Every season I do my best to predict the Indians opening day 25 man roster prior to the start of spring training with updates throughout after big signings, trades and cuts. Normally, this is a fairly simple undertaking as the roster has been greatly determined long in advance. This season, things are a bit different as even some of the biggest names on the team could still potentially see positional changes or trades before the regular season begins.
Ace – Corey Kluber
Options: Carrasco, Bauer
Kluber’s off-season has been shrouded with mystery despite being signed through 2021 on a very team friendly deal. It appears at the moment that the two time Cy Young winner (top three in each of the last three years, top 10 in each of the last five) will stay with the Tribe as they were able to free up enough money through the trades of Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso and Yan Gomes. As long as he’s still around, he deserves the ace connotation for his years of dominance in the Indians rotation.
SP2 – Carlos Carrasco
Options: Kluber, Bauer, Clevinger
While Kluber still deserves to be called ace, there is a strong argument that he is no longer the Indians top pitcher. Signed through 2023, Carrasco could be considered the Tribe’s top arm after averaging 4.1 bWAR over the last five years.
SP3 – Trevor Bauer
Options: Carrasco, Clevinger, Bieber
The third argument for ace belongs to Bauer, although his off-field antics and unwillingness to sign a long term deal will likely keep him from taking on the moniker. Despite that, he has the ability of a top line starter and could be the favorite for 2019 Cy Young among the Indians starters.
SP4 – Mike Clevinger
Options: Bieber, Shao-Ching Chiang, Salazar
Clevinger was incredibly underrated last year as he wasn’t quite up to the level of the three pitchers ahead of him, but he was still the 13th best pitcher in all of baseball. At just 28, there is still room for improvement for Clevinger, who has already been very impressive in his first two seasons.
SP5 – Shane Bieber
Options: Chiang, Salazar, Cody Anderson, Sam Hentges, Adam Plutko, Jean Carlos Mejia
The youngster in the Indians rotation at 23, Bieber also had an incredible and underrated season in 2018 as he was worth one win and posted a 3.23 FIP in 114.2 innings as a rookie. He is significantly better than his AAA competition and will almost certainly return as the Indians fifth man. If there is an injury or trade in the rotation it would potentially leave an opening for another rookie like Chiang or one of the long term injury replacements, Plutko and Anderson. Mejia and Hentges are in MLB camp, but won’t break camp with the team while Salazar is likely to begin the year on the DL.
C – Roberto Perez
Options: Eric Haase, Plawecki
Perez was one of the worst offensive producers in baseball last year and had trouble making throws to second base, but with the trade of Gomes to Washington, he appears to be the default choice. After picking up Plawecki from the Mets, it’s likely that Haase will begin the year in AAA.
1B – Carlos Santana
Options: Bauers, Bobby Bradley
Guess who’s back, back again. Returned to Cleveland in the Encarnacion trade with Seattle, Santana is very likely to be the Indians starting first baseman again. He greatly improved his defense in his final year with the Indians and would weaken the line-up considerably if he was used at DH with Bauers at first.
2B – Jason Kipnis
Options: J. Ramirez
Like Kluber and Bauer, Kipnis’ off-season was filled with trade rumors, but for now he’s still with Cleveland and slated to be the starting second baseman. Since all the Indians offensive weaknesses are focused in the outfield, moving Kipnis to left with Ramirez taking back second could be an option that would greatly increase the Indians offensive output at the cost of a greater defense.
3B – Jose Ramirez
If the Indians were to move Kipnis to left, Chang would slide into third with Ramirez moving to second. A strong hitter with the ability to play second, short and third, there is a good chance that Chang makes the team at least as a utility man. Ramirez has been clear in the past about wanting to stick at one position, so the Indians may try to clear up this situation completely during spring training.
SS – Francisco Lindor
As arguably both the top offensive and defensive short stop in baseball, Lindor doesn’t have to deal with the confusion surrounding the rest of the Indians infield. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll not only start at short, but likely play more than 155 games there. This frees the Indians to have a utility man who is more of a hitter than a gloveman as he will essentially never have to play short stop.
LF – Greg Allen
Options: Kipnis, Luplow, Oscar Mercado, Trayce Thompson, Brandon Barnes, Daniel Johnson, Mike Freeman, Mike Papi, Naquin, Zimmer, Bauers
Very easily the weakest offensive position for the Indians, there are quite a few different routes the Indians could take to address left field. I’ve already mentioned that I believe the best offensive group would be to move Kipnis to left, Ramirez to second and Chang to third, but I don’t believe that will actually happen. Instead, it is likely to be a battle between two players who have two partial MLB seasons under their belts one of whom has been worth 0.2 bWAR over that span, the other -0.2. As the long term internal option and the more valuable player so far, I will guess that Allen gets the nod over Luplow, but both will likely make the team.
There is also an outside shot that someone like Thompson or Barnes could really stand out in spring, but the only way the Indians are going to get significant production out of this position is if they put Kipnis there or make a trade/signing.
CF – Leonys Martin
Options: Zimmer, Allen, Mercado, Naquin
The starting job here should belong to Zimmer, but a mid-season shoulder surgery in 2018 will keep that from happening from the start. Instead, look for the hopefully fully recovered Martin to try to pick up where he left off after having a very impressive six games with the Indians last year.
RF – Jake Bauers
Options: Every previously mentioned outfielder.
Considered a top 100 prospect in baseball in both 2017 and 2018, Bauers had a strong rookie season with the Rays in 2018. While he has primarily been used at first base during his pro career, he has spent significant time in the corner outfield positions including 20 games without an error in the majors last year. Expect the lefty to be a significant power threat, especially against right handed pitchers. He will almost certainly be in the starting line-up, even if it is not in the outfield. He will most likely be used in some kind of rotation at first base and DH along with Santana and Chang or Bradley.
DH – Yu Chang
Options: Bradley, Santana, Bauers, Thompson, Haase, Kipnis
This might not be the likeliest scenario, but I believe it would be the most beneficial for Cleveland. Using Bauers in the outfield and Santana at first would free up the DH to replace one of the weaker hitting outfielders otherwise expected to make the roster. This would allow them to use Chang in this role regularly while he gets used to Major League pitching. He is also an ideal candidate in that the DH could still be used to give players partial days off as Chang could just slide into third, short or second whenever needed. While I don’t believe he will make the opening day roster, Bobby Bradley could be a perfect fit for this spot later in the season.
Closer – Brad Hand
Options: Henry Martinez
You don’t trade your top offensive prospect who plays a position that you desperately need offense from for nothing and Brad will be the Indians guiding Hand in the bullpen for at least the next two years. The lefty has been incredibly consistent over the last three seasons and was selected for the All-Star game in each of the last two. Considering that Andrew Miller signed for over $11M per year this off-season, Hand, who is five years younger, is a steal at about $7M in 2019.
LH Set Up – Oliver Perez
Options: Tyler Olson, Sam Hentges, Plutko, Josh Smith, Rob Kaminsky, R.C. Orlan
With a left handed closer, I expect the Indians to carry just one other left handed reliever and that should be Perez, who just signed a $2.5M deal with Cleveland with a vesting option for 2020. Perez will turn 38 this summer, but was the Indians most consistently reliable reliever in 2018 with a 1.39 ERA across 51 appearances.
If the Indians decide to carry three lefties or need to replace Perez, Olson should be the first man in, however, his 2018 season (4.94 ERA in 27.1 IP) was nearly the reverse of his 2017 (0.00 in 20 IP) and he could be held on a short leash. Of the other options, Smith has actually been worse against lefties than righties over his three year MLB career and the rest are minor leaguers. Of those, Kaminsky may be the most MLB ready after having a dominating season in the Arizona Fall League in 2018. Injuries remain a serious problem for him, however.
RH Set Up – Dan Otero
Options: Martinez, Ramirez, Goody, Hu, Cimber, Anderson, Jon Edwards, Jean Carlos Mejia, Justin Grimm, Brooks Pounders, Chiang, Anthony Gose, James Hoyt, A.J. Cole, Jefry Rodriguez, Ben Taylor, Salazar
For the sake of brevity, all the relievers in camp are listed in the right handed or left handed set up men options lists and will not be repeated again.
With a guaranteed contract of $1.3M and an option for 2020, Otero could have one of the most stable positions in what appears to be a very volatile bullpen again in 2019. While he has a very useful skillset, a Tomlinian increase in home run rate to 1.8 per nine innings last year made him less than reliable. Considering that his primary use is inducing double plays with multiple runners on, allowing an inordinate number of home runs is particularly dangerous. The Indians must be hoping that 2018 was an aberration and he will return to the quality pitcher he was in 2016 and 2017.
If that is not the case, Chiang is a similar style pitcher who is essentially MLB ready and doesn’t need to be saved for a starting rotation opportunity to pop up.
BP4 – Neil Ramirez
It’s inexplicable, but Terry Francona absolutely adores Ramirez. Despite a 4.54 ERA and a long record of being an ineffective reliever, he was used 47 times last year, often in tight spots, and signed for $1M to pitch for the Tribe in 2019. He pitched in 14 save situations and allowed 6 runs off three home runs and four doubles in ten innings. This is a small sample size, but the numbers aren’t really different from his season long numbers, so why he was continuously placed in difficult situations made no sense. His return this year makes sense only when you consider how barren the Indians bullpen is. Look for multiple changes mid-season involving pitchers who are not listed above, but will likely be promoted quickly like Nick Sandlin and Adam Scott.
BP5 – Nick Goody
If you thought Ramirez was bad last year, just wait. Goody went from a 2.80 ERA in 2017 to a 6.94 in 2018 in a scant 11.2 innings. The good news for Cleveland is that the poor, injury laden season helped them resign Goody for cheap and it’s possible his struggles were completely injury related. If he returns to 2017 form, Goody could become the Indians most reliable right handed reliever.
BP6 – Chih-Wei Hu
Acquired from Tampa during the off-season for Gionti Turner, Hu has limited MLB experience over the last two seasons, but had good minor league numbers and decent peripheral stats in the big leagues. He has one option remaining, so he could start out in AAA, but expect to see Hu at some point in 2019.
BP7 – Adam Cimber
The side arming, rookie righty who went from a 9.5 K/9 with San Diego to a 3.2 with Cleveland could be the final man in the pen for the Indians to start off the 2019 season. Returning nearly an identical bullpen minus Cody Allen and Andrew Miller to a season where the unit was a complete disaster doesn’t seem to be a recipe for success, but there’s a good chance that will be what happens.
If the Indians decide to hold back Cimber and/or Hu, Taylor is probably the most reliable Major League option while Chiang and Martinez could be good choices among those who haven’t made the big leagues yet. Once he returns from his shoulder surgery, Salazar could make a huge difference in the pen as well.
C2 – Kevin Plawecki
Options: Perez, Haase, Li-Jen Chu
Teams always bring in a few extra catchers prior to spring training to help get all the pitchers ready in time, but this year the Indians trade of Sam Haggerty and Walter Lockett for Plawecki may have been a bit more significant. With only the light hitting Perez and the rookie Haase as MLB options before, the four year MLB vet Plawecki should fill in nicely until the Indians feel like Haase is ready to take over the role.
MIF – Max Moroff
Options: Eric Stamets, Mark Mathias, Chang
Moroff was acquired in what was probably the Indians strangest trade this off-season when he and Luplow came from Pittsburgh for Erik Gonzalez, Dante Mendoza and Tahnaj Thomas. The reason it was strange is that they gave up two talented young pitchers to downgrade their utility man. Like Gonzalez, Moroff is out of options, but unlike Gonzalez, he can’t hit. His biggest advantage, playing good defense at short stop, is the thing the Indians need the least.
That being said, unless another starting hitter is added to the line-up allowing the Indians to use Chang in a lesser role, they will essentially need Moroff to be the utility man. The other options in camp are Stamets and Mathias, but Stamets struggled greatly in AAA in 2018 and Mathias is likely at least another full year away.
OF – Jordan Luplow
Options: Naquin, Thompson, Barnes, Allen, Martin, Mercado, Johnson, Freeman, Papi
The other half of the aforementioned Pirates trade, Luplow does have a minor league option remaining, but as the more valuable player in the deal, is equally likely to make the team out of camp. He hasn’t done anything offensively in his first two seasons in the big leagues, but along with Allen, Martin and eventually Zimmer, could help to completely turn around the rotten defensive situation in the Indians outfield that has been a plague over the last few seasons.
OF2 – Tyler Naquin
Options: Nearly every player in Indians camp.
This is essentially a flex position that could be used to house another infielder (like Bradley), a third catcher (like Haase) or an eighth reliever, but at the moment the Indians weakness in the outfield makes it most likely to go to a fifth outfielder. Naquin certainly has a case for that spot as he produced more in his rookie year than nearly every other outfielder in camp has in their careers combined. However, he has been unable to repeat his 2016 performance in either of the last two seasons. He is also a significant defensive liability, so if the Indians decided to get the greatest value out of this roster spot by bringing up Bradley to use in match-up situations or to shore up the bullpen it would make sense.