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This may or may not be Francisco Lindor’s last full season in Cleveland
From now until Opening Day (and a little bit beyond) Let’s Go Tribe will be previewing the 2020 season for the Indians from every angle — position previews, a look at the AL Central, players you should know, and more. See the full preview here.
It’s easy to take for granted, or simply just forget, how great Francisco Lindor is. He has been nothing but a consistent superstar since debuting half a decade ago in the summer of ‘15, and for a while it seemed like he’d be in Cleveland forever.
When he debuted in mid-June that year and stumbled around first base, smile plastered on his face the whole way ‘round, it was clear the Indians had their next jubilant star. Sure, he was probably going to walk when free agency rolls around, but that was still six years away. Basically a lifetime. Nothing to worry about.
Oh no … It’s almost six years later.
The Indians won’t be paying the deservedly ludicrous amount of money he will be asking for in free agency, and if you think he’s going to take a hometown discount to stick around on the Indians, you’re dreaming. Francisco Lindor is one of the best players in baseball and he’s going to hit free agency as a 27-year-old entering his prime and only figuring to get better.
While I’d like to be mad at the Indians for not extending him a gigantic contract offer, part of me also just thinks Lindor has no interest in forgoing free agency altogether. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an athlete, let alone an athlete who is going to garner as much as attention as Lindor. I don’t fault him one bit for wanting to take full advantage of it, I just hope the Indians are one of the teams bidding for him in December 2021. Maybe that’s a pipe dream. We’ll find out after next season, but for now all we can do is, as the old adage goes, enjoy him.
Assuming all goes well between now and Mar. 26, Lindor will be making his fourth Opening Day start in the last five years. His only missed Opening Day since his rookie debut was last season, when he missed the first few weeks of the season with an ankle injury. What followed was arguably his worst full season as a starter. He finished 2019 with a .284/.334/.518 slash, 32 home runs, and a 114 wRC+. His defensive metrics slipped as well (although he still won a Gold Glove), altogether combining for a 4.4 WAR season — his lowest full-season total, and only 0.4 wins higher than he accumulated in his 99-game rookie season.
None of this is to say it’s some kind of downward trend or anything. I mean, come on, he has hit 30 home runs each of the last three seasons and even with a little slip at shortstop he’s still one of the top three (at worst) defenders in baseball. Projection systems are not worried about his stumble last season, either. All three see him bouncing back to levels that would be considered MVP worthy if he didn’t play in the same league as Mike Trout.
Essentially, in 2019, Lindor hit the ball just as hard as ever, but the quality of the contact wasn’t as good as in years past. His exit velocity was still in the 78th percentile, according to Baseball Savant, but his xwOBA and xSLG both dropped into the lower half of the the league after several years of being elite in both categories. His barrel rate dropped 2%, his swing rate jumped 5.7% from the previous season, and he chased 2% more. The results just weren’t there like in previous years, but it’s easy to write it off as fighting back from that bum ankle or even pressing and trying to carry the entire offense on his back for most of the year.
One other interesting note about Lindor’s weird 2019 campaign is that teams tried to shift on him like never before. When batting left-handed, opposing defenses shifted 31.8% of the time — they shifted 19.6% of the time in 2018 and almost never in years prior. How did he respond? When playing the defense straight up he had a wOBA of .355, and when shifted against he hit better with a .374 wOBA. So, good luck with that.
With even a solid season — let’s say 5.0 WAR — Lindor is going to jump several Indians legends and land in the top-10 position player WAR in club history in the live-ball era. He currently sits at 27.2 wins, good for 15th overall and trailing Albert Belle (27.5), Omar Vizquel (27.6), Grady Sizemore (30.4), Manny Ramirez (30.6), and Hal Trosky (30.8). It should go without saying that, whether Lindor miraculous spends the rest of his career in Cleveland or is gone midway through 2020, he is one of the best players Indians fans have ever witnessed.
Behind him, eh, well, yikes. Let’s just hope he doesn’t get hurt. Some combination of Yu Chang, Christian Arroyo, and/or Mike Freeman are the likely utility men and defacto backup shortstops. With any luck, they won’t have to see the field nearly as much as Eric Stamets did in the first month of 2019.
Matt Schlichting discussed Arroyo in his second base preview last week, so instead I’ll focus on Chang here.
A top-10 Indians prospect as recently as 2018 when he was No. 6 overall, Chang made his major-league debut in 2019 and didn’t exactly impress. He went 13-for-73 in his limited time in the majors, with two doubles, a triple, and a home run. He showed a decent eye at the plate drawing a 11 walks (13.1 BB%), but also struck out 22 times (26.2 K%). The 84 PA he had in his debut season is, of course, a minuscule stat size, but his .253/.322/.427 slash in Triple-A didn’t help much, either. It appears the 24 home runs he hit with the Double-A Akron RubberDucks in 2017 wasn’t much more than a blip as he hasn’t topped 13 home runs in any other season of his six-year professional career.
The upside is that he is only 24, but unless the Indians do the unthinkable and trade Lindor, he’s either going to be rotting on the bench or have to start the season in Triple-A to use his up his final minor-league option.
With an infield mostly set in stone, the Indians do not have a lot of them floating around camp trying to win spots, besides the aforementioned Arroyo, Chang, and Freeman. Tyler Krieger and Ernie Clement are in camp as non-roster invites, but they’re there more as prospects taking in the sights and sounds of a major-league camp than real competitors for a spot at the moment.
In my opinion, other than perhaps starting pitching, shortstop is the deepest position in the Indians minor league system.
Tyler Freeman was originally someone I had pegged as a candidate to move to second base, but he’s stuck at shortstop thus far advancing to High-A Lynchburg while spraying the ball all over the field offensively. What Freeman lacks in power, he makes up for with elite contact ability and an extremely low strikeout rate. If Freeman can add power, he’ll rocket up the prospect rankings.
Besides Freeman, Brayan Rocchio is another top-10 Tribe prospect who has turned heads with flashy leather and a developing offensive game. Still just 19, Rocchio is already showing what he can do during Spring Training this year, recently going 3-3 with a 3-run home run and three runs scored to help lead the Indians to a victory. He also has the potential to shoot through the Tribe system quickly if he can put up good numbers in his first taste of full-season ball this year.
Ernie Clement, who played Double-A in 2019, also deserves a mention because of his work ethic and his ability to avoid strikeouts, but I see him more as a utility player at the MLB level instead of a pure shortstop.
But that’s not all, the Indians are absolutely LOADED with shortstop talent at the rookie level. Jose Tena, 18, has turned heads after slashing .319.360.425 combined in his first two seasons. Gabriel Rodriguez, 18, debuted in the DSL last season and earned a late promotion to the AZL. Junior Sanquinton, 18, showcased decent power in his 2019 debut in the DSL. There’s also Angel Martinez, 18, who played SS, 3B and 2B in 2019, as well as Indians 2019 second round draft pick Yordys Valdes and fourth-round draft pick Christian Cairo, who still are works in progress as developing prep players.
— Brian Hemminger
Around the AL Central
Shortstop is typically a difficult position to find offensive talent, but there’s plenty of it in the American League Central. Francisco Lindor leads them all, as he does shortstops in just about any division, but Aldaberto Mondesi, Tim Anderson, and Jorge Polanco are no slouches, and Niko Goodrum is even capable of being above-average on the very not above-average Tigers.
Every shortstop in the division is 28-or-under and all but Goodrum provided 2.0 or more wins for their respective teams in 2019.
Tim Anderson led the way offensively with an incredible .335/.357/.508 slash and 130 wRC+ last season. That sudden jolt of power (a .110 increase in ISO year-over-year) was no doubt aided by the juiced baseballs and a .399 BABIP that he managed to carry throughout the whole year and rode to 32 doubles. Even though projection systems all seeing him coming back to an around-average offensive shortstop, he’s still one of the game’s more exciting young players and easily capable of 20 home runs again.
The Twins’ Jorge Polanco came out of nowhere to put up a 4.0 WAR season last year with a .295/.356/.485 slash and 22 home runs. But as with anything that happened with the Twins last year, it’s hard to know if he can actually replicate the results. He finished 2019 in the 20th percentile for hard-hit rate and exit velocity and doesn’t have a history of hitting the ball particularly hard.
Aldaberto Mondesi’s talents are hidden in the wasteland of modern Royals baseball, but he has one of the smoothest gloves at shortstops, even if he can’t hit for much. Steamer, for instance, projects him to have just an 85 wRC+ in 628 PA next season, but finish with 2.6 WAR based on his defense.