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Yandy Diaz’s place with the Indians remains in limbo

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If you’re waiting for Yandy Diaz to become a permanent part of the Indians’ lineup, look to the future.

Cleveland Indians v Texas Rangers Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

As much as we all want a permanent roster spot for Yandy Diaz, the Indians — or, at least, Terry Francona — don’t seem to share that sentiment. Not for this season, anyway.

Francona admitted to Jordan Bastian yesterday that Diaz certainly has a future in the heart of the Indians’ lineup, but when will that day actually come?

We may have to wait until 2020.

If Edwin Encarnacion is not activated from the disabled until September when rosters expand, Diaz will almost certainly remain with the big league club for the rest of the season. But beyond that, his continued fate as the odd man out seems almost certain.

The roster math is simple. You have five starter pitchers, and Terry Francona is not going to drop below a threshold of seven relief pitchers. That is 12 of the 25 roster spots right there. In the starting lineup, Yan Gomes, Roberto Perez, Yonder Alonso, Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley, Brandon Guyer, and Edwin Encarnacion Encarnacion aren’t going anywhere. There goes 21 of the 25 roster spots.

The last four belong to Erik Gonzalez, Rajai Davis, Greg Allen, and Melky Cabrera — with the likes of Bradley Zimmer, Tyler Naquin, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Leonys Martin on the DL.

The Indians seem to have ruled out outfield as an option for Diaz — more on that later — so that leaves him competing with Gonzalez for a bench role, but Gonzalez is out of minor league options and can play more positions than Diaz.

Blocked at third base

Diaz’s natural position is at third base, which obviously presents an obstacle, as two-time All-Star and American League MVP candidate Jose Ramirez is currently entrenched at that position and signed through 2023. He’s not going anywhere.

But Ramirez can also play second base, which feeds into Indians fans’ most popular strategy to create an opening for Diaz. Put Diaz at third base, Ramirez at second base, and move Kipnis to center field, where he finished out the season last year. With Leonys Martin out for the foreseeable future as he recovers from a life-threatening bacterial infection, center field has become a combination of Allen, Davis, and even Guyer.

I don’t need to explain to you why Kipnis is a defensive liability in center field. Aside from that sensational diving catch in the postseason, he simply doesn’t have the arm to keep baserunners in check and the Yankees certainly took advantage last October.

There are those who would prefer the Tribe simply cut Kipnis loose, which isn’t going to happen. He is a veteran clubhouse leader — and we all know how much Francona values veteran clubhouse leaders — who is making $13.6 million this season and is owed $14.6 million next season. I don’t think the front office is going to foot that bill for a player not on the active roster.

But what about the outfield?

It’s sort of mystifying to me that the Indians have refused to even experiment with Diaz in right field, where Melky Cabrera and Brandon Guyer are currently trying to combine to form one average outfielder, with mixed results.

Just two years ago, with Michael Brantley sidelined, the Tribe put Jose Ramirez in left field for 48 games before ceding that role to a combination of Rajai Davis and Coco Crisp. Then, in the World Series that same season, catcher-turned-first-baseman Carlos Santana started two games in left field to keep both him and Mike Napoli in the lineup.

Last season, it was Jason Kipnis’ turn in the outfield, taking over in center field when Bradley Zimmer broke his hand. Ramirez shifted to second base and Giovanny Urshela held down third. And that was for an entire postseason series against the Yankees.

So if the Indians were comfortable with Ramirez, Santana, and Kipnis all in the outfield at one point or another, why not Diaz? We may never know the answer. Perhaps, like former Tribe top prospect Francisco Mejia, Diaz is resistant to the idea of a position change. Maybe he truly would be more of a defensive liability than Ramirez, Santana, or Kipnis were.

Could he be worse than Cabrera, who has been worth -3 DRS and -0.9 UZR?

For whatever reason, we’ll never know for certain.

2020 could be the Year of Yandy

After the 2019 season, the Indians’ front office will have a lot of decisions to make, some easier than others. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Edwin Encarnacion, Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis, Yonder Alonso, and Dan Otero all have club options for 2020.

I think it is safe to assume, barring disaster, that the club will be more than happy to bring back both Kluber ($15.5 million) and Carrasco ($9.5 million) to keep intact a rotation that would also theoretically include Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber.

I’m less certain about Gomes, Alonso, and Otero, but things will get interesting with Encarnacion and Kipnis. Encarnacion will be 37 years old in 2020 and his club option carries a hefty price tag of $20 million. Should the Indians decline that option, he would be owed a $5 million buyout.

Kipnis, who will be 33 years old in 2020, would come at a cost of $16.5 million or be owed a $2.5 million buyout if the option is declined. The $36.5 million between Encarnacion and Kipnis would represent about 25 percent of the Indians’ current payroll for 2018. That doesn’t seem like the type of financial commitment you’d expect this front office to make.

Diaz, meanwhile, would be 28 years old and not yet eligible for arbitration.

Declining both options would free up $29 million and open up a spot for Diaz at either designated hitter or third base, with Ramirez shifting to second.

For now, that might represent Diaz’s most realistic chance to take his rightful place among the Indians. But this also means that, barring injury, Diaz will spend most, if not all, of next season at Triple-A Columbus, where he has nothing left to prove at this point.

The infield is not likely to change, with only Brantley, Chisenhall, Davis, and Cabrera entering free agency after this season. With the amount of uncertainty at the corner outfield positions for next season, it’s a shame the Indians’ front office won’t at least try to add Diaz to the mix.

Instead, his major league-ready bat will continue to toil in Columbus.