clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2015 Tribe: The Plan(s)

The Indians' offseason is half over. What does the team look like as of today? What are the options should things not work out?

Carlos Santana knows the plan
Carlos Santana knows the plan
Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

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 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.


The plan: Carlos Santana (starter), Nick Swisher (sub), Brandon Moss (sub)

Last season began with the ill-fated (though possibly defensible) decision to try Carlos Santana at 3B. That didn't work out well. Eventually, however, Santana settled in at first base, where he played reasonably well by most defensive accounts. But where the real difference could be seen was on offense. As a first baseman last season, Santana hit .276/.406/.506. For those not following baseball in the year 2014, that is a great line. There are a bunch of guys who "might" play first base on occasion as part of the RF/1B/DH rotation (this is the most unsettled part of the roster, of course, and is discussed more below), but my guess is that Santana will set the pecking order. If he wants it, he may very well occupy 90% of the 1B PAs.

But what if...Santana gets hurt? At the moment, the Indians could just fill in Brandon Moss and/or Nick Swisher. If for some reason that is not a good long-term option, the next in line on the 40-man is Jesus Aguilar. Aguilar has clearly improved as a hitter, but also appeared woefully overmatched in MLB last year and found himself, seemingly, in Tito's doghouse. Let's hope that being removed from catching duties, Santana has a solidly healthy year.

But what if...the Indians want to maximize flexibility with this position? I would argue that playing Santana at 1B more or less everyday is the best way to maximize flexibility with first base, not only because he is likely the best bat, but also because if Yan Gomes ever gets hurt in a game you could do a double-switch and slot Santana in at catcher and not lose your DH. But yes, on Santana's (hopefully limited) off days, you could slot in either Brandon Moss (vs. RHP) or Nick Swisher (vs. LHP) per Tito's preference.

Down the line...this is a weak position for the organization. Carlos, thankfully, is slotted for another three years, but beyond that is a lot of uncertainty. Aguilar is the "young" incumbent on the 40-man, but it is uncertain whether he will still be on the roster by the time Santana vacates the post. The Indians do have some young depth deeper in the system, notably Nellie Rodriguez (Lake County last year) and Bobby Bradley (AZL last year), but it is hard to project bat-only guys forward across multiple levels. Few teams have "hot" young 1B prospects though, given the nature of the position. It is more often where good bats end up that can't play elsewhere.


The plan: Michael Bourn (CF), Michael Brantley (LF), Brandon Moss/Ryan Raburn (RF)

I am not going to separate out the different OF positions because they are often so interchangeable. I will address the particular challenges of CF and the corner spots a little more below, however. Compared to the infield, the outfield is far more uncertain and riskier for Cleveland. Michael Brantley is the only "sure" thing after his breakout 2014 season, and should be the everyday LF assuming the everyday CF stays health. I have Brandon Moss and Ryan Raburn platooning, but this assumes Moss is healthy enough to play the OF and that Raburn is good enough to play. On paper, this is the best current option. But of course this leaves out David Murphy, who I have a hard time seeing making this team if both Moss and Swisher are around, and Tyler Holt, who would make a great 4th OFer if we had a slot for him. And, of course, this assumes Michael Bourn is healthy enough to play, something he has been for less than 75% of Cleveland's games since he was signed. There are a lot of "what ifs" here...

But what if...Bourn is not healthy? An injury to Bourn immediately (at least early in the season) shifts Brantley to CF. Reviews of Brantley's defense in center are mixed, but I would argue he is a competent if not ideal fit for the position. Bourn going down also makes a case for Holt being on the 25-man roster as a backup OF who can competently play defense in CF, while also providing an ok bat against LHP. In the second half of the season, our options for Bourn replacements might change substantially (see below).

But what if...Moss can't play OF anymore? Assuming Moss can still hit off his surgically repaired hip, he is going to play against RHP, even if he can't play in the field. If Santana is at 1B, that leaves Moss at DH. Which leaves Nick Swisher either on the bench in the ceremonial Jason Giambi role, playing RF (fresh off his two surgically repaired knees), or off the team. If Moss can play the OF, he really is redundant with David Murphy, as outlined in "the plan." But if he can't play the OF, he becomes much more redundant with Nick Swisher, who obviously has a much more difficult contract to move or swallow. If Moss can't play the OF, one option is last year's David Murphy/Ryan Raburn platoon, but we didn't really like that last year and I don't suspect we would be fond of it this year. For now, let's assume Moss can play RF at least some of the time.

But what if...Ryan Raburn really makes the team? I know, right? Except that if Raburn is even halfway between the player he was in 2014 and the player he was in 2013, getting his bat in the lineup against LHP could be a good thing. And RF is the position most likely available for him to do that. Tyler Holt, of course, might have something to say about this.

But what if...none of these guys can play RF or aren't on the roster? This is a possibility. Between Murphy and Raburn's questionable roster status and Moss and Swisher's questionable lower bodies, it is possible we still don't know who the everyday RFer is. Tyler Holt looks like a nice 4th OFer, but not a nice starter. The Indians do have another RF on the 40-man in the form of Carlos Moncrief. If neither Moss nor Swisher look healthy enough to play RF out of spring training, and assuming Murphy and/or Raburn have been jettisoned, a Moncrief/Holt platoon might be a surprising but entertaining duo to watch. Moncrief has done miracles in approving his plate approach in the minors and has some legitimately impressive tools, but he is also still far more likely to be a bust than a major league regular. But Moncrief has defied the odds before, and the presence of Moncrief and Holt as 3rd and 4th OFers do give the Tribe a lot more defensive flexibility to match with Bourn and Brantley.

But what if...that doesn't work? If the long-shot Moncrief/Holt pairing doesn't satisfy you in the no-Moss scenario, there are a number of other options. We could also throw in Zach Walters name here, too, with the pros and cons mentioned above. But there are at least two OFers who are soon to find themselves on the 40-man in the form of Tyler Naquin and James Ramsey. Both can play all 3 OF positions. I would argue that Ramsey is likely ahead in the pecking order, about a half season ahead of Naquin in terms of experience. I like Ramsey's bat more, too. But both of these guys could force their way into Cleveland sometime during the 2015 season. The uncertainties regarding Bourn, Moss, Murphy, Swisher, Raburn, et al not only suggest to me that more moves are likely to come before the end of spring training with this group, but also that there are clear paths that could lead to Ramsey or Naquin occupying a spot sometime this season. By 2016 I would suspect one of those guys to be penciled in as an everyday option.

Down the line...Brantley is under contract for awhile. Holt and Moncrief are young, though with uncertain futures. Naquin and Ramsey are also young and likely to have a chance to earn starting time down the road. And oh yeah, by the way, behind them are Clint Frazier and Bradley Zimmer, arguably the Tribe's top two prospects not named Francisco. 2015 is a year of uncertainty for the Tribe's OF, but 2016 is likely to see some significant transition anyway, with good options in place down the line when Brantley's contract comes to an end after the 2018 season.


The plan: Nick Swisher plus a cast of All-stars

Really, this position seems likely to be where the contracts that can't play the field play. Right now, that looks like Swisher. But it could be Moss. Or it could be Murphy. Or it could be Santana. Or it could be Walters. Or it could be...really anyone. Swisher seems the most likely, but it depends on what happens with the Moss/Murphy/Raburn/Swisher nexus.

But what if...nevermind, it's just the DH spot.


The plan: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Gavin Floyd, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar

That is how I see the spring training competition playing out. In this scenario, TJ House and Josh Tomlin are in Columbus and Zach McAllister is in the pen. I like the idea of McAllister taking on a Wade Davis role in the pen, though if the Tribe really wanted to maximize their assets the 5th spot would probably be McAllister's (because of his option status), pushing Salazar to Columbus, too. I'm rooting for the former, because I like Salazar's upside (and I think the pen might need McAllister), but I can see the case for McAllister, too.

But what if...a starter goes down to injury? I think TJ House, Josh Tomlin, and Shawn Marcum are good AAA depth, with McAllister swinging between the pen and the rotation as a spot-starter as another flexible option.

But what if...two starters go down to injury? Well, let's hope neither of them are Kluber. But in this case, I am still happy with our AAA depth, though I probably would prefer to see House and McAllister as starters 6 and 7 than Tomlin (and I like Tomlin!).

But what if...three starters go down to injury? This is getting bleak. But I actually still think we have the options in place, now.

Down the line...Let's be thankful most of these guys are under control for a long time. Down the line the picture, at the moment, looks bleak. The only other notable starters on the 40-man are Ryan Merritt and Cody Anderson. They are starters, but...not inspiring ones at this point. This is the biggest hole in the Indians system, which is why the second half performance of the Tribe's rotation last year WAS SO IMPORTANT. Deeper in the system there are a few guys with intriguing potential (Justus Sheffield, Mitch Brown, Dylan Baker), so the picture could change substantially with another minor league season in the books. And it probably needs to change for the better in the next season or two. Given the youth in the rotation now, the Indians have a little bit of time, but they need to begin correcting their failures in acquiring and developing starting pitchers.


The plan: Cody Allen (closer), Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepcysnki, Kyle Crockett, Scott Atchison, Zach McAllister, Austin Adams, FA

This is actually the part of the team that scares me the most. The Indians do not have a lot of bullpen depth on their 40-man. I fully expect one of the bullpen spots at the start of the season to be occupied by someone not currently on the 40-man, and quite possibly, outside the organization. I think we all feel comfortable with Allen, Shaw and Crockett, though I agree with the case for trading Shaw now at a likely peak value. Scrabble had a rocky 2014 at times, but I don't see him losing his spot to Nick Hagadone. Atchison is still alive. CC Lee and Austin Adams need to put it together this year. If they can translate their past performances to the big league level, I suddenly feel a lot better about our bullpen. But a solid Zach McAllister out of the pen would also make me feel a lot better.

But what if...Cody Allen gets hurt? Shaw probably gets the first shot at those innings, but I would suspect Crockett would claim them eventually. Austin Adams also has the stuff to be a backend guy should he put it together. But again, if Zach can add a few mphs from the pen (which he did last year), why not Zach?

But what if...other guys get hurt or underperform? This is a bigger problem if its a LHP. The only lefties on the 40-man are Crockett, Scrabble and Hagadone. The only way to keep all three of them past spring training is to either put Crockett in the minors (which I don't think will happen), or carry all three on the roster (which I don't think will happen). This reality makes today's signing of Scott Downs interesting, as he could be a LH relief option in AAA. The only other notable 40-man guys are Shawn Armstrong (who has a great minor league track record), and Charles Brewer should the Tribe move him out of the rotation. Off the 40-man, the Tribe does have some depth, with guys like Bryan Price, Tyler Sturdevant, and Enosil Tejeda all escaping the interest of other teams to date.

Down the line...the Indians need some of the younger pitchers to establish themselves. The bullpen is a large part just managing the right hot arms at the right time, but those guys need to be in place.

That's my 4000-word plan. I think the Indians are extremely well-positioned to be good for several years. The OF seems like an uncertainty, if not an outright problem, heading in to 2015. I don't expect that to be a long-term problem, though. The starting rotation looks great, but that greatness rests heavily on a facade erected in the second half of 2014. The Indians biggest organizational need is still starting pitching, even if that isn't Cleveland's biggest need. How Cleveland manages and begins to integrate the talent that has accumulated in Columbus in the past year will be fascinating to watch, and potentially a significant factor in determining Cleveland's level of success. Go Tribe!

(how many days till spring training?)