By John Fanta
It’s Opening Day around Major League Baseball, and there’s no snow in Cleveland, Ohio. That’s a beautiful thing.
As the Indians embark on an unprecedented 60-game campaign, the expectation remains the same: win a championship. When you have one of the best managers in the game in Terry Francona, a top-five player in the sport in shortstop Francisco Lindor, one of the best starting rotations in baseball and an improved lineup from a 93-win ball club last year, it only makes sense to hold that standard. Combine all of these things with the fact that MLB is taking 16 postseason teams this season, and anything short of October baseball in Cleveland would be a big failure.
In short, here’s a reader’s digest version of what you can expect from the Tribe this season:
The most stable element of this team is the infield. Third baseman Jose Ramirez, first baseman Carlos Santana and Lindor have a great chemistry and are All Star caliber talent. The question of who would replace Jason Kipnis at second base has been answered in resounding fashion with César Hernández, who played with Santana for a year in Philadelphia in 2018. Hernández’s history of strong on-base percentage will have him in the leadoff spot. In Monday’s exhibition game against the Pirates, the 30-year-old showed his ability with a 12-pitch at-bat to start the game, one that Francona said was the direct result of runs in later innings.
The coaching staff has a good problem to have with these four, who are all everyday players and as Francona notes, don’t want any scheduled days off. When they do get a day here and there, the three backups are Mike Freeman, Yu Chang and Christian Arroyo. Jake Bauers, who is not on the opening day roster but is presumed to be on the three-man taxi squad, could factor in as well.
The outfield carries more question marks than the infield. After a solid rookie season, Oscar Mercado had centerfield locked up. Beyond him, there are several possibilities for the Tribe, which has eight outfielders on the opening day roster. Expect Tyler Naquin to be the main right fielder if healthy, but with his foot injury keeping him out for the first few days of the season, that caused Francona to go with Domingo Santana in right and Jordan Luplow in left on the opening day lineup. The key question: Can Santana and Franmil Reyes hold down a spot in the outfield? One of the plans was to have the pair rotate. We’ll see if that comes to fruition. There is a wild card to the outfield, with Bradley Zimmer finally back in the equation after three years of injuries and obstacles. The 27-year-old has a new batting stance and is out to prove doubters wrong. If it’s going to happen, his time in Cleveland could be right now. The Indians also have Delino DeShields Jr., who is not at full strength after contracting COVID-19 but is on the opening day roster. Plus, they will carry Greg Allen and have recalled Daniel Johnson for opening day. The biggest positive to the deep outfield is speed. In an AL Central Division with the Twins’ and White Sox power, the Tribe needs to find some separation offensively, and it could come on the base paths.
Turning to the rotation, it’s rock solid. The Indians have two Cy Young candidates in Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger, a veteran in the middle in Carlos Carrasco, a rising star in Aaron Civale and another intriguing piece at the No. 5 position in Zach Plesac. Bieber’s rise has been nothing short of incredible, and when he gets the ball Friday, at 25 years old, he’ll become the youngest Tribe opening day starter since CC Sabathia at 23 in 2004. While Adam Plutko will be used in a long reliever role, he could always pop into the rotation if there are any issues. Cleveland should boast one of the most complete rotations in the sport once again. That’s also a credit to the backstop, Roberto Perez. The 31-year-old has developed in the Tribe system, and put up his best campaign in 2019 with 24 home runs and a .774 OPS.
This Indians’ season could likely hinge on what happens between the sixth and eighth inning. While Brad Hand returns as the closer, there is a high level of unknown with how Francona will manage his bullpen particularly in high leverage situations. With the three-batter minimum rule going into effect this season, it creates a big wrinkle for arms like lefty Oliver Perez and submariner Adam Cimber. James Karinchak, a modern-day Rick Vaughn (he’s wearing #99 and is coming out to “Wild Thing), has nasty stuff but his command is shaky. Cam Hill, Dominic Leone and Phil Maton are all unproven pitchers. Nick Wittgren has shown in bits and pieces what he can do, but is not to a point where he can be relied upon in every big spot before Hand. The bullpen is a fascinating item. If the Indians can figure out a combination that works, they can win a championship. If they do not, it could cause them to sweat out an already tense season and claw to be that second place AL Central team, or a wild card. If this team makes any move at the trading deadline, it would be surprising for it not to be a bullpen arm.
All of this said, Francona has shown that he can execute in tight situations before, and if there’s any skipper in the game fit for a season as crazy as this one, it’s “Tito”.
Let’s Play Ball.
Photo: Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports