GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor traveled in elite circles in his first major league season. He hit .313 with an .835 OPS and 12 home runs, and finished second to Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting.
Judging from the offseason company he kept, Lindor is intent on raising the bar in 2016.
Lindor worked out daily in Orlando, Florida, with a group consisting of Barry Larkin, Rickie and Jemile Weeks, Dee Gordon and younger brother Nick Gordon, a Minnesota Twins prospect. For the record, that’s a Hall of Famer, three former first-round draft picks and the 2015 National League batting champion.
Along with Philadelphia Phillies infielder Darnell Sweeney, the winter warriors cajoled and pushed each other through workouts that lasted two or three hours. Camaraderie rescued them from drudgery, and they focused on elevating their games one swing, one ground ball and one shared nugget of information at a time.
“It’s awesome," Lindor said. “They’re hard-working guys. They’re fun. They’re genuine, and they want to be the best at what they do.
“We enjoy it. We’re not robots. We do things different. Dee Gordon is different from me, and I’m different from Nick and Darnell. We pick something from every one of us and make it our own and get better from there."
At various points in Lindor’s rookie season, his consistency and unflappable nature gave him a touch of the cyborg. After striking out, he would typically descend the dugout stairs and place his bat in the rack, then return to the top step to cheer on his teammates. That might seem like a small gesture, but it’s the type of thing veteran teammates notice when they assess a young player’s emotional investment in the cause.
Lindor also got better as the season progressed. After posting an OPS of .539 in June, he improved to .772 in July, .913 in August and 1.052 in September. He seemed oblivious to fatigue, dings and the “book" opposing teams were compiling on him.
The Indians are trying to strike a balance with Lindor in his second season. On one hand, they’re counting on him to produce as they try to make inroads in the American League Central. But he’s only 22 years old, and they know it’s unfair to smother him with expectations.
The Cleveland veterans aren’t averse to busting Lindor’s chops and mixing in some tough love to keep him humble. While Lindor sat in the middle of the clubhouse doing an interview with several reporters earlier this week, outfielder Michael Brantley sidled up and playfully eavesdropped. Then pitcher Carlos Carrasco grabbed a TV remote and pretended it was a tape recorder. Joba Chamberlain chimed in with a disruptive comment meant to throw Lindor off his interview game. There was a bit of a don’t get a big head, kid vibe to the proceedings.
“He’s a fantastic defender who had a great rookie season, but he’s not the second coming of Jesus," second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “Let’s not get carried away."
Lest that assessment sound harsh, Kipnis made it clear he really likes the kid.
“He’s very athletic and very coordinated, and he’s very excited about being part of this game," Kipnis said. “When you have that excitement, you’re eager to learn and grow. Not only does he want to play this game -- he wants to be one of the better players to play this game."
The Indians were well aware of Lindor’s maturity and leadership skills before they chose him eighth overall in the 2011 draft and signed him for a $2.9 million bonus. Lindor learned to adapt after moving from his native Puerto Rico to the U.S. with his family at age 12, and stood out against top competition as a prep player at Montverde Academy, a private boarding school in Florida. In 2009, he was captain of the American team that won the world youth championships in Taiwan. He’s fluent in English, and he never hesitates to help Spanish-speaking teammates who are struggling to embrace the language.
The more plaudits Lindor receives, the more intent he seems on doing the right thing. When the Indians played Cincinnati in their Cactus League opener Tuesday, Lindor was on the list of players who didn’t have to be at the game. But he showed up anyway. The next morning, manager Terry Francona passed by a back field at 7:30 a.m. and saw Lindor working on jumps and lunges with the team’s strength and conditioning coach. Lindor has an internal drive that makes the Indians believe they won’t have to worry about him ever getting too pleased with himself.
Right now, the biggest questions revolve around Lindor’s ability to hold up over 162 games while handling increasingly greater responsibilities in the middle infield. He’ll also have to adjust as the scouting reports become more voluminous and opponents probe for potential weaknesses.
“I don’t think there’s a ton of concern about him," Francona said. “We think we know what he is as a player and a person. Does that guarantee he’s going to have the best April? No, nothing does. But we know he’s a good player -- and hopefully, he’s going to end up being a great player."
At the end of the day, what’s not to like about a switch-hitter with speed, power, a gold-plated glove, intelligence and poise?
“You don’t proclaim somebody a Hall of Famer after three months in the big leagues, but I don’t want to talk him down, either," Francona said. “We love him. I understand why people ask about him. Shoot, he’s fun to talk about."