GOODYEAR, ARIZ: It’s been years since the Indians have had so much roster uncertainty in spring training.
I can recall at least a few camps where the only personnel decision the manager had to make was determining who would be the second utility infielder or the seventh reliever. To its credit, the Tribe has created more intrigue this spring because of the necessity of filling several vacancies.
So far, Indians manager Manny Acta has given few hints about the identity of the fifth starter, everyday left fielder, third baseman, seventh reliever or the final makeup of the bench.
Just the other day, when asked whether anyone is separating himself from the pack in left, Acta said, “They’re all tied for last.”
Presumably, he meant that all five candidates also were tied for first. Then again, he has not been impressed with the collection of contenders he has in camp, most of whom who didn’t have jobs three months ago and were signed to minor-league contracts.
As recently as Thursday, he said, “To be honest, nobody has stood out.”
But at some point, Acta will have to pick one of these outfielders to be the regular in left and another to be a backup outfielder. The field consists of Shelley Duncan, Ryan Spilborghs, Felix Pie, Aaron Cunningham and recent entry Russ Canzler.
Since Acta won’t reveal his choices for a while, why not jump the gun and select the team now? General Manager Chris Antonetti might consummate a trade and invalidate my picks, but that’s something I am fully capable of doing on my own.
So let’s start with the outfield vacancies. Duncan will open the season in left after being pushed by Canzler and maybe Spilborghs.
Acta might have inadvertently given a clue to his choice more than a week ago when a reporter asked him how important defense would be in reaching a decision. The response: Ideally, you want someone who is adept in the field and a threat at the plate, but if one side of the ball has to be sacrificed, it will be defense.
In the second half of last season, Duncan demonstrated that he can deliver what the team needs most: run production from the right side. He is not a polished outfielder, but with Grady Sizemore out of action for two or three months, Duncan would appear to be the best choice.
Canzler has come out of nowhere to demonstrate a strong aptitude for hitting. But his defense is suspect, and he won’t have quite enough time to prove he can chase down routine fly balls consistently. Moreover, his major-league experience has been limited to three at-bats with the Rays. So why take a chance when Duncan is around?
When camp began, Spilborghs seemed to be the front-runner in left, and he probably will make the team as a backup outfielder for two reasons: He has a history of modest success at the plate, and he can play all three outfield positions.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Kevin Slowey locking up the final spot in the rotation. Jeanmar Gomez has been the most effective of four contenders by far, throwing seven scoreless innings and giving up three hits and two walks.
But Slowey has a solid record of achievement with the Twins that includes a 39-21 record from 2007-2010. He slumped badly last year, possibly because of an injury, but he is healthy and remains the man to beat.
Should Slowey, or any of the starters go down with an injury or suffer a lengthy skid, Gomez can always be summoned from Columbus. Same with David Huff and Zach McAllister, the other competitors for the No. 5 spot in the rotation.
Lonnie Chisenhall is the heir apparent at third, a player that the Tribe’s deep thinkers can point out is a promising product from the farm system. But expediency probably will work against Chisenhall in the short term.
Jack Hannahan is a defensive wizard at third on a team of ground-ball pitchers, and he was surprisingly effective at the plate last year. In a lineup dominated by left-handers, Hannahan is that relatively scarce lefty who hits left-handed pitching.
Unfortunately for Chisenhall, he has options remaining, and neither Acta nor Antonetti wants Chisenhall sitting on the bench when he could be polishing his skills at Triple-A. That makes it an easy choice: Hannahan gets third base.
Nobody seems to want the job of seventh reliever. Maybe it doesn’t pay enough. There must be some reason why none of the contenders is pitching well enough to earn the job on merit.
But before we get to No. 7, let’s review No. 6. From the outset of camp, Acta has said that Frank Herrmann had the inside track to be the sixth reliever. He hasn’t been dominating hitters either, but he’ll probably hold on to the job. Why? Nobody else has passed him by, and he has done it before.
Jeremy Accardo, Dan Wheeler, Nick Hagadone, Robinson Tejeda and Chris Ray are the nominal contenders for the final job in the bullpen, whether they act like it or not.
Wheeler has the longest history of success, but there was a reason he was cut loose by the Red Sox in November. Hagadone has been the best of the bunch, but has the least experience in the majors. Tejeda has yet to pitch because of an injury, but he should return any day now and has time to make up for lost ground.
So who do I pick? I will close my eyes, point the dart in the general direction of the target and hit — Wheeler, based on his track record. That wouldn’t be my choice (I’d go with Hagadone), but it’s not my team.
That leaves the bench. Only four players can make it and one is the backup catcher, Lou Marson. I already selected Spilborghs as the reserve outfielder, the only reserve outfielder.
The other two spots go to infielders. Jason Donald gets one. He can play third, second and shortstop plus he gets points for his workmanship at the plate.
Jose Lopez, a former All-Star and starting infielder for the Mariners, has been asserting himself. Lopez can hit. At least he used to be able to hit. The past two years have been a struggle, but by the way he has attacked pitchers this spring, maybe the hard times are over for him.
He has started at second and third, and one year he hit 25 home runs and amassed 96 RBI. He’s on the team.
The roster: starters Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Tomlin, Derek Lowe, Slowey; relievers Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Tony Sipp, Rafael Perez, Joe Smith, Herrmann, Wheeler; catchers Carlos Santana, Marson; infielders Casey Kotchman, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Hannahan, Donald, Lopez; outfielders Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo, Duncan, Spilborghs; designated hitter Travis Hafner.
And don’t forget the most important thing: A roster that was so carefully crafted in spring training will look (substantially?) different by the middle of May.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/tribematters. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.