Spring Notebook: Gauging the minor league signings

It may still be chilly in Northeast Ohio, but that’s certainly not the case in Goodyear, Arizona.

As of this week, all Cleveland Indians pitchers and position players have arrived for spring training. It’s the first step in the long ride that is a Major League baseball season.

There’s plenty of familiar faces this spring and some pretty prominent new ones (ex. Nick SwisherMichael Bourn), but there’s also a handful of new faces that do not necessarily have all the hype surrounding the Tribe’s big free agent signings. Of course, the new faces being referred to are the team’s minor league signings.

This season alone, the Indians have signed Scott KazmirJason GiambiMatt CappsRyan RaburnBen Francisco,Diasuke MatsuzakaRich Hill and Jeremy Hermida to minor league deals. In recent memory, the most notable Indians minor league signing to bear fruit was Casey Blake, but it seems as if this year’s crop could potentially have a similar impact.

So, let’s take a look at each player individually and also predict how likely each player is to make the team. Each player’s chances will be designated as either very likely, likely, moderate, unlikely, very unlikely.

Scott Kazmir, left-handed starting pitcher

Can you believe that Kazmir just turned 29 on January 24? It seems like it was forever ago that this guy was carving up masterpieces with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and recording a league-best 239 strikeouts in a season. A former two-time All-Star, there’s a lot to like about Kazmir, and this does seem to be an attractive signing. Kazmir enjoyed a solid winter campaign this year (4.37 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings of work), and his velocity reportedly is also back as he apparently was throwing as hard as 95 miles per hour. It might seem easy to believe that Kazmir has a chance to make this team since the team has no fifth starter yet, but it’s still probably unlikely. Kazmir has not pitched in the Major Leagues since 2011. Even then, he started only one game with the Los Angeles Angels and was rocked to the tune of five earned runs allowed in 1 2/3 innings. While his winter performance is nice, winter ball statistics usually do not translate to the pros. Kazmir needs to reestablish his value, which is why he will probably start the season at Triple-A Columbus.

Chances to make 2013 squad: Unlikely

Jason Giambi, left-handed hitting designated hitter

It was a little puzzling when the Indians decided to sign the 42-year-old Giambi, but it does appear as if Tribe skipper Terry Francona is very pleased with the move. Giambi does have some value because he still is capable of taking a walk, and it seems as if some power may still be there. While he had a down season last year, Giambi actually hit 13 home runs in 152 plate appearances in 2011 with the Colorado Rockies. Giambi may also have been attractive to the Indians as it appears as if he can still play first base in a pinch, which would not have been the case had the Indians signed a different option like Jim Thome or Travis Hafner. The current roster is already pretty full, but if Giambi impresses this spring, then you have to think he will have a legitimate chance at making this team.

Chances to make 2013 squad: Moderate

Matt Capps, right-handed relief pitcher

It was somewhat surprising to see the Indians add Capps on a minor league deal. While he did miss much of 2012 with a right rotator cuff injury, he was still the Minnesota Twins closer to start the season. It’s hard to figure exactly where Capps would fit in with the Indians, but it’s never a bad thing when you’re able to add a 29-year-old pitcher with 138 career saves on a minor league deal. Capps has never been much of strikeout guy (6.5 K/9 for his career), but he still has late-inning experience that comes at a premium in the Major Leagues. If he is indeed healthy, he could have a shot at making the 2013 squad, but it’s still somewhat hard to figure what role he takes. He could be a decent middle-relief arm, but it seems as if bullpen positions are already committed to right-handers Vinnie PestanoChris PerezJoe Smith and Matt Albers. That would leave just one more spot for a right-hander, and who knows if the Indians will choose Capps over the internal options. It just seems as if Capps may have been better suited to sign a minor league deal with a team other than the Indians.

Chances to make 2013 squad: Unlikely

Ryan Raburn, right-handed hitting utility man

Like many of the other signings already touched on, there is a lot to like about Raburn and what he potentially brings to the table. He really had a decent run with the Detroit Tigers until last season when he posted a .171/.226/.480 line in 66 games and 205 plate appearances. However, for his career, Raburn still owns a .256/.311/.430 line with 54 homes runs and 216 RBI. It certainly seems as if 2012 was just a down year as from 2009 to 2011, Raburn hit at least 14 home runs and drove in at least 45 runs each season. Raburn is also valuable because he can play every infield position outside of shortstop, and he can play all three outfield positions. Knowing this, it may seem as if he could be the most likely candidate to earn a spot on the Tribe’s 2013 roster. The only thing hurting Raburn is that the Indians already have a utility man in Mike Aviles, but Raburn can also be a backup outfielder, which increases his value.

Chances to make 2013 squad: Likely

Ben Francisco, right-handed hitting outfielder

Francisco is a familiar name to Indians fans as he was a member of the team’s roster from 2007 through part of 2009. Francisco played on three teams last season (Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros), and his line of .234/.282/.402 was not particularly impressive. Francisco has now not hit double-digit home runs since 2009, and it’s hard to figure where he would fit in considering the Indians now have four players in their starting lineup that are capable of playing the outfield. Raburn becomes a more attractive option since he can play both the outfield and infield.

Chances to make 2013 squad: Very unlikely

Daisuke Matsuzaka, right-handed starting pitcher

Matsuzaka is now more than 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery. While he is a major question mark like Kazmir, at least he has pitched in the Major Leagues as recently as 2012. While the results were not favorable (8.28 ERA in 11 starts with Boston), it still seems to be a better measuring stick than Kazmir’s one start in 2011. However, aside from his first two Major League seasons, Matsuzaka has really been only a slightly below-average Major League starter. Tommy John surgery could have really improved his stuff, but it’s still hard to predict that he will have a chance to win a job since he has not succeeded consistently at the Major League level since 2008. Also, even if Matsuzaka impresses in camp, one has to believe that the favorite to win the fifth spot in the rotation is Carlos Carrasco. If Carrasco falters, then maybe Matsuzaka becomes the leading candidate, but until then, Matsuzaka’s chances of making the team are moderate at best.

Chances to make 2013 squad: Moderate

Rich Hill, left-handed reliever

Hill is an intriguing signing because he fills a clear need of the club: left-handed relief pitching. Hill underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011, so his 2012 performance was limited, but it was still a good one. In 19 2/3 innings of work, Hill posted a 1.83 ERA and struck out 9.6 batters per nine innings. Hill may not be the best of the Indians crop of minor league signings, but he may have one of the best chances to make the Major League club. The Indians currently have no proven left-handed relievers in their bullpen, and while Hill is far from proven, he does have more experience than the team’s current options. The Tribe must now decide if they want to go with Hill and pair him with one of their young lefties, or if they would rather give the relief jobs to both of their youngsters (Scott Barnes and Nick Hagadone). If Hill does impress this camp, then he should have a very good chance at making the team’s roster.

Chances to make 2013 squad: Moderate

Jeremy Hermida, left-handed hitting outfielder

There was once a time where Hermida was a young, budding prospect with the Florida Marlins. While he did have some decent seasons along the way, he ultimately has since become not much more than a fourth outfielder. At 29 years, he is still somewhat young, but it seems as if he is a major long shot to make the team. He has played in just a total of 43 games during the last two seasons, and he really does not possess any skills that the Indians do not already have internally.

Chances to make 2013 squad: Very unlikely

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