Why Tribe Will Repeat As AL Central Champs

A year ago at this time, we predicted an American League Central Division title for the Cleveland Indians.

After consecutive third place finishes in 2014 and 2015, that pick was a little more out on the edge as this year, but we will go ahead and say it anyway, the Indians will win the division title for the second straight year.

It’s not hard to see that Chris Antonetti, Mike Chernoff, and Terry Francona have put together a helluva good baseball team, and they complement that with a farm system that seems to be churning out major league ready players.

The first thing people want to bring up when talking about the Indians is their pitching led by staff ace Corey Kluber, one of the game’s best starters, and the bullpen trio of Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Bryan Shaw, which was dominant for most of the post-season.

Indeed, Cleveland finished second in the American League in staff ERA in 2016, one of only two AL teams (Toronto) with an ERA of under 4.00.

Besides Kluber, Danny Salazar made the All-Star team a year ago, and Carlos Carrasco is capable of dominating any big league lineup.  Consistency and injuries have been an issue with both hurlers in the past.

Trevor Bauer is the wild card.  There doesn’t seem to be any reason he shouldn’t be able to win 15 games, but he has gone through long stretches of seasons where he pitches poorly.  If he can avoid those, and he’s only 26, he could be an elite starter too.

Josh Tomlin is a solid fifth starter, and in most rotations would be a three or four.  If any of the starters falter, Mike Clevinger and Ryan Merritt can step in.

With the trinity of late inning relievers the Tribe has, most nights, it’s a six inning game for the opposition.

Because of the pitching reputation, people forget the offense, which scored the second most runs in the AL behind Boston.  They did it without Michael Brantley, one of the league’s best hitters.

And this off-season, the front office added perennial 30+ home run, 100+ RBI man, Edwin Encarnacion to the lineup.  After searching for a right-handed power bat for many years, Cleveland now has one of the best in the game.

They also have one of the best and most exciting young players in the sport in SS Francisco Lindor.  If the Indians win the division in 2017, Lindor will be an MVP candidate.

Even if Brantley has a set back, an offensive led by Encarnacion and Lindor, with support from Carlos Santana (34 HR last year), 2B Jason Kipnis, and 3B Jose Ramirez should score a lot of runs.

Kipnis will start the year on the disabled list with shoulder soreness, however.

Francona is a master at using platoon advantages, so even though there aren’t big names in centerfield and rightfield, the Tribe will get production out of those spots.

And behind them in the minor leagues, poised to help in the majors are OFs Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen, 3B/OF Yandy Diaz (if he doesn’t open in Cleveland), and C Francisco Mejia, who will start the year in Akron.

They also have Francona, one of the game’s best leaders, and a master at handling the roster and the clubhouse.

In a long term view, the Cleveland Indians are on the precipice of a good run at the top of the AL Central.  In the short term, they will win the division again, and hope to end what is now the longest World Series winning drought in the sport…69 years.

MW

What Needs To Be Done To Fix Cavs’ D

The Cleveland Cavaliers either have a huge problem or they are deceiving the rest of the NBA.

They haven’t played solid defense for most of the season, but over the last few weeks, the ease at which opponents are scoring has become alarming.  Allowing over 125 points is becoming a regular occurrence.

We feel there are several factors at work here, some of which can be fixed prior to the beginning of the NBA playoffs, and some that may not be able to be repaired.

The first problem is familiarity.  Since JR Smith was injured around the holidays, Cleveland’s roster has been in flux.  Kyle Korver, Derrick Williams, Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut, and Larry Sanders have all been brought in, and Smith and Kevin Love missed significant time with injuries.

Those things, coupled with the lack of practice time NBA teams, particularly older ones, get during the regular season, make defensive rotations difficult to assimilate, and that shows in games.

There are many nights where the wine and gold look like they just met in a pick up game on the playground.  Really, they pretty much did.

The second problem is the defensive schemes are very vanilla, and this is by design because Tyronn Lue and his staff aren’t showing anything for the playoffs.  For the most part, the Cavs aren’t blitzing the pick and roll, and aren’t trapping point guards to force the ball out of his hands.

We are sure this will be done once the post-season starts.  Think back to the Boston game early in March and last night’s contest vs. Washington.  The Cavaliers pretty much guarded both Isaiah Thomas and John Wall straight up.  That won’t be the case in a playoff series.

It looks ugly now, but why show either potential opponent your cards before you have to.

However, we can call into question Lue’s playing rotations.  He has a deep roster, but still insists on playing LeBron James 38-40 minutes per game.  With the playoffs beckoning, why not reduce that to around 32 per night.

He also has too many lineups on the floor with glaring deficiencies.  For example, a group without Love and Tristan Thompson, which results in opponents getting second and third shot chances.

We see too many group on the floor without a solid defender besides James.  It is his job to make sure there are at least two or maybe three players who can guard someone on the floor at all times.

He has cut back on the playing time of Derrick Williams, an young, active guy who has shown signs he can guard someone.  Which is exactly what the Cavs need right now.

We know Cleveland wants to go into the playoffs healthy, but a big problem defensively is allowing dribble penetration out front.  Kyrie Irving isn’t fighting through picks and isn’t staying in front of his man.

If you know the game, this leads to the interior defenders having to pick those men up, leaving their man open, or leading to ball rotation for an open three point look.  You can’t have that in the playoffs.

Speaking of interior defense, all of the minutes and guarding on the perimeter seem to have taken a toll on Thompson, whose defense has slipped as the season has progressed.

His ability to guard smaller men away from the basket on switches was a key to last year’s title run.

The regular season games are winding down, meaning fixing the problem soon is critical to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

If they play defense like they have over the last month or so, they simply will not win the Eastern Conference again.  Let’s hope our theory on being secretive about their plans is correct.

JK

 

 

Who Plays Second For A Few Weeks?

A few days ago, the Cleveland Indians announced 2B Jason Kipnis was about 4-5 weeks away from returning to the lineup.

First off, many people went crazy thinking Kipnis wasn’t going to be able to do anything for 4-5 weeks, meaning his return to the lineup would be about two months away.  Apparently, those people didn’t read correctly.

However, it does mean that the second baseman will miss most, if not all, of the first month of the season, so Terry Francona has to find someone to partner with Francisco Lindor as the team’s keystone combination.

It is not a coincidence that when the amount of time became specified by the Cleveland training staff, we started seeing Jose Ramirez playing in place of Kipnis.

Our guess is if Kipnis was going to miss a couple of weeks of the regular season, Francona would have went with a mixture of Michael Martinez and Erik Gonzalez at second, and left Ramirez at the hot corner, where he played so well in the second half of 2016.

But when it appeared to be a full month, he felt it necessary to move Ramirez back to his natural position, and use find someone else to play third.

In his heart of hearts, Tito probably knows Ramirez is stronger defensively than Kipnis, and a double play combination of Lindor and Ramirez could be among the best in the league.

What to do at 3B?  The primary candidates are Giovanny Urshela who is very good with the glove, but his hitting is questionable because he doesn’t handle the strike zone.

Then you have Yandy Diaz, who looks to be ready with the bat, hitting over .300 combined at Akron and Columbus last year.  The brass seems to be very concerned about his glove, although the defensive metrics show he is solid at third.

A dark horse would be Richie Shaffer, who spent the winter bouncing from team to team, but has made some changes in his swing and approach which has caused his power to spike.

Both Diaz and Shaffer would have to be added to the 40 man roster.

Urshela would be the safe pick, but remember the Indians are in a different situation than in the past.  They are the defending American League champions, they aren’t a contending team anymore, so they should be making decisions to win right now.

We have heard people say Diaz shouldn’t get the nod because they don’t want his service time to be an issue.

This was an issue in 2015 with Francisco Lindor, but the Indians weren’t the top dog in the league at that time.  Of course, the failure to bring him up sooner than June 14th may have cost the Tribe a spot in the playoffs.

But Diaz is 25 (Lindor was 21), so when he does become eligible for free agency, he will be 32 years old, past his prime years.

Our belief is to go with the offense, which means giving Diaz the job.  If you have the lead after six innings, then go to Gonzalez or Martinez, whoever wins the utility man job, for defense.

It’s great news that Kipnis should only miss a month, but they have some options to fill in for him until he’s ready to go.

MW

Browns Endless Search…For A Pass Rusher

As a follower of the Cleveland Browns since the mid 1960’s, we are acutely aware that it has been a long time since the team had a solid quarterback.

We are all aware of the great Otto Graham in the 50’s, and Frank Ryan was at the helm for the last Browns’ championship.  Ryan was acquired in a trade with the Rams, and took the Browns to the playoffs for the next few years.

He was followed by Bill Nelsen, picked up in a trade with the Steelers, of all teams, and Nelsen led the Browns to two NFC title games in 1968 and 1969, albeit on rickety knees.

Needing a replacement for Nelsen, Cleveland made the ill fated trade for Mike Phipps, dealing Hall of Fame WR Paul Warfield, and you can make the argument that deal signaled the end of the halcyon days for the franchise.

Since then, there were a few seasons of greatness from Brian Sipe, including one MVP season in 1980, and then Bernie Kosar arrived and so did three losses in the AFC championship game that will be remembered forever.

However, besides quarterback, there is another thing the Browns haven’t had even dating back to the mid sixties, and that is an elite pass rusher, someone opponents have had to game plan against.

Sure, there have been single years or maybe two straight years where Cleveland has had a guy who can get to the quarterback, but they’ve never had that “guy”.

There was Jack Gregory for a year or two, and the trade in 1980 for Lyle Alzado.  Later in the 80’s, Cleveland drafted Chip Banks, who had a troubled career here until he couldn’t get along with Marty Schottenheimer, who traded him to San Diego.

Courtney Brown was supposed to be that guy when he was the first overall pick in 2000, but his knees wouldn’t allow it.  Paul Kruger had one year (2014) where he had 11 sacks, but that was an aberration.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a guy you can depend on for 10 sacks every year?

That guy could be Myles Garrett.  Many of the draft gurus have compared him to Julius Peppers, and if he could be that, we’ll sign up right now.

Look at the Browns’ all-time sack leaders.  Clay Matthews is the leader with 62, but those were accumulated over 15 seasons.  Matthews should be enshrined in Canton, but he wasn’t known as a pass rusher.

The others in the top five are Michael Dean Perry (a nose tackle), Rob Burnett, Carl Hairston, and Reggie Camp.  The latter three were solid defensive ends, but weren’t players opponents were planning against.

Let’s go back to Peppers, who has accumulated 143.5 sacks in his career.  That’s more than double Matthews club record.  If Garrett can get half of that total if he is drafted by Cleveland, he would be the new record holder.

So, while we get the “quarterback hysteria”, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who can put pressure on the other team’s passer?

As former Browns GM Ernie Accorsi once said, the two most important players in the NFL are the quarterback, and someone who can get to the other team’s quarterback.

JD

 

 

Love Is Exactly What Cavs Need

Kevin Love returned to the floor and was in the starting lineup Thursday night when the Cavaliers took on the Utah Jazz.

He played 19 minutes, scoring 10 points, and probably most importantly, grabbed 9 rebounds.

With his return, now the Cavs can officially start their playoff push, with 14 games remaining in the regular season.

When Kyle Korver returns from his foot injury, Tyronn Lue will have a full roster at his disposal for the first time since really the end of December.

And no doubt, their will be rest for “The Big Three” once the Cavs playoff position is etched in stone.  They are currently a game and a half ahead of Boston for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and two games ahead in the loss column, although we don’t think that matters to the team.

The wine and gold went 7-6 in Love’s absence, a far cry from their 34-13 record when the big man from UCLA is on the court.

Their is no question that Love is a lightning rod, mostly from fans, around northeast Ohio.  When the Cavaliers lose, he is usually the first player to get the blame.

He’s not tough enough, he missed wide open looks, he can’t defend, etc.

However, two things were noticeably absent while Love was out.  First, it was obvious the Cavs need a third scoring option behind LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.  Too many times, those two had 25+ points, and the next best total by anyone was something like 14.

Love scores 20 points per game, and on those occasions when James and Irving are off the floor, he provides another scorer.  So, for the most part, Lue can have two of the trio on the court at all times.

They also missed Love on the glass, where he averages 11 caroms per night.  In the 13 games Love was absent following his knee scope, Cleveland was outrebounded in 10 of those contests.

In the ten games before Love was out, the Cavs was only outrebounded twice.  Clearly, his presence is very important on the glass, particularly the defensive boards.

As for durability, Love has played in more than 70 games, five times in nine years, including the last three before 2016-17.

His last two injuries were a shoulder separation which knocked him out of the playoff during his first year with Cleveland, and the knee scope this season.  It’s not like he’s constantly spraining ankles or has a chronic knee issue.

As for his defense, we know he’s not going to make an NBA All-Defensive team anytime soon.  On the other hand, he’s not the open door he’s portrayed to be on that end of the floor either.

His defensive win share is 2.o, which among power forwards is very similar to Serge Ibaka and Derrick Favors, and better than Blake Griffin.  Let’s just say he’s not great, but he’s not a sieve either.

So, if you want to replace Love during the off-season, know that you will need to replace his rebounding and scoring, and he averages 20 points and 11 boards per night.  The other players who do that?  Think DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Good luck getting one of them.

Besides, remember that the Cavaliers are the NBA’s defending champions.  You know who was on that team?  Yep, Kevin Love.

JK

Tribe Injuries Cause Fans Angst

With the Cleveland Indians winning the American League championship in 2016, expectations in northeast Ohio are as high as can be.

With these expectations come the worry that sports fans in this area are famous for.  That angst popped up for Tribe fans at the end of last week when both 2B Jason Kipnis and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco were reported to be injured.

Kipnis is dealing with pain in his shoulder area and will sit for two weeks before trying to play again.  Skipper Terry Francona said this will put Kipnis on the disabled list for the season opener in Texas.

Compounding the concern on Kipnis is Michael Brantley’s injury.  Brantley suffered a torn labrum diving for a flyball in September 2015, and missed virtually all of 2016 with the problem and later developed tricep tendonitis.

So, of course, since Brantley missed most of last year, fans and media alike extrapolate that Kipnis will miss a significant amount of time.

Now, we don’t know the Kipnis’ ailment is minor, but Francona did say Kipnis could DH right now, and could play second too, but the team is taking a precaution.  Obviously, it is better for Kipnis to miss the first couple of weeks of the regular season rather than miss a month later.

What is puzzling is the Tribe’s solution to the problem.  To most, the obvious move is to put Jose Ramirez back to his natural position, and use someone else (Giovanny Urshela, Yandy Diaz, etc.) at the hot corner.

However, it seems Tito wants to keep Ramirez at third, and play a combination of Erik Gonzalez, Michael Martinez and others at second.

We understand Francona loves Martinez and values his glove, but the guy is arguably the worst hitter in the majors (his career OPS is 507), so you can’t put him in the lineup on a regular basis.

We would love to see Diaz get the first shot.  He’s been a .300 hitter in the minors (854 OPS in ’16) and reports out of Goodyear say he seems like he’s one of those guys who could fall out of bad and hit a line drive.

Urshela has a very good glove, but didn’t hit (608 OPS) in his brief shot in 2015.  However, he was called up before spending a full season in AAA, and remember, he wasn’t regarded as a top ten prospect in the organization.

Carrasco’s elbow showed some swelling after a lackluster start on Wednesday, and Francona said he will miss a start.

If he has to miss some time, Mike Clevinger should be the choice to replace him, although in the beginning of the year with off days, his absence could be minimized.

Clevinger started some games a year ago, and made the post-season roster, and the front office has slotted him for the “sixth” starter role anyway.  It just may be those spot starts come in April instead of the middle of summer.

Carrasco’s elbow didn’t show any structural damage, so hopefully it’s just some inflammation and he will be fine with some rest.

While no team wants injuries, and the Indians are no exception, having players miss some time early in the year, when the schedule has some off days, is better than being out later in the year, as the Indians found out when Carrasco and Danny Salazar missed time in the playoffs.

Fans should try to relax a little and hopefully the injuries to Kipnis and Carrasco won’t result in a lot of time being missed.

Remember though, the Indians overcame Brantley’s injury a year ago to win the AL Central Division, and the starting rotation’s hurts didn’t stop them from making the World Series.

MW

 

 

Shocking Trade A Positive For Browns Front Office

The front office of the Cleveland Browns continues to do business in an unorthodox way, which, of course, is why they can polarizing among both the national and local media.

They aren’t “football guys”, we know that, and the Browns went 1-15 last year, so it’s hard to put any trust in them, but we feel they are laying the groundwork for the future.

That should have been done in 1999 when Cleveland came back into the NFL, and it could have been done several times and several regimes since, but instead the franchise went for quick fixes, and have just two winning seasons and one playoff spot in 17 seasons.

The most surprising and talked about move was the trade with the Houston Texans, involving QB Brock Osweiler.

The first reaction was this is who the Browns want to move forward at the quarterback?  The guy benched by the Texans before his first season ended after inking a deal paying him $18 million?

Instead as more details came out, Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta simply gave up some salary cap space, of which the Browns have plenty, to get a 2018 second round draft pick, which Houston had to throw in the deal for Cleveland to take Osweiler.

The old guard didn’t understand the move, Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian blasted the move hours after it happened.

A day later, when Terrelle Pryor signed with the Redskins, the Browns were hammered for giving away cap space instead of reaching an agreement with the wide receiver.

Now we hear fans wondering why the Browns just don’t give Osweiler a shot at the job in training camp.

First, Cleveland still has almost $70-80 million (depending on the source) in salary cap space, and let’s face it, there aren’t enough quality free agents remaining to spend that kind of money this off-season.

So, the money isn’t an issue.

And the Browns get to add to their cadre of high draft picks they have accumulated over the next two drafts.  Obviously, if you are afraid of success in drafting, then having more picks gives you a better chance to get good players.

As for Osweiler, his season last year was a nightmare, and although he get a lot of credit for winning with Denver in 2015, there are plenty of questions about him.

He’s made 22 career NFL starts and has two games with a passer rating of over 100.0.  Before you challenge us, we know that passer rating isn’t the end all in evaluating quarterbacks.

By contrast, Browns’ rookie QB, Cody Kessler, has three games with a rating higher than 100.0 last season.  If you complete a good percentage of throws and avoid interceptions, you will have a good rating.

Remember also that the Texans went to the playoffs last year, so obviously Bill O’Brien felt strongly that Tom Savage gave his team a better chance to win.

Meanwhile, here is a memo to all media people in Cleveland…We are pretty sure the Browns know they need a quarterback, and they will get one this off-season, whether it is drafting one early or getting one in a trade (Jimmy Garoppolo).

So, please stop with the idea the front office hasn’t done a good job because they haven’t addressing the “most important position in professional sports”!

Relax, they know it’s a problem.  They will take care of it.

Until then, can we get off the notion that Brown, DePodesta, and the analytical people don’t know what they are doing?

JD

Cavs’ Defensive Issues Are Due To All The Changes.

Our initial reaction after the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Detroit Pistons on Thursday night was they looked like they had never played with each other before.

Which, of course, is true.

Think about it, Derrick Williams has been with the team for about three weeks, Deron Williams about two.  Kyle Korver has been with the wine and gold since early January (he didn’t play on Thursday), so he’s never been on the floor as a teammate of JR Smith, who missed two and a half months with a thumb injury.

This presents a problem offensively, as Deron Williams learns where the rest of the players like to get the ball so they can score.

And as great as LeBron James is, and as much as he studies his teammates as well as opponents (remember how he told us we watched tape of Korver to see where he likes to catch the ball), even he admitted last night how tough this year has been with all the comings and goings due to roster moves and injuries.

There have been too many games recently where the James and Kyrie Irving are scoring almost half of the Cavs’ points.

Anyone still want to tell us how Kevin Love isn’t important to this team?

Love is a guy who is scoring more than 20 points per game, and in addition to that, is a huge factor on the defensive boards.  Anyone else notice the increasing amount of offensive rebounds the Cavaliers are giving up?

It is even a bigger problem defensively.  On that side of the ball, there is a great deal of trust, knowing you can pass an opponent off to another member of the Cavs, but you have to know they are going to be there.

Think about what Tyronn Lue has had to do on the fly.

He got Korver basically to replace Smith when he went down, and although Korver isn’t a horrible defender, he tries to hide his lack of quickness with knowing where to be, he isn’t as good a defender as Smith, who emerged last year as very good on that end of the floor.

Love isn’t an elite defender, but he is better than most people think, but replacing him in the starting lineup with Channing Frye is a large drop off in defense.  The wine and gold’s defensive rating takes a huge hit when Frye is on the floor.

Another issue with Love being out is that it has taken a toll on the Cavs’ chief interior defender, Tristan Thompson.

Thompson seems to be getting worn down as the season has progressed, having to battle opposing big men basically by himself over the past few weeks.

No doubt this was the biggest reason Andrew Bogut was signed, and also that it appears Larry Sanders will be inked to a deal in the coming week.

Smith is back now, and hopefully Korver’s foot won’t cause him to miss too many more games.

Love should back soon as well, perhaps in about 2 weeks.

Getting everyone back, and getting some extra practice time before the playoffs begin could be the biggest remedy for the defensive issues the team has had.

They need to play and practice together to get the trust back on the defensive end of the floor.  That should greatly decrease the glaring breakdowns when the opponents have the ball.

With all of the shuffling on who is and isn’t available on a nightly basis, something is going to suffer, and it’s usually defense.

When that improves, this team will be very difficult to beat.

JK

 

Is Browns’ Plan Working? We Say Yes.

We had a smile on our face last week when the New York Jets released WR Brandon Marshall and CB Darrelle Revis.

Obviously, the grin wasn’t because the players were let go, but rather the report attached to these roster moves, saying the Jets front office were considering going with a full blown rebuilding process, much like the Browns starting in 2016.

That would kind of fly in the face of the critics of Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta’s strategy.

Brown and DePodesta were widely second guessed for what they did with the Browns roster, mostly by the media, and mainly because they weren’t “football guys”, and they were doing something different.

You have to admit it’s kind of funny that another NFL team is said to be considering the plan to strip down the roster and start over.

It couldn’t have been too stupid of a plan then, right?

Today starts the free agency period for the NFL, and we will guess the Browns will be active, signing two or three should be starters with their massive salary cap space.

It has been reported they will sign WR Kenny Britt, who caught 68 passes for 1002 yards for the Rams, another team who had quarterback issues a year ago.  In 2015, Britt averaged 18.9 yards per catch.

Britt is 28 years old and presumably will replace Terrelle Pryor, who is a free agent.

It would not be surprising if Britt is the oldest free agent Cleveland signs.

The players the Browns are targeting are coming off their first contract, putting them in the 25-26 year old range.  They are experienced, but still in the prime of their careers.

And if you can fill two or three starting spots with free agents, in narrows the focus of the draft, so you can concentrate on specific areas of need.

For example, it would seem that the Browns need two or three starters in the defensive secondary.  If you sign a free agent (Johnathan Cyprien from Jacksonville?), then you can focus on cornerbacks and free safeties in the draft.

Or like another free agent, center JC Tretter from Green Bay, 26, who is reportedly signing with the Browns.  Tretter bolsters the offensive line, providing an anchor in the middle.

Another thing that humors us is the love from the writers who cover the Browns for Myles Garrett now that they saw the impressive workout from the pass rusher at the Scouting Combine.

You have to ask the question was this the first time they ever saw Garrett?  The national guys have been saying the Texas A & M product is the most talented player in the draft since the end of the college football season.

Now that they’ve seen Garrett’s combination of speed and power, suddenly, Cleveland should look for their quarterback with the 12th overall selection, instead of picking one first overall.

This is something we have been saying all along.  It would no longer be surprising if Mitchell Trubisky or Deshaun Watson still available when Cleveland’s turn comes up again at #12.

Certainly, fans would be very happy if the Browns could get one of those guys, right?

That’s why the best thing to do is what it appears the front office will do.  Take the best player at #1, and get the QB later.

JD

 

 

 

Early Spring Battles For Tribe

Baseball’s exhibition games have been played for just a little over a week, and the Cleveland Indians are right where they should be record wise.

We have long maintained a .500 record is what every team strives for, so as to not overly encourage or discourage a fan base.

Of course, after your team goes to the seventh game of the World Series the previous year, it should be difficult to temper expectations.

Because of the World Baseball Classic and the number of Indians playing in it, several young players will get a longer look than normal, not only because of the tournament, but also due to a longer spring training.

As we have said previously, there aren’t a lot of open spots on the 25 man roster, barring injuries.  There is one spot open in the bullpen, and the utility man position is also up for grabs.

We also have serious doubts that Michael Brantley will open the season on the active roster, so there is an extra spot open for manager Terry Francona.

The frontrunner for the last spot in the bullpen would seem to be Shawn Armstrong, who has put together three straight scoreless outings to open exhibition play.

The real reason Armstrong should be the leader is his 1.84 ERA at Columbus last year and his 72 strikeouts in 49 innings.

The other contenders are Joe Colon (15.75 ERA in four innings), Perci Garner (3-2/3 innings, allowed 5 hits and 5 walks), Nick Goody ( 3 scoreless innings), and rule 5 draftee Hoby Milner (one horrific outing, but 7 strikeouts in four innings).  Milner has to be offered back to Philadelphia if he doesn’t make the big league roster.

The utility man spot is complicated.  Erik Gonzalez should be the front runner because he is out of options and the organization could lose him if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster.

Gonzalez is primarily a shortstop and is very good defensively at that spot.  Good enough that he could definitely help another team if they have a chance to get him.

The other primary contender is Michael Martinez, a Tito favorite, and also a guy respected by the clubhouse.

Martinez is solid defensively at several positions, but is also has been one of the worst hitters in the major leagues over his career.

He is also not currently on the 40 man roster, which means someone would have to be removed if he were to make the team.

Our guess is that Gonzalez gets the job with Martinez being the good soldier, starting the season in Columbus where he is just two hours away.

That is, unless both make the team as outfielders replacing Brantley on the roster to open the year.

With Brantley healthy, we would expect the outfielders to be him, Tyler Naquin, Abraham Almonte, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Brandon Guyer.

Assuming Austin Jackson is healthy, he would be the favorite to take Brantley’s spot to start the season.  If he can’t go, you could see both Martinez and Gonzalez open the year on the big league roster, or perhaps Chris Colabello makes the team.

On the other hand, a lot could happen between now and April 3rd, when the Tribe opens up in Texas.

But keep on eye on these players to see how they handle being the frontrunners.

MW