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 to activate José Ramírez tomorrow

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Indians slugger José Ramírez broke the hamate bone on his right hand last month and had surgery on August 26 to repair it. At the time he was given the same schedule most hamate bone surgery recipients get: 5-7 weeks if all goes well. Apparently all has gone better-than-well for Ramírez, however, because the Indians are going to activate him tomorrow.

That’s good news for the Indians, who are in a dead heat with the Tampa Bay Rays for the AL’s second Wild Card with six games to go.

Ramírez, like his team, started the season slowly, but he had turned things on in July and August to help fuel Cleveland’s surge into playoff contention. He hit .320/.340/.680 with nine homers and 25 driven in in July and was hitting .321/.372/.705 with six homers and 20 driven in August when he went down. Basically, he had been a better version of the Ramírez who won the Silver Slugger Award and came in third in the MVP balloting in 2018, at least for those two months.

It’ll be interesting to see how rusty he is or if the surgery has sapped his power or bat speed. We’ll only have six games in which to see it, though.