Cleveland Indians: Early 26-man roster predictions

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Spring training is rapidly approaching, and it’s time to start thinking about how the Cleveland Indians roster might unfold for the start of 2020.

The 2020 season will mark the beginning of the 26-man roster era in MLB. With each passing day, the Cleveland Indians appear less and less likely to add to the collection of players who could make theirs, meaning there’s a reasonable chance that what we see is what we’re going to get come spring training.

Discouraging as that may be, it is never boring to gauge what a team might look like once the season begins. With that in mind, here is my first crack at projecting the Indians’ Opening Day roster for 2020. We will revisit this discussion a few times leading up to the regular season, particularly in response to any new developments that come to light in spring training.

And dare I endeavor to say that the Indians might actually sign a free agent between now and March 26? That would certainly shuffle things up.

Anyway, as the roster stands in the here and now, this is what I’m comfortable projecting right off the bat for Opening Day:

You’ll notice the Indians are missing two starting outfielders. In fact, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed that for the better part of the last four years.

I’d argue Jordan Luplow has the inside track at one of those spots, but the Indians were clearly reluctant to play him against right-handed pitching last year. Projecting him as an everyday starter for 2020 at this juncture isn’t a safe bet, even if he probably deserves the chance.

The remaining outfield options are Delino DeShields, Bradley Zimmer, Greg Allen, and Jake Bauers. A solid spring from prospect Daniel Johnson could thrust him into the fold as well. Two of these players (or some surprise prospect who comes out of nowhere) have to make the roster by default just for Cleveland to field a team on Opening Day.

Let’s say, for the sake of moving this along, that the Indians settle on a starting outfield of DeShields, Mercado, and Luplow to begin the season. The additions of DeShields and Luplow bring the roster to 19 players, with seven spots left over.

Now let’s imagine the Indians choose Bauers and Zimmer as outfield reserves. Bauers can spell Santana at first base every now and then, so as long as he shows marginal improvement at the plate in spring training, he has a better-than-not chance at breaking camp with the team. Zimmer is a left-handed hitter, which theoretically presents platoon potential alongside the aforementioned three right-handed starters. At this point, I’d rather roll the dice on whatever is left of Zimmer’s upside than on Allen.

Now we have five spots to fill out the Indians’ bullpen and select a tag-along infielder. In a perfect world, two of those bullpen spots will be occupied by James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase. If I’ve learned anything from watching the Indians all my life, it’s that there is no such thing as a perfect world. Karinchak has a track record of being wild with his pitch location, so I’m betting the Indians choose to give him some reps in the minors to start the year.

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Clase is also a raw project, and younger than Karinchak, but he at least had a somewhat extended debut in 21 games with the Rangers last year. He doesn’t have the history of walking hitters that Karinchak does, and he’s in his own universe when it comes to inducing ground balls. Heaven knows the Indians could use a reliever that keeps the ball down. I say he gets the nod to start the season.

Another of the bullpen jobs is likely to go to one of the pitchers who loses out on the fifth rotation spot. The 26th roster spot should afford teams the luxury of a legitimate long reliever, and most clubs will probably take advantage in response to the three-batter minimum rule that will also take effect in 2020. If a guy has to face at least three hitters out of the bullpen, then it’s going to be beneficial to have at least one pitcher available who can face more.

Adam Plutko carries some terrifying batted-ball metrics, but he’s proven capable of working his way through innings, and he has the most big-league experience among the remaining choices. He’s also out of minor league options, so he either has to break camp with the team or be placed on waivers. Zach Plesac wins the rotation spot; Plutko moves to the bullpen.

As for the other two bullpen occupants, take your pick of Hunter Wood, Phil Maton, and James Hoyt. Wood has no minor league options remaining; if he’s still with the organization late in spring training, he’s probably cracking the Opening Day roster. Though this isn’t a prediction I feel comfortable with, I can only base these estimates on who the Indians currently have at their disposal. I can easily see Wood being cut, but it’s not like the Indians have some endless stockpile of relievers to pick from.

Maton is much younger than Hoyt, and has posted strong strikeout numbers throughout his minor league career. Hoyt has logged just 80 innings at the MLB level since signing a minor league deal with the Braves in 2012. Barring some sort of renaissance on his part, why not go with the marginally higher upside in Maton?

The utility infield battle will be an interesting one. Mike Freeman performed admirably in that role last year, but he is what he is. If the Indians want a relatively safe fifth infielder who can also patrol the outfield grass from time to time, Freeman could win the job. If Cleveland is trying to stack its roster with as much upside as possible, there are younger players available.

Christian Arroyo, who was acquired from the Rays in July of last season, is out of minor league options. Though he has yet to make good on his once-promising potential, the Indians likely want to see if they can unlock it before giving up on him. Players like Freeman, Andrew Velazquez, and Yu Chang will be waiting in the wings if Arroyo falters out of the gate, but unless the Indians are comfortable cutting ties with a player they’ve never even gotten a chance to work with, Arroyo is probably the 13th and final position player.

With that, we’ve rounded out our 26-man roster as follows:

  • Outfield/Bench – 18. Jordan Luplow 19. Delino DeShields 20. Jake Bauers 21. Bradley Zimmer 22. Christian Arroyo
  • Bullpen – 23. Adam Plutko 24. Emmanuel Clase 25. Hunter Wood 26. Phil Maton

As I said above, this is subject to change for a variety of reasons. If, say, Karinchak is lighting it up down in Goodyear, I’m going to be inclined to bump him up to the MLB club. If the Indians bring in a free agent or execute a trade, that will naturally augment the picture as well.

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It’s a fluid situation, but with a little over two weeks to go before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, this is how it is all shaping up at the moment.