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Tribe needs to solve LF, 3B spots this spring

Opening Day status of Brantley uncertain; Ramirez an option for hot corner or second base
MLB.com @MLBastian

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The same question has hovered over the Indians' preseason for three years now: Will Michael Brantley be ready in time for Opening Day? Injuries have hindered the All-Star left fielder's preparation in the past and are once again casting doubt over his potential availability for Spring Training.

Brantley's latest comeback is from right ankle surgery -- performed in October -- and could have a ripple effect on the club's roster for the start of the regular season. His status will not only impact the alignment of the Tribe's outfield, though. This spring, Brantley's progress might influence how the club goes about naming an Opening Day third baseman.

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The same question has hovered over the Indians' preseason for three years now: Will Michael Brantley be ready in time for Opening Day? Injuries have hindered the All-Star left fielder's preparation in the past and are once again casting doubt over his potential availability for Spring Training.

Brantley's latest comeback is from right ankle surgery -- performed in October -- and could have a ripple effect on the club's roster for the start of the regular season. His status will not only impact the alignment of the Tribe's outfield, though. This spring, Brantley's progress might influence how the club goes about naming an Opening Day third baseman.

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"He'll be dying to start the season on time, as he always does," manager Terry Francona said last month. "That will be our biggest challenge; to make sure we get him back and keep him back and not let Opening Day be an arbitrary deadline. But, by all accounts, he's doing terrific."

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Indians pitchers and catchers report on Wednesday, with the first workout scheduled for the following day. The position players will then report to camp on Sunday -- one day ahead of the first full-squad workout. By then, there should start to be more clarity about where Brantley is on his current comeback trail.

For the sake of argument, let's say the Indians take a conservative approach with Brantley and his rehab lingers into April. That would necessitate the naming of a new left fielder for the start of the season. Outfielders such as Lonnie Chisenhall, Abraham Almonte, Tyler Naquin and Melvin Upton Jr. would be in the mix. The club might also consider second baseman Jason Kipnis, who played center down the stretch last year.

If Kipnis were to open the regular season in left, that domino would create a conversation about how to handle third base, where there are a few possible solutions. What follows is a look at how the competition for the hot corner is shaping up as Spring Training begins.

Jose Ramirez
Pros: Ramirez is not only a focal point of the Tribe's lineup, but a sound defender for second or third base. Keeping Ramirez at third would reduce the amount of moving parts on the roster, if Brantley is not ready for Opening Day. It would allow the club to keep Kipnis at second (his preference) and limit the spring competition to the corner outfield spots. Last summer, Ramirez started at third base for the American League All-Star team.

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Cons: Ramirez was an excellent defender at second down the stretch in 2017, while Kipnis was sidelined with injury issues. The switch-hitting infielder also said he is most comfortable at second base. Keeping him at third might cost the Indians a little bit defensively. Ramirez had five Defensive Runs Saved in 577 1/3 innings at second in '17, compared to minus two DRS for Kipnis in 620 2/3 innings. They may also want to avoid having Ramirez bounce back and forth between second and third like last year.

Yandy Diaz
Pros: Diaz has little left to prove in the Minors as a hitter. He posted a .914 OPS in Triple-A in 2017 and an .854 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A in '16. Diaz also held his own defensively at third base last season, putting up a 10.2 UZR/150 in 282 innings at that position. The combination of Diaz and Ramirez at third and second, respectively, worked well in September. Diaz had his ups and downs offensively, but he had a .352 on-base percentage overall and finished strong (.304 average and .810 OPS in 31 games after his August promotion).

Cons: It's still hard to know what to make of Diaz as a hitter at the big league level. Among the 387 Major Leaguers who had at least 100 batted balls last season, Diaz ranked second with 50.8 percent of his having an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater, per Statcast™. However, Diaz's average launch angle (2.2 degrees) ranked last among the 313 players with 50 hard-hit balls (95-plus mph). He did much better against lefties (.727 OPS) than righties (.648 OPS). Diaz dealt with a groin issue this offseason, so his health will need to be monitored closely this spring, too.

Giovanny Urshela
Pros: Urshela is known for his skills as a defender and having him at third, with Ramirez at second base, might present the best defensive alignment for the Indians. During the team's 22-game winning streak that spanned across August and September last year, Urshela was a regular part of the rotation at the hot corner. If he did not start, he would often come in late for defense. The Tribe went 53-14 in the regular season when Urshela played in the game.

Cons: Urshela is not known for his skills as a hitter. Over 148 games during the '15 and '17 campaigns, he has turned in a .225 average and .587 OPS. His career 56 OPS+ indicates that he has performed 44 percent below league average as a hitter. Urshela would need to bring elite defensive value to make up for that lack of production. The Indians may be better served utilizing Urshela as a utility man. He and Erik Gonzalez could compete for that job this spring.

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

Cleveland Indians, Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez