2013 Preview: Cleveland Indians

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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 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

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Tigers 13, Orioles 8: Leonys Martin hit a grand slam out of the leadoff spot and the two-slot hitter, Jeimer Candelario, drove in three via a two-run homer and an RBI single. They play for the Tigers, by the way. Figure a lot of you were not aware of that. Heck, outside of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Nick Castellanos, figure most of us don’t know most of the guys on the Tigers anymore. You do know that Manny Machado plays for the Orioles. Know that he hit two homers in a losing cause. Know that, given how the Orioles are doing these days, he won’t be with the Orioles too much longer, I reckon.

Cubs 8, Cardinals 5: Chicago built an early 6-1 lead on a bunch of singles and sac flies and stuff and Jason Heyward capped the Cubs scoring with a two-run homer in the fifth. Jon Lester allowed only an unearned run over six. Every Cubs starter had at least one hit. Anthony Rizzo had three. Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez had two a piece. After the game Joe Maddon said:

“This is so much fun to watch. Keep your launch angles, keep your exit velocities, give me a good at-bat. Seeing inside the ball, using the whole field. With that you’ll see better situational hitting, better batting average. That’s just good hitting.”

Without looking, I’m going to guess that the Cubs’ eight-run outburst was, at least in part, a function of good launch angles and exit velocities. Not that Maddon would be the first person to engage in the fallacy of assuming mutual exclusivity where it does not exist.

Astros 9, Mariners 2: Charlie Morton tossed seven shutout innings, dropping his ERA down to 0.72 in his three wins. He has also struck out 33 guys in 25 innings and has walked only six. At this rate he’s going to be in a three-way race with two of his teammates — Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander — for the Cy Young. Seattle dropped three of four in the series and, as a team, went 15-for-100 against Dallas KeuchelLance McCullers Jr., Cole and Morton.

Yankees 4, Blue Jays 3: Aaron Judge homered and, while the Jays threatened late when David Robertson couldn’t find the strike zone and loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth, but he got out of the jam with only one run scoring. Judge — who a lot of you wise acres thought would struggle this year now that everyone is ready for him — is hitting .339/.481/.629 and is on a 48-homer, 152-walk pace. So, yeah.

Phillies 7, Pirates 0: OK, I think Jake Arrieta has finally finished his late spring training. Here he tossed seven shutout innings, allowing only one hit and striking out ten. Rhys Hoskins homered, Odubel Herrera singled in runs in the second and the fifth, J.P. Crawford and Cesar Hernandez knocked in runs on singles as well. More importantly, look at the photo on the top of this post and acknowledge how spiffy Philly looked in these blues. Their only fault is that teams that do this should, like the White Sox the other day, wear the blues on the road as originally intended.

Braves 12, Mets 4: Matt Wisler was called up from Triple-A to make a spot start. Guessing he’s going to get a bit more than that after allowing only two hits in seven innings. Matt Harvey, meanwhile, allowed six runs in six innings and after the game Mickey Calloway would not commit to him making his next scheduled start. He’s just not the guy he used to be. Preston Tucker drove in five with a bases loaded double and a two-run double. Kurt Suzuki had three hits and drove in three runs, including a two-run homer. The Braves offense leads the NL in runs scored. We were all expecting that heading into the season, yes?

Brewers 12, Marlins 3: It was close until the sixth, when Milwaukee put up a seven-spot. Lorenzo Cain homered, doubled twice and scored four times and Ryan Braun hit a pinch-hit, three-run homer. Those three runs gave him 1,000 RBI on his career. Lewis Brinson — who came over to the Marlins from the Brewers in the offseason trade for Christian Yelich — hit his first two career homers.

Diamondbacks 3, Giants 1: Zack Greinke held the punchless Giants to one run over seven innings, with a Brandon Belt homer being his only blemish. The Snakes got homers from Ketel Marte and A.J. Pollock. The Giants have scored only 51 runs in 18 games. That’s the lowest run total in baseball, tied with the Royals, who have only played 16 games. It ain’t 2014 anymore, is it?

Red Sox 8, Angels 2: And the Red Sox never lost again. Homers from Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi. Eight runs on 14 hits against six pitchers. A fine outing from Eduardo Rodriguez. Seven wins in a row and, heck, even though it covers the whole season, 16 of 18 for Boston.