Imagining Lineups: The Usual Suspects

Assuming there are no major changes to the Indians 40-man roster and likely opening day roster between now and April, I was curious to gameplan various lineup possibilities, including potential injury replacements. The starting lineups vs. RHP and LHP look much as they did at the close of last season.

Overall:

The Indians biggest need, shockingly, is a RH bat that can play the corners, LF and/or 1B in particular. It is difficult to evaluate the Indians' lineup given the number of players returning from significant injury, but IF IF IF healthy (emphasis on the IF), the opening day lineup should be above average, albeit more limited against LHP. The Indians would be wise to find potential upside candidates to stash in Columbus at the corner spots. More than recent years, the depth of the squad seems limited, meaning any combination of long-term injuries could create real problems.

Opening Day : Default vs. RHP

Name Pos RC/9 ('11/3yr)
Brantley LF 4.2 / 3.9
Cabrera SS 5.4 / 4.9
Choo RF 4.7 / 6.6
Santana C 5.5 / 5.9
Hafner DH 5.9 / 6.2
Sizemore CF 4.0 / 4.1
LaPorta 1B 4.5 / 4.1
Kipnis 2B 6.7 / -
Chisenhall 3B 4.1 / -

Average RC/9: 5.0 / 5.1

Don't pay much attention to the batting order, but do notice how dominated the lineup is by lefties.

Alternate 1: vs. LHP/backups

Name Pos RC/9 ('11/3yr)
Cabrera SS 5.4 / 4.9
Sizemore DH 4.0 / 4.1
Choo RF 4.7 / 6.6
Santana 1B 5.5 / 5.9
Duncan LF 5.1 / 4.6
Hannahan 3B 3.8 / 3.6
Kipnis 2B 6.7 / -
Marson C 3.0 / 3.1
Carrera CF 3.0 / -

Average RC/9: 4.6 / 4.7

I didn't adjust the RC/9 numbers based on the pitching split, so this lineup is likely to be worse than the numbers suggest. Barring unexpectedly good health and outcomes from Hafner/Sizemore, we look like a lineup likely to struggle with LHP.

Alternate 2: Sizemore goes down

That Sizemore now sits ahead of Hafner in the competition for "most fragile" is a strong statement. The in-house replacement right now would be a switch for Brantley from everyday LF (at least vs. RHP) to everyday CF (against everyone). Filling in for Brantley in LF would likely be a combination of Duncan (vs. LHP) whoever our fourth OF is vs. RHP (Carrera, Neal, Pie), and possibly Jason Donald. The offensive impact of this move depends on the relative success of Sizemore. None of these guys are candidates to replace a high-performing Sizemore, but any of them could probably replace the out-machine Sizemore became after his first set-back last season. The same is true defensively, though any alternative defensive arrangement likely represents a downgrade. Even with Sizemore, his struggles against LHP necessitate someone on the active roster who can handle hit from the right side - Duncan, Donald and Neal all fit this description.

Alternate 3: Middle-infield injury

I'm assuming Kipnis (2B) and Cabrera (SS) are slated to start 145+ games next year. They should both be plus bats at their position and can benefit defensively from increased playing time individually and with each other. But what if one of them goes down to injury? First, if Donald is not already the 25th man on the roster, an injury to a middle infielder should make him that person. Donald can fill in at both SS and 2B, though is likely not a plus defender at either position. An extended DL stint could also open up a spot on the roster for Cord Phelps, who otherwise looks to be getting seasoning in AAA. This scenario is likely to be an offensive hit, and could be a lesser defensive hit, but the Indians are actually fairly deep up the middle. In addition to Donald and Phelps, who are both young enough and talented enough to warrant major league utility roles, the Indians now have Juan Diaz on the 40-man roster. He is a lanky SS whose primary advantage is his youth. Any extended period for Diaz in the majors this season would represent a likely big downgrade, similar to Peralta's 2003 debut with the Tribe, but lacking the long-term upside.

Alternate 4: Corner outfielder goes down

We tend to focus on Sizemore's injury risk (for good reason), but neither of our other projected starting outfielders have positive injury histories. Both Choo and Brantley spent periods on the DL last season, each player ending the season there. Our backup OF depth is much less certain than our middle infield depth. Shelley Duncan should get semi-regular ABs even with a healthy quartet of OFers, but any scenario that sees him playing the field on a daily basis is likely to be a negative defensively. He has only logged 156 innings in RF, and his 574 innings in LF are enough to suggest his range is subpar. He has the arm to fill in on either side, though. Behind Duncan on the 40-man roster are the inspiring due of Ezequiel Carrera and Thomas Neal. Carrera should be better, both in the field and at the plate, than he showed last year, but his value is clearly not as a starter. There is not much to say about Neal except that his 2011 was dreadful, and part of a 2-year decline from his oustanding 2009 campaign in high-A. In other words, he seems like one of the more likely replacement spots on the 40-man roster. In terms of OFers, the two non-roster players vying for this spot at the moment would be Trevor Crowe and Felix Pie. Crowe is a known commodity at this point, with the added caveat of having gone through significant injury problems of late. Pie is more of an unknown for Cleveland, but has shown across more than 1000 major league plate appearances that he is good at getting out. His defensive numbers highlight how difficult it is to interpret UZR numbers. He has logged more than 1000 ML-innings in CF, grading out as average to slightly above average across the board. Sounds nice...but he has also logged more than 1200 innings in LF and has graded out there, seemingly an easier position, as dreadful, driven entirely by extremely poor range. So...acceptable range in CF but atrocious range in LF.

Clearly an injury to a corner OFer exposes what would appear to be a soft-spot on the Indians roster. Finding an acceptable corner OF backup - and perhaps Pie is that, but I would not place odds on it working out - would be a substantial upgrade to the roster between now and opening day.

Alternate 5: Corner infielder goes down

The loss of a corner infielder can come in two scenarios, each with different consequences for Cleveland. If LaPorta is our opening day first baseman, and he goes down to injury, the blow to either our offense or defense would not appear to be huge. First base, at the moment, looks to be a position the Indians will use not unlike the DH spot, rotating bats into the lineup and defensive arrangements to maximize effectiveness given a given matchup or health status. The biggest problem with losing LaPorta is we have very few RH bats. Such an injury would likely bring Marson into the lineup more frequently at catcher, with Santana and Duncan getting more reps at first. That might not be the worst thing, but coupled with any other injury (corner OF, for example), causes roster problems. Such a scenario would, at the moment, again create a roster spot for Donald or Phelps, but utilizing them in a way that is not terribly efficient. Finding a RH bat that can play first base and that can be stashed in Columbus should be a priority.

The situation on the left side of the diamond is probably less problematic. It would be a developmental blow to the organization to see Chisenhall go down to injury (something he has done rather frequently, actually), but the blow to the lineup might not be substantial. Hannahan is also a bit of an out machine at the plate, but he makes up for it by being an out machine at 3B. The depth options for 3B again include Donald or Phelps playing slightly out of position when Hannahan rests. As with first base, the main problem here is if an injury at 3B gets coupled with another significant infield injury. With Valbuena gone, the Indians don't have a fungible veteran bat in Columbus at this position. This is another potential background upgrade between now and opening day.

Alternate 6: We lose a catcher

The Indians have the usual cadre of minor league veteran catchers set to go in AAA this year, so the problem here is not finding a replacement. The problem, particularly if Santana is lost, is that an injury would be a major blow to the lineup. Santana is Cleveland's best offensive player and cannot be adequately replaced in any scenario. That he is likely to see substantial time at 1B also makes the versatility of his role difficult to replace. A loss of Marson would, I believe, also be a substantial loss because of his defensive abilities and his ability to work with the pitching staff.


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