As I sat down to write this post, I had a Cactus League game on in the background. I looked up, and the Cleveland Indians were leading 7-0 in the top of the first inning. This should come to no surprise for anyone who watched the 2013 Indians, who were third in baseball with 103 runs scored in the first frame. While they became known for their numerous comeback victories -- including 11 walk-off wins -- it was their ability to jump on teams early in games that helped propel them to their first playoff berth since 2007. A few key departures have weakened the roster in crucial areas, but the Indians should stay in the playoff hunt in 2014.
Manager: Terry Francona (2nd year)
2013 record: 92-70, 2nd in AL Central
SB Nation blog: Let's Go Tribe
Other Indians coverage: Cleveland Plain Dealer, It's Pronounced "Lajaway"
First series vs. Tigers: April 15-17 @ Comerica Park
The Indians trotted out one of the better lineups in the American League last season, tying for fourth in the AL with 745 runs scored. They led the league in percentage of plate appearances with a platoon advantage, a credit to their great bench and excellent versatility. Switch-hitting-catcher-turned-third-baseman Carlos Santana did the most damage of the team's three primary switch hitters. Santana hit .268/.377/.455 with 20 home runs and 60 extra base hits. In an attempt to keep Santana healthy and bury Lonnie Chisenhall on the depth chart, Santana learned to play third base during Spring Training. He impressed Terry Francona enough to win the starting job, but Santana will still don the tools of ignorance on a semi-regular basis as the only other catcher on the roster. Chisenhall will get plenty of playing time, especially if his bat starts to perk up. The former top-50 prospect is still only 25 and could break out, especially if his .953 spring OPS is any indication.
Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera has been pretty bad at the plate for the last 1 1/2 seasons, and is probably just a placeholder for top prospect Francisco Lindor at this point. This is Cabrera's final season under club control, so a big season could net him millions on the free agent market despite a below average glove. Jason Kipnis made a leap into the upper echelon of major league second basemen last season, posting 4.5 fWAR in 658 plate appearances. He has consecutive seasons with double digit home runs, 30 stolen bases, and a 10% walk rate. A .547 OPS against the Tigers last season should (hopefully) put the "Kipnis the Tiger Killer" narrative to rest. Nick Swisher will spend more time at first base now that Santana is at third, and a bounce-back season is in order. Swisher hit just .246/.341/.423 last year, and his brotastic personality didn't completely cover numerous mental errors.
I was going to write a paragraph about how I'm not entirely sold on Yan Gomes being a starting big league catcher, but then he crushed a home run 400+ feet to right center in the same Spring Training game I mentioned above. Yes, Spring Training and all, but there aren't a ton of guys who can do that in batting practice. Gomes hit .294/.345/.481 with 11 home runs in 322 plate appearances last season, and was surprisingly lethal defensively. He threw out 41% of all base stealers in 2013, well above the league average of 26%.
Like Swisher, Michael Bourn was also a bit of a disappointment after signing with the Indians last offseason. Advanced defensive metrics were not as high on his glove as in years past, and he only got on base at a .316 clip, leading to just 23 stolen bases. Bourn will begin the season on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, opening the door for Nyjer Morgan to get some playing time. Morgan last appeared in the big leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012, and put up a .610 OPS in 322 plate appearances. He and Bourn are remarkably similar players, and if Morgan has his head on straight the Tribe offense should not miss a beat.
David Murphy will replace Drew Stubbs in one corner outfield spot. Murphy was a disappointment in 2013 but has a career .816 OPS against right-handed pitching. Michael Brantley signed a contract extension that will keep him in Cleveland through at least the 2017 season, making him the object of our nightmares for four more years. He is the type of fundamentally solid role player that all contenders need, but his career .813 OPS against the Tigers is highly frustrating. He would be a joy to watch in any other division. Former Tiger Ryan Raburn had a monster year once he escaped our relentless fanbase, slugging 16 home runs in 277 plate appearances.
The Indians' pitching staff was decidedly average in 2013, but with all the question marks they had going into the season, "decidedly average" was a victory. Justin Masterson took a major step forward, allowing a 3.45 ERA and 3.35 FIP in 193 innings of work. Historically tough on righties, Masterson limited left-handed hitters to a .698 OPS with just 10 home runs. He also led the league with a 58% ground ball rate and made his first All-Star team. Joining Masterson at the top of the rotation was Corey Kluber, who posted a 3.30 FIP in his first full season. He was dynamite down the stretch, holding opponents to a 2.98 ERA from July 1st until his last start of the year, when he allowed six runs to the Minnesota Twins.
Without Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir in the rotation this season, a lot will be expected of Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar. McAllister allowed a 3.75 ERA in 134 1/3 innings last season, but a middling-strikeout-to-walk ratio and low home run rate resulted in a 4.53 xFIP. If he can return his walk rate to the 2.73 free passes per nine innings he allowed in 2012, he should be in decent shape. Salazar made waves in a late season cameo in 2013, blazing a high 90s fastball by 65 hitters in 52 innings. The hype not only earned him a start in the AL Wild Card game, but also the honor of starting the Tribe's home opener on April 4th against the Twins. Salazar also has a slider and splitter/changeup (Brooks can't make up its mind) in his arsenal to keep hitters from laying off the high heat.
Carlos Carrasco will fill the last rotation spot to begin the season, though his lack of minor league options may have given him a leg up on Josh Tomlin, who outperformed him this spring. Carrasco was awful in 2013, allowing a 6.75 ERA in 43 2/3 innings. He was suspended twice for throwing at opposing hitters and literally could not get the Tigers out. In 8 2/3 innings against Detroit, Carrasco allowed 13 runs (12 earned) and a .488/.521/.814 slash line. Yes, that's a 1.335 OPS. Tomlin was limited to just one appearance in 2013 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012. He has a career 4.92 ERA and 4.58 FIP across three seasons. Trevor Bauer changed his delivery during the offseason, but still issued five walks in seven innings this spring. He will begin the season in Triple-A, where he allowed a 4.15 ERA and 5.08 FIP last season.
The Indians are taking eight relievers north to begin the season, a decision that has puzzled many fans. The idea has some merit, however, as the team only has two scheduled days off in April. With their starters not quite in midseason form, having an extra bullpen arm around could help avoid overtaxing anyone too early. John Axford will be the team's closer after a stellar late season cameo with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013. A 24% line drive rate over the past two seasons has resulted in a 4.57 ERA, while allowing 1.45 home runs per nine innings has led to a similarly meh-worthy 4.37 FIP. Cody Allen and Brian Shaw are first in line for setup roles after having solid seasons in 2013, though Allen's 2.43 ERA and 11.26 strikeouts per nine innings may qualify as better than "solid." Former setup man Vinnie Pestano is still around, and if he regains his pre-2013 form, this could be a very good bullpen.
I was going to quote "Goodfellas" but I'm not allowed to use the f-word
The name "Mickey Callaway" seemed better suited for a gangster movie than a baseball clubhouse, but Callaway's name is already being spoken around the Tribe fanbase with the same hushed tones that Tigers fans have reserved for Jeff Jones. Callaway helped orchestrate a significant improvement from the entire staff in 2013, which included a glut of startling numbers. The Tribe allowed 183 fewer runs resulting in nearly a full run improvement in team ERA, and tallied 293 more strikeouts with just 11 more walks. Callaway was also involved in the resurgence of both Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson, not to mention taking Scott Kazmir's career off life support. Callaway will have a different challenge in 2014: maintaining the monumental leap we saw last season.
Player to watch: Danny Salazar
I am debating which name Tigers fans will come to fear more in the next half decade: Salazar's or Kansas City's Yordano Ventura. Both have electric arms with the ability to hit 100 miles per hour all day long, and both have already shown the prowess to get big league hitters out in limited action. Salazar flashed his potential in a pair of starts against the Tigers, striking out 15 while allowing just four runs in 13 2/3 innings. He fanned 10 in his AL Central debut against Detroit, and was a high fastball to the best hitter on the planet away from taking a one-run lead into the eighth inning. Salazar will be must-see TV whenever he's not pitching against the Tigers over the next several seasons, and an absolute terror when he is.
The mainstream media -- and hipsters at Fangraphs, apparently -- have made a lot of noise over the Indians' one-game deficit behind the Tigers in the final 2013 standings. There is a bigger gap between the Tigers and Tribe than win-loss records skewed by a week-long vacation in Miami indicate, but the Indians have the talent to contend in 2014. A lot has to go right for them to win 92 games again, particularly with the pitching staff. The lineup is solid from top to bottom, though, and will give plenty of teams fits on any given night. If the back end of the rotation can hold its own, the Indians will be playing meaningful baseball again in September.