As happens every spring, the Indians are going to have to make some difficult roster decisions as they break from camp. And by difficult decisions, I mean dropping a player from their organization because he’s out of options and there isn’t a spot for him on the 25-man roster. Yandy Diaz and Tyler Naquin won’t be making the Opening Day roster, but they’ll stay in the organization because they still has options left. But Ryan Merritt, Erik Gonzalez, and Giovanny Urshela don’t have options left, and will almost certainly be claimed on outright waivers if exposed. Rob Refsnyder also does not have any options left, but I don’t think he had much of a chance of making the team, which is why I’m mentally placing him in a separate category.
I think the Gonzalez/Urshela decision is fairly straightforward. One of the two players will be the backup infielder, and the other will be traded or lost on waivers. If it was my decision, I would keep Gonzalez, as not only does he fit the immediate team need (is a better fit as a utility infielder than Urshela) but also has a better upside as a hitter (and at a more premium defensive position). Urshela is a world-class defender at third base, but he’s shown no promise at all at the plate over two lengthy stints in the majors. The Indians also added three middle infielders to their 40-man roster this winter, so they aren’t lacking for depth on that front.
But when it comes to Ryan Merritt, I’m less certain. He is not one of the five best starting pitchers on the team, or even one of the five best healthy starters. So in order for him to make the team, he’ll have to make it as a reliever, and to make room for him in the bullpen, the Indians would have to make an equally difficult decision. On the chart above, I have provisionally placed Josh Tomlin in the bullpen, but he’s going to take the spot of Danny Salazar in the rotation. So it’s not Tomlin that Merritt would displace. It would be instead Matt Belisle, or even Nick Goody; Belisle would most likely leave the organization (as is his right because he’s has enough major-league service time), while Goody would stay in the organization, as the Indians do have an option year left on him. The Indians also could option Tyler Olson, or even go with eight relievers in the bullpen at the expense of a three-man bench. But in any of those cases, I think the Indians wouldn’t be fielding their best possible 25-man roster, trading a player useful in the role he’d play for a pitcher who would not be that useful in the role he’d play.
So why the hesitation in consigning Merritt to the waiver wire? If the Indians want the best possible 25-man roster, they’re going to have to get rid of him, right? My concern is not with the Opening Day roster, but the overall starting pitcher depth over the course of the season. With Danny Salazar already out, the next starter up if there’s another injury would probably be Shawn Morimando, and after him it would be Adam Plutko (or vice versa). Those are the only other two healthy starting pitchers on the 40-man roster (Julian Merryweather is out for the year, as he needs Tommy John surgery). Last year, 7 different pitchers started games for the Indians, and that was the lowest number in the American League. Most teams used 10 or more starters a season; the Seattle Mariners last year used 17(!) different starters. Some of that has to do with performance, but some of that is going to be because of injuries, which can affect both good and bad pitching staffs.
Last week Jeff Sullivan wrote about teams spending more money on relievers this winter. He thought the demand was going up on relievers because teams are using them more often, both in terms of innings by relievers and number of relievers used. The Indians have bucked this trend because they’ve had outstanding starting pitching (both in terms of quality innings and number of innings pitched) over the last several years, but it only takes a couple injuries or bad starting pitcher performances to wreak havoc on a pitching staff from front to back.
Merritt’s shown that he can be a durable and effective pitcher in the minors. I don’t know whether he can hold down a spot in the rotation because to this point he’s only been a spot starter, but he has shown in those starts that he can navigate through a lineup a couple times. Which is more than we’ve seen from Plutko or Morimando. By the end of the season the Indians will probably use all three, but I’d rather have Merritt make more of those starts.
The various projections generally give Merritt a slight advantage over Morimando and Plutko. But the issue is not Merritt vs. Morimando, or Merritt vs. Plutko, at least at this point of the season. The issue is how much starting depth the Indians want, and the cost they’ll have to pay, in terms in potential runs, to keep another starter around. If they go with an eight-man bullpen, you shift the formula from more runs prevented to fewer runs scored. Which actually might make sense for reasons other than Merritt’s status, as starters usually won’t throw more than 100 pitches in their first couple starts of the season. That would allow the Indians to postpone any final decision for a couple weeks, perhaps even a month. If Danny Salazar returns, and there’s no other health issues on the starting staff, then Ryan Merritt will be designated for assignment and then probably traded. But maybe things work out; maybe another starter has to miss 2-3 weeks with a nagging hamstring. Or maybe Mike Clevinger has several bad outings, and needs to head to the minors to figure a couple things out.
I think it’s worth it for the Indians to postpone a final decision on Ryan Merritt, because there’s a very good chance that they can use him this season.