The Indianapolis Indians open their season today, on the road in Toledo. Most of the rest of the International League started last night, except for the Norfolk Tides and the Charlotte Knights, who were rained out in Charlotte. The lights were on at Victory Field early this morning, even though the team is going on the road today.
Here are six things for Indians fans to be watching for this month:
1. Starling Marte — This 23-year-old center fielder blasted his way through Spring Training in major league camp. He’s starting the season in Indianapolis because he has not yet played a game above the AA level, and the Pirates feel he needs to spend some time in AAA, particularly facing a higher level of pitching. The Dominican native was the Eastern League batting leader in 2011 while playing for the Altoona Curve, with a .332 average. He also showed some power, a new thing for him, with 38 doubles, 8 triples, and 12 homers. With the Indians, he will spend most of his time in center field, occasionally sharing with Gorkys Hernandez.
2. Starting pitchers — The starting rotation will be led by Tribe veteran Brad Lincoln, who has spent some time in the majors already, but did not make the big league bullpen coming out of Spring Training. Lincoln could be the first on the way to Pittsburgh if the Pirates need either bullpen or starting help. Rudy Owens returns to the Indians, after a disappointing season in 2011. After two years of being the Pirates’ minor league pitcher of the year, Owens struggled for most of the 2011 season. Justin Wilson will be back in the rotation again, after spending some time in the bullpen last year. If his command does not return, though, he could be back in the bullpen — which isn’t a horrible thing either. Jeff Locke made 5 solid starts for the Indians in August of last season, and he returns for more AAA experience this year. Kyle McPherson, who split the 2011 season between the Bradenton Marauders and the Altoona Curve, was scheduled to be in the Indians’ starting rotation, but went onto the DL with shoulder inflammation. In his place we will see Jo-Jo Reyes, who is also a major league veteran. Reyes played in the Toronto and Baltimore organizations in 2011.
3. Jake Fox — Fox is a Greenfield (Indianapolis area) native, and a graduate of Cathedral High School. He was drafted by the Cubs and came up in their organization, so played in the Pacific Coast League when he reached the Cubs’ AAA Iowa team. Last season, when the Orioles sent Fox to AAA, it was after the Norfolk Tides had played all of their games with the Indians. So, this will be the first time that Fox has played at Victory Field as a pro. It’s fun when a hometown guy is on the team. Fox was drafted as a catcher, but has become an all-around player, capable of playing first base and outfield.
4. Middle Infield — Chase d’Arnaud will play mostly at short and Jordy Mercer mostly at second, but they can trade spots without trouble. Either one could be the Pirates’ shortstop of the future.
5. The outfield grass — yes, really. The grass. Or more specifically, the sod. When the Superbowl was here in Indianapolis in January, the Victory Field outfield became home to a ginormous metal-framed tent-like structure. It had seating inside, and was filled with sand for a beach-like tag football game. The structure stretched from the left field corner to the right field corner, and touched the second base area of the diamond. Direct TV, which sponsored the event, agreed to help the Indians re-sod the outfield after the tent was removed. While the field was due to be re-sodded in a year or two anyway, this turned it into more of a rush job and a challenge for award-winning head groundskeeper, Joey Stevenson. I saw the field on March 15th, the day when the final bit of sod was placed. That gives Stevenson just a month to work his magic. We’ve had some rain, we’ve had some high temperatures — will those help? Will the sod be secure when the players run on it?
6. Bullpen — Tim Wood and Bryan Morris anchor the ‘pen. Wood was brilliant for the Indians in 2011, until he was sent to Texas towards the end of the season. Morris was moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen while battling injuries in 2011 with the Altoona Curve, and it seems that he has found a home there.