Versatility is the order of the day as the Indians, like many other teams, are forgoing the use of a regular DH this season in favor of increasing roster use. It is an age of super utility men for the Tribe that will likely see a season with no real starting lineup. Instead, the Indians will likely rotate players through, giving regular starters half days off with the DH and playing a slightly different order depending on the starting pitchers throwing arm. While this did end up happening by the end of 2013, it was not originally planned that way. It was just the failure to produce of Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs that forced it. This season, the Indians will be employing this strategy from Opening Day.
While this mobility all stems from the rotating DH, the place to start is with the Indians catcher. Yan Gomes will be the starter after an excellent rookie campaign in 2013. He was selected as the Indians top defensive player of the season despite playing just 87 games, mostly for his incredible arm, that caught 41% of base stealers (Santana caught just 18%). He is not, however, the Indians best hitting catcher and here lies the first problem. Generally teams will carry just two catchers as they tend to be the worst hitters on the team, however the Indians have the problem of having two superb offensive catchers. This means they will want both in the lineup on an every day basis.
In order to do this, Carlos Santana is going to be all around the diamond in 2014 (making him one of the greatest fantasy baseball players in the process). After proving himself to the Indians' management at third base, Santana is likely to play at least some time at third, first, catcher and DH. First, assuming Gomes takes about two games off (or at DH) a week, Santana will catch those two games per week. For the other five days, he could play third against left handers (Chisenhall batted .111 vs. LHP in 2013), possibly one or two days a week and first every once in awhile to give Swisher a day off. Just like at catcher, Santana will be the weak defender in each of these duos, so he will likely only take the field if the opposite player is out of the lineup or needs a half day off to be the DH.
One problem this leads to is that Santana will be playing DH at least three times a week. Because of the rule that the DH can't be entered into the game as a fielder without placing the pitcher into the lineup, this will leave the Indians without an emergency catcher for a large part of the season. In these cases, new super-utility man Elliot Johnson has been named the third string catcher and Ryan Raburn the fourth, just in case something strange happens. While it isn't something you want to think about, catching is still a dangerous profession and provisions need to be made in case Gomes gets hurt during a game. If this does happen, there could be some very interesting and almost unpredictable situations in the field.
Before going further into Johnson's role, Mike Aviles should be discussed. He has always been more than a utility man, with a strong enough bat to become the starting short stop for the Red Sox in 2012. Because of this, the Indians will try to use him as often as possible. Like Santana, his primary at bats could come from spelling Chisenhall against left handed pitching. He would also be the primary replacement for Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis. While these two generally play every day, the rotating DH could be used to give them a day off from the field with Aviles taking over. On those days, Santana could play in the field in one of his three positions to keep his bat in the lineup.
The final infield position, first base, will likely feature Santana or Nick Swisher for about 160 games this season, barring injury. Most of those starts will be given to Swisher, the Indians' $48 million dollar man. While Swisher could technically still play right field, it was use there in 2013 that lead to his injury problems, so he will be used in the outfield sparingly at most. When he is not at first, he will most likely be the DH and along with Kipnis, Santana and Cabrera should be a mainstay in the Tribe lineup.
As mentioned, Swisher is out of the outfield situation and David Murphy is in. Like Chisenhall, he has struggled against left handed pitching (.259/.306/.350 career splits against LHP), so he will likely play solely against right handed starters, at least early on. Ryan Raburn should become the starter against left handed starters, a situation he excelled in during 2013 (.308/.417/.617). Murphy will probably be used exclusively in right field, but Raburn is the second string left fielder, third string utility infielder and fourth string catcher as already mentioned. Like Aviles, Raburn is likely to find himself in the line-up more than the average AL utility man, at least until he proves whether the 2012 or the 2013 version of himself is the real thing. Murphy and Chisenhall will likely be the two starters who lose out the most in order for Raburn and Aviles to grab those extra at bats.
In center, an aggravation of an injury to Michael Bourn's hamstring has forced him to start on the 15 Day DL (he could be back as soon as April 5th) and Nyjer Morgan will be making his triumphant return to American baseball in his place. While Morgan will be the expected starter, the Indians have a lot of options in center, some of which are better than others. This Spring, Johnson and Aviles have both worked out in center and Michael Brantley has played entire seasons at the position. While it isn't ideal, the Indians should have no problem getting through a week without Bourn. Once he comes back, he will take over as starting center fielder and lead-off hitter.
Along with Kipnis at second, Michael Brantley is the heart of the team and should play in almost every Indians game this season. He set the record for errorless games as an Indians outfielder last season and will look to extend it this year. If he does need a day off, Raburn will be his most likely replacement although either Aviles or Johnson could also play left if necessary.
While Johnson impressed with his bat during Spring, the Indians don't expect much from him in that capacity during the regular season. Instead, he will be a true utility man, coming in as a late inning defender, pinch runner or wherever else he is needed. He shouldn't get too many at bats and will likely be the first man out if the Indians decide to bring anyone up from AAA.
The Indians have an incredibly deep and versatile roster that will likely lead to many different combinations during the regular season. One great advantage of having so many players capable of playing multiple positions is that the Indians can afford to keep a smaller bench than most teams, leaving them able to keep an extra relief pitcher. While an eight man bullpen may seem excessive, Terry Francona prefers to have the options and it will allow the Indians to keep both Josh Tomlin and Carlos Carrasco on the roster. In all, the Indians should never have a time this year when they don't have someone to play any one position. Whether that player can hit at a Major League level or play decent defense will be a completely different story.