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2015 team preview: The Cleveland Indians are legitimate contenders in the American League

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The Tigers head into Cleveland today for a three game series against the Indians, who will probably be their closest competition in 2015.

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Kansas City Royals were a popular pick to upend the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. The Tigers were coming off their third consecutive AL Central title and returned most of the core that had made them overwhelming favorites for the two years prior, but the Royals were pushing for a playoff run of their own. We all saw how it played out; the Royals rode a hot second half to a wild card berth and an AL pennant, but the Tigers were able to hold off the Royals for the division title.

The 2015 Cleveland Indians have already earned more hype than those Royals, and for good reason. Their starting rotation led the American League with a 3.33 FIP in 2014, and their pitching staff set a major league record with 1,450 strikeouts. Corey Kluber won the AL Cy Young Award, while Michael Brantley finished third in the MVP vote. Carlos Carrasco ended the season on a high note, and finally looks to have harnessed his considerable potential. The Indians also have some solid young talent coming through their system, led by shortstop Francisco Lindor, one of the very best prospects in baseball.

Can the Indians take control of the AL Central in 2015?

Manager: Terry Francona (3rd season)
2014 record: 85-77
SB Nation blog: Let's Go Tribe
First series vs. Tigers: April 10-12 @ Progressive Field

Lineup

Outfielder Michael Brantley received (and deserved) a lot of credit for keeping the Indians' offense afloat in 2014. The Tribe offense had five everyday players finish the season with a 100 wRC+ or better, and Brantley led the way at 155, fifth in the American League. He hit .327/.385/.506 with 20 home runs and 23 stolen bases, numbers well above his career norms. While a power surge is somewhat expected considering he's in the prime of his career, Brantley probably won't be that good in 2015. A four-win season isn't bad, though. For the second consecutive season, Michael Bourn struggled at everything that made him such a desirable commodity when he played for the Atlanta Braves. He led the league with 10 triples, but got on base at a .316 clip and only stole 10 bases. He has fewer steals in two years (33) with the Indians than he had in any single full season prior to arriving in Cleveland.

Brandon Moss is coming off of offseason hip labrum surgery, so it's a bit of a surprise that he has started three games in right field while Ryan Raburn and David Murphy served as the team's designated hitters. Fielding concerns aside, Moss has been a force at the plate, hitting .254/.340/.504 in three seasons with the Oakland Athletics. He did his best to prove that he could hit lefties in 2014, clubbing a .792 OPS in 101 plate appearances. David Murphy is still around after a -0.4 WAR season last year, though most of that was due to some atrocious defensive numbers (maybe the DH thing makes sense after all). Ryan Raburn is the Tribe's lone right-handed hitting outfielder, but he had a 54 wRC+ and was worth -1.2 WAR in 2014.

Catcher Yan Gomes was the Indians' designated hitter in yesterday's 5-1 win over the Houston Astros, and for good reason. In two seasons with the Tribe, Gomes has hit .284/.325/.476 with 32 home runs in 840 plate appearances. He showed he could withstand the pounding of a full season in 2014, catching 126 games while posting an .847 OPS in the second half. He had 518 plate appearances, but the Indians are hoping to push him closer to the 600 mark in 2015. Don't expect him to DH too many times, though. He's a great pitch framer and has thrown out 34 percent of base stealers in his young career. Roberto Perez may sound like a 35-year-old journeyman in the Jose Molina mold, but he's actually just 26 and hit .305/.405/.517 in 209 plate appearances at Triple-A Columbus in 2014. His major league debut didn't go so hot offensively, but he threw out eight of 22 attempted base stealers, a 36 percent clip.

Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall was a breakout star for the first half of the 2014 season, hitting .332/.396/.496 before the All-Star break. His performance didn't quite net him an All-Star nod, but it did make everyone forget about how the Indians tried to put Carlos Santana at third base at the beginning of the season. However, the 26-year-old Chisenhall hit just .218/.277/.315 in the second half. Santana led the league in walks last season, but a slow start in other areas -- namely, a .159 batting average through the end of May -- prevented people from noticing that he hit .266/.384/.488 with 21 home runs and 68 RBI in the final four months of the season. He continued to struggle against right-handed pitching, and was one of the Indians' few hitters who handled lefties capably. Nick Swisher is currently on the disabled list after having bilateral knee surgery last August. His rehab has gone much slower than the initial predicted timetable, but the Indians are hoping that they can get anything out of Swisher, who is hitting .231/.316/.386 in his two years with the club.

Jason Kipnis was a breakout star in 2013, hitting .284/.366/.452 with 17 home runs and 30 stolen bases. Entering his age-27 season in 2014, expectations were sky-high for the Indians' second baseman. He failed to deliver on the hype, hitting .240/.310/.330 in 555 plate appearances. He was shelved for a month early in the season with an oblique injury and was bothered by his hamstrings in the second half, but still stole 22 bases in 25 attempts. The injuries may have had an effect on his offensive numbers, though. He had a .748 OPS prior to the oblique injury (in 113 plate appearances), but hit just .241/.299/.315 after. The Francisco Lindor Hype Train is currently delayed in Triple-A Columbus, but this may be for the best for the Tribe. For one, Lindor, who is a consensus top-10 prospect in baseball, is still only 21 and he's not too polished offensively yet. The Indians could just be gaming his service time, but they might also be rolling the dice with Jose Ramirez, who was worth 1.9 WAR in 68 games last season. The 22-year-old had a .646 OPS, but hit for a solid .268 average and stole 10 bases in 11 chances. He's not the defender that Lindor is, but he is much better than 2014 starter Asdrubal Cabrera.

Pitchers

As ridiculous as Corey Kluber was in 2014 -- he went 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA and a 5.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- he actually underperformed his FIP. Of course, his ERA-FIP difference was marginal, but his 2.35 FIP led the American League, which surely stuck in voters' minds when they named him the Cy Young Award winner. Kluber maintained the improvements in command he showed off in 2013, but made a significant leap forward in the strikeout department, setting down 28.3 percent of the batters he faced. His slider generated a 24 percent whiff rate and finished off 128 of his 269 strikeouts. Carlos Carrasco finished off the 2014 season in grand fashion, besting his teammate with a 1.30 ERA and 7.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final 10 starts. A simplified pitching motion -- he's throwing entirely from the stretch now -- helped him harness his command. With the stuff he has, he could be a true frontline starter. He struck out 10 in 6 1/3 innings in his first start in 2015, a good omen for the Tribe.

Trevor Bauer made significant strides in multiple areas last season, but the biggest improvement was in his pitching location. No, not his command -- he still walked 9.1 percent of batters -- but his actual location. Bauer made 26 starts for the Indians last year and seven in the minor leagues, a near-180 from the season prior. He logged 153 innings and struck out 143, resulting in a respectable 2.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio. A mechanical tweak to his delivery helped him get off to a hot start, but he struggled later on with a 4.48 ERA and 4.41 xFIP in the second half. Righthander Danny Salazar is the other young, promising starter in the organization, but he was optioned to Triple-A to begin the season. He struggled in his time in the majors last season, allowing over a hit per inning and a 4.25 ERA. His walk rate was respectable, but this was partially thanks to a 6.2 percent walk rate in the second half after he spent time in the minor leagues. The highlight of his season came in September, when he shut out the Tigers with nine strikeouts and no walks.

Righthander Zach McAllister will start the Indians' home opener, but he is coming off a rough 2014 campaign. He allowed a 5.23 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 86 innings, numbers that belied decent peripherals. McAllister posted a solid 2.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but allowed 10 hits per nine innings and a .332 BABIP. Normally, all of these factors would indicate that McAllister is a decent breakout candidate, but his limited arsenal allows opposing hitters to sit on his fastball. Five of the seven home runs he allowed last season came on the heater, and opponents hit .278 with a .423 slugging average. Lefthander T.J. House will round out the rotation to begin the year, though his spot seems more secure than McAllister's after he allowed a 3.35 ERA in 102 innings last summer. House works in the low 90s, and his two-seamer helped him generate a 60.9 percent ground ball rate last season. He also showed shockingly good command despite a sidearm delivery, but right-handed batters hit .297/.353/.455 against him.

Terry Francona loves to tinker with his bullpen, and the Indians' early season rotation struggles in 2014 only encouraged his tendencies. This led to 573 bullpen appearances last season, an American League record. Closer Cody Allen made 76 of those appearances, logging a 2.07 ERA in 69 2/3 innings. Allen blew four saves in 28 chances last season, two of which were ruined by J.D. Martinez. Allen is already one-for-one in 2015. Workhorses Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchinson, and Mark Rzepczynski all had ERAs at or below 2.75 in 60+ appearances, and all are back in 2015. Former Twins long reliever Anthony Swarzak is also with the Tribe parlayed an "Indians or bust" negotiating stance into a roster spot.

Down on the farm

The Indians have some premium talent in their farm system, with as many as four players ranking on top-100 prospect lists this year. Shortstop Francisco Lindor, a consensus top-10 prospect in all of baseball, leads the way. Still only 21 years old, Lindor is already on the doorstep of the majors thanks to his excellent defensive abilities. The timing of his call-up may depend more on Jose Ramirez than it does on him. Outfielders Clint Frazier and Bradley Zimmer have also gotten some love from prospect hounds, though neither has played above the Single-A level yet. Catcher Francisco Mejia is a 19-year-old with a railgun for an arm, but he hasn't even played full-season ball yet. The rest of the system doesn't have the high ceilings that these four do, but players like Tyler Naquin and Giovanny Urshela could see time with the big league club in 2015.

Player to watch: Carlos Carrasco

The Carrasco that shows up in 2015 could go a long way in determining how competitive the Indians are in the AL Central. He started the 2014 season in the rotation, but lost his job after logging a 6.95 ERA in four starts. A move to the bullpen paid dividends, as Carrasco allowed a 2.30 ERA and 4.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings. However, Carrasco had similar success in the 'pen in 2013. The real eye opener came when the Indians gave Carrasco 10 starts down the stretch. He allowed a 1.30 ERA with 78 strikeouts to just 11 walks in 69 innings, good enough for a 1.73 FIP. Was this just a brief moment of brilliance, or did something finally click between Carrasco and pitching coach Mickey Callaway? The Indians have enough depth to form a serviceable rotation without Carrasco, but a full season along the lines of what we saw towards the end of 2014 could very well vault the Tribe ahead of the Tigers in the AL Central hunt.

Outlook

We can debate whether the Tigers have dropped off as much as the national media projects -- the early returns certainly disagree with that assessment -- but the Indians are good enough to take this division away from the Tigers, decline or not. They have a talented and underrated starting staff, their lineup is deep and able to match up to just about any situation, and they have one of the best managers in baseball on their bench. If Carrasco and the youngsters deliver, this Indians team will be very tough to beat. They have enough depth to overcome a dud or two, but that might not be enough to get them over the hump in a deep and talented AL Central.