With a sizable division lead, the Cleveland Indians can begin setting up the roster for October. How should the Tribe utilize the bottom of the lineup?
The home stretch of the 2018 season is upon us. Three of MLB’s six divisions are still (realistically) up for grabs in the middle of September, and the teams involved in those races will have to claw their way to the finish line before October rolls around.
The American League Central is not among those undecided races, and as such the Cleveland Indians will instead use these final few weeks to set their roster up ideally for the first round of the playoffs.
Cleveland has already begun tinkering with the starting rotation, backing Corey Kluber up a few days in order to have him in line to start the first game of the ALDS. The Tribe is also putting the finishing touches on the bullpen, having brought Andrew Miller back from a pleasantly brief DL stint earlier this week.
On the position player side of things, the Josh Donaldson era has been set in motion. Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis have made the move to their new positions, with Donaldson ready to begin playing regularly at third base. He batted fifth in the lineup in his debut with the Indians, though it remains to be seen if he will continue to serve as a protector behind Edwin Encarnacion or ultimately move up to the cleanup spot (or even the two-hole, depending on what you consider to be the best way to deploy his bat).
Not to be overlooked, however, is the bottom of the Cleveland batting order. If the Indians are going to bring home their first World Series title in 70 years, it’s going to take all nine hitters to get the job done. The big guns in the top two-thirds will do their part. How should Terry Francona round it all out with the bottom three?
7. Melky Cabrera – RF
It’s little more than a stroke of bad luck in the injury department that has resulted in Melky Cabrera being a staple in the Indians everyday lineup, but he has made the best of his opportunities this season.
Since the All-Star break, which has represented the bulk of his work, Cabrera boasts a .368 OBP with an OPS of .844. In his 54 at-bats against lefties (an admittedly small sample size compared to 151 against righties) he has 14 RBI and an OPS of .916. He’s a little less effective in the hitting department against righties, but he accounts for that by walking more often and striking out significantly less.
Evidence suggests Yonder Alonso will probably slot in at the six-hole behind Encarnacion and Donaldson despite being in the middle of a prolonged slump. If the Indians continue to live with his peaks and valleys in exchange for the occasional power surge, they’ll need a more consistent hitter behind him to keep existing rallies alive when he comes up short.
Cabrera’s ability to be effective against both lefties and righties makes him the best option out of the seven-hole.
8. Yan Gomes – C
For a guy not normally recognized for being productive offensively, Yan Gomes has put together a nice season at the plate.
He has massively cut down on his strikeout numbers in the second half. He posted an OPS of .803 in August and is following that up with a similarly impressive September. He’s rounded out his reputation as an exceptional defensive catcher with some offensive contributions not every team is lucky enough to get from the position.
That said, he has the second-lowest OBP of any regular Indians starter, and even with his reduced second-half strikeout numbers, he is still among the most likely candidates to take the lonely walk back to the dugout. For this reason, the Indians need someone else to bat ninth and turn things over to the top of the order.
9. Jason Kipnis – CF
Kipnis ranks third on the Indians in walks, a statistic that should not be casually dismissed when considering who he’ll have hitting after him if he’s in the nine-hole. He also strikes out at a relatively high clip, but it’s his ability and willingness to draw free passes that will ultimately put opposing pitchers in a bind.
With Lindor, Michael Brantley and Jose Ramirez waiting in the wings, pitchers aren’t going to want to stray too far from the strike zone early in the count. A veteran hitter with a high baseball IQ isn’t going to be chasing dirt-bound breaking balls with the top of the order due up. As a result, opponents will be forced to attack Kipnis with pitches he can hit.
A less patient hitter might do the other team some favors in this position, but Kipnis has demonstrated time and time again that he is willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win. He would have a very simple and clearly-defined role batting ninth: get on base by any means possible and give the big bats a chance to drive him.
When opposing pitchers challenge him–and they will–he can make them pay with his bat. If they choose to dance around him, he can make them pay with his discipline. With the way the roster is set to shake out for October, this is the perfect role for Kipnis going forward.
After all, would there be any more poetic way to end the season than by watching Michael Brantley drive in Jason Kipnis on a walk-off, World Series-clinching single?