It’s been a long time since the Cleveland Indians have made good on a first round pick. In 1998, Cleveland took an 18 year old CC Sabathia with the 20th overall pick, but that was 16 years ago. Since then, the Indians have had 23 first round selections and not one of them has amased a career WAR of three or greater for Cleveland, and the only player to do so for any major league team is Jeremy Guthrie, but he actually had a negative WAR during his Indians tenure. Poor drafting is largely responsible for the Tribe’s decline in the mid-2000’s, but one player is looking to change all that: shortstop Francisco Lindor.
Lindor, 20, was taken with the eight overall pick in the 2011 draft, but scouts now unilaterally hold him in higher regard than all but two other players selected ahead of him, Gerrit Cole and Archie Bradley. He is a toolsy, athletic shortstop who has succeeded at every level, hitting .257/.352/.355 as one of the youngest players in the Class-A Midwestern League in 2012 – he was 18 at the time – and reaching Double-A as a 19 year old last year thanks to a .306/.373/.410 line at High-A. His stats actually improved upon promotion as he hit OPS jumped 18 points in the short, 21 game sample.
A testament to his advanced approach at the plate, Lindor’s primary offensive weapon is his ability to get on base, which he could be able to at .400 clip at the major league level. He walked in a ridiculous 15% of his plate appearances in Double-A last season, well above the major league average of 9%, although the sample size was small. That said, he had posted BB% of 10.8% in 2012, and his plate discipline should only increase with age. Combine that with his low strikeout rate – 7.7% in Double-A, 10.5% in High-A – which is well below the MLB average of 18.5%, and you have a player who could transition relatively painlessly into the majors.
His offensive contributions aside, Lindor’s true calling card is his defense, which grades out as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, according to both ESPN.com’s Keith Law and MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo. Mayo even spoke to some scouts who referred to him as the best fielder in the entire minor leauges, thanks to his plus arm and excellent hands on the infield. His above average speed, which he also uses to collect 20 steals annually, accounts for his deep range at the position.
Only 20 years old and with just Double-A games under his belt, Lindor will almost certainly spend the majority of the first half of 2014 in the minors. By late July, however, he should be ready, and may force incumbent MLB shortstop, former All-Star Asdrubal Cabrera out of town. In such an occurrence, Cabrera, who has been on the decline in the past couple seasons and is ticketed free agency at the end of 2014, could become one of the top trade deadline targets for other contenders.
Although Lindor might be able to immediately replicate most of Cabrera’s production – Asdrubal’s 1.2 WAR from last season has set the bar fairly low – one thing he won’t be able to match is the power. Cabrera was seventh among all major league shortstops last season with 14 home runs and hit 25 long ones as recently as 2011. Lindor, by contrast, hit two home runs in the minors last season. Some scouts, such as the aforementioned Keith Law, predict that Lindor’s swing and strong lower body will produce 10-15 home run power down the road, but for now, 4-7 will probably be the norm.
The Indians have managed to go from second division placeholders to contenders without graduating a single top prospect. Lindor should be their first.