Led by José Ramírez, Cleveland’s infield could be quietly great in 2021

I’m not sure there is a more underrated infield in the major leagues than Cleveland’s. Which is an interesting thing to say after trading the best shortstop in the game (fight me) and when the man employed to play third base is projected to be the best in the game in 2021.

But if you asked anyone who does not follow the Cleveland baseball team who the best third baseman in the game was, how many would say José Ramírez? It would be hard to fault anyone who suggests Alex Bregman, Anthony Rendon, or Matt Chapman is best, but that just speaks to how quietly excellent Ramírez has been his entire career. The strength of the Cleveland infield is not solely reliant upon the hot corner, however. I like all the options the team has around the horn, including its depth.

First base

If there’s one area of weakness in this group, it’s first base, though it’s anything but a secret.

On FanGraphs’ rankings, Cleveland’s options at first base ranked 24th, which seems about right as choosing from the likes of Jake Bauers, Bobby Bradley, and maybe Josh Naylor at some point feels like pulling from a replacement-level grab bag.

Bauers has never lived up to his minor league stats and has failed to put together much of anything in the big leagues to this point. He maintained his high walk rate even when he struggled in Cleveland in 2019 (10.6% BB%), but struck out more than ever (27.2% K%) and struggled to hit the ball with authority (.371 SLG). Allowing him to focus solely on first base might allow him to settle in, and given that he’s out of options might be the only way for him to revive a stagnating career.

But there’s something to Bradley this year. Brushing aside the annual best-shape-of-his-life stories, Bradley has really shown out in spring training. In just 12 games, a minuscule sample size against varying opposition, he’s batting .313/.324/.656, with two homers and five doubles. Perhaps more importantly, he’s only struck out seven times in 33 PA. It’s not much, but it is more than Bauers has shown on the Arizona fields (.200/.429/.280, 0 HR, 2 2B, 9 K in 34 PA).

The choice between Bradley and Bauers might only come down to service time, as Bradley can be optioned but Bauers cannot without being exposed to waivers. But if Bauers still can’t hack it after a bit, waivers won’t be much of a risk. And beyond those two, Naylor could try his hand at first or even Nolan Jones could take a stab at it. None of the options here seem like long-term fixes at this point, but it could at least get the team through the season.

Second base

Cesar Hernandez is not the flashiest second baseman out there, but he is steady and reliable and not bad at what he does. After a decade in the major leagues, we have a good idea of what to expect from Hernandez, and that’s a solid bat and glove that will be a good presence in the lineup. As the team looks to fill the gap between now and when Tyler Freeman is ready to debut, there are many worse options than Hernandez out there.

Should Hernandez no longer have quite the same effectiveness he’s displayed previously, however, Cleveland is flush with depth up the middle. Yu Chang will likely be the first option as a backup, and with his power turn during spring training (leading the team with four home runs) he could be primed for a bigger role in 2021. Beyond Chang, Amed Rosario has acquitted himself well enough at the position with the Mets and Owen Miller looks like he might be ready to fill some innings in the majors as well.

Overall, the second base group has a terrific anchor in Hernandez and depth that will more than hold out until Freeman is ready. I’d put major-league average as the floor for this group, with plenty of potential for upside.

Shortstop

With so many incredibly talented shortstops in the league right now, Cleveland definitely seems much worse than the competition at shortstop. FanGraphs ranked them in 24th, which is probably fair after the Francisco Lindor trade, but this is almost certainly the infield position with the most room to surprise.

The likely Opening Day starter is Andrés Giménez, who aggressively moved to the majors from Double-A last year and paid off the Mets’ gamble with 0.8 fWAR and 104 wRC+. While his bat may always be a little quiet (.398 SLG last year and the deadened ball won’t help), he gets superlative reviews for his defense and that will likely be enough to secure his spot through any struggles.

Of course, Rosario and Chang are ready and waiting should those struggles become more pronounced, but I like Giménez to stick. He’s played his way into the starting role in spring training, earning the second-most at-bats on the team (tied with Eddie Rosario, a guy the team did not sign to sit on the bench) and slashing .286/.342/.571. His .914 OPS is the sixth-highest on the team, which is about right for where he needs to be in this lineup.

Third base

I already gave away that José Ramírez is projected to be the best third baseman in the game this year, but what if I told you he’s primed to become the best third baseman in Cleveland history as soon as this year? He’s always been our goat, but soon he could be the GOAT.

The team has had some great players man the hot corner but just a few have had a better run than Ramírez — no one else has spent as much time at third or compiled as much fWAR as the Mario Kart whiz. Jim Thome was done at third by 1995, and had only earned 8.5 fWAR at that point; Terry Turner played all over the infield between 1904 and 1918, but primarily at short, meaning we can’t credit all 31.9 fWAR he earned with Cleveland to third base; and Buddy Bell’s career was long and fruitful, just not all with Cleveland.

One of the heroes of 1948, Ken Keltner stands as the team’s greatest third baseman to date, with 36.2 fWAR over 12 seasons. His replacement, Al Rosen, also had a career to remember, compiling 35.2 fWAR over 10 seasons in Cleveland. Bill Bradley’s 33.9 fWAR from playing the lion’s share of innings at third between 1901 and 1910 slates third in team history at third base. All those men impressed, but I’d put money on the current third baseman to best their records.

In just eight seasons, Ramírez has 27.9 fWAR. If he were to meet his projected 5.7 fWAR this year, he’d have 33.6 for his career, just coming short of Bradley. Matching his best season to date (8.1 fWAR in 2018) would give him an even 36, just a whisker away from Keltner’s career mark. At 28 years old, Ramírez has a lot of good baseball left in him, and it is not crazy to think that he might flourish with so little spotlight shining on him this year.

There are many ways to appreciate José, but the realization that he could realistically be the team’s best third baseman ever by the end of the coming season is perhaps the coolest way to consider his contributions. Perhaps the larger MLB-consuming audience may never rate Ramírez as highly as we fans do or as highly as he deserves, but that’s fine. It will keep the Cleveland infield under the radar and sneakily good.

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