It is a good thing, at this point in the offseason, to be thinking about the bench. It is certainly better than wondering who will play left field or first base, as we were last year. But facts are facts, and if the Indians are “all in’ as has been stated, there is still work to do.
Once the starting eight and the pitching staff are accounted for, there are still five roster spots to be filled. At least one of those guys will spend significant time at designated hitter. Chances are a couple of them will spend significant time in the starting lineup because of injury or trade. Right now, though, the only bench player we can pencil in with any assurance is Mike Aviles. If nothing else, that should give pause to anyone who thinks a trade of Asdrubal Cabrera is a good idea, because if Aviles becomes the starting shortstop there is no depth at all.
Barring a return of Travis Hafner, it appears the Indians are planning on rotating multiple players through the DH spot, treating it as a quasi-day off for starters. This basically creates an extra bench spot, which is valuable in the days of 12-man pitching staffs. It does mean, however, that there must be quality major league players on the bench, not just a collection of Rule 5 draftees and minor-league contracts. Of the five players, at least one must be a catcher, one an infielder, and one an outfielder. The other two spots can be anything; I have always been partial to a third catcher, but the Indians have never shared that belief.
Since all three of the Tribe’s starting outfielders are somewhat versatile, the fourth outfielder does not need to be adept at all three positions, which was the rationale for Aaron Cunningham last year. He does, however, need to be adept enough both offensively and defensively to fill in for a month if somebody gets hurt. Right now the fourth outfielder looks like Ezequiel Carrera, whose ability to fill in for an extended period is questionable at best. Aviles has played a few games in the outfield, so he would be the emergency alternative, enough to avoid keeping a fifth outfielder on the active roster but not enough to count on for anything.
The only other outfielder on the 40-man roster is Tim Fedroff, whom the statheads seem to love. There are also non-roster invitees Matt Carson and Cedric Hunter; neither has posted the type of minor league stats that would make one believe they have much to offer. So at this point the Indians are choosing between Carrera and Fedroff as the fourth outfielder. Fedroff posted an OPS of .910 at Columbus last year, which indicates that he could help at DH if the need arises, which gives him an edge in my mind.
Aviles is perfect as a utility infielder, the type of guy good teams spend money on because they recognize his value. He will be the primary backup at second, third, and short, and will get plenty of at bats against left-handers. He has played a handful of games in left field in his career, giving the Indians an option if they don’t want to carry a fifth outfielder. I don’t believe Aviles is the type of player who can play an entire season without being exposed, with an OPS below .700 in each of the past two years, but if he had to replace any infielder for a couple of weeks he could do it.
The third bench player will be a catcher. Given the lack of prospects in the farm system, the choice appears to be between Lou Marson and Yan Gomes. Gomes was treated as more of a utility player in 43 games with Toronto last year than as a legitimate catcher, although that may have been due to the Blue Jays’ depth at catcher than to any weaknesses on his part. However, only 35 of his 83 appearance in Triple-A were at catcher last year. Given his offensive numbers at Las Vegas, if the Jays saw him as a great defensive catcher they would have gotten him as much time as possible there, if only to enhance his trade value. That leads me to think Marson is a better option.
A backup catcher is generally expected to play one or two games a week, which makes a modicum of defensive skill essential. While Marson showed a regression defensively last year and Indians’ pitchers had the same ERA with him as with Carlos Santana, I believe he will go to spring training as the favorite to be the backup because he has shown the ability to handle the position in the past.
That leaves two spots to fill. Barring trades, there are currently six players on the 40-man roster who can fill these spots: Carrera, Gomes, Juan Diaz, Cord Phelps, Chris McGuiness, and Mike McDade. McGuiness and McDade are first base/DH types, which limits their usefulness. Both have good stats, but neither has seen much action at Triple-A, so it is tough to say if they will be ready for major league pitching.
Generally guys like these would only make the roster if they show enough offense to help at DH, but McGuiness was a Rule 5 draftee, which means he must stay on the roster all year or be lost. Diaz has not seen any action in the minor leagues at a position other than shortstop, which limits his usefulness. Also, since Diaz is only 24 it would seem the Indians might prefer to have him play full-time at Columbus and continue to develop his skills. The only other apparent infield candidate is Cord Phelps, who can play multiple positions but was never promoted last year through all the roster shuffling at the major league level until roster were expanded in September, indicating a lack of faith from the front office.
Ezequiel Carrera has over a thousand at-bats in Triple-A, an indication that he would not benefit a great deal development-wise from another year in Columbus. Furthermore, Carrera has excellent speed, an asset that is always useful. He can play any outfield position and would help as a pinch runner. Assuming Fedroff sees significant time at DH, Carrera would become the fourth outfielder in such situations. For these reasons, I would have Carrera on the active roster.
The final bench position comes down to a choice between Cord Phelps, Yan Gomes and Chris McGuiness. Phelps offers some versatility, including the ability to play both middle infield positions, but seems like he would need to come up big in spring training to change the opinion of the front office. Gomes can play a number of positions, including catcher, and brings enough offense to be considered a candidate for DH. If McGuiness shows enough potential that the Indians don’t want to lose him, he will probably get the last spot. Otherwise, Gomes seems to be a preferable option.
Overall, there is a distinct lack of experience among the bench candidates for the Indians. It would be desirable to have one more experienced bat, either an outfielder or a catcher. I am sure the Indians will be looking for depth at these positions all the way up until the season begin and beyond, unless one of the candidates mentioned here shows the ability to contribute consistently.