One of the questions we all asked about the Indians last year on a daily basis was “Why is that guy still playing?” The answer, in many cases, was that there was nobody else available, although one could make a case that Russ Canzler, Tim Fedroff or Cord Phelps could hardly have been worse than some of the guys who got hundreds of at-bats last year.
This year should certainly be different. Not only have the Indians strengthened their everyday lineup and rotation, the development of some young players and the signing of a few veterans have put them in a position in which virtually nobody should be assured of a job this year if they don’t perform. This raises the question of how much rope should be given to certain players before a move is made.
The following is a list of players who are expected to play prominent roles for the Indians but might be wise to look over their shoulders. How quickly the hook comes depends on their track record and how strong the alternative is.
1. Ubaldo Jimenez, Brett Myers, and Scott Kazmir: These guys are a package deal because the level of patience for each of these guys depends a great deal on the performances of Trevor Bauer, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Carlos Carrasco in Columbus. My guess is that the front office wants to see Bauer and Carrasco in the MLB rotation by the All-Star Break, which would mean that whoever is the low man on the totem pole when they are ready would be vulnerable, particularly since none of the incumbents is under contract beyond this year.
My guess would be that Jimenez would be the first to go, because of his performance last year. If Myers or Kazmir struggles early, they would have the built-in excuse that they haven’t been in a rotation for a while, so Francona may give them a chance to get comfortable before he passes judgment. The only thing that may keep Jimenez around would be his salary, which may cause the front office to balk at releasing him.
2. Drew Stubbs: The Indians know what they are getting from Stubbs: decent numbers against left-handers, loads of strikeouts against right-handers. If Stubbs’ defense is as good as advertised, they may be content to hit him ninth and take whatever offense they can get from him, particularly if the rest of the lineup is hitting well. If his OPS stays around .600, though, I can’t imagine he will play every day all year. The internal alternatives are not especially attractive, unless you include Nick Swisher.
The first move that would probably be made if Stubbs falters would be to sit him against right-handers, with Tim Fedroff the most logical platoon option. Fedroff has a good minor-league track record, and if he starts the year in a similar fashion it would not be surprising to see him brought up to play against righties. It would require some roster manipulation, since the current roster does not have room for four starting outfielders, but a corner outfielder with numbers like Stubbs put up last year would not be sustainable.
3. Lonnie Chisenhall: While Chisenhall has been anointed the third baseman for the foreseeable future, we all know that has been written in pencil, not ink, until he proves he can handle the job. One thing Terry Francona proven during his tenure in Boston was that he had good judgment about young players. Guys like Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury were allowed to learn on the major league level when their stats did not justify it, and they ultimately turned into outstanding major league players.
If Francona could be patient in the Boston pressure cooker, he can certainly do so in Cleveland. Chisenhall has enough raw tools to justify a great deal of patience, and sending him back to the minors would be a waste of time. If the Indians decide he is not the answer this year, they are probably writing him off for good. For that reason I believe Chisenhall we be given the entire season to determine whether he can handle third base both offensively and defensively, unless he is completely awful, and there has been nothing in his track record to indicate that is likely.
4. Nick Hagadone: This is a roster management decision more than a referendum on Hagadone’s ability, which is considerable, or his performance, which has been excellent this spring. The fact is that the Indians will probably not carry 13 pitchers beyond the first couple of weeks. The decision day will probably be April 6, when Scott Kazmir needs to be activated to make his first start, or April 9, when Jason Giambi will be eligible to come off the disabled list. By that point the bullpen will be reduced from nine men to seven, and Hagadone will be the most likely man to go. With Hagadone and Matt Capps ready to go in Columbus, the Indians will be well protected in case of injury in the bullpen.
5. Lou Marson: The Indians have indicated a preference for Yan Gomes to go to Columbus and catch every day this year, so there is not an internal option available if Marson struggles as he did last year. Unfortunately, the most likely outcome is that means Carlos Santana will play more than is healthy for a catcher. Jason Varitek generally caught between 120 and 140 games for Francona in Boston, which would indicate that Francona tries to get his catcher regular rest. We should know in the first two weeks, when the Indians have no days off, how this will play out. One would expect that Marson would get 2-3 starts during that period, and my guess would be that if he hasn’t shown something by the end of April the Indians will use some of their bullpen surplus to obtain a backup catcher.