The pieces are fitting at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario

  Tyler Naquin--Kelley L. Cox--USA Today Sports  
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and only partly because of the April snow showers that enveloped the North Coast this weekend. Instead, most Cleveland Indians' fans will be heading to bed tonight with thoughts of that ever-elusive World Series Championship coming home to Cleveland after 67 seasons visiting other cities.

While the talk in Cleveland this past winter has been consumed by the Cleveland Cavaliers' push to a World Championship (and the internal turmoil supposedly shredding the team's soul) and the Browns being...well...the Browns, the Indians' start to this year's 162-game march to October has gathered about as much tangible interest as the Cleveland Gladiators' home opener (they lost) and Lake Erie Monsters run to the Calder Cup (they're in, and waiting). This isn't a knock on the Gladiators or the Monsters, but this Cleveland Indians' team has a chance to be really good.

Are they championship worthy? Regardless of the 'law of diminishing wins' that has seen the Indians' win total drop from 92-to-85-to-81 over the past three years, there are signs that this team could potentially transcend the direction that the naysayers are pointing to in 2016. I'm not sure if the expectations are lower, or higher, but all is right in the world, simply because the Tribe is set to play real-life, meaningful baseball games once again.

Put me in coach, I'm ready to play.

Where do I stand on the Indians' 2016 season? I'm not afraid to say that I'm bullish, and probably more-so than I have seen from other writers, bloggers, Twitterers, and especially the 'pissy pants' few that are still bitching and moaning about "holding back" Lindor in 2016 (he played really, really well last year), and the "Dolans are Cheap" crowd that loves to crow about how the Indians suck year-to-year because they don't spend enough. Now, I don't 100% disagree with that, but there clearly is a bigger plan in play with the front office, which I'll get to later in this piece.

The Cleveland Indians are built, quite simply, as a whole and complete puzzle. It's a puzzle that is very dependent on all of the pieces being in the box, and fitting together snugly. Yet, if the pieces do get mangled throughout the year, or if they're lost along the way, the team can quickly call the 1-800 number to Columbus in order to get a brand new piece right away.

While there are many teams that have their own unique puzzle, most can supplement with...well...simply better pieces. This isn't to knock the Indians' pieces as being sub-par (as the pissy pants group might). The pieces are just in varying degrees of cost-effectiveness, with a few true superstars tucked in.

Today, I take a look at the offensive and defensive side of the roster, and the interesting mix that has begun to take shape.

The Backstops

In 2015, the Indians seemed fairly stacked at the top, with a progressive Yan Gomes, still searching for a ceiling, with an 'unknown-to-most' Roberto Perez supplementing him as the backup. Gomes had played his first full season with the Tribe in 2014, and came through with a .278/.313/.472 slash, with 21 homers and 61 runs scored. There was a lot to like there, and when you incorporate the defense with the potential offensive output, it was clear that many were looking at Gomes curiously in 2015, to see if he had plateaued, or could grow.

Then came the knee injury, and all of the fun that followed after. Look, just wash away his 2015 season. It means nothing.



He severely sprained his MCL, then he came back too early. It's really that simple. I'm sure that the competitiveness in Gomes pushed him to return as quickly as possible, and while his knee was likely sound after that in a vague sense of the word, it was clearly never 100%, and Gomes, psychologically, likely worried about it all year long. Having confidence in the knee performing, while playing catcher, had to be tough.

If you sift through the data, the only tangible evidence that he was a different hitter was power. His average batted ball distance in 2013 and 2014 was sitting at 271.7 feet and 272.6 feet. In 2016, it took a plunge to 262.9 feet, with a bad 87 MPH average exit velocity to boot. He clearly couldn't drive the ball, and it likely added another layer of frustration to the pretzel-like predicament of playing a knee-driven position with a major knee injury.

He's back. He's healthy. Enough said.

The best part of all of this is that Roberto Perez showcased his value as perhaps the best back-up catcher in baseball. He finished off the year with a 110 wRC+, and while that will likely regress somewhat, there are some indicators that it won't. For one, his plate discipline has always been scintillating. He led the league last year Outside-Swing %, which measures how many swings a player takes outside the zone, vs. pitches outside the zone, and he walked at an impressive 14.6%.

These are all offensive numbers that he replicated in the minors. Look, he's not an offensive-minded catcher, so we aren't talking about a middle of the order bat. what Perez can do is get on base, a lot, in the seven-or-eight spot. He can also defend, really well.

He's always been a defensive-dominant catcher in the minors, throwing out nearly 38% of his runners. In the bigs, he was actually better, throwing out 42%. Ponder that. Sure, it's a small sample size, but you can see that his minor league production showcases the pretty solid reality that Perez won't regress too far. If you buy into framing (and you should), Perez saved nearly five runs regarding framing, which replicates his minor league numbers as well. Gomes is an outstanding defensive catcher, but I do wonder if Perez might be better.

Why have I spent so much time talking about the #Indians catchers? Simple. To me, this is the most important piece to the Tribe puzzle. Gomes went down last year, and as good as Perez turned out to be, building rapport with a pitching staff takes time. While the gap offensively wasn't large based on last year's numbers, what Gomes can produce in an up year, makes his power bat and defensive package a substantial upgrade.

The boon for the Tribe in 2016 is that both catchers now have the rapport with the starters, and I'm sure we'll see Perez be the primary catcher for one of the starters in the rotation. This is the foundation that Indians have to build on.

The Infield

The Indians defense, at the start of last year, was a mess. Without diving too much into the parts of what made that infield bad, we can start this off by saying that there's only one returning starter from last year's opening day returning as starter this year, and Jason Kipnis. Defensively, he improved dramatically from the 2014 season, which 100% correlated with his health.

When he's healthy, he's good.

I don't know if Kipnis is an actual leader, considered a leader because of the vacuum there, or just louder than everyone, but it isn't a surprise to find that as his good play goes, so goes the team. If Kipnis ever puts together a singular season of greatness, the Indians could ride the tide through the playoffs.

When he's good, he's that good. If he's special, the Indians are a lock for the playoffs this year with the other pieces that have developed, and that they've accumulated.

At first base, the Indians signed 34-year old Mike Napoli, who has been good defensively throughout much of his career. It's not a given that his defensive metrics continue, based on age and likely regression, but if he's healthy, I'm not too worried about it. I still struggle getting past the 34-year old piece without twitching. I'm not saying a player can't perform at 34, but he did stink in 2015, and while you can come up with numerous, non-degenerative reasons, he could also just be getting old.

It happens bro.

From everything that's been said from anyone that's important in the organization, Napoli is another one of those guys that players respect, and had become a "leader in the clubhouse." I buy into that, even while others think it's mystical. It's not. Sometimes the difference between a good team and a great team is a mentality. Too often the Indians have hired mentality guys who either can't play all that well, or have a team that can't benefit from a mentality tweak. This team can. If Napoli has another year in the tank, the piece is a perfect fit, especially considering the cost.

Carlos Santana is the Napoli back-up, and sometimes, the likely starter as well. I don't know the dynamics of how this is going to play out throughout the year. Maybe Francona never actually tells Santana he's the back-up, and while I say that tongue-and-cheek, it's pretty odd to me that we haven't heard Carlos trying to figure out how to become the regular first baseman, or complaining about DH-time. I don't think he's as big a complainer, as others do, but he wants to play in the field. I know defensively, he was a liability last year, but still think he can defend well enough to play the position. As a back-up option, I'm pretty content. as a starting option, I'm fairly content. Either way, it appears as though the team has first base locked up for the season.

I haven't even talked about the offense, but if Napoli's 2015 was an aberration, then I'm more than comfortable plugging him into the four or five slot in the line-up, for his home run and gap power, and his OBP. Honestly, is there a lot of difference between Napoli today, and Carlos Santana today, offensively? Nope.

I'm good with that.

The real question will be where they fit in the line-up. It would be tasty having Carlos up in the top-of-the-order, getting on-base with aplomb, and not "expected" to hit 40 homers a year, then plugging Napoli in as the clean-up hitter, or better yet, hitting fifth behind a Michael Brantley in the four slot. Unfortunately, they'll likely be crammed together, being hated for "walking too much, while K'ing too much."

Freakin' Catch-22's.

At third base, the Indians signed Juan Uribe, and while it looks like he works out at the same gym as Bartolo Colon, metrics would suggest his a pretty good defender. He's nothing special. He's 37. He's got some power, and he has a pretty decent glove. What I'm most entertained by is the simple fact that he's fairly consistent at being average. Last year, Lonnie Chisenhall was pretty consistent at being inconsistent.

Behind Uribe is Giovanny Urshela, who will be toiling in Columbus. My bet is that he earns his way to the big league club by June or July, unless injury intervenes. Uribe has a nice skill set in that he can play the middle infield, should he lose his regular job. Gio's gonna earn it, if he stays healthy.

I think he will.

Until then, I'm sure we'll get the healthy dose of "Uribe's too fat and old" on a daily basis. My simple hope is that he's not, and the calls of age and weight won't be deserving. I still think that's up in the air, so it's good to have Urshela waiting in the wings, with Yandy Diaz hovering as well. We have some third base depth, and hopefully some time to develop it.

At second base, Jason Kipnis rolls into the season after perhaps his best season as a professional baseball player (that's certainly up for debate, as 2013 was outstanding as well). He's in his prime, and always seems ready to bring his floor up high enough to make him a borderline star, if he isn't already. His great months are great, but fairly inconsistent. If he brings up his floor, even a little, he could be really special. He can hit anywhere in the top three slots, and I think will generate more power if he's asked to.

He seems to be a high IQ player, but equally plays with that blue collar attitude that wears him down as the season progresses. He needs to not wear down, gain consistency, and be a pressure...

No pressure at all.

I have to be at peace with the fact that he may just be the guy that has a blazing six weeks, while averaging out in between, before dropping off in the end. I just worry about the playoffs.

At shortstop, is Francisco Lindor, and I could really stop there. The real question here is whether or not he "regresses" offensively, as teams begin to figure him out, and as he reverts to his Major League Norm.

Oh wait, he doesn't have a Major League Norm.

He is one of the top two or three shortstop gloves in baseball today, and offensively, many who have watched from afar have said he should be a fairly light-hitting bat, who gets on base, steals some bases, and doesn't hurt you.

I don't like people who watch from afar. I don't like them at all.

Two years ago, the White Sox area scout in North Carolina said something really interesting to me.

"He's the first person on the field, and the last person to leave. He loves the game, works on what he's good at mercilessly, and works even harder on what he's not good at. I like his frame, and like his demeanor."

I said offhandedly as a joke, "so, 30-30 right?"

We both laughed, but he didn't laugh as hard as I did.

"I don't think 30-30, but if he hits 20 for awhile, I wouldn't be surprised. He makes good contact, and hits the walls here in Carolina pretty ferociously. What will he do in two or three years? A lot."

It's his sophomore season, so anything goes. I say he goes up.

What people need to understand about Francisco Lindor is that he transcends expectations in several ways. He's supremely talented, beyond the numbers, as he's proven at every level. He's one of the hardest workers in the organization, and that's not an overstatement...I've seen it with my own two eyes. But what I love the most about him is his passion for the game, his love of it all, and the fact that he acts like everything is important. He's mature beyond his years, which doesn't mean he can't make mistakes or regress, but that he will likely overcome it quickly.

I just worry about health, but that's not something we just can't control. Trust in the work.

Then there's Jose Ramirez. Ramirez is special defensively, in that he can be pretty good at several positions, and really good at second base. He's scintillating defensively at his home spot, and while he struggled last year at short, he's pretty good there too. Sidewalk scouts are pooh-poohing the 23-year old for his bat.

Well, he's 5'9", and 185 pounds. He's thick, but will never be a power hitter. In the bigs, he doesn't walk a lot, but doesn't K a lot either. If he can uptake his walk total, his speed is special. If he plays with confidence, his bat can be pretty special too. He can be a league average at multiple positions as well. What a fantastic back-up to have, and he'll grab 400 at bats for sure. My guess is he'll end up getting regular time somewhere, because of injury.

I'm good with that.

I love this infield, a lot.

The Outfield

Okay, so Brantley and Chisenhall is out.

1. Michael Brantley has that torn labrum. So, is anyone else thinking Travis Hafner here? Sure, Brantley's injury doesn't appear to be as serious, but why in the hell are we worrying about how soon he comes back? Hafner declined severely after his injury, and while Brantley's skill set is different, he needs to come back with no setbacks. Brantley can still be a fine ballplayer without power, but the value would definitively change on a team that needs power from each puzzle piece. My fear is that even now, Brantley comes back too soon.

2. Lonnie Chisenhall is out, and really my only concern regarding Lonnie is that he doesn't get the reps he needs. Remember, this is a guy that didn't play right field until he was sent down last year, and while he was fantastic, game repetition of skill is based on practice repetition. I don't know what to think of Chisenhall at this point. I want him to demonstrate the skill that he seems to showcase for two or three weeks at a time. If his defense remains solid when he returns, he can still be special in that he can curb a run here in there that could cost a team banking on it's starting rotation to win games. Does that give the team a couple of wins in a season? Yes. Could that be a big deal? It sure can.

I'll just leave it there.

The rest of the outfield is built of various parts. Tyler Naquin has made the team, and is an interesting mix of pretty good defense, better than good arm, and who knows offense. My thinking is he's still a #4 outfielder, but he's spent the better part of two injury-prone years showcasing more than average. He earned his spot on the team, but it remains to be seen for how long, and if he plays all that much with manager Terry Francona pulling the strings.

Here's the problem with Naquin on this roster. When the first of Michael Brantley or Lonnie Chisenhall returns, Collin Cowgill will likely depart to Columbus. When the second returns, that leaves the Indians having to make a decision between Naquin, Rajai Davis and Marlon Byrd. Davis makes too much money to dump now, and I have to believe that Byrd is a guy they want to have in case Chisenhall doesn't maintain his production from the position last year.

In short, I think Naquin's time with the club is limited. While they took away his #72 for a big boy number, he might as well have kept #72. Of course, he could blow the doors off, if he gets a chance.

Rajai Davis is a 'glue in the cracks" sorta player, who really helps out a team in need of fourth outfielder (you see where I'm going with this). He can hit some, and can defend some, but isn't going to blow your socks off. He's got good speed, but I am already questioning his usage at the plate. I honestly don't want him anywhere near lead-off. So, I firmly expect him to hit lead off far too much. I love Terry Francona, but have begun to question his

Collin Cowgill is a borderline fourth outfielder, who has a decent glove, but hasn't exhibited much in the form of offense. He wouldn't be on this team if it wasn't for the injury issues. I don't mind him in the fourth outfielder role, if he's all you have. He has a weak arm, and has begun getting compared to Aaron "Freakin'" Cunningham. Just that alone makes me not a fan of Collin "Freakin'" Cowgill. If you remember, Cunningham launched a throw about five feet in his debut, and Cowgill's arm appears to be the same.


I take away the borderline in fourth, and not because I suddenly think he's a fourth. He's a bit player with no upside. We need our starters back.

Marlon Byrd is a 38-year old power hitter with a decent glove that nobody ever brags about. The Indians grabbed him with a minor league deal that turned into a $1 million dollar Big League deal, that could turn a lot bigger if he performs. He can hit, if he doesn't regress, and is better suited to the team than, say, Lonnie Chisenhall (yeah, I said He's not a fourth outfielder, even though he can play the corners, but he's more suited to regular at bats in an outfield with good, solid regular bats.

Why I like him better than Lonnie is that he's a short-term proposition, and will be gone with the Zimmers and Fraziers make their debut some time in 2017 (or sooner, for Zimmer, but I'll get to that in a second). He should be solid this year, and adds a bat the Indians sorely need, unless you buy into Lonnie Chisenhall's offensive production.

If you are, stop drinking.

JRam appears to be the fifth outfielder, and should get two or three starts a month there. He's never played out there regularly, other than in fake games, so it's hard to say how good (or bad) he'll be. It's never a good thing to have a guy playing a position he's never played before, learning how to do it in Major League games.

While it looks like I'm selling low on this outfield, I do like the parts, greater than the players themselves. When Brantley comes back, I actually kind of love the outfield. I just worry about Chisenhall, and how he ultimately fits in. Now, if he were some sorta utility player, I all the sudden love him again.

But will that happen?

Will they send down Naquin?

Will Brantley recover, without rushing back?

Can Byrd put off father time?

Can they utilize Davis the right way?

Boy, that's a lot of questions.

What I really, truly love is that these outfield pieces aren't bricks playing in the outfield. David Murphy was more-or-less a vacuum, and Brandon Moss was just plain bad. Michael Bourn had zero range, and his bat was minor league. Brantley was outstanding when he was healthy, as always, but had to carry the outfield throughout the year. Abraham Almonte's best trait was that he wasn't Bourn, and Ryan Raburn was, well, Ryan Raburn. Did I mention Jerry Sands?

He made the White Sox roster, so I hear. People worry about the White Sox. Have fun with that.

Keep an eye out on Joey Butler in Columbus, and watch Akron. With no standout outfielders on the Clippers roster, it could be short-change before Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier bounce up to Triple A. Then the watch really gets interesting. I think they could sniff the big leagues this year, especially Zimmer. After June, it could be game on, if they excel in the pitcher friendly Double A. That's a big if though.

All-in-all, the pieces that the Indians have put together, seem to fit. Of course, it's April, and nothing seems to fit for the Indians in April. Without Brantley, there's a big concern that one of the best pieces will take down the rest of the team.

I just think the rest of this puzzle is built to overcome any loss, as long as the injury issues are at a minimum.

With two starters out, that's a big if.

Tomorrow, I'll take a look at the rotation and the bullpen...and that's going to be a whole lot of fun...
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