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Indians’ Opening Day infield in flux with Jason Kipnis out to start regular season

By Ryan Lewis Published: March 20, 2017

The Indians have some clarity on Jason Kipnis’ injury situation following the news that he’s expected to miss 4-to-5 weeks with shoulder inflammation. Now, the club can begin to pinpoint how they’d like to handle the infield to start the 2017 regular season.

They certainly have their options already within the organization to place the chess pieces as they’d like at third and second base. Though, with less than two weeks until Opening Day on April 3, there’s much to sort out.

The Indians could place Erik Gonzalez or possibly Michael Martinez—who is not on the 40-man roster and in camp as a non-roster invitee—at second base, leaving Jose Ramirez to man third. In that scenario, whoever doesn’t get the second base job could make the roster as a utility guy off the bench.

Ramirez, who has extensive experience at second, could also be temporarily moved across the infield to replace Kipnis, which opens up several additional options at third. Gonzalez, Giovanny Urshela, Yandy Diaz and Richie Shaffer are all in the mix there.

There are pros and cons to each scenario if Ramirez is shifted. Gonzalez brings above-average defense wherever he plays but isn’t as polished offensively, though he did take some steps forward last season. Urshela is in a similar position, and the club has expressed interest in making sure he doesn’t plateau in his development at Triple-A. Both are already on the 40-man roster with options remaining.

Diaz and Shaffer, conversely, would both provide upgrades offensively but aren’t nearly the defenders of the former group and aren’t on the 40-man roster, though each can play the corner outfield and would give the Indians additional security if Michael Brantley is unable to start the season. Diaz and Shaffer have both had productive springs at the plate while looking to force the Indians’ hand.

The Indians are trying to balance keeping the infield in-tact defensively while also looking for some offensive production with Kipnis out. As of now, there are a lot of moving parts without a clear path to the Indians’ Opening Day infield.

“Those are things we’re thinking about,” Indians manager Terry Francona said Monday. “Some of it’s going to depend on the roster we take. Right now, we don’t know what that will be. … I think we’re trying to balance everything. I think what we don’t want to do is—because you can’t replace [Kipnis’] bat. I mean that’s, he’s one of the best second baseman in the league. We don’t want to try to sacrifice defense and get sloppy for a little bit of offense. There’s a balance there for sure.”

Diaz, standing 6-2 and 185 pounds at age 25, is perhaps the most intriguing option of the bunch. He hit .325 with an .860 OPS in 95 games last season after being called up to Triple-A. This spring, Diaz has eight hits in 21 at-bats. The Indians’ No. 10 prospect according to MLB.com is displaying plenty of potential at the plate. The question for now is if his glove can handle that much exposure at third base.

“He wasn’t the finished product as a third baseman,” Francona said. “Then last year, we moved him to right field because there was a need and he was still rough around the edges, is the best way to put it. Now, because there’s a potential opening at third, now he would kind of go back to that. It’s not perfect. It’s trying to weigh his bat but also the development of his defense. I’m not even sure if it’s a possibility, but we’d like to give him a chance because he’s such a good hitter.”

The club is trying to ensure that whatever secondary plan they put into play is a temporary one, only affecting the first couple weeks of the regular season instead of a month or more. They’d also like the player affectionally nicknamed “Dirtbag” to come back and be able to play like Dirtbag.

“The 4-to-5 week [time table] was return-to-play,” Francona said. “He could have played, he was in the lineup the day we took him out. I think after getting a second opinion and listening to all the medical people, I think they felt like this is the best way to completely knock that thing out so he doesn’t have to worry about it.”

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