CLEVELAND (92.3 the Fan) – The Cleveland Indians will be the favorites for their third straight American League Central title in 2018, but how they might get there is maybe more of an unknown at this point than perhaps feels comfortable.
Luckily, the status of Francona’s roster is from where most of the unknown stems. Whether or not that roster will be good enough to compete is not as much in question.
Francona placed the credit for that lack of a question in the hands of President Chris Antonetti.
“I think back to the first winter meetings we had,” Francona said. “Chris was sitting at a desk in the middle of the room by himself. We didn’t have any pitching. I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’
“Now, we have a good team. And we’re going to continue to have a good team. Some of the names might change, but we’re going to be good. That helps.”
Regardless, some questions remain. They will not be answered for at least a few weeks, and probably more, but that does not mean we can’t take a stab at them in mid-October.
- What is Jason Kipnis’s role going forward?
With Bradley Zimmer’s injury, Francona and Antonetti decided to move two-time All-Star Jason Kipnis into center field. The move was maligned at the time, but proved largely to be moot, as Kipnis contributed relatively well offensively and made only one questionable play in the outfield.
When Zimmer returns, it seems unlikely that the Indians would bump their top prospect from a position he excels at defensively with his service clock already started.
Jose Ramirez is more important than Kipnis currently and in the long run, and his best position at second base, next to Francisco Lindor.
That leaves Kipnis as the odd-man out.
Assuming Jay Bruce leaves the organization, which seems likely, Kipnis could platoon in left field with Brandon Guyer. (Where Michael Brantley fits? More on that in a minute.) Kipnis is not a major platoon candidate, so the job could be his completely, with Guyer a rotational bat against certain lefties.
Kipnis is under contract for the next three years, which makes his controllable contract valuable in a trade situation. That being said, a 30-year old who is coming off of an injury-plagued season is a lot less valuable than he was a season ago.
Any sort of trade involving Kipnis would most likely be predicated on holes filled by those who leave in free agency.
As one of the veterans of the club, it is hard to imagine the front office wanting to move on from him, but unless he has an everyday spot on the roster, it would be hard to see him on the team.
Antonetti did not commit to the idea of retaining Kipnis, speaking about his roster design being dependent on who is around and external options. He then spoke of Kipnis’s versatility in a way that sounded like a marketing pitch, though that is purely speculatory.
- What will it take to retain Carlos Santana?
Mark Trumbo received a 3-year, $37.5 million contract heading into 2017, his 31-year old season.
Santana will be 32 shortly after the start of the season, but otherwise is comparable. Lower power numbers, but higher on-base metrics and excellent defense.
The all-time Indian wants to remain in Cleveland, or so he says, and should be valued enough to stay. Even without a hometown discount, Santana is worth a 3-year, $39 million deal. Considering Santana made $12 million in 2016, that should be a doable number for ownership as well.
As of now, it feels slightly safe that Santana will be retained, but the Indians have options at first base if he gets a Godfather offer.
- Will Michael Brantley’s option be picked up?
The case of Michael Brantley is a delicate one, as one reporter put it Thursday. Another lifetime Indian and a fan favorite, Brantley’s $12 million option is worthwhile in terms of production, but not necessarily such in terms of availability.
Brantley has missed 223 games over the past two seasons, and will turn 31 mid-season.
“It’s a significant decision for us, but as we told Michael, we’ve always envisioned him being part of the organization, not only for 2018, but beyond,” Antonetti said. “That’s been our mindset from the beginning.”
That sounds like a pretty decent endorsement, but much will depend on Brantley’s exit physical.
The possibility remains that the team could decline Brantley’s option and re-sign a less expensive deal. If the outfield is an issue for Brantley’s health, he could also be valuable as a first baseman if Santana makes his exit.
- How is Terry Francona’s health?
The manager said that he is more ‘wiped out’ than after any other season. Rightfully so.
After undergoing a pulmonary embolism in July, Francona was still wearing a heart monitor later into the season. He leaned a lot on Bench Coach Brad Mills, to a point that he felt as if he was not doing as much as he felt he should.
“It’s supposed to be the other way around, so I need to get a little stronger so I can uphold my responsibilities here, so I don’t short-change anybody, because that’s not good,” Francona said.
Francona vowed to return to Goodyear healthier, but assured he would indeed be back.
- Who will man third base?
Unless he begins to excel at the plate, it did not sound as if Giovanny Urshela would be under heavy consideration to be the everyday third baseman next season.
“We’re not going to go into a season planning on pinch-hitting for our third baseman at the first opportunity,” Francona said when asked about whether or not Urshela would be the answer at the position.
When asked about where Yandy Diaz would fit in come spring, the manager said he could see Diaz as the everyday third baseman.
Obviously if the plan is to play Kipnis at second again, that would make Jose Ramirez the third baseman, and everything is settled.
For now, it seems the competition will come down to Diaz and Francisco Mejia, who will get reps at the position in the Arizona Fall League and presumably Spring Training.
Antonetti did make it clear that Mejia will not be moving from catcher full-time.
“He did an extraordinary job at continuing his development, both offensively but more specifically defensively, the way he led the staff, some of the nuances of catching,” Antonetti said. “He’s in a much better spot now than he was a couple years ago as a defender.”