An inside look at MLB's American League Central teams
Over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, no team spent more days in first place in the American League Central than the Cleveland Indians. Getting there was no problem, but sustaining it proved much more difficult, as the Indians fell apart in the second half in both seasons. But significant changes have the Tribe moving in a better direction. The Tribe’s biggest offseason acquisitions were manager Terry Francona and outfielders Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. The speedy Bourn is a potent catalyst atop the lineup and brings superb defense in center field. The switch-hitting Swisher will help a weak offense that averaged 3.7 runs per game after the All-Star break last season. Francona is coming off a great run in Boston, but Cleveland and Progressive Field are a long way from Fenway Park. Francona doesn’t have the payroll or the talent he had when he led the Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. But his leadership should pay immediate dividends.
Francona and new pitching coach Mickey Callaway are dealing with a rotation that lost the most games (76) in the AL last year. Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Brett Myers and Zach McAllister should fill the first four spots. Masterson and Jimenez, both righthanders, made a combined 65 starts last year, losing 32 of them. Myers was signed to a one-year $7 million deal in January, but he has not started a game since 2011. This will be McAllister’s first full year in the big leagues. The fifth spot will be decided among Trevor Bauer, Scott Kazmir, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and David Huff. Bauer, the third pick in the 2011 draft, was acquired in a three-way trade with Arizona and Cincinnati during the offseason. Bauer put up great numbers in the minors for Arizona last season, but his unique training methods and personality were so off-putting that the Diamondbacks traded him after only four big-league starts. At some point, he will join the rotation if not out of spring training. Kazmir, a former All-Star lefthander, has made just one major league start — lasting only 1.2 innings — since 2010. He came to camp on a minor league deal and has impressed Francona, becoming the leading candidate for the fifth spot.
All winter there was speculation that the Indians would trade closer Chris Perez, who offended almost everyone this side of the Pope last season with a sharp tongue and Twitter account. The Indians did not trade Perez, who will once again anchor the strongest part of the team after recording a save in 75-of-83 chances over the past two years. As in 2012, spring injuries have slowed his preparation for the season. There were changes in Perez’s setup men as Tony Sipp was traded to Arizona, Esmil Rogers to Toronto and Rafael Perez was non-tendered. Still, there are still plenty of good arms in front of him. Closer-in-waiting Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith, Cody Allen and Nick Hagadone are back. Newcomers Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw were acquired in the Arizona deal. Until Perez recovers from a balky shoulder this spring, Pestano will be the closer and either Rich Hill or David Huff will fill in gaps.
Fat and out of shape is no way for an All-Star shortstop to go through a career. Such has been the chatter surrounding Asdrubal Cabrera. He’s been great until he makes the All-Star team. Then in the second half, when the Indians fall out of the race, he loses interest. He’s signed through 2014, and it will be interesting to see if Francona can snap him out of his second-half slumps. Second baseman Jason Kipnis, coming off his first full season in the big leagues, needs to put forth a much more consistent effort if the offense is going to improve. Like Cabrera, Kipnis disappeared offensively in the second half. The Indians are expecting Cabrera and Kipnis to key the offense between Bourn at the top and run producers Carlos Santana and Swisher in the middle.
This should be the year Lonnie Chisenhall gets his much anticipated chance to start at third base. Chisenhall, a No. 1 pick in 2008, was beaten out by journeyman Jack Hannahan the last two years. Hannahan was non-tendered after the season. The job belongs to Chisenhall as long as he can stay healthy and survive against lefthanders. Chisenhall, a converted shortstop, has power potential, but he doesn’t walk much. The Indians committed $56 million to Swisher over the next fours year, the richest free-agent deal in team history. Not only will his bat anchor the lineup, but his personality will liven up the clubhouse.
The Indians committed $48 million to Bourn over the next four years. His on-base has been between .341 and .354 over the past four seasons, which should translate into about 40 steals and close to 100 runs for the Tribe. Pitchers will love his ability to run down balls in the gaps. Drew Stubbs, acquired in a three-team deal with the Reds and Diamondbacks, is scheduled to play right with Michael Brantley moving to left. Shin-Soo Choo, the Indians’ starting right fielder for the last four years, was traded to Cincinnati as part of the deal. Brantley, the only holdover from last year’s starting outfield, spent last season in center.
The Indians insist that Carlos Santana is a front-line catcher, but the evidence continues to mount that he is a future first baseman or DH. When the switch-hitting Santana struggles with the bat, as he did throughout the first half of last season, his catching suffers. He’s not aggressive or confident with his game-calling, and his ability to block balls in the dirt and control the running game is inconsistent. Santana is blessed with a strong arm, but he threw out only 26.3 percent of the runners he faced last season. Santana did lead the Indians in homers, walks and tied for the team lead in RBIs. Lou Marson was Santana’s backup, but he didn’t get much playing time. Yan Gomes, acquired from Toronto, could steal Marson’s job this summer.
Mark Reynolds has averaged 30 homers per year since reaching the big leagues in 2007. The Indians signed him to a one-year $6 million deal because they needed his power and right-handed bat to balance a lineup that leans heavily to the left. The byproduct of Reynolds’ power is strikeouts, lots of them. He averages 187 per year. His glove improved dramatically at first base last season, so Swisher will DH occasionally. Jason Giambi, in camp as a non-roster player, should make the team out of spring. He may have more value as a mentor and de facto hitting coach than as a pinch-hitter. Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn can both play multiple positions, but neither has much pop at the plate. Gomes may be the most interesting bench possibility. He’s a right-handed hitter with pop who can catch, play some outfield and first and third base.
The ties between the front office and the dugout have seldom been tighter. In signing a four-year deal with the Indians, Francona insisted on a clause that will give him an out if certain members of the front office are fired. It’s believed those members are GM Chris Antonetti and president Mark Shapiro. This is a homecoming of sorts for Francona, who worked as special assistant for the Indians in 2001 and played for them in 1988. Tito Francona, Terry’s father, played for the Indians from 1959-64. Sentimentality aside, there is a lot of work to do. Francona must repair a rotation that posted the second-highest ERA (5.25) in the AL last year and reclaim a roster that rolled over and played dead for former manager Manny Acta in the second half last season. The one good sign is ownership’s willingness to finally spend money on the free-agent market.
The Indians have lost 93 or more games in three of the last four years. Fans have lost faith in the Dolan family ownership, and they showed it with the second-lowest attendance in the big leagues last year. It’s unlikely the Dolans will ever be popular owners in Cleveland, but hiring Francona was a positive step. Signing Swisher and Bourn certainly helped. However, there have been so many bad drafts and poor trades that a turnaround will take more than one or two seasons. The best the Indians can do in 2013 is take one or two steps along that path.
CF Michael Bourn (L)
Speed atop the lineup will be catalyst of the offense although he doesn’t steal as much as he once did.
SS Asdrubal Cabrera (S)
Led AL shortstops last season in OPS (.765) and slugging (.425) and finished second in homers (16).
2B Jason Kipnis (L)
Finished tied for the team lead in RBIs despite driving in only 27 runs after the break.
1B Nick Swisher (S)
Ohio native hit 13 of his 24 home runs last season for the Yankees on the road.
C Carlos Santana (S)
Indians pitchers had a 4.68 ERA last season when he was behind the plate.
DH Mark Reynolds (R)
Hit just three of his 23 homers against left-handed pitching last year.
LF Michael Brantley (L)
Had hitting streaks of 22 and 13 games last season en route to career-high .288 average.
3B Lonnie Chisenhall (L)
Returned from a broken right wrist to hit .257 (18-for-70) in final 19 games of last season.
RF Drew Stubbs (R)
Over the last two seasons, Stubbs has averaged a strikeout for every three at-bats.
IF Mike Aviles (R)
Played in 128 games at shortstop last season for the Red Sox, hitting .250 with 60 RBIs.
C Lou Marson (R)
Threw out only 14 percent (11-of-78) of the basestealers he faced last year.
UT Ryan Raburn (R)
Can play all over the field and has averaged more than 330 plate appearances over last four years as utility man with Detroit.
1B Jason Giambi (L)
Francona loves the presence of the veteran and believes he will be a good manager some day.
RH Justin Masterson
Masterson allowed six or more earned runs in eight of his 34 starts last year.
RH Ubaldo Jimenez
His 17 losses were the most by a Tribe pitcher since Tom Candiotti lost 18 in 1987.
RH Brett Myers
Made 70 relief appearances last season for the Astros and White Sox, but has been a starter most of his career.
RH Zach McAllister
Finished sixth among American League rookies with 110 strikeouts last year.
LH Scott Kazmir
Former Tampa Bay fire-balling ace has resurrected his career — for now — with a fine spring.
RH Chris Perez (Closer)
He’s 41-for-45 in one-run save opportunities dating back to Aug. 12, 2010. With a strained shoulder, Perez is likely to begin the season on the DL
RH Vinnie Pestano
The Indians went 50–20 in his 70 appearances last year; only gave up 53 hits in 70 innings.
RH Joe Smith
His seven wins in relief were tied for second most in the American League last year.
LH Nick Hagadone
Struck out 26 in 25.1 innings last year, but allowed 14 earned runs in his last 10 appearances.
RH Matt Albers
Lefthanders hit .207 against him last year, righthanders .220.
RH Cody Allen
Started last season at Class A Carolina and ended up in the big leagues, where he struck out 27 in 29 innings.
LH David Huff
Made 52 starts over last four seasons with a 5.30 ERA.