Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stranded at Third Base

As we move ever so slowly closer to pitchers and catchers reporting (while ignoring odd leaps of logic on these Interwebs), there is one position that continues to stick in my head as the 3B situation has inexplicably become cloudier than it was when the 2010 season ended and it was as clear as mud back then. So as much as I’d like to focus on the fact that I think that Carlos Santana is going to provide a major lift to the Indians’ offense or that Carmona, Masterson, and Carrasco are going to provide some stabilization to a rotation badly in need of it in 2011, and realizing that more e-ink has been spilled on the Tribe 3B this off-season, the stunning realization persists that the Indians are exactly where they were when the off-season started (and perhaps worse off and more confused)...all of which unfortunately leaves us all unable to get past 3B.

Of course, getting past 3B is an issue that many men deal with at some point in their lives, but the new wrinkle comes in the (now-not-so-new) news that the Indians are now considering moving Jason Donald to 3B in an attempt to find a stop-gap at the Hot Corner. Since the assumption most of the off-season was that Donald would be the 2B in Cleveland until Kipnis forced his way onto the roster, the way that 3B is somehow all wrapped up with 2B, let’s (inexplicably) start at 2B as that is (inexplicably) how the Indians seem to be approaching the 3B situation.

Everyone have their bases straight here...yeah, me neither.
Regardless, the Indians have three middle infielders in Jayson Nix (a 2B), Jason Donald (primarily a SS throughout his MiLB career), and Cord Phelps (a 2B) as the most obvious options to play 3B in 2011. Given that the Indians have summarily dismissed Goedert as an option (and I’ll get to that dismissal) and Lonnie Chisenhall (ranked recently as the #36 overall prospect by MLB.com) is going to start the year in Columbus (I’ll get to that as well), that trio of middle infielders join Minor League signing Jack Hannahan in a convoluted “derby” to determine who will be the 3B to start 2011 with the assumed starter at 2B being intrinsically tied to it.

While most of these options are unappealing to most as they wait around for The Chiz and Kipnis to ride in on white horses to rescue these two positions, let’s take a step back and realize that Jason Donald is not that bad of a “placeholder” at either position, assuming some level of defensive proficiency can be reached. In his first exposure to MLB, Donald had an OPS+ of 94, meaning that he was below league average and while the “harrumph, harrumph” crowd gets their “harrumphs” ready, realize that there were only 19 2B/SS who were better than league average at the plate in 2010 with 30 teams still playing one of those two positions, or less than a third of the middle infielders in MLB posted offensive numbers that were better than league average.

Further attempting to provide some context, how about the fact that Donald actually finished 27th of the 61 players who played the majority of the season in the middle of the infield and who accumulated more than 300 plate appearances?

You know which middle infielders he outperformed at the plate in 2010?
JJ Hardy, Orlando Hudson, Marco Scutaro, Reid Brignac, Derek Jeter, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jimmy Rollins, Gordon Beckham, Chone Figgins, and I could keep going if you’d like me too...

Is this to say that Donald is a long-term answer in the infield?
Of course not, as the Lesson of Louie V (he of the OPS+ of 90 in 2009, followed by the OPS+ of 51 in 2010) applies here, but look at what Indians’ 2B have put forth for the past 8 years, in terms of offensive production in the context of MLB:
2010: .624 OPS (29th of 30 MLB teams)
2009: .704 OPS (22nd of 30 MLB teams)
2008: .658 OPS (28th of 30 MLB teams)
2007: .639 OPS (30th of 30 MLB teams)
2006: .745 OPS (10th of 30 MLB teams)
2005: .726 OPS (18th of 30 MLB teams)

Really, since Ronnie Belliard left after 2006, the Indians’ 2B have peaked at a .704 OPS, good enough to nearly crack the production among the top 2/3 of MLB. In case you’re wondering, Bill James’ projections has Donald posting an OPS of .714 and ZiPS projects an OPS of .687 for Donald.

Look again at those numbers from 2B above and realize that Bill James’ projection would be the best production out of 2B since 2006 and the moribund ZiPS projection would outpace the production of the Tribe 2B in 3 of the last 4 years!

Of course, a major factor in Donald playing at 2B in 2011 is a presumption that Donald will improve on this as a 2B when he looked like a fish out of water at the position for the parent club in 2010. That being said, here’s a factor that might have played into that whole “fish out of water” thing for Donald as a 2B – he had played all of three games in the Minors at 2B prior to 2010!

And...now, the (not-so-new) news comes that he may be playing 3B?
Care to hazard a guess as to how many games has he played at 3B in the Minors in his career?
Again, three.

Certainly, Donald looked horrible in Cleveland at his “natural” position of SS last year filling in for an injured Cabrera, but most projections had Donald moving across the bag to 2B at some point in his development and career. While he may have struggled in his first taste there, the idea of adding another position for him to learn as he’s attempting to adjust to MLB strikes me as odd. Maybe he does convert over to 3B smoother than...oh, I don’t know NIX, but shouldn’t there be more thought to this than simply a prolonged trial-and-error period, particularly in MLB?

Aren’t there paid employees at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario who should have been able to reasonably project whether Donald would be better as a 2B or a 3B prior to last year, given the gaping holes at each position last off-season?

The idea that Nix would pick up 3B crashed and burned, perhaps prompting this suggestion to move Donald to 3B, to clear a spot for Nix at 2B (you know, the 27-year-old with the career .635 OPS when he joined the Tribe...because the White Sox cut him), but this is all getting too confusing to follow. Maybe Nix is the best defensive 2B and this is me talking out of both sides of my mouth on this subject as I’ve been driving the bandwagon to create the best infield defense behind a groundballing staff as best possible, but the whole 2B/3B thing to start the year feels too much like the Indians trying to fit square pegs in round holes.

As a quick aside here, did anyone know that Jason Donald and Jayson Nix joined Matt MaTola and Lou Marson on the 2008 Olympic roster in Beijing?
Weird…

Nevertheless, there seems to be the idea that any configuration would be a short-term situation with Kipnis and The Chiz supposedly lined up for promotions at some point in the year. But is anyone else a little uncomfortable with how much they’re counting on those two (and particularly The Chiz to be the salvation at 3B)...perhaps a little too much?

After an off-season of inactivity and a “new” plan to slot Donald over to 3B, it is stunning how much this team is simply assuming that The Chiz is going to come and rescue 3B. The assumption that has proclaimed Lonnie as “The Answer” at 3B is a corner that they’ve painted themselves into, with the first coat being laid back when The Chiz was still in Kinston.

There really is no “Plan B” past putting The Chiz at 3B and, in the context of the Indians dismissing Goedert as an option at 3B (and really that’s what this Pluto piece does), how about Ross Atkins proclaiming that “to play third in the big leagues, you are talking about an .800 OPS along with playing a demanding defensive position.”

Hold on there...I understand “perfect world production” as much as the next guy, but let’s remember what we’ve been dealing with here in Cleveland at 3B before you make that proclamation. Not to wear out the gears on the silver DeLorean, but the Indians’ 3B OPS for the past decade has been as follows:
2010: .700 OPS (22nd of 30 MLB teams)
2009: .719 OPS (19th of 30 MLB teams)
2008: .703 OPS (25th of 30 MLB teams)
2007: .728 OPS (21st of 30 MLB teams)
2006: .688 OPS (27th of 30 MLB teams)
2005: .630 OPS (30th of 30 MLB teams)
2004: .815 OPS (13th of 30 MLB teams)
2003: .729 OPS (17th of 30 MLB teams)
2002: .636 OPS (29th of 30 MLB teams)
2001: .729 OPS (21st of 30 MLB teams)

So, for Atkins to assert that “to play third in the big leagues, you are talking about an .800 OPS along with playing a demanding defensive position” is all well and good as a criteria, but it comes off as arrogant in the way the quote is presented, as a dismissal of Goedert. Maybe Goedert’s glove is shaped like a frying pan, but in the context of what we’ve seen from 3B in the last decade (when the Tribe 3B surpassed an .800 OPS once and never came within 71 points of it in the other 9 years) and particularly with that 2010 number...yeah, that kind of rings hollow as a statement from anyone associated with the Indians in dismissing anyone as a candidate to play 3B.

Yet here we sit with the current group of contenders and all hopes pinned to The Chiz to pull the Indians out of this 3B abyss. Perhaps Jason Donald takes to 3B the way that Nix never did, but if you look at the way that the system breaks down going into Columbus, it’s hard to figure how Cord Phelps lookd like a 3B option going forward as he is unlikely to get significant reps at 3B in AAA to start the year because...you know, Lonnie Chisenhall is the 3B for Columbus.

To take that a step further, going back to last week’s “Sunday Notes” column from Pluto, he passed along that “the Indians want Chisenhall (at third) and Kipnis (at second) to receive regular work. That makes Phelps a swingman between different positions, although he is expected to play every day -- somewhere” mentioning 2B, 3B, and LF as places that Phelps could play.

So if The Chiz and Kipnis “receive regular work” at their respective positions and Phelps plays every day with the intent to make him a “swingman” by playing in the field every day, doesn’t that mean that Phelps will primarily play LF?

Isn’t Nick Weglarz the assumed LF in Columbus?
This gets even more confusing if you extrapolate out what Pluto says and it means in Columbus:
2B - Kipnis
3B - Chiz
LF - Phelps
If they’re all “playing everyday” with an emphasis on defense development (particularly for Chiz and Kip), that’s it, right?
Yes, Phelps will sub some at 2B and 3B, with Chiz and Phelps maybe being the DH if they don’t get the day off, but does that now move Wegz to 1B or DH and with Goedert assuming the opposite “position” (1B or DH) of Wegz?

If the idea to turn Phelps into a “swingman”, how is he going to get reps at 2B or 3B in Columbus with the team’s top 2 prospects (rightfully) being regulars at those two positions. Based on Pluto’s notes (which come from the Indians ever Sunday), it certainly doesn’t sound like he’s going to be getting a real shot at maybe even being a stop-gap at 3B, which gets more convoluted the deeper you get.

All of this moving around the diamond with these guys makes my head hurt and causes me to wonder if it isn’t just a better idea to pick positions for some of these guys and go with it. Maybe this conjures up too much of the “Broussard in the OF” or “Ryan Garko - LF” or even Nix as a 3B, where guys are trying to learn a new position at the MLB level.
Realizing that versatility is great in some guys...why do we force it on so many of these guys?

Not all of these guys are Casey Blake (whose versatility was woefully underutilized) and attempting to transform somebody into that seems to only stunt development. Give these guys a position and be done with it. If they’re legitimately “blocked” by someone in Cleveland, so be it...but let’s cross that bridge if we ever get to it.

The argument could be made that not all of these guys are young, with the exception of The Chiz (who just turned 22), as Nix is now 28, Donald is now 26 while Phelps just turned 24 with Kipnis turning 24 in April and it’s time for one of them to assert themselves at one of these positions, but how this all shakes out to start the season could go any number of ways.

If the Indians are suddenly thinking of Donald at 3B and Nix at 2B with Phelps being the “swingman” in Columbus, mainly playing LF, the only guy in that equation playing his natural position is Nix...you know, the now-28-year-old that had a .635 OPS before joining the Indians. Maybe Hannahan enters the mix at some point or maybe Donald and Phelps force the Indians’ hand in Goodyear (although this organization has been reticent to change a plan once one is devised) to become the two starting infielders out of the gate for the parent club.

Regardless, The Chiz and Kipnis can’t arrive soon enough to the Indians infield clean up this mess and stabilize two long-standing Tribe problem spots....which is hopefully something that they both can do.

10 comments:

Halifax said...

Well taken...cut Nix, bring Phelps up now to the bigs (he can't be worse than Nix) to play 3B, leave Donald at 2B since he's a supposed placeholder and utility guy of the future. That way Chiz can stay at third, Kipnis at second and Wegz in left to develop at their prospective positions until forcing someone's hand or they are flat out needed. Who has the big man-crush on Nix? Package him and Louis V for a Single A arm and show them the door. They're curbing development and as you have just made the point, it's clear as day.

Halifax said...

And I still say, don't sell Donald short. He has pop in his bat, some speed and his fielding ability didn't vanish overnight. The guy was learning a completely new position while trying to break into the majors after overcoming an injury. His second year at second may surprise...

Mooney said...

I gotta say, the constant push for versatility in playing position is just annoying. The best I can tell is that the org uses this as a way of covering the fact that they do not have anyone who can legitimately play the position of need. Taking guys out of natural position just should not happen at the big league level. That is why you have, wait for it,...a utility man!

Now, frankly, a life long shortstop should be able to move over to second base fairly easily, I get that. But I'm sick of the "he needs to be able to play 3 positions to be able to stick with the major league team". Look at our team, we don't have guys that can play one position, let alone need for them to play 3.

Joel Shapira said...

PC, the "getting past 3B is an issue that many men deal with at some point in their lives" line was incredible and should be duly noted for its subtle brilliance. As for 3b options, how about signing switch-hitting Wee Willy Aybar to a minor league deal? He's probably no Brooks Robinson but at least he has played over 500 games in the minors at third base and almost 150 games there in the majors. That's about 657 more than Jason Donald so how bad can he be in comparison? Aybar also hits lefty pitchers pretty darn well and has some pop (as well as, oooh...ahhhh, the FLEXIBILITY to play 1b and 2b). Without Aybar in the equation I would prefer Donald at third over Nix. We know Nix sux at the hot corner and at least Donald has played on the left side of the diamond for much of his professional career. The transition should be easier for him than for Nix.

Halifax said...

Joel -- the "Nix sux" reference was clever writing, found it amusing.

Chris said...

I still miss the Ronnie Dawg. Let's bring him back to play 3B... which I assume he'll do from somewhere near the Terrace Club.

Paul Cousineau said...

I like the Aybar idea or, if we're moving Donald over to 3B, what about Orlando Cabrera on a Minor League deal?

If we're moving guys all around the infield anyway, I'll take Cabrera at 2B over Jayson Sux.

OhNoNotYett said...

Paul, I can't find much about it, but Troy Glaus is done at 3B, right? If not, he would have been a nice low-risk option there with the ability to move across the diamond if Matola struggled through April and May. I'm assuming Glaus would have been signed by now if teams believed he could play third. His numbers haven't been great the past couple years mostly due to injuries, but he still can get on base (and for the Tribe, he seems to be better than other internal options).

Jeff said...

Color me confused.

Versatility is bad, yet multi-position players like Aybar and Belliard are legitimate options at 3B? Aybar, who's played 66 games at 3B in the past three seasons? Belliard, who's played 61 in the past 4? I mean, maybe they really picked it at the hot corner in the minors around the turn of the century, but how is that germane to the 2011 season? Add to that the fact that both had a lower OPS than Nix (Ronnie while in the NL), and I just don't get the point.

Glaus is most likely a better hitter, but is in his mid-thirties and hasn't been a regular 3B since '08.

As for Cabrera, his defensive numbers are spotty in the recent past, and last year he also posted a lower OPS than Nix. In that launching pad in extreme northern Kentucky. In...the...National...League.

If players of the ilk of those in this thread are the alternatives at 3B and I'm Antonetti, I grit my teeth and go with the internal options as a bridge to Chisenhall.

Paul Cousineau said...

I'm not sure I'd designate Aybar or Belliard as "legitimate" options at 3B, but their versatility is something that Nix seems to lack...and I'm still not buying Nix's OPS last year if only because of the body of work prior to him arriving.

Glaus just announced that he is sitting out 2011 and maybe beyond.

The "versatility" thing is me talking out of both sides of my mouth, but attempting to allow these young guys (Donald and Phelps specifically) having one position to play as they adjust to MLB and not confusing the issue for them, something I would care less about with Aybar or other fungible veterans of his ilk.

In the end, I still wouldn't be opposed to adding one of those guys to a Minor-League deal, see what they can do in Spring Training along with those "internal options"...and still grit my teeth until Lonnie arrives.