As documentarian Ken Burns noted, baseball is the one game in which the defense -- not the offense -- possesses the ball. With this in mind, MiLB.com continues its "Defensive Gems" series. Over the next seven weeks, we will feature a top prospect at each position who also happens to be an elite defender. In deciding which players to focus on, this reporter polled six scouting directors and relied on his own research. After identifying a keeper at catcher, we move to shortstop, where the D-backs' Didi Gregorius, the Astros' Jiovanni Mier and the Red Sox's Jose Iglesias were narrowly edged by the Indians' Francisco Lindor.
Those were the words that Indians farmhand Francisco Lindor heard often while growing up in Caguas, Puerto Rico.
What would you do?
Whether he was being coached up by his father or, just as likely, following around his brother at Villa Blanca ballfield, Lindor was always expected to respond.
"The most important thing they taught me was instincts," Lindor said. "My dad would always play this game with me when I was younger and we were sitting down watching a game, or we could be in the car and he would tell me about a play and he'd say, 'What would you do?' And I'd just tell him."
Despite his age (19 years), pedigree (eighth overall Draft slot in 2011) and potential (14th overall prospect ranking in 2013), Lindor looks back on those days like they were his best. Retreating further, to the very beginning: When he was 5, Lindor took up the game for good, following the older kids in his family from position to position -- with stops in center field and behind home plate -- until they all settled at shortstop.
"I remember it was two fields, one big and one little one. That's where I used to play, on the little field, and my brother and my cousin used to play on the big field," added Lindor, who practiced there every day and played as many as three or four games a week. "The infield was dirt and the outfield was grass and the fans, I loved the fans. To me, that was where everything started, Villa Blanca. Besides the front of the house, that was where baseball was born for me."
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From Caguas to Cleveland, with a stop at a Florida high school in between, Lindor was seen initially as a plus defender. Scouts, both in and out of the Tribe's front office, took note of those instincts to play the infield's most arduous position -- and play it well. So the conditional query became: What would you do ... to improve, Francisco?
After signing in August of his Draft year and around the time of his quick five-game stint at short-season Mahoning Valley, Lindor started forming an answer with the help of a former Indians shortstop/third baseman. Travis Fryman, now a special assistant in the organization, shared the basics of turning a ground ball into an out.
- Before the pitch is thrown, keep your feet moving.
- After the ball is struck, work your way toward it.
- When the ball nears, field it in the middle of a set stance.
"Then bring it back to my core," Lindor finishes, "and the rest is history.
"[Fryman] hasn't really changed me. Not moving my glove too much, bringing the ball back to my core. Nothing major, one or two tweaks. He's got this quote he likes to say, 'Little things take care of themselves over the course of a long season.'"
Over the course of Lindor's first full season in 2012, a 122-game campaign at Class A Lake County, he was charged with 18 errors. His .968 fielding percentage was good for third among Midwest Leaguers with at least 100 games at short.
Those who watched his year with the Captains pointed to three areas needing improvement. Each seems achievable through experience.
- Positioning himself for hitters and per situations.
- Timing his internal clock for throws to first base.
- Making the routine as well as difficult plays.
"I feel I'm good at it, but I definitely have some work to do," Lindor said of his development. "Even, God willing, I play in the bigs for a long time and bring the Indians a lot of championships -- help the Indians to a lot of championships -- I'm still going to be learning then. I'm going to learn every day, every time I step onto the field."
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Now a new question: What makes a good shortstop or, rather, what makes Lindor a potentially exceptional one? Pointed out most often is his range, but many solid infielders have that tool. What separates Lindor right away, it will be said, is his right arm.
"What impressed me were a few plays he made going from his left up the middle and being able to throw back across his body," said David Wallace, Lindor's manager at Mahoning Valley in 2011, at Lake County in 2012 and, very likely, at Class A Advanced Carolina this spring. "I think that shows his special arm strength. He can make any throw and throw from all different angles."
Ask Lindor about his right shoulder and the 175-pound teen credits his work ethic.
"That comes from a lot of throwing," he said. And he might be right. In the two years Lindor has teamed with Wallace, he's drawn his skipper's ire once: When, before a game one day last season, Lindor couldn't find Wallace or another coach to hit him extra ground balls, he convinced the Captains trainer to grab a bat.
"Francisco, I like to say, was born to play shortstop," Wallace said. "Comparisons are tough, but it came up a couple times throughout the summer: He is a little Robinson Cano-ish. I hate to compare [Yankees second baseman] Robinson Cano to an A-ball kid just because of what Robinson Cano is, but just how natural they both are out there defensively. They both look comfortable and confident."
Sort of like they know exactly what they would do with the ball.