We are getting close! I don’t know about you, but I am beyond excited for Indians baseball to begin. The pieces are starting to come together. On Wednesday, the final 25-man roster was revealed. There weren’t many surprises, but there has been some small but important tinkering. When you compare this club to the one which left Goodyear for Cleveland a year ago, you can see that top to bottom, Terry Francona’s bunch looks better.
I thought a good way to view this was to lay it all out for you by groupings. I love the Indians depth and ability to move guys all over the diamond. The bullpen looks solid. Yet, there are still concerns. But on paper, the 2014 club looks improved from this time last year.
2014: Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAlister, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco
2013: Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Brett Myers, McAlister, Scott Kazmir
Heading into last season, the single biggest question mark surrounding this team was easily the starting rotation. Nobody truly had any idea how this group was going to fare. Masterson was coming off of his worst season as a starter. Jimenez was beyond iffy. The Myers signing was a complete head-scratcher considering he was a reliever a year earlier and was brought on to be a middle of the rotation veteran innings eater. McAlister was looking to build off of a season in which he made himself a legitimate Major League starter. Then there was Kazmir who hadn’t pitched in the majors in essentially three years.
This year’s rotation seems a bit more stable with less mystery surrounding it. Masterson is in his contract year and had a solid 2013 season. I don’t think he is a true ace, but I see a big year from Masty. Kluber has come out of nowhere to become the team’s number two starter. Corey is more Jake Westbrook than Ubaldo Jimenez, but his consistency last season before his finger injury could not be denied. McAlister is back for his second full year as a regular and needs to show his pre-finger injury stuff. It is imperative he gives the Indians more length than he did in 2013.
Salazar is the wild card. The kid came up last year throwing gas and showing a real presence on the mound. Danny has star potential and is the future ace here in Cleveland. How will that translate in his first season in the bigs? Carrasco is on his final shot as a starter. He won the fifth spot this Spring, beating out Josh Tomlin, but it wasn’t on straight performance. Everyone knows the story by now – Carrasco has the tantalizing power arm, but has never been able to put it all together and is now out of options. Before his Tommy John surgery two years ago, Carlos flashed some real signs of brilliance. The Indians are giving him the shot to prove he can be a part of the future. Should he fail, Carrasco will be put in the bullpen and be replaced by Tomlin.
2014: John Axford, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Vinnie Pestano, Blake Wood, Scott Atchison, Marc Rzepcynski, Josh Outman
2013: Chris Perez, Pestano, Joe Smith, Allen, Shaw, Matt Albers, Rich Hill
As much as we questioned the rotation heading into last season, the bullpen was looked at as the rock of the club. Back for a third time was the three-headed monster of Perez, Pestano, and Smith. Youngsters Allen and Shaw would be back them up with a pair of ex-Francona cast-offs Albers and Hill on as the veteran long man and matchup lefty respectively. The plans were laid out, but the results didn’t match. Roles were changed later in the year.
There has been a changing of the guard from this time a year ago. Perez and his act have been replaced by Axford, who comes in with a so/so history of closing. The Indians coaching staff thinks they have solved his mechanical issues and Axford should be back to his old Milwaukee form. The Smith/Pestano late inning duo has given way to Allen and Shaw, who both were terrific down the stretch and helped the Tribe get into the playoffs. The hope is that a healthy and more focused Pestano will get himself back to the dominant guy he was for two seasons prior to last.
Another member of the set up staff will be Rzecpynski who took over the late inning lefty role from Hill in August. A second lefty, Outman, was brought over from Colorado for outfielder Drew Stubbs. Josh will be more of a true left on left matchup pitcher. Atchinson could be this year’s Albers, a guy who pitched for Francona in Boston and can give him length. Wood is fascinating. The right-hander can dial it up to triple digits and could play a key role later in the season. He does have an option left and could end up in Columbus when Jason Giambi and/or Michael Bourn return from the DL.
2014: LF Michael Brantley, CF Michael Bourn, RF Ryan Raburn/David Murphy, 1B Nick Swisher, 2B Jason Kipnis, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, 3B Carlos Santana, C Yan Gomes DH Raburn/Jason Giambi/Lonnie Chisenhall
2013: LF Brantley, CF Bourn, RF Drew Stubbs, 1B Swisher, 2B Kipnis, SS Cabrera, 3B Lonnie Chisenhall, C Santana DH Mark Reynolds
The real major transition to the every day lineup came last year when the Indians threw big money at Swisher and Bourn. Reynolds was also given $6 million to be a right-handed power bat who played first, third, and would be the primary right-handed DH. Brantley would be back in left where he was at his best. Stubbs was originally brought in as part of the Shin-Soo Choo deal to play center, but when Bourn signed just before Spring Training, he was moved to right field. The hope was that the “three center fielder” outfield would be where fly balls went to die. Questions though did surround Stubbs’s bat. Cabrera, Kipnis, and Santana were back as the up the middle trio who would be hitting in the middle of the order.
With last year’s spending spree, the funds for 2014 has already been allocated. Only minor tinkering to the lineup would be coming with the jumps in year two of the Swisher (from $11 million to $15 million) and Bourn (from $7 million to $13.5 million) deals and the raise for Cabrera (from $6.5 million to $10 million) in the final year of his contract. But as always, GM Chris Antonetti found ways to be creative.
Santana spent all winter working on a conversion to third base, the position he came up playing with the Dodgers organization before they moved him behind the plate. Carlos did well enough for Francona to announce yesterday that he will be the regular third baseman to start the season. It will not be a platoon situation. With Santana’s abilities to play both third and first while remaining as the backup catcher, there are plenty of options for Tito. Gomes was a breakout player for the Tribe in 2013, so much so that the Indians were able to make the Santana experiment happen. The Yanimal is now your undisputed catcher of the present and the future.
Kipnis is coming off of his first All-Star campaign but needs to take that next step after a second half in which he slowed down. Speaking of slow second halves, Cabrera is notorious for them. He turned into somewhat of a whipping boy locally after a porous 2013 campaign where many were looking for his replacement. This is more than likely Asdrubal’s swan song campaign in Cleveland with top prospect Francisco Lindor on the horizon. I think we will see an more focused and better Cabrera in 2014. Swisher split time between first and right field last year which put a strain on his sore shoulder. He will be the regular first baseman this season. Like Cabrera, I think a better and more relaxed Swish will arrive in Cleveland next week. He tried too hard to live up to his contract last year. That weight is now off of his shoulders.
The outfield will have a similar look. Brantley returns in left with a newly signed contract extension in hand. He was easily the most clutch Wahoo in 2013 and has been tearing up the Cactus League this spring (.522). Bourn is nursing a sore hamstring which will have him on the DL to start the season. However he may only miss four games. Bourn was perhaps the biggest disappointment of last year’s regulars. His defense was as advertised, but his speed on the base paths was never fully utilized. Too many strikeouts marred his year. If the Indians are going to overtake the Tigers, Bourn has to improve. Right field will have a platoon of Raburn and the newly acquired Murphy. Raburn was the Kluber of the hitting variety in 2013; a player who completely came out of nowhere to make himself an indispensable member of the team. Murphy comes over from Texas on a two-year deal and is looking to find his pre-2013 form. His subpar season made the Rangers decision to let him walk an easy one. I worry that Murphy is the second coming of David Dellucci.
2014: Mike Aviles, Elliot Johnson, Chisenhall, Giambi/Raburn/Murphy, Nyjer Morgan*
2013: Mike Aviles, Giambi, Raburn, Gomes
Ah, the Goon Squad. What a crew Francona had coming off of the bench last year. All four guys played major roles in the Indians renaissance. Aviles played second, short, third, and both corner outfield spots and was one of the most engaging members of the team. Raburn was reborn as a beast against left-handed pitching. Gomes went from backup catcher to “the man” down the stretch. Then there was Giambi, essentially a player/coach and a team leader. The young players looked up to him, also revering the then-42 year old. His popularity in Cleveland was never higher than the night this happened.
This year’s bench will have a different look, but the same feel. Aviles returns as the jack of all trades and will have a running mate of sorts with Elliot Johnson joining Goon Squad. Johnson, like Aviles, can play second and short, and has worked in all three outfield positions. Johnson’s big Spring really opened Francona’s eyes and forced his way onto the ballclub. Chisenhall won’t be the everyday third baseman, but he should still get plenty of at-bats with Francona’s system. Until Giambi returns from the DL, I could see Lonnie as the DH against right-handed starters. As of Opening Day, Morgan will be on the 25-man roster. His hustle and willingness to tone down the “Tony Plush” persona helped him become an extra while Bourn is out with his hamstring issue. My guess is he will get a start or two to open the season.