Cleveland Indians: Bench will be a big factor for Tribe

Mar 8, 2015; Surprise, AZ, USA; Cleveland Indians gloves and caps sit in the dugout during to a spring training baseball game against the Texas Rangers at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 8, 2015; Surprise, AZ, USA; Cleveland Indians gloves and caps sit in the dugout during to a spring training baseball game against the Texas Rangers at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cleveland Indians bench will be critical to their success this season, especially with so many unknowns in the starting lineup.

Here’s a quick and dirty way to assess a lineup.  There’s a variety of philosophies on how to fill the first five spots, but, in general, those are going to be the five best hitters on the team, unless you have a manager who feels that the fastest guy should hit first or the best bunter should hit second.  When I want to know whether a lineup will consistently score runs I look at who is hitting seventh.

I have found that if a team has enough good hitters that the guy hitting seventh is someone who makes the other team worry, that team will generally be effective at putting runs on the board.  Now this could all blow up if Napoli turns into Brandon Moss or Brantley is out until July, but, in general, this looks like a lineup that should be at least in the middle of the pack offensively, which is enough to contend with Cleveland’s rotation.

With the signing of free agent Juan Uribe, the lineup for the Indians looks to be complete.  There are various ways the batting order could take shape, but here’s one possibility that seems to work, once Michael Brantley is able to play:

Kipnis                                   2B

Lindor                                   SS

Brantley                                LF

Santana                                 DH

Gomes                                   C

Napoli                                   1B

Uribe                                     3B

Chisenhall/Davis               RF

Almonte                               CF

There’s a catch, though.  (In Cleveland, there’s always a catch.)  When you go down through that lineup, ask yourself this:  if you had to bet on the over/under on who would get five hundred at bats on this team, who would you take the over on?  Realistically, the only guys you would feel good about would be Kipnis, Lindor, and Santana, and Santana may be the best bet on the roster to get traded if the season goes south, given his contract status.

Brantley can get five hundred at-bats if he’s healthy by the end of April, but nobody seems to know if that’s possible.  Gomes will catch about 120 games, and could get a few more starts in as the backup first baseman – remember that when he came to Cleveland he was considered a corner infielder who could also catch, so he may be better as a backup to Napoli than Santana.  All of that, though, is dependent on Gomes hitting enough that the Indians look for ways to get his bat in the lineup on days when he isn’t catching.

Napoli hasn’t played in 140 games since 2010.  Neither has Uribe.  Davis hasn’t done so since 2012.  All three are in their mid to late thirties, so their durability is unlikely to be on the upswing.  Almonte’s 232 at-bats last year were a career high, and his track record is not substantial enough that he can written in for 162 games.  Chisenhall’s career high for at bats is 478, and he is a lock to have a month or so where you swear he has the opposing pitcher on his fantasy team.  Beyond that, all of these guys have serious platoon differentials.

What does that mean?  It means that, rather than nine guys getting six hundred at bats, this is likely to be a team where eleven or twelve guys get four hundred at-bats.  Davis is the tenth guy, and that seems like a good thing.  Roberto Perez is a solid backup catcher, but he won’t get more than a couple hundred at-bats unless he learns a new position or Gomes gets hurt again.  At this point, Jose Ramirez will be the primary backup for Uribe, Lindor, and Kipnis.  He will also play third if Uribe slides across to play first.  Given all that, it is not unlikely that Ramirez will end up playing three or four times a week.  That may work out, but all we know about Ramirez at this point is that his lifetime OPS is .644.

The outfield situation will depend largely on how long Brantley is out.  Once he comes back, Davis will either slide into a fourth outfielder role or take over if either Chisenhall or Almonte struggles.  The next option for outfield at-bats will either be Joey Butler or Collin Cowgill, who between them would make a solid player.  Butler is a decent hitter but struggles on defense while Cowgill can handle all three positions but has a lifetime OPS of .633.  Tyler Naquin seems like a better combination of offense and defense, so it will interesting to see if he gets a shot.

Next: Signing Jackson makes little sense for the Tribe

Terry Francona has always used his bench since he became the manager of the Indians, but he has always had Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn sitting there.  This year, when it appears the bench will be more critical than ever, both of those guys are gone, and the potential replacements are guys who still need to prove that they can handle their roles.  How Francona handles his bench this season will be a big factor.