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2017 Preview: Top storylines to watch as spring training opens

After months of physical recovery and mental preparation, the time for spring training has finally come. Pitchers and catchers have reported and the first full squad workout is around the corner. The IBI's John Alfes runs down all the major storylines as camp opens...

The smoldering sun of Goodyear, AZ is set to rise over a hard-working Cleveland Indians team this spring training.

With plenty of fresh faces amid a tinkered 40-man roster, the Tribe has a barrage of storylines to examine in the coming weeks.

Headlining this year’s camp discussion is Michael Brantley, Austin Jackson, Edwin Encarnacion, Yan Gomes and the battle for the final spot in the bullpen.

Q: When is Michael Brantley going to make his 2017 season debut? Will he return to his All-Star form from 2014-2015? Who can replace him if he lands on the disabled list again?

Without question, Brantley is the story of the spring.

Early reports detailing the 29-year-old’s rehab process say that he is at the “end stages” of tee-work in his hitting progression, according to’s Jordan Bastian. While hitting off a tee may seem like a small step toward a major league return, it is encouraging to see Brantley making strides and moving along in his recovery program.

“I’m ahead of where I was going into spring training last year,” said Brantley. “I’m prepared for the best. It all depends on where I’m at and how everything is going progression wise and the schedule they have me on."

Brantley seems to be on the right track but it is hard to draw any conclusions at this point. Manager Terry Francona expressed the need for patience and persistence with a player as talented as Brantley.

"I think he feels like he's making great progress, he's got to let it play itself out" Francona said. "There's a program in place and he follows it and hopefully as he gets into games, we won't run into that last hurdle. That would be wonderful for us, we miss him a whole lot more than people realize."

Depending on Brantley’s progress this spring, he could make a return to the MLB as soon as April or May if his torn labrum fully heals. On the contrary, his methodical rehab process in January and February may spell a later return than anticipated. With varying rumors swirling around, everything is speculation until Brantley takes the field and proves he can play without any lingering pains. In other words, it may take a few months before Brantley finds his groove and returns to a superior level of performance. Outfielders like Brandon Guyer, Abraham Almonte, Tyler Naquin, Yandy Diaz, Bradley Zimmer and Austin Jackson have all played left field and are available as insurance.

Q: Will Austin Jackson be the everyday centerfielder coming out of spring training? Similar to Brantley, can he put his injury-riddled past behind him and effectively contribute toward a World Series caliber franchise?

Designated to be a non-roster invitee on a minor league contract, Jackson is playing for approximately $1.5-million with $4-million in potential incentives if he makes the active roster. The 30-year-old veteran is coming off a season-ending knee surgery that sidelined him for four months.

“When he’s healthy, he’s been really good,” said president Chris Antonetti. “He’s rehabbing now and we think he has a chance to compete for a spot on our team and hopefully he’ll help us."

As is the case with Brantley, Jackson is another option who has faded from the spotlight after flourishing in the early stages of his career. He has swiped as many as 27 bases (2010) and cranked 16 home runs (2012), but a medial meniscus tear in his left knee is tough to ignore.

As long as Jackson stays healthy, he will be in the mix for a spot on the Indians roster. While Tyler Naquin is younger and a more attractive option at the plate (.296/.372/.514), Jackson is a substantially better defender as evidenced by his 41 defensive runs saved (DRS) over the course of his seven-year professional tenure (-18 DRS for Naquin in 2016, according to Fangraphs). Jackson does not have the best splits vs left-handed pitching in his career (.257/.332/.384), but could carve out a platoon role similar to Rajai Davis if Francona sees a fit.

Q: Who will claim the last spot in the bullpen: Perci Garner, Joseph Colon, Shawn Armstrong, Nick Goody, Hoby Milner, Kyle Crockett or Carlos Frias?

Barring any injuries or unforeseen circumstances, the pen unit consisting of Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero, Zach McAllister and Boone Logan is set in stone. With an unclaimed spot up for grabs, there figures to be a tightly knit competition this spring.

There is no clear-cut option to begin camp, but one of these hurlers could emerge and make an impression when given the opportunity. Frias, Goody and Crockett have the most MLB service time while Garner, Colon and Armstrong all received a September call up to display their abilities last year.

It is hard to predict the result of this battle, but the righties will have priority due to the signing of Logan.

With so many hurlers and only one spot available, it will be imperative that the Tribe chooses the most capable player for their roster. The team is looking for a reliable relief pitcher that can command his offerings and consistently set down big league batters with ease. If none of these options fit the mold, then there may be a continuous sequence of promotions and demotions between Triple-A and the MLB in 2017.

Q: How will Edwin Encarnacion adjust to his new team after playing in Toronto for the past six and a half seasons?

Despite his unfamiliarity with Francona, Encarnacion is friends with his former World Baseball Classic teammate Carlos Santana and has a connection with Francisco Lindor’s brother through a baseball league in 1998 or 1999. He is well aware of what his new club has to offer and why they are successful as the Blue Jays lost to the Indians in the 2016 ALCS.

“Everybody knows that Cleveland has one of the best teams in the whole entire league and the best chance to win the World Series,” said Encarnacion. “I know they have great young talented players.”

Francona has tentatively declared Encarnacion the new cleanup hitter with Mike Napoli parting ways and signing with the Texas Rangers. This likely positions the 34-year-old slugger between Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana and/or Michael Brantley to form an upgraded batting order.

“I believe in this team and I know we can win the World Series with the talent that we have,” Encarnacion said. “I know I’m the perfect fit for this team and I know we can do it.”

Now that David Ortiz has retired, Encarnacion is arguably the best power hitter in the American League with the second most home runs over the past five years (193, four less than Chris Davis). The Dominican Republic native perfectly fills the void left by Mike Napoli as a right-handed power bat capable of changing a game with one swing of the bat. The clubhouse adjustment is rather minor, especially considering Cleveland has seven other players from the D.R. on its 40-man roster (Danny Salazar, Francisco Mejia, Erik Gonzalez, Carlos Frias, Jose Ramirez and Abraham Almonte).

Q: Is Yan Gomes going to surpass Roberto Perez and reclaim his starting catcher position?

A common storyline at big league camp is going to be how players respond to their season-defining injuries from 2016. Like Brantley and Jackson, Gomes is another candidate for a bounce back campaign. The MLB’s first Brazilian backstop has shown glimpses of power by notching 21 home runs in 2014 and has tons of experience with the starting staff.

With that said, Gomes has suffered a right knee sprain, separated right shoulder and right wrist fracture in a span of just two years. Aside from the jumbled outfield situation, the catcher clash between Gomes and the emerging Perez will be the center of attention for Francona and staff.

Neither player made a significant contribution to the club in 2016, but Perez did spark the team in the playoffs due to his three playoff home runs and growing confidence as a defensive specialist. With that said, Gomes should surpass Perez as long as he performs up to what he is capable of doing and avoids another DL stint.

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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