In a year they plan on contending, the Indians brass has to make sure they have a capable and versatile bench they can count on in a pinch. How the bench is shaped has a lot to do with the injury to Grady Sizemore and the decision to keep Jack Hannahan as the starting third baseman, sending the future at the hot corner Lonnie Chisenhall, to AAA. For the sake of this piece, we are going to give the open left field job to Shelley Duncan, who seems to have won the job by default.
There are a couple of sure things: Lou Marson will be the backup catcher and Jason Donald will be the infield utility man, also mixing in an occasional center field appearance. That leaves two spots open. Those come with an interesting decision. Do they keep two extra outfielders or a second infielder along with the fourth outfield option?
Things haven’t exactly played themselves too well for the guys battling to make the team. It has been well documented that the Tribe essentially brought in as many minor league free agents with major league experience as they could to fight it out. The names include such luminaries as Fred Lewis, Ryan Spillborghs, Felix Pie, Christian Guzman, and Jose Lopez. They also added Russ Canzler and Aaron Cunningham via trades. Unfortunately, none of these guys have separated themselves from the rest of the pack.
The only one you can say that has been a nice surprise is the former Mariner Lopez, who trails only Duncan in RBIs this spring with (seven). The Indians have tried him at first, second (his natural position), and third. But for the most part, if Lopez does indeed make this team, it will be because of his bat (.317 this spring). Donald can play all of the positions Lopez can other than first base. But with Carlos Santana and Shelley Duncan on the roster, Lopez probably wouldn’t see much time there anyways. If the Indians were breaking camp today, you would have to think Lopez would be packing his bags for Cleveland.
In this scenario, the Indians would have to choose between Cunningham, Canzler, Pie, Lewis, and Spillborghs for the backup outfield job. You can cross Lewis off the list most likely as injuries have kept the Indians from really getting a good look at him. He was taken out of camp yesterday. Cunningham (.216) is the most interesting case. He was a one-time top prospect in both the A’s and Padres system, but has never been able to break through. He is 25 years old, hits right-handed, and has been used in all three outfield positions this spring. The problem is he hasn’t shown much with the bat to dispel the 4A tag. However, the Indians traded their AA closer Cory Burns for him and he is out of options. So if they Indians cut him loose, they would run the risk of losing Cunningham on waivers.
Canzler, acquired from Tampa Bay, was the International League MVP last season, but was way down in the pecking order in the Rays system. With the numbers he put up in AAA, the fact that the Rays were willing to dump him for essentially nothing is alarming, considering the Rays pride themselves on developing and moving their talent through their system and into the big leagues. Though he is a first baseman by trade, Canzler played parts of last season in the outfield and has worked out in left this spring. He has looked good at times in Goodyear (.297, but just one extra base hit), but the fact that the Indians can send him to AAA to work on his glove in left field probably works against him. If the Tribe needs to go down to their system for reinforcements at any time this season, Canzler will probably get the first call.
Pie (.217) and Spillborghs (.167) haven’t distinguished themselves from each other. Pie is lefty, Spillborghs is righty. Both are solid defenders who run the bases well, but neither of them will be known for their bat. Both are in camp on Minor League deals with out clauses if they aren’t in the majors by a certain date but can start the season in Columbus.
When I put it all out in front of me, not seeing what is going on in Goodyear with my own eyes and just reading the tea leaves, it would seem as though Cunningham would be the fourth outfielder. But the Indians continue to say money, options, etc will not factor into their decisions on the final roster. They will take the best 25 guys that they feel give them the best chance to win.
In the end, I wouldn’t expect to see much of the last two bench guys regardless of who they are. The Tribe’s starting nine – Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Santana, Travis Hafner, Duncan, Casey Kotchman, Jason Kipnis, and Jack Hannahan along with Donald and Marson will be getting the bulk of the playing time.
With the contenders for those last two bench spots struggling the way they have, it also wouldn’t shock anyone if the Indians waited until the final rosters are set and make a waiver claim or a late trade to add an additional bat.