Spring Training Notebook: 5 burning questions

Two days. Two days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Can you believe it?

With the big day drawing near, it seems like a suitable time to introduce the Spring Training Notebook.

Like the Winter Ball Notebook, the Spring Training Notebook will be a weekly feature at IBI that will post updates about the numerous Cleveland Indians players competing in spring training.

With the official start still two days away, today’s notebook will take a little bit of a different approach. It’s certainly been an exciting offseason for the Indians, and many fans are intrigued for what the future may hold.

However, that does not mean that there are not many questions still surrounding this team. Who is going to be the fifth starter? Who bats leadoff? Who is the backup catcher? All of these questions still remain in regard to the Tribe, but the hope is that they will be answered by the completion of spring training.

So, with that being said, here are the five burning questions regarding the Indians as the team heads into spring training.

5 Burning Questions

5. Who is the team’s backup catcher?

From all indications, it appears as if the incumbent Lou Marson has a leg up on Yan Gomes, who was acquired this offseason along with Mike Aviles when the Indians shipped Esmil Rogers to Toronto. While Marson has not necessarily done a poor job handling the backup catching duties during the past two seasons, he really has not done that great of a job either. While it’s hard to draw any conclusions strictly on minor league numbers, Gomes owns a career line of .287/.344/.484 in 301 games compared to Marson’s minor league line of .269/.366/.750 in 535 games. It’s more difficult to compare the Major League numbers of the players as Gomes just does not have the experience to merit the discussion. However, the career minor league numbers are not far apart, which should serve as even more evidence that minor league numbers are often not a predictor of Major League success. In the minors, Marson was a consistent hitter and was even ranked as the No. 66 prospect in all baseball by Baseball America at one point. But he’s since proven that he’s nothing more than an average catcher in the Majors. Another point worth mentioning is that Marson allowed 67 stolen bases last year (threw out only 14 percent), which is the worst he’s performed in that area during his career. Now, there is no evidence that Gomes would perform better offensively or defensively than Marson, however, it does seem as if he deserves a hard look this spring. For his career in the minors, Gomes has thrown out 31 percent of would-be base stealers, and he also has another skill that Marson lacks — versatility. Gomes played games last season in Toronto at catcher, first base, third base, designated hitter and left field. Versatility may not affect his ability to catch a ball game, but here’s some food for thought. If Gomes ever goes on a tear and gets really hot at the plate, it would be much easier to keep him in lineup because of his versatility. However, Marson will always have to take a seat because Carlos Santana is not going to sit. It may seem like a minor detail, but it’s something for the Indians to consider when choosing what player ultimately earns a spot on the 25-man roster.

4. Who will leadoff for the Indians?

Conventional wisdom here says Michael Brantley. After all, he has a quick bat, decent speed, is patient and is a solid base runner. In other words, he seems to be the prototypical leadoff hitter. Yet, Brantley unfortunately has not fared too well as a leadoff hitter in the past. In 879 career plate appearances batting first, Brantley owns a .267/.314/.364 line. In fact, during the 2012 season, Brantley hit just a measly .227 with a .292 on-base percentage in that spot. In comparison, he owns a .307/.365/.429 career line when hitting fifth and a .333/.413/.530 line when hitting sixth. Clearly, it seems as if Brantley is most comfortable when he is hitting toward the middle or bottom of the lineup. Brantley likely will enter Spring Training as the front-runner to assume leadoff duties, but the Indians should not rule out looking at how some other players might be able to fill the role. In particular, Jason Kipnis seems to have many of the skills that teams covet from a leadoff hitter. Like Brantley, he’s a patient hitter with good bat speed, but he also performs much better on the base paths than Brantley. For all his speed, Brantley has been somewhat of a disappointment when it comes to stealing bases. For instance, Brantley stole just 12 bases last season and was caught stealing on nine occasions. In comparison, Kipnis stole 31 bases and was only caught stealing seven times. Brantley still seems to be the likely candidate to assume the leadoff role, but it’s definitely a question that will linger this spring. Hopefully the team allows a number of players to get some action there during spring training games. Given his past performance, Brantley should not be given the leadoff spot by default.

3. Who opens the season as the team’s designated hitter?

We already know that the team is going to rotate players in and out of the designated hitter spot this season, but there is still the question of who opens the season in that role? The Indians could simply put Mike Aviles in that spot on Opening Day, but there are also a number of players who will be battling it out to try to seize that spot. Aside from Aviles, Chris McGuinessCord PhelpsMike McDade and even Gomes could all be in contention for the position. Also, it’s likely that more than one of the players listed ultimately make the team, so a number of these players could find themselves getting regular time at the position during the season. At this point, a slight edge may be given to McGuiness simply for the fact that he was Rule 5 pick, and if he does not stay on the Indians 25-man roster all season, he must be returned to the Texas Rangers. McGuiness compiled a .268/.366/.474 line with 23 homes runs in 77 games at Double-A Frisco during the 2012 season. The numbers are nice, but they are also at the Double-A level, so it may be unrealistic to think that McGuiness can immediately step in and contribute at the Major League level. He may need more seasoning in the minors, so perhaps the Indians can work out a deal with the Rangers to allow that to happen. However, one has to believe that the spot is McGuiness’ to lose; if he performs well this spring, he will be the Tribe’s designated hitter come Opening Day. Though McDade and Gomes are also interesting options. McDade has a bit more seasoning and compiled a .285/.360/.445 line with 17 home runs between Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Las Vegas this past season. The switch-hitter is also a year younger than McGuiness. Though a case can also be made for Gomes because it would ensure the Indians have another catcher in addition to Santana and Marson. If Marson were to falter, the Indians could then easily plug Gomes in as the primary backup catcher. However, there is arguably no player who deserves the spot on the Indians’ roster more than Phelps, who has compiled a .285/.374/.438 line in 517 career minor league games. He’s spent parts of the past two seasons in Cleveland, but has never been able to stick. This could be his opportunity to do just that. Of course, Matt LaPorta is another player who could be in the mix for the job and a spot on the 25-man roster. But when you consider his past struggles, it seems somewhat unlikely that he’ll make the squad out of spring training. Nonetheless, the designated hitter position remains an intriguing storyline heading into spring training. It’s hard to determine just exactly who will make the roster and see time at the position, which is why it will be interesting to follow the progress of all the aforementioned players this spring.

2. Who fills the left-handed relief roles?

For the most part, the Indians made out great when they acquired Trevor Bauer as part of the Shin-Soo Choo trade, but if there was a negative of the trade, it was the fact that the team lost left-handed reliever Tony Sipp. While he had his ups and downs, Sipp was a consistent performer for the Indians during the past few seasons, and his departure leaves the Indians without a proven left-handed reliever. Nick Hagadone and Scott Barnes both showed signs last season, but neither one has a great deal of Major League experience. One or both of Barnes or Hagadone will likely make the team out of spring training, but there are also some other options that could be explored. Starter David Huffis out of options, so this may be the perfect time for him to transition from a starting role into a left-handed, long relief role. Additionally, Giovanni Soto will be in camp as a non-roster invitee. It’s likely a long shot for him to make the roster, but his cutter is already a Major League weapon, and it seems as if Soto would make for an ideal left-handed specialist. Though, in regard to player development, the best course of action may be to give the bullpen spots to Hagadone and Huff. That way, both Barnes and Soto can continue to develop as starters. However, the Tribe is certainly not going to just give the spots to Hagadone and Huff, so this will be a competition that will certainly merit the attention of every Tribe fan.

1. Who will be the fifth starter?

We already know that the top three starters will be Justin MastersonUbaldo Jimenez and Brett Myers. While Zach McAllister has not yet been named the fourth starter, it can pretty much be concluded that he will open the season with a spot in the rotation. Outside of those four players, Scott KazmirCorey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrascoand David Huff will be competing for the fifth starter’s spot. Much of this competition will boil down to how the Indians decide they want to use Bauer and Carrasco. Carrasco is coming off of Tommy John surgery, so his workload will be heavily monitored this season, but there has been no indication as to how the team plans to monitor it. Will they start Carrasco off in extended spring training, or will he start the season with the Indians and then be shut down sometime in late summer? The answer to that question will determine how likely Carrasco is to earn a spot in the rotation. Also, the Indians need to decide if they believe Bauer could use more seasoning at the Triple-A level. His first cup of the coffee in the big leagues was somewhat of a disaster last season (6.06 ERA in 16 1/3 innings with Arizona), so the Tribe likely wants to ensure that Bauer does not endure a repeat performance. Also, it seems as if Huff is competing for the team’s fifth starter’s spot each season, yet he never seems to have much success in that regard. There’s no reason to believe that will change this year, and Huff likely has a much better shot at earning a bullpen role than a spot in the rotation. Knowing that, it would appear as if Kluber and Kazmir will indeed have a legitimate chance to earn a spot in the team’s Opening Day rotation. They will likely have to pitch at least as good as both Bauer and Carrasco this spring, but if one of them does that, he may just have the edge. Nonetheless, it appears as if the most pressing question this spring is the question of who earns the fifth and final spot in the rotation.


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