2/26/2013 6:56 P.M. ET
Tribe ready to run with newfound speed
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It looked like a routine chopper, the kind of play where fans soaking up the Arizona sun might take their eyes off the field, glance at the scoreboard and make a mental note about how many outs would now be in the books.
This was Drew Stubbs' chance to regain everyone's attention.
The baseball he sent bounding back up the middle was knocked down by Reds pitcher Curtis Partch, and the deflection disrupted the play just long enough to allow Stubbs to accelerate. By the time the relay throw reached first baseman Joey Votto, Stubbs was already beyond the bag with an unlikely infield single.
"That's what speed does for you," Indians center fielder Michael Bourn. "When you can do that, you never know what kind of inning that can start for our team."
That single from Stubbs came in the second inning of the Tribe's first game this spring.
Cleveland is counting on that type of speed being on display all season.
The favorite subject concerning the Tribe's sudden excess of fleet-footed runners is the volume of stolen bases that might be accumulated this season. Between Bourn, Stubbs and Jason Kipnis, the Indians have three players capable of stealing more than 30 bases apiece. It is a weapon that the Tribe hopes can help improve its offensive production.
As fast as his players are, Indians manager Terry Francona is quick to remind that speed plays a role beyond just swiping bags.
"I'm just as enthusiastic," Francona said, "or hopeful, that we'll go first-to-third, we'll push, we'll run some people into mistakes, as I am just about the number of stolen bases."
More than once this spring, Francona has referenced the Angels clubs from a handful of seasons ago that gained a strong reputation for taking extra bases.
"When you'd go into a series, you already had a headache," Francona said. "You knew when they hit it, the ball better end up where it's supposed to. Not only were they fast, they were aggressive and they were intelligent. If the outfielders got air under the ball, they really could run you into a lot of mistakes."
That is the brand of baseball Cleveland is hoping to play this season.
It will all begin at the top of the lineup with Bourn. Over the past five seasons, the swift center fielder has paced baseball with 257 stolen bases, but he also ranks second in that span in bunt hits (59) and infield singles (175). Only Erick Aybar (74) has piled up more bunt hits, and Ichiro Suzuki (242) leads the pack in infield hits.
Bourn had 42 stolen bases, 23 infield singles and seven bunt hits last year with the Braves.
The Indians signed him to a four-year, $48 million contract earlier this month.
"When he gets on and gets a single," Indians pitcher Brett Myers said, "it's going to be a double in a second. He's that fast."
There could be a kind of internal competition brewing, too.
The more Bourn reaches bases and the more he steals, the more teammates like Kipnis, Stubbs and Michael Brantley may want to keep up. Bourn has stolen 61 bases in a season twice in his career. Considering Kipnis and Stubbs combined for 61 thefts in 2012, they will have their work cut out for them.
"I want to run, and I want to run a lot," Kipnis said. "I want all of us. I want me, Stubbs and Brantley to try to keep pace with this guy for as long as we can."
Over the past three years, Stubbs -- acquired from the Reds in an offseason trade -- has stolen 100 bases, including a career-high 40 in 2011. Kipnis stole 31 last year in his first full season in the big leagues. Brantley, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and infielder Mike Aviles are also capable of 10-15 stolen bases apiece.
In fact, Cleveland's projected starting nine for the upcoming season combined for 132 stolen bases in 2012. If you include Aviles' 14 thefts from a year ago, the total spikes to 146 stolen bases. The Indians have topped 140 stolen bases as a team 25 times in franchise history, but have only done so nine times, dating back to 1920.
The Indians have only topped 150 stolen bases in a season three times (160 in 1996; 159 in '93; and 151 in 1982) since 1920.
If Bourn, Stubbs and Kipnis can each achieve at least 30 stolen bases this season, it would mark just the third time in team history that three players accomplished that feat in one year. Brett Butler, Joe Carter and Julio Franco turned the trick in 1987, and Ray Chapman, Braggo Roth and Tris Speaker did so back in 1917.
"We might have a friendly, healthy competition," Stubbs said. "I definitely think it works. It's not like you're trying to one-up the next guy, but shoot, every base you steal puts you a base closer to scoring. I think the more we can use that, I think it'll translate into runs."
Francona just wants his players to be smart about when to utilize this strength.
"The idea is to do it within the framework of playing the game correctly," Francona said. "There's some games where, even though you have speed on, it's not the right time to run."
Throughout Francona's managerial career, success rate is what has mattered most.
When Francona managed the Phillies from 1997-2000, Philadelphia ranked 17th in the Majors in stolen bases (416), but was fourth in the National League in success rate (71.5 percent). From 2004-11, when he managed the Red Sox, Boston ranked 22nd in baseball in stolen bases (676), but fourth in baseball in success rate (75.3 percent).
"If guys can run, I think it comes back to the percentage," Francona said. "That's more important than just stealing 60 bases. It's how many times are you safe? It's not just basestealing. It's going to be baserunning."
Of course, there is still another question still unanswered.
Who would win in a short race: Bourn or Stubbs?
"Well," said Bourn, who grinned wide, "it depends on what we've got on the line."