Inbox: Who will make Tribe's postseason staff?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian answers questions from Indians fans

September 17th, 2018

What do you think the Indians' pitching staff will look like in the playoffs?
-- @tmtribefan

Manager Terry Francona made it known last week that his preference will be to go with a four-man rotation. I think that will remain the case whether is deemed ready to return as a starter or winds up in a multi-inning relief role for the American League Division Series.
is having his schedule worked out to align him for a Game 1 start in the ALDS, which begins on Oct. 5. Barring anything unexpected, and Mike Clevinger would assume two more starting roles. That leaves the fourth spot to either Bauer or rookie Shane Bieber.
As things stand, I think both Bauer and Bieber will be on the ALDS roster in some capacity. Bauer logged 40 pitches in a mound session on Sunday, so there's a chance he can build up in time to rejoin the rotation. At the very least, he would be an intriguing weapon out of the bullpen given his durability. If Bieber gets the fourth spot, Cleveland could turn to Bauer at the first sign of trouble.
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If it turns out that Bauer is ready for a regular rotation role, then Bieber would probably figure into the bullpen mix. He throws strikes and can handle multiple innings. That is valuable, especially given the uncertainty hanging over Bauer's situation at the moment.
Last October, Francona went with a seven-man bullpen, and I have a hunch that will remain the case this year. Bauer or Bieber will take one spot. Then there are four virtual locks in , Brad Hand, and . That leaves two spots up for grabs, and there are a number of ways Cleveland could go with those vacancies.
The way I see it, right-handers and Dan Otero lead the pack, given their ability to handle righty hitters (.610 OPS for Cimber and .698 OPS for Otero this year) and generate grounders. Behind them on the bubble are righty and lefty . The other candidate would be veteran righty Josh Tomlin, who -- like Bieber -- throws strikes and can handle multiple innings, though he doesn't throw as hard and is prone to home runs.

This will be an interesting decision for the Indians, who would have five bench spots up for grabs under the 11-man pitching staff scenario detailed in the previous question. Backup catcher gets one spot and (a versus-lefty corner outfielder who can play center if needed) is a safe bet for one of the other available jobs.
That leaves utility man , corner infielder  and center fielders and  battling for three spots. Diaz offers a good right-handed complement to at first base. Gonzalez offers depth and plus defense at all four infield spots. Allen and Davis offer similar skill sets: An ability to play all three outfield spots and plus speed on the bases.
If the Indians decide that they want to carry both Gonzalez and Diaz, then I do think Allen has performed well enough to get the last spot over Davis. With playing center, Cleveland will probably look to upgrade the defense in the later innings. Both Davis and Allen can do that, but I'd give Allen the edge. That said, both could make the roster if the Indians prioritize speed and defense, meaning one of Gonzalez or Diaz would be left off.

The Indians acquired Josh Donaldson with this stretch run and the postseason in mind. It seems highly improbable that Cleveland will be a player for him in free agency this offseason unless the market plays out similarly to when slipped into the Tribe's operating range. It's more likely that Diaz will get his shot as the third baseman next year.
That said, I do think the Indians will explore the market for Kipnis, who was nearly traded last winter. That probably won't be an easy task, though. Kipnis' future position is now uncertain (will teams view him as a second baseman or an outfielder?) and he's hit .229 with a .697 OPS and 84 OPS+ (16 percent below league average) over the past two seasons combined. Kipnis is also set to earn $14.7 million in 2019, with a $16.5 million salary (or $2.5 million buyout) in '20.

Dating back to the start of August, those five relievers have combined for a 2.96 ERA (25 earned runs in 76 innings). Overall in that time period, the Indians' bullpen has turned in a 3.61 ERA, which ranks fifth in the AL and seventh in the Majors in that span. That's a dramatic improvement over the first four months, in which Cleveland had a 5.00 ERA from its relievers.

At this point, it's really hard to envision a scenario in which either (rehabbing a calf injury) or (rehabbing from hip surgery) could work their way back into the postseason mix this year. The Minor League season is over, making it difficult to get at-bats, and there has been no indication that either outfielder is near being set for that step anyway. It looks like both players are probably prepping for 2019.

I don't see working into the Opening Day mix next year, but the 23-year-old center field prospect -- acquired from the Cardinals prior to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline and ranked No. 14 on the Indians' Top 30 list -- will definitely be on the radar. Looking ahead, though, will be under team control and both Allen and Naquin will be back. Kipnis could also be in the outfield mix, and (shoulder surgery) might be back by midseason.