An aching calf, a multitude of new faces, a couple of questionable statuses for Opening Day, the potential for some new arrivals and plenty of unanswered questions.
These are the top storylines to watch in Goodyear, Ariz., this spring as the Indians begin camp for the 2019 season:
Francisco Lindor’s calf
Arguably the biggest storyline the last few springs centered on the health of Michael Brantley. Now that Brantley is in Houston, Lindor has taken over that mantle after he strained his right calf while working out in Orlando. He’s been given a timetable of seven to nine weeks to return to major-league game activity, meaning his Opening Day status is in question and he could miss the first couple of weeks into April.
Not having Lindor — an MVP candidate — at the top of the lineup has a drastic effect on how the Indians lineup looks on paper. With a top-heavy order, Lindor and Jose Ramirez must stay healthy. The Indians could get a look at life without Lindor for a bit to open 2019. His status will be closely monitored all spring.
Who are the outfielders?
At this point, the Indians could almost hold open tryouts. Lefties Leonys Martin and Tyler Naquin, righty Jordan Luplow and Greg Allen have inside tracks to roster spots, but outside of Martin, there isn’t much of a major-league track record in that group. There will be a good deal of hoping that one of the last three players takes a step forward and helps fill the void left by the departures of Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Melky Cabrera and others.
Nonroster invitee Matt Joyce, who put together back-to-back quality seasons before an injury-riddled 2018, has a solid chance to earn a spot as well. Prospect Oscar Merchado could also factor into the outfield mix, and Jake Bauers and Jason Kipnis could see time in left field.
How does bullpen shape up?
See ya, Andrew Miller. Take care, Cody Allen. Both are gone and, although the Indians have plenty of potential options, several will be stepping into larger/higher leverage roles with some variation of unknown production. Brad Hand is an All-Star-caliber closer, and Adam Cimber should be safe. Oliver Perez and Dan Otero likely have spots.
After that, Tyler Olson, Neil Ramirez, Jon Edwards, Nick Goody, Nick Wittgren and Ben Taylor — who are already on the 40-man roster — are all competing for spots. Alex Wilson, Justin Grimm, James Hoyt and A.J. Cole are the leading nonroster invitees to watch.
Progression of Danny Salazar, Cody Anderson
Salazar missed all of 2018 after shoulder surgery and still has a long road ahead of him. Holding your breath for Salazar to remain healthy for long might be a fool’s errand. But when his shoulder and elbow are all working in sync, his potential still just about touches the ceiling. Salazar holds team records for strikeout rates and although the Indians say they’d like to lengthen him out as a starter, he could be a dynamic option in the bullpen as a multiple-inning weapon. Still, it could still be a while before he actually makes it back to the mound.
Anderson, meanwhile, has been working his way back from Tommy John surgery and also will be lengthened out as a starter but could factor into the bullpen mix at some point.
Who joins the party late?
The Indians made cutting payroll a priority this winter, which hamstrung the front office in the moves it could make to bolster the roster or add veteran options to the outfield or bullpen. Some, like former Baltimore Orioles All-Star Adam Jones, are still available and could add a more veteran presence.
The Indians outfield, on paper, could be the worst in the majors and is arguably the one with the most unknowns. Spring stats don’t matter too much, but if Naquin, Luplow and/or Allen don’t look great this spring, a response by the front office might be needed.
The new guys (sort of) in lineup
Yan Gomes, Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso and Brantley are out; Roberto Perez, Carlos Santana — he’s back — Jake Bauers and someone in left field are in. The Indians have plenty to figure out before March 28 regarding their lineup construction, particularly with Lindor possibly being out for a bit. Furthermore, the bottom of the lineup is weaker on paper than it has been the past few years.
Perez can handle the defensive duties as the primary catcher in front of (likely) Kevin Plawecki, and although he and the Indians have maintained he has more to offer at the plate than he’s shown, even the best scenarios would see Perez’s production below Gomes’ projections. Santana returns as the primary designated hitter, a high-OBP option near or at the top of the lineup.
The Indians now have quite a bit invested in Bauers, a former top-five prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays system who has under a year of service time. He was actually better against lefties in the minors last year and, although he feels more comfortable at first base, he can also play left field. All of them now represent integral parts to the Indians lineup, which has some heavy lifting to do to make up for their losses.
Can Shane Bieber take step forward?
The Indians boast three legitimate AL Cy Young contenders. Mike Clevinger has 1½ terrific seasons under his belt and just threw 200 innings with a 3.02 ERA in 2018 as the No. 4 starter. The most interesting member of the rotation to watch this spring, though, might be Bieber, who finished with a 4.55 ERA but a 3.23 FIP last season as a rookie. He’s a leading candidate to potentially take a step forward in 2019, and would only add another highly valuable asset to one of the deepest rotations in baseball.
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.