Cleveland Indians' Five Hottest Spring Training Questions
It's been a rather quiet offseason for the Cleveland Indians on a national scale, but that doesn't mean there haven't been rumblings about the Tribe since the end of October.
The hiring of Manny Acta and his coaching staff has energized the fan base in one way or another. With Cleveland's pitchers and catchers just days away from reporting to spring training in Goodyear, there are plenty of lingering questions after the offseason.
Before everyone is slated to officially arrive, here are the five most pressing questions that will hopefully be answered by Opening Day.
Acta-vision: How Will Manny Acta's Camp Differ from Those of the Past?
Obviously, there are a few core questions that come up when you hire a new manager including his philosophy, attitude, and personality.
If you've followed the Cleveland media circus since Acta's hiring, you should have a good idea about his attitude and personality. He's given us insight on his philosophies to the best of his ability, but in fairness to him and the team, he hasn't managed a single game yet.
The question pressing Tribe fans most right now is: How will they avoid the slow start to the season that's plagued them in recent years? Does it relate to their coaching staff's handling of spring training's rigors?
We may not find out, but I think everyone is interested in seeing Manny Acta and his staff getting to work. Acta has gone on record of saying he wants to win every game this season, including spring training. He obviously isn't going to disregard the norms of pulling starters from games after a few innings, but you can expect him to hold his players accountable.
Acta's desire to win every game says a lot about how he'll motivate the club, and handle the day-to-day happenings of his team. We can also expect that towards the back end of the schedule. Acta will kick his preparation into high gear, and try to get his club to play high-level baseball well before the season starts.
When summing everything up, you must realize this is the first year of the Acta era in Cleveland, and there's a lot of learning to be done. Expect this to be a learning process for everyone involved, especially with a young club that still has many roster spots to nail down. There are no personal favorites or relationships—practically, a clean slate. This could drastically change the outlook of the 25-man roster along with how well Acta does in his first year as the Tribe's skipper.
Left Field: Kearns, Brantley, Brown, or Crowe?
There is a Washington-like flavor with the addition of Manny Acta as manager.
Former National Austin Kearns is one of a few players that has been brought in by Tribe brass, probably with the blessing of Manny Acta. Despite the success of Michael Brantley during last year's September run, left field isn't quite nailed down yet.
As mentioned, Acta isn't handing out jobs and Brantley knows he hasn't proved enough to earn the job outright. He's got some work to do, and one of his challengers is newcomer Kearns who signed a minor league deal with the team this offseason.
They'll be joined by Trevor Crowe, and prospect Jordan Brown in the battle for left field, in addition to the fourth outfielder spot as well.
Many are expecting Brantley to eventually win the job, and ascend to the top of the lineup. However, there's reason to believe the Indians don't feel the same way at this point. The fact of the matter is that Brantley hasn't seen a lot of time at Triple-A due to injuries, and could return there for at least the start of the season.
If Brantley doesn't win the job, the early consensus is that Kearns will at least start the season in left. Jordan Brown can't be counted out because of his advanced bat, but questions surrounding his defense prevent him from receiving serious consideration.
Finally, there's Trevor Crowe who fits the mold of a fourth outfielder: He's fast, defensive-minded, and can play all three outfield positions. However, it still doesn't mean he's the odds-on favorite to win that spot.
The outfield battle isn't as cluttered as some other spots on the roster, but it's the one starting position up for grabs this spring.
Matt LaPorta's Opening Day Status?
Many Cleveland players underwent offseason surgery to fix cuts and bruises from the 162-game season, but only one player's surgery is expected to delay a timely return.
Matt LaPorta underwent surgery in October on his left hip and big toe. The injured toe came as the result of running into a wall at Fenway Park in the final game of the season, but it's the hip that will hold the first baseman back.
The idea is LaPorta's hip surgery might set him a few weeks behind the rest of his teammates. However, good news came recently when LaPorta was cleared to resume baseball-related activities.
His biggest issue will be conditioning. He'll need to catch up physically given he hasn't been able to do anything baseball related since mid-October. The bat speed may not be there, and he's probably not in the prime shape you want a player to be in when they report to spring training.
Luckily, LaPorta has plenty of time to catch up, and hasn't had any more setbacks to this point. Keep your fingers crossed that the young slugger will be able to start on Opening Day.
Starting Rotation: Who's Got the Leg Up?
Cleveland has three rotation spots penciled in for now: Jake Westbrook, Fausto Carmona, and Justin Masterson.
If those three spots are only in pencil, what will the other two be in?
Whatever they use to write the names in those two spots certainly won't be anything more permanent than a pencil.
As it stands, all of the following are in consideration for those spots: Carlos Carrasco, David Huff, Aaron Laffey, Yohan Pino, Hector Rondon, Jeremy Sowers, and Mitch Talbot.
Realistically, any one of those names—excluding Pino—could very well pitch their way into a spot on the team. That's how wide open the battle currently is.
Players like Sowers and Talbot have no options years left. Talbot also has a better case because he's a new addition to the club.
Others like Huff and Laffey have experience, and past successes to boast of when stating their cases.
Rondon and Carrasco each have the mystique of being heralded prospects with abilities people can't wait to see in action.
It really could come down to who performs best. Many favor Mitch Talbot because it's his last chance to impress Cleveland, and others like Aaron Laffey because of his past success at the major league level.
That leaves Cleveland's 2009 wins leader, David Huff, back in Columbus to start the year.
What these pitchers are really battling for is the first shot. If the Indians' rotation is in as much turmoil as some say, all seven of these guys could eventually get a shot at the rotation at some point this season. For that reason alone, I could realistically see Jeremy Sowers and Mitch Talbot both winning jobs because it may be their last shot.
Non-Roster Invites Cracking the Opening Day Roster?
Like every year, Mark Shapiro signs many players to minor league deals to compete for roster spots.
Out of these NRIs, veterans Mark Grudzielanek, Jason Grilli, Saul Rivera, and Jamey Wright stand out most.
Three of those names are all relievers battling for a bullpen spot, and one of them could very well earn a job. Realistically, all three could see the 25-man roster at some point, even if not by Opening Day.
The most likely to win a roster spot is IF Mark Grudzielanek, who's coming back after a year of recovering from an injury. Following his stint with Kansas City, he attempted comeback with Minnesota last year, but wasn't called up, eventually being released in August.
Now, he's reportedly healthy and ready to contend for a backup middle infield position for the Tribe. Cleveland is looking for someone who can backup both Asdrubal Cabrera and Luis Valbuena at shortstop and second base, respectively.
Grudzielanek's case is helped by the fact that the Indians would like to possibly spell Luis Valbuena against certain left-handed pitchers, and Grudzielanek fits the bill of a right-handed hitter who could do just that. He would also fill the role of a stable veteran presence along with backup catcher Mike Redmond which is something that the young ball club needs greatly.
Pitchers and Catchers Report Sunday
Officially, the Indians' pitchers and catchers report on Sunday, Feb. 21. Some players have already arrived early to their Arizona complex, including pitcher Jake Westbrook.
In addition to the five questions laid out here, another issue that needs to be cleared up is the status of Jake Westbrook's recovery from his 2008 Tommy John surgery.
Westbrook is one of the few proven commodities the young club will be counting on to prove his good health during spring training. Story lines will extend from Grady Sizemore's ability to return to form, Travis Hafner's shoulder strength, Fausto Carmona's mindset, and if young hitters Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera can take the next step.