For those of you who are/were concerned about me after Kansas’s stunning collapse against Michigan Friday night, I can assure you that I am OK. Remember, I am from Cleveland. I have seen plenty of gag jobs in my day. Of course, it didn’t help watching Michigan easily dismantle a completely overrated Florida team to get to the Final Four. But hey, it is time to move forward. Time to put all of my focus on my first love, the Cleveland Indians and the game of baseball.
Today is Opening Day in cities all across the nation. Tomorrow, your Wahoo Warriors begin the 2013 season in Toronto against a Blue Jays team that like the Tribe, majorly overhauled their roster for the better. They are in “go for it” mode as well, adding “The Miami Four” in starter Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle, shortstop Jose Reyes, and outfielder Emilio Bonafacio, as well as NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey to head a loaded pitching staff. Throw-in cheater extraordinaire Melky Cabrera and the face-lift has many picking the Jays to win the AL East. Dickey will be on the mound chucking his knuckler the Tribe’s way in the season opener.
Terry Francona’s re-made Indians will take the field full of confidence and excitement, ready to turn the page on the debacle that was the close of the 2012 season and the Manny Acta era. ActaBall is no more. Long Live TitoBall. Ownership had seen enough. The hiring of Francona signalled a new day was upon us. It was time to turn the page and move forward. There was an enormous amount of negative energy surrounding the franchise. Things had to change. We just had no idea how quickly and how massive the changes would be.
Gone (for now) are the days of seeing a band of merry-4A players rotating in left field, third base, and the utility spots. GM Chris Antonetti, with the help of Team President Mark Shapiro and owner Paul Dolan, added not one, but two big name, big money free agents. Between Francona, Nick Swisher, and Michael Bourn, the Indians want you all to know that they mean business. A once barren farm system is getting stronger with the addition of top prospect Trevor Bauer in the Shin-Soo Choo trade. Bauer joins Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Tyler Naquin, Ronny Rodriguez, and Shawn Armstrong as names to know down on the farm.
But it is no longer about the future. It is about the NOW.
The everyday lineup looks as loaded as we have seen here since the 2007 playoff season. Francona announced it over the weekend and looking at it one through nine can’t help but get you excited. Bourn will lead off and play center field. He gives the Indians their first true leadoff hitter since Grady Sizemore’s hey-day. But even when Grady was at his peak, he could have been a middle of the order bat if the team needed him to. Bourn is a speed and defense player who has led the NL in steals the past three seasons. Asdrubal Cabrera will follow him in the number two spot, a place where he thrived until his bat was needed further down in order over the past two seasons. I loved hearing about and seeing how in shape Asdrubal looked in Goodyear this Spring. After a winter loaded with trade rumors, Asdrubal can now concentrate on what he does best – raking. Jason Kipnis will bat third for Francona. He and Asdrubal flip-flopped in the order so late in games, opposing managers cannot bring in a lefty reliever to face both Bourn and Kipnis back to back. We saw that too many times last year with the Acta “all lefty” lineup. Late-inning lefties ate the Tribe’s lunch.
The cleanup spot will be manned by Nick Swisher, the new face of the franchise. For the first time in his career, Swisher will be hitting in the middle of the order, but that shouldn’t be a concern for the uber-confident former Yankee. He has been a model of consistency these past four seasons, averaging 150 games, .268/.367/..850/26 HR/ 87 RBI. The Tribe will sign up for those kind of numbers out of him all day. And its not just the numbers. Its the leadership Swisher is already showing. Following the switch-hitting Swisher will be Michael Brantley, the Tribe most reliable performer in 2012. The man they call Dr. Smooth broke out last season and moved himself from being a leadoff man to a key figure in the middle of a high-quality lineup. The guy who should really take advantage of the additions of Bourn and Swisher is catcher Carlos Santana, who will hit sixth. Many predicted that Carlos would become an All-Star in 2012, but he struggled both behind the plate and with the bat. There was so much pressure on him to produce because the bottom of the order was so poor, and it took it toll on him. Despite that, Carlos finished strong with a .296/.388/.919/5 HR/19 RBI month of September.
Last year’s bottom four of the Indians batting order often looked like a 4A convention. We’d see the likes of Casey Kotchman, Shelley Duncan, Brent Lillibridge, and Jack Hannahan more often than we’d like to. This year, its a completely different story. Santana will lead into another free-agent signee, the power-hitting right-handed DH Mark Reynolds. The former Arizona Diamondback third basemen turned himself into a solid first baseman in Baltimore last year for an Orioles club that made the playoffs. Reynolds has 40-HR power in his arsenal. Yes, he will strike out a ton, but the Tribe hopes that his long balls will overshadow the K’s. He is the exact type of bat the Indians sorely lacked in 2012. Number eight will be number eight for the Indians. Lonnie Chisenhall, the former first-round pick who we have all been waiting for, is finally here without anyone pushing him for the job and without having to look over his shoulder. For the first time in his young career, the hot corner is all his. The pressure is off and it showed this spring as “Lonnie Baseball” was scorching all Spring.(.400/.456/1.123). He could really break out in 2013. Defensively, Chisenhall is still a work in progress. Drew Stubbs, another new face, will hit ninth. Like Reynolds, Stubbs has power, but strikes out a lot. Like Bourn, Stubbs has tremendous wheels and plays gold glove caliber defense. It should be a pleasure watching him easily find balls in the sun in right, unlike his predecessor who may have been the most overrated defensive outfielder in baseball.
The roster revamp extends into a bench that has real options, giving Francona the opportunity to rest and keep his regulars fresh. It is no secret that Cabrera and Kipnis both wore down badly in 2012 because Acta had to lean on them so heavily. That won’t be an issue for Tito, now that he has one of his old favorites, Mike Aviles, as his super utility man. Acquired from Toronto for reliever Esmil Rogers, Aviles is a shortstop by trade, but has played plenty of second and third in his career. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him play three to four times a week in all three spots. When a tough lefty is on the mound, he will most likely spell Chisenhall at third. Francona also has the luxury of using a veteran right-handed bat in Ryan Raburn. The ex-Tiger was a whipping boy in Detroit, but Francona is said to have had an affinity for him. He tore it up in the Spring with the bat (.341/.463/1.258) and played his way onto the roster. Like Aviles, Raburn can be used in a multitude of rolls – he was the Tigers opening day second baseman in 2012, but can also play left field.
The last two bench spots belong to backup catcher Lou Marson and DH Jason Giambi. Laser Lou felt the pressure this spring with the Indians acquiring Yan Gomes in the Aviles deal. But with the organization wanting Gomes to catch every day in Columbus and work on his defense, Marson will return for his fourth full season as the second catcher. His defense is still his calling card, but 2012 was a down year for Marson behind the plate. The good news is that with the Indians ability to use Swisher and Reynolds at first base, Santana will probably be seeing more time catching than he did last year. Marson probably will see less ABs than he did in 2012. Giambi’s role is supposed to be as a DH against tough righties a few times a week and as the late-inning left-handed pinch hitter. In addition to it, Jason will be essentially an extra coach. Francona raved about him all Spring, calling him “the veteran’s veteran” and along with Swisher, should make the Tribe clubhouse the place to be in 2013.
When you put it all down on paper, the differences between the 2012 and 2013 position players are astounding. Sure there will be tough days offensively – every team goes through them - but the prolonged slumps we saw last year should not happen with the way this team is currently constructed.
Tomorrow I will break down the pitching staff.
(photo via Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)