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Inbox: How will the Indians' rotation align?

Beat reporter Mandy Bell answers questions from Cleveland fans
@MandyBell02
January 17, 2020

CLEVELAND – The middle of January is an odd time in the baseball calendar year. With Spring Training just weeks away, it seems safe to start making predictions about the upcoming roster. Yet, there’s still just enough time left for teams to bolster their rosters before camp breaks. The Indians

CLEVELAND – The middle of January is an odd time in the baseball calendar year. With Spring Training just weeks away, it seems safe to start making predictions about the upcoming roster. Yet, there’s still just enough time left for teams to bolster their rosters before camp breaks.

The Indians have found themselves right in the middle of this situation. Could they open the season tomorrow with their current roster? Will they make another move before March 26? Let’s try to come up with some answers in this week’s Inbox.

This is a challenging question for two reasons. One, the Indians have to name a new Opening Day starter for the first time since 2014 now that Corey Kluber has been traded to the Rangers. The three guarantees of the Tribe’s five-man rotation next year are Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber and Carlos Carrasco. All three have certainly pitched convincing cases as to why they’d deserve the ball for the first game of the year, and it likely won’t be until the end of Spring Training that we can get a better feel for who has the edge in that race.

The second thing that makes this such a tough question is that the Indians have three experienced hurlers to earn the final two spots. Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale saved the Tribe last year as the club’s pitching staff battled through endless injuries. But now that Adam Plutko is out of options, the Indians will have to decide if they want him in the rotation or the bullpen. The best guess is that they will start the year with him in the rotation and, if all else fails, they’ll shift him out and call up one of their younger arms.

With all that being said, the best early predication of a starting rotation would be:

1) Clevinger
2) Bieber
3) Carrasco
4) Civale
5) Plutko

Since Plutko can’t start the year with Triple-A Columbus, it’s more likely either Civale or Plesac will do so. Plutko could move to the bullpen right away, or the Tribe could try him out in the rotation to start the year. Either way, he will have to stay on the Major League roster.

To answer the second part of the question, yes, the team seems confident that Carrasco will be starting the year back in the rotation.

If we’re sticking with the early projection of Clevinger, Bieber, Carrasco, Civale and Plutko, the backup plan will be more young pitchers. The team has Civale, Plesac or Plutko as a potential sixth man, and left-handers Scott Moss and Logan Allen will be next up from Triple-A. Triston McKenzie, the team’s No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline, will not be Major League ready to start the year since he missed all of 2019 with upper back and pectoral strains. But don’t rule him out for the second half of the season.

Yes, yes and yes. With the new three-batter minimum rule going into effect this year, a pitcher must face at least three batters or pitch to the conclusion of the half-inning, a concept the Indians may struggle with. However, if an injury or an illness prevents the pitcher from reaching either of those requirements, he may be removed from the game. The rule does carry over to extra innings, and an intentional walk would count as one batter.

The Indians signed free agent catcher Beau Taylor to a Minor League contract on Dec. 6 and invited him to Spring Training. It seems safe to assume he’d be the third catcher at the moment. The team also has Li-Jen Chu in Double-A, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it added another backstop into the mix prior to the start of camp.

Let’s say it’s approximately 60 percent that they do make a move. Cot’s Baseball Contracts has the Indians' payroll currently sitting around $90 million, so it's not crazy to think they could make any type of signing that would impact the Opening Day roster.

Trading Kluber freed up plenty of payroll space, and the Indians need an outfielder who can hit. Maybe they don’t spend the extra pocket change on someone like Marcell Ozuna, but Yasiel Puig surely seems to be affordable. And if they are trying to save more money, guys like Domingo Santana are still on the market as well. Whatever number the front office is willing to pay, there are still options on the free-agent market that would fall into that window.

Yasiel Puig rumors | Marcell Ozuna rumors

After the Indians' quiet winter last year, it lends some hesitancy in thinking that they’ll make a splash signing -- big or small -- but at this point the odds are still slightly in their favor.

If the Indians shift Franmil Reyes into the outfield from the designated-hitter role he acquired after being traded to Cleveland at the Trade Deadline last year, he’ll be heading to right field. Cleveland manager Terry Francona has mentioned that he wants to make sure Reyes is more than just a designated hitter since he’s only 24 years old. However, it’s known that his 6-foot-5, 275-pound stature hasn’t allowed him to be the most agile in the grass.

In 660 2/3 innings in right field last year, Reyes posted a -6.4 defensive fWAR, which ranked 215th of 228 right fielders. It will take more than his age to prove that he belongs in the outfield, but if he’s able to show some defensive improvement, the Indians seem open to trying him in right. If not, he’ll fall right back into his DH role. The club has said that it does not see him as a first baseman.

Mandy Bell covers the Indians for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.