Predicting Tribe's 2021 Opening Day roster

CLEVELAND — After a year of so many unprecedented hurdles, it doesn’t look like 2021 will be any easier to predict. How will the free-agent market move? How much will teams (especially the Indians) be able to spend? Will the coronavirus pandemic be in any better of a state to

CLEVELAND — After a year of so many unprecedented hurdles, it doesn’t look like 2021 will be any easier to predict.

How will the free-agent market move? How much will teams (especially the Indians) be able to spend? Will the coronavirus pandemic be in any better of a state to allow fans back into ballparks? These are all questions that Cleveland will have to work through over the next few months in order to build its roster for next season.

Offseason checklist: Indians’ needs, moves

There are some guarantees and a lot of question marks. Let’s take a way-too-early look at how the Indians’ 2021 Opening Day roster could shake out:

Catcher (2): Roberto Pérez, Austin Hedges
The Indians felt confident in picking up Pérez’s $5.5 million option for a reason. The two-time Gold Glove Award winner will absolutely be back in his starting role in 2021. Whether Cleveland chooses to hang on to Hedges — who was acquired from the Padres at the Trade Deadline and is projected to make $3 million in arbitration — remains to be seen. The two are very similar defensively and would be a solid duo behind the dish.

First base (2): Jake Bauers, Josh Naylor
It’s nearly impossible to predict how the Indians’ first-base situation will work out this far ahead. The Tribe has options in Bauers, Naylor and Bobby Bradley, while the front office hasn’t ruled out the possibility of trying to find a way to bring Carlos Santana back to Cleveland on a smaller deal. As of now, Bauers and Naylor will remain the leading candidates, but it could change once Spring Training starts.

Second base (1): Free-agent signing/trade acquisition
The Indians would love to bring back Cesar Hernandez, who earned a Gold Glove Award in a strong year at second base in 2019. Though Hernandez has expressed his desire to remain in Cleveland, the Tribe noted that it would have to make sure it’s financially possible to make it happen. Last year, the Indians inked Hernandez to a one-year, $6.25 million deal. That may not be attainable this season.

Third base (1): José Ramírez
There’s no more contemplating when it comes to Ramírez’s position. He won’t be moving to second base, though he constantly reminds his coaching staff he’s versatile. Cleveland likes the way the MVP Award candidate has settled into his position at the hot corner and has no desire to move him.

Shortstop (1): Trade acquisition
No, Francisco Lindor’s name isn’t listed. It seems like all signs are pointing toward the shortstop being traded this offseason. Lindor has one year of control remaining before hitting free agency and the Indians will likely need to capitalize on any return they can receive for the All-Star. While No. 2 prospect Tyler Freeman will be next in line, he won’t be ready by Opening Day after missing a year of development in 2020 with no Minor Leagues.

Will Lindor be moved by Opening Day?

Designated hitter (1): Franmil Reyes
No surprises here. Reyes’ power has him locked into the Indians’ DH role.

Utility (1): Yu Chang
Unless the Indians re-sign Mike Freeman after he elected free agency, the team could turn to Chang to serve as its utility infielder. Chang had stints in the big leagues this season, playing second, shortstop or third, when needed. He showed what his bat was capable of during Summer Camp, but he was never able to rediscover that groove during the regular season.

Outfield (5): Daniel Johnson, Oscar Mercado, Delino DeShields, Jordan Luplow, Tyler Naquin
The outfield gets a little tricky. The Indians have plenty of outfield options to carry on the Opening Day roster, including the five listed above. However, DeShields could be a non-tender candidate (or even Naquin), leaving Naylor or Bauers more time in the outfield when they aren’t at first base. Eventually, if not on Opening Day, the Tribe’s top prospect, Nolan Jones, will get thrown into the outfield mix. Although he’s spent the majority of his time at third, the Indians have been working on his defense in the outfield over the past year in order to be able to get him in the lineup with Ramírez at the hot corner.

Starting pitchers (5): Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Civale, Triston McKenzie
Maybe Carrasco’s name pops up in trade rumors this offseason. Or maybe some of the younger players do, too. When a team has so many quality starting pitching options, there’s no doubt that other clubs will at least give a phone call to see who could be available. But the Indians want young, controllable starters, and four-fifths of their rotation fits that bill. The quality of talent they have in Bieber, Plesac, Civale and McKenzie (all currently no older than 25) is out of this world and it’d be difficult to imagine them parting ways with any of those arms.

Relievers (7): James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase, Nick Wittgren, Cal Quantrill, Phil Maton, Cam Hill, Kyle Nelson, Adam Plutko
Without Brad Hand, Karinchak seems to be the most obvious option to take over as the Indians closer. The team will certainly have options in Wittgren or Clase (they’ll need to see a little of Clase before he’d earn that title after he missed 2020 with a suspension), but Karinchak will be the early favorite. From there, the bullpen could go in many different directions. The team could pick up a new arm in a trade or free agency or even call on someone like Jefry Rodriguez, who missed ’20 with a lower back injury, or Logan Allen, who is traditionally a starter.

Mandy Bell covers the Indians for Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.