Tribe players battle for open outfield spot
By Evan Skilliter
Spring training is finally underway.
I had the privilege to get the first spring training experience of my life this week at the ESPN Wide World of Sports' Champion Stadium near Orlando, Florida, where the Atlanta Braves played the Washington Nationals.
It was a day I will never forget, an early reintroduction to the best sport in the world. The sights, sounds, and smells of baseball were tickling my senses once again, after a long winter of anticipation.
Unfortunately, Orlando is just over 2,000 miles from Goodyear, Arizona, the city that the Cleveland Indians call home during the spring. A 31 hour drive separated me from catching a glimpse of the team that I will keep my closest watch on in 2012.
Goodyear Ballpark is where Tribe players like Carlos Santana, Justin Masterson, Michael Brantley, and Jason Kipnis will tune their skills to get ready for the upcoming season, while guys like Lou Marson, Shelley Duncan, Ezequiel Carrera and others will try to impress the club and get a spot on the opening day roster.
One question mark on that roster lies in the outfield. The news that centerfielder Grady Sizemore will be unavailable on opening day due to a lower back injury opened a new door to a few players trying to make the club in April.
Michael Brantley was slated to start in left field this season, but he will likely slide over to the center field slot unless Ezequiel Carrera shows he's worthy of the spot.
Last season, Brantley actually had a higher fielding percentage in centerfield (.988) than he did in left (.984).
Carrera played 68 games in the big leagues last season, hitting .243 with a .301 on base percentage. Through three games this spring, Carrera is 2-6 at the plate with a stolen base and three runs scored.
The most likely situation will find Brantley in center and Shelley Duncan in left field. Duncan played 37 games in left field last season, tallying 58 put-outs in 61 attempts while hitting .260 with a .324 on base percentage.
Duncan also hit 11 homeruns and 47 RBI in 76 total games. This spring, he's already hit two homeruns in seven at bats.
The third best option, in my opinion, would be to give Jason Donald a shot in left field. Donald, primarily a middle infielder, is blocked from the everyday job at shortstop by Asdrubal Cabrera and at second base by Jason Kipnis. However, in 39 games with the Tribe in 2011, Donald hit .318 with a .364 on base percentage to go along with a homerun, 13 runs, and eight RBI. His numbers could be useful in the lineup and leftfield may his only option.
There has been talk that Matt LaPorta could get the left field job. LaPorta would have been the Indians' everyday first basemen if the club would not have inked Casey Kotchman. While a move to the outfield seems unlikely, fans should not rule it out. With Kotchman on the roster, LaPorta has nowhere to go but the bench or the minors.
Last year, during his third season in the Majors, LaPorta hit a respectable .247 with a .299 on base percentage. He also hit 11 homeruns and 53 RBI in 107 games. The fact that LaPorta started his career as an outfielder in the Brewers organization is something else worth noting.
Other outfielders on the spring training roster that aren't locked into a starting role include Aaron Cunningham (a career .231 hitter in four seasons in the big leagues), Thomas Neal (hit .289 combined for triple-A Fresno and triple-A Columbus last season, but he's never played in the Major's), and Nick Weglarz (hit .179 for doube-A Akron last season, he's also never seen time in the Major's).
There is no question that a healthy Sizemore is the best option, but he has been plagued by injury since the 2008 season in which he hit 33 homeruns and 90 RBI in 157 games, but 2009 was the last season that Sizemore played over 100 games (109). In '10 and '11, he played in only 33 and 71 games, respectively.
So while it is always easy to speculate, no one knows for sure who manager Manny Acta will stick in the outfield on opening day. When the news breaks, I will do my best to get an announcement up somewhere around here, but you can always check Indians.com for all the latest Tribe news and stories.
For now, all we can do is sit back and enjoy the beautiful Ohio spring weather that is presumably headed our way.