Chris Antonetti, Terry Francona

2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The Cleveland Indians.

The Big Question: Did the Indians lose too much pitching?

After four consecutive losing seasons the Indians improved by an incredible 24 games in 2013, going from 68 to 92 wins in manager Terry Francona’s first year on the job. And the improvements came on both sides of the ball, as the offense added 78 runs to go from 13th to 4th among AL teams and the pitching staff subtracted 183 runs to go from 14th to 7th.

For the most part the lineup remains intact, with David Murphy essentially replacing Drew Stubbs in the outfield, Carlos Santana moving out from behind the plate, and Yan Gomes taking on a bigger role. It’s still an offense built around Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Nick Swisher, and still likely to be good but not great this season.

I’m not as sure the pitching staff can avoid a sizable dropoff, though. Chris Perez likely won’t be missed in the closer role, although his departure and the decline of setup man Vinnie Pestano leaves the bullpen in a state of John Axford-dependent flux. Gone from the rotation are Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who combined for a 3.64 ERA and 356 strikeouts in 341 innings.

Danny Salazar is one of the highest-upside young starters around and looks capable of making a huge leap this season to replace one of the Jimenez/Kazmir combo, but other potential rotation options like Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Harang, and Shaun Marcum lack any sort of upside. Which is why Trevor Bauer could be so key this season. Not so long ago he was one of the best pitching prospects around, but the former No. 3 overall pick has struggled to consistently throw strikes and has seen his stock drop considerably since being acquired from the Diamondbacks.

Salazar living up to the hype and Bauer getting his stuff together would erase most of the question marks about the rotation, but even then the Indians are still counting on continued ace-caliber work by Justin Masterson when his track record in that regard is a bit sketchy and non-dropoffs from Corey Kluber and Zack McAllister. I absolutely think this will be a decent pitching staff, but barring Salazar/Bauer breakouts giving back some runs from last season shouldn’t shock anyone.

What else is going on?

  • Reviews of his defense at third base this spring have been mixed at best, but it sounds like the Indians will give catcher/designated hitter Carlos Santana some action there during the regular season, perhaps in a quasi-platoon with Lonnie Chisenhall. That would clear the way to slide another impact bat into the lineup, but Francona will have to find the right balance in terms of avoiding a huge defensive dropoff and giving Chisenhall a chance to develop. It’s an interesting situation, if only in terms of seeing whether an old dog can learn new tricks.
  • Clearly the Indians are convinced that Gomes is for real, naming him the starting catcher and moving Santana elsewhere in the middle of his prime. There’s no doubt he was impressive in an 88-game stint last season, but Gomes had an ugly 67/18 K/BB ratio and never really posted especially strong numbers in the minors before reaching Triple-A. He’ll hit for power, but the rest of his offensive game is less of a sure thing at age 26.
  • Axford had a 2.19 ERA in his first two seasons, but then posted a 4.35 ERA between 2012 and 2013, thanks largely to serving up 20 homers in 134 innings. However, his strikeout rate of 10.8 per nine innings and average fastball velocity of 95.5 miles per hour both suggest he has plenty of gas left in the tank. He can’t be much worse than Perez in the closer role and while Axford isn’t without risk he was a smart pickup for the Indians as they try to rebuild the bullpen on the fly.
  • Cleveland spent $48 million on center fielder Michael Bourn last offseason, but he hit just .263 with a .676 OPS while missing 30 games with injuries, posting his worst on-base percentage (.316) since 2008 and the fewest steals (23) of his career. And now he’s a question mark for Opening Day because of lingering hamstring problems, which is scary for a 31-year-old whose value is so dependent on speed.

Prediction: Second place, AL Central.

Cubs ‘pen perfect for 7 innings in 1-hit win over Dodgers

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CHICAGO (AP) Travis Wood and three other relievers combined for seven perfect innings after starter Jason Hammel left with cramps, and the Chicago Cubs held the Los Angeles Dodgers to one hit in a 2-0 victory Monday.

Hammel exited after his right hamstring cramped while warming up for the third inning. Wood (3-0) pitched four perfect innings in his longest stint of the season.

Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon pitched one inning each for the Cubs, with Rondon getting his ninth save. He has converted 20 straight save opportunities dating back to Aug. 14.

Ben Zobrist extended his hitting streak to a career-high-tying 16 games. He singled leading off the fifth and reached third when right fielder Yasiel Puig misplayed the ball. He scored on Jason Heyward‘s infield single.

Anthony Rizzo drove home Heyward with a double to right.

Zobrist has reached base in his last 35 starts, the longest streak by a Cub since Starlin Castro‘s 40 in 2011.

The Cubs (35-14) have the best record in baseball and are a season-high 21 games over .500. They have won six straight since dropping eight of 12.

They entered Monday 6 1/2 games in front of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central.

The Dodgers had won six of seven entering this Memorial Day matinee. The Dodgers arrived at their Chicago hotel at 3:30 a.m. following a 4-2 win over Mets on Sunday in New York, but manager Dave Roberts said before the game that his team had no problem with the quick turnaround.

“It makes it a lot easier after you win a game like we did last night,” he said. “To be here (at Wrigley Field) in this environment, it’s pretty exciting. But it’s kind of business as usual.”

Dodgers starting pitcher Alex Wood (1-4) gave up two runs on seven hits in five innings, striking out seven and walking three. His normal turn would have been last Friday, but he injured his left triceps swinging a bat in his previous start, May 21 in San Diego. Nineteen-year-old Julio Urias started in his place Friday.

MEMORIAL DAY LAMENT

Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his father, uncles and grandparents served in the military – and that his Uncle Buzz was a POW.

“The one regret I have in my own personal life is the fact that I never did serve,” Maddon said. “At the time, it was very unpopular. The Vietnam War was going on, and I was in college. At the time, you really thought you were very fortunate not to have to do that. But retrospectively, that would be the one life experience that I missed out on. I wish I hadn’t.”

TRAINER’S ROOM

Dodgers: OF Trayce Thompson, who left Saturday’s game in New York with lower back soreness, was 100 percent and available off the bench, according to Roberts. He’s expected to start in left field on Tuesday. … OF Carl Crawford, pulled from Saturday’s game with a hamstring injury, started in left Monday. “I just wanted to give him (Thompson) another day and give C.C. an opportunity,” Roberts said. “C.C. is a quick healer. I like the matchup of him and Hammel.” … RHP Brandon McCarthy (Tommy John surgery) was scheduled to throw to hitters at Dodger Stadium on Monday.

CUBS: Maddon did not start center fielder Dexter Fowler, who has a sore heel. Maddon said he hoped Fowler would return to the lineup Tuesday. Maddon moved Jason Heyward from right to center, shifted Ben Zobrist from second to right, and inserted Javier Baez at second. Zobrist also took Fowler’s leadoff spot. Fowler entered Monday’s game with a six-game hitting streak.

UP NEXT

CUBS: RHP Jake Arrieta (9-0, 1.72 ERA) will try to become the major league’s first 10-game winner. He is the first Cubs starter to win his first nine decisions in a season since Kenny Holtzman in 1967. The only Cubs starter with a longer season-opening streak was Jim McCormick, who started 16-0 in 1886. Arrieta is 20-0 with a 0.98 ERA in 22 starts since Aug. 1, 2015.

DODGERS: LHP Scott Kazmir (4-3, 4.84) pitched for then-Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon’s 2008 World Series team. He has a 1-0 career record and 2.53 ERA in two games against the Cubs. Kazmir is 3-1 in May with a 4.13 ERA.

Bogaerts hit streak at 23 as Red Sox beat Orioles 7-2

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BALTIMORE (AP) Xander Bogaerts did the damage early, extending his hitting streak to 23 games and driving in two runs.

From there, Boston used the long ball to pull away from the Baltimore Orioles in a matchup between the top two teams in the AL East.

Jackie Bradley put the first-place Red Sox ahead for good with a sixth-inning homer, and David Ortiz and Marco Hernandez connected in the eighth to seal a 7-2 victory Monday.

Knuckleballer Steven Wright (5-4) pitched a four-hitter, striking out seven and walking five in his third straight complete game.

Mookie Betts scored twice, courtesy of Bogaerts, before Bradley connected off Tyler Wilson (2-4) leading off the sixth. Bradley’s 29-game hitting streak, which ended last week, is the only one this season longer than Bogaerts’ career-best run.

“I’m just trying to go up there and get hits, you know? If it happens, it happens,” Bogaerts said. “Just trying to be me, and not trying to be someone who I’m not.”

Ortiz led off the eighth with his 14th home run and Hernandez added a three-run shot to send many in the crowd of 43,926 up the exit ramps. Hernandez’s first major league homer came in his 10th game.

Wright, meanwhile, threw a 122-pitch masterpiece by mixing a fluttering knuckler with a vastly contrasting fastball.

“It was a challenge,” Baltimore’s Mark Trumbo said. “He had great stuff today. It never ended up where it started. You can’t really predict where to swing. You just hope that you get one that maybe doesn’t move quite as much.”

Ryan Flaherty doubled in a run and scored one for the Orioles, who have lost six of eight.

Wilson gave up three runs and eight hits over 6 2-3 innings in losing his third straight start.

Limited to an infield hit over the first four innings, Baltimore temporarily solved Wright’s knuckler in the fifth. Nolan Reimold tripled, Flaherty doubled, Caleb Joseph snapped an 0-for-19 skid with a single and Adam Jones delivered a sacrifice fly to tie the game at 2.

“They’re a very aggressive team. They’re all really good hitters,” Wright said. “In that inning they scored the two runs, I think I kind of got caught up in the same speed.”

The deadlock lasted only until Bradley crushed Wilson’s third pitch of the following inning.

Boston got a first-inning run when Betts scored from second base on Bogaerts’ dribbler down the third-base line. Bogaerts was thrown out, but neither Wilson nor Joseph, the catcher, got back to cover the plate. Replays indicated the ball bounced off Bogaerts’ foot in foul ground, but such plays are not reviewable.

Bogaerts knew the ball should have been called foul, but learned from experience to run it out.

“We had a play back at home, same play. I stood at home, the ball hit me, and they threw to first, out,” he said. “I told the umpire the ball hit me, and he said, `No, you’re out.’ This time I’m running, you know. And it worked out for RBI.”

Bogaerts hit an RBI double in the third following singles by Betts and Dustin Pedroia.

DOUBLE DOWN

Red Sox: Bogaerts’ two doubles increased Boston’s major-league leading total to 133, but Ortiz’s career-high run of six straight games with a double came to an end.

Orioles: Flaherty’s fifth-inning double was his second in 61 at-bats this season and produced his second RBI.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Red Sox: Placed on the concussion list May 20, utility man Brock Holt has ramped up his baseball-related activities. But there is no timetable for his return, manager John Farrell said. … Ortiz returned after sitting out Sunday’s game in Toronto with a sore left foot.

Orioles: RHP Yovani Gallardo (shoulder tendinitis) will begin his rehabilitation assignment on Thursday and with 40-60 pitches in a minor league game. … SS J.J. Hardy (broken foot) will have a CT scan Friday. He hopes to be cleared to begin baseball-related activities. Joseph was taken to the hospital for observation after getting struck in the groin by a foul ball.

UP NEXT

Red Sox: Eduardo Rodriguez (right knee) comes off the disabled list to make his season debut, starting on the mound Tuesday night against the organization that drafted him. Rodriquez went 0-3 in five rehab starts with Triple-A Pawtucket. After the game, Boston sent reliever Heath Hembree to the minors to make room for Rodriguez.

Orioles: Starting for the eighth time this season, Kevin Gausman (0-2, 3.24 ERA) makes another run at his first win.

Harvey rediscovers form, leads Mets over White Sox 1-0

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NEW YORK (AP) Matt Harvey rediscovered his form with seven dominant innings of two-hit ball, Neil Walker homered off Jose Quintana, and the New York Mets beat Chicago 1-0 Monday to send the reeling White Sox to their seventh straight loss.

Harvey (4-7) has been one of baseball’s biggest puzzles, transforming from a premier pitcher to baffled ballplayer. Two weeks ago, he was booed at Citi Field when he lasted just 2 2/3 innings against Washington. This time, fans started to stand and cheer when he got two strikes on Jose Abreu in the fourth, and the crowd gave him a huge ovation when he escaped the seventh-inning jam.

With both teams wearing special Memorial Day uniforms with camouflage lettering and trim, Harvey struck out six and walked two to win for the first time since May 8. His fastball velocity was up markedly, and he threw 61 of 87 pitches for strikes.

Harvey, pitching to backup catcher Rene Rivera for the first time this season, retired his first 13 batters before J.B. Shuck lined a single to left, and Shuck got doubled up when first baseman Wilmer Flores made a diving catch on Brett Lawrie‘s liner.

Harvey didn’t go to a three-ball count until facing Alex Avila in the sixth and was at 70 pitches through six innings, facing the minimum 18 hitters. Harvey pitched into the seventh for the first time this year.

Adam Eaton walked on a 3-2 pitch leading off the seventh and Abreu grounded a single to left on the next pitch. After a mound visit from pitching coach Dan Warthen, Melky Cabrera sacrificed, Todd Frazier fouled out to first and Shuck grounded out, causing Harvey to make a small first pump as he walked off the mound.

Harvey was coming off three straight losses in which he allowed 19 runs and 27 hits, and he struck out a career-low one last week at Washington. He worked on adjusting his mechanics when he threw to hitters before Friday’s game, and he seemed to reach back more toward second in his windup before starting his arm toward the plate.

In his only previous start against the White Sox, Harvey retired his first 20 batters before Alex Rios beat out an infield single on May 7, 2013, and that was the only runner he allowed over nine innings during a game the Mets won in the 10th.

Addison Reed struck out two in a perfect eighth. After wasting a four-run lead in the Mets’ win over Los Angeles on Friday and giving up a pair of ninth-inning runs in Sunday’s loss to the Dodgers, Jeurys Familia got three straight outs to remain perfect in 17 save chances. He has converted 33 consecutive save opportunities dating to last season.

Quintana (5-5) was almost as good but has lost four straight starts for the first time in his big league career. He allowed four singles before Walker led off the Mets’ seventh with his 12th homer, a drive over the 370-foot sign in left.

Chicago is on its longest slid since dropping eight straight from last June 12-19. The White Sox have lost 15 of 19 following a 23-10 start and were coming off a three-game series at Kansas City in which they wasted late leads each day.

NOT A HIT

Brett Lawrie was hit on a hand on the ninth pitch of his at-bat against Harvey in the second, but first base umpire Sam Holbrook ruled he swung

FIRSTS

Mets rookie Ty Kelly singled up the middle in the fifth for his first major league hit.

COMING UP NEXT

Acquired from San Diego last weekend for $1, first baseman James Loney reported to the Mets and will be active for Tuesday night’s game.

TRAINER’S ROOM

White Sox: OF Austin Jackson was not available because of turf toe in his left foot. White Sox manager Robin Ventura hopes he can avoid the DL.

Mets: Mets manager Terry Collins is worried 3B David Wright‘s neck injury might lead to a stint on the DL.

UP NEXT

LHP Steven Matz (7-1), who has won seven straight starts, is to take the mound Tuesday night or New York against Mat Latos (6-1). Because of a short outing caused by his ejection Saturday, Noah Syndergaard will be available in the bullpen for the Mets.

Collins worried David Wright might go on disabled list

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NEW YORK — Mets manager Terry Collins is worried David Wright may wind up on the disabled list because of a neck injury.

New York’s captain and third baseman was out of the starting lineup for the third straight day Monday because of his neck. He was given anti-inflammatory medicine over the weekend.

Now 33, Wright was on the disabled list from April 15 to Aug. 24 last year when he strained his right hamstring and then developed spinal stenosis. He has a lengthy physical therapy routine he must go through before each game.

“With the condition he’s been playing in and the condition he’s in right now, yeah, I’m concerned about it,” Collins said Monday. “Is it going to happen? I can’t tell you. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. I know this guy plays with a lot of discomfort. He always has. And when he can’t play, he’s hurt.”

Wright homered in three straight games last week before getting hurt. He is batting .226 with seven homers, 14 RBIs and 55 strikeouts in 137 at-bats.