Friday, July 8, 2011

Good Problems to Have: Too Many Quality Middle Infielders

This doesn't happen very often, but the Indians find themselves in an exceptionally rare, and thoroughly enviable position. They have too many quality middle infielders. While the team has an all-star caliber shortstop in Asdrubal Cabrera who was putting up a monster 2011 campaign, hitting .284/.342/.497 prior to suffering a ankle sprain that'll put him on the shelf for awhile.

The Indians middle infield talent doesn't end there however. Last years opening day second baseman, 26 year old Luis Valbuena, opened 2011 in AAA after the team signed veteran Orlando Cabrera this winter and has done nothing but impress while playing all over the infield - though primarily at shortstop.

In parts of three seasons, Valbuena has managed just a career .637 OPS, but by hammering AAA pitching to the tune of a .315/.385/.521 line with an impressive 12 home runs, he's also showing he has no business being in the Minors either. Yes he's been aided by a .360 BABIP, but his strikeout and walk rates, along with his isolated power both suggest a player who should be capable of being at least a league average offensive second baseman or shortstop.

The problem of course, is that he's blocked by other players like...

Cord Phelps and Jason Kipnis.

While Kipnis gets the bulk of the attention - and deservedly so - Phelps himself has quietly put together a very strong Minor League career and was finally afforded the opportunity to prove that he could contribute to a Major League squad. His overall MLB stat line in limited time hasn't been phenomenal (.641 OPS), but he's spent the past two seasons raking in AAA, posting a .892 mark in 2010, and a .879 mark prior to his callup this season.

While his tools are less impressive than his production, he's a solid baseball player, and one of those guys who's game always seems better than the sum of his parts. Still I think his contact tool and his eye should make him capable of posting a solid batting average and on-base percentage, while he's got solid gap power and could pop 10-15 home runs a year.

Defensively his range is limited by his sub-par athleticism, but he's got sure hands and a capable arm. Though it's certainly fair to say that those skills haven't been evident early on as he made five errors in his first twelve games, which led to him seeing little playing time. He was recently sent down when the team called up Zach McAllister to make a spot start. You can read my full pre-season scouting report on Phelps here.

The player everyone is anxious to see however, is Kipnis. A converted outfielder who the Indians were concerned was a tweener in a corner outfield spot, Kipnis has proven to be a star with the bat at second base. In his three Minor League seasons the 24 year old Kipnis' worst performance was a .847 OPS during his debut season. Since that strong showing in A ball, he's done nothing but improve and so far this year has a .901 OPS for AAA Columbus. At the plate Kipnis can do a bit of everything. He's got a very quick, polished swing that doesn't have any glaring holes in it. He makes good adjustments to the breaking ball, has a solid eye at the plate, and shows similar power to Phelps.

Defensively Kipnis doesn't have the polish of someone who's spent a lifetime playing in the middle infield - because he hasn't. But just watching him, it's apparent that he's gotten far more comfortable at the position. His actions are more fluid, his transfers and throws better. Kipnis is still a bit of a work in progress in the field, but he's already a capable defender and he's one of the players who the Indians will be relying on, along with Cabrera and top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall and Matt LaPorta to form the franchise's infield for many years.

How the Indians will resolve this "problem," remains to be seen. It's certainly possible that the team could keep two of the three around, but realistically, there just aren't enough at-bats to go around for all three players, and none have much of anything left to prove at AAA. Meaning someone is likely to become a trade candidate. Who that is remains to be seen (it almost certainly won't be Kipnis), but any of the three could be used to help strengthen another area of organizational weakness.

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