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Will Cleveland’s Strategy Work?

The Cleveland Indians love ground balls. After the acquisition of Derek Lowe on Monday, the Indians now have three of the most extreme ground ball pitchers in the majors. With this added focus on ground ball pitchers, the Indians’ infield defense will play a huge factor in the team’s success next season. Problem is, the Indians don’t have particularly strong defenders on the infield. With three-fourths of their infield set entering 2012, will the Indians’ ground ball strategy be their undoing?

As Jason Roberts recently pointed out, the Indians’ infield defense wasn’t particularly good last season. Combined, the Indians infielders managed to post a -34 WAR UZR last season. The biggest offender was Asdrubal Cabrera, who posted a UZR of -11.8 last season. Jason Kipnis wasn’t much better considering how little he played — though he did play through some injuries — and Lonnie Chisenhall was fairly average in his debut. Kipnis and Chisenhall’s UZR come in a really small sample, but it’s important to note that Keith Law said both players had a chance to be at least average at their position. Both Kipnis and Chisenhall have been prospects in the organization for some time, and Cabrera is coming off his best season as a pro, so it would seem all three players should enter the season as starters.

While it’s nice to think about the damage that trio will do with the bat, it’s worrisome to think about how much value they stand to give up in the field. With the acquisition of Lowe, Cleveland now has three of the top eight ground ball pitchers in the league from last season. Unless they are confident in potential turnarounds from each player, their infield defense could lead to a lot of sleepless nights for these pitchers.

Of course, the Indians don’t have to enter the season with those players as starters. The Indians can choose to trade any of the three in order to upgrade their team elsewhere and find a stronger glove to tighten the infield defense. Kipnis and Chisenhall have been penciled in as the Indians’ future for the last couple years, so the Indians may be less likely to part with their prospects.

Cabrera, however, seems like the perfect trade candidate. He’s coming off the best season of his career, and his value will never be higher. On top of that, he’s the worst defender on the infield, and he plays the most crucial position. Trading Cabrera now allows the Indians to maximize their return, while grabbing a defensive upgrade at the most important defensive position on the infield.

The Indians will likely also look for an upgrade at first base, where Matt LaPorta has failed to produce after three seasons. Carlos Pena, Casey Kotchman and Derrek Lee all provide relatively cheap defensive help to a team in need of another strong glove in the infield.

The Indians have half of the equation right at this time. Acquiring extreme ground ball pitchers can be a big advantage to teams well-equipped in the infield. The Indians don’t have all the pieces quite yet, but capitalizing on Cabrera’s value and signing a glove-first player at first base could go a long way to making the Indians a contender in 2012.