Tribe’s Bench Bunch Could Use a Boost

When trying to imagine what the Cleveland Indians roster might look like for the coming season, there are the obvious question marks.

What will the rotation look like? Will the front office bolster the bullpen? Will Abraham Almonte and Lonnie Chisenhall really be the club’s starting center and right fielders for 2016?

The latter question plays a substantial role on what the Indians bench and depth will look like moving forward.

The team saw one of its more frequently used and fairly versatile veteran pieces leave the team when Mike Aviles filed his free agency papers following the World Series. Another bench option, Ryan Raburn, saw his $3 million option declined, only to have the Indians lose even more outfield depth with the shoulder surgery performed on Michael Brantley that will keep him out for a portion of the early season.

Michael Martinez, a 33-year-old utility guy with a handful of Major League opportunities over his career, spent the majority of last season at Triple-A Columbus before joining the Indians in September. He was outrighted off of the 40-man roster on Wednesday and was re-signed to a minor league deal with a Spring Training invite on Friday.

What remains on the 40-man roster leaves something to be desired in terms of quality depth. Four to five players, depending on the size of the bullpen, will occupy the bench spots and create DH opportunities for themselves or others.

Roberto Perez holds the title of backup catcher. Thrust into regular action with the injury to Yan Gomes during the first week of the season, he filled in as an adequate defensive contributor and added seven homers and 21 RBI in 70 games.

He has a job with the club unless they package him in a trade and replace him with a journeyman backup backstop.

Jose Ramirez could slot right into the role vacated by Aviles. He is not going to get much time behind Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor except to give both the rare day off needed. He has played third at times in two of his three MLB seasons, but it is statistically his worst fielding position of the three he has played. Some offseason work in the outfield may expand his chances some.

He provides the Indians with a switch hitter, speed off of the bench, and has been able to get the bunt down in years past, something that manager Terry Francona will undoubtedly continue to utilize heavily.

Chris Johnson is the most expensive of the bench options, but at $7.5 million is still an upgrade over the tandem of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, the men on the roster he replaced. He can play both corner infield spots, but he has been a below average defender at third his entire career. In addition to a large chunk of his errors coming at the hot corner, his range continually rates below league average.

He could provide the Indians with a reliable right-handed bat in the lineup, but the problem is that his numbers have been in decline over the past few seasons and there is little guarantee he can find the hitting production he had in 2013 when he finished second in the National League in hitting in his first season with Atlanta.

After those three, it starts to get a little blurry.

The Indians ended the season with Almonte and Chisenhall as the club’s regular center and right fielders. They could be the starters heading into the season, or one or both could find himself on the bench as a fourth outfielder type.

Almonte joined his fourth professional club in ten years when he was acquired at the trade deadline, the second time in as many years he was dealt on July 31st. The switch-hitter is just 26 but has seen minimal success at the MLB level over the last three seasons. His partial season with Cleveland was his best stretch of his career, but it remains just a two month sample size. He hit .264 with nine doubles, five triples, five homers, and 20 RBI in 51 games for the Indians as their regular center fielder. He came to Cleveland with 17 doubles, one triple, and five homers in his previous 115 career games, so maybe another change of scenery and a regular chance to play was just what Almonte needed.

The Indians and their fans have seen Chisenhall for parts of five seasons. He has spent just one of those seasons on the MLB roster for the whole year, but that season after an offensive breakout he fell hard back down to earth.

To compound matters, he played himself out of the third base job with so-so defensive efforts over the years and the roller coaster rides at the plate that saw his power dissipate for stretches of time while he had long bouts of ugly splits at the plate. He improved his hitting against lefties in 2014, batting exactly 100 points higher than his previous .194 career average against southpaws, but drifted back down to .241 last season. Making matters worse, he hit just .247 against righties, his second-lowest single-season output against them in his career.

Now, the team has to determine if the 51-game sample of him as an every day right fielder provided sufficient evidence that he can man the position on a regular basis or even as a part of a platoon. He looked impressive in his first professional journeys there, aiding his cause, but he does have an ugly projected arbitration figure attached to a 27-year-old former top prospect who has yet to figure it out consistently at the Major League level.

Jerry Sands is still around on the 40-man roster for the Tribe and contributed some at first base, left field, and right field, in addition to seeing time at DH. He hit .236 in 50 games, hitting five doubles, four homers, and driving in 19. He turned 28 at the end of September and, despite being drafted in 2008 in the 25th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers, joined his fifth MLB club when he signed with the Indians last December.

He has, somewhat surprisingly, gone his entire big league career without making an error, which may reflect more on his low range factors per game and per nine innings keeping him away from riskier and more frequent opportunities to make a mistake. The loss of Brantley could help Sands stick with the club out of Spring Training.

As they did with Sands last season and guys like Jeff Francoeur and Nyjer Morgan in 2014 and Raburn, Mark Reynolds, and Jason Giambi prior to the 2013 season, the club will keep their eyes open for minor league contract guys with Spring Training invites as potential buy-low options to supplement its roster.

It would seem though that many are hoping that the bench gets its upgrade through the acquisition of a bigger bat to the lineup that would push one of the current projected starters into a bench role. It could also come in the form of a fourth outfielder and platoon mate for the existing cast of characters via a cheap free agent signing or piece of a trade.

Photo: AP Photo/Frank Jansky

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