CLEVELAND -- The Indians entered Spring Training this year with a bit more uncertainty about their roster than they had over the last few seasons. The lone guarantee in the outfield was Oscar Mercado, and only three starters could be deemed “locks” for the rotation.
Then baseball was put on hold last week due to the coronavirus pandemic. In the four-week stint in Goodyear, Ariz., the Indians got some clarity on their outfield situation, though no final decisions had been made. Franmil Reyes and Jordan Luplow seem to be front-runners for the corners, joining Mercado, who would start in center. Domingo Santana could be penciled in as the DH and Delino DeShields (and maybe Jake Bauers) would get a bench spot.
Although one position battle may be clearer, plenty of others have become a little more complicated. Let’s take a look at two position battles that will still need to be decided once baseball resumes.
Now that Mike Clevinger (partial left meniscus tear) and Carlos Carrasco (right elbow inflammation) have some unexpected time off to fully recover, the pair of right-handers should be more than ready to be back into the starting mix by the time the season gets underway. Because of that, the team will likely have to end up choosing between Adam Plutko, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale to fill the final two vacancies in the rotation.
Shane Bieber, Clevinger and Carrasco are all locks in the rotation. From there, it seemed most likely that Plutko would get a chance to start the year in the rotation and move to the bullpen if he didn’t end up being the best candidate for the Tribe, considering he’s now out of Minor League options. The reworked schedule of the 2020 season may change the way they decide who should be placed where, but assuming Plutko does get his shot as a starter, the Indians would have to choose between Plesac and Civale for the fifth spot.
The duo had strong springs through the first four weeks, even after Civale was shut down temporarily with groin discomfort. Plesac allowed three runs in 8 1/3 frames and looked extremely sharp in his final Cactus League outing against the Giants in Scottsdale. Civale gave up just one run -- a solo homer -- in five innings with nine strikeouts and two walks.
Both young hurlers made strong impressions in their rookie seasons last year after beginning the year with Double-A Akron. And although it would be hard to imagine either of them having to start the season with Triple-A Columbus, it seems unlikely that Indians manager Terry Francona would decide to move either to the bullpen to keep them at the big league level so that they can stay stretched out as starters in the Minors. The team will have to determine whether Plutko is a better option than having both Plesac and Civale in the rotation; and if he is, the next decision will be which of the two will have to be sent down.
The race between Mike Freeman and Christian Arroyo is extremely tight. Arroyo, who is on the 40-man roster, was traded to the Indians last July from the Rays but was on the injured list with right forearm tendinitis during his time in the Tribe’s organization. In 10 games, he hit .368 with a 1.005 OPS, one homer and one RBI in 19 at-bats. The Indians prefer him at second and third, but they know that he can play a little bit of shortstop, if necessary. And while his bat is intriguing, it’s his lack of that defensive versatility that keeps Freeman strongly in the race.
Freeman was the unsung hero of the Indians’ 2019 team, and plenty of his teammates and coaches were sure to acknowledge that. In the process of getting Emmanuel Clase and DeShields on the 40-man roster, the Tribe decided to designate Freeman for assignment in December, which removed him from the 40-man, the Indians were able to keep him in their organization. Carrying Freeman would cause the team to have to clear another roster spot, but he can play all infield and outfield positions. The Indians also have the option to have both Freeman and Arroyo on the 26-man roster, but that would mean Bauers -- or any other extra outfielder -- would not be able to find his way on the roster.