GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Every spring, there are players with lockers in the crowded clubhouses who are off the public radar. The cameras focus on the stars, core pieces and veterans, while other players quietly get in their daily work away from the Spring Training spotlight.
And then, some of those players prove critical to the season that follows.
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"There's always going to be that somebody," Indians reliever Dan Otero said. "Good teams need those guys to step up. And we have such a good core group that those complementary players don't need to do above and beyond. They just need to play to their capabilities."
On Friday, the Tribe will begin its Cactus League slate at 3:05 p.m. ET against the Reds at Goodyear Ballpark on MLB.TV. When starter Mike Clevinger takes the mound, the right-hander will set the 2018 season in motion, renewing the Indians' quest for another American League Central title with hopes of capturing a World Series championship.
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That journey begins with the construction of the Opening Day roster. In camp, the Indians will need to sort out the back of the rotation, the final spot in the bullpen, the makeup of the bench and how the outfield will be aligned. With that in mind, here is a look at four dark-horse candidates for roster spots this spring:
LHP Ryan Merritt: Merritt is a cult hero among Indians fans, who remember him coming out of nowhere to help pitch the club into the 2016 World Series during the AL Championship Series against the Blue Jays. In nine Major League games over the past two seasons, all Merritt has done is spin a 1.71 ERA, too.
The problem is the rotation is talented and deep, and it looks like there is no room in the inn for Merritt. The Indians will still stretch him out accordingly this spring as an insurance plan for the starting staff, but he is out of Minor League options. That could put Merritt in the mix for the lone bullpen vacancy.
C Francisco Mejía: He is ranked as the club's No. 1 prospect and the best catching prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline. So, why was Mejia playing third base during the Arizona Fall League? Well, the Indians have two veteran catchers in Yan Gomes and Roberto Pérez, who are plus defenders, pitch framers and have established a great rapport with one of the game's elite pitching staffs.
Mejia tried his hand at third to see if his path to the Majors might be quickened via versatility. The organization believes he has a future behind the plate, but it doesn't want him unnecessarily blocked if his bat appears primed for The Show. If there is a setback for the club's catchers, Mejia looks like the next man up. The prospect looks more like an in-season addition, but there's a lot of spring left.
OF Tyler Naquin: Naquin seized an Opening Day roster spot prior to the 2016 season and he played his way into a third-place finish for the AL Rookie of the Year Award. Last year, injuries and other complications led to what amounted to a lost season for the outfielder. Now, in light of Bradley Zimmer's emergence, Naquin faces an uphill battle for a roster spot in an outfield filled with lefty bats. If a window of opportunity comes up this spring, though, Naquin is in position to again push for a job.
OF Melvin Upton Jr.: Last spring, the Indians brought outfield Austin Jackson into camp on a Minor League pact following an injury-riddled campaign. Jackson proved he was healthy, won a job and played a key role in 2017. This time around, Upton is in a similar situation. If Upton shows that his '17 health woes are behind him, he can make a strong play for a role as a right-handed complement in the outfield. Rajai Davis is also in camp to compete for the same type of job.