Cleveland baseball has had a dynamic run of shortstops since Omar Vizquel joined the team in 1993 and with little interruption since then. Johnny Peralta, Vizquel’s successor produced well, and exceeded Vizquel significantly offensively before being traded out of town, and displaced by Asdrubel Cabrera. Cabrera, similarly was a thoroughly productive big league starter before leaving town somewhat maligned as Lindor neared the big league level.
Of course, with Lindor’s appearance, the team had six years of the best shortstop in team history not named Boudreau, and potentially including Boudreau, Lindor is irreplaceable. However, with Lindor’s trade and exit imminent as the organization slashes payroll with more vigor than its efforts to win championships, the team must now replace the irreplaceable.
Replacement is sort of a broad concept as like an NFL coach laid off in week 9, the organization will be faced with both identifying an interim replacement, and more importantly a successor. There is always a chance that the interim replacement can become the successor but here it seems unlikely. However, by identifying that both of those roles exist, one can span the entirety of the organization to review the future of the position in Cleveland.
First, those with an immediate opportunity for interim replacement in-house are Yu Chang and Owen Miller. One may mention Ernie Clement but he is purely a utility fit long term. Chang has lost much of his prospect luster, and that has little to do with his fairly horrendous first 100 big league plate appearances. Chang was always a fringe-average defensive projection at shortstop, and reliable on offense to carry a shortstop profile but his strikeout rates at the higher levels and big leagues have been limiting, and his contact authority on the balls he does put in play has not been sufficient to overcome the contact frequency woes. Chang, will likely receive his final opportunity in the organization to stick on the big league roster, and the last three years of information do not portend success.
Owen Miller is perhaps the most interesting in that it is tempting to suggest he could be both an interim solution and the successor. However, before further digressing, it is important to note that when discussing a “successor” there is a 95% probability, despite the team’s loaded middle infield prospect group, that Lindor’s eventual successor will be a substantive step down in production, in part because replacing players on Hall of Fame tracks is, impossibly hard.
Returning to Owen Miller, a growing prospect crush, it could be argued that he was the third piece in the Clevinger trade with San Diego and the second most important shortstop in the trade behind Gabriel Arias. Miller has a classical Cleveland up-the-middle profile, strong contact skills, and solid defense. Due to prospect depth in San Diego’s system, the organization leapt him straight from Low-A to AA, and at the age appropriate 22 years old, Miller raked. The only player in the Cleveland system do so in the last ten years was Jose Ramirez, though he did so at a shockingly young 20 years old. Never the less, making that competition jump and slashing .290/.335/.430 is a big accomplishment.
For those in AA at age 22 or younger, Miller had the fifth lowest strikeout rate and elite swinging strike rate of just 8.3% while running a competent isolated power of .140. Of course, he does not have a body that wows scouts but at six feet tall and 190 pounds, there is a little room for growth on his frame. Power generation has many inputs, as he hits a reasonable amount of line drives and fly balls but one would want to see more, and his short, efficient, swing is designed more for contact than power. However, average defense, strong contact skills and slightly below average to average power is enough to create a league average shortstop, and he has a real chance at achieving all three of those checkpoints, with the opportunity for a bit more.
With the above mentioned contact data, and positional value, Dan Szymborski‘s projection system ZIPS had him as the 63rd best prospect in baseball entering 2020. Obviously, his projection system, and the markers relied upon by this author are similar because they have shown to be effective markers in predicting big league performance but projections are just that, projections.
As for big league readiness, for Miller it should be now or never, he crushed AA pitching in 2019 at 22 years old, and with some 2020 camp site development, Miller should be given an opportunity to start immediately.
Beyond Miller and Chang, is the organization’s incredible lower minors strength, a collection of high-end middle infield prospects. Diving in detail into each player in just one column would be impossible, but this article will endeavor to provide a high level overview of the depth and upside in this area. Of the four detailed more below, Arias, Freeman, and Rocchio have all been placed on top-100 prospect lists in baseball, with varying services and scouts have differing preferences, little unity on which is best.
Those who reached 50 plate appearances at A+ in 2019:
Gabriel Arias: If there was a gem to the Padres trade it was Arias, and many with those at Baseball Prospectus being the loudest voices, absolutely love the ceiling on Arias. Arias is viewed by many as a plus defender, and at least above average. In terms of risk, Arias probably carries the most, and unlike the other three listed below, Arias has real issues making contact at times. However, Arias also has the best raw power grade, and highest likelihood of reaching above average power production at the big league level.
Tyler Freeman: Freeman just puts the ball in play. He had the third lowest swinging strike rate in A+ in 2019, at an absurd 3.9%, with one of the two players who outperformed him in the category being Nick Madrigal, who was 22 while Freeman was 20. Much like Madrigal, there just is not much contact authority or power to his profile as of now it is a line drive/ground ball heavy batted ball profile with double power. Still, elite contact rates, and a chance to be average defensively at short is a strong profile, and a high floor.
Those who reached 50 plate appearances at A ball in 2019:
Jose Fermin: Fermin is the lowest profile prospect of the four discussed in detail, and part of the commentary is whether he will ever have enough contact authority to start. Fermin is in many ways similar to Freeman, young to level, elite bat to ball skills, and likely, a better chance to be average+ defensively at shortstop. Fermin is incredibly disciplined, and does not swing and miss. However, Fermin’s highest isolated power in a decent sample is .104, a fairly limiting number.
Those who reached 50 plate appearances at A- ball in 2019:
Brayan Rocchio: Rocchio is once again very similar to the Freeman/Fermin profiles but like each has different strengths/risks around the edges. Rocchio or Fermin is the best defender of the three. Rocchio has a far better chance at reaching league average power than either Freeman or Fermin but does strike out a bit more, though, he reached short-season ball at just 18 years old, and more than held his own.
Honorable mentions: Raynel Delgado, Aaron Bracho (not likely to stick in the middle of the diamond), Carson Tucker (2020 1st round pick), and Angel Martinez.
The organization’s up the middle talent is incredibly deep, and with the minors being compressed further by removing a league, the team may even have trouble getting everyone who needs reps, the necessary reps. With that in mind the team will be moving multiple players of shortstop, and over the next year just based on getting players plate appearances. The first to move will likely be Bracho, first to 2B, and then likely corner outfield. Freeman may be next likely, with a strong chance he gets moved to 2B as well in the near future.
Perhaps more interesting, are the themes of the system, Miller, Freeman, Fermin, and Rocchio all have above average bat-to-ball skills, something that is increasingly valuable as strikeout rates continue to climb. Additionally, in terms player development, the organization has been really strong at helping elite bat-to-ball guys Jose Ramirez, and Francisco Lindor add power, and has really struggled at getting plus power guys with high strikeout rates to succeed, like Zimmer, Bradley, and Chang. From a pure developmental strength standpoint, one might think it is more likely for Freeman or Rocchio to succeed than Arias, but Arias probably has the highest ceiling.
If this discussion has highlighted any broader premise however it may be this, the Cleveland Indians organization has perhaps the deepest and certainly one of the best middle infield prospect groups in baseball, and it is still very unlikely they develop someone to produce an impact level close to Lindor’s time in Cleveland. You see, even a great plan, strong player evaluation, and development, can leave you short of covering for a superstar’s exit.