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2017 Preview: Top positional battles to examine this spring

In order to finalize a roster, decisions need to be made on the final few spots where there is uncertainty. For the 2017 Cleveland Indians, these crucial choices come in the form of positional battles in the bullpen, behind the plate and a worthy utility man. The IBI's John Alfes chimes in...

Unsolved problems tend to find an answer by the end of spring training.

For the Cleveland Indians, these issues are apparent in a quartet of positional battles. While players like Edwin Encarnacion, Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez have their everyday jobs set in stone, the starting catcher, last two spots in the bullpen and the utility infielder are a few positions that are yet to be determined.

Who are the candidates to claim these roles? Should Tribe fans expect any surprises similar to that of Tyler Naquin last spring? The answers to these questions and more are below.

Everyday catcher: Yan Gomes vs Roberto Perez

The organization has set the stage for a positional battle pertaining to the everyday catcher role in 2017. Gomes has been the starter when he is healthy the last few seasons, but Perez's play the final few months of the season and in the postseason brings about a question as to who really should get the lion's share of playing time at catcher.

Gomes appears to be at the forefront of the catching discussion despite an injury-riddled 2016 campaign. Here is why…

  • Contract: Gomes signed a six-year contract worth $23-million that runs through 2019 with options for 2020 and 2021. The organization trusts Gomes to be a reliable long-term asset and his multi-year deal justifies that notion.
  • Silver Slugger Award: 2014 was a breakout year for the Brazilian backstop courtesy of a .278/.313/.472 slash line and .785 OPS that garnered the attention of opposing managers and earned him a Silver Slugger Award at the catcher position. If he can get back to that kind of performance, it is something that Perez will have a hard time matching.
  • Familiarity with pitching staff: Unlike Perez, Gomes has four seasons with the Indians’ pitching staff and extensive experience alongside Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin. With all five of these arms slated for a starting rotation spot, the chemistry between the pitcher-catcher battery is stronger than ever with Gomes behind the dish.

While Perez is still only on the minimum pay scale and the bat has largely been inconsistent over his career, he showed some stalwart defensive capabilities and developed a strong rapport with his pitchers over the final few months last season. So while the contract and familiarity with the staff may be things he can overcome, the biggest question is with the bat and this is why Gomes still has an edge over him at the moment.

That said, whether or not Gomes or Perez are the "starter" the expectation is that the "backup" is going to get a lot more playing time that the typical backup catcher gets, so much so that it might even be a 60-40 split in playing time - or even 50-50.

Second lefty in the bullpen

Aside from Andrew Miller, the left-handed situation in the 2016 bullpen was far from pretty. Kyle Crockett, Shawn Morimando and Ryan Merritt all logged MLB innings and figure to be in the mix for a spot this spring. Although unproven, these southpaws will join recent acquisitions Hoby Milner and Tim Cooney as part of the competition for a second left-handed hurler behind Miller.

Crockett accumulated the most MLB innings of the five, but Merritt surpassed his teammate and found a spot on both the ALCS and World Series rosters. Heading into spring training, the competition will be in the hands of manager Terry Francona and whom he trusts the most. Here are some points worth considering…

  • MLB Experience: Crockett convincingly leads this category with over 100 relief appearances in the span of three different seasons. Opposing hitters have a lifetime batting average of .251 (59-for-235) with 15 doubles and three home runs off the University of Virginia product. Milner has yet to make an MLB appearance while Merritt and Morimando had six combined bullpen outings in the regular season. Cooney dealt with lingering shoulder soreness that sidelined him for most of the 2016 season with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds.
  • Playing on the largest stage: This category heavily favors Merritt after a heroic Game 5 performance in the ALCS. The 24-year-old southpaw handily threaded his way past the likes of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki. His final line in just his second major league start and first postseason appearance: 4.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R/ER, 0 BB, 3 K (49 pitches, 33 strikes, 67% strikes).
  • Rising through the ranks: Milner was an under the radar pickup in the Rule 5 Draft this past December. The 26-year-old is the eldest of the bunch but has the least MLB service time. While this may not bode well for an immediate spot on the opening day roster, Milner was lights out in 2016 with a career-best 7.33 K/BB ratio in 16 innings at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Milner notched a 1.108 WHIP between Double-A Reading and Lehigh Valley, a mark well below his career WHIP of 1.270.  A lot of this is due to a lowered arm slot which has made him more effective, and in turn, caught the Indians attention. The son of former big leaguer Brian Milner, Hoby hopes to follow his father’s footsteps en route to the MLB.

The way things stand right now, Merritt and Morimando likely open in Triple-A so they can continue to start and provide the Indians depth options both for the rotation and bullpen. Merritt could open in the bullpen, but he has too much value as a rotation arm, and Morimando is not quite ready for a full-time Major League opportunity. This leaves Crockett and Milner to duke it out this spring, with Milner having a slight edge to make the opening day roster because of his roster restrictions that come with a Rule 5 Draft pick. If he has a strong spring, the Indians will likely give him a shot to see what he can do.

There is also a possibility the Indians go out and sign one of the left-handed relievers still on the open market. It was reported earlier this week that the Indians were looking to add a left-handed reliever, so if the Indians are able to sign one it would add a wildcard to the mix. Depending on who that reliever is and if it is a minor league or major league deal will have an impact on Crockett's and Milner's chances of making the opening day roster.

Final pen spot

When September of 2016 came around, the Cleveland Indians recalled the likes of Perci Garner, Joseph Colon, Adam Plutko and Merritt to their expanded roster. While two of these hurlers profiled as starters at the minor league level, they all could very well make an appearance out of the pen in 2017. Joining this group’s competition will be Nick Goody, Shawn Armstrong and Austin Adams. Who stands out the most from this pack? Here is what the organization is looking for…

  • Command of the strike zone: Adams (3.4 BB/9), Armstrong (4.2 BB/9), Garner (4.8 BB/9), Goody (3.7 BB/9) and Colon (6.3 BB/9) all struggled to consistently hone in on the strike zone at the MLB level in 2016. Although these statistics are from sample sizes no greater than 29 innings, the lack of command is evident in each of the five arms. These pitchers are similar in that they all have strong K/9 rates in their short time in the big leagues and/or in the minors. None of these options stand out among the rest, making the bullpen battle this spring even more intriguing.
  • Starters becoming relievers: Both Plutko and Merritt have shown superb command of the strike zone as starting pitching prospects in the Tribe pipeline. With a premier starting rotation already in place, this talented duo may eventually have to look elsewhere for opportunities at the major league level. Plutko has zero relief appearances in the minor leagues while Merritt recorded four with the Arizona League Indians in 2011, and one with the Lake County Captains in 2013. The Indians are not in a hurry to rush either onto the staff as both have options remaining, so they both should continue to be used as starting pitching depth on hand at Triple-A.

Adams has been largely inconsistent in the limited chances he has had at the Major League level so he is probably a long shot to make the opening day roster. This battle will likely come down to whichever one of Armstrong, Garner, Goody or Colon is pitching the best this spring and the others while the others can simply be optioned out to Triple-A as depth options to use over the course of the year.

Like with the second lefty role, the Indians also are keeping their eye on some right-handed relievers still available in free agency. It appears they are more likely to land a lefty reliever than a right-handed one, and probably won't sign one of each, but if they sign a notable right-handed arm then that person would probably lock up the final spot if they are signed to a Major League deal.

Utility infielder

Rounding out the Indians’ quartet of positional battles is the highly coveted utility infielder role. With Michael Martinez filling the job at an unsatisfactory level in 2016, the organization could shift its attention toward younger options like Erik Gonzalez, Yandy Diaz or Ronny Rodriguez. One of these aforementioned players could step into a vital role as soon as April with the expectation to a make an impact behind Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez.

Will fans see another year of Martinez? Or will another option step up to the plate in 2017? Here are some factors to examine more intently in the coming months…

  • Experience: This seems to be a common trend when it comes to positional battles, but a veteran with leadership qualities and a calming presence in the clubhouse can work wonders for a World Series caliber roster. Martinez may have an uninspiring .197 career batting average, but his capability to play six different positions is tough to match. The Santo Domingo, DR native is 34-years-old and signed a minor league deal with the organization this past December. He is also a favorite of Francona.
  • Potential: Gonzalez and Diaz dominate this department courtesy of prosperous tenures at Triple-A Columbus in 2016. The former of the two posted a .296/.329/.450 slash line and .779 OPS before deservedly making his MLB debut with the Indians. Gonzalez is the likely candidate to win the job thanks to his minor league experience at every position besides pitcher and catcher - and most notably his prowess at shortstop. The latter of the two notched a .325/.399/.461 slash line and .860 OPS to earn him a spot in the 2016 MLB Futures Game. He is also extremely versatile and can play all over the diamond, though shortstop is probably his weakest position and one he wouldn't get much time at in the big leagues. And don't forget about Rodriguez as he is someone who could enter the mix later in the season.

With such an evenly matched competition and a boatload of untapped potential waiting to be unlocked between Gonzalez and Diaz, there is sure to be a fully capable utility man when opening day swings around. Gonzalez presents the more pure utility option in that he is a very good defender at shortstop and second base, and can move around to other positions as well. Diaz is more of a corner utility guy, which doesn't quite fit the profile of what the Indians need as a backup to Lindor and Kipnis up the middle - though may not be that important since technically Ramirez can back them up if needed.

The Indians do not appear to be in the mix for a utility player in the free agent or trade market, so it looks like it will be a strong competition this spring between Gonzalez and Diaz. And if at the end of spring training the Indians are not comfortable with them as the utility options to open the season, they always have old friend Martinez to fall back on in the short term.

John Alfes has covered the Indians for IBI since August of 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAlfes for breaking news and in-depth coverage all season long.

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