Time for Indian summer to return to Cleveland
The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season tonight in Oakland as Justin Masterson takes the mound for what could be his final Opening Day start in a Tribe uniform.
The Tribe surprised last year by winning 92 games and capturing the second Wild Card spot in the American League. It was the team’s first winning season and first playoff appearance since 2007. The Indians will be looking this season to post consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2000-01 and make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1998-99.
It won’t be easy, though. (Of course, this is Cleveland, so when is anything easy?) The Detroit Tigers are still the team to beat in the American League’s Central Division even though they traded Prince Fielder and Doug Fister. The Tigers can still hit, though, with Miguel Cabrera (.343 with 17 home runs and 55 RBI against the Indians over the past three seasons) and Victor Martinez (.380 vs. the Tribe over the past three years), and pitch, with Justin Verlander (7-3 with a 2.96 ERA against the Tribe in the same time frame), Anibal Sanchez (2.20 ERA in the past three years vs. Cleveland) and Max Scherzer (7-1 vs. the Tribe), so the Indians are not catching any breaks there.
The Kansas City Royals are also a trendy pick after posting their first winning season in a decade; they have also been stockpiling young talent that may be ready to pay off. And even though the Indians finished six games better than the Royals in the standings, they were only 10-9 against Kansas City last year.
In their second year under manager Terry Francona, the Tribe should be set up to stay in the playoff race as long as nothing horrible happens. The team had a quiet spring training, with no real position battles, allowing Francona to focus on building the type of versatile roster he prefers.
Offensively the Indians should be solid, if not spectacular (they were fifth in runs scored last year, but only 13th in batting average). Michael Brantley has turned into a really solid player, one who does a lot of things well without having one standout area. If there is one player on offense who could be called a start, it is second baseman Jason Kipnis, who has quickly become one of the best players in the game at his position.
If Kipnis can take the next step on offense and Brantley just keeps on being Brantley, they could be enough to balance out that Michael Bourn (who will start the season on the disabled list) may be starting a decline, especially if his legs continue to bother him, and that Nick Swisher is just an average player.
The two biggest questions among the everyday players come at third base and catcher.
The Tribe has turned the catching position over to Yan Gomes, who hit .294 last year in 88 games and 293 at bats in his first chance to be an everyday player. The Indians are hoping they Gomes they saw in 2013 is the real deal (and have bet six years and $23 million on it in a contract extension) and a player who just needed a chance. (Of course, Einar Diaz once had a good year and then was never the same.)
Carlos Santana won the third base job in spring training, and while he might not be a disaster in the field, there are still some concerns about how this is all going to work out. Santana and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera are never going to make anyone forget Travis Fryman and Omar Vizquel in the field, but Santana can make up for that with his bat, and the pitching staff is better off with Gomes behind the plate on a regular basis.
While Santana may be a risk at third, the Indians are not exactly flush with options. After hitting just .194 against left-handed pitching in parts of three seasons, it’s not like Lonnie Chinsenhall is going to suddenly start hitting lefties (and he only hits .254 against righties), and while Mike Aviles did a nice job last year, if the Tribe has to overplay him at third this year, they are in trouble. As long as Santana can play even an average third base, he should be out there most days and the Tribe will be better off for it.
The Indians will go as far as the pitching takes them. It’s hard to know what impact the loss of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir will have on the team. They were a big part of the playoff push last season – Jimenez had a 1.82 ERA after the All-Star break while Kazmir posted a 2.57 ERA in September – but they were also part of the struggles (Jimenez had a 4.56 ERA before the All-Star break and Kazmir had a 4.60 ERA) that left the Indians needing to win their final 10 games to make the playoffs.
Masterson should be motivated to have a strong season as he heads into his contract year with thoughts of Homer Bailey’s six-year, $105 million contract dancing in his head. Having (hopefully) a full season of Danny Salazar should help offset the loss of Jimenez and Kazmir as Salazar probably has the most talent on the staff. While he is the fourth starter in the rotation, there is nothing holding him back from pitching like a No. 1 or No. 2 starter.
Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber are effective starters who, if they can avoid the injuries that sidelined them for part of last season, can make a full season of starts should prove to be solid No. 3 and No. 4 pitchers. Carlos Carrasco earned the final spot in the rotation primarily because he was out of minor-league options. Carrasco is just good enough to tease, but not mentally tough enough to deliver on a consistent basis. When he struggles, Josh Tomlin, who outpitched Carrasco in spring training, is waiting in Columbus.
The bullpen received a makeover but still has questions. Closer Chris Perez took his baggage to Los Angeles, and while we won’t know if John Axford is the answer at closer for a while, there is little doubt he will make fewer headlines on and off the field than Perez.
The Tribe needs Vinnie Pestano to be over whatever it was that bothered him last season to help make up for the loss of Joe Smith – the one player from last year that the team will definitely miss. The bright side of Pestano’s struggles last year are that it forced Cody Allen (70.1 innings of work in 2013) and Bryan Shaw (75 innings) to step up.
If Axford, Allen, Shaw and Pestano can do their jobs on a consistent basis, Francona can shorten the game and put the Tribe in some favorable late-inning match-ups. A reliable back end of the bullpen will also help negate the need for all the late wins the Tribe put up last season, which, while enjoyable, are not sustainable.
The biggest advantage the Tribe has comes in the dugout with Francona. With the retirement of Jim Leyland in Detroit, Francona is without a doubt the best manager in the division. Francona hit all the right buttons last season, especially in the second half, and knowing that the Tribe has him matching up against Detroit’s Brad Ausmus, Kansas City’s Ned Yost, Chicago’s Robin Ventura and Minnesota’s Ron Gardenhire is a good feeling. And with the Tribe having the lowest payroll in the division, Francona is their one true edge.
The Indians will need to win the majority of those match-ups if they want to make it back to the playoffs. While they will hopefully not go 4-15 against the Tigers again this season, they most likely will not be a combined 30-8 against the Twins and White Sox, either. Against every team except those two, the Indians were just 62-62 last year, so if they don’t beat up on Minnesota and Chicago again this year, they are going to need to find wins somewhere else.
So where does that leave us for 2014?
Each season the Tribe is responsible for getting Cleveland fans to the start of training camp for the Cleveland Browns. Last year, the Indians did that and more, carrying the city all the way into the playoffs with one of the most exciting and unexpected seasons we’ve seen around here in a long time.
If Gomes can be an everyday player, if Kipnis and Brantley continue to improve, if Salazar it as good as advertised and the bullpen is sound, the Tribe should easily be able to carry through the summer and stay in playoff contention.
Will it be enough to make it back to the post-season? That’s the money question, and while we will start getting answers tonight in Oakland, we won’t know the final answer for another six months.
Indian summer has finally returned. It’s time to enjoy it, Cleveland.
(Photos by The Associated Press)