Friday, June 14, 2013

Francisco Lindor, B.C.

It was June 6, 2011, 67 years to the day after Generals Eisenhower and Bradley ordered the combined allied troops to begin storming the beaches of Normandy, France in what was the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler’s “1000 year” Reich. Coincidence? Absolutely. Because all we’re talking about is the 2011 Rule 4 Amateur draft. I was sitting nervously on my couch when Bud Selig announced that the Indians were on the clock. The 2011 draft was universally held as one of the most talented in years, and the Indians had the #8 overall pick. It would be almost difficult to screw up a top-10 pick in a draft that loaded, but if ESPN’s Keith Law and other “experts” were to believed, the Indians were about to do just that. Most of the so-called “experts” had the Indians selecting a low-ceiling, high-floor collegiate arm like Taylor Jungmann or Jed Bradley. A safe, signable pick, but a completely uninspiring choice that would have been a waste of the #8 pick in the draft. I had recently published a couple of articles pining for the selection of prep shortstop Francisco Lindor if he was still on the board, or flamethrowing high schooler Archie Bradley if Lindor wasn’t around. Well, Bradley went 7th overall to the Arizona Diamondbacks, leaving Lindor (and the gaggle of college arms) on the board for the Indians at #8. As the seconds ticked off the clock, I got that all-too familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach. The feeling that most Cleveland fans get when their team is on the clock; the feeling that something is about to go terribly wrong. But when the always-excitable Bud Selig read off the Indians’ selection, it was high school shortstop Francisco Lindor. I let out a yell of excitement, and got down to business writing a celebratory article about the Indians making what I hoped and believed was the best selection possible for the future of the franchise.

Lindor signed right at the deadline in 2011 for an overslot bonus of $2.9 million. He reported to short-season Mahoning Valley in time to play in 5 games, collecting 6 hits in 19 at bats with the Scrappers during his professional debut. It was a brief taste of professional baseball for the switch-hitting prodigy, but enough to get his feet wet. The Indians aggressively assigned the 18-year old to low-A Lake County to open the 2012 season, and Lindor responded by hitting a very respectable .257/.352/.355 with 6 HR, 42 RBI and 27 SB in 122 games for the Lake County Captains. The low-A Midwest League is a notoriously difficult environment for hitters, so for the young Lindor to put up that line while at the same time providing Gold Glove-caliber defense at shortstop, you know the Indians had to be happy with their young prodigy. Lindor came into the 2013 season as the consensus top prospect in the organization, and a top-10 overall guy in all of baseball. The Indians had Lindor stick around in big-league camp during nearly all of spring training, getting him valuable experience in a major league clubhouse before assigning him to the high-A Carolina Mudcats for opening day. Like the Midwest League, the Carolina League is known to be friendlier to pitchers than hitters. But like in the Midwest League, Lindor is more than holding his own here in 2013. He’s appeared in 63 games for the Mudcats so far this season, and is hitting a solid .296/.371/.399 with a HR, 21 RBI, 4 triples and 15 stolen bases. Probably the most impressive stat for the 19-year old is the 28 walks to just 29 strikeouts that he’s accumulated this season. That kind of plate discipline for a 19-year old in the Carolina League is nearly unheard of. And when you consider that Lindor’s lofty prospect status is built primarily on his defense, not his offense, you begin to see why the Indians are so excited for their shortstop of the future.

I caught up with Lindor a couple of weeks ago when the Mudcats were visiting the Potomac Nationals here in Virginia. I got to watch him take infield before the game, an experience I can only describe as baseball pornography. Lindor took a couple dozen routine groundballs, then proceeded to take balls far to his left and right, ranging far up the middle and deep in the hole. Bored with these seemingly routine tasks, Lindor then started fielding balls between his legs and behind his back. He would flip the ball to 2nd with his hands, glove, and I think I even saw him kick a ball over. It was a beautiful sight, and I stood there with Mudcats radio play-by-play announcer Darren Headrick, simply awestruck at the sight of Lindor fielding groundballs. When I expressed my feelings to Headrick, he simply chuckled, shook his head and said, “He does this every day. It’s incredible.”

Unsurprisingly, when I asked Lindor about his favorite thing on the baseball field, his answer centered on defense. “Turning double plays; that’s the most fun play that’s out there. Getting a groundball is always fun, but when you can help out your pitcher by getting two outs on one play, that’s awesome.” Lindor is a very good hitter, but he’s an exceptional defender, and when you’re watching him in the field whether it’s before or during the games, it’s clear that he enjoys his ability to be creative on the defensive side of the game.

In addition to being named to the Midwest League All-Star team in 2012, Lindor was one of the Indians two selections for the MLB Future’s Game during MLB All-Star weekend last year. I asked Lindor about the experience playing with potential future stars from around baseball. “It was an honor representing the Indians, representing Puerto Rico and representing my family,” said the young shortstop. It’s a virtual certainty that Lindor will again be one of the Indians representatives to the Futures Game in 2013, so if you haven’t had a chance to see him play, that game will be televised as part of All-Star weekend. Get your DVRs ready, because it’s an experience that you won’t want to miss.

As expected, Lindor had nothing but great things to say about Mudcats manager Dave Wallace. Wallace was the skipper for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in 2011 and then for the Lake County Captains in 2012, so he’s had the pleasure of managing the athletic young shortstop for his entire professional career. “I haven’t had any other manager; he’s awesome. He’s a great guy, keeps the dugout loose, has fun, respects the game and respects us and that’s what he asks out of us. To respect the game, respect him and respect each other and respect the clubhouse. He’s a great guy; humble, and I’ve been with him since day one. He’s awesome.” The Indians are lucky to have someone like Wallace managing a talent like Lindor, as he’s a perfect personality to get the most out of the talented shortstop and help speed his development towards the big leagues.

Talking to Lindor, I was incredibly impressed by the teenager’s maturity and confidence. There’s very little that Francisco Lindor cannot do on a baseball field, and he knows it. That’s not to suggest that Lindor is cocky or overconfident; far from it. But he’s appropriately confident for a player of his age and ability, and is already a leader in the clubhouse despite his relative inexperience. Part of that leadership ability comes from Lindor’s experience with the major league team this spring. I asked him what he learned from the Indians in Goodyear, and Lindor responded, “I had a blast; I got to know the big leaguers and they made it pretty comfortable for me, and I learned a lot from them. It’s just a game; those guys go about their business, making sure they take care of their job and be consistent every day. Taking every pitch the same way, the same approach in the field and spending every day trying to get better.” Consistency is a theme for Lindor; it’s obvious he has the talent to succeed at the highest level of the game; he just needs to add strength/size to his frame and be more consistent. He’s created a catchphrase for himself, “Lindor B.C.” As in “Lindor, Be Consistent.” Coming soon to a bumper sticker near you.

Along the same lines, when I asked Lindor if he was working on anything specific this season, he just said that “I’m working on everything, improving every aspect of my game. Every single thing I do, I want to get better at.” Confident, but not cocky, knowing that he has to improve but also well-aware that he has the talent to succeed at the highest level of the game someday.

Despite his age and relative inexperience, we could see Lindor on the shores of Lake Erie as early as midway through the 2014 season. With shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera becoming a free agent prior to the 2015 season, that timeline lines up perfectly for the Indians. If Lindor can get his feet wet at the big league level in 2014, it’s not unreasonable to think that he could become an everyday shortstop in The Show as a 21-year old the following season. He’s a potential Gold Glove defender who should more than hold his own with the bat, a potential four-tool player who should be above-average in everything except the power department. That’s an all-star package if he plays up to his potential, and Lindor seems prepared to work as hard as it takes to reach that lofty potential. 

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