Returns of Rehabbing Indians Will Create Tough Roster Decisions

Lonnie Chisenhall started his rehab assignment with the Columbus Clippers on Friday night. Jason Kipnis is slated to begin his Sunday with the Akron RubberDucks.

While two regular starters prepare for their returns to the big league roster sometime this month, the moves have a significant trickle down effect on how manager Terry Francona constructs his 25-man roster for the Cleveland Indians.

The moves may be difficult, but it presents as a good problem to have for the Indians organization.

“If things stay like they are, somebody’s going to get sent down that doesn’t deserve it,” shared Francona before Friday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. “That’s probably a good problem to have for the organization. It’ll be a tough conversation.”

Chisenhall will be the first to return, barring the unexpected as he looks to make his way back from a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder. He has been the Indians’ regular right fielder for a season and a half and has contributed at some level to what has gone on at Progressive Field for parts of the last six seasons. While his role may be more of a platoon one than that of an every day player given his sporadic struggles against left-handed pitching, the Indians lineup would be presumed better with him on the roster somewhere.

The problem with Chisenhall returning is that it will force someone out of a job in Cleveland. He went 1-for-4 in his debut with the Clippers as Columbus lost to the Louisville Bats on Friday night.

The Indians outfield is already chalk full of candidates battling for playing time. If healthy, and there is no reason to expect otherwise through the first four games of the regular season, Michael Brantley will man left field with the exception of an occasional day off. Those days of rest are expected to be a little more frequent in the early going as he did not see much action in the spring and the Indians want to be careful not to push him too hard, too quickly, but Brantley will be on the field more often than he is not, with the exception of a turn for the worse with a new injury or an aggravation of his previous shoulder and biceps issues.

Center field is also plenty crowded, with Tyler Naquin expected to see the bulk of the work after a strong breakout season in 2016 that led to a third place finish in the American League’s Rookie of the Year voting. Veteran Austin Jackson posed an addition wrinkle to the logjam in the outfield when he made the roster out of Goodyear in a brief, but productive, camp while delayed some by his own return to shape after last season’s knee surgery. Switch-hitter Abraham Almonte put up good numbers during Cactus League play as well and already appeared to be the odd man out until Chisenhall’s injury bought Almonte a brief stay on the roster.

In right, Brandon Guyer‘s extension in the offseason showed a glimpse of what the Indians thought of their baseball magnet. He played a lot of left field last season and was expected to spend significant time platooning in right with Chisenhall, so he will be right there on the roster.

Almonte would look to be the odd man out, as he has one option year remaining. The 27-year-old has appeared in all four games for the Tribe thus far this season, but is hitting .167. He has helped his cause with a team-high four walks in that span to provide a .500 on-base percentage and has picked off one base. He slashed .352/.417/.593 in 21 games of Cactus League play with four doubles, three homers, and 12 RBI.

The solution for Kipnis’ return is a little less clear and may lead to some anger among the fan base of the Indians. Francona will be afforded a little more time to make that decision than his corresponding move on Chisenhall, as Kipnis is expected to require a little more time to get himself back up at full strength.

Kipnis will leave Arizona on Saturday and head to Akron to join the RubberDucks in time for their doubleheader on Sunday against Bowie. After a day at designated hitter, he would play second base on Monday and get a day off on Tuesday to see how things are progressing.

While initially it was thought that Kipnis’ injury would hold him out later into the month or even into the early stages of May, a return to the playing field this early could be an encouraging sign that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the former All-Star.

The Indians kept Yandy Diaz on the roster because of Kipnis’ injury, as they elected to keep Diaz and start him at third while moving Jose Ramirez over to second rather than to consider other replacements at second base for Kipnis. When Kipnis is back on the roster, Ramirez will need a position to play and that would presumably be back to the third base position he played well at during the second half of the 2016 season.

Diaz has the ability to play multiple positions, but with an outfield already overloaded with options, he would likely not see many opportunities in the grass. In the infield, he at best could spell Kipnis at second base or Ramirez at third, giving the latter a day off or allowing him to slide over to short to fill in for Francisco Lindor on a rare off day.

The decision could come down to Diaz or Michael Martinez. The upside with Diaz is far beyond the highest ceiling for the 34-year-old Martinez, who has yet to step into the batter’s box despite appearing in three games as a defensive replacement. The difference, however, may be the nine years that separate Diaz and Martinez. Martinez’s experience in the game may afford him the knowledge of how to keep himself fresh awaiting the occasional opportunity to play. Diaz, at his age and with the frequency of his playing time through his brief professional career, would not be as accustomed to sitting around waiting for his turn to grab a bat or glove. The organization could see it more beneficial for him to head back to Triple-A and grab steady ABs until he is needed again on the big league roster, just as they did with utility man Erik Gonzalez after an overall good performance on the spring stage.

Diaz did not hurt his fight for a spot on the Opening Day roster for the Indians with his impressive spring, supplying a .485/.544/.708 batting line over 20 games in camp with four doubles, one triple, two homers, and a team-leading 15 RBI, but those numbers will be just an afterthought. He can continue to keep the pressure on the organization to keep him in Cleveland by performing well in his regular playing time at the hot corner for the time being, but will need to show improvements on his .200 average, .250 OBP, and team-leading five strikeouts through his first four games.

Otherwise, it will be more of Martinez rotating through the lineup with his defensive flexibility, but minimal offensive contributions. That is something that few Indians fans will get excited about.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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