10 Questions: AL Central Style

5. Who plays center field for the Indians this season?

Guess away!   Here’s a list of the players likely to see time in center field:

  • Abraham Almonte
  • Rajai Davis
  • Will Venable
  • Collin Cowgill
  • Tyler Naquin
  • Jose Ramirez
  • Michael Brantley

That’s a lot of names, and none of them really stand out (I’ll get to Brantley soon).  Abraham Almonte could be described as entering spring training as the opening day starter, but an 80-game suspension ended that.  Who knows what this means for his future as Indians centerfielder, as one of the above players could take Almonte’s place on the roster.  Rajai Davis was originally signed with the intent of starting him in left until Brantley returned from injury.  That idea went out the door with Almonte’s suspension, which means that Davis will probably start the year as the main centerfielder, not the ideal situation given his poor defensive metrics, but one the Indians have been forced to use.  Will Venable was brought in after the start of the spring, and if he makes the roster he could see part time duty in center with Davis. Venable can also play the corner spots as well.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t that long ago that Venable was a 20-20 outfielder (2013 to be exact), but those days are well beyond him.  From 2010 to 2013, Venable was a very serviceable outfielder, but over the last few seasons, he has fit more into a platoon role.

Collin Cowgill was one of the first players brought in over the off-season, as Lonnie Chisenhall’s back up, but with the uncertainty in center field, he could get some looks in center

6. What does the fifth spot in the rotation look like?

The one through four spots in the rotation are all but set with Corey Kluber already announced as the opening day starter, followed most likely by Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer.  The fifth spot is an interesting one though.  Once again, here is a list of pitchers vying for that fifth spot:

  • Josh Tomlin
  • Cody Anderson
  • T.J. House
  • Mike Clevinger

Last year, the Indians opened the season with T.J. House as the fifth starter.  House was coming off his rookie season of 2014 where he posted a 3.35 ERA in 102 innings, but was only able to make it through four starts in 2015 before being demoted to Triple-A.  In his four starts, House gave up 19 runs in just 13 innings (that’s a 13.15 ERA), and while he was able to pitch well in the minors, a injury limited him to juts four starts and 30 innings.  So far this spring, he hasn’t looked much better from last year, and he looks like he will start the year in the Clippers rotation.  The Indians rotated through a few more scrub pitchers before finally landing on Cody Anderson around mid-season.  Anderson hadn’t seen much time above the Double-A level, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell by how well he pitched last season.  In 15 starts, Cody was 7-3 with a 3.05 ERA, however, his Fielding Independent Pitching of 4.27 told a different story.  Last Anderson saw his fly ball rate and walk decrease decrease once he was called up, but his strikeout rate also decreased.  Meaning all those numbers should regress/progress back to the norm.  Anderson will probably give up more hits/walks, but should see his strikeout rate improve.  This spring, Anderson looks to be in the lead for the fifth spot due to his better spring numbers.

One thing that will most likely cause Anderson to start the year in Triple-A though, is the new extension just given to Josh Tomlin, which will keep him in Cleveland for 2 years at a rate of $2.5 million per season (he also has an team option for 2018 at $3 million).  Believe it or not, but Tomlin is now the oldest member of the Indians starting pitching at just 31 years old.  We all know the book on Tomlin by now, extremely low walk rate, extremely high contact rate.  Tomlin hasn’t had the greatest spring, but his contract means he likely starts the year in the rotation, and if he struggles could see time in bullpen.  The dark horse, and most unlikely of the group to start the year as the fifth starter is Mike Clevinger.  Clevinger was originally drafted by the Angels in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, but only made 8 minor league starts before requiring Tommy John surgery.  Traded to the Indians in the Vinne Pestano deal, Clevinger was able to rehab, and last season he was able to pitch 158 innings with a 2.73 ERA and 145 strikeouts.  Having the best spring of all the aforementioned pitchers, Clevinger will almost undoubtedly he headed for Columbus to start the year, but keep and eye on him, because he will get the call up eventually.

7.  Will any prospects make an impact in 2016?

I already mentioned Mike Clevinger (currently the Indians 7th overall prospect according to MLB.com), but what other prospects have a chance to see some time in Cleveland?  Many fans will be clamoring over the arrival of Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier (the Indians top two prospects and the 26th and 27th overall), and while Zimmer might see some time as a September call up, it’s unlikely he will make an impact in 2016.  Meanwhile, Clint Frazier will not see any time in the majors this season, if you’re a fan of the Clippers though, now would be a good time to purchase season tickets.

Tyler Naquin (once again mentioned in question #5) is your best bet for an impact prospect.  He has the highest defensive upside of any Indians outfielder in 2016, and yes that includes Lonnie Chisenhall.  You have to go back to the prime Grady Sizemore years for the last time the Indians a plus glove in centerfield, we thought Michael Bourn was going to be that, but the less said about him the better.  Naquin’s bat is the biggest question mark.  He has always been a contact hitter, going all the back to his college days at Texas A&M.  Last year he split time in Double and Triple-A, and posted two very different stat lines.  In 141 at-bats in Double-A, Naquin had a slash line of .348/.419/.468, while in Triple-A had one of .263/.353/.430.  While in Triple-A he saw his batting average drop, he did have a better walk rate and showed an increase in power (but Columbus is considered a home run heaven park).

Other than Naquin and Clevinger, don’t expect any other prospects to have an impact this season.  Still, guys like infielder Yandy Diaz and relief pitcher Adam Plukto could see some time in an Indians uniform.  A lot of the Indians bigger prospects are still in the lower minor league levels, and the Indians have plenty of upside prospects, just don’t expect to see any of them soon.

8. When will the Indians extend Lindor?

It should be said that Francisco Lindor still has three more seasons until he reaches arbitration, meaning he will make around $500,000 to $600,000 per season over the next three seasons.  So, the Indians really have no incentive, as of this moment to sign him long-term.  On the other side of that argument, is the fact that every year from here on out a Lindor extension will cost the Indians more and more.  The earlier you lock a player, the cheaper the contract tends to be, and locking up pre-arbitration players means you won’t have to go through arbitration with them later.  Many player-team relationships can go south because of the arbitration process, because the team is arguing that a player should be paid this amount, while the player is arguing he should be paid another amount.  It’s a bad situation all around.

The Indians have already locked up the majority of their core players to long term deals already (such as Kipnis, Kluber, Brantley, Carrasco, and Gomes), so adding Lindor to that list makes sense.  Jim Bowden (writer for ESPN) earlier this winter suggested that Lindor should be extended this spring for an 8-year, $128 million deal.  That of course would be the biggest contract ever handed out by Indians ownership.  My gut feeling on this situation is that Lindor goes this season without any extension, that way the Indians can see if Lindor truly is the franchise player everyone thinks he is.  Then, next offseason, with still two years of pre-arbitration remaining, the Indians sign him to a 6 or 7 year deal, which would bring him through arbitration, and buy up a few years of free agency.

9. Who is the most important hitter for success in 2016?

While I could easily say that Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, or Michael Brantley are the key for the Indians being successful on offense, because you know, they are the best position players on the team, I believe Carlos Santana is the key for a successful offense.  Over his first four MLB seasons, Carlos Santana hit for a .254 average, nothing really to write home about, but these last two years, he has really struggled in reaching base by hitting the ball.  The last two seasons, Santana has produced identical .231 averages.  However, Santana over the past two seasons has picked up his walk rate.  In his first four years, Santana has a walk rate of about 15.1% per plate appearance.  As his batting average has decreased the last two seasons, his walk rate increased to 16.7%.  In comparison, Jose Bautista over the last two seasons has a walk rate of 15% over the last two years.  For the past five seasons Santana has ranked in the top 3 in walks.

You’re probably wondering why I’m talking so much about walks, right?  Terry Francona has insisted that Santana be a middle of the order bat, when Santana has proven that he isn’t a RBI guy.  Santana has never surpassed 85 RBI is a season, which is an impressive feat considering he’s been a middle of the lineup guy and has two seasons of 27 home runs.  A lot of fans called for Santana to be moved into the two hole last season, and eventually Francona obliged.  For 30 games last season, Santana hit in the two spot, and he didn’t fare well, only hitting .196.  It’s funny becuase this entire time I was trying to build up to say Santana best fits at the top of the lineup, but he might actually fit best in the five hole, where he has his best numbers, hitting for a .289 average.

Let’s put Santana in the fifth spot, and here’s how how the lineup might shake out:

  1. Jason Kipnis
  2. Francisco Lindor
  3. Michael Brantley
  4. Mike Napoli
  5. Carlos Santana
  6. Yan Gomes
  7. Juan Uribe
  8. Lonnie Chisenhall
  9. Tyler Naquin

The middle of the Indians lineup will certainly make pitchers work, as Brantley, Napoli, and Santana are in the tops in the league at taking pitches.  Maybe with Napoli in front of him, Santana won’t be inclined to take so many walks, or it could have the opposite effect and make him an even more patient hitter.  Of course, helping Santana’s value is his move off of first base, where he rated as a terrible defender.  Earlier in his career he was able to off-put his defensive value due to his superior hitting at the catching position.  At first base, Santana was merely an average hitter, dragged down by his defense.  Now he can focus solely on hitting, and we’ll see how well it works out.

10. Where do the Indians finish in the standings?

Finally the reason for this article, the reason you’ve trudged through 3,700 words of so-so writing.  How will the AL Central standings look at the end of the year.  The AL Central looks to be a season long fight for first place.  Every team is coming in thinking they have a shot at the crown.  According to Fangraphs (one of the leading analytical sites) the projected standings look like this:

  1. Cleveland Indians, 86-76
  2. Detroit Tigers, 81-81
  3. Chicago White Sox, 81-81
  4. Minnesota Twins, 77-85
  5. Kansas City Royals, 77-85

Fangraphs, along with many other projection sites are bullish on the Royals for a second year in a row, but as a whole, they predict the AL Central to be a dog fight of mediocrity.  The Indians come out ahead mainly because of their amazing pitching staff, which Fangraphs has allowing the least amount of runs in all of the AL.  In fact, they have the Tribe as the only AL Central team to have a positive run differential.  And just in case you’re wondering, they have the second wild card spot set at 82 wins.  Okay, now time for my prediction.  I will just give the standings, no win total.

  1. Cleveland Indians
  2. Kansas City Royals
  3. Chicago White Sox
  4. Detroit Tigers
  5. Minnesota Twins

Yep, my optimism for the Tribe has continued for the second straight year (I picked them to win the Central last year as well, just shows you how much I know).  I think Kansas City will come away with the top wild card spot, which means both the Indians and Royals will be fighting for that top spot all year, but I think the Tribe’s rotation puts them on top.

— Chris Sladoje (@The_Doje)

Image via Getty Images/sportsonearth.com




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