We’re less than a month away from opening day, the sun is shining, the ground is thawing, and the buzz for the Cleveland Indians continues to grow. The excitement for the Wahoos isn’t confined to Cleveland, where the team sold out the home opener in just 15 minutes, but nationally the hype for the Braves of the Cuyahoga is growing as well.
For the fourth time this spring, Grantland’s lead MLB writer Jonah Keri featured the Indians in one of his MLB previews, this time predicting the team wins more than the 80.5 games Las Vegas has set as their over/under.
Cleveland Indians: OVER 80.5 wins
That number looks … off, doesn’t it? The Indians surged to 92 wins last year behind one of the most powerful offenses in the league and a young, effective starting rotation. Very little has changed for the worse. While losing Ubaldo Jimenez’s impressive 2013 numbers will hurt, getting a full season from Official 2013 Grantland Crush Danny Salazar and a breakout campaign from fellow right-handed starter Corey Kluber could mitigate that loss. With none of Cleveland’s five projected starters older than 28, there’s upside across the board here.
If you’re looking for an X factor, though, consider something for which the typical projection systems and even Vegas likely won’t properly account: This season, Carlos Santana will no longer be Cleveland’s primary catcher. Whether you’re examining multiyear or single-year numbers, Santana consistently grades out as one of the worst pitch framers in the game. And while analysts are just beginning to quantify the effects of pitch blocking and other defensive skills for catchers, the industry consensus has long been that Santana is a designated hitter who happens to wear a mask. Assuming the Tribe do the right thing by making Santana the everyday DH while handing primary backstop duties to Yan Gomes, who was one of the best receivers in the league last year according to the above metrics, it wouldn’t be a stretch to project something like a two- or three-win improvement based on that move alone. And that might even be understating it. If Gomes’s defensive skills are allowed to flourish over 120-plus starts, it could help push Cleveland’s young staff to elite status this season.
Combine all that with a balanced lineup that will get even better when top shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor reaches the big leagues — and frees up the Indians to consider trading Asdrubal Cabrera to address whatever weaknesses might arise — and it’s really tough to imagine the Indians finishing below .500 … which is what would have to happen to lose this bet. This is my highest-confidence wager for 2014.
Keri’s optimism for the 2014 Tribe has been on display all spring, starting with mentioning Danny Salazar as a prime candidate for a breakout season.
Danny Salazar, SP, Cleveland Indians: Salazar’s inclusion shouldn’t be a surprise after last week’s offseason edition of The 30, in which I drooled over his filthy fastball-slider-changeup arsenal and the 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate he posted last season in his first 10 major league starts. He’s talented enough to make a Cy Young run, maybe even as soon as this year. And while individual talent is more important than teammate contributions, Carlos Santana’s move from catcher to third base could have a hugely positive impact on Salazar and the rest of Cleveland’s pitchers. Santana is an excellent hitter who could himself see a bump in production now that he’s freed from the rigors of catching, but he was a terrible receiver behind the plate last season. New starter Yan Gomes, conversely, gets high marks for pitch framing and other catching skills.
Hey, who knows: Between that defensive upgrade, the all-around youth on this 28-and-under rotation, and the sheer talent that Salazar, Corey Kluber, and others possess, a staffwide breakout might be imminent.
Keri’s crushing on Salazar took a break for a few days so Jason Kipnis could be given his due in “MLB 32-Day Warning: Jason Kipnis Is Ready to Take the Second-Base Belt“. In the article, Keri makes the case for Kipnis to take his throne as MLB’s best second baseman.
Over the past two years, 13 second basemen have batted 800 total times with a league-average or better OPS+. Among those, Kipnis ranks fourth in WAR, sixth in OPS+, first in stolen bases, and second in walks. He’s also the only player on the list born after 1985. Utley is on his way out, Matt Carpenter is moving to third base, and Cano, Pedroia, Kinsler, and Ben Zobrist are all 30 or older at a position that isn’t kind to aging players.
Kipnis is already a top-flight second baseman. He’s also the only one in that tier whose best days are still to come.
After devoting 700 words to Kipnis, Keri went back to drooling over Salazar, this time in his fantasy baseball preview.
Looking for the steal of the season in your fantasy baseball draft? Stay far away from Salazar.
Why? In fantasy baseball, it’s all about value. And while there can certainly be overlap between real-life value and fantasy value, you don’t want to get stuck paying more when the former corrupts the latter. When a young player starts his career with big results, we slap sky-high projections on him almost immediately. That’s happened with Salazar, a 24-year-old flamethrower with three plus pitches who dazzled in his first stint in the big leagues. Salazar’s made only 10 MLB starts, but if a rival general manager approached Indians GM Chris Antonetti about him, that other GM would be laughed out of the room or asked to sacrifice 19 prospects and his firstborn child. Salazar’s late-2013 emergence means he’s also demanding a similar price in the fantasy realm, and it’s simply too much, too soon.
It’s been a long, frigid Cleveland winter. One that has been filled with front office upheavals, thoughts of tanking, and of course multiple stooges, opening day can’t come soon enough. Until then, enjoy the hype.
(Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)