There's A Better Option Out There
As the Indians' organization breathes a collective sigh of relief that Shin-Soo Choo's gold medal victory in the Asian Games will excuse him from his military duty to his native South Korea, we can all stop worrying that we'll have to watch a parade of no-name prospects in right field next season.
The Cleveland faithful are now free to shift the target of their worry over to that pesky, ever-problematic place on the diamond for the Tribe: Third base.
A revolving door of a position for the Indians dating all the way back to their late 1990s heyday, the hot corner is like teflon for the Indians—nothing sticks.
The team hit an all-time low in 2010, starting off with Jhonny "Quit hitting the ball toward me, you're interrupting my nap" Peralta and ending with the horrifying "Nimartuena", a blundering, clumsy, error-making Frankenstein cobbled together with the likes of Jayson Nix, Andy Marte and Luis Valbuena.
Obviously, a change has to be made. But what are the Indians best course of action?
Of course, the ideal solution is an expensive-but-worth-it top tier free agent like Adrian Beltre. But that's unrealistic for the Indians.
As if to hammer that point home, Indians' CEO Paul Dolan recently reiterated the Dolans' standard refrain of "It's not the right time" to spend money on free agents. We know, we know, Paul. It's never the right time.
So, unless the Indians want to endure another season of Nimartuena, another solution will have to be found.
Following are a few of the most favorable (and most realistically achievable) solutions to the Tribe's perpetual third base conundrum.
Obviously, the Indians are hoping prospect Lonnie Chisenhall pans out to be the high-caliber third baseman he's projected as in the coming years. But at age 22 and topping out at Double-A last season, he still has about another year of seasoning before there is even a chance he'll be ready.
Plugging the hole and finding a stop gap for Chisenhall internally is obviously the most cost-effective and simplest solution for the Tribe.
The most obvious candidate is Jared Goedert, a 25-year-old prospect who hit .283 with 27 HR in the upper levels of the minors last season. While most believe Chisenhall to be the more talented of the two, Goedert, who is older and has more experience, is better prepared at this juncture to be an every day player in the majors.
Defensively, scouts consider Goedert "average" (that has to mean better than Nimartuena, right? Right?), but he has enough pop in his bat to make up for some of his defensive shortcomings.
The fact that he's intimately familiar with the organization and about as inexpensive as possible makes him the simplest (if perhaps not the very best) option for the Tribe at third. If he can be more consistent at the plate (he's been extremely streaky throughout his career), then he could be the best candidate for the 2011 third base job.
First, it is important to note that Phelps appears to profile better at second base than third, but don't think this means the Indians won't consider him as a hot corner option in 2011 anyway if they think he's their best candidate.
Phelps hasn't gotten as many looks as Goedert as a possible option in this situation due in part to his lack of power at the plate and also due to the fact that he's mostly considered a second baseman on depth charts.
While his defense isn't stunningly better than Goedert's, he is the superior player in that sense, and is probably the better contact hitter of the two, though he falls far behind in terms of power.
Another thing going for Phelps: He's considered "off-the-charts" in terms of his makeup—focused, mature, hard-working and mentally sharp.
Furthermore, a friend of mine who scouts the Arizona Fall League said he was very impressed by Phelps' performance there this fall, noting his lack of power, but completely sold on his ability to make contact and get on base.
Unless Chisenhall has some sort of miraculous breakout in early 2011, Mora is probably the Indians third base candidate with the highest upside.
The 38-year-old veteran hit .285 in 113 games for Colorado last season and is a career .278 hitter with a decent glove. If healthy, he can hit 20-plus doubles and be in the double digits in the HR category.
The downside? He's old. His numbers have declined sharply over the last two seasons. And of course, age and diminishing skill have made him prone to injury of late.
Mora also might be too expensive for the Indians, especially given the risks involved with signing him. He made $1.275 million last season, and though he could be signed for less this year given his 2010 numbers, he still may not come cheap enough for the Indians, particularly if they feel there's a huge chance he'll miss too much playing time due to injuries.
30-year-old former Diamondback, Cub and most recently, Marlin, Chad Tracy hasn't had a truly "good" season since 2006, when he hit .281 with 41 doubles and 20 HR for the Diamondbacks.
He hit a career low in 2010 when he was DFA'd by the Cubs mid-season (before being acquired by the Marlins), and ultimately hit just .247 with 8 doubles and 1 HR in 69 games total for both organizations.
So to say he doesn't look like a good option on paper would be quite the understatement. Then why look at him as an option for the Indians at third? Well, for starters, he'll be cheap. REALLY cheap. I'm talking half a million for the year cheap.
Obviously, if a player is totally unproductive, there's no such thing as "cheap enough", no matter the dollar figure. But consider that Tracy has had a number of good seasons in the past and the fact that he's only 30. He's still young enough to bounce back and build his stats back up.
He could be an Austin Kearns-type player for the Indians—signed on the cheap and bouncing back from a few bad seasons to provide an inexpensive solution for the team.
Nick Punto became a free agent this fall after the Twins declined to exercise his option for 2011. Their willingness to let Punto go is understandable. Punto hit just .238 with one HR and 20 RBI this season, and many say he's been an underachiever throughout most of his career.
While Punto obviously isn't the best third baseman out there, he might still be a good choice for the Indians. His numbers in 2010—which admittedly aren't great even career-wise—were likely worse than usual because he spent so much time on the DL and on the bench, playing just 88 games on the season.
Punto also provides some added value as a "clubhouse guy", as he is reputed to be a good teammate, a well-respected veteran at age 33, and at times a leader.
And one good thing about Punto's very ugly 2010 season? He'll come cheap. It would be foolish to expect any sort of fantastic performance out of Punto if the Indians were to sign him, but he could very possibly be a decent low risk-high reward type of signing.
Obviously, these are not the only options the Indians will have at third base. Jason Kipnis is another name that has been thrown around as an internal option (though he probably isn't ready yet), and there is a long list of free agents who might turn out to be better choices than they appear to be on paper or who might be had for a lower price than what they're reportedly going for at the moment, such as Miguel Cairo, Felipe Lopez or Pedro Feliz.
And there is always the outside chance that Lonnie Chisenhall will be ready to make his debut earlier than expected. The Indians, typically known for playing it safe even to a fault, won't likely take a chance on bringing the kid up early. But if he plays well enough, he just might prove there's no risk involved in calling him up earlier than projected.
Thus, there are plenty of viable options for the Indians at third base for the 2011 season, coming both from inside the organization and out on the open market. The possibilities are there, but will the Indians make the right choice when it comes to finding the best man for the job? We'll just have to wait and see.