The Indians have the pitching to make a run at the postseason this year despite the new muscle that has been added to the AL Central. Led by AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, the starting rotation posted a 2.95 ERA after the All-Star break, second lowest in the big leagues last year. Emerging closer Cody Allen and a fleet of talented arms form a solid bullpen that manager Terry Francona used a league-record 573 times in 2014.
The factors that will determine whether they are able to return to the postseason will be how well they hit and how well they field. Nick Swisher (knees), Michael Bourn (hamstring), Jason Kipnis (oblique, hamstring, finger) and Ryan Raburn (knee, wrist) must bounce back from injuries. Newcomer Brandon Moss is coming off right hip surgery.
Defensively, the Indians led the big leagues in errors. Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, catcher Yan Gomes, departed shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, a range-challenged Kipnis at second base and an immobile Swisher at first made every ground ball an adventure in 2014.
If injured Indians hitters can return to full strength, and a revamped defense can catch the ball, this team has a chance to do some damage in October. Despite an offense that barely averaged three runs per game after the All-Star break, the Indians pitched so well that they were not eliminated from wild card contention until game No. 159 last season.
Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, T.J. House, Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin give the Indians as talented a group of young starters as they’ve had in several years. GM Chris Antonetti added depth to the rotation by signing veteran righthander Gavin Floyd to a one-year $4 million deal. If Floyd makes it through spring training healthy after experiencing two big right elbow injuries over the last three years, Antonetti has promised him a spot in the Opening Day rotation, along with Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer. Salazar, House, McAllister and Tomlin will compete for the fifth spot. McAllister, Carrasco and Bauer are out of options. If McAllister doesn’t make the rotation, he could open the season in the bullpen.
With Francona, the road to victory runs straight through the pen. He had eight relievers at his disposal through much of last season, and sometimes more because of the flexibility of his position players. Allen stepped in as the closer when John Axford faltered in May, and Francona didn’t hesitate to use him before the ninth inning. Francona expertly manipulated Allen and setup man Bryan Shaw, along with Scott Atchison and Marc Rzepczynski in the late innings. Shaw led the majors with 80 appearances, while Allen (76) and Rzepczynski (73) ranked in the top five in the AL. Lefties Nick Hagadone and Kyle Crockett and righty C.C. Lee are emerging as bridge builders from the starters to the late-inning relievers. Veteran lefty Scott Downs will be in camp on a minor league deal.
When Cabrera was traded to Washington on July 31, rookie Jose Ramirez replaced him and almost immediately improved a bad defense. Behind Ramirez, the Indians have top prospect Francisco Lindor with another shortstop in Erik Gonzalez looming. Ramirez is expected to open the season at short with Kipnis at second, but the Indians’ depth could force a change if Kipnis doesn’t rebound from last season. Kipnis injured the ring finger on his left hand in November while lifting weights. While Kipnis is expected to be ready for the season opener on April 6, he won’t be able to swing a bat in the early parts of spring training.
When last season ended, the Indians talked about moving Chisenhall or Kipnis to the outfield, a direct reflection on how poorly they played defensively. Such talk was shelved, but it’s clear the Indians are expecting better play from Chisenhall at third. Offensively, Chisenhall showed the same inconsistency, hitting .393 (66-for-168) through June 11, but .219 (68-for-310) for the rest of the season. Carlos Santana will open at first base, his third different Opening Day position in as many years. He was the starting catcher in 2013 and starting third baseman last year. Offensively, the move from third to first helped Santana, who led the Indians in homers with 27. Swisher and Moss are also expected to see time at first.
In a crowded outfield, Michael Brantley is expected to start in left field following his breakout season. Bourn, who made three trips to the disabled list last year because of his left hamstring, will be in center. There is a logjam in right field with Moss, Raburn, David Murphy, Tyler Holt and Zach Walters all looking for playing time. Swisher, depending on the condition of his knees, could compete for time as well. Moss, who played left and right field last year for the A’s, is not expected to be able to swing a bat early in camp, but he should be ready to open the regular season.
Gomes emerged from his first full season behind the plate as one of the best catchers in the big leagues. After overcoming some throwing problems early in the season, he led AL catchers in average (.278), OPS (.785) and extra-base hits (49). He handled the pitching staff well, drawing raves from Kluber. Gomes threw out 32 percent of the baserunners he faced and drew good grades as a pitch framer. Roberto Perez joined the Indians from the minors in July and proved to be an excellent backup. Indians pitchers had a 2.61 ERA when Perez was behind the plate.
Swisher, in the third year of a four-year $56 million deal, is expected to be the primary DH. He did not play after Aug. 9 and underwent surgery on both knees on Aug. 20. The Indians won’t know how much Swisher can play until he gets to spring training, but they could definitely use a dose of the guy who averaged 25 homers and 80 RBIs per season from 2005-13. Utility man Mike Aviles, with his ability to play every position but catcher and pitcher, has allowed Francona to carry an extra reliever for most of the last two seasons. Raburn has been the right-handed bat off the bench the last two years, but after a disappointing 2014, he’s going to need a big spring training to win a job even though his 2015 salary is guaranteed. Walters and Holt will challenge him for that role. Perez will be the backup catcher.
Under Antonetti and Francona, the Indians won 92 games in 2013 and 85 in 2014. It is a team that has been one or two big moves away from becoming a serious contender, but those big moves have yet to be made. Perhaps ownership is still smarting because of the lack of production from Swisher and Bourn, the team’s last two forays into the big-money side of free agency. The Indians have shown an interest in keeping the core of the club together by signing Kipnis, Brantley, Gomes and Santana to multiyear deals. Kluber could be in line for such a deal before the start of the 2015 season.
The Indians watched AL Central foes Detroit and Kansas City prosper last year as the Tigers won their fourth straight division title and the Royals made it all the way to the World Series as a wild card. The White Sox and Twins, the Tribe’s other Central rivals, spent this offseason making several free-agent signings. The Indians, meanwhile, continued to show confidence in their young position players and deep pitching staff. Their only big additions were Moss and Floyd, who are both coming off injuries. It will be interesting to see how far that strategy takes them in what might be the best division in baseball.
2015 Prediction: 4th in AL Central
CF Michael Bourn (L) Former National League stolen base king has swiped only 33 in two years with Indians.
SS Jose Ramirez (S) He hit .299 with 20 runs in 42 starts while batting in the No. 2 spot in 2014.
LF Michael Brantley (L) Led the American League with a .376 average with runners in scoring position.
1B Carlos Santana (S) Selective slugger walked 113 times last season and has 394 walks in last four seasons.
RF Brandon Moss (L) Last season, he hit 21 of his 25 homers before the All-Star break with Oakland.
DH Nick Swisher (S) He played 97 games last season, fewest since his 131 with A’s in 2005.
2B Jason Kipnis (L) Did not homer after July 31 last season, a streak of 48 games and 183 at-bats.
C Yan Gomes (R) Native of Brazil ranked third among AL catchers last year with 21 homers.
3B Lonnie Chisenhall (L) Ranked eighth among MLB third basemen with a .770 OPS in 2014; defense needs to improve.
UT Mike Aviles (R) He played six different positions last season, making his debut in right and center field.
C Roberto Perez (R) Threw out 36 percent (8 of 22) of the runners who tried to steal on him.
OF David Murphy (L) Hit .326 with runners on base and .360 with runners in scoring position.
OF Ryan Raburn (R) Injured his wrist and knee running into an outfield wall in spring training and struggled at the plate.
RH Corey Kluber His 269 strikeouts in 2014 ranked sixth highest in team history for a single season.
RH Carlos Carrasco Posted a 1.30 ERA with 78 strikeouts in 69 innings over his last 10 starts of the season.
RH Trevor Bauer Averaged 8.41 strikeouts per nine innings, third-highest ratio ever among Indians rookie pitchers.
RH Gavin Floyd Coming off a fractured right elbow last year and Tommy John surgery in 2013.
RH Danny Salazar Struck out 10 White Sox hitters in 3.2 innings on April 10, most ever by a pitcher in fewer than four innings.
RH Cody Allen (Closer) Workhorse closer has made 153 appearances over the last two seasons.
RH Bryan Shaw First Indians reliever to lead to the big leagues in appearances since the 1950s.
RH Scott Atchison He set career highs last season in appearances (70), innings (72) and strikeouts (49).
LH Marc Rzepczynski Allowed only 11 of 57 inherited runners (19.3 percent) to score last season.
LH Kyle Crockett Fourth-round pick in 2013 posted a 1.35 ERA in his last 33 games of his rookie season.
LH Nick Hagadone Lefties hit .217 and righties hit .211 in Hagadone’s four trips to the big leagues last season.
RH Zach McAllister Made seven late-season relief appearances, striking out 14 in 13 IP, in moving from the rotation to the pen.
Beyond the Box Score
Triple double On July 1 at Dodger Stadium, the Indians turned a triple play that withstood two replay reviews. Kyle Crockett faced the Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez with no outs, Dee Gordon on third and Yasiel Puig on first. Gonzalez hit a fly ball to left fielder Michael Brantley. Brantley made the catch for the first out and threw home to Yan Gomes to get Gordon for the second out. Gomes saw Puig heading for second and threw to Jason Kipnis, but Puig was called safe. Manager Terry Francona challenged the play and Puig was called out to complete the triple play. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly then challenged the play at the plate. That play was reviewed and the call on the field stood.
Son bests father On April 29 at Angel Stadium, Indians righthander Corey Kluber walked off the mound in the fifth inning thinking J.B. Shuck had just hit into an inning-ending double play. Shuck’s out at first base was overturned after a replay challenge and the Angels went on to score two more runs on the way to a 6–4 victory. The Angels replay coordinator was Nick Francona, son of Indians manager Terry Francona. He gave manager Mike Scioscia the heads-up to challenge the call. “I thought that was kind of weak on Nick’s part,” said Francona with a smile after the game. “He may work for Scioscia, but he’s my son.”
Don’t blame me Francona went through the entire 2014 season without being ejected. But on one occasion he had to do some fast talking to stay in the game. He went out to challenge a call at third base made by Joe West. Francona was stalling for time until he got a signal from bench coach Brad Mills as to whether the Indians would challenge the call. “I told Joe, ‘Hey, I think you got the call right,’” said Francona. “It’s Millsie who thinks you got it wrong.”
Deke of dekes David Murphy was on first base on Aug. 5 against Cincinnati when Gomes doubled to the wall, right in front of the Reds bullpen. Lonnie Chisenhall scored from second and Murphy slid into third. As the relay on Gomes’ double was thrown back into second base, an errant toss by Reds reliever Jumbo Diaz sailed out of the bullpen and landed in the same area as the relay throw. Murphy saw the stray ball and broke for home. Reds shortstop Zack Cozart, who had the ball that was in play, threw Murphy out.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Bradley Zimmer, CF
The Indians drafted Zimmer out of the University of San Francisco with the 21st pick in the first round. They paid him a $1.9 million signing bonus and sent the 6'4", 185-pound left-handed hitter to Class A Mahoning Valley of the New York-Penn League. In 45 games, he hit .304 (51-168) with 11 doubles, four homers and 30 RBIs. Zimmer, whose brother Kyle was Kansas City’s No. 1 pick in 2012, hit .372 against lefties. The Indians promoted him to Class A Lake County for the postseason, and he hit two homers in three games. Zimmer hasn’t shown a lot of power in his career, but the Indians believe his power will improve as he gets older and stronger.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Francisco Lindor, SS (21) Lindor is a top-of-the-order switch-hitter and above-average defender. He reached Class AAA Columbus last season and should make his big-league debut this year.
2. Jesus Aguilar, 1B (24) The 6'3", 250-pound Aguilar is a right-handed hitter with big power that he’s shown at every level except the big leagues.
3. Tyler Naquin, CF (23) The Indians’ No. 1 pick in 2012, this left-handed hitter had his 2014 season derailed at Class AA Akron when he suffered a broken left hand after being hit by a pitch.
4. Erik Gonzalez, SS (23) Gonzalez hit .289 (89-308) with 24 extra base hits last season at Class A Carolina. The right-handed hitter moved up to Class AA Akron and hit .357 (46-129).
5. Clint Frazier, CF (20) Frazier, a right-handed hitter, was the Indians’ No. 1 pick in 2013. Last season, he hit .266 (126-474) with 18 doubles, 13 homers and 50 RBIs at Class A Lake County.
6. Giovanny Urshela, 3B (23) If the Indians need help at third base, Urshela is their guy. He’s their top defensive third baseman and had a breakout year offensively last season.
7. Justus Sheffield, LHP (18) Sheffield was headed to Vanderbilt before the Indians paid him $1.6 million to turn pro. He went 3–1 with 29 strikeouts in 20.2 innings in the Arizona Rookie League.
8. Bradley Zimmer, CF, (22) Brad Grant, Indians’ director of amateur scouting, had this to say: “Bradley is a really good combination of speed, defense, power and hitting ability.”
9. Bobby Bradley, 1B (18) The Indians’ third-round pick in 2014 won the Arizona Rookie League batting title, hitting .361 with 50 RBIs in 39 games.
10. Francisco Mejia, C (19) The switch-hitting Mejia hit .282 (70-for-248) with 17 doubles at Class A Mahoning Valley. He made 11 errors.