Rejoice, fans of America’s national pastime, baseball activities are again underway.
Pitchers and catchers will report to Indians spring camp in Goodyear, Ariz., on Tuesday, and the other 29 clubs are all following suit this week. The Indians’ full squad will report on Saturday and the first spring training game is Feb. 23 against the Cincinnati Reds.
This Indians camp features much more unrest than the past few iterations. There are key questions about how the bullpen and outfield will be configured, and Francisco Lindor’s calf injury has added another variable to the Opening Day roster.
Aside from those on the 40-man roster, the Indians will have 20 non-roster invitees in camp this year. Here are the non-roster invitees with the best chance to impact the Opening Day roster in the outfield and the bullpen this spring.
The current outfield is like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, and it sure seems like some of the needed pieces are missing. Leonys Martin, Greg Allen, Jordan Luplow and Tyler Naquin have inside tracks to spots on the roster, but it’s murky after that group considering Bradley Zimmer will open the season on the injured list (formerly known as the disabled list) and the likes of Jake Bauers and Jason Kipnis seem to be staying in the infield based on the current roster construction. Barring a free-agent signing, a trade, a positional shift from an infielder or a prospect (Oscar Mercardo, perhaps, though it's not likely his service time will be started that early) who forces his way ahead of the pack, there’s a genuinely solid path to a potential roster spot here.
The Indians have five non-roster invitees in camp as outfielders, but three seem to be the most intriguing.
Matt Joyce, 34 — A platoon lefty, Joyce struggled last season with the Oakland Athletics (.208 BA, .675 OPS, 89 wRC+) while dealing with an ongoing back issue, but he was a quality major-league hitter in 2016 and 2017. He topped .800 OPS in both years (.836 and .808, respectively) and posted wRC+ totals of 136 and 116. He hit 38 home runs in 700 at-bats. He isn’t a great defensive outfielder but can handle left field and right field. The question is how much of his struggles in 2018 were because of his health.
Brandon Barnes, 32 — Barnes is a right-handed hitter who can play all three outfield spots, although center field is the spot at which the Indians are the strongest, especially when Zimmer returns. Barnes’ best offensive season was with the Colorado Rockies in 2014, when he hit .257 with a .718 OPS. He hasn’t done much at the plate during his career and has a .242 average and .647 OPS in six seasons.
Trayce Thompson, 27 — Another right-handed option, Thompson had an intriguing start to his career but has struggled mightily at the plate since his debut in 2015, which was a small sample size. He has a career .206 average and .664 OPS.
After All-Star Brad Hand, the Indians will have to piece together the 2019 bullpen. Gone are the days of Cody Allen, Andrew Miller and Bryan Shaw lining up every night with a group of middle relievers to hold down the fort in front of them.
Relievers often fall victim to the who-has-options-left game. Adam Cimber should join Hand with a secure spot in the bullpen. Oliver Perez and Dan Otero are likely next. Tyler Olson and Neil Ramirez are out of options and could be the fifth and sixth relievers in the bullpen and allow the Indians to maintain some depth at Triple-A. Candidates for that seventh spot already on the 40-man roster (and with options remaining) include Jon Edwards, Nick Goody, Nick Wittgren and Ben Taylor. Danny Salazar, Cody Anderson could also factor into the bullpen after being first lengthened out as starters this spring, and top prospect Triston McKenzie could even force his way to the majors this summer.
But a spot on the Opening Day roster could certainly be open to a non-roster invitee. Here are the top candidates.
Alex Wilson, 32, RHP — Wilson, a sinkerballer who relies on weak contact, posted a 3.36 ERA and 4.28 FIP in 2018 with the Detroit Tigers and has career marks of 3.23 and 3.81, respectively, in six major-league seasons. Last season he struggled against lefties but held righties to a .517 OPS.
Justin Grimm, 30, RHP — Grimm had quality seasons with the Chicago Cubs in 2014 (3.20 FIP) and 2015 (3.11 FIP) but has struggled before and after that stretch and has a career 4.98 ERA and 4.07 FIP to go with a 9.1 K/9 rate. He was hit hard early last season and dealt with injuries before coming back with the Seattle Mariners and finishing on a higher note, allowing three earned runs in his final 10 1/3 innings.
James Hoyt, 32, RHP — Hoyt features a fastball-slider combination and has a career 4.40 ERA, 3.84 FIP and 8.5 K/9 rate in 71 2/3 innings in three seasons with the Houston Astros.
A.J. Cole, 27, RHP — Cole was claimed off waivers this winter, recently designated for assignment and then outrighted to Triple-A on Monday. Last season with the New York Yankees, Cole posted a 4.26 ERA, 5.24 FIP and 9.2 K/9 rate.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.