Red Sox vs. Indians 2017 Roster Breakdown: Infielders

Many are torn on whether the Boston Red Sox or the Cleveland Indians are the 2017 AL favorites. Breaking down the roster position by position is how to determine the winner.

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Are the Boston Red Sox the team to beat in the American League or is it a Cleveland Indians team coming off of a pennant winning season?

After landing arguably the biggest free agent prize of the offseason, slugger Edwin Encarnacion, many experts and fans alike have boasted the Indians as the AL favorites heading into the 2017 season. Of course, after landing arguably the biggest trade prize of the offseason in ace Chris Sale, many are saying the same about the Red Sox.

To see which playoff contender is truly deserving of the title of American League favorite (which of course means nothing in reality, it’s just for fun), I’m going to do a weekly series, conducting a position-by-position comparison of what the Red Sox and Indians have to offer.

We start by breaking down the respective infields for each team.

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Catcher

Much attention has been focused this offseason on Boston’s catching dilemma. Stuck with three imperfect options in Sandy Leon, Blake Swihart, and Christian Vazquez, a final decision has yet to be reached on which two will enter Spring Training as the definitive starter and backup. That makes a comparison a little muddy, but it remains that no permutation of the three is particularly dominating.

Leon probably has the most two-way upside for 2017 as long as he can prove that his late-season drought was a fluke rather than his four-month rampage that resulted in his .845 OPS.

Swihart, on the other hand, has a lot to prove defensively but can provide high on-base numbers (.365 OBP last season) at a premium position.

Vazquez is the polar opposite: a defensive stalwart behind the dish with exceptional pitch framing and game calling abilities that are difficult to learn. He also comes with a cannon of an arm, throwing out an exceptional 44% of would-be base-stealers. Problem is, he swings an invisible bat, sporting a career .602 OPS across 112 games. Yes, his bat has shown up more throughout the minors, but it can’t be counted on until it has shown itself in the bigs.

The Indians come into 2017 with a much clearer picture behind the plate in terms of roster construction, but not production.

After battling a dislocated shoulder and a broken wrist throughout a disappointing 2016 campaign, Yan Gomes will look to reclaim his starting role. When healthy and hitting, he’s one of the most valuable catchers in the game, posting a combined 8.1 WAR from 2013-2014. Just two years removed from bashing 21 homers with a 117 OPS+, Gomes has the potential to be an impact bat, although it’s been dormant since, slashing just .205/.240/.365.

It’s reasonable to believe that health has been a key contributor to his recent struggles, and a return to 2014 form would be huge for Cleveland, but it’s far from a sure thing. His defense is a constant presence, however, as Gomes is another excellent pitch framer and nabs a decent 35% of potential base-stealers.

This is a difficult conclusion to reach, given that Gomes likely represents the much higher ceiling than any of the three Boston options, but also has the lowest floor. It’s not that Gomes has the ability to be that much worse than whoever Boston throws out there, but Cleveland would likely be willing to wait out Gomes’ struggles in anticipation of his breakout longer than Boston would. With an unclear picture in Boston and little way of predicting what Gomes will do in 2017, the catcher position is declared a tie.

Advantage: Tie

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First Base

For the purpose of this experiment, let’s assume that Mitch Moreland takes most of the first base reps and Hanley Ramirez is mostly regulated to the designated hitter role, although this has yet to be confirmed.

What Moreland brings to the table is a slightly below average to average bat for a first baseman but a plus glove. In fact, he was the recipient of the Gold Glove Award last season, registering +7 defensive runs saved and a 6.4 UZR. But while first base defense is important because it gives the rest of the infield more throwing confidence, the Red Sox will be more concerned with his offensive production.

Moreland has been off-and-on with the bat in recent years, registering a .278/.330/.482 slash line in 2015 before falling to a .233/.298/.422 line in 2016. The power is consistent, as his .204 and .189 ISO numbers are similar from the two seasons. His strikeout and walk rates have stayed relatively stagnant as well, but his hits just weren’t falling last year. Some of that can be attributed to bad luck, as his BABIP declined harshly from .317 to an irregular .266. But he began to hit more fly balls and fewer ground balls, a transition that often leads to more power but a declining batting average. He also curiously adopted reverse splits, another unusual development for a veteran left-hander. It’s not unreasonable to think that Moreland can bounce back with the bat in 2017, but it’s far from a guarantee.

However, the Indians clearly sport the more dangerous weapon at first base, assuming that newcomer Encarnacion takes most of the reps at first and Carlos Santana stays in his current DH role. A longtime division rival and Red Sox tormenter, Encarnacion has been nothing short of fearsome in the last five seasons. In that span, he averages 35 homers and 101 RBIs to go along with a .272/.363/.531 slash line. Simply put, he’s one of the game’s top run producers, and while he is going into his age 34 season, there’s little reason to assume he’ll slow down too much with the bat.

Advantage: Indians

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Second Base

With David Ortiz officially retired, second baseman Dustin Pedroia becomes the longest-tenured member of the Red Sox. A constant cornerstone both at second base and in the clubhouse, Pedroia provides an invaluable role on this team. His constant hustle and hard-nosed style of play has garnered him the label of the clubhouse leader and a fan favorite.

But his contributions span just as far on the field, as Pedroia is one of the game’s top second basemen when healthy. And that’s the big if, because he’s managed 140+ games four times in the last seven seasons. The Red Sox need him to stay healthy, because when he’s on the field, the team wins. In the three seasons since 2010 he has played in 150+ games (2011, 2013, and 2016), Boston won 90+ games.

There’s a reason for that – Pedroia provides exceptional production on offense and defense. Slashing .318/.376/.449 in 2016, he put up a 5.6 WAR, good for sixth in the MLB among second basemen. Combined with his 12 defensive runs saved and 12.5 UZR, best among all second baseman, and Pedroia is still an elite two-way player.

The Indians counter with a capable second baseman of their own: Jason Kipnis. His numbers are similar to Pedroia’s; he slashed .275/.343/.469 with a 4.8 WAR, they’re just a little lagging. Kipnis is a top-10 second baseman in his own right, but Pedroia gets the edge here.

Advantage: Red Sox

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Third Base

This is probably the biggest blowout of any position in favor of Cleveland – of little surprise to Red Sox fans. The starting third baseman for Boston is unequivocally Pablo Sandoval after Shaw and Moncada were dealt away earlier in the offseason, and even the most ardent Panda supporters have to be nervous about that.

Between weight, injury and performance issues, social media scandals and a questionable desire to win in Boston, Sandoval has a lot riding against him. That’s not to say there’s no hope for a rebound, because the three-time World Series champion has had successful years in the past that led him to his bloated Boston contract. But relying on any amount of production from the 30-year old is a risky endeavor, and not one that can be assumed for the sake of this comparison.

The Indians’ hot corner is manned by 2016 breakout star Jose Ramirez. Busting out of a utility role to snag the starting third base job, Ramirez played an invaluable role in Cleveland’s success last year. After two seasons of well below-average hitting, he emerged to a .312/.363/.462 slash line with a whopping 46 doubles and even 22 steals sprinkled in.

He plays solid defense at third which helped grow his WAR to 3.9, a number that Sandoval has only reached twice in his career and is five seasons removed from. Even accounting for some regression on Ramirez’s part and progression for Sandoval, this one is no contest.

Advantage: Indians

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Shortstop

Two young All-Stars face off here at the shortstop position, a contest that at least twenty other ball clubs would be jealous of. On Boston’s side, Xander Bogaerts made big strides as a hitter in 2016. His long-projected power finally showed up, hitting three times the amount of homers as the previous season to wind up at 21 to go along with 34 doubles. His batting average dropped to a still stellar .294, but that mattered little due to the increase in power and constant on-base ability. Where Bogaerts showed some concerning regression is on the defensive end.

Grading as at least an average defender in 2015 with -1 defensive runs saved and a 1.0 UZR, Bogaerts may have gotten complacent with his glove in 2016. Story after story read how much the youngster was working on fielding in 2015 Spring Training, but those stories disappeared last season. What resulted is -10 defensive runs saved and a -2.9 UZR. Not horrible, not Jeter-ian, but not what he showed the year prior.

Francisco Lindor, on the other hand, is a defensive wizard. Registering an elite 17 defensive runs saved and 20.8 UZR, the 23-year old has established himself as one of the game’s top gloves next to guys like Brandon Crawford and Andrelton Simmons. His offense is also impressive, with a career .810 OPS over his two seasons. His combined body of work has led him to a 10.3 WAR for his rookie and sophomore campaigns. For reference, Bryce Harper has an 11.6 WAR from 2015-16, and that’s over 43 more games than Lindor.

Make no mistake, Bogaerts is likely a perennial All-Star in his own right, but Lindor is an unquestionable franchise cornerstone and potential MVP candidate.

Advantage: Indians

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Results

The Indians have the edge over infield dominance, with rising star Francisco Lindor at short, breakout star Jose Ramirez at third, and newcomer star Edwin Encarnacion at first.

That’s not to say that Boston is too far behind, given that Bogaerts is a reliable option at shortstop and Pedroia plays an invaluable second base. However, Moreland and Sandoval have too many question marks to be wholly relied upon; it wouldn’t be a major shock if different faces were manning the corner infield spots at Fenway in July. And who even knows what’s going on at catcher.

Come back next week to see who wins the battle of the outfields, but for now, here are the infield results:

Indians: 3 (1B, SS, 3B)

Red Sox: 1 (2B)

Tie: 1 (C)

Feel free to leave a comment with any agreements or disagreements, as many positions can go either way with these two powerhouse teams.

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