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.

Bryce Harper sets April record for runs scored

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With four runs scored during Sunday’s 23-5 drubbing of the Mets, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper set a new April record for runs scored at 32, MLB.com’s Oliver Macklin reports. The record was previously held by Larry Walker, who scored 29 runs for the Rockies in April 1997.

Harper finished 2-for-4 with a pair of walks and a solo home run (off of Mets catcher Kevin Plawecki) on the afternoon. He’s now hitting .391/.509/.772 with nine home runs and 26 RBI on the year.

Anthony Rendon racks up six hits, including three homers, and knocks in 10 runs vs. Mets

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Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon became the first player in nearly a decade to knock in 10 runs in one game, doing so on Sunday afternoon at home against the Mets. Rendon went 6-for-6 with three home runs along with the 10 RBI. It’s Rendon’s first time achieving any of the three feats — six hits, three homers, 10 RBI — individually in a game.

The Nationals trounced the Mets 23-5. In total, they hit seven homers. Along with Rendon’s three, Matt Wieters hit two while Bryce Harper and Adam Lind hit one each. Wieters had four RBI; Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Taylor, and Lind knocked in two each. The Nationals have now scored double-digit runs in four out of their last six games.

Angels outfielder Garret Anderson was the last player to drive in 10 runs in one game, achieving the feat on August 21, 2007 against the Yankees. Rendon is the 13th player since 1913 to drive in 10 runs in a single game and only the third to do it this millennium.

There were four six-hit games from individual players last season, eclipsing the aggregate total of three from 2010-15. The last player to have six hits, including three home runs, in one game was the Dodgers’ Shawn Green on May 23, 2002 against the Brewers. The only player to have six hits, including three homers, and 10 RBI in a game was Walker Cooper of the 1949 Reds.

The last team to score at least 23 runs in a game was the Rangers on August 22, 2007 against the Orioles when they won 30-3. Sunday’s contest was the seventh time this millennium a team has scored at least 23 runs and the 47th dating back to 1913. The only other time Mets pitching had allowed 23 runs in a game was on June 11, 1985 against the Phillies.

Things keep going wrong for the Mets. Noah Syndergaard started Sunday’s game after refusing an MRI for his sore biceps. He lasted only 1 1/3 innings, giving up five runs, before being pulled with a lat strain. The last-place Mets are now 10-14.