Ranking Tribe's toughest roster decisions

March 22nd, 2021

The Indians will be in Arizona for only eight more days, and the team has a plethora of decisions to make.

There’s very little clarity on the Tribe’s Opening Day roster at this point, but the Indians don’t expect to make all their decisions at the last minute. With a flurry of roster moves expected over the next few days, let’s break down the position battles -- in a power-rankings manner -- to determine which decisions will be the most difficult to make over the next week.

1. Rotation
We’ve seen so many upsets in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament this week that it was only fitting that a darkhorse candidate takes the top spot in the Indians’ decisions rankings. This was the one aspect of Cleveland's roster that appeared to be pretty predictable, despite having some vacancies. Now, it’s giving the club the most questions to answer before the start of the regular season.

The Indians are looking to utilize a four-man rotation for at least the month of April because they have five off-days. We know that Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale will be the top three, but that leaves Triston McKenzie, Cal Quantrill and Logan Allen as candidates to be the fourth. Who will be the fifth starter who begins the year in the bullpen? Who will be the odd man out who starts the year in Triple-A?

Cleveland will likely rely on a combination of all three in the rotation throughout the season. McKenzie tossed 33 1/3 innings in 2020, marking his first game action since August 2018 due to injuries. His durability will make the club wonder whether it’s better to start him in the bullpen (or Minors) to ease him into an expanded workload.

Meanwhile, Quantrill has struggled this spring after making some changes in the offseason. If the Indians want him to stay stretched out as a starter, he may need to start the year in the Minors. And Allen has had a great showing this spring, but will the team base its decision on such a small sample size?

Expect there to be plenty of moving pieces in this rotation in 2021.

2. Bullpen
We know James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase, Nick Wittgren and Trevor Stephan are locks for the ‘pen. Phil Maton seems like a no-doubter and Adam Plutko will likely earn his spot as a multi-inning guy. Since the Tribe said it wants to carry eight relievers, that leaves two open spots. Oliver Pérez and Bryan Shaw are solid veteran options, but will the Indians be willing to part ways with two players on the 40-man roster in order for the two non-roster invitees to make the team? Or has Kyle Nelson showcased himself enough to make the Opening Day roster?

We haven’t even touched on the closer situation. Having this added wrench in the process moved the bullpen up to No. 2 on the list. Cleveland hasn’t committed to boasting a traditional closer who specifically works the ninth inning (or only save situations), which comes as no surprise considering manager Terry Francona has mentioned that he’d like to have his best reliever -- likely Karinchak -- to turn to in any crucial situation. Maybe the team mixes in Wittgren (and eventually Clase) to get some saves to free up Karinchak to be used in the seventh or eighth, but this all will be subject to change throughout the season.

3. First base
This is the roster battle many are waiting for. Is it time for Bobby Bradley to get his shot? Has Jake Bauers proven that he’s moved on from his shaky 2019 season? Is the team somehow trying to carry them both?

A roster with Bauers and Bradley just doesn’t seem to work since they are both left-handed hitters. So who has the edge? It’s still leaning toward Bauers since he’s out of options and the Indians don’t seem ready to part ways with him, but Bradley’s performance has kept him in the conversation.

4. Center field
Even after optioning Oscar Mercado to Triple-A, the Indians still aren’t ready to name an Opening Day center fielder. All eyes now turn to Bradley Zimmer, but the club has seen some inconsistencies with him this spring that make it difficult to commit to him being the everyday center fielder. With Amed Rosario still working on his defense, it’ll likely come down to Zimmer or Ben Gamel to win the starting job.