If you were previewing the Cleveland Indians of 2014, one of the things that would be mentioned was the number of players (notably pitchers) that the team did not have returning. Starting pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir left as free agents and so did relievers Chris Perez and Joe Smith. The Indians had confidence in their younger pitchers and it paid off in 2014. In fact, their younger pitchers, led by AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber (18-9, 2.44, 3 CGs, SHO, 269 Ks) were so effective GM Chris Antonetti was able to deal number one starting pitcher Justin Masterson to the Cardinals.
The 2013 Indians won 92 games and made it to the playoffs. The 2014 Indians were 85-77, finishing in 3rd place in the AL Central after finishing 2nd a year earlier. What I thought was more impressive about the most recent team was the fact that they have a different identity. Kluber and fellow starting pitchers Trevor Bauer (5-8, 4.28, 26 starts), Danny Salazar (6-8, 4.25, 20 starts), Carlos Carrasco (8-7, 2.55, 40 games, 15 starts) and T.J. House (5-3, 3.35, 18 starts) are a big strength for the team that wasn’t quite seen a year before. Offensively, the 2013 Indians depended a lot on guys like Jason Giambi, Ryan Raburn, Mark Reynolds (before he was released) and Drew Stubbs. In 2014, they traded their starting SS Asdrubal Cabrera (.261, 14, 61 for Cleveland and Washington), who was arguably one of the core players of the Indians for the past several years. The Indians saw breakout seasons from LF Michael Brantley (.327, 20, 97, 94 RS, 200 H, 45 2B) and C Yan Gomes (.278, 21, 74). Carlos Santana (.241, 27, 85) became a full time 1B after playing a little bit of 3B at the start of the season.
The Indians biggest strength coming into this season is their strong starting pitching. Odds are, it can get even better. Kluber had his breakout season, but so did Carrasco. House looked very good when he came up and Salazar is a good pitcher; but Bauer is the pitcher I would bet on having the breakout 2015. The Indians signed RHP Gavin Floyd (2-2, 2.65, 9 starts for Braves) which adds to the depth. I’d go with the rotation of Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, House and Salazar. Salazar should be in a battle with Floyd, who is trying to prove he is healthy after an elbow operation ended his 2014. On the comeback trail also is RHP Shaun Marcum (1-0, 2.08, 9 games, 2 starts in minors with Indians). He can be in the mix for a starting rotation spot or he may be able to win a job as a long reliever. The same can be said for veteran LHP Bruce Chen (2-4, 7.45, 13 games, 7 starts for Royals).
The trade of Cabrera opened the door for 21 year old SS Jose Ramirez (.262, 2, 17 in 68 games), who will be the starting SS going into 2015. Ramirez has very good speed and has the ability to hit .280-.300 at the major league level. Though he has been rated as a decent defensive SS, the Indians have been reluctant to play him a lot there in the minor leagues. In fact, out of his 286 minor league games, 199 have been at 2B, where his defensive metrics seem to be a little better. In 2008, the Indians drafted a switch hitting SS with the 8th overall pick. This player has continued to develop during his 3 seasons in the minor leagues and has become one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Francisco Lindor is expected to take over at SS for the Indians as soon as the date clears for his Super Two status to be removed. Lindor has speed and is a superior defensive player. He also has some sneaky power from both sides of the plate, kind of like a young Jose Reyes.
The Indians offense got a boost when they acquired Brandon Moss (.234, 25, 81) from the Athletics. Moss can play 1B or DH as well, but for the Indians will take over in RF, making David Murphy (.262, 8, 58) a 4th OF type. Michael Bourn (.257, 3, 27, just 10 SB) seems to be digressing as the Indians may be getting a little buyer’s remorse. However, Bourn only has two years remaining on his current 4 year, $48 million deal. Speaking of bad contracts, Nick Swisher (.208, 8, 42) is entering the 3rd year of his 4 year, $56 million deal he signed before Bourn was added. Jason Kipnis (.240, 6, 41, 22 SB after hitting .284, 17, 84 in 2013) saw his stock drop drastically last season. Because he battled some injuries all season, I see him as a candidate to have a bounce back 2015. 3B Lonnie Chisenhall (.280, 13, 59) emerged as the team’s everyday 3B and is expected to man the position again this season.
This is the lineup I would go with if I was Indians manager Terry Francona– Ramirez SS, Kipnis 2B, Brantley LF, Santana 1B, Moss RF, Gomes C, Chisenhall 3B, Swisher DH, Bourn CF. Batting leadoff can allow for Ramirez to focus on catching the ball and getting on base and takes the pressure off of Swisher and Bourn, who are no longer focal points of the offense. Lets be honest, if they get anything out of the two of them, it will be a bonus. One thing that does stand out for the Indians is their flexibility. Brantley can play CF, Swisher 1B or the OF, Santana can catch, Moss 1B or DH and Mike Aviles can play 2B, SS, 3B or the OF. Murphy, Raburn and backup C Roberto Perez round out the bench.
The Indians were led last season by relievers Cody Allen (6-4, 2.07, 24 saves) and Bryan Shaw (5-5, 2.55, 80 games). Veteran Scott Atchison (6-0, 2.75, 70 games) came out of nowhere to earn another season in Cleveland. LHP Marc Rzepczynski (0-3, 2.74, 73 games) is expected to once again be the team’s primary lefty specialist. You should keep a good eye on 22-year-old LHP Kyle Crockett. The 2013 4th-round draft pick has pitched to a 0.56 ERA in 42 minor league games and made his debut in the major leagues by pitching to a 1.80 ERA in 43 games for the Indians in 2014. He misses bats which makes him a candidate to be more than a lefty-on-lefty pitcher. Allen pitched well last season, but Crockett looks to have an ability to get some late game attention. Also, look at the starting rotation candidates. If a Floyd or Marcum makes the rotation, perhaps Salazar or House get put into the 8th inning role; both have the stuff to be a closer as well.
Outside of Lindor, the Indians have some good offensive prospects including two OFs two we will likely see this season. LH hitting OF Tyler Naquin looks like a natural as a hitter. He has the ability to be a batting champion and should see his high average in the minors translate to the bigs. Taken in the same first round of the 2012 draft (23rd as opposed to 15th) James Ramsey has good power and a solid eye at the plate. He was acquired from St Louis in the deal that made Masterson a Cardinal. Perhaps the Indians can find a way to get Jesus Aguilar into the lineup. He hit 19 HR in the minors in 2014 and got a September callup. Perhaps the flexibility of guys like Santana, Swisher and Moss can allow for Aguilar to get some playing time.
The Indians have a pendulum that can swing from where I have them picked to much better than that. The competition in the AL Central is going to make it tough for the Indians to take those necessary steps. I love their starting pitching, but I think they need a lot out of some guys in the lineup that they may not get. Not even counting Swisher and Bourn, Chisenhall has to back up his solid 2014, which is not a given. Though I think Kipnis will be fine, the team has to wonder what was up with his 2014 season. While I like Allen and Crockett in the bullpen, I still do not consider this pen to be very deep. When I look at the Tigers, Royals and White Sox, I see more depth on the roster 1-25. However, I think this Cleveland starting rotation has a chance to be better than anything the other three can throw out there- and that includes Price/ Verlander and Sale/ Samardzijia.
Vegas was a little down on the Indians as well, putting them at 83 1/2 for their O/U. I think they will finish just under that, 81-81, 4th place in the AL Central. However, like a lot of teams in this boat, I would not rule them out to make a run in this division. According to my numbers, I have just 4 games separating 4th place from 1st in this division.