Jim Thome in August, they didn't j..."/> Jim Thome in August, they didn't j..."/> Jim Thome in August, they didn't j..."/>

Could the Indians Sign Omar Vizquel?


When the Indians traded for Jim Thome in August, they didn’t just get a booming bat to help anchor their lineup for the final few weeks of the season. Tribe fans were thrilled at the sight of seeing the 1990’s hero and general great guy in a Cleveland uniform again. His return made the end of the season fun even as the Indians fell further and further behind in the division.

Thome won’t be back with the Indians in 2012—he already signed with the Phillies—but he wasn’t the only Cleveland legend to hit the free agent market this winter. Another, possibly even more beloved former player is also available: Omar Vizquel.

For those of you who’ve never heard of Indians baseball, Vizquel was a fan favorite and a no-doubt solid shortstop in Cleveland for 11 years. He hit .283/.352/.379 (94 wRC+) with 279 steals, 29.5 fWAR, and a strikeout rate of just 9.0% in 1475 games between 1994-2004. But while he swung a decent bat, he was best known for his glove. There’s no question he was the best defensive infielder of my lifetime, and he has to rank as one of the top-fielding shortstops in baseball history.

Would he be a fit in Cleveland again in 2012? Sad as it is to say, he probably wouldn’t.

At this point, the only role Vizquel is cut out for is that of a utility infielder. He played just 58 games with the White Sox this year, hitting just .251/.287/.305—that he had only eight extra-base hits in 167 plate appearances isn’t a good sign. In addition to shortstop he saw time at all three bases, but both sabermetric defensive stats and the naked eye agree that he’s not nearly the elite fielder he once was.

Even though he turns 45 in April, I think there’s reason to believe he’d be somewhat better than he was last season—never before had he been below replacement-level—but clearly his best days are behind him, and he probably shouldn’t be used as anything more than a pinch-runner and a sixth infielder.

Unfortunately, the Indians already have way more than six infielders. Beyond the current projected starting four (Matt LaPorta, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall), Cleveland has Jack Hannahan, Jason Donald, Cord Phelps, and Luis Valbuena on the 40-man roster. Even excluding Carlos Santana and Shelley Duncan, both of whom saw time at first base in 2011, that means the Tribe has eight guys to fit around the horn as is.

It’s possible that Vizquel could win a spot on the bench. Hannahan would seem to have his spot on the 2012 roster pretty well sewn up thanks to his fantastic defense at third base, but that still leaves an opening for a middle infielder. Donald, Phelps, and Valbuena are question marks, and it’s conceivable that he could leapfrog them on the Opening Day depth chart.

But would that be the right decision? Donald and Phelps might not project as everyday players (though Donald hit pretty well in his 39-game stint this year) and Valbuena looks like a bust, but each of the three has a much higher upside for next year than Vizquel does. Even if he improves on his 2011 campaign, one or two of the above trio will probably play just as well, and there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them will turn out to be significantly better than Vizquel in 2012.

Beyond their upsides, though, there is another important reason for giving the current crop of backups some playing time: giving them the chance to tap into it. None of Vizquel’s hypothetical competitors are spring chickens—Phelps is 24, Valbuena is almost 26, and Donald is 27—but they’re all too young for the Indians to give up on. Odds are, at least one of them will end up to be a useful MLB player, but it can’t happen if they’re on the outside looking in. Vizquel’s presence on the roster would be a big impediment to their respective developments.

As a fan who grew up on the Tribe dynasty of the 90’s, I would love to see Omar come back to Cleveland. If he makes it to the Hall of Fame there’s no doubt he’ll go in with an Indians cap, and it would be oh-so-sweet if he were to return for a curtain call before he retires. But this isn’t the right time—there are better ways for the Indians to fill their utility infield spot, and right now letting Phelps or Donald or Valbuena find his swing is more important than nostalgia.

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