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Two wildly inconsistent seasons have opened up doubts about whether the Tribe third baseman can sustain his MVP-caliber play
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.
José Ramírez will be the Cleveland Indians’ starting third baseman for the fifth consecutive season. That much is certain. Less certain is which version of José Ramírez fans can expect to see. Will it be the José Ramírez who slashed .214/.309/.325 with five home runs through the first three months of 2019? Or will fans instead be treated to the José Ramírez who mashed 18 home runs and slashed .321/.356/.722 over his last 202 plate appearances of the season?
Last year was a roller coaster of a season for Ramírez, to say the least. He started the 2019 season looking to erase the bad memories from 2018, but ended up picking up right where he left off. The slump that started on Aug. 18, 2018 lasted through June 12, 2019, producing a slash line of .186/.298/.285 with 55 wRC+, 6 HR, and 0.1 fWAR over the course of 104 games. It was an inexplicable stretch that is rare for MVP-caliber players, and inspired dozens of desperate attempts to diagnose what might have been ailing the Tribe third baseman.
Eventually, the José Ramírez we all know and love re-emerged, before being sidelined with a fractured hamate bone in his right hand. He was able to make a brief return from the IL in September, but the setback was par for the course in a strange season.
Perhaps the best post-mortem of Ramírez’s slump came courtesy of FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards, who posited that Ramírez was trying to beat the shift. He had changed his approach at the plate and was trying to hit balls to the opposite field, failing to take advantage when presented with opportunities to pull the ball. As a result, his hard-hit rate, pull percentage, and wRC+ all declined. Guess what happened when he decided to revert back to being a pull hitter? Good things.
Looking to 2020, ZiPS and Steamer both expect a return to form, but neither anticipates Ramírez approaching his peak again. 126 wRC+ would be an improvement over 2019 (104), but short of the career-high 146 wRC+ he produced in 2017 and 2018. One key stat for Ramírez in 2020 could be his BABIP. He batted .333 and .319 on balls in play in 2016 and 2017, respectively, before dropping to .252 and .256 in 2018 and 2019. ZiPS and Steamer expect his BABIP to rise to .282 and .277, respectively, for 2020. But with luck being a factor, hoping fortune favors Ramírez might not be a wise investment. Although some regression to the mean would be welcome.
PECOTA seems particularly pessimistic, projecting a fairly pedestrian slash line, especially for a player of Ramírez’s caliber. But at this point, can you really blame any algorithm for having doubts about which Ramírez to expect at the plate? We’ve seen how high he can climb and we’ve certainly seen how low he can go. Will the real José Ramírez please stand up?
Sitting behind Ramírez at third base is likely to be Yu Chang, who seems destined for the utility infielder role on the bench if he can overcome Tito’s fondness for Mike Freeman. There is another third baseman waiting in the wings, though I’m certain he needs no introduction.
Nolan Jones. I assume that name is familiar to you, considering he was named our No. 1 Cleveland Indians prospect for 2020 back in January. If not, you need to get familiar. MLB Pipeline ranks Jones as the third-best third base prospect in the game, and he checked in at No. 35 overall in Keith Law’s Top 100 Prospects for 2020. He even earned a non-roster invite to spring training as he rehabs from surgery performed on his thumb in October.
Jones was the Indians’ second round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, headlining a loaded draft class that also included Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale, and Zach Plesac. The 21-year-old third baseman was promoted to Double-A Akron for 49 games last season, posting a career-high ISO of .213 and slugging eight home runs, 10 doubles, and two triples. His strikeout rate increased with the promotion, but he maintained a 14.7% walk rate. Defensively, Jones’ glove continues to improve, with only six errors at the Double-A level last season for a career-high .947 fielding percentage.
The biggest obstacle for Jones at the big league level is that the Tribe has a 27-year-old MVP-caliber player at his position signed to a contract through 2023, although the final two years of that contract are club options. Jones will likely start the season back at Akron and has yet to play at the Triple-A level, so I don’t know that we’ll we see him in Cleveland in 2020. With starting second baseman César Hernández signed to a one-year contract, the long-term plan could be to shift Ramírez to second and slot Jones in at the hot corner.
If injures were to sideline Hernández or Ramírez this season, I’m not sure Jones would even get the first look. That would be Freeman, Chang, Christian Arroyo, or even Ernie Clement. All four offer more versatility than Jones, who is a converted shortstop but has spent most of his minor league career at third. Freeman can play all four infield positions, Chang and Arroyo have played everywhere but first base, and Clement plays primarily shortstop but has seen time at second.
Around the AL Central
Three-time All-Star and former American League MVP Josh Donaldson is bringing the rain to the Twin Cities after signing a four-year contract with the Minnesota Twins. His stock was low after a brief and uninspiring late season stint with the Tribe in 2018, but Donaldson was able to bounce back on a one-year deal with the Atlanta Braves, slashing a respectable .259/.379/.521 and racking up 37 home runs. He will take over at third base for Miguel Sano, who shifts over to first base full-time after playing there sparingly over the last five seasons.
Yoan Moncada will man the hot corner for the White Sox, fresh off the best season of his young career since the 24-year-old third baseman first made his big league debut with the Red Sox in 2016. He was considered the prize of the Chris Sale trade and has finally begun to realize his potential, notching career highs in doubles (34), home runs (25), RBI (79), batting average (.315), OBP (.367), and SLG (.548). But perhaps is most significant sign of improvement was cutting down his strikeout percentage from 33.4 % in 2018 to 27.5 % in 2019.
The Kansas City Royals signed free agent third baseman Maikel Franco in the offseason after he was non-tendered by the Phillies. The 27-year-old was considered a top prospect after signing with Philadelphia as an international free agent, ranked as the 17th-best prospect in 2013 by Baseball America. Franco made his big league debut in 2014, but struggled to find consistency at the plate despite ample opportunity as the Phillies’ starting third baseman. When he was demoted to Triple-A in August last season, he was slashing a career-worst .231/.296/.405, and his .228 batting average on balls in play ranked third-worst among qualified hitters.
But Franco could simply be a placeholder until the Royals feel comfortable promoting Kelvin Gutierrez, who has been tabbed as their third baseman of the future.
Finally, the Detroit Tigers have an open competition this spring at third base, with Dawel Lugo and Jeimer Candelario jockeying for the position. Lugo came to Detroit as the key piece in the J.D. Martinez trade and ended last season as the Tigers’ starting third baseman, but he has lacked patience and power at the plate. But for Candelario, this battle might represent his last chance. With no minor league options left, his back is against the wall. He has an excellent glove, ranking among the top players last season in Outs Above Average (OAA) according to Baseball Savant, and he boasts one of the best walk rates on the team. But like Lugo, consistency has eluded him. He was briefly demoted to Triple-A last June after batting .178 with two home runs.