CLEVELAND: Every new baseball season brings hope, and the Indians are no different. That’s why baseball fans so revere the beginning of spring training: Nothing has gone wrong. Well, at least not yet anyway.
Ushered in with the start of each season are questions about roster spots, trades or simply replacing players lost to free agency.
As the last Indians players and staff gather in Goodyear, Ariz., in preparation for camp beginning Tuesday, here are their three biggest questions coming off a season that ended with a 10-game winning streak and a one-game wild-card playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
1. Who will fill the vacant late-inning roles in the bullpen? If you’ve heard it once, you’ve probably heard it 100 times: A team is only as good as its bullpen. With the Indians, there will be changes. Embattled closer Chris Perez was released. Setup man Joe Smith and middle relievers Matt Albers and Rich Hill left for free agency.
“Whether the names are the same or not, you never quite know going into a year,” Indians manager Terry Francona said two weeks ago at Tribe Fest. “Last year, we went in and were all raving about Vinnie [Pestano], and Vinnie struggled. And C.P. [Perez] had his ups and downs. Sometimes, the names change and sometimes they don’t, but bullpens kind of make themselves over every year.”
Two of the biggest moves the Indians made in the offseason were to address holes in the relief corps. They traded for left-handed reliever Josh Outman and signed closer John Axford to a one-year, $4.5 million deal. General Manager Chris Antonetti also brought in other low-risk, high-reward options such as veteran David Aardsma.
2. Who will play third base? Former catcher Carlos Santana has spent the offseason focusing on third base after losing his full-time role behind the plate to Yan Gomes in the second half of the season last year. What remains uncertain is whether the switch-hitting Santana showed enough during his on-the-job training in the Dominican Winter League to handle the position defensively on a full-time basis.
If not, Santana could split third-base duties with the team’s 2006 first-round pick Lonnie Chisenhall, or get a bulk of his at bats at designated hitter or while playing first base. A platoon with Chisenhall (who batted .111 against left-handed pitchers last season) seems to be a likely solution.
“With Carlos, his versatility provides an extraordinary competitive advantage for us,” Antonetti said.
3. Can the Indians’ starting rotation absorb the losses of veteran Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez? Jimenez was one of the worst pitchers in baseball for his first season and a half and the start of last season with the Indians. But from June on last season, he was one of the top pitchers in the American League. He remains a free agent and might end up back with the Indians after not garnering the kind of interest he had hoped for on the open market.
Indians fans also know its tough to count on Jimenez — at least until you see which Jimenez is going to show up.
As Antonetti said from the onset of the offseason, there are plenty of internal options for the team’s fifth spot in the rotation. After Justin Masterson, Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister, the final rotation spot could go to Carlos Carrasco, who is out of options and could end up in the bullpen; Trevor Bauer, who is a consistently maddening yet intriguing prospect; or free-agent signee Shaun Marcum, who is unlikely to be ready to start the season after coming off the latest in a series of arm injuries.
Replacing veterans with young unknowns might seem like a gamble, but it’s one pitching coach Mickey Callaway is comfortable making.
“I’m very confident, if they pitch the way they can,” Callaway said recently when asked about the Tribe’s “internal candidates” for the fifth spot. “And that’s the key. I think everyone pitched the way they could last year. But if you asked me going into last year or going into this year, ‘which looks better?’ I think going into this year looks better for sure.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.