Tribe poised to overtake Tigers in AL Central
Was 2013 just a nice little season by the Indians or a springboard to bigger things? AL Manager of the Year Terry Francona asked that question in December at the winter meetings at Disney World, and the answer has yet to reveal itself. The Indians caught MLB looking last season when they won 92 games and made the postseason for the first time since 2007 by claiming the AL’s first wild card spot. They have not had consecutive winning seasons since 2000-01, and based on the pitching defections, that streak may stay intact through 2014. In the rotation, the Indians lost 13-game winner Ubaldo Jimenez and 10-game winner Scott. They released closer Chris Perez, third in franchise history in saves, and lost key relievers Joe Smith and Matt Albers to free agency. Most of the offense that finished fifth in the AL in runs last season returns. To make up for the pitching losses, the Indians need more production from Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, who signed big free-agent contracts before the 2013 season but turned in subpar performances.
Justin Masterson, coming off a career season, will once again be the No.1 starter, followed by Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister. The fifth spot will be determined among Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer. To compensate for the loss of Jimenez and Kazmir, it’s imperative that Masterson, Kluber and McAllister stay healthy. Masterson was knocked out of the rotation by an oblique injury in early September, and Kluber and McAllister missed time because of finger injuries. Salazar, the Indians’ most exciting home-grown starter since Bartolo Colon, has never pitched a full season in the big leagues. Carrasco and Tomlin are rebounding from Tommy John surgery, while Bauer spent most of 2013 at Class AAA Columbus trying to rework his delivery.
John Axford lost his closer’s job with the Brewers last April and spent the rest of the season pitching in a setup role with Milwaukee and St. Louis. The Indians signed him to a one-year $4.5 million deal to replace Perez as closer, a role in which Axford earned 105 saves for Milwaukee from 2010-12. Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw will be Axford’s top setup men with Allen probably getting the first shot at closing if Axford falters. Outfielder Drew Stubbs was traded to Colorado for Josh Outman, who should replace Rich Hill as the Tribe’s left-handed specialist. Marc Rzepczynski has the inside track to be the second lefty in the pen, while righthander Vinnie Pestano will try to re-establish himself as one of the AL’s top setup men after struggling last season with a sore elbow.
Three years ago, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera was the Indians’ best overall position player, but his game has slipped the last two seasons. Now that title belongs to second baseman Jason Kipnis, who is coming off his first All-Star appearance. The only thing holding back Kipnis, who led the Indians in runs, hits, RBIs and steals, is a tad more consistency at the plate. Cabrera, who has seen his OPS drop for three straight seasons, is entering his walk year after batting a career-low .242 last season. Cabrera is sure-handed with a good arm but ranks low on most defensive metrics. Mike Aviles is an experienced backup in the middle infield.
While Swisher will be at first base, third base could be a revolving door. Swisher, who played a career-high 112 games at first last season, watched his OPS drop below .800 (.763) for just the second time in the last eight years. He led the Indians with 22 homers but was bothered by a sore left shoulder and couldn’t handle the pressure of batting cleanup. Last season ended with Lonnie Chisenhall and Aviles platooning at third. The Indians want Chisenhall to seize the job. Catcher Carlos Santana, Swisher’s main backup at first, could get some at bats at third after playing the position in winter ball.
In their big free-agent signing of the winter, the Indians added left-handed-hitting David Murphy to platoon in right field with Ryan Raburn. Murphy is coming off a bad season with Texas — he hit only .220 with 13 home runs — but the Indians believe he’ll improve their stats against righthanders. Murphy is a .280 lifetime hitter against righties but struggled against them last year. Bourn, coming off surgery on his left hamstring, will open his second season in center. In his first year in the AL, Bourn stole just 23 bases and had an on-base percentage of .316, down 32 points from his final season in Atlanta. Left fielder Michael Brantley hit .375 with runners in scoring position and played the entire season without making an error. He doesn’t have much power — 16 home runs in 1,220 plate appearances the past two seasons — but he does have a respectable 133 RBIs over that span.
Yan Gomes took the starting job away from Santana last August even though he didn’t make the team out of spring training. Not only did Gomes handle the pitching staff and throw out 41 percent (20-for-49) on the basepaths, but he also batted .294 (86-for-293) with extra-base power. It remains to be seen how Gomes handles the burden of catching full-time. The emergence of Gomes makes Santana the backup at catcher, first and third base and the primary DH. He is coming off a solid offensive season and showed he could handle batting cleanup.
Last year the bench players named themselves the Goon Squad and were one of the best units on the club. On the Goon Squad, all roads lead to Jason Giambi, 43, the part-time DH and clubhouse Yoda. Giambi played only 71 games last year, but hit nine homers with 31 RBIs. Aviles can play second, short, third and the outfield. Raburn, who is especially effective against lefties, hit 16 homers and drove in 55 runs in just 243 at-bats. If Santana doesn’t start at third, he’s expected to be the regular DH and backup catcher. Should the Indians go with three catchers, veteran Matt Treanor will get a look. Justin Sellers has been a pleasant surprise in the spring and could make the team as an extra infielder.
Francona made GM Chris Antonetti, the man who signed him to a four-year deal in October 2012, look good in 2013. One area in which the Indians need to improve this season is their play against good teams. They went 8–31 last year against Detroit, Boston, the Yankees and Tampa Bay and 84–39 against everyone else. Antonetti believes the Indians have a better roster entering the 2014 season than they did a year ago. He is especially high on the starting pitching, noting the improved depth behind Masterson, Salazar, Kluber and McAllister. It would help if he hit on a couple of minor-league free agents as he did last season with Raburn and Kazmir.
The Indians had a chance to build on their momentum with another winter of signings and trades. But that didn’t happen. After shaking things up with the signings of Swisher and Bourn for a combined $104 million before last season, they moved cautiously this offseason. In signing Swisher and Bourn, they spent against this year’s revenues from MLB’s national TV contracts, which somewhat depleted their resources. Issues with attendance could be another reason ownership may have chosen not to make a bigger play on the free-agent market. Despite being in contention from late April, the Indians drew only 1.6 million fans, second-fewest in the big leagues. The Rays, who beat the Indians in the wild card game, were the only team that drew fewer fans. Overall, this is a team that will be a factor in the AL Central but didn’t do enough in the offseason to pass favored Detroit and must contend with surging Kansas City to stay in the wild card race.
CF Michael Bourn (L)
His .316 OBP was his lowest in five years as he had trouble adjusting to the AL.
1B Nick Swisher (S)
Hit .263 with seven homers and 17 RBIs in September stretch run.
2B Jason Kipnis (L)
Hit .307 (114-371) with 25 doubles and nine homers from June 5 through the end of the season.
DH Carlos Santana (S)
The Indians went 33–15 with Santana batting in the cleanup spot.
SS Asdrubal Cabrera (S)
Hit just .209 (54-for-258) at home compared to .276 (69-for-250) on the road.
LF Michael Brantley (L)
Made at least one start in every spot in the lineup except No. 9.
RF David Murphy (L)
He’s a career .365 (27-for-74) hitter at Progressive Field, his new home ballpark.
C Yan Gomes (R)
Ranked third in OPS (.826) for MLB catchers who had at least 275 plate appearances.
3B Lonnie Chisenhall (L)
Helpless against lefties, hitting .111 (4-for-36) with one homer and six RBIs.
INF Mike Aviles (R)
Replaced injured Asdrubal Cabrera for 19 straight games at shortstop in June.
1B Jason Giambi (L)
Veteran slugger has six pinch-hit, walk-off homers, the most in MLB history.
OF Ryan Raburn (R)
His 1.020 OPS against lefthanders ranked fifth in AL for hitters with at least 100 plate appearances.
INF Justin Sellers (R)
In 82 games with the Dodgers over the past three seasons, he batted .199 with three homers and a stolen base.
RH Justin Masterson
Went from 15 losses in 2012 to career-high 14 victories in 2013.
RH Danny Salazar
Opened year at Class AA and ended it by starting the AL wild card game against the Rays.
RH Corey Kluber
Won four of his last five starts after coming off the disabled list in September.
RH Zach McAllister
Former third-round pick of the Yankees pitched five or more innings in 19 of his 24 starts.
RH Josh Tomlin
Didn’t walk a batter in 29.1 combined innings last year as he rebounded from Tommy John surgery.
RH John Axford (Closer)
Appeared in 75 games last season, but none as a closer after April 7.
RH Cody Allen
Finished second in the AL with 77 appearances as a rookie, second-most in club history
RH Bryan Shaw
Went 5–0 with a save and did not allow a run in 13 September appearances.
LH Josh Outman
Lefties hit just .198 (22-for-111) against him last year with the Rockies.
LH Marc Rzepczynski
After he was acquired from St. Louis on July 30, the opposition hit just .159 (11-for-69) against him.
RH Vinnie Pestano
Went 6-for-9 in save situations, but other than that 2013 was a nightmare.
RH Carlos Carrasco
The Indians love his arm and want him to start, but he seems more comfortable in the pen.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Clint Frazier, CF
The Indians selected the 19-year-old high schooler with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft and sent him to the Arizona Rookie League after signing him for $3.5 million. Frazier homered in his first professional at-bat, tripled in his second and drove in four runs. Frazier hit .297 (51-for-182) with 11 doubles, five triples, five homers and 28 RBIs in 44 games for Arizona. He swung and missed a lot (61 times) and drew just 17 walks. Look for him to play next season at Class A Lake County. In his senior year at Loganville (Ga.) High School, Frazier hit .485 with 17 homers, 45 RBIs and 22 steals. He hit a school-record 63 homers at Loganville. The right-handed-hitter, has power and speed, but is still probably four to five years away from the big leagues. In Arizona, he hit .318 (14-for-44) against lefties, but all five of his homers came against righthanders.
OF Tyler Naquin (22)
The center fielder/leadoff hitter put together a nice year at Class A Carolina and Class AA Akron. He performed well in the Arizona Fall League, too.
SS Francisco Lindor (20)
Lindor hit .303 overall at Carolina and Akron, but his season ended prematurely with a stress fracture in his back.
1B Jesus Aguilar (23)
He hit 16 homers and drove in 105 runs at Class AA Akron before tearing up winter ball in Venezuela.
SS/2B Jose Ramirez (21)
The speedy infielder was a September call-up from Class AA and made the wild-card roster.
SS Dorssys Paulino (19)
Son of former big leaguer Jesus Sanchez can hit for average and power.
RHP Cody Anderson (23)
Named Indians Minor League Pitcher of the Year after a strong season at Class A Carolina.
Beyond the Box Score
Walk this way Jason Giambi, 42, became the oldest man in history to hit a walk-off homer on July 29 when he beat the White Sox. Almost two months later, Giambi broke his own record with another walk-off homer, once again against the White Sox.
Now that’s a scoop The Indians officially announced the signing of outfielder David Murphy to a two-year $12 million deal on Nov. 25, but it was old news by then thanks to his five-year-old daughter, Faith. On Nov. 19, Faith was at her Dallas-area preschool listening to teachers talk about Thanksgiving and the roles played by the Pilgrims and Indians. Faith piped up and told the teachers, “My dad is going to the Indians.” A couple of hours after Murphy confirmed the news to teachers and some parents when he picked up Faith at school, word of the signing appeared on Twitter.
Feel the beet Catcher Yan Gomes had a career day on May 20 as he went 3-for-4 with four RBIs and a walk-off 10th-inning homer against Seattle. Asked what he credited his performance to, Gomes said, “I drank a bottle of beet juice before the game.”
Ying and yang The Indians went 4–15 against Detroit last season and 17–2 against the White Sox. They must do better against the defending Central champs.
Is Brody home? On June 4 a small amount of marijuana was delivered to the residence of Chris Perez, the Indians’ former closer, in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River. Police and drug enforcement agents followed the package and arrested Perez and his wife, Melanie, on misdemeanor drug charges. The packages were addressed to Brody Baum, the Perez’s dog. Baum is Melanie Perez’s maiden name.
Help me In the early morning of Sept. 27, Scott Kazmir was returning to his Minneapolis hotel room when his elevator got stuck on the 27th floor. Kazmir called Mike Seghi, director of team travel, who alerted the hotel and fire department, but it took them an hour-and-a-half to get Kazmir free. He didn’t enjoy the wait. “I sat down, fetal position pretty much,” said Kazmir. “I was just sitting in the corner rocking.” On Sept. 28, Kazmir struck out 11 in six innings in a 5–1 victory over the Twins. “It was nice being on the mound in all that wide open space,” he said.