that! signed! — Davis to a one-year deal.

But with Chisenhall sticking right field and my genius solution to Cleveland’s third base situation already hashed out, Davis appears to be resigned to play second fiddle to Abraham Almonte once Michael Brantley returns to dominate left field duties. This puts Davis out of a job, albeit into super-backup duties. Outside of Cowgill, Joey Butler could see some reps, but his low-contact ways don’t really gel with the Indians’ high-contact approach.

Davis does, though, at least to an extent. His defense could use work, though, and the Indians pride themselves on their glovework, too.

We know where Davis’ narrative leads: he is a speed demon, still despite being far on the wrong side of 30, and has developed something of a power stroke the past few years. A full season could net him 10 home runs, 30 steals and a .260 batting average. But with somewhat steep splits and limited defensive utility, no team will ever give him the playing time he needs to be a true fantasy standout. (Although he has, for years now, paid dividends on perennially low draft prices.)

Meanwhile, Almonte stands to see most of the center field work, and he has enough power and speed to put up a Gerardo Parrarian stat line, circa last year.

But the ideal situation lies somewhere in between: Davis excels against lefties (117 wRC+) and Almonte at least doesn’t suck versus righties (99 wRC+). Together, they comprise an ideal, two-headed, small-statured, outfield-patrolling platoon beast. (Who am I to pretend that wasn’t Cleveland’s plan all along when signing Davis?) Reduced playing time will hurt both their values in terms of quality, but exploiting matchups will help their quantity.

I don’t see a clear winner here, not if the Indians choose to optimize their lineups day in and day out. Davis is an excellent bench piece in deeper formats, where you have the flexibility to manufacture a platoon. He also figures to pick up scraps behind Brantley and Chisenhall as well along with Cowgill, Butler and Zach Walters. Almonte, on the other hand, is a little less exciting but could ultimately supply a surprising power-speed combo that offers double-digit home runs and stolen bases.

I would be remiss to not mention Bradley Zimmer or Clint Frazier, both top prospects, outfielders of the future for Cleveland and legitimate fits for Cleveland’s center and right fields. But with little more than time at High-A between them, postpone your expectations until at least 2017 while Davis et al. play stopgap.

We hoped you liked reading Indians’ Playing Time Battles: Hitters by Alex Chamberlain!

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Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant. Reigning FSWA Baseball Writer of the Year and 5-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's Sports' Fantasy Baseball magazine (2018, 2019). Now a Tout Wars competitor.

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Russ
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Russ

I’m rather surprised the Indians wouldn’t look into signing Freese…may not be great but probably an upgrade at 3B