For the first time in awhile I saw the top of my Cleveland Indians yard gnome. He has been buried in snow and sitting in sub zero weather for the last few months. I had to smile. I guess that is a sign spring is near. A sure sign is the Cleveland Indians 1st spring training game. You can’t take a lot out of the first spring game, but it is stimulating to see warm weather and baseball. It means the boys of summer are close to returning to Cleveland and warm weather can’t be far behind.
I haven’t posted since those heartbreaking loses last September to the Tigers. The Tribe had an incredible last 2 weeks to make the post season and grab the north coast’s attention. Then the Tribe entered the off season and the only real headlines were who had left the team. Still hopes are high for another run to the postseason.
THE STATE OF THE RESERVATION:
As I already mentioned very little seemed to be done in the off season other than let two starting pitchers go and the 8th inning set up guy (Kazmir, Ubaldo, & Smith); releasing our closer (Perez); and trading our starting right fielder (Stubbs). All to be replaced with players most fans would hardly know. Yea last year had a little more excitement due to the free agent signings of Nick Swisher, and Michael Bourne. But in all honesty it was the ho-hum signings/trades from last year that made the biggest contributions (Yan Gomes, Ryan Rayburn, Scott Kazmir, and Mike Aviles). With both the Browns and the Cavs imploding from the front offices out, I would liked to have seen the Indians be more active this winter. It was a great chance to excite and solidify the fan base. A major signing was not in the plans this year, but I still think some of the minor signing could end up being significant.
Last year I said that Scott Kazmir was my pick for the Cy Young award. He ended up with highest ERA of all the starters but it was a respectable 4.04. Ubaldo Jimenez was the player who pitched like a Cy Young award winner the second half of the season. Ubaldo compiled a 6 – 5 record in the second half of the season with a 1.82 ERA. Max Scherzer who won the Cy Young last year had an 8 – 2 record with a 2.44 ERA in that same time frame. Ubaldo only walked 25 in those 13 second half starts while striking out 100. The stats show that he began to control his pitches and thus be in charge of the game. No matter how well he pitched I never felt comfortable. I was so relieved to know that Danny Salazar (a ROOKIE) was pitching the playoff game other than Ubaldo who had been pitching like a Cy Young candidate. The Tribe reportedly never talked to Jimenez about resigning, which I believe speaks loudly about what the Indians think of Ubaldo. Jimenez is now in Baltimore. He may have figured out his problems last year and continue to pitch like a #1 starter. My guess is there is going to be a lot more cursing every 5th day in the Chesapeake Bay area, and my finger nails are going to look a lot better. Kazmir is the one player I thought the Tribe should have been more aggressive about signing. They did not put a qualifying offer in of 14.1 million, so they did not get a draft pick for losing Kazmir. He ultimately signed with Oakland for two years at 22 million. He may have accepted the Tribe’s offer but I think for a one year deal it was a price the Tribe could have lived with. Kazmir was the one lefty in the rotation, and the options to replace him are all right handed. The Indians are going into the 2014 season with a completely right handed starting rotation. Not as deadly as their past all right handed batting lineup, but not the ideal situation. Overall I believe the starting pitching will be fine. Masterson has grown and proven to be a top of the rotation pitcher. Remember when some wanted to put Masterson in the bullpen? Kluber and McAllister had great seasons and they came up through the minors projected as middle of the rotation talent. Kluber especially has shown throughout the minors to be able to get strikeouts when needed. Danny Salazar looked dominate during the last couple of months of the season. I can’t remember ever seeing a pitcher look that good just coming up from the minors. Sabathia struggled his first year and Jaret Wright helped get the Indians into the World Series, but he certainly didn’t pitch like Salazar. (Anyone else think of an Indians pitcher who looked as impressive as Salazar to start their career) The fifth spot in the rotation is undecided at the start of spring training. Candidates are Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Shawn Marcum, Aaron Harang, and Josh Tomlin. My thoughts are Carrasco fills the spot as he is out of options and cannot be returned to the minors. If he doesn’t fill the spot then one of the other candidates who pitches the best will. Carrasco seemed like a different pitcher when he returned last year and pitched out of the bullpen. Hopefully he can settle in, settle down, and become the dominate pitcher the Indians have been talking about. If not then I believe Josh Tomlin may get the next try or Marcum if he is healthy. Tomlin is smartest pitcher on the staff and does the most with the least “stuff”. Tomlin is pitcher that Francona and other managers love. He will be on the team as a starter or out of the bullpen. Marcum is coming off an injury, but he has proven in the past to be a very good pitcher. Again if healthy I expect him to contribute to the Indians staff this year. Rarely do five pitchers start a season and the same five end the season. The Indians have starting depth and I am sure that it will be utilized this year.
The biggest move was releasing Chris Perez. Good bye. It was fun while it lasted, but the last few months were terrifying. September 26th and the Tribe was leading Minnesota 6 – 1 in the 9th inning, enter Perez. The guy next to me says he can’t watch Perez anymore and goes to the bathroom until he is done pitching. 15 minutes later the inning is still going but the score is 6 – 5 Tribe as Perez is relieved of his duties. The gentlemen returns and I too could never watch Chris Perez pitch again for the Tribe. Luckily he will never get another opportunity. John Axeford should be able to handle the job. The Cardinals do a good job of identifying talent and he pitched well for them last year. Hopefully Axeford shouldn’t make me want to join other fans in the bathroom when he pitches. Other than losing Joe Smith, whose sidearm action brought a different look for hitters, the bullpen should be good. Smith has quietly been very reliable for the Indians in the 7th and 8th innings. Cody Allen should slide into that spot and hopefully Vinny Pestano can return to form this year to fill 7th inning. The Tribe brought in a few different options at the end of last year who performed well, in Marc Rzepczynski (took me only 2 tries to spell that right) and C.C. Lee. Rzepczynski should continue to stabilize the pen along with Bryan Shaw and either Carrasco or Tomlin. The final spot will be won in spring training by Josh Outman, Nick Hagadone, Scott Atchison, or C.C. Lee in that order.Overall most people are worried about the Indians pitching staff. I think they are fine in this area. I feel much better about the starting pitching than I did last year at this time, and they have options. The bullpen should not be horrible and there are alternatives in the minors.
The consensus is that if the Indians starting pitching is good the Tribe will be good. Yes you’re only as good as your starting pitching. I previously discussed my confidence in the Indians pitching staff. It is the offense that worries me and I have the most concern. Last year the Indians were 5th in MLB in runs scored. That came from a team that had off years from a number of players. Asdrubal Cabrera suffered through his worst year offensively, while the big free agent signings of Bourn and Swisher did not meet their past production. The Tribe received little production consistently from 3rd base or from the DH Jason Giambi. Brantley and Kipnis did have a productive year, but nothing they can’t repeat. The real surprises on offense came from the part time players, Yan Gomes, and Ryan Raburn. So why am I so concerned about the offense? I felt that the Indians offense could be sporadic at times last year. I am not sure they will get much increase on offense from any position (other than Asdrubal), and they might see a drop off from some of the players who had a great season last year. Finally I don’t think they addressed over the winter one of their major weaknesses, not having a true power hitter.
Here are the positions I am not worried about:
Left field: Michael Brantley is called Dr. Smooth. He will probably never be a superstar, but there is little that he doesn’t do well. I wouldn’t be shocked if he improved any part of his game this year. I would be surprised if his game regressed much. Maybe he doesn’t hit 10 HR’s this year, but I don’t see why he doesn’t hit .280 with 70 RBI’s, and 15 stolen bases. Francona bats Brantley in any spot in the order, and Brantley is capable of handling it. Brantley just goes out and does his job and he does it effectively.
Second Base: Not to toot my own horn, but I have been telling you that Jason Kipnis was coming and y’all was going to like him. He led the team in RBI’s, runs, and stolen bases. He was second in batting average, doubles, and third on the team with 17 HR’s. His style of play makes him a fan favorite and I see him becoming the face of the franchise. Could he regress from his All-Star year? Yea, but Kipnis hasn’t done anything but produce at every level. I don’t see much changing except for Kipnis becoming better well known.
Expecting Good Things But Not Betting The House On It:
Catcher: Yan Gomes had a break out year last season. He led the team in batting average and posted decent numbers in only 300 AB’s. I assume he will get more AB’s this year so he should be able to match last year’s numbers if not improve upon them. If Gomes can bat .290 this year again great, I am just expecting a little regression this year. His defense is the aspect of his game that stands out and I don’t see any drop off. Although I am not sure if he can throw out 20 of 29 base stealers again. Tip to opposing base runners, Don’t run on Yan!
Shortstop: It is a contract year for Asdrubal Cabrera. I see him having a good if not great year. Asdrubal has wanted to be in those pressure situations, and until last year he has succeeded in them. This will probably be Cabrera’s last year in Cleveland. If the Tribe is out of the playoff race he could be gone by the trade deadline. Francisco Lindor is coming and there will be no stopping his progress towards the majors. If you don’t know who Lindor is you haven’t been following my blog (Superstar in waiting). There are some defensive metrics that say Asdrubal is the worst defensive shortstop in the game. He is better than Johnny Peralta, I don’t care what computer you use. I like Asdrubal and hope he has a career year. Then hopefully he signs another contract with the Tribe and slides over to third next year. I will settle for a career year in his final season in Cleveland.
Expecting The Usual:
First Base: I’m putting Nick Swisher at this spot. In reality the Tribe is MLB’s version of a contortionist. Their roster is probably one of the most flexible in baseball. 1st base, right field, 3rd base, and DH can be manned by numerous players on the roster, and this isn’t your David Dellucci/Jason Michael platoon. THANK GOD, I still shiver thinking about it. Swisher will be the DH, and in right field, but I see him playing mostly at first base. Swisher did not have a bad year in 2013, but he didn’t have a great year either. I see more of the same for Swisher in 2014. He is 33 and not surrounded by hall of famers as he was in New York, so I don’t see much improvement. He did turn it on the last month, and shined during the stretch for the playoffs (7 HR’s in September).
Centerfield: Michael Bourn had his worst season as a professional in 2013. Not that it was horrible, but he did not put up the numbers he had in years past. His average, steals, and runs were career lows except for his rookie season in Houston. Why am I not expecting more from Bourn? Bourn came from the Atlanta Braves and was advertised as a speedster on the base paths and the best centerfielder in the game. His 23 stolen bases were nearly half his career low while his 12 caught stealing was his career norm. No big deal maybe he moved to a team where they don’t push the stolen base as much, or he is adjusting to the American League. What really concerns me is when I watched Michael Bourn last year I did not see the best defensive centerfielder in the game. Not even close. Bourn lives on his speed, and when that goes so goes Michael. Bourn slowed on the base paths and he not did dazzle in the field. I wonder if he lost a step last year. He also had surgery on his left hamstring this winter. Just a feeling and I hope I am wrong, but I think Bourn may have already played his best baseball.
3rd Base: Lonnie Chisenhall is like the Cleveland Browns. Ok that is a little rough, but I keep expecting better results and I keep getting subpar performances (with the Browns it is plan lousy performances). So I have given up on the Browns and until they actually win consistently I will expect them to lose (consistently). The same goes for Lonnie. Until he proves otherwise I am expecting a subpar performance. I believe he is capable of putting up more than a .225 average as he did last year. He has not played a full season in the majors and yet he put up 11 HR’s in only 289 AB’s last year. If he could match his career minor league batting average of .282 we might be on to something. The problem is he struggles mightily against lefties. Thus he needs to be in a platoon. Enter Carlos Santana and Mike Aviles. I don’t think there is any way in hell Santana takes over 3rd base. I have seen him behind the plate where umpires hate him. He doesn’t move his body and block balls, so the umpire takes the hit. I swear I could see steam come out of umpire’s helmets last year as they stared down Santana after getting hit. I saw him enough at first that I loved Casey Kotchman and his .229 average. He can man each position but by no means is he skillful at it. I assume he could play third but ultimately it wouldn’t be pretty. Just wait for that first bunt attempt and he throws the ball into the stands. I imagine Santana is going to man third against lefties due to Chisenhall’s ineffectiveness against them. I will give Santana credit that I have not heard one complaint from him and he has tried to do whatever is asked of him (catch, 1st, 3rd, or DH)
Right field: Ryan Raburn had a career year in only 243 AB’s. He hit 16 HR’s with 55 RBI’s in what amounts to a half year of at bats. I assume he will come back to his norm this year which should be around 10 HR’s and 40 RBI’s in 250 AB’s. He will platoon with David Murphy. Murphy replaces Drew Stubbs so we should see a better average, and maybe a few more HR’s. What worries me is Murphy is coming from Texas which is a hitter’s park. This team is in desperate need of a power hitter and Murphy needs to hit more than a dozen HR’s. Stubbs could hit a dozen and was the best base runner I have seen in an Indians uniform. Murphy and Raburn need to combine for 30 plus HR’s and 100 plus RBI’s. I am just not sure if they do that this year. I like the signing of Jeff Francour. I see him somehow making this team and being a big part of it, possibly as the DH.
DH: It has taken me 2 weeks to finish this blog. (That is because they are so damn LONG Randall) When I started, my thoughts were Giambi would make the team but probably start on the DL as he did last year. Well it was reported a couple of days ago that Giambi had a cracked rib and would start the year on the DL. A cracked rib sounds serious to me for a player who solely relies on power. As I mentioned this team is in desperate need of a power hitter. I see Francona using a lot of his interchangeable parts to fill the DH role as he did last year. I believe Santana may end up getting a good portion of these at bats. Santana may produce at last year’s level, but that is putting a lot of pressure on Gomes to improve upon last years numbers. Otherwise that is a decrease at the catchers position. Definitely the DH spot is wide open and may have to be filled at the trade deadline if the Tribe is in contention.
Overall I see Left field, 2nd base, and Shortstop matching last year or improving. 2/3 of last year’s super sub bench of Gomes and Raburn will be playing more of a full time roll thus weakening the bench. I don’t see much improvement from the other positions, maybe even a slight decline. The team also needs a true power hitter and possibly has an open spot in the lineup they could fill. The Indians don’t have players in the minors who are ready at the start of the season to help the offense. They do have a group of players in AA and AAA, but they are 1 to 2 years away. The positive is that Francona is leading this team and seems to know exactly how to put his team in a position to succeed. If anyone can do it Francona can.
Here is my 25 man opening day roster predicitions:
C: Santana and Gomes
Infielders: Swisher, Kipnis, Cabrera, Chisenhall, Aviles, and Elliot Johnson/ Justin Sellers
Outfielders: Bourn, Brantley, Raburn, Murphy, and Francour
Starting Pitchers: Masterson, Kluber, Salazar, McAllister, and Carrasco
Relief: Axford, Allen, Shaw, Rzepczynski, Pestano, Tomlin, and Outman
If you read all 3000 plus words, wow! I will try and cut back on future post. I really enjoy reading comments, and hearing how others enjoy reading my post. Thanks and pass along the blog to others.