With the start of the new year, the Cleveland Indians still have plenty of questions that need resolution before the start of the 2018 campaign. Most should work themselves out by the end of spring training, but in the meantime, one can only ponder how things will be answered.
The Michael Brantley Dilemma
Where Brantley might play in the field when the season starts on March 29 was answered when the Indians signed free agent first baseman Yonder Alonso to replace Carlos Santana in the lineup. It brought a surprise solution to one problem, while creating an assumption that Brantley will return to his customary spot in left when he is able to take the field again instead of potentially relocating to first base as some have speculated for years.
Brantley’s bum ankle required surgery in the offseason, yet another major medical procedure done on the two-time All-Star left fielder in the last few years. While he should be ready to go sometime at or near the beginning of the season, what results the Indians can expect from him remain to be seen. He seemed to overcome the shoulder and biceps issues that cost him almost all of the 2016 season, but he was only able to give the Indians a half-season worth of appearances in 2017. He made a triumphant return to the Midsummer Classic in July, albeit a somewhat generous one, but he struggled to stay on the field for stretches both before and after the exhibition and was hardly an asset in the lineup when forced into action in the American League Division Series to replace the injured Edwin Encarnacion.
Picking up the 30-year-old’s team option was a topic of great debate in the fall, as the $11 million spent to bring him back for one more season in Cleveland could have gone towards other areas of concern on the Tribe roster, but to be fair, the outfield was already a glaring hole. The front office and coaching staff know the type of player that Brantley can be, when healthy, which made the risk easier to make. Last season, he hit for a healthy .299 average in 90 games, but his strikeout rate was up while he did not get to enjoy the kind of power surge that players around the game had over the course of the year.
Will Brantley struggle to overcome his most recent batch of injuries? Or can he do what the Indians desperately need him to do and put together numbers at or around his career averages, as he did in limited action a season ago?
Where on the Field is Jason Kipnis?
Kipnis, like Brantley, missed chunks of 2017 with injuries and, as would be expected, it drastically affected his overall production and may have cost him a starting job with the ball club. Such things do not happen often to a two-time All-Star, but it was the sort of move manager Terry Francona was willing to make with Jose Ramirez looking comfortable replacing Kipnis at second base while the young tandem of Giovanny Urshela and Yandy Diaz manned the hot corner down the stretch. It led Kipnis to return to the outfield (a spot that he had not played since 2009 while with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers) to help the Indians buffer the losses of Brantley, Bradley Zimmer, and Brandon Guyer in the final month of the schedule. As it was, Kipnis posted career-worst numbers when in the lineup, including a .232 average, a .291 on-base percentage, a drop in his walk rate, and a jump to his number of pop-ups in the infield. He swung at a higher percentage of pitches than ever before in his career and missed at his greatest rate to date. Despite that, when he did get a hit, it dropped in for one of the extra base variety 47% of the time, a career-best.
The left-handed hitting Kipnis is not expected to bump either of the three existing left-handed hitting outfielders (Brantley, Zimmer, and Lonnie Chisenhall) from their spots in the grass and he cannot help in a platoon situation. Coupled with owning the second-highest salary on the roster for the 2018 season at $13.7 million, Kipnis costs far too much to be a bat off of the bench for a team known for being extremely and critically frugal with the purse strings. His name coming up frequently in offseason trade discussions was no surprise – if the Indians could get out from the money owed this year, the $14.7 million owed in 2019, and at minimum the $2.5 million buyout in 2020, the savings would be comparable to the amount of money that the team will have to shell out just to retain its arbitration eligible players for next year. With several significant free agents (Cody Allen, Andrew Miller) set to hit the market following the ’18 season, freeing themselves from the Kipnis contract could give the Indians some financial wiggle room to bring in extra pieces to bolster the roster.
As the roster is currently constructed, the Indians almost need Kipnis to come to camp hitting the cover off of the ball, forcing the club to move Ramirez back over to third base while allowing Kipnis a chance to have his old job back. Otherwise, he will be a painfully expensive and limited utility man off of Francona’s bench, and that does little good for all involved.
A Disappearing Danny Salazar
In each of the last two seasons, Salazar has disappeared from the mound with vague injuries and ailments and has suffered from random bouts of ineffectiveness after particularly strong surges from the pitching rubber.
The Indians’ rotation is strong at the front end with two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and fourth place finisher Carlos Carrasco leading the way. Trevor Bauer lived up to his billing with an eye-catching breakout performance and some absolutely filthy movement on his offspeed stuff. But the backend of the rotation is not quite the same force to be reckoned with, although Salazar, Josh Tomlin, and Mike Clevinger have all shown their worth throughout their careers in Cleveland.
Salazar is due for a raise in arbitration and has been hard at work in offseason workouts. He, like Kipnis, was also a name bandied about during the Winter Meetings, in part due to his potential raise, in another part due to his inconsistencies, and in third because of the Indians’ perceived rotation depth for the season (left-hander Ryan Merritt is also out of options, so it adds one more to the crowd for the final two spots in the rotation). Tomlin is a known commodity – an innings eater with impeccable control and an unsavory tendency to give up the deep fly. Clevinger is a bit of a wild card, showing flashes of dominance on the mound while not yet being able to put it together at a consistent level.
Salazar is a conundrum. He made 19 starts and four relief appearances for the Tribe in 2017, posting a 5-6 record with a 4.28 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP. He was a monster striking out opposing batters, doing so at a 12.7 rate per nine innings while amassing 145 in just 103 innings of work, but twice he lost his spot in the rotation and was largely a non-factor in the postseason, walking two and giving up a run while striking out three in an inning and two-thirds in relief. This all comes from a hard-throwing righty who put up some of the best numbers of his career just three seasons ago and started the 2016 season strong enough that he was selected to represent the junior circuit in the final exhibition that factored in home field advantage.
Whether Salazar disappears to another city in a trade or is retained, and what role he has with the club come March 29 if he is still part of the Tribe, has a significant domino effect on how the rest of the pitching staff could look.
Playing Third Base – I Don’t Know
While Who’s on First has been a question 80 years in the making, it has been a more recent concern for the Indians and one that became all the more muddied when Santana left in free agency and Kipnis lost his job. Ramirez, who was the AL starting third baseman in the All-Star Game, shifted back over to his more familiar second base position in his stead, shifting the notable hole in the infield from one position to another.
Who’s on first is now a known with the addition of Alonso, but which player gets the task of manning third base is still up for debate. Urshela is out of options, but still cannot hit at the big league level. Diaz has shown plenty of hard contact at the big league level, but is not trusted defensively. Ramirez is the most viable option, but if the plan moving forward is to continue with him at second base, a position he is notably more comfortable at and familiar with, the Indians may have to go with one of the aforementioned options.
A wild card in the mix is Francisco Mejia. With Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez locked in for several more years behind the plate, Mejia will be hard-pressed to find game action calling the shots. There is little left for him to prove against minor league pitching and the club sent him to extended play in the Arizona Fall League to learn about life at the hot corner with the hopes that he too could factor into the options at third base as a means to making the club and seeing meaningful playing time with the Indians in 2018. His clock is already ticking.
S-H-A-W Spelled Relief
Bryan Shaw is gone, part of a massive relief pitching spending spree in the Rockies, as former Indians pitcher and current Colorado manager Bud Black has seen his front office boost his ‘pen options with the additions of Shaw and, most recently, Wade Davis. The Rockies have also brought back lefty Jake McGee, with the new look bullpen designed to replace All-Stars Pat Neshek and Greg Holland. Shaw will see on average nearly $9 million a season over the next three to four years, pushing him beyond the Indians’ comfort zone for a heavily used setup man.
With Allen and Miller set to lock down the final frames, the Indians will look to Dan Otero, Zach McAllister, Nick Goody, and last season’s surprise lefty Tyler Olson to eat up some of the middle innings when needed. But with one to two spots up for grabs and the Indians’ tendencies to leave an arm on the staff with minor league options readily available to keep a steady flow of fresh arms moving north on I-71 from Triple-A Columbus, who will find their way into the newest rendition of the Bullpen Mafia?
It won’t be former member Joe Smith, who signed with Houston, nor will it be Kyle Crockett (claimed on waivers by Cincinnati) nor Shawn Armstrong (traded to Seattle for international bonus pool money as another arm out of options). Merritt could sneak in as a long man due to his own options status, as could one of the losers of the starting rotation derby between Clevinger, Salazar, and Tomlin. All three have spent time during their Major League careers in relief and Clevinger and Salazar were believed to have good enough stuff that they bumped the established relievers right off of the playoff roster for the ALDS in a somewhat surprising call by Francona.
Regardless of who wins the job, by effort or by default, replacing the 70+ games a year worked by Shaw over the last five seasons (three times leading the AL and twice the Majors) will be no easy task. He may have been many people’s favorite punching bag on the roster, but his late inning efforts were minimized and underappreciated throughout his stay.
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