The Cleveland Indians came into spring training with the outfield as their biggest question mark. The injury aspect of the outfield puzzle seems to have solved most of it already — more on that in a moment — but there are still unanswered questions out there.
Other bumps and bruises accrued throughout spring, such as Carlos Carrasco’s elbow, seem to be resolved as well, with the recent announcement that he will indeed be starting the second game of the season against the Texas Rangers next Tuesday, but another question in the form of Jason Kipnis’s shoulder has arisen.
And now, Opening Day 2017, the day that the Cleveland Indians begin their 2017 AL-Pennant defense, is within reach. At this point it’s too late to start shaking things up. Rosters have been mostly decided, pink slips have been handed out, and everyone not on the roster bubble is mentally coasting until Opening Day.
But there are still a few things left for the Indians to figure out in the handful of days leading up to the most wonderful day of the year.
Can it be? Is Michael Brantley really healthy?
Being that civilization as we know it did not come to an end on December 21, 2012, we can assume that scholars and historians who interpreted the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar as predicting the apocalypse just because it stopped made some kind of error. Maybe the ancient Mayans just ran out of stones to carve or, who knows, maybe they just got bored and decided to stop writing dates and wanted to move onto inventing vulcanization*.
If we ever find a new calendar that ends on April 3, 2017, however, we can be pretty sure it’s significant. It’s the date that Michael Charles Brantley Jr. could finally return from a hellish 15-month period of various shoulder and arm injuries that limited him to just 11 games in 2016.
Optimism about Brantley’s health is nothing new, there was plenty of it last spring. But it feels different this year. This isn’t the Indians, or even Brantley, constantly assuring us that everything is going to be fine. Both parties have taken it slow this time around, and we can see it with our own eyes: That sweet, sweet swing is back.
If Brantley is back and ready to be himself again, that does help paint the outfield picture a bit. But until we know for sure, it leads right into another question...
What does the outfield actually look like?
Over the weekend, veteran Austin Jackson was told he would make the Indians major-league roster (and make at least $1.5 million in the process). That’s great news for Jackson, and great news for fans of outfield depth. But what kind of production will this conglomerate of outfielders actually produce?
As of now, the confirmed members of the outfield are Jackson, Tyler Naquin, Brandon Guyer, and Lonnie Chisenhall. That leaves two players hanging: Michael Brantley, who is reliant on his health only, and Abraham Almonte.
Our own Merritt Rohlfing has written plenty on Almonte’s predicament already, and it looks like his most recent prediction may be the truest. With Brantley’s return on Opening Day looking more and more like a possibility, Abe is the odd man out. But what if Brantley isn’t healthy right away?
Here are the two scenarios, as I would guess them to happen:
Brantey isn’t healthy
Let’s not get into the heartache of this being true. Let’s just assume it is. In a strange way, it’s almost more straightforward than if he is healthy. Against left-handed pitchers, lefty-masher Brandon Guyer handles left field, while Austin Jackson roams center and Abe Almonte is in right field. Against righties, Almonte is in left with Tyler Naquin in center and Lonnie Chisenhall in right. This keeps everyone in their natural-ish positions.
Michael is Brantley
With Brantley healthy, he obviously assumes left field. Maybe not at first — it would be smart to ease him back into the game as a designated hitter — but when he is in the outfield, he’s going to be in left field against both right- and left-handed pitchers.
So against lefties, with Brantley in left, Austin Jackson takes center field and Brandon Guyer assumes right field duties. Guyer has not played much in the majors at any position, but he has the least amount of time spent in right field so far. And he has not been great there. His bat is good enough that it makes up for the small drop in defense between him and the Chisencanon, though.
Facing right-handed pitchers is straightforward and keeps everyone in their natural positions, at least: Brantley in left, Tyler Naquin in center, and Lonnie Chisenhall in right.
How is Francisco Lindor going to store all these Gold Glove awards?
Seriously. Last season he won the American League Gold Glove for outstanding defense at shortstop, as well as the American League Platinum Glove for being the best defender in the entire league.
But Lindor is set to make just $579,300 this season, so I can’t imagine he’s already in his “forever home,” even if he did just ink a huge deal to be the global face of New Balance.
So, eventually, he’s going to have to move all these trophies. Will it make it hard to focus on baseball, knowing he’ll soon have to dust and carefully wrap every one of these damn things before he buys a new house with his superstar money down the road? Are trophies considered living room furniture or miscellaneous items? These are the tough question a baseball player must face.
Who is going to play third base?
At this point, with Jose Ramirez moving to second to cover injured Jason Kipnis, third base is down to three (let’s call it two-and-a-half) options: Giovanny Urshela, Yandy Diaz, and Michael Martinez.
The venerable Paul Hoynes, who is known for great predictions, seems to have his heart set on Urshela making the cut, but Let’s Go Tribe has all but sold its soul to Yandy Diaz. So he better make it.
The debate between Urshela and Diaz essentially comes down to defense vs. offense. Urshela could be one of the best defensive third baseman in the game given enough innings, but the last time he was with the Indians he displayed a painfully average bat at the position. He finished 2015 hitting .225/.279/.330 in 288 plate appearances with the Tribe, and he did not hit much better in Triple-A last season — .274/.294/.380.
Diaz, on the other hand, has absolutely nothing left to prove in the minors. He has always had a great eye at the plate, with a walk rate that has never dipped below 12.9 percent at any level, and last year he finally showed the power that the Indians were waiting for.
Diaz might never be a 20 home-run hitter in the majors, but his .461 slugging percentage in Triple-A last year was very encouraging. The only question mark seems to be his defense, which is question that has only popped up in camp. Previous scouting reports had him as a pretty good to great defensive third baseman, so I can’t imagine more work in Triple-A will do him any good.
If not Diaz now, then when?
I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that Yandy already has the job, but Terry Francona just wants him to keep competing his butt off until the last possible second. Diaz has the versatility that Tito likes — with the ability to play third base, outfield, and maybe a bit of second base — and he’s leagues better than Michael Martinez.
If that’s not the case, and if Paul Hoynes’s incredible streak of predictions continues, when will Yandy get his shot? As bland as Giovanny Urshela’s bat may be, it could easily hold down the fort while Kipnis is out for a couple weeks. And after that, Ramirez has third base all but locked down for half a decade. Couple that with Brantley’s good health (thus, eliminating another position for Yandy to take over) and it gets hard to imagine where he fits in. Does Yandy just turn into one of the most interesting trade pieces this July?
How long is Jason Kipnis going to be out?
And finally, the most worrying question of all, how long will Kip be out? He can reportedly return to “baseball activities” in a week or so, which basically means he can start hitting imaginary balls and wearing cleats again. His actual return to games is pegged at mid-April, but we should already know how reliable those comeback dates can be.
Hopefully, whether it’s Urshela or Diaz taking over third, we won’t miss Kipnis too much, no matter how long he’s out.
*I’d like to thank Wikipedia for this sick cultural reference.