Indians' lineup gives glimpse into future

Indians' lineup gives glimpse into future

CLEVELAND -- The Indians won't quite be whole again. Grady Sizemore's season-ending knee surgery ensures as much.

But when the Tribe begins a seven-game homestand against the Rays and Yankees on Friday night, the construction of the lineup will be as close to completion as it's going to get in this rebuilding season.

Shin-Soo Choo is expected to be activated off the disabled list, having rehabbed his sprained right thumb at Double-A Akron this week. Asdrubal Cabrera, two months removed from a fractured right forearm, returned earlier in the week.

With their Nos. 2 and 3 hitters (at least, that's how manager Manny Acta is anticipated to use Cabrera and Choo, moving forward) in tow, the Indians hope to stage the kind of offensive consistency that was expected of them throughout 2010.

"Most importantly, it's going to give us a chance to compete with those powerful teams from the East that we're going to be playing right now," Acta said. "That's the first thing you look at. But of course, before the year is over, we want to take a look at what the future might hold with eight or nine of those guys out there on a regular basis."

Of course, this isn't the first time Choo and Cabrera have been in the same lineup this season. And even when the Indians had both them and Sizemore around for the first six weeks of the season, the offense was a major disappointment.

But there's one major difference between the lineup the Indians are using now and the one sent out there during the season's first two months, and that difference is rookie catcher Carlos Santana. And he could benefit more from the presence of Cabrera and Choo than anybody.

Santana has had an immediate impact on the lineup since his June 11 promotion to the bigs from Triple-A Columbus. He's carrying a .978 OPS into the weekend, has belted six homers and swatted 13 doubles in 117 at-bats and has drawn 32 walks against 23 strikeouts.

Lately, though, Santana has had to rely more frequently on his patience at the plate than his violent swing, because opposing pitchers have done their homework on him.

"Teams are realizing this guy is legit," Acta said. "Pitchers have been more careful against him. Now, he's going to have to make adjustments."

Santana has seen his productivity take a hit in recent weeks. He's 13-for-59 (.220) with four doubles, two homers and four RBIs in his last 18 games. But he's also drawn 19 walks in that span, which is encouraging.

"He doesn't chase very much," hitting coach Jon Nunnally said. "As long as he's getting on base at that pace and not chasing pitches, it doesn't matter what the [opponents' scouting] reports say."

Santana figures to move down to the cleanup spot with Cabrera and Choo back in the mix. With those two in front of him, he could see more opportunity to drive in runs.

Of course, what's behind Santana matters just as much as what's in front of him, when it comes to the rookie phenom getting pitches to hit. That's where designated hitter Travis Hafner comes in.

Hafner is nowhere near the player he was in 2006. Shoulder issues have evolved him into a line-drive hitter who is not the power threat he once was. But if Hafner can drive the ball from gap to gap, as he did in the first two games of this week's series in Minnesota, with consistency, that further supports Santana.

Over his last 21 games, Hafner is batting .254 with no homers and four RBIs. Acta has taken to benching Pronk against certain left-handed pitchers.

"We need to get him going," Acta said. "We try to put him in situations where he can have success. We need that bat behind Santana for the sake of our lineup."

Looking to the future, the Indians have another potential cornerstone bat in Matt LaPorta, who has hit .375 (24-for-64) with four homers and 12 RBIs in his last 18 games. If LaPorta ascends to the power-hitting level prescribed, the Indians could group him with Cabrera, Choo and Santana and have the makings of a dangerous middle pack.

Lower in the order, Acta has taken a liking to the hustle provided by outfielder Trevor Crowe and second baseman Jason Donald. Both have made notable strides at the Major League level this season. Crowe might ultimately profile as a fourth-outfielder type with speed and switch-hitting capabilities off the bench. The injuries to Sizemore and Choo, however, assured Crowe, who is 18-for-his-last-59, of more consistent playing time. Donald, who is batting .362 (21-for-58) over his last 17 games, is the regular at second base, now that Cabrera's back.

While the injuries no doubt hurt the Indians' lineup, they also afforded Acta and company the chance to see what Crowe, Donald and Michael Brantley have to contribute at this level. Brantley hasn't been much of a factor at the plate since his July 4 promotion from Columbus, as he's hit .167 (10-for-60) in 14 games. While the Indians want to groom him as a leadoff hitter, he could be a candidate for more grooming time at the Triple-A level.

Ultimately, though, the goal this season is to let youngsters like Brantley take their lumps at this level and learn and gain from the experience. The Tribe needs to know which young players can be counted on to build around Cabrera, Choo and Sizemore, who were only in the same lineup 28 times this season.

Now that Cabrera and Choo are back in the fold, the Indians can start to get a better look at the bigger picture and a better idea of what this lineup might look like at the outset of 2011, when the club hopes to make a more earnest effort to contend.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. He blogs about baseball at CastroTurf. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.