Cleveland Indians' catcher Carlos Santana waits for his turn at bat during their MLB spring training baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Scottsdale

Springtime Storylines: Will the Cleveland Indians build on last season or take a step backward?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: Cleveland Indians.

The Big Question: Will the Cleveland Indians build on last season or take a step backward?

Cleveland got off to an unexpectedly tremendous start last season only to fade badly down the stretch, finishing below .500 and 15 games behind a Detroit team they actually led as late as mid-July. Despite going 33-40 after the All-Star break the Indians still improved by 11 games compared to 2010 and 15 games compared to 2009, which seemingly makes them a strong candidate for another step forward this season.

However, there’s reason to be skeptical. For one thing Asdrubal Cabrera is an even stronger candidate to come back down to earth, at least a little bit, following an out of nowhere power breakout, and midseason blockbuster pickup Ubaldo Jimenez hasn’t looked like himself since early 2010. Beyond that the Indians’ runs scored and runs allowed totals suggest they were more like a 75-win team last season instead of their actual 80-82 record.

Toss in the now-annual hope that Grady Sizemore can return to his previous stardom having already been dashed by knee surgery and Fausto Carmona’s status being totally up in the air thanks to the revelation that he’s not actually Fausto Carmona and … well, the Indians have some big question marks. Fortunately they also have several players capable of much bigger things than last season, chief among them star-in-the-making Carlos Santana, star-who-was-injured Shin-Soo Choo, and promising second baseman Jason Kipnis.

What else is going on?

  • Kipnis has secured the starting second base gig, but the Indians opted not to hand third base to Lonnie Chisenhall and instead gave the job to veteran Jack Hannahan. He’s an excellent defender at third base, but Hannahan is a 32-year-old career .231 hitter with just 24 homers and a measly .358 slugging percentage in 400 games. Presumably he’s just keeping the position warm for Chisenhall, but if Hannahan playing everyday is combined with Cabrera and Casey Kotchman regressing the Indians may struggle to score runs.
  • Chris Perez was brilliant while emerging as the Indians’ closer in 2010 and at first glance he was excellent last season as well, converting 36-of-40 save opportunities with a 3.32 ERA. However, his strikeouts per nine innings plummeted from 8.7 to 5.9 and his average fastball velocity dipped 1.2 miles per hour, which is a worrisome combination. If he gets back to missing more bats the Indians’ bullpen has the potential to be very strong with Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Dan Wheeler, Joe Smith, and Tony Sipp in setup roles, but Perez is trending in the wrong direction.
  • Sizemore and Travis Hafner returning to their former glory is wishful thinking at this point, but Choo should be able to bounce back after missing 77 games and performing poorly in a season filled with multiple injuries and a DUI arrest. Prior to last season Choo was one of the best, most underrated all-around outfielders in baseball, hitting .302 with a .397 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage from 2008-2010.
  • Cleveland gave up top prospect Drew Pomeranz and solid prospect Alex White to get Jimenez from the Rockies at midseason, only to see him struggle down the stretch while showing significantly diminished velocity. Between his contract and the cost to acquire him the Indians paid for Jimenez to be an ace, but since going 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA in the first half of 2010 he’s 14-20 with a 4.39 ERA in 283 innings spread over 47 starts and his fastball was missing 2-3 miles per hour last year.

How are they gonna do?

Based on the progression from 65-97 to 69-93 to 80-82 the Indians look ready to make another big jump this season, but instead their question mark-filled roster makes me think another season around .500 seems more likely. That should be enough to make another run at second place and perhaps even remain in contention for the division title into the second half, but it’s tough to see the Indians hanging with the Tigers all year long unless just about everything breaks right.

Yasiel Puig caught a big fish

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig looks to the dugout for signs as he steps out of the batter's box while facing Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jordan Lyles in the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, April 24, 2016, in Denver. Puig drew a walk, the first of three in a row yielded by Lyles. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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I know I’m in the tank for Puig and have been for years now, but it’s a pretty fun tank so I don’t care.

Lately I’ve been taken with his hashtag game. Last week we encountered #PuigYourFriend. This one is not as good, but #PuigHungry is pretty solid too.

I just hope this isn’t ruined by word that he’s hired some social media professional to curate his feed. It’s possible and maybe likely, but I just don’t want to hear about it if it’s the case:

 

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber delivers against the Detroit Tigers during the first inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Associated Press
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Indians 4, Tigers 0: Corey Kluber with a five-hit shutout in a game which ended in a tidy two hours and nineteen minutes and featured only three pitchers in all. It’s like it was the 1970s or something.

Red Sox 5, White Sox 2: Sox win!

OK, I can’t just leave it at that for the second day in a row. David Ortiz hit a two-run shot for what ended up being the winning runs. It was Ortiz’s 509th career homer, which ties him with Gary Sheffield for 25th on the all-time home run list. Ortiz is on a 36-home run pace. In the past two seasons he’s hit 37 and 35, so it’s not unreasonable to think he’ll get there. If he does pull that off, he’ll pass Sheffield, Mel Ott, Eddie Matthews, Ernie Banks, Ted Williams, Frank Thomas, Willie McCovey, Jimmy Foxx and Mickey Freakin’ Mantle to end up at 17 on the all-time list. That’s some pretty rarified air. And Gary Sheffield.

Reds 7, Giants 4: Zack CozartBrandon Phillips and Eugenio Suarez each hit homers in the second inning as the Reds put up five on Jake Peavy in the frame and went on to avoid the sweep. The Giants’ top three starters have ERAs of 3.61., 3.32, and 3.03. Their fourth and fifth starters have ERAs of 7.00 (Matt Cain) and 8.61 (Peavy). The Giants are in first place. If they’d gotten anything from the back end of their rotation so far they’d be in first by more than a mere half game.

Cubs 6, Pirates 2Ben Zobrist hit a three-run home run and Anthony Rizzo hit a solo shot. The Cubs sweep the Pirates to win their seventh of eight games. They have a six-game division lead already. Juggernaut, much?

Cardinals 5, Phillies 4: The Cardinals scored twice in the bottom of the ninth, capped off with Matt Holliday‘s walkoff single. After the game Holliday said “we needed it . . . this was one we needed to win.” That seems weird to say in early May, but given that the Cardinals had lost five of six and the Cubs are threatening to run away with the division, it’s not a crazy thought.

Mets 8, Braves 0: Steven Matz pitched two-hit shutout ball into the eighth and Lucas Duda homered twice. New York has won 10 of 12. I’m still of the view that the Braves fire Fredi Gonzalez today. I just feel like that’s a thing that’s gonna happen.

Angels 7, Brewers 3: Mike Trout tripled and homered. Remember when, in the first week or two of the season, people were asking if Trout was OK? He’s now hitting .317/.400/.596 and a 41 home run, 127-RBI pace, so yeah, he’s OK.

Nationals 13, Royals 2: The Nats scored six runs before Stephen Strasburg had to throw a single pitch. They had 10 runs by the time they stopped batting in the third. Most of the afternoon, then, was mere formality. Kris Medlen was both shelled and betrayed by his defense, giving up nine runs, six of which were earned. In two home starts he’s allowed sixteen runs, thirteen earned.

Mariners 9, Athletics 8: Seattle led by two, then trailed by four then came back with five runs between the sixth and seventh innings to take this one going away and to complete the sweep. Dae-Ho Lee hit two bombs for Seattle.

Rockies 2, Padres 0: Eight shutout innings from Tyler Chatwood. The game’s two runs scored of a fielder’s choice and a sacrifice. Feel the excitement.

Yankees 7, Orioles 0: CC Sabathia looked like the CC of old, as he pitched seven shutout innings. The Yankees’ bats finally came alive. Brian McCann drove in three so I guess he came alive too. Total resurrection game for the Bombers. If THE BOSS was still alive . . .

Blue Jays 4, Rangers 3: Russell Martin with a walkoff single, giving the Jays two walkoffs in a row against Texas. Pitcher wins and losses don’t mean much but as a whole the Rangers bullpen has nine losses on the year and that’s not really great or OK.

Marlins 4, Diamondbacks 3: Giancarlo Stanton homered but he’s more than just a power hitter. Check out the hose:

Tomas was called safe, but replay showed that Stanton got ’em.

Rays 8, Dodgers 5: Steve Pearce hit a go-ahead, three-run homer and Brandon Guyer, Steven Souza Jr. and Curt Casali each hit solo shots. The Dodgers were 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position.

 

Astros 16, Twins 4: Jason Castro homered and drove in four runs. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa both homered and drove in three. It’s the first time all year Houston has won consecutive games. Dang.

Brett Cecil doesn’t appreciate being booed by Blue Jays fans

Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons pulls relief pitcher Brett Cecil during seventh inning baseball action against the Chicago White Sox in Toronto on Monday, April 25, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Blue Jays reliever Brett Cecil has had a rough start to the 2016 season. The lefty leads the majors in losses with five. With that, he carries an ugly 5.59 ERA in 9 2/3 innings. Cecil entered the season with a rather lengthy consecutive scoreless innings streak, but Jays fans seem to have short memories as the home crowd has directed boos at Cecil.

TSN’s Scott MacArthur caught up with Cecil about the booing.

Struggling early isn’t anything new to Cecil. He rode a 5.96 ERA through June 21 last year, the final time in 2015 he would yield earned runs. From his next appearance on June 24 through the end of the regular season, he posted a 44/4 K/BB ratio over 31 2/3 innings. It would behoove Jays fans to show some more patience with the lefty as Cecil could easily turn things around as he did last season.

Video: A fan tried to take a selfie with Brandon Drury after a catch in foul territory

Arizona Diamondbacks' Brandon Drury swings for a two run double off San Francisco Giants' Curtis Partch in the third inning of a spring training exhibition baseball game Tuesday, March 17, 2015, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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Diamondbacks right fielder Brandon Drury made a fantastic catch in foul territory to retire Martin Prado in the bottom of the fifth inning of Wednesday’s game in Miami. The ball was hit to shallow right field and Drury reached over the low wall before toppling over.

A fan standing nearby figured it’s the perfect time for a selfie. He stood in front of Drury while the ballplayer picked himself up off the concrete. The fan swung his phone around waggled a peace sign in front of the camera and snapped a photo.

“Selfie culture” is too often assailed by people who long ago fell out of touch. This fan, however, showed no concern for Drury’s well-being and was focused only on getting the selfie. Drury, for all this fan knew, could’ve broken a bone or suffered a concussion. Not cool.