CLEVELAND — The Indians entered this spring with a number of questions to answer within a crowded outfield group, a double-digit-piece puzzle with a variety of different final outlooks.
Several months later, many of the those questions remain, though a few individual situations within that group have changed due to the extra time off. A few candidates are now viable options for Opening Day, and the expanded rosters to start the season add even more flexibility.
The Indians can mix and match their outfield, bench and on many days the designated hitter spot from a group that includes Oscar Mercado, Franmil Reyes, Domingo Santana, Delino DeShields, Jordan Luplow, Tyler Naquin, Bradley Zimmer, Jake Bauers, Greg Allen and Daniel Johnson.
Mercado will have a spot in the everyday lineup, it’s just a matter of where he lines up defensively each day. Reyes, too, but it’s a question of if he’ll be in the outfield on a given day or in the DH spot. The same goes for Domingo Santana. DeShields can be a speed option off the bench once he’s cleared to return to the team from his COVID-19 positive test. Luplow remains a dangerous bat against lefties. Which still leaves Naquin, Zimmer, Bauers, Allen and Johnson all vying for one of the 30 spots on the Opening Day roster.
Simulated and intrasquad games during the roughly two weeks that remain in spring training 2.0 likely won’t be enough to garner a full evaluation. Choosing a roster is always an inexact science that puts little stock into statistics and more so looks at track records and how players are performing toward the of camp. This situation, though, is even more fluid than normal.
“The brutally honest answer is that I don’t know that you can get a great assessment or make a great evaluation or a fair evaluation in two weeks under the circumstances we’re playing,” said Indians manager Terry Francona via a Zoom call. “So, when it comes time to select our team, we’re going to most likely have to tell a handful of guys that exact statement. Because it’s about impossible to be fair to everybody. Somebody hits a home run, all of a sudden they made the team, or if they struck out, they don’t. Some of it will be configuration of the team. We’re keeping 30 at the beginning, it doesn’t necessarily mean you keep, I don’t want to say the best 30, but if you have a bench, you want to be able to use it.”
Had Opening Day gone on as planned in March, Naquin likely wouldn’t have been an option as he recovered from a torn ACL. But enough time has passed that he can now fully throw his hat into the ring.
With Zimmer, he was eager to return from a lengthy absence following shoulder surgery and a number of smaller ailments that served as road bumps. That was put on hold, but while Zimmer has an enticing skillset, the Indians have to determine if he’s ready. The extra time might have helped, but it’s another question mark. Francona did mention earlier this week Zimmer was swinging the bat well.
“We love his skill set,” Francona said. “The kid hasn’t really basically played much in two years. Are you setting him up to fail if he swings the bat good for a week here or does it make our team better? Those are all the kind of questions that we’re gonna have to kind of wrestle with as we make our decisions. And they won’t be easy. I don’t think they will be.”And how the Indians handle Reyes, Santana, one of the spots in the outfield and the DH spot on the lineup on a basis remains perhaps the biggest puzzle piece. Reyes went on a diet over the offseason and worked through the quarantine on his defense in the outfield, but the Indians have limited time to figure out how much progress has really been made. Santana, likewise, is known more for his bat than his glove. The Indians will be balancing Reyes, Santana and whether they’d like to get someone else, like Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez, some at-bats in the DH spot to give them a lighter day every now and then.
“(Reyes) has worked at it, I’ll give him credit for that,” Francona said. “The hardest thing for me is, are you a better team with him playing the outfield? Or are you a better team with him DH’ing. That’s going to be what it comes down to. … If we can put him in the outfield two or three times a week, that probably helps, especially in a season like this where we’re starting 17 in a row out of the gate. Maybe we don’t have to sit Frankie a day, something like that.”