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Saturday, February 26, 2011
Expect better Indians infield defense in '11

By Steve Buffum

If I were to tell the story of the Cleveland Indians' 2010 season, I would probably start with the three-run error.

Jhonny Peralta
Cleveland won't miss the defensive mishaps of former third baseman Jhonny Peralta.
Every team makes errors. It's unreasonable to expect any team to make it through a season defensively unscathed. The very best Gold Glove-winning infielders make errors.

This was not one of those errors.

Tribe fans were excited to start the season with perceived defensive whiz Asdrubal Cabrera at short: He had played well at both middle infield positions in 2009, and was considered a sizable defensive upgrade to the rather plodding, spherically-headed Jhonny Peralta. Peralta slid over to third, a position that could potentially hide his below-average range while still taking advantage of his strong arm. His slow first step was not seen as an asset of comparable size.

When you think about a three-run error, you think about a diving outfielder and a ball rolling to the wall. You might think of Jose Canseco's innovative cranial fielding technique, or perhaps a marauding band of highly agitated Pennsylvania Outfield Badgers. But the outfield is involved in some way, no?

No.

With the bases loaded, the Tigers' hitter bounced a ball to Peralta's left, which he managed to knock down with a grace normally accompanied by an eyeless Muppet singing, "Bork, bork, bork!"

Thousands of Cleveland fans momentarily lost consciousness as they forgot to breathe while giving Peralta the telepathic signal not to rush the throw.

In my experience as a Cleveland fan, the Cleveland Fan Long-Distance Telepathic Network needs work.

Peralta's throw to ersatz first baseman Andy Marte was … look, it was not a good throw. Not many first basemen would have caught that throw. My point is, not many first basemen would have approached the play as Marte did, either, which is to say, to stand like a grandfather clock and … again, I cannot tell you what Marte's thought process was here, but it appeared to combine equal parts Zen, terror, and petit mal seizure. The ball rolled away. Detroit's baserunners continued to run. Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, roughly 19 times the distance from the ball, ran toward the ball. The sun changed position perceptibly in the sky. Detroit baserunners continued to run.

Did I mention that Cleveland lost by three runs?

After Peralta was traded, which was after he broke Cabrera's arm in a collision, Cleveland fans were "treated" to the sight of Jason Donald playing short and waiver pickup Jayson Nix sliding from his natural position of second to third. As a shortstop, Donald is a perfectly adequate second baseman. As a third baseman, Nix is a perfectly adequate second baseman.

If the Indians face a lineup of Adam Dunn, Jim Thome, Ryan Howard and Travis Hafner, their innovative three-second-basemen defense will serve them well. Until this team is constructed, they will still require someone to stand closer to third base than any other player. Right now, this is likely Nix. Or Donald. Possibly Luis Valbuena, a man who is not quite as good as Donald, or Nix, or a sack of iguanas.

Compounding this is the fact that the two best Cleveland starting pitchers are groundball pitchers Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson.

Other amusing anecdotes from the 2010 infield include the walk-off bunt, the four-wild-pitch opener (as least partly due to rookie catcher Tofu Lou Marson's inexperience with Jake Westbrook's sinker), the walk-off wild pitch, and the game with six infield hits.

Is there room for hope here? Of course. For one thing, the Indians are placing an increased emphasis on infield defense this season. They recognize the issue. But plenty of potential improvement can come from simple experience: Marson became much more accomplished behind the plate over the season and has a terrific arm. Nix and Donald will likely play better just by virtue of repetition. A healthy Matt LaPorta, if such a thing actually exists in non-theoretical space, should be fine at first. And the future of the Cleveland infield is probably Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, and possibly Cord Phelps, although none of them is ready to open 2011 with the Tribe.

The offensive contributions of these players (besides LaPorta) are almost irrelevant: The Indians did a decent job of scoring runs in 2010 and will likely do so again. A full season of Carlos Santana, any contribution better than what Grady Sizemore was able to struggle through, and a fully-recovered Cabrera will go a long way toward boosting the offense.

In Cleveland, the watchword is "infield defense." It will be better in 2011 … axiomatically.

Steve Buffum writes The B-List, a blog about the Cleveland Indians.