Columbus Dispatch

IBI Inbox: Do the Indians have any relief prospects on the horizon?

Pitchers and catchers report in a few days, and the IBI's Tony Lastoris and Dave Roberts team up for a double take with some thoughts and insight into the makeup of the opening day roster as well as many other burning questions from Indians fans...

Welcome to another edition of IBI Inbox. If you have a question on anything involving the Cleveland Indians from the minors to the big leagues that you would like answered in a future inbox, feel free to contact us. We also pull questions from Twitter, so you can post your questions there as well by tweeting us at @TonyIBI or @history_dreamer.

Here we go:

@milojbloom: all the names mentioned in Miller & Lucroy trades, [the loss of Heller and Feyereisen] made me wince. Is there a closer 2 years away in the farm system?

Tony’s insight: This is the biggest problem facing the Indians after the 2018 season. While they have a long window of contention for the next three to four years because so many position players are under contractual control and the entire rotation is locked in over that time, the bullpen could look massively different by the start of the 2019 season. It’s too early to worry about the shoe that will drop in the bullpen as the Indians still have two years of Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Boone Logan and Dan Otero at their disposal, but it will be something that I think begins to really grow in concern at this time next year once Bryan Shaw hits free agency and probably doesn’t return.

At the moment, the Indians do not have any high level relief arms in the system. All of the young arms that are in consideration for a bullpen role this season or will be at Double-A Akron or Triple-A Columbus are more middle relief arms for the sixth and seventh inning. They do not have anyone who projects as a setup or closer type of arm. Some like Shawn Armstrong and Perci Garner have potential for such a role, but Armstrong’s stuff has gone down some over the last year and Garner is still very new to the relief scene.

But that is not as daunting as it appears. Relievers can come from anywhere and sometimes guys can surprise. At this time last year no one expected anything of Perci Garner, but now he’s someone who has a chance to settle into a middle relief role this season and could become something more. Ben Heller was an interesting guy, but he didn’t step forward into backend possibilities until last season. Shoot, Cody Allen was an unheralded draft pick who just a year later was up in the big leagues and was a true backend relief prospect. So, with one or two drafts, along with the conversion of a starter or two at the Double-A and Triple-A level to the pen, the prospect outlook in the bullpen can change quickly.

There is little doubt their greatest weakness is the lack of young top shelf relief arms, but then again, few teams have those. Relievers come in all shapes and sizes, and I believe the Indians will continue to be opportunistic to find pitchers off waivers, in trades and free agency to keep that an area of strength through this window of contention. They saw firsthand how important a good bullpen is in the postseason last year, so they will be creative and maybe even step outside of their comfort zone a little to ensure they keep it a strength. And in the meantime, continue to develop arms in the minors who could potentially be the next Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw.

Dave’s take: It is hard to swallow the kind of prospects players like Miller and Lucroy can cost a team. I think I’m among many Indians fans that is grateful the Lucroy trade fell through, but yes, we did lose two great late inning possibilities in Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen in the trade with the Yankees for Miller. The Indians bullpen is quite cheap but the time is soon coming when those guys in the pen will hit free agency and it is highly unlikely they can afford to many of them in the fold. However, the Indians do have some promising young arms putting up quality numbers in relief. One such player who may be the closest is 22-year old Cameron Hill. The young righty finished the 2016 in Double-A Akron. Across three levels (he had a brief cup of coffee in Columbus) he pitched to a 6-1 record with a 2.34 ERA across 73 innings where he struck out 69 and walked 16. He held the opponents to a .236 average and converted 6 of 8 save opportunities.

@NEGpodMLB: 25-man roster predictions? Looking at the roster, struggling with how Brantley starts OD... no need to rush him. 12 or 13 pitchers?

Tony’s insight: I am in complete agreement that the Indians should not rush Michael Brantley. I felt that they did that last year, whether it was them or Brantley’s insistence he was fine, and it ended up costing them both. So, while it is great to hear he is ahead of schedule right now and looks to be on track for a return, I won’t believe it until I not only see him back on the field, but most importantly, he stays on it. So, under that premise, I would be completely fine with the Indians easing him along and having him start the season on the new 10-day disabled list and bringing him back after a rehab assignment with Triple-A Columbus and his shoulder shows it can handle the everyday demands of playing.

Looking at the roster, the Indians have a pitching staff that has a strong rotation and deep bullpen, so they really don’t need that eighth reliever, especially early in the season with so many off days. Add in the fact that the Indians have as least two outfield platoons, it means they have to carry five outfielders, and thus 13 position players in order to have a backup catcher and infielder on the roster. So, I expect them to open the season with 13 position players and 12 catchers.

As for the makeup of the roster, while injuries can change things I will assume health in this case, and going into spring training the makeup of the roster is about as set in stone as it has been since the end of the 90s. The rotation is set with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin. Six of the seven spots in the bullpen are set with Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero, Boone Logan and Zach McAllister. The two catching spots are filled Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez. The infield is locked up with Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana and Edwin Encarnacion. We also know that Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer will team up to form a formidable right field platoon.

That leaves five spots on the roster left to fill left field, center field, the utility infielder role and last spot in the bullpen. Tyler Naquin and Abraham Almonte are close to sure things to fill two of the other three open spots in the outfield, and Brantley would obviously open in left field if healthy, but the presence of Austin Jackson could change things. If Jackson has a strong spring and Brantley makes the opening day roster, then Jackson could replace either Naquin or Almonte in the center field platoon with the odd man out going to Triple-A Columbus as the first option on standby (both have options). As for the utility role, Erik Gonzalez is the odds on favorite to get a crack at it, though Yandy Diaz is a sleeper option and you can never count out Michael Martinez.

Finally, the last bullpen spot should make for a great competition as the Indians have a plethora of young arms vying for the spot in Austin Adams, Shawn Armstrong, Perci Garner, Joe Colon, Hoby Milner, Kyler Crockett, Carlos Frias and Nick Goody who amazingly are all on the 40-man roster. The battle for that final spot should be one of the highlights of camp, though no matter who wins the opening day job, I expect that final spot in the bullpen to be a revolving door all year. It has to be as you need that spot to be flexible in order to bring up reinforcements when the pen has been overworked because of a string of short starts or a lengthy extra inning game.

Dave’s take: Given the news out of the Tribe brass about Brantley’s recovery so far, he is ahead of schedule compared to last year and is supposedly in line to start spring training with the rest of the squad. Until I see him take clean swings in a spring training game I’m apprehensive, but I’ll optimistically pencil him on the opening day roster. For the sake of organization let’s give a short run down for opening day locks:

SP: Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, Salazar
RP: Allen, Miller, Shaw, Otero, McAllister, Logan
C: Gomez, Perez
INF: Kipnis, Lindor, Encarnacion, Ramirez, Santana
OF: Brantley, Chisenhall, Naquin, Guyer

This leaves 21 slots occupied and so we have 4 slots to play with. With two catchers, I’d say the Indians are set there. Looking at the infield they will need at least one utility player spot in there and I’d give the edge to Erik Gonzalez there. The outfield with Brantley in tow would only reasonably need one more slot to carry a fifth outfielder. The starting rotation of course needs a fifth starter so that would leave just one more roster spot for Francona to play with. Considering how much Francona loves having extra bullpen help my money is on the last sport going to the bullpen giving him 12 arms on the opening day roster.

@berkeyeric: Given how well Wolters played for COL last year, any regrets from FO for giving him up for peanuts? Prob could use depth.

Tony’s insight: First off, I was so happy to see Tony Wolters get a shot to play in the big leagues for the Rockies and also do so well. He’s an amazing person and someone who I have gotten to know well over the years, so to see him realize his dream of getting to the big leagues was incredible. It’s unfortunate it was not with the Indians, but I am so happy for him nonetheless.

Having said that, I don’t believe he would have gotten that chance with the Indians – even in the wake of the season long injuries and poor performance from Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez. The Indians were in a different situation than the Rockies as they were a contender so would not have taken the risk of using a rookie catcher with question marks about how he would transition offensively to the big leagues. The Rockies on the other hand were not a contender so could be a lot more patient with the early struggles of a rookie, so it was a much better fit for Wolters. I would venture to guess had Wolters still been on the 40-man and everything happened as it did last year with the Indians catchers that they still go out and make a move for a veteran catcher like Chris Gimenez and don’t give Wolters the opportunity to play in the big leagues – except maybe as a September callup.

So while it hurts to see the Indians lose some immediate catching depth, it’s just the nature of the business as they probably would have lost him anyway as a DFA over the course of last season and at the very least this offseason as they had to get Francisco Mejia onto the roster (they wouldn’t have kept four catchers on the 40-man). I don’t believe Wolters would have established himself enough last season for the Indians to be okay with trading one of Gomes or Perez in order to allow Wolters to serve as the backup in Cleveland, so the quick math on that shows that Wolters’ days were numbered regardless. Still, I agree in that they gave up on him a little too soon and exposed him to waivers to add a fungible reliever in Tommy Hunter. I would have hung onto him a little longer and opted to expose someone else to waivers. But what’s done is done.

Dave’s take: I’m sure it was tough for the Indians to let Tony Wolters go last offseason after all the adjustments he made from being a shortstop into a catcher but I’m sure they are exceedingly happy for the major league success he had as a rookie in Colorado. Last season, the 24-year-old catcher posted 1.0 WAR while batting .259/.327/.395 to go along with 3 HR 30 RBI in 71 games, which was better than both Indians backstops, though to be fair I think we will see better numbers from both Yan Gomes (-0.08 WAR) and Roberto Perez (0.5 WAR) in 2017. The fact remains the road to the big leagues looked blocked for Wolters and they wanted to add a veteran arm to the pen in adding Tommy Hunter. While it’s certainly one of those moves in hindsight you wish you could have back I don’t think the front office is kicking and screaming over it and in the end, it was better for Wolters’ career.

@milojbloom: what changes did the Indians implement resulting in the improvement in their prospect quality?

Tony’s insight: The Indians will never provide specific details on what they have changed, but in talking to Director of Amateur Scouting and Director of Pro Scouting John Mirabelli, they have often provided several generalizations as to what has changed of late with their draft process. I think the two biggest changes are the profile they look for in pitchers and how they really value makeup in players.

On the pitching front, they are much more focused on the delivery and arm action. They don't expect near finished products, but they look for arms that have some feel and some present now secondary pitches and an ability to throw the ball over the plate. In the past, they often just focused on arm strength, especially in the higher rounds. But now the focus is generally on the delivery, arm action and secondary stuff and not so much just the arm strength front and center like it used to be. By getting away from arm strength and looking more towards starter attributes it has resulted in more success - though we really won't know how successful that new philosophy is until some of these arms get to the big leagues.

The other big change was they started to place a much higher emphasis on knowing the player. Area scouts have really been challenged to get to know a player's background on and off the field and get a pulse for their makeup. They realized when they looked at the guys who became successful Major League players, they had some of the common denominators and attributes that lead to their success - and a big thing was makeup. In the past, they got burned taking some high profile, highly talented players, but had questionable makeup. Dillon Howard is one such example. With this new change to focus on makeup as part of the evaluation, it has helped them find players in the draft who are not only talented, but will work and strive to get better and are coachable.

Dave’s take: Sure, the Indians player development had some lean years in the 2000s but since the 2008 draft the Indians have had some successful drafts. Let’s take a look at their first round picks since 2008: Lonnie Chisenhall (2008), Alex White (2009), Drew Pomeranz (2010), Francisco Lindor (2011), Tyler Naquin (2012), Clint Frazier (2013), Bradley Zimmer (2014), Brady Aiken (2015), Will Benson (2016).

The first five, Chisenhall, White, Pomeranz, Lindor, and Naquin all reached the majors and all but Alex White have enjoyed some kind of success at the big league level. The next two picks (Frazier and Zimmer) look primed to make their debuts in 2017 and, of course, both Aiken and Benson are extremely young in the professional careers so we’ll have to wait a few more seasons before the jury is out on those two. All said and told though, the Indians have done well of late developing talent. Consider that Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, Cody Allen and Roberto Perez are all major league regulars on the current squad that grew up in the Indians system.

@shoopy3: If Michael Brantley isn't healthy, who plays LF?  And can A. Jackson take Almonte's spot on the roster?

Tony’s insight: Personally, I am going into this season with the belief that Brantley will not be on the opening day roster. If that comes to pass, then I think at the moment things are pretty clear in that the Indians will fill left field by committee between Brandon Guyer, Austin Jackson and Abraham Almonte. Lonnie Chisenhall and Guyer’s platoon in right field wouldn’t be impacted, but Guyer would stand to get some time in left field when a right-hander is on the mound. Jackson would probably primarily play center field in a platoon of sorts with Naquin, but again, when a right-hander is on the mound he could get some time in left field. So, I would think they have another platoon in left field with Guyer, Jackson and Almonte mixing in against right-handers and Almonte getting all the time against lefties. As you can see, without Brantley, the outfield suddenly becomes very platoon oriented at all three spots.

There is the possibility that Bradley Zimmer and Yandy Diaz could put themselves into the mix, but Zimmer has almost no chance to make the opening day roster. He would need a series of injuries to get an opportunity. Besides, Diaz stands to get the first crack at any outfield opening after the five players noted above, and his ability to play infield also helps him. But as a zero service time player, the Indians likely will have him spend the first two weeks of the season in Columbus in order to gain an extra year of control on him and then consider a call up after that. That said, if injuries crop up, I think he has a great shot to make the opening day roster – like Naquin did last year – and then as players get healthy and get back onto the roster Diaz is sent to Columbus for a few weeks to recalibrate his service time – like they did with Naquin in May last year.

It is sort of a convoluted situation in the outfield, but the Indians do have a lot of options and depth at their disposal to manage a loss of Brantley. The biggest key in any loss of Brantley may be Jackson returning to form which may push Naquin or Chisenhall to left field a little more or even to Triple-A Columbus, or another key could be the emergence of Diaz who has the bat and versatility that would really complement the lineup well.

Dave’s take:  If Brantley isn’t ready to open the season as the Indians left fielder there’s a chance both Abraham Almonte and Austin Jackson make the roster, though one of the youngsters Bradley Zimmer or Yandy Diaz could challenge that. It’s worth noting that Austin Jackson only signed a minor league contract with an invite to major league camp so the Indians by no means will feel any pressure to make him work on the opening day roster. Given that Jackson has had some productive seasons in his past he presents an interesting option if he has a successful spring. Meanwhile, Diaz splintered the ball all last season between Akron and Columbus (.318/.408/.4469 HR 58 RBI 121 G) and even further impressed in winter ball in Venezuela (.371/.451/.510 2 HR 18 RBI 40 G) so he may be my favorite for the fifth outfield spot along with Almonte if Brantley isn’t ready.

@JZelch17: Do you anticipate any more moves?

Tony’s insight: I am pretty sure the Indians are done handing out Major League deals this offseason. They will surely bring in a few more players on minor league deals, but the heavy lifting is done for the offseason. Really, as noted with the 25-man roster rundown above, there is not much space to add another Major League contract. The only areas in question are the utility infielder, seventh reliever and one of the outfield spots if Brantley is unavailable.

There are some interesting right-handed relievers still on the market, but I don’t think it makes much sense to sign any of them to a guaranteed deal for the seventh – and last – spot in the pen. That spot has to have versatility to be able to move relievers in and out from the minors, and a player on a Major League deal can’t be freely sent to the minors. That spot needs to be flexible so they can move pieces in and out throughout the season as needed to help cover them and eat innings. They also have a lot of options in the outfield that I just don’t see them adding any more options to what is already a crowded and deep position. Yes, there is uncertainty because of Brantley’s health and what amounts to the rest of the options being platoon players, but I believe they have enough to where they go into the season with what they have and let the options sort themselves out, and then reassess things in June. Finally, the utility spot is Erik Gonzalez’s to lose and he is another player with an option remaining who provides flexibility on the roster to be able to move a position player off if needed.

So, I would expect at the most the Indians sign another utility option or two to a minor league contract as insurance for Gonzalez (and Michael Martinez, ugh) and bring in a reliever or two on minor league deals. There are also some interesting starting pitching options still on the market who I think the Indians may bring in on minor league deals as insurance in case one of their starting five are hurt this spring. They have good depth in the minors and lots of alternatives if an injury arises, but I think they would prefer a veteran option at the start of the season – provided that pitcher has a good bounce back showing in the spring.

Dave’s take: Honestly, I thought they were done after they signed Edwin Encarnacion to his three year $60 million contract and then they surprised me by agreeing with Boone Logan on a one-year $5.5 million deal, though it’s worth noting the signing hasn’t been made official yet. Now I really can’t see them doing anything else, especially with spring training just a few days away and with the team looking pretty solid all around the diamond. If they were to surprise me again, I think the only possible move we could see would be a trade that involved bringing a more proven talent into the Indians outfield.

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