2011 Indians Outlook: The Infield

Opening Day for the Indians is Friday and along with it comes a sense of hope for the 2011 season.  To say I’m excited would be the understatement of the century.  Expect a heavy dose of Indians all week as we prepare for what should be a national holiday.  Someone needs to get on that. 

With that said, it’s time to take a look at the infield for the 2011 Cleveland Indians and try to figure out exactly where they stand.  Can the Indians compete with their current infield situation?  Will the infield be better this year than it has been over the past few years?  Will we all still be crying for the return of Jhonny Peralta?  There are so many questions surrounding the infield and a lot of potential answers.  Let’s take a look.

First Base:

For the time being the first base position is Matt LaPorta’s to lose.  He was the centerpiece of the C.C. Sabathia trade and has yet to live up to all the hype that accompanied him here from the Brewers.  To sum things up, LaPorta couldn’t hit his way out of a greasy McDonald’s bag.  In his defense, he’s been injured at times over the past two seasons and the Indians have done him absolutely no favors.  They’ve moved him back and forth between first base and left field.  They’ve promised him the first base position during a year in which they knew they wouldn’t be competitive and then turned right around a signed Russell Branyan and gave him the job.  With all of that do you really blame him for the lack of performance?  This year is different though.  The job is his and the Indians are going to let me make a name for himself… finally.

Backing up LaPorta is where things get interesting.  Carlos Santana will get some reps at first base simply to give him days off behind the plate but still keep him in the lineup, very similar to what they did with Victor Martinez.  The actual back up at least starting out appears to be Shelley Duncan by default.  He’s not a bad option.  He had a solid year last year with the Indians filling in out in left field.  The other option at first base is Nick Johnson who was signed in the offseason, but is still recovering from offseason wrist surgery.  Can’t say I’m excited about the pickup since I think Nick Johnson’s expiration date was about 5 years ago, but if he can hit and provide solid defense once a week, or twice a week tops, then the signing will have been worth it.

However, the job is LaPorta’s for now and I’m expecting good things out of him.  He needs to be the right handed power threat everyone believed he would be.  He’s hit at every level and sending him back to Triple A will serve him absolutely no purpose.  It’s time to let him prove it at the big league level full-time.

Second Base:

The one amazing signing I think the Indians made had to be Orland Cabrera.  The Indians are the youngest team in baseball and the past two years have been missing a sense of veteran leadership from someone who has been there and fought the battles.  Cabrera is that player.  He’s announced that this will be his final season, but that’s not to say he’s washed up.  Last year for the Reds, Cabrera hit .263 with 4 home runs and 42 RBI.  He also played remarkable defense and was a key cog in the rebirth of the Reds.  He’s not washed up at all and quite frankly he’s better than any other option the Indians have at second base.  That’s not to say there won’t be some bumps in the road.  Cabrera is a career short stop and learning to play second base will take some time, especially when it comes to turning the double play.

Speaking of the other options, Cabrera’s backup at second will be the triumvirate of crap otherwise known as Luis “No bueno” Valbuena, an injured Jason Donald, and Jayson Nix.  Woof.  We’ve seen what all three could do last year as they were repeatedly shuffled in and out of the lineup by Manny Acta depending on who was hot, who was fielding well, and who was the first one on game day to compliment him on the curvature of the bill of his cap.  Valbuena can’t catch the ball and stirkes out too much, Donald showed promise and is young but many feel he’s destined to be a utility player, plus he’s headed for third base once he’s healthy, and Nix is just so-so.

If the Indians want success, Cabrera will need to have one more good run.  If not, then we’ll be subjected to the horror show we’ve seen the past two seasons over at second base.  Not good, people… not good.  But I’m hopeful.  I’m not willing to give up on the Tribe second basemen just yet.

Third Base:

And the 2011 Opening Day third baseman for the Cleveland Indians is… JACK HANNAHAN!… wait… Jack Hannahan?  Who the hell is Jack Hannahan?  Is he the big time power hitting third baseman the Indians so desperately need and thought Andy Marte would develop into?  Ummm… not so much.  Jack Hannahan is a former Athletic and Mariner, the owner of a career .224 average, 16 home runs, 90 RBI, and .658 OPS in 209 career games over the span of 4 years.  Ouch.  I understand that Jason Donald was penciled in as the Indians third baseman going into spring training, but thanks to injury the Indians are on to plan B.  Plan B is Hannahan over Valbuena or Nix.  What does that say about those two? 

Hannahan has put together a solid spring at the plate.  In 15 games he has a .368 average.  That’s something to build on.  Whether or not it will translate into a successful regular season is anyone’s guess though.  Odds are that unless Hannahan plays out of his mind, Donald will go back into the line up once he’s healthy.  When that happens expect Hannahan to fall back to the back up spot with either Valbuena or Nix being sent to Triple A.  Obviously Hannahan is not the ideal third baseman considering he lack power and RBI production, but with the other pieces the Indians have he doesn’t really need to.  Hannahan just needs to play solid defense and take advantage of scoring situations when they present themselves.  He doesn’t have to be the lynch pin for the Indians possible success, but if he doesn’t perform he could be a key piece to their failures.

There’s also the outside shot that Lonnie Chisenhall will make an appearance before the season is over.  In fact, don’t be so surprised if he makes an appearance come the end of May or June.  Stay tuned to that one, folks.  You might want to get on the bandwagon.

Short Stop:

The one and only infield position where there is absolutely no questions.  Asdrubal Cabrera is the Indians starting short… period.  What more do I really need to say.  Asdrubal has put it all together and become one of the most solid and consistent players on this team.  He’ll bat lead off to start the year and will probably stay there once Grady comes back from his rehab.  There’s no reason to think Asdrubal won’t continue to build on his success of the past few years.  This Spring he’s batted an outstanding .400 and knocking the cover off the ball.  Having him get off to a hot start will help the Indians get off to a hot start as a whole, especially since he’s the leadoff hitter.

Backing up Cabrera will be Orlando Cabrera.  Since he’s the starting second baseman, it’s probably safe to say Asdrubal won’t be taking very many days off and that’s probably for the best.  The more Asdrubal plays, the better the off they’ll be.

Verdict:

The infield should be better than expected, especially up the middle.  The Cabrera’s should be fun to watch up the middle turning double plays.  I have no doubts that they won’t be an issue.  The questions revolve around the corner spots.  LaPorta has to have a big year and there is pressure to perform, more so at the plate.  If he doesn’t hit can that effect his performance out on the field?  It’s a legit concern.  He’s a young player.  Can he deal with that type of adversity?  Only thing I can say is we have to wait and see.  At the other corner no one knows what to expect from Jack Hannahan.  He’s new to the organization and based on past performance the expectations are low.  His main job is to serve as the stop gap for Jason Donald.  The question for Donald is whether or not he can play third considering the fact he’s played a grand total of 0 games at third in his career.  Can he transition over to the hot corner from second?  The Indians certainly think so and so do I.  Another issue is whether or not he’ll be able to hit enough to justify playing third base full time. 

Breaking News:

As I’m writing this, The Really Big Show is saying that Paul Hoynes, Indians beat writer, is reporting that both Jayson Nix and Luis Valbuena are packing their bags and shaking hands in the club house this morning.  That is almost a sure fire sign that both players are not going to be on the roster.  Valbuena is slated for Triple A while reportedly the Indians are looking to trade Nix rather than desginating him for assignment AKA releasing him to waivers.  So what does that mean for their respective spots on the Indians roster?  Most likely that mean veteran Adam Everett will be the utility infielder backing up at second, third, and short.  It’s not a bad move.  Everett is a veteran and you know what you’re going to get with him, solid defense and some timely clutch hitting.  Nothing that is going to make you say “Wow!” but he’s also not going to leave you scratching your head.  It’s a good move that means the extra roster spot will be spent on either an outfielder or extra pitcher.

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