Cleveland Indians Preview

Terry Francona brought the Cleveland Indians rolling back into relevance in his first year on the managerial job in 2013. The Tribe, which hadn’t been a serious factor since their 2007 run to the American League Championship Series, won 92 games and made the playoffs. Now we have to see if Tito can do it all over again with a team that’s let some key veterans go. TheSportsNotebook offers its Notebook Nine, our focal points on this year’s Cleveland Indians…

*The betting markets are not bullish on Cleveland this time around. The Over/Under on the win props is 81.5. Think about that—a team could go 82-80, marking a ten-game decline from the previous year and moving from a playoff year to one that presumably would miss by seven or eight games and still go Over. That’s pessimism. Cleveland is considered a 60-1 shot to win their first World Series since 1948 and end the long suffering by the sports fans of this city.

*Starting pitching was crucial to Cleveland’s success last year, but the Indians have let two members of last year’s rotation go. Ubaldo Jiminez is now in Baltimore while Scott Kazmir is in Oakland. The moves not only weaken Cleveland, but strengthen two teams the Tribe could feasibly be competing with for a wild-card spot. We should note though, that both pitchers had struggled in recent years—notably Kazmir who all but fallen off the edge of the earth—before Francona got a hold of them, so it’s a question mark if they pick up where they left off.

*And the Indians do have four solid young arms to go into 2013 with. Justin Masterson won 14 games with a 3.45 ERA, his second good year in the past three seasons. Corey Kluber came on the scene last year with an 11-5 record and 3.86 ERA in 25 starts. Zach McAllister posted a 3.75 ERA in 25 starts. Danny Salazar came up late and made just ten starts, but had a 3.12 ERA. All of these kids are young. The upside is obvious. The question mark is that only Masterson has even had one season of making at least thirty starts, so they need to prove success can be sustained as hitters grow in familiarity.

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*Chris Perez is gone from the bullpen, and that means it’s time to find a new closer. This is a move that was probably time—Perez had a good run in Cleveland, but really struggled last season and his team bailed him out and won a couple games where saves were blown. Otherwise, Perez might have worn goats’ horns. But is John Axford the answer, after two years of erratic pitching? The people of Milwaukee are undoubtedly guffawing over the notion that Axford is the right response to a position where the incumbent was known for inconsistency.

*Cleveland had turned out pretty deep bullpens even when their teams stunk in recent years, so it’s not surprising they look good with the setup options. Cody Allen, Marc Rzepczynski and Bryan Shaw provide Francona good choices. If Vinnie Pestano rebounds from a bad 2013 year and finds his 201112 form that marked him one of the game’s more underrated middle relievers, the Indians will again have big-time depth.

*The big news in the everyday lineup is that Carlos Santana is moving from behind the plate, where he often struggled defensively, to third base. Or at least Santana is trying. The fallback is to have him DH. 26-year-old Yan Gomes is a well-regarded young catcher who is penciled in the Opening Day lineup. A replacement at third would be welcome, as Lonny Chisenhall has been a disaster at the plate for the last three years. Chisenhall says the team is better off with him at third base. A player saying that about himself is understandable. If an objective observer were to say it, there should be drug tests ordered.

*There’s several everyday players who really need to bounce back. Cleveland had a surprising number of players deliver subpar seasons, which is the opposite of what you would expect for a team that had a big turnaround campaign. But Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop, Michael Bourn in center and Michael Brantley in left were all anemic at the plate. David Murphy was brought in to play right, but he had a bad year in Texas.

*Then we have another player who slipped, but who deserves a category all his own and it’s Nick Swisher. There are three reasons Swisher is different. The first one is positive, and it’s that with a .341 OBP, it’s not like Swisher was dead weight. He was just lower than has been the case in recent seasons. The next two are more concerning. Because Swisher is 33-years-old, it’s fair to wonder if he’s even capable of picking it up. And 2013 was his worst year since 2008. This is significant because 2009-12 saw him play in Yankee Stadium, perhaps the most hitter-friendly park in baseball. Did the cozy confines of the Bronx obscure a decline that had already set in?

*Let’s conclude on a positive note and it’s with underrated second baseman Jason Kipnis. With a stat line of .366 on-base percentage/.452 slugging percentage, Kipnis is one of the most productive in the game at his position and he’s now well-established. Kipnis and Santana (.377/.455 stat line last year) are the steady forces in the lineup.

I picked against Cleveland last year, projecting them to lose 97 games. As much as I respected Francona, I thought the pitching would be too bad to overcome. This year, I see where the pessimism comes from, as I outlined the issues in the everyday lineup and at closer. The rotation has to prove itself, and even at that, there’s no true ace.

Nonetheless, the electric potential of these four young arms and the quality of the middle relief and setup crew, combined with Francona’s leadership make at least a winning season a fair bet. And that’s they all they need to go Over 81.5