Cleveland Indians: Should the Tribe play Josh Donaldson at first base?

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

While the newest member of the Cleveland Indians is slated to make his first start for the team at third, we take a look at another idea for the former MVP.

As Josh Donaldson slugs his way through a rehab assignment at various levels of the Cleveland Indians minor league system, the players currently inside the Major League clubhouse have already begun preparing for his impending arrival and what it might mean for their respective roles going forward.

Two players–Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis–will be more affected than others, as each will undergo a position change when Donaldson joins the Tribe for the first time. Chris Antonetti has already stated on record that Donaldson will become the Indians’ new third baseman when he returns to the Majors, thus shifting Ramirez to second base and Kipnis presumably to center field or even a utility role.

This late-season experiment is not without precedent. The Indians played the back end of 2017, including the postseason, with Ramirez at second and Kipnis in center (though under much different circumstances).

Kipnis has responded to the potential change with all the same professionalism and team-first attitude that has endeared him to Cleveland fans throughout the years. Ramirez has embraced Donaldson’s arrival as well, as long as it doesn’t mean he winds up going back and forth between second and third on defense.

On paper, there isn’t much to question here. The Indians are mere days from inserting a former MVP into their lineup at his natural position in the midst of a playoff push. They are gearing up for a World Series run with one of the best hitters in baseball ready to slot nicely into the middle of their batting order.

Rest assured, when Donaldson is at the plate in the seventh inning of a tied game with two outs and runners on the corners in October, nobody is going to be worried about what position he’s playing or who had to move out of theirs to get him there.

And yet, one can’t help but wonder if the team is casting aside an entirely different option that may work out even better: What if the Indians give Donaldson some run at first base?

The odd man out

Because Donaldson is a third baseman by trade, it’s natural to assume that Ramirez would shift to second and Kipnis would be left with, well…whatever is left. But why is Kipnis automatically the guy stranded out in the “rain” (bonus points if you understand the pun)?

After Yonder Alonso batted .302 with six home runs, 21 RBI and a .925 OPS in July, the Indians everyday first baseman has fallen off a cliff. His .587 OPS, sub-.200 batting average and 28 strikeouts in August made summer’s last full month a stretch to forget.

He isn’t off to a great start in September, either, having reached base only twice in 17 at-bats. On the season, his OBP against lefties is just .262 (compared to .320 against righties).

Conversely, Kipnis has been trending up of late. His batting average still hovers in the low .200s on the season, but he posted an OPS of .782 in August, and is building on that with an impressive start to September (six hits, two home runs and a double in 20 at-bats).

He is also much less affected by the handedness of opposing pitchers, having an OBP above .300 against both lefties and righties for the season.

With this evidence in mind, is Kipnis clearly the player who should be bumped from the Indians infield?

Why not at least entertain the idea of playing Donaldson at first–even if just experimentally a few times–and use Alonso as a pinch-hitter or spot-starter against righties?

Don’t mess with success

Seemingly lost in translation amid all the excitement and discussion over the Donaldson trade is that the Indians already have the best left side of an infield in recent memory.

Forget about exploring stats and crunching numbers. That’s all a waste of time here. Ramirez and Francisco Lindor are both no-doubt MVP candidates playing on the same side of second base.

Perhaps this is a more superstitious take than a practical one, but why even bring about the possibility of a change in Ramirez’ performance by moving him to a new position?

In truth, it’s unlikely that the transition adversely affects him at the plate. Ramirez is the kind of unflinching personality who could grind out a 12-pitch at-bat with meteors landing around him in foul territory. A position change isn’t going to get in his head.

Still, with sub-par offensive numbers at first base, trying to get the new guy on the field without changing Ramirez’ routine seems like an option worth exploring.

Questions surrounding Donaldson’s health

The most important thing to keep in mind about the Donaldson move is that a deep playoff run doesn’t depend so much on where he plays as it does on whether he plays. With October looming just over the horizon, the Indians can’t afford to have their game-changing trade acquisition battling the calf injury that’s sidelined him since the end of May.

Turning him into the full-time designated hitter isn’t an option, as it would bump Edwin Encarnacion out of the lineup. Or it would force Encarnacion to play first regularly, which is almost certainly a worse idea than thrusting Donaldson into the position. Giving Donaldson a chance to play first might be the best way to manage his health for the home stretch.

The slow grind to October continues. dark. Next

The Indians have a comfortable lead in the AL Central and a few weeks to try some different looks with their defensive alignment as a result. The team appears committed to the plan regarding Donaldson, so it’s unlikely that he is a part of any experimentation. If the Indians’ brass change their minds, however, giving him a try at first base should be at the top of their list of avenues to explore.