The Doctor is in and the Kids are All Right
Bob Toth | On 22, Mar 2016
There were plenty of questions surrounding the Cleveland Indians this offseason and how they would construct the best possible roster for 2016. With less than two weeks to go until the Tribe takes Progressive Field by storm on April 4, some of those quandaries are starting to resolve themselves.
The most pressing concern has been the state of the Indians outfield and the most worrisome of the problems may have worked itself out.
The Doctor is in.
Michael Brantley’s earlier-than-expected return to the playing field on Saturday gives some hope to Indians fans that the outfield will not be the troubled, uncertain, and unmitigated disaster that it seemed to be this time just one month ago, when it looked as though the club was going to be down both its starting left fielder in Brantley and its starting center fielder in the suspended Abraham Almonte.
The Tribe has some choices to make still regarding how the outfield depth and starters will be decided, but after Brantley took the field in an official Cactus League game over the weekend, some of those fears may have subsided some.
Through Monday night, the Indians’ All-Star and former MVP contender had made a pair of appearances, highlighted by his 1-for-3 performance on Saturday in his first game back. He capped off the festivities with an outfield assist from left but, much more notably, had a Brantley-esque home run swing that scored two runs off of four-year MLB veteran Justin Grimm in a win over the Chicago Cubs. He was 0-for-2 with a walk in Monday’s win over the southside White Sox.
How might the doctor’s return to the diamond have been described?
Some might call it smooth.
The next two weeks will be telling for the Tribe, who desperately could benefit from Brantley’s bat in the lineup from day one of the season, but few would question the organization if he takes a more cautious return and spends the first couple of weeks on the disabled list easing back from his offseason shoulder surgery.
As for the hole in center field and on the bench …well… those answers haven’t come so readily.
Tyler Naquin has been the runaway leader in the spring clubhouse, hitting .400 in 14 games with a team-high 14 hits, including a pair of doubles and three triples. Concerns about his ability to consistently hit Major League pitching have quieted some, but there is some question as to whether or not the Indians would give the 24-year-old outfield prospect and former first round draft pick in 2012 a starting spot on the club, even after the good numbers in camp. He has next to no experience in either corner spot, so he would make a questionable bench option at best, and the team would likely prefer him to see frequent at bats as opposed to being a fourth or fifth outfielder on the club if not in the starting role.
Other candidates for the jobs have not pressed for spots either, compounding the problem.
Shane Robinson leads the veteran camp options with a .286 average in 16 games. Two of his six hits are doubles and he has drawn four walks to go with a pair of steals. Joey Butler is hitting .241, but leads all outfielders with two homers and seven RBI (tied for fifth-best on the team). Collin Cowgill has matched Naquin’s 35 spring at bats, but has just three hits (two doubles and a homer) while hitting .086. Robbie Grossman leads the team with six walks, but is hitting just .235 in an extended look of his own. Late offseason addition Will Venable has seen eleven games of action, but he too is well below the Mendoza line with a .154 average, four singles, and two RBI.
Two of the guys expected to easily claim jobs in camp, Rajai Davis and Lonnie Chisenhall, have both had bad springs at the plate. Davis is hitting .188 with five singles, a double, and a stolen base with eight strikeouts. Chisenhall has been limited to just eight games and has slumped out of the gate, hitting .048 (1-for-21) while dealing with right forearm tightness. It may or may not have factored into the Indians adding free agent Marlon Byrd on a minor league deal last week as a possible platoon mate in right field. Despite the late start, Byrd has logged two games of work, getting two doubles in five ABs so far.
Raise your hand if you had Giovanny Urshela as the early leader in the clubhouse in both home runs (5) and RBI (12). He entered Tuesday’s off day as the number two homer guy in the MLB this spring (trailing only the seven of Philadelphia’s Maikel Franco). The Indians added Juan Uribe to man the hot corner in order to get Urshela more seasoning at the plate in the minors, but the 24-year-old out of Colombia is doing all that he can to keep his name fresh in his coaches’ heads. Uribe’s visa issues have only helped his cause as he has benefited from and impressed during the additional playing time. His arm and glove work got him to the Majors; his bat will be what ultimately keeps him there or keeps him in limbo. He’s hitting .314 through 35 spring at bats, but still seems destined to start the season with the Columbus Clippers.
Throwing it over to the bullpen, the battle for relievers has been one of the other more intriguing competitions in camp for Cleveland. A few guys have bowed out of the brawl, including young arms Shawn Armstrong and Giovanni Soto, who have both been optioned to Triple-A Columbus. Lefty T.J. House, who was a long shot fifth starter/long man option, has also been relocated to the Columbus club.
Four guys were thought to be locked in to spots in the bullpen, including Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Zach McAllister, and Jeff Manship. Shaw and Manship have not provided pleasant numbers and McAllister has only made three Cactus League appearances while dealing with the flu.
Austin Adams is tops among relievers in camp with eight strikeouts, matched by left-handed veterans Ross Detwiler (0-0, 4.50 ERA, 1.17 WHIP in six outings) and Joe Thatcher (0-0, 1.35 ERA, 0.75 WHIP in seven games). Returning young southpaw Kyle Crockett has struck out seven and walked two while giving up two earned runs on seven hits over seven innings. Right-hander Joba Chamberlain also crowds the list with six hits and four walks allowed in seven innings while striking out six. Dan Otero has vultured two wins in eight outings, but has given up ten hits in eight innings and a .323 batting average against. The third veteran lefty option, Tom Gorzelanny, has given up seven hits and two walks in seven innings. Jarrett Grube, after a strong second half for Columbus in 2015, is unscored upon in six and two-thirds, giving up just five hits while striking out four, but has just two-thirds of an inning of MLB work under his belt. Control may spell the end of Felipe Paulino’s camp, as he has allowed eight hits and eight walks in six and two-thirds, despite seven Ks.
This list does not factor in Craig Stammen and Tommy Hunter, who have yet to appear in the spring but are thought to be strong relief options for the Indians at some point over the course of the year.
Also factoring into the mix in the bullpen could be Josh Tomlin, who is in a head-to-head matchup with Cody Anderson for the fifth spot in the rotation. Tomlin has seen long man work in his past and the four off days the Indians have in April may allow them to run with a lighter rotation at times. Both men are at the top of the board in runs allowed, while Tomlin has given up nearly twice as many hits as Anderson with his club-high 21 in 11 1/3 innings.
Spring results are tricky, as each player does not necessarily face the same caliber of opponent when taking the field. There will be cuts and some of the names removed will resurface over the course of the six-month, 162-game schedule that the Indians are about to embark upon. Strong early showings from some of the younger and inexperienced players in camp, most notably Naquin and Urshela, bode well for the future of the club. How much they contribute in the early going, if at all, is the much bigger question moving forward.
Terry Francona and his staff will have some tough decisions to make, especially in the outfield, bullpen, and for the final spot in the starting rotation. Hopefully when the opportunity comes for those spring roster casualties to return, each will be able to step up and contribute. No team goes through the full schedule unscathed and the Indians roster will need all the help and assistance it can get.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer