Team Preview: Cleveland Indians
By: Josh Wasserman – Chief MLB Writer.
In the coming weeks leading up to Opening Day, FSLR will be previewing the 30 MLB teams and their respective chances for the 2014 season. Continuing with the AL Central, the Cleveland Indians are up next…
Day 6: Kansas City Royals
Day 7: Minnesota Twins
Day 8: Detroit Tigers
Day 9: Chicago White Sox
Day 10: Cleveland Indians
2013 Record: 92-70 (2nd)
2014 Projected Record: 85-77 (3rd)
Personally, I find Cleveland’s lineup to be one of the most dangerous in the league when they’re at their best. The past few years have seen the Indians stock up their lineup with a series of shrewd free agent signings and trades that have brought energy and life to a franchise that previously had trouble filling the stands with 10,000 fans.
In 2013, for the first time in a while, the Indians carried their city on a trip to playoffs, providing an exhilarating experience that reinvigorated the city’s sentiments about the team. However, as I said a few days ago, this year is the Royals’ year to embark on the miraculous October journey.
The rotation just isn’t full enough for Cleveland to make a deep run in the playoffs and I think the magic may be in Kansas City this year. They’ll push for the playoffs and the Royals will have to be wary the entire season, but come October, the Indians will fall just short of the postseason.
1) Michael Bourn, CF
2) Jason Kipnis, 2B
3) Nick Swisher, 1B
4) Carlos Santana, C
5) Mike Aviles/Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B
6) Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
7) Michael Brantley, RF
8) David Murphy, LF
9) Ryan Raburn, DH
Though the Indians aren’t filled with household names like the Rangers or Angels, I absolutely love the players they’ve brought together.
At his best, Michael Bourn is as threatening a leadoff man as any in the league. He didn’t thrive his first year in Ohio, but now that he’s familiarized himself with manager Terry Francona and the Cleveland area, he should return to his Houston form, especially in the speed department (after five straight years of 40+ steals, Bourn tallied just 23 in 2013).
Jason Kipnis, on the other hand, I think will regress from his unprecedented 2013 season. Frankly, I think his quick rise is priming him for a sharp drop, and that 2013 was an aberration. Nevertheless, Kipnis will assuredly take the second base role due to last year’s performance.
Sluggers Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana follow him and are a formidable run-manufacturing duo that could quietly post fantastic numbers. Together, they carried the power numbers for the Indians last year and will handle the brunt of those duties again this year as the only two 20+ home run hitters from the season. Both are switch hitters, but prefer to face left-handers much more than right handers (though both of them did hit more bombs from the left side of the plate last year).
The most contentious position battle this spring is at third base, with Mike Aviles and Lonnie Chisenhall vying for the job. In my opinion, Aviles has shown he should be a major league starter for years now. From his time in Kansas City, even while he was in Boston, he’s showed deft range in the field and has consistently posted a .280 average or higher.
Chisenhall had a tough year last year and he doesn’t provide enough production at the hot corner, a crucial position batting-wise in the lineup. I see Aviles getting the starting job at third and holding it for a while with his reliable play (not to mention he’s been hitting about .400 in the Grapefruit League so far as opposed to Chisenhall’s hovering .220).
Just a few years ago, Asdrubal Cabrera had the Cleveland infield to himself, the only mainstay and the essential centerpiece of the team. Now, he’s fighting for time among a crowded group of young stars, barely making his way in. His fielding is off the charts, and he’s been a solid contributor his entire tenure, justifying his place in the lineup at least at the beginning of the year. If his play deteriorates though, Aviles will shift to shortstop and Chisenhall will enter at third.
Next up will probably be Michael Brantley, my favorite player in this lineup. Just like Aviles, he’s proved he can play and moreover, he’s been significantly improving each year, adding some unseen component to his game.
Last year, he hit double digits in home runs for the first time in his career while racking up 73 RBI’s, and maintaining an 85% steal success rate.
New acquisition David Murphy and DH Ryan Raburn will round out the lineup. In a marginalized role, Raburn still hit a surprising 16 jacks in 2013, meriting a spot in the lineup regardless of where. I’m not a huge fan of Murphy, but he’s a decent outfielder to top off the outfield.
With a variety of ways to put runs on the boards, and with a high volume of players who can contribute, the Indians’ offense is not one to take lightly, but rather to approach with caution as an opponent.
1) Justin Masterson, RHP
2) Danny Salazar, RHP
3) Trevor Bauer, RHP
4) Zach McAllister, RHP
5) Corey Kluber, RHP
Justin Masterson’s stats may not astound many people on the surface, but his poise at 29 and his maturation over the past season has been impressive in an unquantifiable manner. He is the kind of anchor any competitive rotation needs and he will probably be sticking around in Cleveland for a long while.
Danny Salazar, the coveted piece of the Indians’ organization let alone pitching staff, will pitch behind Masterson even though he started the Indians’ sole playoff game last year. His ability to fan any batter with any pitch is uncanny and it was only a matter for time before he got called up last year after utterly dominating the minor leagues. Look for Salazar to be one of the most effective rookies in all of baseball in 2014.
After being picked 3rd in the 2011 amateur draft, Trevor Bauer has underwhelmed at the pro level. Praised as one of Arizona’s hallowed young pitchers, Bauer has never felt comfortable in the majors, neither in Phoenix nor in Cleveland.
His mechanics abandon him and he can’t find a commanding presence in the zone. He has the potential to be a top pitcher in this league, but he also could end up as a Billy Beane type player, one whose talent is never realized because of the emotional aspects of the game.
The final two pitchers in the rotation were pleasant surprises for the Indians last year. Zach McAllister ended 2013 with a 3.75 ERA and 9 wins as the fifth starter. His solid performance has continued into the spring where he’s shut down opponents as well as any pitcher in Florida. Corey Kluber had an even better season than McAllister, tallying 11 wins and a 3.75 ERA. However, his near 1.50 WHIP is a little concerning for a starter because if he’s pitching in the rotation all year, he can’t afford to be throwing extra pitches to unnecessary batters.
MR: Marc Rzepczynski, LHP
SU: Bryan Shaw, RHP
CL: John Axford, RHP
John Axford is one of my least favorite closers in the league. He is streaky at best and each outing seems to leave fans biting their nails. His 1.50 WHIP as a closer is a huge red flag for me; how can you rely on a closer who’s letting on at least a batter an inning? Regardless, the Indians brought him in from Milwaukee to take the place of departed closer Chris Perez, a move I don’t agree with.
Bryan Shaw was very effective last year as a one-inning shutdown guy, limiting hitters to a career low .217 BAA. Axford is almost guaranteed to hit a rough patch at some point this year, and Shaw could be the one waiting in the wings for the closer role. Watch for the Indians’ closer situation to oscillate throughout the year.
When in his zone, Marc Rzepczynski is as good a lefty specialist as Jeremy Affeldt. His sidearm motion baffles hitters and his sweeping slider can freeze any left-handed hitter. Hopefully, the game will already be decided by the 9th inning so Axford won’t need to be lights-out (because he most likely won’t be).
All stats courtesy of MLB.com and baseball-reference.com