There is a growing movement in Major League Baseball of player movement up and down an organization’s developmental ladder. Basically, teams are starting to flesh out and use more of the 40-man roster to fill in gaps on the everyday 25-man lineup. Teams are able to do this in two ways: one, by actually using the injured list as a way to get players a break from nagging injuries rather than seeing them struggle through the rigors of a 162 game schedule and two, by utilizing the options on younger players and creating a very involved game of Red Rover with Triple-A teams. I like to call this roster manipulation The Shuffle. Count the Indians as purveyors of both of these methods mentioned before this coming weekend when veterans and prospects alike will make their season debuts.
Firstly, let’s talk about the prospect. Jefry Rodriguez will make his season and team debut on Saturday, getting only a spot start in Kansas City in place of injured-flamethrower-with-long-hair Mike Clevinger. Rodriguez came to the organization over the winter in the Yan Gomes trade and has been working on getting stretched out as a starter in Columbus. Rodriguez only made one start with the minor league club before being needed by the big team, going 5.2IP, striking out four, allowing three runs with no walks. Rodriguez is a flamethrower in his own right, a four-pitch arm who sits 94-95 with his four-seam fastball and his sinker, as well as working in a curve and changeup. Manager Terry Francona has already stated Rodriguez will make only this spot start before going back down to Columbus due to the schedule allowing the team to have no need for a fifth starter until almost May. But this is not the beginning of The Shuffle, that came Wednesday when Nick Wittgren was recalled after Clevinger hit the injured list.
Wittgren started his season in Columbus, one of the many talented relievers that were unable to break camp in the bullpen due to a numbers game. Wittgren impressed when called upon on Wednesday, striking out four of the five batters he faced while allowing only one hit. As much as Wittgren impressed, however, my expectation is he will be the reliever sent down to Columbus for Rodriguez on Saturday, as he is one of the few with remaining options, one of the reasons he was in Columbus in the first place. This is the nature of The Shuffle: keeping the roster turned over so as to maximize value and players but not in a way that you lose talent to contractual issues.
Though Rodriguez is already expected to be sent down, we could see even more of The Shuffle before Rodriguez catches the plane back to Triple-A. This is due to Francona making mention that veterans Jason Kipnis and Carlos Gonzalez are ready and could make their debuts this weekend in KC. Kipnis has been on the IL since the beginning of the season due to a calf strain, while Gonzalez was signed to a minor league deal late in spring training and has been coming up to speed with the Clippers of Columbus. Who is on the way out from the 25-man remains to be seen, as Francona did not make mention as to WHEN these moves will happen, only that they COULD. Educated guesses would be one of Eric Stamets and Brad Miller would be on the way out upon the return of Kipnis, as there is little need for four middle infield bats, with Stamets being the odds on favorite to be optioned down. Despite being signed late in spring, Miller has produced well enough at the dish to remain in the team’s plans, and between Miller and utility infielder Max Moroff, shortstop would be covered until Franciso Lindor returns. Stamets, though a great story of a Cleveland native returning to his home team, has not done well at the plate nor in the field, which was to be his calling card and has -0.4 fWAR on the season due to the problems with the glove and lack of offense to prop those up.
Gonzalez’s debut presents even more intrigue. The everyday starting outfield of Jake Bauers in left, Leonys Martin in center, and Tyler Naquin in right have actually not been as putrid as one might think, especially given Martin’s slugging show in his return to Detroit. Naquin started ominously enough and had many clamoring for his departure from not only the starting lineup but the roster in general, but has turned it around of late while hitting lower in the lineup, collecting hits in all but three games this season. That leaves Greg Allen and Jordan Luplow as the likely candidates to be removed and sent packing. Both have options remaining, which is essential when doing The Shuffle, so that does not limit Francona and the front office when deciding who stays and who goes. Gonzalez’s days as a possible center fielder are gone, so if Allen is the “weakest link”, that would leave Tito with Martin as the only one to man the middle. Luplow has a 47.1% K-rate in 17 plate appearances and has disappointed in this early run, which makes me believe he would be the one sent down, despite the fact that leaves no true right-handed bat as a backup.1
There is a darkhorse candidate, however, and that is Hanley Ramirez. HanRam has two of the only nine home runs hit by the Tribe this season but has done little else at the dish, hitting a paltry .188. You might be able to excuse an early season slump if a player is producing in field or has a history of starting slow, but Hanley has neither going for him. Because he is the team’s primary DH, he has no fielding stats to help his cause and given last year’s hot start followed by a Wile E. Coyote-esque drop in production, it’s possible that Ramirez has given up the ghost. Ridding the roster of Ramirez would require a designation, however, since Hanley is out of options, but a 40-man move would be needed to add Gonzalez regardless.2
All of these are just darts at a board. Francona, general manager Mike Chernoff, and team president Chris Antonetti have been doing this longer than I, and while I have been dismissive of some roster moves in the past or the lack thereof, they do have the pedigrees needed to be able to maneuver The Shuffle as well if not better than most of the other teams going about it.