After four long months of winter, the words baseball fans have longed to hear can now be said: Pitcher and catchers report to spring training.
It is just a matter of time before exhibition games will start, and isn’t it refreshing that baseball calls them that, instead of the pretentious “preseason” games like the NFL does, and may we add charges full price for them.
Unfortunately, in Goodyear, the spring got off to a sad start as Tito Francona, the father of Tribe skipper Terry, passed away. As you may know, the Franconas were one of the several father/son combinations who both wore Cleveland uniforms.
On the field, the Indians are the two time defending American League Central Division champions, and led the AL in wins last season, compiling the second highest victory total in the history of the franchise.
So, this isn’t a club with a lot of roster questions.
Still, there are a few. Most notably in the bullpen, where Francona and new pitching coach Carl Willis have to find a replacement for the durable Bryan Shaw and another right-hander, Joe Smith.
The back of the bullpen might be the best in the sport with closer Cody Allen, and perhaps the game’s best reliever, Andrew Miller usually handling the 8th and 9th innings.
The questions on those two won’t come until after the season, as both will be free agents.
The Tribe needs to find someone who can bridge the gap from the starters to Allen and Miller. The frontrunners will be Nick Goody and Dan Otero, but if they were as good as Shaw, they would have been used more with the lead instead of him.
Both were solid last year, but neither pitched in more than 56 games or threw more than 60 innings. Shaw pitched in 79 games last season, and led the AL in appearances in three of the last four seasons.
Perhaps one of the non-roster invitees, such as Preston Claiborne, Alexi Ogando, or Neil Ramirez, or perhaps farmhands Louis Head or Josh Martin can emerge as possible candidates.
The other area of interest is in the outfield where it remains to be seen whether Michael Brantley and Brandon Guyer will be healthy enough to start the season on the Opening Day roster.
Based on reports, neither is likely to be ready, so Francona needs to find a leftfielder and a platoon partner for Lonnie Chisenhall in rightfield.
In left, does the skipper use Abraham Almonte, Tyler Naquin, or Greg Allen there? A dark horse candidate would be Rob Refsnyder, a former Yankee prospect claimed from Toronto over the winter.
To be sure, the leader to platoon with Chisenhall would have to be Yandy Diaz, who hit .263 in 156 at bats, and whose high exit velocity has many experts wondering what he could be if he could hit the ball in the air.
Diaz has a ton of upside and really has nothing to prove at the AAA level, leading the minor leagues in on base percentage. He deserves a chance to get regular at bats at the big league level. Heck, he played a lot during last year’s 22 game winning streak.
And there are still rumors of a trade or a free agent signing around the Indians too. This roster could look different in a few weeks.
However, it’s good to see the boys of summer out on the field, even if it is spring. Baseball is back, and it’s only six weeks until the regular season opener vs. Seattle on March 29th.