1. Corey Kluber isn't a new name to the sabermetric community, but he exploded onto the national stage in 2014, eventually winning the AL Cy Young award. Can he repeat his incredible numbers again in 2015, or was last season the best we will ever see from Kluber? Also, is his new contract extension (five years, $38.5 million) actually a crime? Because it feels like it.
I don't expect him to repeat his numbers from 2014, because I'd almost never expect anyone to repeat a season that good (regression to the mean and all that). That said, I still expect him to be one of the 6 or 7 best pitchers in the American League, up there with Chris Sale and David Price as the best in the AL Central. At the end of last season, I said I thought the Indians would sign him to an extension for either 4 years, ~$32 million, or 5 years, ~$45 million, and was told repeatedly that I was a fool for thinking Kluber would agree to such a deal. That he wound up signing for even less... "criminal" seems about right. The Indians have most of their core players locked up for years, which is pretty exciting for those of us who thing that core can be a legitimate contender.
2. Carlos Carrasco was dynamite down the stretch in 2014, allowing a 1.30 ERA and .445 OPS in his final 10 starts. Was this just a particularly effective stretch, or did things finally click for him? How good can we expect him to be in 2015?
Probably a little from column A, a little from column B.
I thought moving him to the bullpen early last season was the right move. He'd had a number of chances as a starter, and it just didn't seem to work. Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway has had a lot of success with a lot of guys in his 2+ years with the team though, and so Indians fans are starting to feel like no one is beyond his help. New Tampa Bay Rays managers Kevin Cash (who was the Tribe bullpen coach last year) is the one who worked really closely with Carrasco last summer though, and things clicked.
Carrasco (who signed his own extension with the team this week) struck out 10 while walking only 1 in 6.1 shutout innings o Wednesday, so he's certainly off to a good start. I think he'll be a good #2 starter this year, giving the team a great 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation.
3. Brandon Moss has terrorized the Tigers since his breakout in 2012, including six home runs against Tigers pitching in the last two seasons. How do the Indians plan on using him in 2015? Are there concerns about the 31-year-old Moss retaining his power, especially since he's coming off hip surgery?
Moss hit 5 home runs this spring, so I'm not terribly concerned about his power at the moment, but I think of him as someone with a higher risk of injury than some of the other guys in the lineup. He's set to be the #5 hitter in the lineup, and with Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana batting in from of him, Moss should have plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. Right now it looks like he'll spend a lot of time as the DH, while also playing some right field. I wouldn't be surprised if he occasionally spells Santana at first base as well.
If Nick Swisher comes off the DL later this month and is able to rebound from his dreadful 2014 as a hitter, he'd probably DH most of the time, with Moss spending more time in right field. I'm not holding out a lot of hope for Swisher doing well though, so I think the less than ideal David Murphy/Ryan Raburn platoon in right may be what we see for much of the season.
4. Justin Verlander is 9-12 with a 5.35 ERA in 23 career starts at Progressive Field, and he is coming off his worst season since 2008. Are Indians fans afraid of matchups against Verlander anymore, or do they feel like the Tribe has an edge against him?
There are certainly a lot of LGT readers who are happy to see the Indians face Verlander, while I'd still rather take my chances against Detroit's somewhat modest Triple-A options, because I think a healthy Verlander is a better pitcher than he looked last year. It is sort of astounding though, how different the Tigers' rotation feels, as compared to a year or two ago. I think I'd rather have Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello then Price, Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez.
5. After watching the first ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcast of the year this weekend, I realized how much the world misses Terry Francona in that booth. How much of Mike Ilitch's money would it take for the Tribe to give him his old job back and hire John Kruk as their manager?
Oof. I don't even want to think about what a team managed by John Kruk would be like. I might have to take a sabbatical from baseball for the duration of Kruk's time in Cleveland, if it came to that.
Having Francona as the manager has been a good reminder of how much of managing is sort of beyond the ability of fans to grasp or quantify. Francona calls for more bunts than I'd like, keeps too short a bench for my taste (preferring to keep an 8-man bullpen), and has a few other in-game preferences I'm not wild about, yet there's no doubt in my mind that he's had a huge positive impact on the team.
6. Francisco Lindor is one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and is on the doorstep of the major leagues despite being just 21 years old. Did the Indians give him the Kris Bryant treatment this spring (i.e. will we see him in two weeks?) or is the club legitimately looking for him to develop certain aspects of his game before calling him up to the majors? What other player(s) in your farm system could have an impact in 2015?
I think management feels like Lindor is ready to be a solid contributor at the MLB level, but it's also not quite a Kris Bryant situation, in that Lindor does not clearly give the team the best chance to win right now. Jose Ramirez struggled in a stint with the team early last year, but after being brought back up following the All-Star break, he hit .283/.325/.377 in 241 plate appearances, with 10 stolen bases in 11 attempts. He's not the defensive marvel Lindor is, but he's above average at shortstop, and has semi-established that he can hit well enough to play in the Majors. Already this season he's homered and stolen two bases.
If Ramirez were to struggle this year, I think Lindor would be called up, but if Ramirez continues to play well, I think the job is his this year. Some thought would have to be given to trading Ramirez this offseason, because it wouldn't make sense to waste a good starting shortstop as a bench player. That'd be a great problem to have, but we're obviously a long way from arriving at that point. It wouldn't surprise me if Ramirez cools, and settles in as more of an ideal bench utility man, capable of playing 2B, SS, or 3B. If so, the Age of Lindor will begin.
7. The Indians have been this year's trendy pick in the AL Central, similar to the Kansas City Royals last year. The Tigers are no longer an overwhelming favorite, and Fangraphs even gave the Indians higher preseason odds of winning the division. How good do you think this Indians team can be? What is their biggest strength and their biggest weakness? Who wins the AL Central in 2015?
The starting rotation has the potential to be excellent. They were the best in baseball during the final two months of 2014, and through three games this week they've looked excellent, with Kluber, Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer combining for 28 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings, with only 2 runs allowed. T.J. House was very solid as a rookie last year, and Zach McAllister pitched better than any of them this spring, with the best velocity of his career.
If the rotation lives up to that potential, even an average offense and bullpen should be enough for them to win the division. There's a lot of uncertainty there though, because none of them (not even Kluber, really) have an extended record of success, and odds are at least a couple of them won't live up to high expectations. (Danny Salazar is waiting in Triple-A, speaking of guys with high expectations.)
The defense was awful last year, and will probably be the biggest weakness again. There was improvement in the second half though, which I hope will continue this year.
As for who wins the division, I'm still expecting it to be the Tigers. Top to bottom, they still have more talent on their roster than anyone else, and I'll believe they're not going to win the division when I see it, and not a day sooner. I expect the Indians to win one of the two Wild Card spots though, and with the postseason being such a crapshoot, any team that makes it there has a reasonable chance of going far.
In any case, it should be a good race, and a really exciting season.