In today's Hit and Run, Jay Jaffe looks at the Indians' new-look infield, profiles the latest top prospect to join the Astros, and has some bad news on Javier Baez.
1. No Lindor yet
The Astros aren't the only team who decided to switch shortstops this weekend, but where Houston opted to call up top prospect Carlos Correa, the Indians are bypassing fellow Puerto Rican phenom Francisco Lindor. That said, Cleveland is shaking things up a bit more drastically, demoting two Opening Day starters—shortstop Jose Ramirez and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall—to Triple A Columbus. In their place for now will be utility infielder Zach Walters and prospect Giovanny Urshela.
The 22-year-old Ramirez, who took over shortstop duties last July after Asdrubal Cabrera was traded to the Nationals in exchange for Walters and cash, has hit an anemic .180/.247/.240 with one homer and eight steals in 170 plate appearances this year. His 38 OPS+ would rank as the worst among players qualified for the batting title in either league had his recent benching in favor of Mike Aviles not left him four plate appearances short of the cutoff.
Aviles has been a busy man lately, starting 14 of the Indians' last 20 games—eight at third base, six at shortstop—since returning from a 10-day absence after his four-year-old daughter, Adrianna, was diagnosed with leukemia. Prior to Sunday's game, the 34-year-old utiltyman played barber, shaving the head of owner/CEO Paul Dolan in support of Adrianna and in solidarity with Aviles' teammates, who cut their hair late last month. Through all of this, he's hitting a respectable .269/.325/.404 in 116 PA. He figures to handle the bulk of shortstop duties for the near future, with the 25-year-old Walters, who has played every infield position and leftfield at Columbus, able to lend a hand. Walters hit .259/.309/.411 in 124 PA at Columbus, but he's managed just a .178/.233/.408 line in 163 major league PA spread out across the past three seasons.
The 21-year-old Lindor, the No. 8 pick of the 2011 draft and a consensus top-10 prospect coming into this season, is hitting .271/.342/.396 through 237 PA at Columbus and remains the team's shortstop of the future. While he's been particularly hot lately (.333/.397/.510 in his last 14 games), he's missed a handful of games in recent weeks due to minor, lingering hand and core injuries, and the team doesn't want to promote him while he's less than 100%. Particularly with the projected Super Two cutoff around now—we won't know the actual date for two years, but the earliest it's been in recent years is two years, 122 days, a marker that passed on June 5—the likelihood is that Lindor will be in the majors by month's end.
As for third base, the 26-year-old Chisenhall enjoyed a breakout in 2014, his first full year in the majors after three partial ones. Taking over the hot corner after the Carlos Santana experiment failed, he hit .280/.343/.427 with 13 homers in 533 PA, but he's off to a .209/.241/.345 start thus far through 189 PA, which has earned him a ticket back to Columbus. The 23-year-old Urshela, who hails from Colombia, is a standout defender who added a slight leg kick to his swing last year and hit .280/.334/.491 with 13 homers in 24 games at Double A Akron and 104 at Columbus; he also drew 36 walks, more than double his previous season high. Between a left knee sprain in winter ball and a back injury that cost him most of spring training, he's been limited to 21 games this year, hitting .275/.301/.475 with three homers in 83 PA. A solid showing in Cleveland could make Chisenhall a change-of-scenery trade candidate.
It will be worth keeping an eye not only on how Aviles, Walters and Urshela fare with the bats, but also how well they play defense. As Cliff Corcoran noted exactly one month ago, the team's .641 defensive efficiency at the time was on track to be the worst in the majors since 1930, but the team is now up to .664—still 14th in the league and 32 points below the AL average, but no longer historically awful. With that improvement has come a turnaround in the team's fortunes. The Indians fell to 10–19 as of May 9, but since then have gone 17–10 for the league's second-best record in that span. At 27–29 overall, they're still fourth in the AL Central, six games behind the first-place Twins and three out of the second Wild Card spot.
• CORCORAN: Athletics' Pat Venditte debuts from both sides
2. Astros not through with youth movement
Correa, meanwhile, isn't the only Astro getting promoted. On Monday, Houston announced that 23-year-old righty Vincent Velasquez has been recalled from Double A Corpus Christi to start on Wednesday against the White Sox. A 2010 second-round pick out of a Pomona high school, Velazquez came into the year ranked 75th on Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 Prospects list but had never pitched above Class A before this season. He's dominated the Texas League in five starts and 26 1/3 innings, pitching to a 1.37 ERA with 12.6 strikeouts and 3.1 walks per nine.
Via BP, which ranked him third among the team's prospects coming into the year—behind 2013 top pick and Corpus Christi rotation-mate Mark Appel, and ahead of the recently recalled Lance McCullers—Velasquez throws a fastball in the low-to-mid-90s along with a deceptive, diving changeup. That offering generates swings and misses against both righties and lefties and grades out as a plus pitch. His curve, however, is inconsistent and merely flashes average at this point. He is known for maintaining his velocity later into games, though given the fairly short leash he's been on via the tandem starter system that the Astros deploy in the minors, his 98-pitch start on June 2 is the only time he's topped 88 pitches this season.
Velasquez will slot into the rotation in place of Roberto Hernandez, who has been cuffed for a 5.18 ERA and 4.90 FIP thus far. While the Astros are off to a 34–24 start and lead the AL West by 3 1/2 games, they've dropped four straight to the Orioles and Blue Jays, all on the road, and their rotation behind Dallas Keuchel (1.85 ERA, 2.75 FIP) and McCullers (1.88 ERA, 1.70 FIP through four starts) has been shaky, to say the least. The unit as a whole ranks eighth in the league with a 4.14 ERA, but subtract those two and it's a sky-high 5.21, with just a 45% quality-start rate. Collin McHugh, the team's second-best starter last year behind Keuchel, is carrying a 4.34 ERA due to a soaring homer rate (1.2 per nine), and while he's averaged 6.4 innings per turn, he's on pace for 218, 44 2/3 beyond last year's total. Scott Feldman has made seven quality starts out of 10, albeit with mixed results (4.80 ERA, 4.10 FIP); he hit the disabled list on May 29 due to a torn medial meniscus in his right knee, the surgery for which will keep him out four-to-six weeks. Lefty Brett Oberholtzer, who rejoined the rotation on June 1, has been limited to three starts and 12 innings due to recurrent blister problems.
As for Appel, he's scuffling at Corpus Christi after closing last season on a strong note there. Through 10 starts totaling 45 innings, he has a 5.20 ERA with 6.4 strikeouts and 3.6 walks per nine, though he's at least keeping the ball in the park via a respectable 48% ground-ball rate and just 0.6 homers per nine. He threw five innings of two-hit, one-run (unearned) ball in his most recent turn after being rocked for 15 runs in 13 1/3 innings over his previous three starts. If he gets on a strong run, he could figure in Houston's plans later this summer, but the 23-year-old righty has a ways to go to find the consistency necessary to survive in the majors.
• CORCORAN: Josh Donaldson, Mike Trout lead in AL MVP race
3. Bad break for Baez
Speaking of young Puerto Rican infielders: Javier Baez, the player chosen one pick behind Lindor in the 2011 draft, appeared to be on track for a return to the Cubs after starting this season back at Triple A Iowa. But on Sunday, Baez suffered a non-displaced fracture of his right ring finger while sliding headfirst, which will knock him out anywhere from four to eight weeks.
Hailed for his power, Baez ranked among the top five prospects on the lists of both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus coming into last year, but upon reaching the majors, he hit .169/.227/.324 with nine homers and an astronomical 95 strikeouts in 229 PA (41%). The Cubs sent him back to Iowa to start the year, where he's hit well (.314/.386/.536 with eight homers) and cut his strikeout rate to 25%; during that time, he's played second base, shortstop and third. How exactly he fits onto the big club's roster remains an open question, but with neither Addison Russell (.241/.295/.407) nor Starlin Castro (.265/.302/.352) providing particularly strong production and Kris Bryant (.282/.389/.471) having made spot starts in both left and centerfield, a healthy Baez could force a reshuffling—or be showcased for a trade.
All of that's on hold now, and a worst-case scenario could see Baez not return to the major league roster until it expands in September, depending upon how long he's out and how quickly he regains his stroke.