Over the first six weeks of the 2011 season, the Cleveland Indians have been baseball's biggest surprise. The starting rotation deserves the majority of the credit for the fast start. I think I speak for the majority of Indian fans when I say that going in to this season, the rotation was the biggest area of concern and that its hot start has been a pleasant surprise.
However, for as good as the rotation has looked (save the recent series against Tampa Bay), there are some major points of concern for the Tribe offensively. Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana have struggled out of the gate, and Austin Kearns hasn't been able to recapture his 2010 success. Journeymen Jack Hannahan, Orlando Cabrera and Shelley Duncan have faded in May after impressive Aprils. Even with his great start at the dish (hit safely in every game he has played), not even the most optimistic Tribe fan believes Adam Everett is an everyday option in MLB.
Granted, there have been many bright spots at the dish for the Tribe: Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner appear to be in 2005 form after nearly a half-decade of injury issues, Asdrubal Cabrera is solid as always, and the duo of Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta are showing why CC Sabathia was traded to Milwaukee in 2007, but you need more than five consistent bats.
Though Choo has started slowly, it's a safe bet to assume he will pick things up. The other two OF spots are pretty well taken care of by Brantley and Sizemore. If the Tribe is to improve its offense, Chris Antonetti will likely have to look to the infield (second and third base in particular). Many Indian fans have "know the answer" since February: Put Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall in at 2B and 3B respectively. Unlike most Clevelanders, I'm not convinced this is the answer for 2011.
Earlier this week, Jim Piascik made a strong argument for Jason Kipnis. I'm out to do the same for the "other" 2B, Cord Phelps. One year farther along than Kipnis, Phelps has been largely ignored by most publications. Case-in-point: Kipnis is widely regarded as a top-five prospect in the organization while Phelps fails to crack most experts' top-10s.
Though Kipnis is likely the second baseman of the future in Cleveland, Phelps is the answer for 2011...here's why:
The top-two non-pitching prospects in the Indian organization (Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis, for those of you out of the loop) both have very clear-cut positions, and I don't think either has the ability to play any other spot on the field. Phelps, a (very good) 2B by trade has proven this season (after losing his starting 2B spot to Kipnis) to be a more than capable defender everywhere around the horn. If Phelps gets the call to replace Adam Everett (my choice to cut), Manny Acta should have no trouble finding plenty of playing time for his four infielders (Phelps, the Cabreras, and Jack Hannahan). With Chiz or Kipnis, this would be much more difficult.
Though he isn't Roberto Alomar with the leather, Phelps is one of the best defensive infielders in the Cleveland organization. On the other side of the coin, calling Chisenhall and Kipnis "raw" could be seen by some as an understatement. With a staff consisting almost exclusively of ground ball pitchers, having a solid infield defense key (remember Nimartuena?). Phelps has committed only two errors in 31 games while being bounced around multiple positions compared to six in 25 for Kipnis and four in 29 for Chiz while playing one position exclusively.
He's a Switch Hitter
Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti have put together one of the most lefty-heavy lineups in the game. Grady, Choo, Pronk, Brantley and Hannahan all hit from the left side of the plate. By bringing up Kipnis or Chisenhall, Manny Acta may find himself starting six lefties at the same time, something that could hurt his team from a strategic standpoint. Bringing up the switch-hitting Phelps instead avoids that potential problem.
There is no denying that Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall are terrific offensive prospects. However, that doesn't mean that Phelps is a slouch. While Kipnis and Chisenhall are power hitters, Phelps is more of a contact hitter. For his minor league career, Phelps has posted a .298/.382/.424 line, good for an .806 OPS (higher than Lonnie Chisenhall's .798). Those numbers compare pretty well against Chisenhall's .273/.344/.454 and Kipnis' .303/.386/.485. Of the three, Phelps is the only player that has seen significant time at AAA (97 games over two seasons). In that time, his .315/.403/.513 line is better than what the other two players have put up across the entire minor league system.
I was an advocate of letting Phelps start 2011 at 3B instead of the current Jack Hannahan/Adam Everett platoon and the Lonnie Chisenhall experiment that many Tribe fans wanted. I admit that Kipnis and Chisenahall are the better long-term prospects, and Phelps' place on this team beyond 2011 is likely that of a utility infielder. However, in the short-term, the Indians are in a pennant race in a very winnable American League. With the team gearing up for a pennant race, what is the point of bringing up one-dimensional players with six weeks of AAA experience when an equally successful prospect who has more tools and is better-polished is also available?