Coming down the stretch
We have hit the Indians’ first team off-day of Spring Training. It is March 12, and three weeks remain until Cleveland opens its season on the road in Toronto. Much has transpired over the past month, and there is plenty that will happen before camp breaks.
As I sit here in Starbucks, my off-day story on Mark Reynolds filed, with some time to kill, it seems appropriate to tackle some thoughts on the Tribe’s spring thus far:
- You can take this for what it’s worth from a reporter’s perspective, and I know it sounds very cliché, but the buzz around the Indians has felt more real this spring than previous years. Maybe it’s all the new faces and great personalities added, and the fact that, when players look around the clubhouse or field, they see a team built to win. Whatever it is, there has been an energy and intensity that has been missing in recent springs.
- The only holes to be filled at this point are the fifth spot in the rotation, a few spots in the bullpen, and one or two bench jobs. Let’s go over each…
- Fifth rotation spot: Ask me, and I’d tell you right now that lefty Scott Kazmir (11 shutout innings between Cactus League and B games) looks like the favorite to land this job. Pitching prospect Trevor Bauer has also looked solid. I think Corey Kluber will open at Triple-A, and I think Carlos Carrasco could benefit from the same. Carrasco — coming off Tommy John — is seeking consistency, and the Tribe could better control his innings in the Minors to start the season. Daisuke Matsuzaka — his recent calf cramp aside — has looked decent enough, but not strong enough to seem like a favorite for the job. It’s really tough to say right now which way the Indians are leaning. And, hey, with three weeks left, there is plenty of time for someone to pitch their way in or out of the discussion.
- BULLPEN: For the sake of argument, let’s say closer Chris Perez is ready in time for Opening Day. If that’s the case, then it’ll be Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith and Rich Hill (out of options and now added to the roster) as potential locks. Righty Matt Albers, who is out of options and has a big fan in manager Terry Francona, seems like a virtual lock as well. That leaves two spots open, or three if Cleveland carries an extra reliever to help out for the first two weeks (13 straight games with no off-days). If there is an extra reliever, lefty David Huff (out of options) seems like a candidate to come north, considering he can log multiple innings. Others in the mix are righties Cody Allen, Matt Capps and Bryan Shaw, and lefties Nick Hagadone and Scott Barnes. Francona has raved about both Allen and Hagadone. Cleveland will need to make a decision about Capps on March 26. I could see a scenario (much like with Wheeler last season) where the Indians keep Capps in order to help maintain their bullpen depth at the onset of the season. Allen, Shaw, Hagadone and Barnes all have options, so there will be a tough conversation or two before the end of the spring. Now, if Perez isn’t ready for Opening Day, that frees up an extra spot for another one of these guys.
- BENCH: It sure seems like 42-year-old Jason Giambi has a spot on the Opening Day roster, barring injury. Given the versatility and positional flexibility with the starting nine, the Indians can afford to carry a part-time DH and pinch hitter on the bench. A guy like Ezequiel Carrera (out of options) would seem like a lock for a bench job given his speed, ability to play center and contract status. But the Indians already have three center fielders in the starting lineup, and a first baseman (Nick Swisher) who can man right field if needed. There is also ample speed in the lineup, and also a solid baserunner on the bench in Mike Aviles. That makes Carrera, while valuable as a fourth outfielder, a bit redundant in terms of tools. That makes carrying someone like Ryan Raburn (second, third, corner outfield) realistic. Cleveland might try to find a trade partner for a deal involving Carrera before the end of camp, because it’s highly unlikely he’d slip through waivers. This spring, Carrera has ben getting a lot of work in right field (arguably his weakest outfield spot) and he’s led the team with eight stolen bases, while batting just .192. Raburn has hit .440 with four homers and 11 RBIs, and Francona has raved about his short swing being the perfect type of approach for handling a bench role. The writing isn’t entirely on the wall, but you can already make out some of the letters.
- The Indians have a Rule 5 pick in camp in Chris McGuiness (first base, DH, corner outfield), but he has hit .120 — likely pressing while attempting to be impressing — and hasn’t played above Double-A. McGuiness will likely be offered back to Texas, though Cleveland might try to work out a trade to keep him. The Tribe clearly thinks highly of him.
- Yan Gomes skipped the World Baseball Classic to focus on competing for a bench job, and there is a scenario where Cleveland could carry him — over, say, Raburn — as a backup for catcher, first, third, DH and corner outfield. Francona has made it a point to note, though, that the Indians want to see if Gomes can develop into an everyday catcher in the big leagues. That being the case, it would seem to make more sense to have him playing every day at Triple-A rather than playing sporadically as a third-string catcher/utility player in the big leagues. Gomes has hit .381 with one homer, four doubles and six RBIs this spring. He’s also gone 4-for-8 vs. LHP.
- Most at-bats to this point in camp? Big Mike McDade, who was claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays over the winter. He’s been impressive at the plate (.400 with one homer and 10 RBIs), but he’s got a ticket waiting for him for Triple-A Columbus. He had limited exposure to Triple-A last season with Toronto, but raked in his brief stint with Las Vegas. If he builds off that, and his spring showing with the Indians, that could provide Cleveland with solid depth one rung down from the Majors.
- Predicted Opening Day roster as of today: Rotation — Masterson, Jimenez, Myers, McAllister, Kazmir; Bullpen — Pestano, Smith, Hill, Albers, Capps, Hagadone, Allen; Regulars — Swisher, Kipnis, Cabrera, Chisenhall, Santana, Reynolds, Brantley, Bourn, Stubbs; Bench — Marson, Aviles, Giambi, Raburn.
- NOTE: I left Perez off the OD roster prediction because it’s too early in his rehab process to know if he’ll be ready for the start of the season. So my prediction assumes a disabled list stint to begin the year. That could change as he gets deeper in his recovery program.