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Inbox: Will McKenzie start for Tribe in '20?

@MandyBell02
November 22, 2019

CLEVELAND -- The Indians’ 40-man roster has reached capacity after the additions of Minor Leaguers Scott Moss, Daniel Johnson and Triston McKenzie on Wednesday to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 12. In order to make space for all three, the Tribe had to designate reliever Nick

CLEVELAND -- The Indians’ 40-man roster has reached capacity after the additions of Minor Leaguers Scott Moss, Daniel Johnson and Triston McKenzie on Wednesday to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 12. In order to make space for all three, the Tribe had to designate reliever Nick Goody for assignment.

Let’s take a look at your questions about the roster moves, what they mean and what else to expect in 2020:

McKenzie is a tough one to predict. The 22-year-old missed the entire 2019 season with upper back and pectoral strains, but the Indians were clear at the end of the season that they are still optimistic about his future. Prior to his injuries, MLB Pipeline ranked McKenzie No. 1 among the Indians' Top 30 prospects. Halfway through the season, he dropped to No. 2, as third baseman Nolan Jones took over the top spot. It’s clear why the club still values McKenzie, but his injury history makes it hard to make any concrete projections about how he could impact the big league club in the near future.

Assuming he remains healthy in '20, McKenzie still needs a lot of time in the Minors. The 6-foot-5 righty made 16 starts for Double-A Akron in 2018, posting a 2.68 ERA with a 1.00 WHIP and 87 strikeouts in 90 2/3 innings. He’ll need to reacquaint himself with actual game activity and get a few starts under his belt at Triple-A Columbus before he's Major League-ready.

For those reasons, McKenzie is not necessarily the prospect giving the Indians the flexibility to listen to offers on their starters. He’s certainly in their mix of young talent that gives them some comfort, but for this offseason, guys like Moss, Jefry Rodriguez and Logan Allen (along with Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale) will play a larger role in that decision.

First, Ka’ai Tom will have to survive the Rule 5 Draft before the Indians can begin penciling out his path to the Majors. The 25-year-old split 2019 between Double-A and Triple-A, hitting .290 with a .912 OPS, 23 homers, 86 RBIs, 27 doubles and 10 triples. His age, experience and numbers from last season may make him an attractive candidate to get picked up in the Rule 5. But if he makes it through, we can take a look at what it would take for Tom to get a shot in an overcrowded outfield.

First, the Indians will have to rule out Franmil Reyes in right. As of now, the Indians want to give Reyes an opportunity to earn that job, but his defense may not prove to be enough to move him out of the DH spot. While Tyler Naquin recovers from ACL surgery, the Indians may tap into their farm system instead of relying on Jordan Luplow, Greg Allen and Jake Bauers to man the corners every day.

However, Johnson clearly has the upper hand now that he’s on the 40-man and will be the first outfielder called if they’d need him. That would leave Luplow, Allen and Bauers as candidates for left field. Tom would need all three of them to not be producing while putting up numbers like he did last year in order to be considered. But when Naquin fully recovers, he’ll likely jump right back in. Tom will have his work cut out for him, but it’s definitely not impossible.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Indians re-sign free agent Tyler Clippard for 2020. And James Karinchak, who has the potential to be a reliable arm for them out of the bullpen, seems ready to break camp with the big league club.

Yes. The Indians were ready to put Brad Hand back in the closer role in September after he was sidelined with arm fatigue. Following a long offseason, the club will likely have Hand in the back end of the bullpen to start the year. If he’d fall back into his second-half struggles (which roughly began at the end of June), then they could make a switch to someone like Nick Wittgren, or even Karinchak. But it’ll be Hand’s job to lose.

The three batter minimum rule will certainly change the Indians’ strategy a little bit. Manager Terry Francona loves his matchups, but the new rule for 2020 that will require relievers to face at least three batters or pitch until the conclusion of the half-inning will be a slight adjustment.

However, the latter part of the rule at least makes it easier for the Tribe to still utilize guys like Adam Cimber and Oliver Pérez in the same manner. If they are able to put them into the game with two outs, then they could easily still only face one batter. It’s when they aren’t able to get that immediate out that will make things a little tricky, as they’ll then be required to remain in the game.

The front office has mentioned that Yu Chang is a candidate for both second and third base. He could start at the hot corner, which would allow José Ramírez to move over to second. But it’s not as much what they think about him long-term as it would be in the immediate. Jones will likely get promoted to Triple-A this season, and the Indians' hope would be that he could be their everyday third baseman by '21. They just need a bridge, whether at second or third, until Jones would be ready -- assuming he's healthy.

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