Friday, February 23, 2018

Bat Flips & Nerds - Ken Griffey Jr and Me

I was lucky enough to have an article posted today on the fantastic British baseball site Bat Flips & Nerds. England Tribe is a home for all things Indians but on the odd occasion I will write about other players and other teams.

I had a story about the legendary Ken Griffey Jr. bouncing around in my mind and I wanted to share it, as well as write a short tribute to the Hall of Fame outfielder.

If you have 5 minutes, head over to their site by clicking the link below:

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Key To Kipnis

Jason Kipnis was on the cusp of stardom.

It felt like only yesterday when he broke through in 2012 to take sole ownership of second base, before becoming an All Star in 2013, cementing himself as a fan favorite.

He appealed to me instantly. He wasn't afraid to get his uniform dirty. He reminded me of Dustin Pedroia, only with hair. Second base has always been one of my favorite positions; if I played ball, it's the spot around the diamond I could imagine playing.

An injury ravaged season slowed his progress in 2014 but Kipnis rebounded with style the following year, earning his second All Star appearance. In 2016 Kipnis was a key contributor on an Indians team that pushed the Cubs all the way in the World Series, and his power increased substantially that season, hitting a career-high 23 home runs.

After nearly five years of consistently superb production, barring the hiccup in 2014, Kipnis was almost a household name, almost a superstar.

That's when 2017 happened.

2017 was not so kind to Kipnis. He had an utterly miserable year with injuries (possibly a hangover from the physically and emotionally exhausting postseason of 2016). He began the year on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation, and made two more trips to the DL because of hamstring issues. His body betrayed him constantly.

Over 90 games and 373 plate appearances, Kipnis batted just .232 with 12 HR and 35 RBI in the regular season.

As the Indians were preparing for the postseason, Kipnis took up the mantle of replacing the injured Bradley Zimmer, filling the glaring hole in center field that the rookie had left behind. Kipnis had not played the outfield regularly since college, and hadn't seen any time there since 2009, when he made 7 appearances in center field during his first year in the minor leagues.

Undaunted, Kipnis performed admirably in the final weeks of the season, especially when you consider he was fresh off the disabled list and being played out of position. In a disappointing October for every Tribe player, it was Kipnis who came up with the defensive play of the postseason.

Now, for the first time in over half a decade, Kipnis is entering Spring Training in a position of uncertainty. He's gone from being a core piece on this squad to something of an afterthought.

Where will he play? Will he even be here?

There was talk this winter of the Mets potentially putting together a package deal for Kipnis that never materialized. I am thankful that didn't happen.

Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are the centerpiece of the Indians lineup now, and many fans want to see Ramirez become the full-time second baseman. The 2017 AL Silver Slugger winner for third base certainly has the ability to play second. In fact, many would say Ramirez is more comfortable partnering Lindor than he is at the hot corner. Would Kipnis accept a permanent position move?

What Kipnis needs most is stability. To see Kipnis return to the guy we knew only a year or so ago, to see that incredibly dynamic player that was an essential piece of the puzzle, he needs to be healthy and settled. Kipnis is the kind of player who would run through walls for his team. He would do anything Terry Francona asked of him.

I'd argue that he shouldn't have to, and Francona seems to agree. "More than likely, he'll play second. The winter isn't over yet. The way we're aligned, that's what we're prepared to do." Francona confirmed as much to Kipnis on Sunday; "I said go out and be a second baseman."

Kipnis turns 31 years-old shortly after Opening Day but he remains an extremely important player for the Tribe. "We know what we have in here," said Kipnis. "We proved it two years ago, knowing that we’re very capable of getting as far as we want... Now, it’s just to prove it to ourselves and to our fans that we owe it to finish what we started."

Out of all the players on this 2018 Indians squad, perhaps Kipnis has the most to prove of them all.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

2018 Spring Training Wishlist: Part 2

Rejoice! Pitchers and catchers report today. The long winter is almost over and spring is nearly upon us.

With the advent of spring, our attention turns to the Indians and their roster. Despite the lack of activity in Cleveland this winter (unless you're the Cavs), there will be one position battle worth watching over the next few weeks.

The Indians' stacked rotation is the envy of nearly every other team in the league but with that brings it's own share of problems. The club can only carry so many starting pitchers at one time, and despite some clubs toying with the idea of 6-man rotations, even the Indians aren't likely to be go down that route, such is the quality of the starters they possess.

At least a couple of guys are going to be disappointed when Opening Day rolls around.

There is one pitcher on the staff who arguably has more to gain from this competition and he's the man we affectionately call Sunshine, the guy with the best head of hair in the state of Ohio, Mr Mike Clevinger.

Mighty Mike - What Are His Chances?

In order for Clevinger to cement himself as a full-time member of the rotation, he has his work cut out for him.

Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer lead the way at the front, locking down the first three spots. The trio went a combined 53-19 last season, with a 3.20 ERA. Not to mention that Kluber won his second AL Cy Young award and Carrasco finished 4th in that race too. Bauer showed tremendous development, raising his strikeout rate and decreasing his walk rate as well.

Basically, Clevinger is unlikely to beat those guys out of a job before April.

Instead, Clevinger should be targeting the trio of Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt.

It can be argued that Salazar has more talent than Clevinger. He's been a strikeout machine throughout his career and he has more experience too. Issues with durability have always plagued the 28 year-old, though I expect he did enough last year to keep his place in the rotation to begin 2018. Salazar should feel pretty comfortable about ownership of the fourth rotation spot. For now at least.

Perhaps the largest obstacle standing in Clevinger's way is the veteran Josh Tomlin. At this stage we all know what Tomlin is and what Tomlin does. He takes the ball every fifth day and gives the the Indians a somewhat decent chance to win games. Tomlin is durable and he’s cost-effective (cheap). For a mid-market team like the Indians, players like Tomlin provide immense value. The 'Little Cowboy' will be difficult to shift from that fifth and final position.

Ryan Merritt is the outsider looking in. The soon-to-be 26 year-old Texan made four starts for the Tribe in 2017 and performed well, picking up two wins with a 1.74 ERA. He had a very successful year in the minors too, all but one start pitched from Triple-A Columbus. What is the ace up Merritt's sleeve that warrants his contention? He's out of minor league options so the Indians are forced to make a decision on his future. Do they trade him or give him a legitimate shot at being a starter? I imagine Merritt's future with the Tribe will begin in the bullpen, but I'd hate to see him depart the club without getting a chance at cracking the rotation.

These three men are fine pitchers, all of whom would almost certainly win jobs on the majority of major league rotations. With that being said, I feel it is Clevinger who has earned the opportunity to make that fifth starting spot his own.

Last season, on a rotation of excellent pitchers, Clevinger consistently impressed. He finished 2017 with a 12-6 record and a 3.11 ERA over 121.2 innings in 27 games (21 of which were starts). His walks were a cause for concern, as he posted a rate of 4.44 walks per nine innings, but he didn't give up many hits, which balanced everything out nicely. He limited opposition batters to a .210 average and recorded a 1.25 WHIP.

There's an argument to be made that, despite his proven ability at the MLB level, Clevinger should start the 2018 season in the minors. The native Floridian isn't eligible to test free agency until 2022 but if he spends the first six weeks of the season in Columbus, the Indians are rewarded with an extra year of his services, extending his stay until 2023 at least.

Another factor: Clevinger still has a minor league option remaining, whereas Salazar, Tomlin, and Merritt do not, giving them an advantage at this time of year. Clevinger doesn't have to be on the roster. The other guys do. Or rather, the Indians have to make them fit at least.

Clevinger can make the decision harder for the Indians' staff if he performs well this spring. If he can force himself into their thoughts through his work on the mound, then maybe he will begin the year in the rotation. I can see the benefit of keeping him on standby in Columbus but if he's MLB ready now, why not play him? Recent history has shown he's certainly an upgrade over Tomlin, and he's more proven at the MLB level than Merritt.

Preseason projections indicate the Indians facing little competition from their division rivals, just like last year. So I understand why the club would be okay with getting through April and May without Clevinger; it certainly looks like they won't need him, and will win their fair share of games without his help, with Tomlin likely a fixture at the back-end of the rotation.

However, if I was Terry Francona, I would want my best team on the field from day one.

That team would, and should, include Mike Clevinger.

Monday, February 12, 2018

2018 Spring Training Wishlist: Part 1

Baseball, glorious baseball, is nearly upon us.

Cleveland pitchers and catchers report for their first workouts this Thursday. Jerseys will be buttoned, caps will be pulled on, and balls will be thrown in anger. Finally.

The Indians have very real ambitions of making it back to the World Series, as they did in 2016. Last year was ultimately a disappointment, a collapse at the hands of the New York Yankees in the ALDS.

Perhaps the team can use that defeat to fuel them this season. It could be just the chip on their shoulder that is needed to spur them forward.

If I have any criticism of that 102-win team from 2017, I could say they strolled their way to the postseason in a perfunctory manner. They encountered no challenge in their division and the stakes never felt very high. The streak was amazing but the rest of the year felt like purgatory until we got back to October. Once there, they were rudely woken up by the Yankees. Hopefully the team will be keen to right this wrong in 2018.

On that note, and with Spring Training so tantalisingly close, I'm going to look at some Indians related topics that I want to see answered over the course of the next couple of months.

Falling For Francisco

This time last year I spoke about the catcher position, and my wish to see some stability there between Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez. Stability is largely what we got in 2017, as Gomes had his best season since the 2014 Silver Slugger-worthy campaign that made him a household name (in Cleveland anyway). Perez also improved in 2017, recording admirable stats for a back-up catcher.

However, neither catcher really took total ownership of the position, thus leaving the door ajar for Francisco Mejia, recently voted the number one catching prospect in all of baseball. Mejia will almost certainly be given an opportunity to make an impression on Francona and the big league staff this spring, and I would like to see him make the most of his opportunity. I would even go so far to say that he should be setting his sights on that starter's spot for Opening Day, despite his relative inexperience.

The 22 year-old Mejia had a brief glimpse what life is like on the Indians roster last year when he was rewarded with a September call-up. The switch-hitter posted a .154/.214/.154 slashline, with 2 hits in 14 plate appearances. It wasn't exactly the first impression he would have maybe liked but it would be harsh to judge him on so small a sample.

On the whole his 2017 season was largely successful. Mejia spent his entire time in the minor leagues at Double-A Akron where he slashed .297/.346/.490 with 14 home runs and 52 RBI over 383 plate appearances. A very solid season by all accounts, despite being hindered by the odd leg injury on occasion. He undoubtedly has one of the best bats among all prospects and his power numbers are on the rise each year too.

However, it was noted that Mejia did appear slightly worn down towards the end of the minor league season, with reports claiming he "looked tired and disengaged behind the plate."

With thoughts of his long term future and progress in mind, the Indians have toyed with the idea of Mejia playing at third base, and he even featured there during the Arizona Fall League towards the end of last year. The Indians, in my opinion, look set at third base for the immediate future, with Giovanny Urshela, Yandy Diaz and Jose Ramirez all comfortably able to play the hot corner. However I can see the benefit of testing Mejia there, as a bit of versatility in a player his age cannot be a bad thing. If it extends his playing career, I'm in support of this idea.

Wherever he ends up playing, the Tribe certainly don't need to rush Mejia along. He hasn't even seen time at the Triple-A level yet and could probably benefit from more maturation in Columbus. Gomes and Perez are both committed for a couple more years yet, and the signs from both men in 2017 were positive.

Having said that, I'd love to see Mejia enjoy a breakout spring and have realistic ambitions on making the Opening Day roster. If he can stick as a catcher, that would be even better.

My mind says, 'stay on the farm.' My heart says, 'this is your time Francisco.'


That'll wrap up part one. I'll be back again, looking at a different aspect of the 2018 Indians team before the season begins.