The Tigers won an incredible 15 of 19 games against the Cleveland Indians last season, a discrepancy that ultimately made the difference in the AL Central race. Tonight, the Tigers and Tribe face off for the first time in 2014. To get some inside info on the Indians, I corresponded with Jason Lukehart of Let's Go Tribe, SB Nation's Cleveland Indians community.
1. Last season was a fun one for Indians fans, as the team won 92 games and made their first postseason appearance since 2007. They lost a few key pieces during the offseason, but expect to contend again in 2014. Who will be missed the most from last season’s team, and is it reasonable to expect a repeat performance this year?
Ubaldo Jimenez's production will be missed the most, but that doesn't mean it wasn't for the best to let him go. He's off to a very rough start in Baltimore (a 7.31 ERA and 2.06 WHIP through his first three starts) and the Indians can ill afford to commit $50 million to a player and have it work out poorly. I don't think they made any major missteps during the offseason, but I think Tribe fans expecting 92 wins again are being overly optimistic. I think the Indians are the second-best team in the AL Central, but the gap between them and the Tigers is pretty wide, due to each team's starting rotation. I expect the Indians to finish with a winning record, and I believe they can contend for a playoff spot if a few breaks go their way.
2. Of those 92 wins last year, only four came against the Tigers (in 19 games). Was there something specific about this matchup that gave the Tribe so much trouble?
Looking at Detroit's roster, I guess I wonder why other teams didn't struggle more against them! Whenever one team beats another 15 times in a season, there's some luck involved (the Indians went 17-2 against the White Sox last year), but it shouldn't be a surprise when the more talented team wins a lot of games. Indians starting pitchers went 6+ innings and allowed 3 runs or fewer just 6 times against the Tigers last year (compared to 13 such performances by Detroit starters), and Cleveland went 4-2 in those games. That left 13 other contests though, and Cleveland went 0-13 in those games. It's hard to overcome that type of difference between the starting rotations.
3. The Indians just signed second baseman Jason Kipnis to a team-friendly six year contract extension, but staff ace Justin Masterson is a free agent after this season. I’m sure you’re happy about the Kipnis extension, so I’ll stick to Masterson. Are the improvements he made during the 2013 season sustainable? Do you think he will be with the Indians next year?
I think the career-high strikeout rate Masterson posted in 2013 is going to regress downwards this season, but that doesn't mean he won't still be a good pitcher. He's always been excellent at keeping the ball in the park (his HR/9 rate is the best in the American League over the last five years), and that should continue. Masterson is more of a #2 pitcher in my mind than an ace, but the Indians don't often have a true ace, and I'm happy to have him. I think this will be his final season in Cleveland though. He was reportedly willing to sign an extension for only two additional years, but the front office balked. I don't think that kind of offer will be on the table when the offseason rolls around, even if the team changes its mind about it.
4. We are already dreading the idea of facing Danny Salazar for the next six seasons, but what is the deal with Trevor Bauer? He looked awfully impressive in his start against the San Diego Padres on April 9th. Has he gotten things together after a rough 2013 season?
Bauer apparently spent much of 2013 and this past offseason reworking his mechanics. Manager Terry Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway have both had a lot of positive things to say about him, and as you mentioned, his spot start last week went very well (as did his first start of the year in Triple-A). I want to see him succeed a little longer before buying in fully, but certainly the early signs are positive. If the Indians won't re-sign Masterson at a discount, they certainly aren't going to go out and sign top-level free-agent pitchers, so it's vital for the team's future that Salazar and Bauer both turn out well.
5. Ryan Raburn was a very enigmatic player during his tenure in Detroit, and seemed to respond well to the change in scenery with the Indians last season. Many Tigers fans seem to have forgotten how good of a hitter he can be, especially when he gets hot. But… he does have his moments. Has he made any boneheaded defensive plays in the outfield yet?
I'm sure he has, but I can't say any one play jumps out at me. I think Indians fans have been so thrilled by his offense (.268/.347/.507 since he came over) that we're willing to overlook his shortcomings. He'll be part of a platoon in right field this season (with David Murphy), and the hope is that part-time work can help him come close to maintaining that level of production.
BONUS: Prediction for the series?
Well, nearly three decades of rooting for the Indians have taught me to be prepared for the worst, but over the short term I'm willing to be hopeful, so I'll say the Tribe comes away from Detroit with 2 wins (but not 3... even my hopefully side doesn't imagine a sweep!).
Once again, thank you to Jason for taking the time to answer my questions. You can read my responses on the Tigers here. Be sure to check out Let's Go Tribe for all things Indians throughout the season.