Another bomb, Shell

I’m a sucker for a feelgood story. I mean, it’s my job to tell stories, so why wouldn’t I gravitate towards the tales that tell of people overcoming great odds to achieve success. This is one reason why I’m a fan of Cleveland’s Shelley Duncan.

If Duncan earned a spot on the Opening Day roster as the Tribe’s left fielder this spring, it would mean he found a way to shake off a label that was stamped on him long ago. Once a ballplayer is dubbed a utility man, or a good guy for the clubhouse and a fit for his specific role, it can be a tall task for them to convince the decision makers to roll the dice on them as an everyday option.

On the final day of last season, here is what Duncan had to say about the topic.

“I personally think,” Duncan said, “that it takes someone in charge to put their neck on the line to put someone above what everyone has labeled them. If you put your neck on the line, you become accountable for the success or failure of that person. That takes a lot of guts.

“The easy thing to do is just do what everybody else has labeled a person. It takes a lot of courage for someone to really believe in a player and push for that person.”

Duncan is hoping manager Manny Acta and GM Chris Antonetti are willing to put their neck on the line at the start of this important season for the Indians. Fans have been in an uproar about the team’s need for a right-handed power bat and Duncan is trying to prove that he might be a solution to the overabundance of lefties in the lineup.

In Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the Royals, Duncan belted his second home run of the spring. Three games in, he has two blasts and six RBIs to show for it. Both were absolute bombs to deep left field. Yes, I know, SAMPLE SIZE ALERT, but it could be a sign that Duncan is picking up where he left off last season.

“We know that he’s a bat that at any moment can pop one out,” Acta said. “He’s been valuable –very valuable — for us.”

Duncan has been valuable as a bench player who can serve as a backup for first base, left field and designated hitter. That is how he has been used over the past two years with the Indians, who like him in that role. In September, though, Duncan gave a glimpse of what he feels he can do in an everyday role.

Over 26 September games, he hit .265 with seven homers, 23 RBIs and a .943 OPS. Prior to that month’s showing, Duncan had hit .235 with 23 homers, 84 RBIs and a .724 OPS over 515 career at-bats, dating back to 2007. So, which is the real Duncan? Or, has the 32-year-old career bench player turned some kind of corner?

For those who know my history, you know I covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com from 2005-2010. In my last season in Toronto, the Blue Jays took a risk, rolled the dice, put their neck on the line for a player labeled as a career utility man. They did so based on 100 September at-bats in 2009.

In that final push in the ’09 season, Jose Bautista was thrown into the lineup on an everyday basis and he blossomed to the tune of a .280 average with 10 homers and 21 RBIs down the stretch. We all know what happened next. At 29 years old, Bautista’s name suddenly carried more weight when he launched 54 homers and drove in 124 runs in 2010.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not sitting here in Goodyear Ballpark, writing that I believe Duncan has the type of power potential that Bautista has. That said, I wasn’t sitting in the press box in Dunedin, Fla., in 2010 predicting an MVP-caliber season from Bautista, either. All I’m saying is sometimes all a player needs is an opportunity.

Before his mammoth September in 2009, Bautista averaged one homer per 25.85 at-bats for his career, or a pace of 19 homers in a 500 at-bat season. He then hit one per 10 at-bats in that 100 at-bat burst in ’09. Duncan, before September last year, averaged one bomb per 22.39 at-bats, or a pace of 22 over 500 at-bats. In September, he launched one per 11.86 at-bats, which is a 42-homer pace for 500 at-bats.

Do I think Duncan can hit 40 homers? I’m not going to claim that. What I do think is that Duncan could be a 25-plus homer threat for the Indians given everyday playing time. Maybe he’d hit in the .240-.260 range, but he would be doing so in the lower half of the lineup, and possibly providing right-handed power in exchange.

This spring, Duncan is out of options, so he’s a good bet to make the team when camp breaks one way or another. The only question is whether he will make the club as a bench player or as the starter in left field. Acta made it clear that the Indians will be running the other options out there more often this spring during the evaluation process.

“We already know what we’ve got in Shelley,” Acta said. “We’re going to see all the other guys that we don’t know and at the end of camp we’ll decide whether he’s going to be the guy, or somebody else. But we dont need to be running him out there every day just to try to win that job. We’ve seen him. We need to see the other guys and find out.”

Asked how much defense will factor into the equation — Duncan is not in the same category defensively as players like Aaron Cunningham or Ryan Spilborghs — Acta said, “We’re just going to have to see. You’ve seen him in the outfield, so we’re going to have to wait and see. We’ll take a look at the other guys.

“Ideally, you’d like to have a guy who could play both ends,” Acta continued, “but at the end of the day you have to configure your roster withthe best 25 guys. At times, you’re going to have to give up some defense in order to have some offense, too, because that’s been our issue here the last couple years.”

And, hey, in the end, no matter who wins the job it will be a good little story to tell. It seems like all of the outfield candidates in camp are either coming back from something or trying to overcome some kind of obstacle. Cunningham is coming off a down year. Spilborghs is healthy after an injury-marred season. Russ Canzler is trying to prove he can be more than just a good hitter in the Minor Leagues.

There are a lot of feelgood stories in camp this year.

Some notes from Tuesday…

  • Closer Chris Perez, who strained his left oblique on Feb. 23, resumed playing catch on Tuesday. He made 45 throws from a distance of 60 feet. His program will increase in 15-foot increments up to 120 on flat ground before advancing to a mound. There is still no timetable for return, so don’t put too much stock in CP’s March 15 prediction. If the 4-6 week timeframe is accurate, Perez could be back in game action anywhere from March 22 through Opening Day on April 5.
  • This is where I remind fans that the Opening Day roster is fun to talk about and predict and all of that, but it’s only that — the Opening Day roster. Things could change a few days or weeks into the season. You never know. If Perez isn’t ready by Opening Day — meaning, if he has to miss the first week to get back to full strenghth — it’s really not a big deal. Cleveland needs him for a whole season — not just April 5.
  • Other injury notes: lefty Raffy Perez has been dealing with soreness in his throwing shoulder, but he’s back to playing catch at 120 feet. He should be on a mound soon; likewise, righty Austin Adams has resume throwing after a should issue and could be back on the bump soon; Minor League righty Tyler Sturdevant also came down with a shoulder bug and has been shut down for a few days. Indians just wanted to take a conservative approach, especially since Adams and Sturdevant are in camp more for experience than anything else.
  • Center fielder Grady Sizemore, who underwent surgery on his lower back last week, check back in to Cleveland’s camp on Tuesday. Sizemore will continue his back and knee rehab in Arizona. He is expected to be out for at least two to three months.
  • Right-hander Kevin Slowey made his debut for the Tribe on Tuesday, giving up no runs in two innings against the Royals. Slowey scattered two hits, but limited the damage. He threw 37 pitches (23 strikes). He’s competing against Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff and Zach McAllister for the fifth spot.
  • Right-hander Chris Ray was roughed up a bit in one inning against the Royals on Tuesday. The reliever — vying for a spot in the bullpen — gave up two runs on two hits, including a home run to K.C.’s Irving Falu.
  •  Vinnie Pestano, who is the Tribe’s setup man by trade and the closer in the event Perez isn’t ready for Opening Day, logged one clean inning on Tuesday. So did bullpen candidates Jeremy Accardo and Nick Hagadone.
  • Acta joked that infielder Cristian Guzman “broke a record” by having two walks in the first four games of the spring. “It takes a month sometimes for him to get two walks,” Acta quipped. “His eyesight is good.” Acta added that he thinks too much is made of the fact that Guzman missed all of last season due to injury, noting that pitchers often do the same when they have Tommy John surgery.
  • As noted in the intro to today’s entry, the Indians aren’t planning on running Duncan out to the outfield every day early on this spring. Duncan served as the DH on Tuesday, while Cunningham (LF), Spilborghs (RF) and Ezequiel Carrera (CF) manned the outfield. Cunninghame went 1-for-3, Spilborghs 0-for-3 and Carrera 1-for-3.
  • Pitchers listed as available for Wednesday’s road game against the D-backs include David Huff, Hector Ambriz, Frank Herrmann and Joe Smith. The game will be on MLB Network at 3:05 p.m. ET and players from both teams will be mic’d up on the broadcast. Acta will be mic’d up as well.

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Photo of the Day

I might never spot Bigfoot, but I can claim to have seen Pronk wearing a glove.

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Make sure you’re reading Indians.com and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian). To see more of my Spring Training photos, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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