I avoided writing up one of those "Offseason plan" pieces in large part because I pay very little attention to MLB outside of Cleveland. As a result, trying to predict how Cleveland will interact with the rest of the league during the offseason is not just futile, but personally humbling in a way that makes baseball less enjoyable for me. That said, I pay a lot of attention to the Indians system, and another reason I didn't put together one of those pieces is that I felt very good about the talent the Indians have gathered at or near the major league level (as well as the talent welling up from the bottom of the system). I doubt the Tribe's offseason moves are completed (specifically, I don't expect the entire group of Swisher, Raburn, Murphy and Moss to be in Cleveland on opening day), but the Tribe's acquisition of Moss and Floyd at very little cost have bolstered Cleveland's depth in really positive ways.
So, I am more a "sticking with the plan" kind of fan, and this, in my view, is what the plan is (or plans are). By plan, I mean, position by position, what is the likely starting plan for 2014, and what are the alternative plans if that goes awry. As you will see, I think the Indians are pretty well protected against a variety of scenarios that would necessitate "alternative options" across the diamond.
The plan: Yan Gomes (starter), Roberto Perez (utility)
Aside from the addition of Tony Wolters to the 40-man roster, the Indians have made essentially no noise at catcher this offseason. That is because Yan Gomes is amazing and cost-controlled for a long time. Roberto Perez is a fully adequate backup, especially since Gomes is as much of a true everyday starter as you would expect at catcher. "The plan" at catcher is very good for Cleveland.
But what if...Gomes gets hurt. This is the big risk. And this would present the Indians with some intriguing decisions. Roberto Perez might be a great backup catcher, but he is not a great everyday catcher. As a short-term ( less than 2 week) fill-in, fine, but any longer than that and the Indians would need to seriously consider moving Santana back to catcher. I don't know if the Indians plan to continue to get Santana reps at catcher during spring training, but this would be the reason why. Catching is a dangerous position, but lets hope Gomes gets lucky and avoids any major injury (yay for the new "no-collision rules!).
But what if...Perez gets hurt. Well, this doesn't matter as much, does it? The addition of Wolters give the Indians a 3rd catcher on the 40-man, so one would assume he would step in as backup. He's young, but the the Indians have enough density of talent on their 40-man that it would really be a shame to make a slot for a Luke Carlin type guy just to serve a temporary backup role.
Down the line...Yan Gomes gives the Indians a long arc of control on this position, but the Indians have some significant catching prospects in the lower half of the system, led by Francisco Mejia. Mejia is a candidate to emerge as a true blue-chip prospect this season, but behind him are other intriguing guys like Eric Haase, Jeremy Lucas, and Li-Jen Chu.
The plan: Jose Ramirez (starter), Mike Aviles (utility), Francisco Lindor (incumbent)
Jose Ramirez played like an above average major league shortstop for an extended stretch last season. Everything (at the moment) seems to suggest he'll have the chance to reprise that role to start 2014. I'm fine with that. Mike Aviles is Tito's veteran safety blanket on the position for now and I am, for the moment, fine with that.
The more complex part of "the plan" is Lindor. Lindor is the kind of prospect who, outside a few service time issues, will set his own timeline. If Lindor does a good job of being Lindor, that means by sometime in May, Cleveland will face a choice of what to do with him. If he comes to Cleveland, he becomes the everyday starter, no questions asked. Jose Ramirez, regardless of how he plays, should not block Lindor.
But what if...Ramirez is playing great when Lindor is ready? This would be a nice problem to have. Ramirez can also play 2B (maybe even better than SS) and 3B (probably worse than SS). He's a switch hitter who does well against LHP, so he might make a natural pairing with Kipnis, though Kipnis as a platoon player would already be a deviation from "the plan." If Kipnis is back to 2013 Kipnis and 3B is taken care of, Ramirez then becomes a trade asset of considerable value. But the Indians wouldn't have to trade him. Given his ability to play all three IF positions, he could still get regular reps as a utility player, again enhanced by his ability to switch hit. In other words, this scenario isn't really a problem at all, simply a great potential outcome of "the plan." The only wrinkle in this is that when Lindor comes up, he will need a roster spot. The most obvious solution (unless Ramirez were to be traded) is to release Aviles. This is eating money, something Cleveland doesn't regularly do, but the clear best option in my view.
But what if...Ramirez and Lindor stink it up? This would be less good. This would also be far more surprising to me. Lindor and Ramirez are both young, but both also have very high floors given their defensive abilities and high-contact batting abilities. But...imagining it does happen, the situation gets a little tricky. Aside from giving Aviles more time (eesh), the backup plan is likely the same as the baseline plan...ride it out with these two.
Down the line...the Indians have a lot of middle infield depth. Erik Gonzalez, if he can stay healthy this season, might emerge as another big talent at SS. His defense is highly regarded and he has a higher offensive ceiling than Ramirez. These three guys give Cleveland an immense amount of young SS talent, so the down the line may be really far down the line. And that far down the line the Indians have some intriguing offensive (Yu-Cheng Change) and defensive (Alex Pantoja) options in Arizona.
The plan: Jason Kipnis (starter), Mike Aviles (utility)
So much depends on the health of Jason Kipnis. If Kipnis can recapture his 2013 success, the Indians are suddenly a much better team. Kipnis is an everyday above average offensive 2B with adequate defense. Slotting Aviles in there as a backup once every two weeks in April and May is palatable.
But what if...Kipnis is not 2013 Kipnis? Then we get, again, to the value of Jose Ramirez. If Kipnis is healthy and in shape, I don't worry much about his ability to mash RHP and play adequate defense. However, he might be a long-term liability against LHP, in which case the Indians have to be willing to platoon him despite his cost and large profile on the team. Jose Ramirez (with Lindor at SS) is the obvious platoon partner. Even if the Indians view Kipnis as a platoon player, it is possible some other team in the league will look at his 2013 and see him as a potential everyday starter. If that is the case, and a team comes calling offering good value for Kipnis (and his contract hardly a burden), I could envision a Kipnis trade. It's not, I think, the most likely scenario, but it could happen and it could be a good move.
But what if...it is even worse than that? What if Kipnis is really 2014 Kipnis, or injured, and Jose Ramirez sucks or is traded? That's a lot of bad. But the Indians have 40-man options. Zach Walters could, in theory, be an option at 2B. He's played more SS in the minors, but is another switch-hitter with positional versatility. Unlike Jose Ramirez, Walters is a low-floor/high-ceiling guy. He might never hit above .200 and strike out more than once a game. Or he might hit 30 HRs. Who knows? The other option would be a shift for Erik Gonzalez from the left side of the infield to the right. Probably not the best option for him, but an option Cleveland would certainly consider in such a scenario. Tony Wolters also plays some second base, by the way.
Down the line...this is another position where down the line is well down the line. Given the depth of young talent on the left-side of the diamond, I don't really worry about finding a second baseman.
The plan: Lonnie Chisenhall (starter), Mike Aviles (backup)
As a prospect, Chisenhall's calling card was a compact swing that could generate above average power and adequate defense to man the position. In 2014, he spent the first two months providing that kind of offense, but offset by terrible defense. In the second half of 2014 he instead coupled terrible offense with adequate defense. The plan is to give Chisenhall the chance to put the two positive aspects of his profile together. I give Lonnie 50:50 odds of that happening, in which case, he becomes an above-average third baseman.
But what if...Chisenhall can't adjust? If Chisenhall continues the abysmal offense he displayed in the second half of 2014 he has to go. Fortunately, we have this guy in Columbus named Giovanny Urshela, who might be a better 3B than Lonnie even if Lonnie does perform up to his pedigree. Urshela offers plus defense, and gap-power offense with above-average contact abilities. His ability to translate his high contact rate into good contact at the major league level is something we can't assess right now, but I have great hopes for him.
But what if...Urshela's injury is worse than feared and Chisenhall can't adjust? In the short term, Aviles and Walters are the other options on the 40-man. I think it is unlikely Cleveland will face this challenge this year, though. And as echoed above, Erik Gonzalez is also on the 40-man, and though probably not ready for MLB action this season, such a move would not be without precedent (e.g. Jhonny Peralta, 2003), and 3B was Gonzalez's primary position as recently as 2013.
Down the line...Between Chisenhall, Urshela, and Gonzalez, once again, Cleveland has a good supply of young, potentially MLB-caliber players. So down the line is not a pressing concern. But if we must look, it is worth noticing Yandy Diaz, a Cuban-signed player who made his Tribe debut in Carolina a year ago. Another high-contact, high-OBP, good defense guy who is worth watching in 2015 as a potential breakout prospect.