The start of the 2014 season is still about a month away.
While the focus is on this coming season and ultimately whether it will be a successful season or not for the Indians, there is always an eye looking toward the future of the franchise.
This offseason, the Indians had to fill holes on the roster left by the departures of Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, Joe Smith and Chris Perez. They filled those holes from within with capable options by inserting Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco into the rotation for Jimenez and Kazmir, and Cody Allen has taken over Smith’s primary setup man role.
The only significant addition they made from outside the organization was to bring in John Axford to replace Perez as closer and David Murphy to replace Drew Stubbs as the regular right fielder.
This got me looking ahead and thinking about potential departures after this season. The way things stand right now the Indians control every significant and complementary piece on their roster beyond this season except for two players: Asdrubal Cabrera and Justin Masterson.
Yes, there could be a surprise non-roster invitee along the lines of Kazmir last year who surprises with a big year that they could lose at the end of the season, however, right now they control 38 of the 40 players on their 40-man roster going into the 2015 season.
That’s a pretty significant advantage in the planning not only for this coming season, but next season and beyond as well.
No matter what happens this season, Cabrera looks to have one foot out the door already and this is his final year with the organization. Francisco Lindor is the heir apparent at shortstop and set to take over the full time shortstop duties at some point before next season. This means Cabrera could be a trade chip later in the season for a pitching need or to add prospect depth, or the Indians could play out the season with him and then let him leave in the offseason as a free agent.
Either way, barring a significant injury to Lindor, this will be Lindor’s team by the start of the 2015 season and Cabrera very likely won’t be back.
Masterson is an interesting case. As noted last week, the Indians history with long term deals to starting pitchers suggests that the odds are very long that he is resigned. However, there is always the possibility of a surprise and maybe — just maybe — the Indians tab him as "the right guy" to take the plunge and gamble on a long-term deal to keep him.
Assuming for a moment that history meets reality and Masterson leaves at the end of the season, it will leave a pretty sizable hole in the rotation to fill. This is where the youth the Indians have in their rotation is really going to have to kick in this season. For once, the Indians really need some luck and breaks to go their way so that their young, promising big-league arms can all stay healthy and perform as hoped.
The Indians are already replacing two strong contributors last season in Jimenez and Kazmir with Salazar and Carrasco. If Salazar and Carrasco both work out and round out the rotation along with Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister, then that is a strong core of young starters to have in tow for the next several years as all four of them would be under team control for at least the next three years through the end of the 2017 season.
The kicker would be Trevor Bauer, as he is the fifth piece to this young group of pitchers and could end up being the guy that has the tough task of replacing Masterson in the rotation in 2015. He wouldn’t replace Masterson per se as someone like Salazar or Kluber could establish themselves as the ace of the staff by the start of next season, but he would be relied upon to fill a large chunk of the innings lost by Masterson’s departure.
This is why this is such an important spring not only for Bauer to show his revised delivery works and he is back on track to be the front of the rotation stud so many projected him to be coming out of the draft, but also for someone like Carrasco to finally establish himself as an innings-eating effective mid-rotation starter.
While Lindor and Bauer may be the key to replacing Cabrera and Masterson a year from now, a few other young players could factor into things sooner and impact the roster this season and establish themselves as core pieces to the roster by next spring.
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Chen-Chang Lee looks primed to be an impact arm in the bullpen for many years. Jesus Aguilar could be the solution to the Indians right-handed power and middle of the lineup void. Jose Ramirez could become an exciting super utility option off the bench or even a fallback option at shortstop. Others like reliever Austin Adams, starter Cody Anderson, and outfielder Tyler Naquin could all have varying levels of impact at some point by the start of the 2015 season.
It is an unfortunate reality in this current climate of Major League Baseball where a team like the Indians has to always have one eye on the present and the other eye on the future because the cycle of players for a small market team only lasts for a few years before they have to be let go for a new group of players.
The Indians have effectively put together a solid group of players that they control for a few more years. The question now is if they have properly set up their minor league system to effectively blend in and replace key pieces by the start of next season — if not earlier.
The Indians will have a better idea of the answer to that question this time next year.