Sports Weekly takes an in-depth look at each major league organization during the offseason, from the major leagues to the farm system. We start with teams with the worst records and move up.
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Brandon Moss has been the Cleveland Indians’ one significant addition this offseason, but it’s the gains made by the team’s emerging stars that have the Indians increasingly on the radar as a contender in the rapidly improving American League Central.
Rotation ace Corey Kluber is the reigning Cy Young Award winner, and left fielder Michael Brantley finished third in AL MVP voting. Even after watching them all season, manager Terry Francona wasn’t sure if the new focal points of his team had caught the attention of the baseball world.
“I was glad, because, leading up to the end of the season, I try to shy away from talking about that stuff as we’re trying to compete for a spot in the playoffs,” Francona says. “Then you start hearing about other guys in the league. I was a little disappointed. I was like, ‘Man, why aren’t they talking about Brantley?'”.
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They were, and they were talking about Kluber, who edged out the more established Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners.
“There’s a reason Felix has a reputation,” Francona says. “But Corey Kluber went toe-to-toe.”.
And that’s where the Indians like to think they are in a division that has been ruled by the Detroit Tigers four years running, that produced last year’s AL pennant winner in the Kansas City Royals and that has one of the offseason’s more aggressive teams in the Chicago White Sox.
“I think pretty quickly this winter I shifted into how are we going to get better,” Francona says. “Quickly I was like we need to start doing this, this and this.”.
Adding Moss in a trade for second-base prospect Joe Wendle signals the Indians are at a point where creating roster depth is the next step.
Depth and health should determine how close they are.
Moss fits into the mix at outfield, first base and designated hitter. The only available spot in the outfield — considering the presence of Brantley and center fielder Michael Bourn — is in right, where David Murphy and Ryan Raburn shared last season.
First base and DH belonged to Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana because Yan Gomes’ play at catcher made Santana a backup there and Lonnie Chisenhall’s breakthrough season at third base made Santana’s possible move to that spot unnecessary.
What seems like too many bodies really becomes necessary depth.
“I hope it is, because then that means we’ve got guys that are healthy and producing,” Francona says. “That would be the best situation if we have to try to feel like we’ve got to get guys in there, because that meant guys are healthy and they’re hitting. That would be wonderful.”.
But health is far from a guarantee.
Swisher’s season ended in August because of knee surgery. Moss had an operation to alleviate a hip issue that slowed him last year. Raburn is recovering from a similar procedure on a knee. Even second baseman Jason Kipnis, a former All-Star, slipped in a year marred by side and hamstring problems.
Everyone is expected to be ready by opening day, but Francona understands he can’t let their recoveries be overridden by the desire for progress in the standings.
“Not knowing some of our health issues, now we have some flexibility,” Francona says.
But he also has legitimate stars now, too.
Catcher: Gomes’ progress has been one of the more significant developments as the Indians re-establish themselves as a consistent contender. It also reduces the time Santana is exposed to the wear and tear behind the plate. Cleveland is likely to keep Roberto Perez on the roster as a third catcher and further reduce the need for Santana there. The Indians also have veterans Adam Moore and Brett Hayes as insurance at Class AAA Columbus, but the most intriguing minor leaguer is Tony Wolters, who probably will be at Class AA Akron this season.
Depth chart: Gomes, Santana, Perez, Moore, Hayes, *Wolters.
First base: Nowhere else on the diamond is there more veteran flexibility for the Indians than here. Santana probably ends up with more games at the position during the course of the season, but Nick Swisher and Moss could see significant time as they mix in time at DH and in the outfield. Waiting at Class AAA are Jesus Aguilar and Jerry Sands, two players with impressive minor league numbers but little to show from brief exposure to the majors. The one real prospect in the minors is Bobby Bradley, but he’s several years away.
Depth chart: Santana, Moss, Swisher, *Aguilar, Sands.
Second base: Despite an injury-plagued 2014, Kipnis has a firm hold on the position. Still, the Indians have plenty of depth. It’s a position starting shortstop Jose Ramirez can handle, a proposition that could gain more importance in the next year or so when shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor is ready. Meanwhile, Mike Aviles will be on the big-league bench and fellow utility player Zach Walters probably will be waiting at Class AAA. Raburn also has second-base time in his background.
Depth chart: Kipnis, Ramirez, Aviles, Walters, Raburn.
Third base: Chisenhall’s hold on the position was so tenuous a year ago the Indians were thinking of moving Santana there. Chisenhall had his best season, but he’ll have to continue to fend off challengers. For now, Aviles is the one other third baseman on the roster. Raburn could fill in for a short period, but the interesting possibility is Giovanny Urshela, a solid prospect who could earn a look this year.
Depth chart: Chisenhall, Aviles, *Urshela, Raburn.
Shortstop: Ramirez, 22, stepped in after the midseason trade of Asdrubal Cabrera and handled the job just fine. As solid a prospect and emerging player as he is, the job hardly is his going forward. Lurking on the verge of the majors is Lindor, the system’s top prospect. Ramirez also can play second base, but Kipnis is under contract for at least five more seasons. Aviles is an adequate backup, regardless of who is starting, and Walters is a younger version of Aviles. Erik Gonzalez, probably starting this year at Class AA, is a prospect who would get more notice in another organization.
Depth chart: Ramirez, *Lindor, Aviles, Walters,*Gonzalez.
Left field: Brantley is emerging as the focal point of the Cleveland offense and, with a contract that locks him up at least through 2017, owns this position. Anyone else who plays left will strictly be a fill-in, though plenty of viable options are on the roster from the competition in right field — Murphy, Moss and Raburn — to Aviles and even Swisher, though he’s pretty much only a first baseman at this point in his career.
Depth chart: Brantley, Raburn, Murphy, Aviles, Moss.
Center field: Michael Bourn has two years remaining on his contract, and before then the Indians will have interesting options at the position. For now, Bourn plays. If he can’t, the next-best option is Brantley, who would move to center field and have someone from the bench replace him in left. The one fill-in available at Class AAA is Tyler Holt. After that, though, the organization has a string of legitimate prospects lined up at lower levels in the minors. Tyler Naquin is first in line and probably will be at Class AA this year, close enough for big-league consideration later in the season. Behind him are Cleveland’s last two first-round draft picks: Clint Frazier and Bradley Zimmer.
Depth chart: Bourn, Brantley, Holt, *Naquin, *Frazier, *Zimmer.
Right field: The addition of Moss from the Oakland Athletics is an upgrade and creates a competition at a spot where the Murphy-Raburn platoon struggled last year, mostly thanks to a down year from Raburn. Moss and Murphy are lefties and neither is going to bump either of the other starting outfielders, though Moss could find time at first base. Aviles and Holt are backup options.
Depth chart: Moss, Murphy, Raburn, Aviles, Holt.
Designated hitter: Swisher’s time on defense is dwindling as the Indians find ways to keep Santana and Gomes on the field and in the lineup. How much of the DH job will be Swisher’s will depend on his production. Santana, Gomes and Moss also will spend time at DH, and Raburn can earn time if he has a solid offensive season.
Depth chart: Swisher, Santana, Moss, Raburn, Gomes.
Starting pitchers: Gavin Floyd is the one addition to fill out an otherwise returning rotation headed by Kluber. The second-half revival of Carlos Carrasco and the gradual emergence of one-time top prospect Trevor Bauer is turning this group into one of the team’s strengths. Now Danny Salazar is in the fifth spot hoping he can rediscover consistency and return to the level he showed two years ago. Depth is not a problem with experienced options including Josh Tomlin and lefty T.J. House. Plus, Zach McAllister could be in the bullpen as a long man and spot starter. The best of the near-ready prospects are Cody Anderson and lefty Ryan Merritt, with Anderson slightly ahead in line to come to the majors. Both could help this year if needed.
Depth chart: Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, Floyd, Salazar, Tomlin, McAllister, House, *Anderson, *Merritt, Shaun Marcum, Michael Roth, Charles Brewer.
Bullpen: Cody Allen took over the closing job, a major step in stabilizing a group of relievers with plenty of ability. Now, roles are settled, including that of Bryan Shaw, who is emerging as one of the league’s more capable setup men. The Indians are flush with lefties, led by Marc Rzepczynski and Nick Hagadone. Kyle Crockett surged through Class AA and AAA to the majors last season and should be a third lefty in the Cleveland bullpen this year. Filling out the right-handed side could be more crucial. That’s where Scott Atchison, 38, is counted on to keep producing. McAllister is more of a long man. Veterans Scott Downs, Bryan Price and Jeff Manship will be in camp, while C.C. Lee and Shawn Armstrong are among farmhands in the mix.
Depth chart: Allen, Shaw, Rzepczynski, Hagadone, McAllister, Crockett, Armstrong, Price, Lee, Downs.
PROSPECTS TO WATCH.
1B Bobby Bradley: Drafted out of high school in the third round in June, he quickly made an impact in the rookie-level Arizona League, batting .361 with a 1.078 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS). Power bats are increasingly valuable, so Bradley’s combination of serious pop and an advanced feel for the strike zone could launch him up the prospect lists, especially if he takes a significant step forward at Class A this year. Still, Bradley, 18, is probably several seasons away from Cleveland.
SS Francisco Lindor: The emergence of Jose Ramirez last season after the trade of Asdrubal Cabrera meant the Indians didn’t have to rush Lindor, a defensive marvel who certainly has enough offensive ability to be a significant major leaguer. Though it might seem sacrilegious to say so in this organization, Omar Vizquel’s name often comes up in Lindor projections. No matter how well Ramirez does this year, holding back Lindor, 21, will become increasingly difficult.
3B Giovanny Urshela: He’s steadily growing into a player the Indians can’t ignore, and he’s just about ready for a look at the major league level. Manager Terry Francona has lamented the level of defense his team played last season, and Urshela, 23, can help there. He has developed into a steady contact hitter, though he hasn’t shown the power that’s usually asked of a third baseman. But he’s a good gap hitter who keeps his strikeout totals low.
C Francisco Mejia: As a 19-year-old in the short-season New York-Penn League, he displayed all the tools that could make him an impact catcher on offense and defense. That’s a long way from the majors, but it’s rare to find an explosive offensive catcher who’s not a candidate to be moved to another position because of his potential dominance handling pitchers and throwing out runners. He’ll get his first shot at a full-season Class A league this year.