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.

Nats’ success shouldn’t be about Bryce Harper

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Bryce Harper turns 27 years old today. As an early birthday present, he got to watch his former team reach the World Series for the first time in franchise history. His new team finished exactly at .500 in fourth place, missing the playoffs. These were facts that did not go unnoticed as the Nationals completed an NLCS sweep of the Cardinals at home last night.

Harper spent seven seasons with the Nationals before hitting free agency and ultimately signing with the Phillies on a 13-million, $330 million contract. The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract at the end of the 2018 regular season, but about $100 million of that was deferred until he was 65 which lowered the present-day value of the offer. The Nats’ offer wasn’t even in the same ballpark, really.

Nevertheless, Nationals fans were upset that their prodigy jilted them to go to the Phillies. He was mercilessly booed whenever the Phillies played in D.C. Nats fans’ Harper jerseys were destroyed, or at least taped over.

Harper, of course, was phenomenal with the Nationals. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2012, then won the NL MVP Award several years later with an historically outstanding 1.109 OPS while leading the league with 42 homers and 118 runs scored. Overall, as a National, he had a .900 OPS. Pretty good. He was also productive in the postseason, posting an .801 OPS across 19 games, mostly against playoff teams’ best starters and best relievers. Furthermore, if the Nats had Harper this year, he would have been in right field in lieu of Adam Eaton. Harper out OPS’d Eaton by 90 points and posted 2.5 more WAR in a similar amount of playing time. The Nationals would have been even better if they had Harper this year.

The Nationals lost all four Division Series they appeared in during the Harper era. 3-2 to the Cardinals in 2012, 3-1 to the Giants in ’14, 3-2 to the Dodgers in ’16, and 3-2 to the Cubs in ’17. They finally get over the hump the first year they’re without Harper, that’s the difference, right? I saw the phrase “addition by subtraction” repeatedly last night, referring to Harper and the Nats’ subsequent success without him.

Harper, though, didn’t fork over four runs to the Cardinals in the top of the ninth inning in Game 5 in 2012. He didn’t allow the Dodgers to rally for four runs in the seventh inning of Game 5 in ’16 before ultimately losing 4-3. He didn’t use a gassed Max Scherzer in relief in 2017’s Game 5, when he allowed five of the seven Cubs he faced to reach base, leading to three runs which loomed large in a 9-8 loss. If certain rolls of the dice in those years had gone the Nationals’ way, they would have appeared in the NLCS. They might’ve even been able to win a World Series.

The Nationals saw how that looks this year. It was the opposing manager this time, Dave Roberts, who mismanaged his bullpen. Howie Kendrick then hit a tie-breaking grand slam in the 10th inning off of Joe Kelly to win the NLDS for the Nats. The playoffs are random. Sometimes a ball bounces your way, sometimes an umpire’s call goes your way, and sometimes the opposing manager makes several unforced errors to throw Game 5 in your lap.

Reaching the World Series, then thumbing your nose while sticking out your tongue at Harper feels like a guy tagging his ex-girlfriend on his new wedding photos. It’s time to move on.