CLEVELAND -- After a year of so many unprecedented hurdles, it doesn’t look like 2021 will be any easier to predict.
The Indians’ roster will have a much different – and younger – look to it this season, as the club decided against picking up the options of Carlos Santana and Brad Hand before trading Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco to the Mets. However, the Tribe was able to re-sign its second baseman, add a high-quality free-agent outfielder and acquire two shortstops from the Mets.
There are some guarantees when it comes to the 26-man roster and a lot of question marks. Let’s take an early look at how the Indians’ 2021 Opening Day roster could shake out:
Catcher (2): Roberto Pérez, Austin Hedges
The Indians felt confident in picking up Pérez’s $5.5 million option for a reason. The two-time Gold Glove Award winner will absolutely be back in his starting role in 2021. What’s left to determine is just how much Hedges will spell Pérez. Pérez has run into injuries over the last two seasons, and the club decided to keep Hedges, who signed a one-year, $2.8 million deal to avoid arbitration. The two are very similar defensively and could be a solid duo behind the dish.
First base (2): Bobby Bradley
It’s nearly impossible to predict how the Indians’ first-base situation will work out this far ahead. The Tribe has options in Jake Bauers, Josh Naylor and Bradley, though the Indians have indicated that Naylor will first be looked at as an outfielder. That leaves Bauers and Bradley to battle to be the Opening Day first baseman. While the club was pleased with the work Bauers put in at the alternate training site last year to help him rebound from a shaky 2019, Indians manager Terry Francona also stated in December that it’s time for the team to see what it has in Bradley, who’s played in just 15 big league games. The early guess is leaning towards Bradley, but this could absolutely change throughout camp.
Second base (1): Cesar Hernandez
There’s no doubt Hernandez, who earned a Gold Glove Award in a strong year at second base in 2020, will be back in that position for the club in 2021. When last season ended, both Hernandez and the Tribe expressed interest in keeping the second baseman in Cleveland, but the Indians weren’t sure if they’d have the financial flexibility to make it happen. But after a handful of offseason moves freed up their budget (even if it was just a little), they were able to ink Hernandez to a one-year, $5 million deal.
Third base (1): José Ramírez
There’s no more contemplating when it comes to Ramírez’s position. He won’t be moving to second base, even though he constantly reminds his coaching staff he’s versatile. Cleveland likes the way the Ramírez has settled into his position at the hot corner and has no desire to move him.
Shortstop (1): Andrés Giménez
For the first time since 2015, Lindor’s name isn’t listed here. Now, it’s a question of who will be chosen to fill his shoes. It will be a battle between Rosario and Giménez. While Rosario has more Major League experience and could be the Opening Day starter to allow Giménez to start in the Minors (for service time purposes), the Tribe could also choose to move Rosario into the outfield mix and start Giménez at short. Because Giménez seemed to be the focal point for the Indians in the return for Lindor and Carrasco, the early guess is that he will be the Opening Day shortstop.
Designated hitter (1): Franmil Reyes
No surprises here. Reyes’ power has him locked into the Indians’ DH role.
Utility (1): Mike Freeman
He may be on a Minor League deal, but Freeman has been in this position before. Similar to last offseason, Freeman was designated for assignment to open up some space on the 40-man roster for other roster moves. The Indians were able to re-sign the utility man to a Minor League deal and after filling that role seamlessly for the last two seasons, Freeman immediately became the favorite to win the job once again. He’ll be competing against Yu Chang and maybe Ernie Clement this spring, but it’d be hard to imagine a situation where Freeman doesn’t break camp with the Tribe.
Outfield (5): Eddie Rosario, Josh Naylor, Daniel Johnson, Oscar Mercado, Jordan Luplow, Amed Rosario
Because we have Giménez at shortstop for now, Amed Rosario will get penciled in here. Although he’s only made one big league appearance in the outfield, he could absolutely factor into the Tribe’s outfield mix in 2021. The one guarantee is that Eddie Rosario will man one of the corners, and it’s expected that Mercado will reclaim his starting job in center field. That leaves a battle between Naylor (who can also back up at first base), Luplow and Johnson to win the other corner outfield spot. Eventually, the Tribe’s top prospect, Nolan Jones, will get thrown into the outfield mix. Although he’s spent the majority of his time at third, the Indians have been working on his defense in the outfield over the past offseason in order to be able to get him in the lineup with Ramírez at the hot corner.
Starting pitchers (5): Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, Triston McKenzie, Cal Quantrill
The Tribe’s top three starters are a lock, and assuming McKenzie doesn’t run into any problems with injuries, it seems safe to assume that he proved enough in 2020 to secure his spot in the rotation. Who will be the fifth starter? The Tribe will have Quantrill, Logan Allen, Scott Moss, Adam Plutko, Sam Hentges, Trevor Stephan, Jean Carlos Mejía and Jordan Humphreys to consider.
Relievers (7): James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase, Nick Wittgren, Phil Maton, Kyle Nelson, Oliver Pérez, Adam Plutko, Bryan Shaw
Without Brad Hand, Karinchak seems to be the most obvious option to take over as the Indians closer. The team will certainly have options in Wittgren or Clase (they’ll need to see a little of Clase before he’d earn that title after he missed 2020 with a suspension), but Karinchak will be the early favorite. From there, the bullpen could go in many different directions. Maybe Shaw and Pérez will be the non-roster invitees who break camp with the club or prospect Nick Sandlin could dazzle enough in his spring campaign to earn some consideration. If Cam Hill's wrist recovered enough from his car accident in November by the end of camp, he could also make the Opening Day roster.