Indians looking to get things right in the lineup
Acta, Tribe hope to complement score of left-handed hitters
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- As the baseball soared off Russ Canzler's bat, rocketing deep to center field and bouncing more than halfway up the green batter's eye, it was easy to wonder if this might be the right-handed power hitter Cleveland so craves.
It was only an unofficial at-bat within an early Spring Training intrasquad game, but it was also quite a first impression. The mammoth blast was a grand slam for Canzler -- plucked from Tampa Bay's farm system over the offseason in a low-level trade -- and a glimpse of the type of power the Indians need.
"This is the first couple of times they've ever seen me play the game in person," Canzler said. "I want to make sure I get out there and show them what I'm capable of doing."
Canzler may or may not become a legitimate power threat on the big league stage, but he is at least a glimmer of hope for the Indians along those lines. Over the winter, much was made about the Tribe's need to add some right-handed pop to a lineup loaded with left-handed hitters, but the team did not reel in any big fish.
Instead the right-handed additions were such complementary outfielders as Canzler, Aaron Cunningham and Ryan Spilborghs. The three joined the likes of Shelley Duncan -- a player billed as best suited for a bench role -- and Matt LaPorta, who has fallen short of expectations since being acquired from the Brewers in the CC Sabathia trade in 2008.
As things stand, the Indians project to have at least six pure lefties in their batting order, with two switch-hitters beyond that. There is an opening in the outfield, and Cleveland could fill that hole with one of the right-handed options in the fold. Of course, there are also some more lefties in the mix, too.
Manager Manny Acta said the side of the plate a player hits from is not a priority.
"We're going to try to take the best 25," Acta said. "It'll be the best guy for the job. No one here is going to get a job because they hit from one side of the plate."
At the end of each spring, roster obligations factor into a team's decisions in the construction of an Opening Day squad. So it is worth noting that Duncan and Cunningham are out of options, meaning they would have to clear waivers before possibly being sent to the Minor Leagues.
Duncan hit .260 with 11 homers and 47 RBIs in 76 games for the Indians a year ago, but he enjoyed a strong finish after he earned the chance to play regularly. In September, all Duncan did was hit .265 with seven homers and 23 RBIs in 26 games, marking one of the best showings in the final month among his American League peers.
Throughout his career, Duncan has been labeled as a role player. He would love nothing more than to be given the chance to prove he can be a right-handed weapon in the starting lineup.
"I'd like that," Duncan said. "That's how I feel, but I'm not going to go screaming and hollering about it. I'm just going to go and try to prove it out there on the field."
Coming off a down season, Cunningham was traded to the Indians by the Padres on Dec. 16. He is considered a better defender than Duncan, but he hit just .178 with three homers and nine RBIs in 52 games last year. In 87 games with Triple-A Tucson, though, he hit .329 with nine homers and 63 RBIs.
Acta is interested in seeing how Cunningham fares once spring games begin.
"It's tough to tell just in batting practice," Acta said. "But you can see why a guy like Cunningham has been highly regarded in a couple of organizations and why we've been high on him in the past. He can backspin the ball pretty good."
Acta has not dubbed Duncan or Cunningham as favorites for any specific jobs, but they will certainly be given a close look this spring.
One thing that Acta reiterated was that the Indians are not going to name either player the starter in left field simply because he is left-handed. He was quick to point out that Cleveland actually hit better against left-handed pitching (.258 average) than right-handed pitching (.247) in 2011.
"The majority of the people that are complaining about it, they don't even know that we hit better against lefties last year, do they?" he said. "Do a better job of educating them so they can stop a little bit. We hit better against lefties last year.
"And throw out there those numbers about the home runs, how many home runs were hit in our ballpark and how we out-hit the competition in our ballpark from the left side."
Progressive Field is, indeed, better for lefty hitters.
Last season, the Indians' left-handed batters combined to belt 71 home runs at Progressive Field -- compared with 40 by lefties from other teams. Overall, left-handed hitters launched 111 homers and righties belted just 47 last season at Progressive Field. The Tribe managed only 18 homers from the right side at home last year.
There is still the fact, though, that the Indians ranked dead last in baseball, with only 41 home runs by right-handed hitters as a whole in 2011.
"I think our offense needs to get better -- period," Acta said. "People will pick and find stuff to try to address, but I don't think anybody would complain if we had nine [Albert] Pujolses that hit from the right side. Or if we had nine [Shin-Soo] Choos, no one would be saying we had too many lefties.
"The fact is, we need to stay healthy, and we need to have a better offense. That's it."
As for Canzler, he is trying to show that he can help.
The Indians landed Canzler in a trade with the Rays on Jan. 31, and the first thing he did was examine Cleveland's roster makeup. What he saw was a need for some right-handed help, even if it meant trying to make the team as a bench player. His best position is first base, but he can play left field, too.
Last year, Canzler hit .314 with 18 homers and 83 RBIs in 131 games for Triple-A Durham en route to winning the International League's Most Valuable Player Award. This spring, general manager Chris Antonetti said that Canzler would be given every chance to push for a spot with the Opening Day club.
"That was one thing that Chris stressed to me when I first got here -- how lefty dominant our lineup was and how they are looking for a right-handed bat," Canzler said. "My approach is trying to stay the same as it was last year. I had a good year last year, so I'm feeling confident coming in here."
A grand slam two days before Cactus League play begins did not hurt his confidence, either.
"It is just an intrasquad [game]," he said. "But any time you step on the field, you play hard and you want to make a good impression."