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 2013 season. Today: the Cleveland Indians.
The Big Question: Can the Indians be a quick fix?
After following up an 80-82 season in 2011 by falling all the way back to 68-94 last year the Indians made a ton of changes. Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, and Shin-Soo Choo are gone after combing for 25 seasons and 2,655 games in Cleveland. Manny Acta was fired after three seasons as manager and replaced by Terry Francona. And the front office opened up the wallet for free agent signings Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds, and Brett Myers.
You don’t bring in a 53-year-old manager with Francona’s experience to have him go through growing pains with a bunch of young players and you don’t sign Swisher or Bourn for anything but an immediate impact, so clearly the Indians believe they can win right now. But coming off a 94-loss season and without a winning record since 2007 that’s a pretty large leap for a team that in recent years has repeatedly seemed on the verge of contending again before stumbling.
The good news is that Francona seems rejuvenated after the nightmarish ending to his time with the Red Sox, losing Hafner and Sizemore unfortunately doesn’t sting much considering how little they’ve played of late, and in the perpetually underwhelming American League Central it hardly takes an elite team to take advantage of an unbalanced schedule and climb above .500. The bad news is that the Indians ranked dead last in runs allowed and second-to-last in runs scored among AL teams last season and … well, that’s just an awfully big hole out of which to climb.
Right now Las Vegas pegs the Indians’ over/under win total for this season at 77.5, which seems about right to me. This is clearly a much stronger roster and I’ll be shocked if they aren’t much improved compared to the mess that went 24-53 in the second half last season, but 2013 may prove to be a stabilizing season before a legitimate jump into contention for 2014. I liked the Indians’ offseason quite a bit, but I just wonder if it’ll be enough to get beyond the fringes of contention.
What else is going on?
• Essentially swapping one season of an impending free agent in Choo for a 22-year-old pitcher with mid-90s velocity who was the No. 3 overall pick in the draft a year earlier was an excellent move. Trevor Bauer’s control problems and various issues that caused the Diamondbacks to quickly sour on him shouldn’t be totally brushed aside, but he’s one of the top dozen pitching prospects in baseball, with true No. 1 starter potential, and if you have to take on some risk to get that upside you do it. Bauer, like the Indians as a whole, seems like a better bet for 2014, but could certainly prove me wrong.
• When the market for impact hitters dried up the Indians decided to see if they could squeeze a bigger improvement out of the defense. Bourn is a standout center fielder, but even more than that his presence shifts Drew Stubbs into a corner spot and along with Michael Brantley basically gives the Indians three center fielders. That also moves Nick Swisher to first base, which in turn sends Reynolds to designated hitter. It won’t be as easy to notice as the extra runs from another slugger would have been, but if the Indians’ pitching staff exceeds expectations this season don’t forget to credit the defense.
• The flip side to sliding everyone one rung down on the defensive spectrum is that the lineup could be a little light. There’s a lot of potential for going wild on the bases with Bourn, Stubbs, Brantley, and Kipnis, but Francona’s teams in Boston finished among the AL’s top five in steals just once from 2004-2011. Of course, the Red Sox were rarely equipped to do much running. It’ll be interesting to see if the manager adapts to the skill sets he has on hand.
• Assuming closer Chris Perez doesn’t miss much time with a shoulder injury the bullpen should be a strength, with Vinnie Pestano flying under the radar as one of the league’s best relievers. The rotation is another story. I liked the Myers signing, but Justin Masterson took a step backward last year, giving him a 4.28 ERA in 121 career starts, and Ubaldo Jimenez has been a mess since the Indians acquired him in mid-2011. They’re also counting an awful lot on Zach McAllister and, unless Bauer proves ready, hoping for help from guys like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Scott Kazmir.
Prediction: Third place, American League Central