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The Cleveland Indians up-the-middle

(Photo courtesy of Ben Rogash)
The Cleveland Indians started off the 2015 years with some fatal flaws, and everybody at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario knew it.

The Tribe's up-the-middle defense had holes, and in the end, they were sizable-enough flaws that cost the team spring and early summer wins, and ultimately a chance at the 2015 playoffs. While Chris Antonetti and his front office staff did make improvements as the 2015 season progressed, they weren't enough to overcome an improved A.L. Central, and especially the Kansas City Royals, that had one of the best up-the-middle defenses in the game, especially after they acquired Ben Zobrist in a mid-year trade.

What's promising for the 2017 season is that the Indians made vast improvements as the season progressed, thanks to a variety of reasons. A team anchor stayed healthy. A temporary player was replaced by an superstar-in-the-making. A bench player stepped up to fill in for an injured backstop, and  a massive void was dealt away and replaced by a question-mark that would have been better than his predecessor if he played blind-folded. Unfortunately, by the time the replacements at shortstop, and especially center field took hold, the Indians had already dug themselves a sizable hole that was too deep to climb out of by season's end.

Heading into 2016, three-fourths of the Indians' up-the-middle offense and defense seem entrenched, but the quarter that's a question-mark could make-or-break the team as they head towards August and September.

The Catchers

Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez are one of the best tandems in all of baseball behind the plate. Defensively, when healthy, Gomes is outstanding at every aspect behind the plate: handling his pitching staff, making runners pay and making plays. In many ways, Perez, defensively, is his equal. Both frame extremely well, and are just smart baseball players. This is a theme that you'll see seep through the cracks a lot with good teams.

Smart baseball players win games.

When Yan Gomes is healthy, he is an unquestioned star behind the plate in this league, and not-even-arguably a top three catcher. While I'll get into this team's offense a little more detailed in a future piece, he is the complete package and still improving. The only question going forward will be health. If Gomes plays full seasons, I firmly believe he has a couple of superstar seasons ahead of him.

Perez is one of my favorite players in the system. While you can mention ceilings with regards Perez, the realites are that he's a fantastic defensive player, who also can adds a streaky offensive tool set. There are moments in which there's a completeness to his game that likely makes him a tantalizing trade piece, for a team looking to prop up their defense behind the plate. Perez wasn't on the radar for man,  mostly because people who didn't watch him play levied opinions on his talent that weren't nearly close to being right. Perez is perfect for this team in a back-up role, but can start, and can help.

Don't overlook the potential for Perez to be a personal backstop for one of the top three. He has a great relationship with Danny Salazar, who climbed up through the Tribe's minor league system together. He's an extremely valuable piece to the Indians going forward, and could be the main reason Yan Gomes stays healthy for a full slate of games in years to come.

Shortstop

The Indians biggest upgrade last year was at the shortstop position. Jose Ramirez struggled out of the gate, but regardless of the media masses that just annihilated the Indians' front office for not bringing up Lindor right away, JRam had absolutely earned the right to start the season at short. The error turned out to be the length of time he was given to fail, without success both offensively and defensively. He really was a bad baseball player in his first stint with the Tribe, and by the latter part of April, should have been swapped out for the more-than-ready Francisco Lindor. With all of that said, Jose Ramirez deserved more than just a cursory look at shortstop thanks to an above average tenure during his rise through the minors, and a continued excellence replacing Asdrubal Cabrerra in 2014.

The counter to the line of thought to start Ramirez is the simple fact that defensively, Lindor was ready to be a big league baseball player two years ago. Sure, there were questions about his offensive capabilities as he entered his stint in Double A Akron, but there wasn't a scout in the system that didn't think Lindor was ready-to-go defensively while he was toiling for the Carolina Mudcats, and likely earlier.

But entering the 2014 season, the Indians were fairly content with Asdrubal Cabrera holding down the fort, while both Ramirez and Lindor continued to develop at the minor league level. The position was always Lindor's for the taking, but Ramirez continually proved his offensive ability, combined with a great mix of defense up the middle, and a base running acumen that would make him a solid addition to the big league club in his own right. The Indians had bumped him ahead of Lindor by skipping the High A Carolina League, which showcased their belief as a system, that Ramirez was more than just another guy. His ascension through the Indians developmental is often overlooked, but ponder this. In 2011, Jose Ramirez started his career with the Indians in Arizona rookie ball. By August 31 of 2013, he was a contributing piece to a playoff contending baseball team. If you're new to the Indians, that may not break a wave. If you've followed this club, and how they handle their prospects, this is simply avant-garde for a position player.

The Indians have always considered Ramirez one of their top three or four prospects, even when the masses didn't think he was anything more than a utility player. How they handled him is proof.

No, the Indians didn't think Jose Ramirez would unseat Lindor, but they did think that he could bookmark the position while they seasoned him a bit more. In the end, it was clear that the front office, and/or Francona, had a hand in holding Lindor's ascension up four or five weeks too long. Perhaps Francona was playing buddy ball with Ramirez, or more likely, Antonetti and his staff were controlling his 'Super Two' status. Was that a sound strategy in the end?

Hell no.

In the end, Lindor was ready defensively, and his sublime play in 2015 proved that his offense was a lot more than an afterthought. Today, it's woulda-coulda-shoulda, and I'll let others rant-and-rave like lunatics. The long and the short of it is that Lindor struggled for nearly a month, before absolutely taking off in July. Is that proof that the Indians were right in holding him back, or is it proof that he should have been up earlier?

Who knows. I'll let the ranters and the ravers cover that. I'll be busy looking forward to a full season of a game-changing player. In 2016, Francisco Lindor is the Indians' starting shortstop, and will be for the foreseeable future. Health permitting, Lindor will play out his entire career in Cleveland and be the stabilizing force behind some really good Indians' teams. 2016 won't be an exception, as long as the front office fills in the gaps, and Francona utilizes his team in a much more succinct way.

Defensively, Lindor is the equivalent of any of the best defenders in the game you can mention. He really is that good, and while I'm often hyperbolic regarding players for the Indians, there has never been a word I've uttered about Lindor that isn't true. Offensively, he didn't "over-perform" in 2015 either.While I'll be focusing more on the offense as the Indians' roster takes shape in the coming weeks and months, his ability to make contact has always been a strength. I'm not saying that he's not going to struggle with the stick at times, but I don't believe this is the best he can do, as others have suggested. I think this is the tip of the iceberg.

He's a high IQ player, with an engine and talent that can't be measure yet. There are players you look at and realize, "I won't really know how good he is until I measure his career." That's Francisco Lindor.

I feel like I can leave the Lindor discussion there, because his sublime play on the bases, at the plate and on the diamond, really speaks for itself. This is a player that will be one of the greats of a generation.

He's just that good.

While JRam struggled at short last year for a variety of reasons, all the "know-it-alls" clamored aboard the "I-told-you-so-express" because of his six weeks of defensive debauchery. Let me make it clear to everyone who reads this: Jose Ramirez can be a really good defensive shortstop as a starter at shortstop on a big league baseball team. Six weeks do not make a career. His struggles do, however, give credence to those that claim to understand scouting, simply because they say they understand scouting. In a sport that shouldn't be steered by folks that have to be right, we too often listen, like scolded school children, because they told us so.

Here's what you do. Look at Jose Ramirez's body of work. He's a more-than-solid shortstop option, and the beauty of it all is that we don't need him there for any length of time because of Lindor.

What makes JRam great this year is that we don't really need him to be a fantastic starter at short. We just need him to fill in the few games a year that Lindor is resting. In that role, there may not be a better utility player in the game, especially considering his tremendous upside. He does have some personality traits that remind me of a certain mercurial right fielder, which need to be watched closely. Manny being Manny was something you could overlook because of his offensive dominance. JRam being JRam is another matter altogether.

I'll end it with this. Jose Ramirez should be a starting second baseman for a big league baseball team. With that said, as a four or five day a week player in the utility role, he'll be fantastic, but don't confuse that to mean that he should be a utility player. Of course, the LOUD talkers say he should be, so I suppose that's important (I hope you can see my eye-roll).

Second Base

Another huge upgrade for the Indians up the middle in 2015 was a guy who absolutely struggled in 2014 with injury, and that's Jason Kipnis. You can say a lot about the Indians' firebrand, but the one unquestioned aspect to his game is his work ethic. Kipnis molded himself into a really good second baseman since his move there back in 2010, and while he struggled defensively in 2014, much of that was based on the injury issues that have already been documented a couple million times.

The 2015 Kipnis returned to 2013 form, and slightly better via the eye test. He became an asset defensively from the get go, and was the one piece to the puzzle that came out of the gate firing on all cylinders. This was likely boosted in June thanks to his new SS mate, who can cover large portions of America every night with his defensive range. Regardless, Kipnis made all the regular plays look regular, and made the diving stop ranging toward first seem a common place.

The only concern with Kipnis moving forward is his dwindling play offensively as the season ebbs through the summer, but that mostly doesn't fester into his defense. With JRam behind him at second, again, the Indians' fortunes at second base seem to be solid going forward. While Ramirez can be a really good shortstop, he's a fantastic defensive second baseman. If his offensive game would ever rubber band at the major league level to match his minor league performance, you could make a legit case that he should be a starter there for a team in the future.

You could make a case, right now, that he could play a better on-average defense at second than the high-performing Kipnis, but I'm going to stop beating the "circle-into-a-square-peg" reference of moving Kipnis to the outfield for now. You don't move all-stars in their prime if you think it would subvert another part of their game, and playing the outfield likely won't make Kipnis any healthier. So I currently am not a proponent of moving Kipnis for Jose Ramirez on a full-time basis. I could see a scenario in which the current Indians' second baseman is slowly shifted to first base, with the youthful JRam moving to second.

But I've already mentioned that...haven't I.

Center Field

The Indians also saw a massive improvement in center when they moved from Michael Bourn to Abraham Almonte.

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Now read that again, and ponder it.

Almonte was everything that Bourn wasn't in his 2 1/2 years with the Indians. He was aggressive. He covered a lot of ground. He made a lot of plays. Offensively, he wasn't anything you'd rave about, but he had moments in which his timely hits and home runs made a difference.

Now, the reality of Abraham Almonte is that he's not a regular center fielder for any contending baseball team. He's always had potential. He's always had tools. But his body of work has shown that he likely isn't going to put them all together into one complete package for any length of time. The fact that he's better than Bourn talks more to the player that Bourn has become, and not who Almonte currently is.

Could he maintain an average to above-average center field in 2016?

Sure.

But if we're to be honest, there isn't a baseball person on the planet that can say with a straight face that banking on Almonte isn't akin to throwing a dart. There are positions you can gamble on, but any up-the-middle position isn't one of them. With question-marks in right field, third, and now, left field with Michael Brantley out for an unknown portion of the season, you can't be gambling on perhaps the most important defensive position on the team.

When you combine this with the simple fact that there aren't any clear-and-present replacements ready to start the year off in Cleveland in center (unless you believe in the Michael Martinez's of the world), you have what amounts to a major 2016 hole that needs filled, either via trade or free agent signing. While the Indians won't likely pursue a top free agent at the position, they also aren't likely to bring up their top prospect, Bradley Zimmer, "too soon."

While my heart tells me that Zimmer will be ready some time between April and July, at the latest, my mind tells me that the Indians are likely thinking they need to see another year before they call him up. The catch-22 to this theory is the fact that Zimmer will be 23, so the Zimmer-plan could differ a bit from the Lindor-plan. They waited until June to bring up Lindor, and I've had some conversation with some writing peers that point out Zimmer's 'advanced age' in comparison.

This is true.

I'm still of the adage that age only holds water in minor league baseball when considering the talent. Lindor and Zimmer are both extremely talented but I still contend that Lindor is on a different playing field than everyone else. This isn't a knock on Zimmer, or any other player wearing the Indians' jersey. I just think that saying Zimmer is older, and therefore more likely to get a pre-June call-up is flawed.

It's clear that Lindor was handled with a 'year-at-each-level' mentality, most likely because of his age. Zimmer skipped Lake County and it was the right call. He excelled in a tough hitting league at Lynchburg, before stalling a bit at Akron. I'm not sure it's a foregone conclusion that Zimmer will start the year off in Columbus, and even if he does, and hits well, don't forget that it took Jason Kipnis until mid-July to make the club in his rookie season. This is the Jason Kipnis that raked at every level. Zimmer has a ways to go, and while age is always a factor, I think we have some time before we take him seriously.

Regardless, with Brantley's April and perhaps May in question, the Indians will be looking to bring in a player to fill in the hole, and perhaps be able to play left and right in a pinch as well, as the season progresses.

The current Indians' roster doesn't have a center fielder, or even a Brantley, to plug into their depth chart. If Almonte is the guy, you are currently likely looking at an outfield of Jerry Sands in left, Almonte in center and Lonnie Chisenhall in right. If that excites you...no offense...you need a life. Backing them all up would likely be Michael Martinez, with whom the Indians recently released, then re-signed to a minor league deal. If the Indians run with those four, I may jump off a cliff.

Potential Center Field Moves

If the Indians are looking for a straight-up center fielder that they could afford, look no further than Austin Jackson. He isn't perfect, but he's an above-average center fielder, and if you could get him on a one-or-two-year deal, he'd be the perfect bridge to Zimmer in 2017.  Again, he's not the perfect candidate, and the only reason that I'm mentioning him here is because of a diminishing skill set that allows him to be Indians-affordable. Of course, you can't help but ponder the Michael Bourns of this world when you mention "diminishing."

Here's the ultimate problem with Jackson: he's likely to get a three-year, $30-33 million dollar deal. If that's the case, what do you do with Zimmer or Jackson once Zimmer moves up? Yes, Jackson can play left or right, but is he really a guy you want at the corner?

Nope.

The counter to this would be to promote Zimmer and put him in as the starting right fielder, and allow Jackson to remain in center. That's not a bad plan, other than the fact that on Zimmer's heels is one Clint Frazier, who I'm convinced is going to be a better prospect than Zimmer over the long haul. If the Indians hold back prospects for Austin Jackson, I'd be ready to riot.

So the only way Jackson works is if it's a one-year deal, or a one year with a club option. I just don't see that happening.

The other option would be to sign a player like Gerardo Parra, who can play all three outfield positions at varying degrees of average to slightly below, but who could definitely be had for the right one-year deal, and could then fill in all three outfield positions if others are called up, or hurt. As a starter in center, I have no interest over the long haul, but as a stop-gap, money and years may make sense.

It's just with so many holes in the outfield (right now, the locks or Almonte and Chisenhall, which makes me curl up and cry), signing Parra to start in center seems like a defensive nightmare that will never get better.

I'm fine with signing Parra, but only if another move is made.

Enter Marcell Ozuna.

I've talked about Ozuna for a year now, and the Indians are hot on his heels, if you believe the reports. As a center fielder, Ozuna is a mixed bag. There are stats that rate him high, and stats that don't. He has a questionable motor, with a more questionable agent (Boras), but he's controlled through 2019, and has more natural upside than anyone listed. In Ozuna, you have a guy that's still learning angles, and still figuring out his offensive production.

If a coach can wake him up, he could be a superstar in the making. Isn't that what Francona does?

What makes Ozuna especially enticing to me is that you can leave him in center for four years and be fine, or even move him to left or right in a pinch, should Zimmer and/or Frazier make some noise next year or 2017. If you were to tell me that I was looking at a 2017 Indians outfield that contained Marcell Ozuna, Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier, I would be ecstatic.

What would Ozuna cost? He's a pre-arb player, cost-controlled through 2019. This is counter-balanced by an owner that the media perceives as trying to rid himself of Ozuna and Boras, combined with a player attitude that nearly everyone questions. I think the market will be high on Ozuna if the price is right, so the cost is likely more than I think.

The Marlins will likely want either arms, or top prospects. I don't see Zimmer or Frazier being on the table, but I could see a scenario in which they would consider Trevor Bauer or Cody Anderson in a straight up trade. Both pitchers are controlled into the 2020's, and have their flaws. Bauer is mercurial, and Anderson doesn't yet have the body-of-work that teams want in a player without an elite arm like Salazar, Carrasco and Kluber.

If "more" is the word of the day for a guy like Anderson, or even Bauer, then you toss in another plus-side prospect, such as the injured Rob Kaminsky, or really, anyone in that 5-10 range. I'd consider Lonnie Chisenhall in any deal, even though he has no credibility in any trade.

If the "more" for Ozuna dives into the Indians top three starters, you politely swear at them, and move on. You only consider Carrasco, Salazar or Kluber if you are getting a top 5-10 prospect in baseball, and some change. Marcell Ozuna has too many questions for that cost.

Another option could be a player mentioned by the esteemed MLB.com scribe (and Indians' fan) Anthony Castrovince, who mentioned a Carlos Carrasco for A.J. Pollock, from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Let's start with trading Carrasco. I don't want to do it. The only way you do it is if you get a player that is a game-changer, and a guarantee to make a massive difference on your team. If you aren't a student of the game, you likely haven't heard much about Pollock, other than cursory mentions here and there. The Arizona Diamondbacks just aren't a team that many people talk about.

His body of work is somewhat questionable, but over the past two seasons, Pollock has been sensational. Over the past two seasons, he's had an .850 plus OPS, hit for power, and stolen 53 bases (only played in 75 games in 2014). On top of that, many consider him one of the top five or so center fielders in baseball. He'll be 28 in 2016, so he's not young, but he IS just entering his prime, and he wouldn't become a free agent until 2019, which would give the Indians three full seasons of excellence in the outfield.

Equally impressive is the fact that his numbers away from Arizona are nearly equivalent to his numbers in Arizona, and his numbers are identical from both side of the plate.

I do believe this would be a fair return for Carrasco, but I'm still hesitant to make that deal. But if it happened, I wouldn't cry with the huddled masses. Pollock would be a good get.

Another player that Castrovince mentioned, although not the Cleveland, was Jackie Bradley Jr.. In that trade, Castrovince discusses power-pitcher, Tyson Ross in a straight up deal. The question is, does Tyson Ross measure as an equivalent to Carlos Carrasco? The answer is likely yes, in some respects, and no in others. Ross is wrapped up for two more seasons before free agency, while Carrasco doesn't become a free agent until 2019, but could be wrapped up thanks to team-friendly options in 2019 and 2020, which gives any team five years of control.

In other words, Carrasco has more value based on contract, which means you can't trade him for the unknown of Bradley Jr..

So what would the Indians have to give for Bradley, and why would the Red Sox even deal him? Bottom line is if you can get him for Bauer, do it. If you can't, don't.

Bradley is immediately one of the top three defensive center fielders in baseball. What that means is you can be okay if he hits .210 for that simple reason. He'll win you ballgames with that D, and if he isn't in center for the Sox, he is a trade candidate. Upside for Bradley is immense, but he should be an option. My gut is that Bauer isn't enough, but like Ozuna, Bradley has questions. Unlike Ozuna though, Bradley is great in the locker room according to anyone who "knows." The Sox will be taking numerous calls, which could overprice him.

I'm also pretty certain I overvalue Bauer to some extent.

In the end, the Indians need an impact player, in some capacity, in center field. If the Indians choose to wait until 2017 and Bradley Zimmer or Clint Frazier, so be it. I understand that mentality, even though I don't agree with it.

What they shouldn't do is just fill the outfield with guys that equate to puzzle pieces that "could" be okay if EVERYTHING clicks. They need a sound defensive player that can make a splash offensively. While I understand that the Indians market doesn't promote big-time signings, that doesn't mean it's okay to sign riff-raff that have to make deals with Satan to hit .220.

When you're replacing Michael Bourn for a half-season, Abraham Almonte is okay. When you are contending for a World Series, it's a mistake of massive proportions.

Enough waiting, go out and clog the Indians' middle with impact players.
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