Questions for Indians heading into spring training

With Justin Masterson the only pitcher in the Indians rotation to pitch a full season at the big league level, determining the fifth starter is more important than people may think.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Spring training is almost underway for the Indians.

While there are still a few potential deals cooking on the back of the hot stove, for all intents and purposes the Indians offseason is officially over. Now it is time for everyone to descend upon Goodyear for the Indians to get a firsthand look over the next six weeks at what kind of team they have put together going into the 2014 season.

A few notable faces are gone as Joe Smith, Chris Perez, Rich Hill, Matt Albers, Scott Kazmir, and Drew Stubbs have all departed from last year’s team. Ubaldo Jimenez also looks to be gone, but considering he still remains unsigned, there is a small glimmer of hope he could return.

A few new faces have been added as David Murphy, Josh Outman and John Axford were all acquired in the offseason via free agency or trade. The Indians have also brought in several interesting non-roster invites such as Shaun Marcum, Jeff Francoeur, Nyjer Morgan, David Aardsma and Elliott Johnson to compete for a spot on the opening day roster.

This offseason was much less dramatic than the previous one, but then again there was a lot less that needed fixing. Coming off a 68-94 season in 2012, the Indians made wholesale changes to their roster going into last season. After a 92-70 campaign in 2013, the core areas of the team were more established so this offseason was more about filling in for departing players and finding creative ways to fill areas of weakness on the roster.

With that in mind, there are still several question marks heading into the season. These are the most concerning three:

Carlos Santana preparing for potential move to 3B

Can Carlos Santana play third base?

This is a game-changer for the Indians and could have a dramatic effect on the roster not only this year, but for several years to come. The experiment began in early December with many rolling their eyes at the notion of Santana playing third base. But a month and a half later his showing in the Dominican Winter League has made a believer out of many that he not only can handle the position on a part-time basis, but that he might even be capable of being the regular third baseman for the Indians this season.

The way things are setup at the moment, Santana is going to play third base and catcher this season. The Indians have no capable backup catcher, so they are still planning on playing him at catcher for 30-50 games this season. There have been rumors they have interest in Jose Lobaton of the Rays, and his acquisition would be a clear signal that Santana’s days as a catcher are done.

If Santana proves himself this spring to be an everyday catching option, perhaps the Indians go with him at third base, have Mike Aviles fill in at third to give Santana some occasional time off and trade for Lobaton to fill the full-time backup catching duties. This would mean that Lonnie Chisenhall probably opens at Triple-A Columbus (he has options) and might even make him a trade chip for the Indians to use at some point this season to help fill a major league need. If Santana shows he is only adequate at third base in limited spurts, then Chisenhall would open as the regular third baseman with Santana splitting time mostly at third base and catcher, but also some time at first base and designated hitter.

Who is the Indians’ fifth starter?

This is a question that can easily be answered if the Indians sign Jimenez, Ervin Santana or AJ Burnett in the next few days as either one of them would slot somewhere into the top of the rotation and slide Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister to the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. However, a deal for any starter does not appear imminent and the Indians have maintained a consistent message all offseason that they are confident in their options to fill the fifth spot in the rotation from within.

With Justin Masterson the only pitcher in the rotation to pitch a full season at the big league level, determining the fifth starter is more important than people may think. With the loss of Kazmir and potentially Jimenez to free agency, and then the addition of Danny Salazar full time into the rotation, the Indians have a need for one starter to establish himself in the fifth spot. The candidates are Carlos Carrasco, Shaun Marcum, Josh Tomlin, and Trevor Bauer. TJ House is a long shot but is someone who could factor into things later in the year.

At the outset of spring training, Carrasco is the odds-on favorite to win the job because he is out of options and has the best stuff of any of the candidates. Marcum is a wildcard as he has had major league success in the past, but is coming off of surgery and might not be 100 percent at the start of the season. Tomlin is another pitcher coming off surgery as he missed almost the entire 2013 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, and probably will need to open the season at Triple-A Columbus even if to just monitor his innings workload at the start of the year so he can finish the season with the Indians if needed. Barring a rash of injuries, Bauer and House should go to Columbus to continue to develop and be options later in the season.

Will the Indians see a spike in attendance this season?

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The Indians won 92 games last season and had an $81 million payroll – the third largest in franchise history — after they committed more than $100 million to several free agents. Yet, they saw an attendance drop last season to 1,572,926 fans, a decline of 30,670 fans from the 1,603,596 they drew in 2012. The decline was minimal, but after all of that spending in the offseason and winning last season one would think that it would have seen a notable spike, especially after such a dismal 2012 season.

TV revenue is up in the game thanks to some lucrative national TV deals that all teams benefit from as well as some amazing local TV deals that only a few teams gain a significant advantage. While the TV money has helped, the gate receipts from ticket sales are still what ultimately drives revenue for the Indians and give them the ability to spend. Without fans showing up to games, the Indians are limited as to how much higher they can go with their payroll and in turn what kind of free agent acquisitions or trades they can make.

Last season, the Indians ranked 28th in all of baseball in attendance with just an average of 19,661 fans a game — which is 45.3 percent capacity of Progressive Field. They don’t need to sell the place out like they did in the 90s, they just need to get that number up to about 27,000 or so a game (67% capacity) which would provide them the revenue they need to keep some of the better players on the roster and supplement to it. They are set to have a payroll of around $85 million this season, the second highest in team history, so if they get out of the gates and win, will people finally begin to show up?

Looking beyond those three questions there are certainly many others.

Can Jason Kipnis be consistent from start to finish, or will he continue to have one or two big months that carry his erratic performance the other four months of the season?

Is Danny Salazar for real, or will he struggle with consistency and/or injuries this season?

Is Yan Gomes ready to assume the full-time catching role? Is he a star in the making, or will he suffer from a sophomore slump and force the Indians to move Santana back as the starting catcher?

Which one of their young prospects will come up this season and dazzle like Gomes and Salazar did last season?

Can players like Vinnie Pestano, Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Axford bounce back from tough 2013 campaigns?

Can Kluber and McAllister be relied upon as middle of the rotation arms?

Can Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw handle much more exposure to late-inning situations?

Will Chisenhall finally establish himself?

When you look up and down the roster, there certainly are a lot of question marks, but they pale in comparison to the amount of questions that this team came into spring training with last season.

Spring training is about getting the players ready for the start of the season, but it is also a time to begin finding answers to some of those unknowns going into the season. Hopefully over the next six weeks most of these questions are answered favorably because it will go a long way in determining how much success they have as a team in 2014.