By Mike Holzheimer
There is a sports saying that's as old as time itself.
“Offense sells the tickets, but defense wins the championships.” And if one were to apply that adage to the 2021 Cleveland Indians, well, let's just say celebrating a title anytime soon may be a long time coming.
It is obviously very early in the year but quite a few of the team's “defenders” look about as comfortable wearing a baseball glove as a vegetarian would be sitting down to a steak dinner.
And the accuracy of a few throwing arms seemingly have all the precision of blindfolded individuals trying their hand at archery.
Former Tribe gold glove outfielder and current team television broadcaster Rick Manning has said on far too many occasions things like “come on, that's baseball 101,” “that's the stuff you do over and over in spring training,” and “that play has to be made at this level.” One can hear the impatience growing in Manning's voice-and he's spot on.
Cleveland pitchers, who don't exactly have an abundance of offensive support, now feel as though a ball hit towards certain parts of the diamond is cause to hold their collective breaths. The reason for this appears to be simple from this writer's viewpoint-the Indians have had too many people playing out of position.
And that is not all Terry Francona's doing. As I mentioned in previous columns, Francona can only play the hands he's been dealt.
The first base and shortstop positions have been glaringly weak, and that is what a front office will get when they cannot sign players at those natural positions.
The trade of shortstop Francisco Lindor, yes, that was inevitable, and watching all-star first baseman Carlos Santana sign a free agent contract with division rival Kansas City, hurt. The Indians simply have not truly replaced those positions.
Andres Gimenez was a disaster at shortstop making bad throwing decisions, while showing great hesitancy on going out in the outfield to catch balls that the shortstop must take charge on.
Such bad judgement earned Gimenez a trip down to the minors and a promotion of Amed Rosario to the starting shortstop position. Rosario isn't a natural shortstop, but he'll do for now as he is playing a lot better than what (who) was there before.
And first base, that has been a revolving door. Jake Bauers, who got the starting job because he was out of options, proved ineffective again. He is now auditioning with the Seattle Mariners following a trade this week.
Josh Naylor, more suited for right field, tried the first base spot, as well, and just doesn't have the footwork fundamentals to play there.
Yu Chang wasn't much better as far as holding the first base bag, and if he plays anywhere in the infield, it should be third base only, which won't happen with Jose Ramirez locking down the hot corner.
And finally, the last “Bad News Bears” award for shaky defense early in the season would have to go to Harold Ramirez.
After watching routine fly balls drop in front of his feet on a recent road trip to Baltimore, it was goodbye Harold.
However, he can hit, and while designated hitter Franmil Reyes remains on the injured list, Ramirez (Harold) should trade in his outfielder glove for a batting glove.
If Bradley Zimmer can stay healthy, he is the BEST option Cleveland has regarding center field. He is the most athletic and covers a lot of ground holding doubles to singles and triples to doubles.
But the question for Zimmer has always been the same-can he stay healthy? More importantly, can he learn how to bunt from the left-handed batter's box to take advantage of that speed?
If he could accomplish that, Zimmer makes for the perfect lead-off batter in this Tribe lineup, which brings up another deficiency with Cleveland in that it has no lead-off batter. Cesar Hernandez is manageable as the No. 1 hitter but he is a better second batter as he makes good contact in advancing runners.
It would be unfair, since we are talking defensive woes, to suggest such problems are also surfacing behind the plate. That hasn't been an issue, despite losing gold glove catcher Roberto Perez to injury.
Austin Hedges has been a real surprise behind the dish blocking balls in the dirt with his chest in true Perez-like fashion.There is a ton of baseball left to play but early series losses, especially against teams the Indians should beat, count just as much as those series played in August and September.
The Indians just can't afford to literally “throw away” games, as well as drop balls because of a lack of communication. Running themselves out of big innings with extremely questionable base running efforts, has also not been a welcome sight.
Inconsistency has been a problem on many fronts with the pitching staff, but not in the cases of Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale. Both have been rock solid giving Cleveland a higher percentage with regards to winning when they toe the rubber.
Zach Plesac's “injury,” the one that involved slamming his hand on a chair after angrily removing an undershirt following a tough outing, earned him a fractured wrist and a trip to the injured list. Triston McKenzie, sent back to Columbus, was then called up in an emergency.
He shows signs of turning things around, but he is still young, throws far too many pitches, and is still learning on the job.
Sam Hentges also may be a “find” but too early to tell yet. Cal Quantrill doesn't seem ready to nail down the No. 4 or 5 man in the rotation.
And until those last two spots are nailed down, the struggles may continue.
The bullpen isn't bad but if they are overworked, that won't be a good recipe for success moving forward.
And while timely hitting needs to arrive inside the batter's box on a semi-consistent basis soon, the defense has to be better. In short, it has to be “major league” better.
There's another old adage applicable to baseball suggesting if you give big league teams extra outs in an inning, you will pay
the price. In that regard, the Indians are running up some serious numbers under the "amount owed" column. And just as it is in life, those bills eventually come due.