MLB PREVIEW: 2014 CLEVELAND INDIANS
February 12, 2014INDIANA SPORTS PAGE
If you don’t believe a manager can make a big difference in the performance of a baseball franchise, take a look at the Cleveland Indians. Terry Francona took a year away from the game and came back refreshed with energy. Francona also brought new ideas to Cleveland and it paid off with a playoff spot and optimism for 2014.
Cleveland ownership listened to Francona and brought in some new talent including Nick Swisher, Michael Bourne, Brett Myers and Mark Reynolds. The Indians were good enough to go 30-17 in one run games and won 11 games in their final at bat. It’s hard to believe not a single player in Cleveland’s line-up hit more than 22 homeruns or drove in 84. The pitching didn’t produce a single 15 game winner and the bullpen blew two thirds of its save opportunities. Still the Indians managed to win 92 games and have a chance to win the division in 2014.
The good news for Cleveland is they play in the weak AL Central. The Indians can beat up on teams like the Twins and White Sox (30-8 last season) but can’t beat the better teams in baseball (36-52).
Cleveland has another top notch pitcher in Justin Masterson (14-10, 3.45) but Indians fans know he may not be around for very long because management generally lets the best get away (CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Ubaldo Jiminez). Masterson is a sinker ball pitcher who gets a lot of ground ball outs (71.3%). Masterson was able to locate his pitches better in 2013 especially against left handed hitters.
RHP Corey Kluber will use his sinker more in 2014 and get away from the cutter. Kluber went 11-5 in 24 starts last season. Also in the rotation will be Danny Salazar. Salazar can hit the mid to upper 90’s with an excellent change-up. Salazar has benefitted from Tommy John surgery in 2010. Carlos Carrasco is another Tommy John survivor who hasn’t lived up to his potential. Carrasco has excellent stuff but hasn’t mastered a second pitch. Two other pitchers looking to get innings will be Zach McAllister and Trevor Bauer. Bauer was the third pick overall in 2011 and simply hasn’t panned out.
Chris Perez is gone from the Indians bullpen after saving 123 games over four years. Shipping marijuana to his home and getting caught didn’t help his cause with Cleveland management. The new closer is John Axford who comes over from St. Louis (two bad seasons) and Milwaukee (70 saves in two seasons). If Axford’s fastball is back, he is worth the gamble. Joe Smith was one of the best set-up men in baseball but he has left via free agency. Cleveland will count on Cody Allen to fill that role. Allen can throw in the mid-90’s and will add a slurve for his off-speed pitch. Bryan Shaw will also get innings with his cut-slider and cutter. Allen and Shaw will need better command if they plan on getting the chance to close games. Vinnie Pestano will also get a chance if his elbow is sound. Pestano was an excellent set-up man before losing his fastball.
The catching position would be solid only if Carlos Santana were a better defensive catcher. The Indians aren’t worried about his bat (20 HR 74 RBI .832 OPS) but they are concerned about his lack of confidence behind the plate. The pitching staff also lacks confidence in Santana and he simply can’t throw people out. Back-up Yan Gomes is waiting to see if the Indians will move Santana to first base. Gomes would be a huge upgrade defensively (threw out 18 of 47 base runners) and may hit just as well as Santana (.294 11 HR .826 OPS).
Cleveland’s best player may be 2B Jason Kipnis. Kipnis has learned to stay patient against left-handed pitching and can now hit to the opposite field. Kipnis hit .284 with 17 HR and 84 RBI in 2013. He can steal bases (61 SB’s in two seasons) and is a very capable defensive player. Nick Swisher moved to first base because of his sore left shoulder but his leadership proved to be invaluable. Swisher will go to the plate 600 plus times, will hit 20 plus homeruns and drive in over 80 every year. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera isn’t progressing the way the Indians had hoped since his big 2011 season (25 HR 92 RBI). Cabrera isn’t working the count the way he used to and can’t stay away from the breaking stuff. Cabrera has also become a liability defensively. Cabrera may be down to his last opportunity with the Indians if he doesn’t get better…soon! 3B Lonnie Chisenhall is also running out of chances. Chisenhall hit only .225 in 2013 as pitchers continues to get him out by pounding him with inside pitches.
LF Michael Brantley is perhaps Cleveland’s most consistent hitter because he can spray the ball to all fields. Brantley can also steal bases and will fit best in the Indians line-up as their lead-off hitter. The only problem with Brantley being the lead-off hitter is the Indians already have one in CF Michael Borne. Bourne didn’t have the kind of season the Indians had hoped because he struggled getting on base and when he did he didn’t steal bases. Cleveland is expecting 45-60 stolen bases from Bourne and a .350 OBP. In right field will be David Murphy and or Ryan Raburn. Murphy comes over from Texas where he failed as a power hitter and Raburn has trouble hitting against power pitchers.
Cleveland stayed out of free-agency market this past winter after spending money the previous season. Now the question will be, can Cleveland duplicate what they did in 2013?