Indians’ 2017 lineup could be elite if they go all in

The Cleveland Indians were one walk-off hit away from their first World Championship since 1948. They were one walk-off hit away.

While the Indians’ lineup was extremely effective during the regular season, there were certainly flaws that came to light as the playoffs unfolded, and the starting pitching improved at every level. Some of this can be attributed to normal team issues such as injuries (Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes), or slumps (Tyler Naquin and Mike Napoli). If you look deeper, one could point roster spots filled by players like Michael Martinez, who made the last out of the World Series, and who took high leverage at bats in key moments of the final games. Yet critics of that line of thinking will point to the fact that he was the 25th man on the roster, and argue that most teams have their own Michael Martinezes.

In the end, this lineup was good enough to take a 103-game winning baseball team into extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series. As we steamroll towards the 2017 World Series, it’s hard not to imagine Team President Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff not looking to improve a lineup looking to take the next step. Well an argument could be made that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” there are already holes made by the likely departing Mike Napoli, and with players like Rajai Davis also heading to free agency.

With holes to be filled, some clear limitations in salary thanks to escalating contracts, WFNY’s Mike Hattery and I are taking our first look at what the lineup will look like in 2017, and even more fun, what it could look like if the front office starts wheeling and dealing again.

Jim: Mike, I think we both can agree that the Indians’ lineup, at its best in 2016, was a lot of fun, especially the top of the order. It was malleable from both sides of the plate, as well as location of the order. With the unveiling of Jose Ramirez as an elite bat, and the continuation of the development of Francisco Lindor, the batting order took its first step towards extension, especially when Mike Napoli was raking in the first half of the year. With Napoli gone, it feels like the Indians could make a couple of moves, and not only transform this lineup into lengthening some more, as well as making it even more impervious to slumps.

As it stands now, and contingent on Michael Brantley getting healthy, which I think is a big question, it looks like we’ll be seeing a lineup that looks something like this:

  1. Carlos Santana 1B
  2. Jason Kipnis 2B
  3. Francisco Lindor SS
  4. Michael Brantley DH
  5. Jose Ramirez 3B
  6. Brandon Guyer LF
  7. Lonnie Chisenhall RF
  8. Abraham Almonte/Tyler Naquin CF
  9. Roberto Perez C

There’s a lot of play there, without knowing who they are ultimately going to sign and trade for. This can change dramatically if Brantley can play left, and equally dependent on who they sign or bring up from the minors, such as Bradley Zimmer or perhaps Yandy Diaz. I also think that the top of the order is maneuverable, should they want it to be. With Davis gone, it’s easy to see Santana leading off every day, but my guess is they’ll address this with either a move like Rajai Davis (not ideal), or a bigger move for a center fielder. That said, J-Ram, Kipnis and Lindor have the types of skills that lead-off hitters need, should they really want to shake things up.

This workability seems to be a positive that can only get better as the hot stove season continues, if they choose to really lengthen this lineup.

We’ve talked a lot about the outfield in our last few pieces on the site, as well as on our most recent podcast. This seems like the easy addition, right? What is the first move you’d make, if you were the GM of this team?

Mike: The Indians are in a really interesting situation in the marketplace especially from an outside perspective. The understanding and risk assessment of Michael Brantley’s shoulder and elbow may be the singular guiding force in where this organization decides to go. If the Indians have substantial optimism in Michael Brantley playing roughly 120 games in left field, the need index for a starting center fielder may decline a bit but still exists.

Yet, if Brantley plays 120 games, optimistically at 95 percent the defender he used to be, he will be below average in left, and Naquin a veritable nightmare defensively in center field. Left-center could become the Bermuda Triangle for Indians pitchers with balls entering and rarely being found by outfielders. Time to talk about our swing for the fences move I suppose.

While I have talked about an interest in Matt Holliday 1B/DH and the upgrade it would have on the Indians lineup, the ultimate all in move is A.J. Pollock. If you were going to make a checklist for an incoming center fielder it would look like this: good contact skills, speed, and defense. Pollock checks every single box.

By any metric Pollock is an outstanding defender in center field and his contact skills are off the charts, rarely striking out while displaying fantastic barrel skills. Pollock is the type of player who should never be able but just may be. Pollock has significant injury risk, making a trade for him a gamble, with Pollock missing large amounts of time two of the last three seasons. However, the injury likely lowers his acquisition cost to 80 cents on the dollar. This is not meant to imply that his acquisition cost still won’t be exorbitant but it won’t be as exorbitant as potentially expected. If added, Pollock would make the Indians center of the diamond defense elite with Lindor, Kipnis and Perez.

Big Savings for Big Fans at Fanatics.comThe lineup could look like this:

  1. Carlos Santana 1B
  2. A.J Pollock CF
  3. Francisco Lindor SS
  4. Jason Kipnis 2B
  5. Jose Ramirez 3B
  6. Michael Brantley DH
  7. Brandon Guyer LF
  8. Lonnie Chisenhall RF
  9. Roberto Perez C

Outside of Kipnis, every hitter in the top six would be above average at avoiding strikeouts. Further, they all are hitters with solid to above average walk rates. This means tons of contact, tons of base runners and likely, a lot of run scoring. Obviously this is a dream scenario but when it is 39 degrees outside your apartment, why not dream just a little?

Time to talk acquisition cost Jim. Can the Indians acquire Pollock for less than their right arm?

Jim: What’s great about that lineup is two-fold. As you mentioned, this is a lineup that will maximize at bats, but it’s also extremely malleable. The top six can essentially hit at any spot, depending on the pitcher or situation. You have three switch hitters in JRam, Lindor and Santana, two lefties in Kipnis and Brantley, and add a righty to the mix in Pollock. Obviously, the lineup sets up well against right or left handed pitchers, and with multiple players familiar with multiple spots in the order, it could be really fun.

But boy, it will cost a lot. Think about this. While we know the market is substantially different during the trade deadline, Jonathan Lucroy was set to cost the Indians Francisco Mejia, Greg Allen, Shawn Armstrong and Yu Cheng-Chang. Lucroy would have been under control for the remainder of 2016, and 2017 had he agreed to come. While the names weren’t as familiar as the Clint Frazier package for Andrew Miller, they represent three top ten prospects in 2017 Indians organization, including the likely No. 1 (Mejia), and the best defender (Allen).

I think the Diamondbacks would likely start there, and honestly, that may not be enough, because I think they would demand a player or two that have not only played in the bigs, but have significant upside.

You talked about his injury history likely lowering Pollock’s value, but my counter to that for the D-Backs is that he’s under control for two years, is absolutely an impact bat, and would be the top CF option available with regards to a finished package. I think the Diamondbacks and new GM Mike Hazen will be looking to sell, but want to rebuild quickly. They’ll wait for a deal they want, and if that means waiting for the deadline to prove health, they will. The Indians may be okay with that as well, since they do have a mish-mosh of people that can fill in.

So what would a realistic package look like? We’ll start with Mejia, but my thinking is that Bradley Zimmer will be their top target, as a center field replacement, with control. Of course, the original deal had Greg Allen in it, so they could be okay with that, but I think they start with Mejia and Zimmer. They’ll then likely want a guy like Mike Clevinger, and since we know they won’t likely ask for Trevor Bauer back (or maybe they would, with a new regime), that would probably be a lock too. So in the end, I think it would be Mejia, Zimmer, Clevinger and a guy like Cheng-Chang, who as Jeff Nomina pointed out in our podcast, is a player that will find it extremely hard to make it onto the big league club.

I think an outlier in a deal could be a guy like Danny Salazar, who could provide the Diamondbacks with a top-tier guy in their rotation, this year, should they start dealing pieces like Zach Greinke elsewhere.

All that said, while you know I think Pollock is the home run shot from our front office, he might not be the biggest value for the Indians if they decide to trade.

Would you pay the D-Backs a package starting with Mejia and Zimmer, or Zimmer/Mejia and Salazar, or even Zimmer, Mejia and Salazar? And what about Matt Holliday? Would the Indians still be in on him to replace Napoli, and give the Indians another option at first base, DH, and even the outfield?

Hattery: I think the deal absolutely starts with the Indians best prospect Mejia. Yet, Mejia is just that a prospect who has yet to have a plate appearance in double-A. As you know well, Jim, I like to take side trips and avoid answering actual questions. First a comment, there has been significant twitter guffaw about Mejia’s makeup and there have been some rumblings around his disposition. While these concerns certainly are not moot, I think we often forget the context. Mejia just turned 21, he was placed in A-ball at age 19, I do not know where you were at age 19 but I guarantee your ability to act professionally and maturely certainly was not what it is today.  If Mejia has continued issues, that is certainly a problem but knocks on the preparedness of teens playing a game that requires constant travel and language adjustments with a complex position are things I will not concern myself with unless it is a continual problem.

I think Zimmer makes a lot of sense as part of the package for the Indians and Diamondbacks, for the Indians Zimmer is best in right, similar to Naquin and Chisenhall.  For the Diamondbacks a future outfielder coming back will be a need but a lot more will be necessary. Salazar has certainly depreciated as an asset the injury risk and lack of optimism that he will ever throw 200 innings in a season. I love Salazar, he has the best splitter in baseball, a plus fastball and a curveball with potential. The injury risk is a dark cloud weighing over him and sapping value below the 3+ WAR pitcher he is.

I think Salazar/Zimmer is in the ballpark but the Indians are giving up a lot of cost-controlled years for a short term gamble on Pollock, this is an all in-move on player with injury problems. Every time I look at this potential deal I change my mind.

Jim, talk me into this, Pollock is a damn star, why am I gun shy?

Jim: Obviously his health history is something to be considered. He only played in 12 games last year, and he’s only played in two “complete” seasons, with one of those “complete” seasons at 137 games. So there is concern. But a case could be made that the injury issues are random, and not chronic…but even random can become chronic, right?

So there is concern.

But when he’s healthy, and he’s only 28, he’s everything the Indians need. He’s an absolute machine in center. He runs great routes, can cover a lot of ground, and is a run saving machine. Over the past four season, his DRS is +37, and that’s with two injury marred seasons. Over that same stretch, his UZR is at +33, so in a land of imperfect defensive metrics, he’s so dominant, that it can’t be overlooked. His arm is okay, nothing special, but boy, this guy can play defense, which likely explains his injury issues.

He’s a fantastic and aggressive baserunner, who will steal you 20-30 bases if healthy, and he is a guy that can score from first with a break, and can wreak a little havoc, because he’s so smart.

Offensively, he’s one of those high IQ guys we talk about so much. He’ll strike out less than 100 times, and walk 50+ times. He can hit 20 homers, and 40 doubles, and is just one of those guys that’s always there, and rarely slumps.

In other words, if you are making a trade for the World Series, you trade for Pollock, who is the most complete of the players available, and likely won’t cost them a major piece.

But Mike, I actually prefer a move for a less polished player, but perhaps a more interesting fit trade wise, and that’s Ender Inciarte. I love his make-up so much, and the Braves, with a John Hart influence, will work with the Indians, as they have in the past.

I also think the Indians have some pieces that would really be intriguing for a guy like Inciarte, who has been a lead-off hitter for the Braves, and a really good one.

Inciarte is 26, and under control for four year, which makes dealing a big package a little more acceptable. The Braves are looking for a catcher, and the Indians have two pretty good ones to include in a deal. While Inciarte is a gold glove winner, you could make a case that his offense, while solid, isn’t special, and trading for a glove could be a little more cost effective.

You immediately throw Zimmer in that deal, and Yan Gomes as well. I would think Mejia would be off the table in that deal, but you could fill with almost anyone else in the top ten, and salt and pepper it with Clevinger or Naquin or even Chisenhall. In other words, you can make this deal happen, and gain a guy with an above average approach at the plate, and potential power in the coffer, plus a gold glove and baserunning equal to Pollock.

Oh, and he stays healthy.

So ponder this Mike:

  1. Ender Inciarte CF
  2. Francisco Lindor SS
  3. Jason Kipnis 2B
  4. Michael Brantley DH
  5. Carlos Santana 1B
  6. Jose Ramirez 3B
  7. Brandon Guyer LF
  8. Lonnie Chisenhall RF
  9. Roberto Perez C

Go crazy, and add Matt Holliday to that lineup?

So what do you think? If I didn’t allay your fears on Pollock, wouldn’t the preferred option be Inciarte? Make your choice Mike, and again, would they go completely all in and try and pick up the multi-dimensional old guy like Matt Holiday, which makes that lineup look really scary?

Mike: Jim, I really hope so. There is strong analysis to suggest that the more contact you add to a contact heavy lineup, the better it becomes, shifting up an exponential type curve. The same came be said for high power high strikeout guys, the more like minded hitters added, the more that offense will produce. The one thing which is sub-optimal is to be caught in some sort of hybrid of the two because the contact value is often wasted by high swing and miss types. The Indians are far more appropriately tailored to build on contact: Lindor, Brantley, Ramirez, Santana, Chisenhall, these guys do not strike out very often. Who are two hitters who make better than league average contact? Ender Inciarte and Matt Holliday.

If Holliday and Inciarte were added, it is easy to envision Ramirez, Brantley, Kipnis or Holliday hitting seventh based on matchup. This sort of lineup depth will brutalize opponents and is situated well for cluster luck based on contact frequency. For myself, this is the optimal offseason, shore up center field defense, add lineup depth and the Indians are ready to chase a title once again. If the Indians can be optimizing Chisenhall and Guyer instead of overplaying one or both of them, the team improves significantly, Inciarte would allow this to happen.

Will the Indians push the chips in, I wish I knew. However, Kevin Kleps (of Cleveland Crain’s) has emphasized what a huge financial boon Games 6 and 7 of the World Series were for the Indians. Further the Indians season ticket holder group has seen significant growth and a minority owner injected cash flow. Just because Chris Antonetti is not tossing $100 bills in the air does not mean they are confined. I think they have the flexibility to do a Inciarte/Holliday winter. Of course, there is a difference between flexibility and a bad investment. The Indians will not exceed a fair cost for either, even if the rate is affordable. Talk about an answer that covered all the bases without actually providing anything definitive. With the Indians front office, nothing is definitive.

This team has a clear window, a clear hole, and clear flexibility, are we going to fix it Jim?

Jim: While the Indians weren’t the first to go big regarding a reliever, you could make a case that their HUGE deal to bring in Andrew Miller set the market in concrete. I’m not sure if they were out ahead of the curve on “stud-reliever cost,” or if they were just modifying the mind-numbing deals that the A’s made back in the day, or the recent deals delivered to relievers over the past 12 months.

I guess my point here is that the Indians went big, both with money (let’s not forget that Miller, at nine million a year, is an extravagance the Indians don’t usually spend on relievers), and with prospects. They correctly projected the need, and pushed all their chips in, then did it again with Lucroy, for a guy they’d only control for nearly 18 months.

That’s a GREAT point regarding the added revenue via the playoffs, and I do wonder if the Indians don’t go out and do something with it here in the next week or two, especially with the Winter Meetings coming up on December 4-8. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Indians are players, either during the meetings, or like with the Trevor Bauer deal, less than a week after the meetings. They’ll be players Mike, of that I’m sure.

But in the end, there’s a conservative approach that Chris Antonetti takes when he thinks they have interesting parts already, and they may feel that way. This is a team that went to the World Series and almost won, so every single trade that we mentioned will likely still be there in July, and we know if they are contending, they’ll be players, and perhaps big players.

Until then, we may get a neat dose of some youngsters that are knocking on the door. That said, they still need to replace Mike Napoli. Will they do it with a six- or seven-million dollar one-year deal, or will they do something a little more substantive?

Either way, this should be a fun offseason, either full of rumors and innuendos, or anchored in a deal or signing that makes major waves. After last year’s trade deadline, anything is truly possible.

In case you missed it, Jim, Mike Hattery and Jeff Nomina talked Tribe in-depth on their first episode of the WFNY Podcast.