2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Cleveland Indians.

The Big Question: Are the Indians trending up or down entering Terry Francona’s third year as manager?

After winning 92 games and a Wild Card spot in 2013 the Indians dropped to 85 wins last season, missing the playoffs by three games. Their division rivals all had very busy offseasons, but the Indians basically stood pat. First baseman/outfielder Brandon Moss was their lone big addition (Gavin Floyd too, but he’s already out for the year) and there were no notable departures, so Chris Antonetti, Mark Shapiro, and the Indians’ front office clearly believes last year’s team was capable of more and can take a step forward with better health and perhaps some help from prospects.

That’s definitely a reasonable approach, although it’s worth noting that the Indians declined by seven games last season and went just 85-77 despite a breakout, Cy Young-winning year from right-hander Corey Kluber and a breakout, MVP-caliber year from outfielder Michael Brantley. They got two spectacular performances from previously unspectacular players … and still barely finished above .500. So what happens if Kluber and/or Brantley come back down to earth a bit in 2015?

Fortunately for the Indians they have lots of under-30 talent with the upside to make up for any Kluber/Brantley-related declines. Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer all have the potential to emerge as impact, high-strikeout starters and Carrasco already showed signs of doing so last year. Even after losing Floyd before he ever threw a pitch for them the Indians have quality, albeit largely untested rotation depth behind Kluber.

First baseman Carlos Santana’s overall numbers were plenty good–including 27 homers and a league-high 113 walks–but once he got on track following an absolutely brutal season-opening stretch that left him with a .150 batting average after six weeks he posted a .900 OPS for the final four months. Santana is one of the best switch-hitters in baseball, with 30-homer power and 100-walk patience.

Jason Kipnis had a breakout 2013, hitting .284 with 17 homers, 30 steals, and an .818 OPS to rank among the league’s best all-around players, and then signed a $52.5 million contract extension. He followed it up with a miserable 2014, struggling through injuries while hitting just .240 with six homers and a .640 OPS. His age and skill set suggest he should bounce back in a big way if healthy.

And by midseason the Indians may get a boost from stud prospect Francisco Lindor, a 21-year-old switch-hitting shortstop who ranks as a top-10 prospect according to Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus. Even if Kluber and Brantley take a step backward this season the Indians have the other pieces in place to be a contender and if Kluber and Brantley come anywhere close to repeating their 2014 performances Cleveland is a few breaks from rising as high as the best team in the league.

What else is going on?

  • I didn’t mention catcher Yan Gomes above, because I don’t think he has a ton of further upside at age 27. But he doesn’t need it, because he’s already one of the league’s best catchers. Gomes was acquired for pennies on the dollar from the Blue Jays before 2013 and has hit .284 with 32 homers, 45 doubles, and an .801 OPS in 223 games for the Indians. Among all MLB catchers during that time only Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy have a higher OPS and Gomes also has a high throw-out rate plus good pitch-framing numbers. He’s a stud.
  • Right-hander Cody Allen is a prime example of why the mystique and aura often attached to the closer role is so over the top. As a setup man in 2013 he threw 70 innings with an 88/26 K/BB ratio. As a closer in 2014 he threw 69 innings with a 91/26 K/BB ratio. Basically identical performance, except he pitches the ninth inning now instead of the eighth inning. And he’s one of the league’s top closers.
  • Brandon Moss was a mess down the stretch for the A’s last year and it was later revealed he played through a torn hip labrum. That’s never a positive thing, but he’s looked good this spring and Moss had 21 homers with an .878 OPS in the first half last year after topping an .850 OPS in 2012 and 2013. It’s tough to count on Nick Swisher for much of anything at this point, but Moss adds another big bat.
  • Cleveland is going for a third straight winning season for the first time since way back in 2001, when the Indians were the kings of the AL Central and won their sixth division title in the span of seven seasons. Their Opening Day starter that season? Bartolo Colon, who 13 years later will be the Mets’ Opening Day starter this season.

Prediction: Neck and neck with the Tigers all season and a Wild Card spot if they fall short in the division.

Indians send down Clevinger, Plesac after virus blunder

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
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CLEVELAND — After hearing Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac explain their actions, the Cleveland Indians sent the pitchers to their alternate training site on Friday after the two broke team rules and Major League Baseball coronavirus protocol last weekend in Chicago.

Clevinger and Plesac drove to Detroit separately with their baseball equipment on Thursday for an “open forum” meeting at the team’s hotel before the Indians opened a series with the Tigers.

Indians President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti said following “the discussion” that he met with manager Terry Francona, general manager Mike Chernoff and decided it was best to option Plesac and Clevinger to the alternate training site instead of allowing them to rejoin the team.

“We had a chance to meet as small group and decided this would be the best path of action for us,” Antonetti said.

So before the opener, the Indians activated Clevinger and Plesac from the restricted list and optioned them to Lake County.

It’s a stunning slide for the right-handers and close friends, both considered important pieces for the Indians. There’s no indication when they may be back on Cleveland’s roster. They’ll have to be at Lake County for at least 10 days.

Last weekend, the pitchers broke the team’s code of conduct implemented during the pandemic by leaving the team hotel and having dinner and socializing with friends of Plesac’s and risking contracting the virus.

While the Indians got a car service to take Plesac back to Cleveland, Clevinger flew home with the team after not telling the Indians he had been out with his teammate.

Although both players have twice tested negative for COVID-19 this week, the Indians aren’t ready to have them back.

Earlier this week, pitcher Adam Plutko said he felt betrayed.

“They hurt us bad,” Plutko said after Cleveland’s lost 7-1 to the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday. “They lied to us. They sat here in front of you guys and publicly said things that they didn’t follow through on.”

Antonetti was asked if there are still hard feeling in the clubhouse toward the pair.

“We’re all a family,” Antonetti said. “We spend a lot of time together. Sometimes there are challenges in families you have to work through. I’d use that analogy as it applies here. There are things that have happened over the course of the last week that have been less than ideal and people have some thoughts and feelings about that.”

Both Clevinger and Plesac issued apologies in the days after their missteps. However, on Thursday, the 25-year-old Plesac posted a six-minute video on Instagram in which he acknowledged breaking team curfew but then aimed blame at the media, saying he and Clevinger were being inaccurately portrayed as “bad people.”

Antonetti said he watched the video.

“I’m not sure Zach was able to convey what he intended to convey in the video after having a chance to speak with him afterwards,” he said. “I think if he had a do-over, he may have said things a bit differently.”

Francona also felt Plesac could have chosen a better way to handle the aftermath.

“I was disappointed,” he said.