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Indians have defensive assets in infield

Indians have defensive assets in infield

Indians have defensive assets in infield
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- If putting together the Indians roster is like a puzzle, Jack Hannahan sees two pieces that fit together perfectly.

The Cleveland rotation is one that pitches to contact -- specifically ground balls. The Cleveland infield is ripe with defensive playmakers that cover plenty of ground.

"The front office definitely did its homework," said Hannahan, one of the league's better defensive third basemen. "If you're going to get a team full of sinkerballers, you need guys that are going to, when it's a ground ball, make the plays and get the outs."

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The offseason addition of righty Derek Lowe gives the Cleveland rotation a pitch-to-contact calling card. Like Lowe, Justin Masterson routinely induces ground balls with his sinker, while Josh Tomlin has consistently given his defense work, too, by limiting his strikeouts and walks. Of the pitchers in the rotation, only Ubaldo Jimenez could be termed a "strikeout guy."

Hannahan, who is competing for the third-base job with Lonnie Chisenhall, is just one piece in what figures to be a very solid infield defense behind those starting pitchers. Asdrubal Cabrera, who won the GIBBY (Greatness in Baseball Yearly) for best defensive player, and Jason Kipnis, who transitioned seamlessly to second base after Cleveland drafted him as a center fielder, anchor the middle of the infield.

But it's newcomer Casey Kotchman who could be the difference-maker for the Indians -- who as a team committed 12 errors at first base last season. In an eight-year career that includes more than 700 games at first base, Kotchman has only committed 11.

Kotchman's defensive philosophy is simple.

"If the other team doesn't score, you don't lose," Kotchman said. "You've got to help your pitchers, and if they're pitching to contact, then you've got to make sure your defense is tightened up."

That's exactly what the Indians did in the offseason by adding Kotchman. Should Hannahan win the third-base job, Cleveland will have one of the top defensive corner-infield pairings in the league.

Kotchman looked solid against the Brewers on Friday, making a sliding backhand stop on a third-inning grounder and tossing to the pitcher to beat the speedy Nyjer Morgan to the bag. Thus far, Kotchman has liked what he's seen, spending the spring getting accustomed to his new teammates.

"Everybody throws the ball a little different, so you're just learning the different trajectories and where the guys are throwing from," Kotchman said.

Indians manager Manny Acta said the improved infield is a direct result of the team's pitching staff, noting, "We're trying to build the infield around our sinkerballers."

Lowe, who struggled with control in his start Friday, may have benefited more than anyone from ground-ball outs in the past 15 years. He agreed with Acta's assessment that infield defense means a little bit more with a pitching staff like Cleveland's.

"They've so much to do with our success as a staff," Lowe said of the infielders behind him. "They've been saying for 100 years that if you can't pitch and you can't catch the ball, you're not going to win as a team. They're going to prevent a lot of runs from scoring."

Hannahan added that the age-old "pitching and defense" philosophy might be more true now than it was a few years back. He sees the game evolving away from the high-octane offenses of a decade ago.

"If you look at the teams that won the World Series the last four or five years, pitching and defense has been a big reason," said Hannahan, who went 0-for-3 Friday. "Being here in Cleveland with a team full of sinkerballers, when the ball is hit on the ground, you've got to get outs."

And this season, with Lowe, Masterson and Tomlin, it looks like the ball will be hit on the ground at Cleveland infielders as much as ever.

With that in mind, Kotchman says the starting staff has the perfect group of infielders backing it up.

"It would make sense then," he said, "to have guys that can catch the ball."

AJ Cassavell is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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