The Indians have a few battles coming up this Spring, but most are the typical utility men, competing for a roster position out of camp. There are only two starting positional roles on the 2014 Indians that are uncertain going into Spring Training third base and right field. Likely, the main contenders for these roles will make the team no matter what, making these competitions much less serious than the other ones. Even if a player is named definite starter before Opening Day there will be nothing keeping them in that position if they struggle early on, so this article will be mainly to point out the contenders and speak of their chances of winning the role.
At the end of last season, Drew Stubbs appeared the obvious choice for starter, but as the off-season progressed, it seemed the Indians were ready to move on. After signing David Murphy, a free agent out of Texas, the Indians were freed to trade Stubbs and they did, to Colorado for Josh Outman. To replace him, the Indians will likely use some combination of Murphy, who signed a two year $11M deal and Ryan Raburn, who signed a two year, $4.75M extension prior to the end of last season. There is no guarantee for this however, as the Indians have brought in a group of contenders in for the role on minor league deals as well, including Jeff Francoeur, Nyjer Morgan and Matt Carson.
Money often becomes a deciding factor in baseball, so as said, the most likely pair of contenders are Murphy and Raburn. Last season, both players were complete surprises in opposite manners. Raburn had a tremendous year, bringing 2.1 WAR for just $1M. He started the year as an occasional back-up infielder, but quickly made himself so indispensable he was used in the lineup almost every day. By the end of the season, he had largely supplanted Stubbs as starter to the point that he was used as the starter in the one game play-off against Tampa Bay.
Murphy was not so lucky. Exactly the opposite of Raburn, he had been a talented, consistent starter for years going into 2013, then proceeded to have the worst season of his career. After a career .275 average, Murphy batted just .220 last year, although he did maintain his power, hitting 13 home runs. Morgan and Francoeur are also on this level, although they didn't have as solid of a career as Murphy did to start their careers. They also had considerably worse seasons in 2013, giving good reason that they are in camp with minor league contracts while Murphy has a guaranteed $11M.
The perfect scenario right now seems to be to use Murphy as a starter with Raburn platooning against left handed starters. Of course, it depends on what is used to predict next season. Obviously, the Indians are expecting Murphy to rebound or they wouldn't have paid him, so we will look at career stats for the moment.
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Here, Murphy seems the better overall hitter, but the difference is much more pronounced against right handed hitters, which fits perfectly within the baseball norm. Last season, Raburn's numbers were even more slanted towards left handed pitchers (.308/.403/.617) and the Indians took advantage, starting him 43 times against righties and just 24 against lefties. Again, the opposite is true of Murphy. He started 99 games against right handed pitchers (just 15 against LHP), but contrary to the rest of his career, he batted just .209 in that situation. It is this conundrum that brings a few more names in consideration.
The Indians will use the Spring to see if Murphy can turn things around, and if he plays well, the job is his. However, if he struggles, the Indians at least have a back-up plan. Jeff Francoeur was a superstar early in his career with the Braves, but has struggled off an on since. Overly simplified, he had two fantastic seasons, followed by three average seasons, one more fantastic season (with Kansas City), another average one and finally a very poor season in 2013. It was this bad season that made him available to come to Cleveland, where the Indians are taking a chance that he will return to his .800 or greater OPS, like in 2011 and depart from the .536 OPS he held in 2013.
An extra benefit of Francoeur is that he is almost certainly the best defender of all the options. He has lead the league in assists as a right fielder five times and has come in second each other year from 2005 through 2012 (he is also the active leader in career assists from right). If Francoeur does come back with a great offensive Spring, this defensive edge could be enough to earn him the starting role, besides the financial difference. His right handedness could clash with Raburn, who will be on the team in some capacity no matter what. If Francoeur (or any other option) takes the starting right field job, Murphy would likely become the fourth outfielder while Raburn would retain a more general utility role. While he flew in under the radar, Francoeur is actually a very exciting option.
A later signing, Nyjer Morgan is slightly less exciting. He spent all of 2013 in Japan, but a minor league deal has lured him back to North America. He has never been the hitter that any of the other three options have been, although he likely has better speed than any of them. He is much more comparable to the exiting Stubbs, minus the strike outs and power. Plane crashes on the way to Phoenix aside, it is hard to imagine Morgan breaking through.
The reason the competition for right is so strong has a lot to do with the stature of the players in the other two outfield positions. With Michael Bourn in center and Michael Brantley in left, there is no room for any of the group to start anywhere but right. There are two definite spots open (with a third possible) for these four players. The favorites for those spots remain Raburn and Murphy in one fashion or another, but it is certain to be interesting to see what kind of noise the other players in camp can make.