The Indians made major investments in their manager and everyday lineup before last season, and those changes paid off with the franchise's first postseason bid since 2007. Terry Francona provided a new voice and direction for a team that was no longer listening to Manny Acta, and his presence in the dugout made a significant difference.
But ownership's willingness to spend some money and increase the talent level on the roster made Francona's job much easier. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn boosted the lineup with power and speed. They, along with Jason Giambi, also provided some veteran leadership that helped get Francona's message across to the younger players. The Tribe made a significant jump from 68 wins to 92 last season. But can they improve enough to stay in playoff contention this year?
Depth Chart (as of 3/6)
C: Yan Gomes
1B: Nick Swisher
2B: Jason Kipnis
3B: Lonnie Chisenhall
SS: Asdrubal Cabrera
LF: Michael Brantley
CF: Michael Bourn
RF: David Murphy
DH: Carlos Santana
SP: Justin Masterson
SP: Corey Kluber
SP: Zach McAllister
SP: Danny Salazar
SP: Carlos Carrasco
CL: John Axford
David Murphy was signed to be the left-handed side of a platoon in right field with Ryan Raburn. Murphy will presumably get more playing time at the position, batting against right-handed pitching. But inking a part-time player to a two-year, $12 million contract was a curious move for a cost-conscious club like the Indians.
The signing is even more of a head-scratcher when looking at Murphy's performance last season. He's coming off the worst year of his career, batting .220 with a .656 OPS, 13 home runs and 45 RBI. Perhaps more importantly, Murphy hit only .219 with a .685 OPS against right-handed pitching. The Indians obviously hope Murphy rebounds to his career norms versus righties, batting .280 with an .816 OPS.
Cleveland also signed John Axford to replace Chris Perez as closer. That appears to be a risky move, looking at the right-hander's 4.02 ERA last season with 73 hits allowed in 65 innings and a drop in his strikeout rate. However, Axford did improve after being traded from the Brewers to the Cardinals. The St. Louis coaching staff showed Axford that he was tipping his pitches and helped him adjust his delivery to erase that issue. He was far more effective with the Cards, posting a 1.74 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 10.1 innings. However, he still allowed more than one hit per inning, which calls his overall effectiveness into question.
Elsewhere in the bullpen, Josh Outman was acquired from the Rockies for outfielder Drew Stubbs (expendable with the Murphy signing) to give the relief corps another left-hander to pair with Marc Rzepczynski. Left-handed batters hit .198 versus Outman, which should be valuable against AL Central batters like Victor Martinez, Adam Dunn, Eric Hosmer and Joe Mauer. Outman and Rzepczynski could be even more important with the Tribe having no left-handers in its starting rotation.
Once Ubaldo Jimenez opted out of his contract (which he was allowed to do after being traded from the Rockies to the Indians), it seemed pretty clear that he wouldn't be returning to Cleveland. Jimenez became the top major league free agent pitcher available (Masahiro Tanaka was the No. 1 target for most clubs) and was sure to receive a contract offer higher than the Indians were willing to pay. Though he stayed on the market longer than expected because his qualifying offer status required giving up a first-round draft pick to sign him, Jimenez signed a four-year, $50 million deal — a package the Tribe wasn't going to match.
The Indians also lost Scott Kazmir from their rotation, who parlayed his resurgent 2013 season into a two-year, $22 million contract with the Athletics. Taking a chance on Kazmir paid off nicely for Cleveland, who compiled a 4.04 ERA but threw 158 innings and provided 165 strikeouts. He was also the rotation's only left-handed starter.
Closer Chris Perez was released after last season ended, one of the surprising moves of the early offseason. But after compiling a 4.33 ERA (and a 5.60 ERA in the second half) and causing major distractions with by arguing with fans on Twitter and refusing to speak to local media, the Indians decided Perez wasn't worth the aggravation he was causing. Nor was he worth whatever raise he likely would've received through arbitration.
However, the far more significant loss to the bullpen was middle reliever Joe Smith, who signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Angels. That was more than Cleveland was willing to pay for a setup man. The right-hander posted a 2.29 ERA with 54 strikeouts in 63 innings. Right-handed batters hit .242 with a .592 OPS against Smith. He was even better versus lefties, allowing a .227 average.
Pitcher Trevor Bauer is in line to make the most immediate impact with the Indians. That is, if he can win the fifth spot in the starting rotation out of spring training. But the 23-year-old will likely need more time to work on his overhauled delivery in Triple-A before making any meaningful contribution. Last year in Columbus, Bauer went 6-7 with a 4.15 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 121.1 innings. The decreased strikeout rate — a drop of nearly three per nine innings — has to be most concerning to the Indians, but throwing strikes and pitching more efficiently with his new mechanics is the more pressing matter.
Later in the season, top prospect Francisco Lindor could get a look at shortstop. Cleveland already has an established veteran at the position with Asdrubal Cabrera, but he's coming off a poor year, batting .242 with a .700 OPS. The Indians may also try to trade Cabrera during the season, rather than lose him as a free agent with nothing in return. Lindor will likely begin the season in Double-A and needs more development time, but could get a shot by midseason. Last year, he finished with a .289 average and .801 OPS in 91 plate appearances with Akron. If Lindor isn't ready, the Tribe could still trade Cabrera and go with Mike Aviles as a stopgap until September.
The most important competition for the Indians this spring will be for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. As mentioned above, Bauer is one of the candidates fighting for that fifth starter role. But Cleveland has plenty of other arms battling for that opening. Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin are the team's in-house options, but non-roster invitees Aaron Harang, Shaun Marcum and Kyle Davies will compete for the fifth starter job as well.
Based on track record, Harang would appear to be a favorite to win that spot. He struggled in 22 starts for the Mariners last year, compiling a 5-11 record and 5.76 ERA with just 87 strikeouts in 120 innings. But Harang showed improvement after catching on with the Mets in September, making four starts, striking out 26 batters in 23 innings and posting a 3.52 ERA.
However, it's time for Carrasco to fulfill the promise attached to him ever since he was acquired in the 2009 Cliff Lee trade. He wasn't good last year, logging a 1-4 record and 6.75 ERA in 15 appearances (seven starts). But a 4.10 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) shows he was hurt by poor defense behind him. Carrasco, soon to be 27 years old, also showed potential in Triple-A, compiling a 3-1 record and 3.14 ERA in 16 appearances (14 starts). He also struck out 79 batters in 71.2 innings.
Marcum could be a possibility for the rotation later in the season, though he can opt out of his contract if he doesn't make the opening day roster. But the veteran underwent surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome in July and the Indians slowed down Marcum's throwing program shortly after he reported to spring training. He will likely have to build his strength back up during the season, whether in the bullpen or the minors.
Another position battle — though it's probably more of a spring experiment — could take place at third base. Lonnie Chisenhall is the likely starter at that position, but he batted only .225 with a .668 OPS last season. That led the Indians to consider moving Carlos Santana from catcher to third base. Cleveland's infield defense would surely suffer with such a move, but Santana's offense would compensate for those shortcomings. It seems more likely, however, that this is an experiment geared toward interleague play when Santana couldn't be the designated hitter.
Francona may be frequently knocking on wood to ensure that his players are as fortunate with injuries as they were in 2013. Virtually all of the Indians' regular starters appeared in at least 145 games. The exception was Michael Bourn, who was limited to 130 games because of wrist and hamstring injuries. The center fielder underwent surgery on his left hamstring during the offseason. If Bourn can't provide speed and defense to the lineup, his value is greatly diminished. Last year, he stole only 23 bases, down from the 42 he swiped in 2012.
Health is always a concern for a MLB pitching staff, and the Tribe has some notable question marks there. Both Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister dealt with finger injuries last season, limiting each pitcher to 24 starts. But those seemed to be freak injuries that won't necessarily return this year. Justin Masterson was limited to four appearances in September — all in relief — due to an oblique injury. But he pitched well out of the bullpen, so there don't appear to be any lingering concerns.
The Indians may have to be most cautious with Danny Salazar. The 24-year-old starter pitched a career-high 145 innings last season (52 of them in the majors), increasing his workload from 87.2 innings the previous year. Salazar had Tommy John surgery in 2010, and Cleveland has been closely monitoring his innings ever since. Because of that, Salazar has been worked slowly this spring and might not throw enough innings to be ready for the opening day rotation. At the very least, he might be slotted into the fifth spot early in the season while he builds up his arm strength.
The Indians pick up where they left off last season and again compete for the AL Central title and a wild-card playoff bid. Cleveland scored the fourth-most runs in the league last year and there's no reason why its offense shouldn't be that productive again. Meanwhile, the Tigers' batting order could be less powerful with Prince Fielder gone and the rotation is breaking in Drew Smyly after trading Doug Fister to the Nationals. With improvement from Chisenhall and Murphy, along with a full year of Yan Gomes in the lineup, it's possible that the Tribe could score more runs.
If Salazar builds up his arm strength sufficiently and can handle an increased workload, he should sufficiently replace Jimenez as the rotation's No. 2 starter. Kluber and McAllister should pitch capably in the third and fourth spots. But Carrasco winning the fifth starter job would make the Indians' rotation as strong as it was last year. Josh Tomlin provides insurance out of the bullpen if Carrasco falters or Salazar needs more time. The Indians also have plenty of depth they can tap into throughout the season if Harang, Marcum and Davies stick around.
Axford rediscovering his 2011 form and performing reliably as the closer, with Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen setting him up, could make the Tribe's bullpen the best in the division. Not only would that put less pressure on a young starting rotation, but it could also provide Cleveland with an edge over the competition in the AL Central.
Cleveland finished seventh in the AL with 662 runs allowed last season. Can that number improve with Jimenez now pitching in Baltimore? Last year's rotation was Masterson and four question marks. Salazar, Kluber and McAllister should be more reliable this season, giving the Indians a deeper starting staff. But the fifth spot could be what makes the difference between a return to the postseason and a slide toward third place in the division. If Carrasco is a disaster and the older arms break down frequently, the fifth starter might be an obstacle throughout the season. Tomlin could be a pivotal pitcher for the Indians in that scenario.
Can Chisenhall hit well enough to hold on to the third base job? If not, Santana may be the starter by default and defense at the position could become an issue. (And if it's a major issue, that could come around to affect Santana's offense, thus compounding the problem.) Santana at third base would also leave the Indians with a hole at DH, forcing Francona to play Giambi in that role more than he should.
Despite losing Jimenez, the Indians have a deep enough pitching staff and lineup to keep them in contention this season. However, competing with the Tigers and Royals in the AL Central is only one concern. If the Tribe can't overtake the Tigers in the division, they face a tougher wild-card race than last season. The Rangers, Yankees and Orioles are considerably improved, while the Angels could be a factor as well. Even if the Indians can match last year's 92 wins — which seems entirely plausible — that might not be enough to get into the postseason.