GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The hallways at the Indians’ Spring Training facility were louder and more crowded Thursday morning as pitchers and catchers took part in their first workout of the preseason. The clubhouse was also filled with more position players, who arrived two days early to begin some light exercises and batting practice before Saturday’s report date.
With the sudden burst of energy and excitement as the first full-squad workout on Monday inches closer, let’s take a look at the four storylines you can expect from camp this year.
Who will claim a spot in the outfield?
The only guarantee is that Oscar Mercado will man one of the three positions. Indians manager Terry Francona and the front office have been blatantly clear that Mercado isn’t going to be losing his regular role in the lineup, but the 25-year-old may not be the everyday center fielder.
The acquisition of center fielder Delino DeShields from the Rangers in December’s Corey Kluber trade throws a little bit of a wrench in Mercado’s center-field plans. DeShields ranked in the 95th percentile in Outs Above Average (OAA), according to Statcast, and in the 97th percentile in sprint speed. The Indians were tied for 14th in OAA as a team in 2019. DeShields’ above-average defense may be enough to push Mercado over to left, as Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti noted the two are expected to play an equal role in 2020.
That still leaves seven more outfielders on the 40-man roster, not including Domingo Santana, who’s expected to officially sign with the Indians before position players report. It’s likely that Daniel Johnson and Bradley Zimmer will have to begin the year at Triple-A Columbus, Jordan Luplow will earn a bench (or platoon) spot, Jake Bauers may use his infield/outfield versatility to earn another bench spot over Greg Allen and Franmil Reyes and Santana will share corner-outfield and designated-hitter duties.
It’s time to bring the heat
James Karinchak is 24 years old and Emmanuel Clase is 21. Karinchak made just five Major League appearances last year, while Clase made 21. They are both still young and inexperienced, but this doesn’t have to mean the two won’t be able to break camp with the Tribe at the end of March. For a bullpen that averaged the slowest fastball velocity in the Majors last year (90.8 mph), it’s time to add some heat. With Clase’s triple-digit cutter and Karinchak’s 95-98 mph fastball, a bullpen that managed to post the best ERA in the league from the beginning of the year until the end of August could see some new life.
Say goodbye to the slump
José Ramírez answered questions about his offensive struggles for nearly a year straight. The 2018 American League MVP Award candidate hit just .218 in the second half of the ’18 regular season and batted .174 with a .637 OPS in September and October. When he then got off to a rough start in ’19, hitting .198 with a .586 OPS through June 12, there were concerns he wasn’t going to rediscover his rhythm.
From that point on, he hit .314 with a 1.031 OPS in his last 63 games of the year. Even after getting surgery on the hamate bone in his right hand at the end of August, Ramírez returned for three more games in September, launching a grand slam in his first plate appearance off the injured list and another homer in his next at-bat. That should help leave a better taste in his mouth entering the 2020 season, putting his enormous slump in the rearview mirror. Steamer Projections, per FanGraphs, predict a bounce-back season for Ramírez -- .277 batting average with an .885 OPS and 125 wRC+.
Lots of competition for rotation spots
Shane Bieber and Carlos Carrasco will be locks for the Tribe’s rotation and Mike Clevinger will join them once he recovers from left knee surgery, but the final two spots are still up for grabs. The Indians have a never-ending list of starting pitching depth that includes Jefry Rodriguez, Adam Plutko, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, Logan Allen and Scott Moss. These six will be fighting for the two vacancies, but Plutko, Plesac and Civale have an edge on the rest of the competition, though Rodriguez could put together a convincing case as well.
Because of the impressive rookie campaigns of Plesac and Civale last year, it’d be easy to picture both winning starting jobs for 2020, but because Plutko is out of Minor League options, the Indians will either have to put him in the rotation or the bullpen. If they choose to leave him in the rotation, it could become a battle between Civale and Plesac to see who will start the year in the Majors and who will be in Triple-A.