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Tribe Notes

Analysis: Examining the roster decisions the Indians will face to get ready for Opening Day

  • Reds-Indians-Spring-Baseball-4

    Indians manager Terry Francona talks to coaches prior to a spring training game against the Cincinnati Reds on Friday in Goodyear, Ariz.

    AP

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The Indians lost more players than they gained in the offseason, including long-tenured veterans Carlos Santana and Bryan Shaw.

That means there are spots to fill and roster decisions to make for Terry Francona, who looks to guide the Indians back to the postseason for the fourth time in his sixth year as manager.

Here’s a look at the job openings this spring and the candidates bidding to begin the season in the majors:

The rotation

The top three is set with two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer.

That leaves two spots to fill among right-handers Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger and left-hander Ryan Merritt. Danny Salazar is dealing with health issues again (right shoulder/rotator cuff) and is not expected to be ready by Opening Day.

Clevinger, 27, began last year at Triple-A Columbus but established himself as a big league pitcher when he joined the rotation in May and pretty much remained in it until the end of the season.

He went 12-6 with a 3.11 ERA in 27 games (21 starts) and proved he could be an effective starter in the majors, but command issues continued to plague him — 60 walks over 1212⁄3 innings.

Tomlin, a rugged veteran with more heart than ability, overcame extended struggles at the start of last season and remained in the rotation from beginning to end, posting a 10-9 record and 4.98 ERA in 26 starts.

You know what you’re going to get from Tomlin, one of Francona’s favorites. He’s not going to overpower anyone and doesn’t possess baffling stuff, but he throws strikes — had the lowest walks-per-nine-innings average in the majors last year.

Merritt, the 2016 ALCS hero, is out of minor league options, so he has to make the team or Cleveland risks losing him on waivers.

He made five appearances (four starts) for the Indians last year — 2-0 with a 1.74 ERA — and spent the majority of the season at the Triple-A level, where he went 10-5 with a 3.11 ERA in 27 games (21 starts).

Though Clevinger has a minor league option, he and Tomlin will most likely start the season in the rotation. My guess is that Merritt makes the team, too.

The bullpen

The Indians don’t want to lose a young lefty like Merritt, so he probably will secure a roster spot as a reliever.

That may cause Francona to go with an eight-man pen, rather than the seven pitchers he normally employs.

If Tito sticks to his routine and Merritt makes the team, there are no job openings, with six already set in closer Cody Allen, left-handers Andrew Miller and Tyler Olson and righties Dan Otero, Nick Goody and Zach McAllister.

If he goes with eight, veteran right-hander Carlos Torres comes into play. Torres, 35, signed a minor league contract this week after leading the majors in relief innings for Milwaukee the past two seasons.

He was impressive two years ago — 2.72 ERA in 72 appearances — but had a down season in 2017, posting a 4.21 ERA over 67 games. If Torres looks as though he has bounced back this spring, the Indians may have to find a spot for him, even if it is at Merritt’s expense.

After all, what’s more valuable, a proven big league reliever or a long man who is more suited for a starting role?

Veteran righty Alexi Ogando is also in camp on a minor league deal after spending last season in Korea, where he went 10-5 with a 3.93 ERA in 110 innings as a starter. But unless he absolutely wows Francona, he will likely provide depth in the minors, should he accept the assignment.

The position players

How many arms Francona keeps in the bullpen will likely affect how many utility infielders wind up on the roster. He has already hinted that Erik Gonzalez or Giovanny Urshela, not both, would make the team, but if there are only seven relievers, that could change. Both players are out of options.

Gonzalez, 26, makes more sense if it’s only one. He’s more versatile defensively and was the better offensive producer last year, batting .255 with four home runs and 11 RBIs in 60 games to Urshela’s .224, one homer and 14 RBIs over 67 games.

Despite multiple opportunities, Urshela, 26, has never proved he can handle big league pitching, and he hurt his stock last year with an uncharacteristically shoddy defensive performance in Game 4 of the ALDS loss to the Yankees.

Roster spots are already spoken for in first baseman Yonder Alonso, second baseman Jason Kipnis, shortstop Francisco Lindor, third baseman Jose Ramirez, designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, catchers Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez and outfielders Bradley Zimmer and Lonnie Chisenhall.

Michael Brantley, an All-Star last year, is not on that list because it’s uncertain whether he will be ready to start the season after undergoing right ankle surgery shortly after the end of 2017.

The Indians are not concerned with Brantley’s name being on the Opening Day lineup card, hoping they can keep him healthy by the end of the season — something he has been unable to do plenty of times.

Outfielder Brandon Guyer is definitely unavailable Day 1 after aggravating a left wrist injury that required offseason surgery.

That opens the door for a pair of veteran outfielders, 2016 World Series hero Rajai Davis and Melvin Upton Jr., who are in camp on minor league contracts.

Davis, 37, hit .235 with five homers, 20 RBIs and 29 stolen bases for Oakland and Boston last year, while Upton missed all of 2017 after sustaining a freak injury during extended spring training.

Francona has predicted big things from Upton this exhibition season and there wasn’t a more popular player in the clubhouse than Davis two seasons ago.

Tyler Naquin and Abe Almonte are long shots.

Naquin finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting tw o years ago, but his stock has fallen fast since his fielding gaffe in Game 6 of the 2016 World Series. He played only 19 games in the majors last year, batting .216 (8-for-37).

Almonte hit .233 with three homers and 14 RBIs in 69 games for Cleveland last year.

The decision

Francona would prefer seven relievers but likely makes an exception to keep Merritt in the organization and add Torres to bump it to eight. That way the bullpen still includes seven legitimate relievers and your first spot starter without making a roster addition.

The pitching staff would claim 13 spots, leaving 12 position players.

If that’s the case, Gonzalez makes it as the utility infielder, and Upton and Davis give the Indians four outfielders, with one of them starting in place of Brantley in left field.

If Brantley beats the odds and starts the season on time, Francona has to pick between an old friend who is responsible for one of the greatest postseason moments in Indians history or a player who didn’t play a game on the major league level last year.

That’s an easy choice.

Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or cassenheimer@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him @CAwesomeheimer on Twitter.



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