Cleveland Indians: A Look at the Six Position Battles To Take Place This Spring
Spring Training is here. Pitchers and catchers report to Goodyear today and position players will arrive by Saturday. The first full team workout will be Sunday the 20th and the first game is scheduled one week later against Cincinnati.
By my count, the Tribe already has 19 roster spots already filled. This leaves six spots up for grabs on the opening day roster. Over the course of this article, my intent is to go through the entire 25-man roster, taking extra time to highlight the position battles that will be playing out over the next six weeks.
Opening Day Starting Pitchers
It seems pretty clear that four of the five starters are set for the Indians' 2011 rotation.
RHP Fausto Carmona: After two years of struggling, Carmona had a big bounce-back year in 2010. For the first time in several years, he began showing flashes of the pitcher that finished fourth in Cy Young voting in 2007. Fausto made his first All-Star team and finished the season with a 13-14 record and 3.77 ERA. He still has a long way to go before he can truly be called an "ace," but at 27 with three years left on a very team-friendly contract I'm willing to give him some time.
RHP Justin Masterson: Masterson survived an early season plagued by poor pitching and even worse run support and put together a respectable second half. He finished his first full season as a starter with a 6-13 record and 4.70 ERA in 29 starts. He may never be a no. 1 (or even a true no. 2), but he has the potential to be a solid middle of the rotation (or possibly end of the bullpen) pitcher.
RHP Carlos Carrasco: One of the key pieces of 2009's Cliff Lee trade with the Phillies, Carrasco did well during his September call-up last year. His 2-2 mark with a 3.83 ERA has earned him a spot in the opening day rotation. Like Masterson, Carrasco seems to project as a two or three starter in the long-term.
RHP Mitch Talbot: The PTBNL from the Kelly Shoppach deal exceeded my expectations last season. He isn't going to wow anyone with his numbers, but Talbot it the kind of guy you love to have at the back end of your rotation (or as a long man). He's a guy who will give you six innings almost every start. The Tribe will rely on him to improve on his 10-13 4.41 from last season.
Position Battle No. 1: Fifth Starter
RHP Kevin Millwood: For the better part of a month, the Indians have been flirting with free agent SP Kevin Millwood. The two sides are said to still be $2M apart in negotiations. Kevin had one of the best years of his career in 2005 and was solid in four seasons with the Rangers. His struggles last season in Baltimore have significantly dropped his value. If the Yankees don't make an offer, I suspect that he will end up in Cleveland. Millwood is a guy who eats up innings and should provide the bullpen a rest once every five days.
RHP Jeremy Bonderman: The former Tiger has spent the majority of his career battling injuries and ineffectiveness. I really don't understand why Chris Antonetti has an interest in him (even if it is for a minor league deal). Like Millwood, Bonderman remains a free agent. I believe that the Indians have internal options that are more attractive than an agin and oft-injured Bonderman.
RHP Josh Tomlin: Should the Indians choose to stay with internal options, Tomlin looks like the favorite heading in to camp. The 26 year old went 6-4 with a 4.56 ERA, including seven shutout innings against the Yankees. He reminds me of Jake Westbrook in his early years and is probably the most most likely to have a successful season.
RHP Jeanmar Gomez: Gomez was the last of the three pitchers to get a late season callup in 2010. Over the final two months of the season Jeanmar posted a 4-5 4.68 mark. Gomez got off to a fast start before falling back to earth in his last few starts. He is three years younger than Tomlin and seems to have better stuff (as opposed to Tomlin's reliance on location).
LHP Aaron Laffey: Laffey has spent the last four seasons bouncing between the roation and bullpen of both the Indians and AAA Columbus. There are some who are concerned by the lack of lefties in the Tribe rotation, putting Laffey in the rotation solves that issue. He's currently pencilled in as the long reliever for the 2011 Indians. Should he make the rotation, the long relief spot will become available. Due to his past issues with arm fatugue, I don't see Laffey as a true option for the rotation.
LHP David Huff: He's a lefty, that's about all he has going for him. Great use of a first round pick. If Huff's 5.84 career ERA starts the season in the rotation, I'm done with this team.
What I would do: If he can be brought in for a good price, I'd give Kevin Millwood a shot. He can eat innings and serve as a solid veteran presence in the clubhouse. However, my gut tells me the Yankees will eventually offer Millwood the contract he wants. If that's the case, I would go with Tomlin as he's the more MLB-ready of the two young righties. Gomez could benefit from another year in AAA to develop as a pitcher.
What the Tribe will do: I think they will go with Tomlin. Millwood will prove to be too expensive and the organization seems to have cooled in its attitude toward Bonderman.
Opening Day Relief Pitchers
Most of the Tribe bullpen is well set. I think there are four pitchers that are locks and two that will have to play their way off the roster.
RHP Chris Perez: Perez is the Tribe's relief ace and is coming off of a career year in 2010. 23 saves and a 1.71 ERA in his first season as a closer is a pretty good sign of good things to come. I don't expect his ERA to be as low in 2011 as it was in 2010, but I do expect his save numbers to rise as he gains experience and the Indians improve.
LHP Rafael Perez: Raffy had a good bounce back year in 2010 after a disappointing 2008 and absolutely awful 2009. Many Acta is going to rely heavily on Rafael again this year as a dependable veteran presence in the 'pen.
RHP Jensen Lewis: After spending the better part of three seasons bouncing between Cleveland and AAA, Jensen Lewis seems to have found a permanent place in the Indian bullpen. He will likely serve as the primary right-handed setup man.
LHP Aaron Laffey: Laffey has been solid in every role the Indians have asked him to assume. He seems to have found his niche as a long reliever and spot starter. He has an outside shot at a spot in the rotation, but given his issues with arm fatigue I don't see him as a starter in the long term.
RHP Joe Smith: Smith has been a serviceable reliever when not sidelined by injuries, but hasn't been anything special. What you see is what you get with Joe. When healthy, he will put up an ERA in the neighborhood of 3.50 and strike out slightly less than one batter for every inning he pitches. He should make the team, but a bad spring might be all we see of Joe Smith with the Tribe.
LHP Tony Sipp: While coming through the system, Sipp was regarded as the best reliever the Tribe had and a future closer. An elbow injury and Tommy John surgery delayed his path to Cleveland. Over the past two seasons he has shown flashes of what made him a top relief prospect. However, lack of consistence has proven to be an issue. It's his job to lose and the benefits of having a second matchup lefty in the bullpen are too good to pass up.
Position Battle No. 2: Seventh Reliever
RHP Jess Todd: The PTBNL in the trade that also saw Chris Perez come to Cleveland has been untouchable over his entire minor league career. However, he has been knocked around in his few major league appearances to date. Of the pitchers with ML experience, he has the most upside by a wide margin.
RHP Frank Hermann: At 25, Hermann got his first major league opportunity last season. Though he was solid, he certainly wasn't spectacular. With a handful of good young arms coming up behind him, this spring may be his last chance to make it with the Indians.
RHP Justin Germano: Even though he isn't on the 40-man roster, Germano will be in camp on a minor league contract with a non-roster invite. Though older than Hermann, he also has more major league experience.
RHP Josh Judy: Like Todd, Judy has spent most of his minor league career dominating opposing hitters. He had an outstanding 2010 at AAA and many think he's ready to make the next step.
???: Every year on every team there are relievers who come out of nowhere to win a roster spot out of camp. They may not stick for the whole season, but they will be there for the opening day festivities.
What I would do: Give Todd or Judy a chance. Hermann and Germano don't seem to be in the organization's long term plans. The seventh reliever is a revolving door even on the best teams. Both Todd and Judy will see time with the big club this year and neither have much left to prove at AAA.
What the Tribe will do: Go with Hermann or Germano. They are going to probably let Todd and Judy get more seasoning before bringing them up midseason.
Opening Day Catcher & Designated Hitter
C: Carlos Santana: This is probably the most obvious pick on the entire 25-man roster. Santana is the franchise player for the foreseeable future. In his first 43 MLB games, Santana posted a .868 OPS with 6 HR and 22 RBI. The Tribe has had very good luck with young catchers over the last two decades. Sandy Alomar and Victor Martinez were studs, Santana is looking like another and even Einar Diaz was an above average catcher while in a Tribe uniform.
DH: Travis Hafner: Unless he finds his power stroke and/or the Indians agree to pay a significant portion of his salary, Pronk and his salary are not desirable to other teams. Thanks to his untradeable contract, Hafner will be the Tribe's DH for the foreseeable future. That being said we need to hope he continues to improve on his 2010 season. One thing is for certain, without the HR and RBI numbers, Hafner isn't worth his salary.
Position Battle No. 3: Backup Catcher
Lou Marson: Though only 24 with 109 major league games under his belt, Marson is already one of the best defensive catchers in the game. He is also one of the worst offensive players. In 87 games, Marson threw out 31 of 82 runners attempting to steal while hitting .195. The organization is counting on Marson to become either a backup catcher or trade bait. The question is: what will serve Marson's development better, backing up Carlos Santana in Cleveland or playing every day in Columbus.
Luke Carlin: If Marson is deemed better off in Columbus, Luke Carlin is the likely backup catcher. At 30, it's clear that Carlin won't be an everyday major league catcher at any point in his career. Like Marson, he isn't much of an offensive threat.
What I would do: Let Marson start this year in AAA and see if he improve with a bat in his hand. Having a catcher with nine years of experience (albeit in the minors) would be a good thing with a pitching staff as young as the Tribe will have.
What the Tribe will do: It seems like Marson has the momentum heading to Goodyear. If he can show the organization that he can handle the bat better than last season, I think he'll win the job.
Opening Day Infielders
1B Matt LaPorta: This is looking like the make or break year for Matt LaPorta. Nick Weglarz and Jared Goedert will be putting pressure on him from AAA all year long. Due to his position as the centerpiece of the CC Sabathia deal, LaPorta will be given more chances to fail than most. However, if LaPorta's offensive and defensive struggles continue, and Weglarz or Goedert have great years in Columbus the Indians may have their hand forced.
2B Orlando Cabrera: Orlando was brought in as a defensive specialist and to provide a veteran presence amongst the plethora of infielders in the upper levels of the Indian system. He may not be with the team all season, but I expect him to have a positive influence on the organization in the long run.
SS Asdrubal Cabrera: Cabrera had a tough 2010 dealing with injuries and playing below expectations both offensively and defensively. With the signing of Orlando Cabrera, there was some talk of moving Asdrubal back to his more natural 2B and starting Orlando at SS. However, with the depth that the Tribe has a 2B and lack thereof at SS it seems that the wise choice is to keep Asdrubal patrolling his hero Omar Vizquel's old stomping ground.
Position Battles No. 4 & 5: Third Base and Utility Infielder
Jayson Nix: Jayson was part of the ill-fated three headed monster at 3B after the trade of Jhonny Peralta. He didn't hit for a very good average (.234) and played absolutely miserable defense, but Nix did provide decent pop hitting 13 HRs in only 72 games with the Tribe. Given a full time schedule, Nix could make a run at a 30 HR 90 RBI season.
Jason Donald: Projected as a utility man in the long run, Donald saw a lot of playing time at 2B last season, but also saw time at SS and 3B. He showed some offensive skills and is solid defensively at 2B and 3B (he could use more reps at SS).
Luis Valbuena: In 2009 Valbuena looked a potential long term option at 2B. Poor play both at the plate and in the field seems to have silenced talk from many. He should probably start this season at AAA.
Adam Everett: Everette was brought in on a minor league contract with a non-roster invite to spring training. He seemed to have a decent chance at one of the three spot that were open in the infield. Now that Orlando Cabrera was signed and one of those infield spots has been filled, I'm significantly less optimistic about his chances.
Cord Phelps: Phelps lit up AAA last season and would be the clear cut 2B of the future if not for an even brighter prospect (Jason Kipnis) who arrived in Columbus for last season's playoff run. Phelps may not have a chance to start at the major league level if he doesn't make it this season.
Jared Goedert: Goedert is in a very similar situation to Phelps. He had a career year in 2010, but has Lonnie Chisenhall (the Tribe's no. 1 prospect) already biting at his heels.
What I would do: I would give either Phelps or Donald the starting job at 3B and give the other significant playing time at AAA (Phelps as a DH/2B/3B or Donald as the every day SS). Goedert would move from 3B to 1B to make room for Chisenhall. I would start the season with Nix on the bench based on his versatility and the pop in his bat.
What the Tribe will do: Phelps was the early leader to win the 3B job this offseason with Donald getting the nod at 2B. With the signing of Orlando Cabrera, its clear that one of the two will be left out. My guess is that Donald will start the season at 3B and Nix will be on the roster as the utility infiedler.
Opening Day Outfielders
RF Shin-Soo Choo: Choo was the MVP of the Tribe in 2010 and will likely be again in 2011. He has become one of the best outfielders in the game. Not bad for a guy who we only had to give up Ben Broussard to acquire.
CF Grady Sizemore: The success or failure of the 2011 Indians will be largely based on Grady Sizemore's ability to recover from microfracture surgery and come close to the all-star form he displayed several years ago. If he does, he will either help the Tribe win games or end up being traded by the end of the year. If he struggles, I doubt the Indians will pick up his $8.5M option for 2012.
LF Michael Brantley: The other part of the Sabathia deal, Brantley is looking like the best player the Indians got. He struggled in his first major league stint of 2010, but a visit to Columbus helped him regain his focus and swing.
Fourth OF Austin Kearns: Kearns was outstanding in the role early in 2010 but saw his numbers fall off once he was placed in the everyday lineup. With his ability to play all three OF positions and his steady (if not spectacular) bat, Kearns should see plenty of playing time (especially against lefties). Hopefully he can repeat his April and May of 2010 for all of 2011.
Position Battle No. 6: The 25th Roster Spot
As of right now, I have 12 pitchers and 12 position players on the 25-man roster. Like the final spot in the bullpen, the final spot on the bench is usually a revolving door, even on the best teams. All of the players on earlier slides that I didn't project to make the roster will be considered for the final spot as well.
1B/LF Shelley Duncan: Duncan showed some decent pop in his bat over the second half of 2010. He could serve as a valuable bat off the bench as a PH and backup to Matt LaPorta at 1B.
OF Trevor Crowe: Crowe would provide the Tribe's bench with a legitimate threat on the basepath. Though not Brantley or Sizemore, Crowe has the speed to make plays while on the basepath.
1B/OF Jordan Brown: While the starting lineup is heavy on left-handed bats, the bench currently has none. Putting Brown on the opening day roster would change that. Like some of the relievers, this spring is likely Brown's final chance at making the Tribe's 25-man roster. There are too many players in Columbus who will pass him on the organizational depth chart by next spring (maybe even this July).
What I would do: I would go with Shelley Duncan. A fifth OF and second experience 1B is the best way to use spot in my opinion. Having a guy on the bench who is a threat to knock the ball out of the park every time he swings the bat can get in the head of opposing relievers. I think he earned a shot to start 2011 with the big club after the way he finished 2010.
What the Tribe will do: My money is on Trevor Crowe to earn the final roster spot in camp. Having an extra base stealer on the bench is something that would be beneficial with Manny Acta's style of baseball. If Donald wins the 3B job, I wouldn't be surprised if Jared Goedert gets the final roster spot to backup LaPorta and split time with Jason Donald.
My Starting Lineup and Rotation
LF Michael Brantley
SS Asdrubal Cabrera
RF Shin-Soo Choo
C Carlos Santana
DH Travis Hafner
1B Matt LaPorta
CF Grady Sizemore
3B Jason Donald
2B Orlando Cabrera
Josh Tomlin/Kevin Millwood