Over the last couple of years, the Cleveland Indians have done well in finding veteran free agents no one else wanted and watching them become diamonds in the rough, so to speak.
Dan Otero last year and Jeff Manship in 2015 were both free agent relievers the Tribe was able to bring to spring training on minor league contracts. Both had histories of past success but were trying to rejuvenate careers that had fallen off in the seasons before joining the Indians.
Both veteran relievers proved to be strong contributors to Cleveland’s bullpen. Manship spent two seasons with the Indians before being casualty of management deciding not to make him an arbitration offer this past winter. Part of the reason was the emergence last year of Otero, giving Cleveland a deep bullpen without Manship. Both hurlers were important parts of an Indians club that went to the 2016 World Series.
Otero is still around and for good reason. Last year’s surprise of the multitude of spring invites led the club with a 1.53 ERA. Along with closer Cody Allen, Andrew Miller and Bryan Shaw, Otero helps make the Tribe bullpen one of the best and deepest in baseball.
This spring, the Indians will be trying to pinpoint the next Otero. There are not a lot of open spots on a roster expected to contend for another AL Central Division crown and Fall Classic berth. However, there are a plethora of veterans on minor league deals looking to impress in Goodyear, Arizona, and land an Opening Day roster spot.
Thanks to the World Baseball Classic taking eleven players away from Cleveland’s training camp for a few weeks in March, the Tribe extended quite a few offers to players to join them for the Cactus League portion of the schedule with an opportunity to make the ball club. The Indians needed bodies in camp to replace those who will be performing for their national teams in the every-four-years event.
Cleveland is also looking to round out a championship-caliber roster. A quick count has 20 spots on the 25-man roster basically guaranteed. Last season’s rookie surprise Tyler Naquin is not a guarantee, but is a pretty sure bet to be back in a center field platoon this year, so that would make 21. If star left fielder Michael Brantley can do what he could not do last year and work his way back from 2015’s late-season shoulder injury, that is 22.
You are looking at three or four spots at the back of the roster that need to be filled. A utility man will need to be identified, as will at least one outfielder to serve in a center field platoon with Naquin. Two outfielders will be needed if Brantley is not ready to go. Then there is room for one or two more relievers in the ‘pen, depending on whether the Tribe goes with seven or eight in the relief corps.
If the Indians are going to find a diamond in the rough among their spring invites, it would likely be an outfielder and/or reliever. The utility infielder is going to come from an in-house candidate of players. Technically, Michael Martinez, one of three vying for a job as a backup infielder, is a minor league spring invite, but he was on the Tribe’s World Series roster so it is hard to call him an outsider like many of the other veterans hoping to resurrect careers.
With a healthy Brantley, only one outfield spot would be open. A leading candidate is Abraham Almonte. Almonte has been with the Indians since a trade with the Padres brought him to Cleveland in the middle of the 2015 campaign. He hit a bump in the road last spring when he tested positive for a banned substance. He was suspended for the first half of the 2016 season and, thus, was not eligible for the Tribe’s postseason roster. He has proven to be an adequate hitter in essentially two half seasons with Cleveland. He has above average speed and is decent in the field. He has a good shot to make the roster.
If either Almonte or Naquin have bad springs or Brantley is not quite ready that opens the door for a spring invitee. The Tribe has a pair of veteran outfielders in camp in Daniel Robertson and Austin Jackson. If Jackson is healthy from last year’s knee injury that wiped out the second half of his season, his skill-set (contact, speed) and postseason experience would be a welcomed addition to the Tribe. He could even beat out Almonte for the team’s fifth outfield spot. He would be a more-than-adequate replacement for Brantley in any sort of worst-case or bad scenarios for the All-Star outfielder.
Chris Colabello is another veteran with outfield experience who could crack the Tribe roster. He will be playing for Team Italy in the WBC, so he will not get a lot of time to impress his new ball club. All three vets will have a good shot to help the club this season, perhaps right out of the chute.
While this year’s diamond in the rough winner find could come from the outfield, that player could also come from the bullpen just as Manship and Otero did in the past several years. Left-hander James Russell, a seven-year veteran, could have factored more into the Opening Day bullpen, but the addition of Boone Logan could change that. Logan is now going to be that second southpaw after Miller that the team so coveted. Still, if Russell can get somewhere close to his 2014 form when he posted a 2.97 ERA in 66 outings, he could give manager Terry Francona a third lefty out of the pen.
Steve Delabar and Chris Narveson are two other veteran relievers who offer some intrigue. Narveson is another left-hander and has experience in his career both starting and relieving games. He started a pair of games at the Major League level as recently at 2015 for the Miami Marlins. He could be an option in mop up duty, long relief, or even as a spot starter where needed. His best season came in 2009, his second campaign, with the Brewers. He had a 3.83 ERA in 21 games. His work has been a bit mediocre overall, as he has 4.71 ERA in 118 career appearances.
Delabar, a righty, is looking to revive a career that has stalled out over the last couple years. From 2011 to 2013, he was an effective reliever for the Mariners and Blue Jays. He had a 3.22 ERA in 2013 (61 games). However, he has been in steady decline since. He bottomed out last year with a 6.75 ERA in just seven appearances with the Reds.
All three veterans would have to really open eyes to crack the Tribe’s bullpen radar. With six spots spoken for, they have a tougher task ahead of them than either Manship or Otero did the last couple of seasons. The Indians have quite a few in-house minor league options that they could turn to to round out their bullpen. Unless a veteran has a truly tremendous spring, that is the likely route. Cleveland beefed up on spring invites with the idea that the roster would be robbed of players during the WBC.
If there is going to be a winter steal to come out of this year’s veteran signings, the best guess is that it comes from the outfield. Jackson or Colabello could very well become integral parts of a Cleveland outfield that may be in flux all season, just as it was a year ago.
Otero and Manship both helped the Indians reach the World Series. Now management is looking to find a diamond in the rough to round out a roster with eyes on going one step further this year.
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