Indians, WWW

The Indians extended spring training: While We’re Waiting

With only 17 days left in Spring Training, the Cleveland Indians roster is slowing taking shape. While the core position players have been set, more or less, since 2016, the normal tail-end-of-the-roster position battles have slowly begun to take shape.

But while most teams try and lock everything down by the first of April, the Indians have a tendency to let things shake out over the course of the first few months of the season. The roster flux is usually high, with players getting healthy, with “streaks” fading back into normalcy, and with youngsters either earning their minor league keep, or ensuring that the Indians will get another year of control.

With that taken into account, today’s While We’re Waiting is going to dive into a few different questions that should be given a little bit more time past Spring Training.

What’s going to happen with Michael Brantley to start the season?

When the Cleveland Indians picked up Michael Brantley’s option for 2018, there was a lot to consider for the 2018 season, especially the left fielder’s health. Brantley has struggled to stay healthy, and this year had ankle surgery that put him on the shelf for the entire winter. In the spring, Brantley has been swinging the bat in a normal fashion but hasn’t done anything that’s required him to put any stress on his recovering right ankle to this point.1

Now discussing Brantley, and injuries, and “finding the right time for the left fielder to come back” is a lot like walking through a verbal minefield. Are the Indians being patient enough so he can return healthy? Is Brantley being patient enough so he can return healthy? Then, past that, what are the Indians going to do when he does return? Sure, running the bases is fine, but what about playing left field, where he’ll be making more quick twitch moves based on ball flight that will put more stress on an ankle that will only have (at least) 17 days to get used to it?

I can only assume that Brantley isn’t going to be 100% come opening day. I don’t know if that means he’s going to start the season off on the DL or not, but at this stage of the game, I feel like Brantley “being ready” on opening day would be a rush…ankle wise.

So the Indians shouldn’t rush him.

It’s not like the Indians don’t have any option in left, should Brantley not make it to opening day. My simple point here is that with the way Terry Francona typically heads into the first month or two of the season, getting back a healthy Brantley is extremely important to this club heading into the depth of the summer. Whether you are a firm believer that the past 2 1/2 years of Brantley health struggles are unrelated and unlucky, or whether you think Brantley is a shadow away from another DL-stint, having Brantley healthy is pretty important to the Indians playoff chances.

Don’t rush Brantley. Give him the time he needs to get the ankle as close to 100% as he can.

What about Jason Kipnis?

Jason Kipnis is ripping the cover off of the baseball during spring training. The Indians second baseman is hitting .520 as of this writing, with six homers and a double, and he’s doing all of the things that Kipnis does when he’s swinging the bat right and healthy. And really, that’s the only thing that you need to know. If he’s 100%, Kipnis is one of the best handfuls of second basemen in baseball.

So why am I writing about him here, when I already spent 4,500 words talking about him here, and here? Because as much as I think he should play second base this season, he’s not our best defensive second baseman. That distinction belongs to Jose Ramirez, who defensively, is one of the best second basemen in the league.

I haven’t been able to get a piece that Travis Sawchik wrote for FanGraphs last month in which he discussed the fact that outfield opportunities are on the decline because of home runs and strikeouts. Sawchik then mentioned the possibility of Kipnis playing in the outfield because of this trend in a piece for The Athletic. I’m a firm believer that Kipnis should be given his position and allowed to stick it out, but there is some merit to Sawchik’s proposal. Kipnis is a former outfielder, who performed pretty admirably in center without any time to get ready to do it.

While you could point to the fact that the Indians haven’t put Kipnis out there at all, to get ready to play in left, as a short-term, “still in spring training in April” mode Indians might be willing to put him out there on occasion.

The Indians have done this in the past with Jose Ramirez and Mike Aviles (and to some extent, Lonnie Chisenhall), so it’s not out of the realm of possibility, right?

But when you are dealing with a player that plays his best baseball when he’s focused on one position and a locked spot in the line-up, and you are also concerned about health, hopping around the diamond probably isn’t the way to go with Kipnis at this point. So he’s likely going to stick at second base. But I do wonder, will that put the Indians best line-up out there?

Okay, so what about Jose Ramirez

Okay, so you don’t mess with a player who finished third in the MVP vote, right? You especially don’t breathe of putting JRam in the outfield. We’ve seen JRam in the outfield, and while he makes some plays out there, he can certainly make it an adventure.

None of that sentence makes any sense, but it sorta does. He takes bad angles, let’s his athleticism take over, makes the play, but gives everyone a heart attack while watching him make the play.

I only throw him in here because JRam playing the outfield makes about as much sense at this point as Kipnis, but if you have to make things work in a creative way, you could make a case for JRam out there in the short term, if you want to maximize your offense. Remember that piece that I referenced regarding outfield chances. Offensively, in theory, having JRam, Kipnis, and potentially Yandy Diaz at third may be your best option.

And remember, a bunch of us at WFNY believe that having “flex” players are a market inefficiency that the Indians can take advantage of. Jose Ramirez is the poster boy for such a movement.

Yandy Diaz…

Yandy Diaz is the best option for third, not named Jose Ramirez. Yandy Diaz also has minors options.

I hate saying those two phrases back-to-back, because I think we know what that means, especially when you take into account the fact that Erik Gonzalez and Giovanny Urshela don’t. It’s likely that Diaz starts the year off in Columbus, while EGone and Gio find their way, likely temporarily, in the Indians line-up. Maybe it’s both, and maybe it’s not, but I think a lot of that depends on the health of one Michael Brantley.

Either way, Diaz gives the Indians their best offense.

I know, Terry Francona continues to mention his defense as being a liability, and he has had a couple of errors out there in the spring, but he has range, a great arm, and makes plays. I think some errors are a part of the package, but we aren’t talking about an infield hack here. Diaz can play, and his bat will more than suffice.

Oh, and about beating balls into the ground, and the team not working on his “launch angle.” I think we’re at a point of that conversation in which we just need to be okay with the understanding that different coaches use different terms. While I agree that there are folks that throw around “launch angle” and “coaching to it” without really understanding the dynamics of swing changes, I think we all can agree that players make such changes every year.

I remember listening to Cal Ripken talking about working on getting a better swing so that he could stop “swinging down on the ball, because he drives in more runs with lift.” I’ve mentioned hundreds of times that most really good hitting coaches in the 50’s and 60’s taught to contact, wanted the swing parallel to the ground or with lift, and hated players “swinging down.”

Diaz may not be working on his “launch angle.” He may be working on positioning in the batter’s box to get a better swing. He may be working on hitting balls in the zone. But I guarantee you that whatever it is he’s doing to his swing, it’s with the intent to elevate the ball.

He sorta did that this past weekend, with his grand slam.

And yeah, about those 500 or 600 at bats he needs at the big league level, as Terry Francona stated in an interview at the end of last week. To get such at-bats, he has to play at the big league level.

Maybe that doesn’t start on March 29th, but it likely will happen at some point before the Indians “extended spring training” ends in May or June. His bat is too good for that not to play out.

  1. Editor’s note: according to mlb.com beat writer Jordan Bastian, Brantley participated in a baserunning workout on Sunday. []