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May 11, 2014; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Cleveland Indians left fielder Nyjer Morgan (6) and catcher Yan Gomes (10) congratulate each other after they scored during the second inning against the Tampa Bay Rays during the second inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Vertical Depth Proving Important For Indians

You’ve probably heard it numerous times in the past, but it’s worth repeating.

There isn’t a team in baseball that only uses the 25 players that begin the season on the major league roster.

Injuries happen, and players don’t live up to expectations. The Indians are no exception to this, and that’s part of why it’s so important to have reliable depth options in the minors. You can’t expect to keep the same 25 players healthy for an entire season and rely on what they have (or in some cases, don’t have) left in the tank. The New York Yankees should probably learn a thing or two about that.

Anyway, depth is extremely important. I know Indians fans (myself included) weren’t exactly thrilled with the Tribe keeping Elliot Johnson on the active roster even when he didn’t deserve a spot there (especially when it meant sending Nyjer Morgan down to AAA Columbus). However, Johnson was out of minor league options, while Morgan was not. It’s that simple. It’s likely the same reason why Carlos Carrasco won the fifth starter job out of Spring Training, even though Josh Tomlin clearly outpitched him.

Having reliable depth in the organization has helped the Indians, as well as made the job of manager Terry Francona much less stressful. (Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports)

Johnson was definitely not setting the world on fire with his .105/.105/.211 batting line and consistent (consistently scary) defense, but he had shown spurts of success in the majors before, and the Indians wanted to keep him in the organization rather than risk losing him on waivers (Johnson cleared waivers anyway, so this is a dead issue).

But my point is this: depth is a critical part of a team’s success over the course of a season, and keeping Johnson on the roster was an example of that.

That brings us to the present day (it’s about time, right?!?). So far this season, the Indians haven’t played at the level that they’re capable of playing at, though this is far from a lost season.

Part of the Indians’ struggles so far in 2014 have come as a result of lackluster results from many players who were supposed to be key contributors. Carlos Santana has struggled to the tune of a .148/.309/.277 line (though he’s been making better contact lately). Nick Swisher is hitting only .204/.303/.317, though he too is showing signs of life recently. As a whole, the Indians’ lineup has struggled for the most part this season. The rotation has struggled at times this year as well, though there has certainly been a mixture of terrific outings from the starters as well.

But I’m an optimist.

Instead of focusing on the Indians’ struggles (as easy as that would be), I’d rather focus on their strengths. Despite a slump that’s seemingly affecting the vast majority of the roster, the Indians are still “only” five games under .500 at the time of this writing.

A large part of the Indians staying afloat this year has come as the result of contributions from “depth” players in the Tribe’s organization. I’ve already mentioned Nyjer Morgan, who’s hitting .341/.429/.439 in the fairly limited playing time he’s been given. Josh Tomlin has been terrific since assuming the fifth spot in the rotation, as he currently has a 2.89 ERA and 4.00 K/BB ratio in 3 starts (his low ERA is misleading as his advanced metrics would show, but the results from him have been great so far). The ageless wonder, Scott Atchison, has been a revelation out of the bullpen this season (he currently has a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings across 16 appearances, and advanced metrics support his success). Jose Ramirez had a few important hits and played good defense before being optioned to Columbus. Jesus Aguilar got his first major league hit and first two RBI on Monday (in addition to inspiring a series of Jesus-related tweets) before he was also optioned to Columbus. Kyle Crockett bounced back from an inconsistent major league debut and turned in a solid encore out of the bullpen. And let’s not forget Trevor Bauer, who completely overmatched the San Diego Padres in his lone major league start this season and earned another on Tuesday as a result of his mostly terrific season for Columbus.

None of these performances can exactly be considered MVP-worthy, but the Indians have nonetheless received valuable contributions from a variety of players who weren’t really expected to help the team much this season.

Corey Kluber is just one of the many examples of how having depth is essential for a team's success. (Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

Corey Kluber is just one of the many examples of how having depth is essential for a team’s success. (Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

And, if you look at last season, the Indians saw impact performances from multiple “depth options” who have turned out to be franchise cornerstones. Corey Kluber has made the transition from subpar pitching prospect to rotation ace in about a year (I have a feeling that he’s just thrilled about that). Yan Gomes went from “the other guy” in the Mike Aviles trade to one of the better catchers in the American League, also in about a year. Bryan Shaw, essentially a throw-in from the Shin-Soo Choo deal with the Diamondbacks and Reds in 2012, has quietly become one of the better setup men in baseball. Ryan Raburn went from a non-roster invitee to Spring Training to an important bench bat last season. Jason Giambi went from a surprise non-roster invitee to a team mentor, pinch hitter extraordinaire, and a provider of #VeteranPresents. And finally, although he’s struggled in 2014 (resulting in a demotion to Columbus), there’s no denying how important starter Danny Salazar was for the Indians down the stretch last season after a promotion from the minors.

Baseball is a funny game, but that’s part of what makes it so great. It’s impossible to predict what will happen to a team over the course of a 162-game season, but having other reliable options in the organization is a must. The Indians have already seen injuries and slumps hurt the team, and there’s no reason to think that these struggles won’t continue in certain forms. It’s also far from certain that the Tribe’s “depth” will continue to thrive.

But the point of having depth is to have insurance if something goes wrong on the major league roster.

The Indians have that insurance, and should only continue to take advantage of it.

 

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