5 Questions – Tribe Home Opener Edition
The Cleveland Indians enter the 2015 season carrying some heavy expectations for a club that was just 85-77 a year ago.
Several national experts have predicted the Tribe will claim a playoff spot this season and at least one – Sports Illustrated – has tapped the Tribe to capture the World Series for the first time since 1948.
That may seem like a tall order when you consider that the Tribe plays in the same division as Detroit – which has claimed the A.L. Central Division title four consecutive years — and Kansas City – the reigning American League pennant holders. But the Royals and San Francisco, last year’s champion, illustrate a new truth in baseball.
The Royals won 89 games last season and the Giants won 88, both making the playoffs through the Wild Card and then got hot. Baseball, like the NFL and NBA, is now all about making the playoffs and then seeing what happens. So if the Tribe can just add four wins to their total this season — just a little more than one every two months — that should be enough to compete for a playoff spot.
The Tribe had their blueprint for success on full display during the opening three-game series at Houston. Starters Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer combined for 19.2 innings of work, striking out 28 and posting an ERA of 0.92. It’s a great start for a team that will go as far as its starting pitching takes it.
Cleveland had a quiet off-season if you only look at the new players on the roster, with Brandon Moss being the only significant addition to the squad. But that doesn’t mean the front office knocked off early each day. This week the club signed both Kluber and Carrasco to contract extensions, making them the latest to join a core group that includes Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes that should be in Cleveland for a number of years to come.
The club was also busy giving Progressive Field a significant makeover, dropping the seating capacity down to 37,630 to help mask the fact that attendance has dropped for four consecutive years, leaving the Tribe near the bottom in Major League Baseball attendance.
We kid (mostly).
The Tribe really made the renovations because they want to ensure that fans spend all their money inside the confines of the park rather than in the numerous bars and restaurants that populate the neighborhood around the park.
OK, the club really just wanted to enhance the game day experience for fans, and from all the early reports we’ve seen they have done a top-notch job with the renovations.
So, can the Tribe do it in 2015? Can they win their first championship in 67 years and Cleveland’s first title in any sport in 50 years? (Or might that title be the city’s second in just four months?)
To find out we’ve turned to some of the best Tribe thinkers on the Internet. Joining us are:
Nino Colla from The Tribe Daily. He can be found on Twitter @TheTribeDaily.
Mike Brandyberry from Did the Tribe Win Last Night? Follow him on Twitter @DidTribeWin.
Al Ciammaichella from The DiaTribe. Find him on Twitter @Gotribe31.
Adam Burke, a contributing writer at Everybody Hates Cleveland and bangthebook.com. Find him on Twitter @SkatingTripods.
As always, the questions are good but the answers are even better.
Question: After Corey Kluber, the Tribe is banking on Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and a grab bag of starters for the rotation. Is that going to be enough?
Mike: I don’t think so. Kluber had a great year in 2014, but I have a hard time seeing him put together another Cy Young contending season. He’s a good pitcher, but I have not bought in to him being great yet. Much of the same is true in my mind about Bauer, Carrasco and the rest of the grab bag. The starting pitching depth has already been challenged with injuries to Gavin Floyd and Josh Tomlin. If and when someone struggles, the additional options are bleak pretty quickly. Hoping the five starting pitchers they’re starting with, and Danny Salazar, to be enough to win 90 games seems like a stretch.
Nino: I think so because, really, you need a grab bag these days to have a strong rotation. Something is more than likely to emerge from the number of options the Indians have. Gavin Floyd went down, giving an opportunity to T.J. House and Zach McAllister, but those guys were going to get shots in one way or another. Maybe McAllister was more of a surprise, but Josh Tomlin and Danny Salazar will both get their chance in one way or another. Something will emerge and hopefully the top three form a solid rock to build upon. When you are talking about rotation, it is always about increasing your odds for success by getting deeper and I think the Indians have that.
Al: I think so. I still believe the rotation winds up as those three plus T.J. House and Danny Salazar by midseason or so, with Zach McAllister slotting to the bullpen. Those five are really talented starting pitchers. Losing Gavin Floyd and Josh Tomlin hurts the depth of the rotation, and it’s going to be tough if the Tribe has to deal with another injury or two. But most teams around baseball would kill to have a guy like House as their No. 5.
Adam: There’s a lot of upside in this starting rotation and T.J. House is almost the forgotten man because he’s the only one that doesn’t reach the mid-90s with regularity, though he can reach back if need be. Carlos Carrasco is actually the biggest worry of the bunch, for me, because that stretch at the end of last season was so dominant and so unsustainable that expectations have skyrocketed. The rotation has a chance to have five well-above-league-average pitchers and only Washington, Seattle and the Dodgers have that type of upside.
Question: Last season the Indians were the first team in AL history to have four relievers make 70 or more appearances, and the bullpen set a record with 573 appearances overall. Can Terry Francona work them like that again this year?
Mike: Tito likes him some bullpen. I have concerns about the right side of the bullpen. Bryan Shaw has been used quite a bit over the last two seasons and Scott Atchison is 39. If Atchison actually pitches like a 39-year-old, or Shaw got hurt, the right side would be really weak. So to answer your question, the more the bullpen struggles the more Tito may be making pitching changes, so that number could rise even more.
Nino: The thing about Tito’s usage was that he spread it out. He didn’t have to just rely on a few guys like the Royals did last year. Those appearances were high, but the innings pitched for a lot of relievers was right around the norm, aside from maybe Bryan Shaw’s use. Tito managed to keep his guys fresh and, yeah, he gave them a lot of appearances, but not so much that anyone was highly taxed. This year, Tito seems to have a few more additional options, with guys like Nick Hagadone and Kyle Crockett seemingly in the mix for leverage innings. I think Francona is fine.
Al: He can and he will. Like I said earlier, I still think McAllister ends up in the pen, and C.C. Lee, Shawn Armstrong and others are waiting in the wings in Columbus. Bryan Shaw’s arm might fall off this year, but with three lefties in the pen to play matchup baseball, you can expect another 550-plus appearances out of the pen this season.
Adam: I do think that Terry Francona can work the bullpen like that again. There’s good depth in the bullpen and he has some lefties that are not exclusively matchup guys. Kyle Crockett and Nick Hagadone can each get opposite-handed hitters out, which is a major luxury to have in order to keep the workloads down for individual pitchers. Hagadone’s going to be a major surprise this season and will become one of the team’s most reliable arms by mid-season.
Question: Who will be the biggest surprise on the team this year?
Mike: When the Indians finally let Francisco Lindor play and stop worrying about service time, he’ll be one of the biggest positives of the season. On the field he will improve the team defense and give them a speedy dynamic to their lineup. Off the field, he has an infectious attitude that makes people want to be around him. Fans are going to love him. He will make fans upset the Indians didn’t open the season with him on the roster.
Nino: I’ve been touting two people in particular for really breakout-type years. I think first and foremost Carlos Santana is going to finally have a year that makes us all turn our heads. I’m thinking an MVP-caliber season in a fashion that Michael Brantley had last year. Secondly, I think Trevor Bauer is destined to turn the corner in a big way and become this team’s bonafide No. 2 behind Kluber. I love Carrasco, but I think Bauer is a future star and this may be the year he puts it together. He had an incredible spring as far as his control went, so I think he’s close to putting it all together. And when he does, look out.
Al: I think people who are expecting Jose Ramirez to be a quality major league shortstop over a full season are in for a surprise. He was much better than I thought he would be in a small sample last season, and will play with 100 percent effort at all times. That’ll mask some deficiencies, but I can’t see him holding up there for 150-plus games. The good news is that one of the top prospects in all of baseball is ready to step in should Ramirez falter, and Ramirez does profile as an excellent utility infielder.
Adam: Instead of going with Hagadone, since I just praised him, I’l go with Trevor Bauer. The stuff is there. The pitchability is there. The consistency is all that remains. Throwing first-pitch strikes is how it all begins for Bauer, and that’s what he worked extremely hard on during the spring. Now that he’s been in the Indians organization for two full seasons, he’s very comfortable with being here. Some of his training methods have rubbed off on teammates. He’s studied rotation mates’ pitches to improve his arsenal. It’s all going to come together sooner rather than later.
Question: Is there any chance that Nick Swisher does not go down as the worst free agent signing in franchise history?
Mike: It’s different eras and different contract values, but Wayne Garland was running a gas station before his 10-year contract was even half complete. Keith Hernandez signed a two-year deal in 1988 and played just 40 games in the first season before retiring. Those two were really bad signings, but Swisher is certainly a contender to get onto the medal stand with those guys.
Nino: There have been plenty of signings you can look at and think of as being worse than what the Indians did with Swisher. That being said, I think Swish can at least salvage some good rep with a bounce back. I think he’s done as far as being an every day, productive member in the same fashion he was about a year prior to arriving in Cleveland. But he can still be productive and if the Indians keep him fresh and put him in positions where he’s likely to succeed, they’ll get the most out of him. And, he just energizes this team. Say what you want about him being an overpriced mascot, he is really a leader on the team and that matters, especially if he can produce.
Al: Nope. Jack McDowell will always be worse. Swish gave us one good year and one injury riddled year so far. Even if he’s ineffective for the final two years of the deal, the money wasn’t crippling and he did give us that one solid season in a playoff campaign.
Adam: I actually like Swisher to bounce back this season. The reason that Swisher lost his value is because he stopped getting selective at the plate (and started) cheating at the plate. He also fell victim to injuries for the second straight season as a player that had never experienced that adversity before. His days of being a useful fielder are over. In terms of worst free agent signing ever, that’s highly subjective.
Question: The Tribe is a trendy pick this year to not only win the division, but possibly the World Series. Can they really pull it off?
Mike: I don’t see all the hype behind this team. To me, they are the same team from a year ago. Defensively, they will still be bad and their pitching is well on the way to being inconsistent. Everyone remembers the last six weeks of 2014 when they played well, but no one remembers the first four months when the starting rotation was a continuous revolving door. I don’t think this is a bad team, I just don’t think they are World Series contenders. I feel like they are in the 84-87 win range and on the outside of the playoffs again.
Nino: Anyone with the potential to challenge for a division title can pull it off. The Tribe can win the division, and first and foremost, to do that, they need to be strong in the divisional games. With this being such a close race on paper to a lot of people, the idea would be to win those games more often that not. If we are talking about one aspect that needs to improve, it is most definitely the defense. If that gets better, this team will, too.
Now the real question: how do they pull of a World Series win? Look at the Royals. The first equation is to get there and, if the Tribe wins the division, obviously that puts them in position to get there. The second is that they just need to have all the pieces fall into place. That’s what happened with the Royals. This team has the talent and if they get there, they just have to be playing stellar baseball and put it all together. I hate to simplify it to just that, but that’s really how it happens year after year. Getting there is half the battle, and at least that is a battle the Indians are equipped to win.
Al: Sure, they can, but I am necessarily saying that they will, though. Baseball is a funny game. The length of the season and number of games really test the depth of an organization, and the Tribe has already lost two potential members of the rotation. You have to be both lucky and good to make it to the postseason, and everything is a crapshoot from there.
Consistent, quality starting pitching is the most important aspect of a major league roster, and as we saw in the second half last year, starting pitching can drag even a slumping offense upwards toward a division title. One only need look at the K.C. Royals of last year to see what can happen when a team gets hot/lucky at the right time, and what can happen when that luck runs out. The Indians have put together a roster that can compete for a World Series title now and in the future, and I’m just going to strap myself in and enjoy the ride.
Adam: Sure they can. They have great depth and there’s help in Triple A in the outfield, at shortstop and third base. The starting rotation has good depth, even with the losses of Gavin Floyd and Josh Tomlin, and the bullpen runs very deep. There’s also the ability to make a move at the deadline to improve the club because the minor leagues are stocked with good, but not great, prospect pieces that the organization should be willing to part with.
Bonus question: What is your favorite memory of the home opener?
Mike: I’ve been to several memorable ones, including the last one at Municipal Stadium and the honoring of Steve Olin and Tim Crews, but the most memorable one for me was the one that didn’t count in 2007. I stayed through all the snow to see Paul Byrd come up one out short of a five inning no-hitter. To me, it’s one of those games everyone claims they were at, but I only remember about 5,000 people remaining at the end.
Nino: This is tough because I’ve only really attended one home opener in my lifetime and that was a loss, yet it was still memorable because it is the only time I’ve attended. Fausto Carmona got shelled. The Indians contended that year though, so it wasn’t an indication of anything. I tend to try and separate remembering the first game from the other games because it really is just the first one.
I’d rather remember specific moments because those are what stick out. That particular year that I attended the home opener, they had a fantastic tribute to Bob Feller. Being younger, I can still appreciate his importance to this franchise and having attended the game through the Indians Social Suite program, they brought the ball his wife threw out for the first pitch and I got to snap a picture of it. That is pretty cool and something I’ll always remember.
Al: My home opener memories are all the same: meeting up with friends in a bar, enjoying several adult beverages, spilling happily into the street to walk to the game, then freezing in the stands, waiting for the tarp to come off the infield. Spoiler alert: the tarp never comes off the infield. Or it does, but only three to five hours after we’ve spilled back into the street and into the friendly confines of another bar, drinking the rest of the day away and hopefully catching the game on TV when it finally resumes around 8 p.m.
Adam: My favorite home opener memory, despite being so cold, is the snowed out game in 2007. It was an incredibly unique season right from the start and it was my then-girlfriend’s first home opener by my side on the Home Run Porch. It was the day she officially reached die-hard status and we’ve never looked back since.
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images, The Plain Dealer and Sports Illustrated)