The Indians scored the fourth-most runs in the AL last season. For the Tribe's offense to be as productive as it was last year, and keep them competitive in the AL Central and wild-card races, the lineup's three best sluggers will need to continue swinging big bats. Of course, no club wins without good pitching. So the ace of the starting rotation needs to be listed among the Indians' top foursome as well. If this quartet puts up strong numbers, the Indians should compete for the postseason again.
In only his second full major league season, the Indians' second baseman emerged as one of the best players in the AL. Calling Kipnis an MVP candidate would be putting it too strongly. He finished 14th among AL batters with a 4.5 WAR last year, and fourth among AL second baseman. But that made him the best player on a team — better than Carlos Santana, better than Nick Swisher — that surprised many by nabbing one of the league's wild-card playoff spots.
Kipnis's .284 batting average tied for the highest mark in the Indians' lineup. His .818 OPS was second to Santana. His 17 home runs were the third-highest total on the team, while his 84 RBI were the most among Tribe regulars. Kipnis also led the team with 30 stolen bases. That's more than Michael Bourn — Cleveland's presumed speedster — finished with. But maybe that shouldn't have been a surprise, since Kipnis stole 31 bases in 2012.
Ideally, maybe Santana or Swisher is the team's offensive leader this season. Though I doubt anyone associated with the Indians will care if Kipnis is once again the best hitter, an All-Star and possible MVP candidate. How many MLB clubs can boast that productive a player at second base? He's a tremendous asset for Cleveland.
Also among the AL's top 25 players, with a 3.6 WAR, was Santana. Of course, that made him the Indians' second-best hitter. But the 27-year-old slugger is really the big stick in the Cleveland lineup. Maybe he had something of a down year in terms of power, hitting 20 home runs with 74 RBI. Concerns about wearing down at catcher are surely why the Indians want Santana to be their DH — or maybe even their third baseman, if he can handle defense at the position. (He'll likely see time at first base also, when Swisher needs a rest or day off from the field.)
Santana's numbers are especially impressive at catcher, but no longer have to play him there with Yan Gomes' emergence last season. First base seemed like the natural place to put him next, but Swisher will play there since David Murphy and Ryan Raburn will platoon in right field. That leaves designated hitter. Though at 27 years old, Santana seems a bit too young to not have a position on the field and be required to focus solely on hitting.
Playing him at third base is an interesting experiment, one that could potentially make the Indians' lineup deeper if it means David Cooper takes over at DH. Interestingly, Santana's slugging percentage and OPS are less when he plays DH, rather than catcher or first base. The role can be an adjustment for many players, as defense often allows a player to forget bad at-bats. Yet Santana has been productive at DH, and figures to improve if he plays there regularly.
Cleveland's starting pitching appears to be more solid going into this season than it did last year, with the emergence of Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister. The Indians also have plenty of arms competing for the rotation's fifth slot, which should ensure some form of reliability, if not stability. But the staff still needs an ace, and that's Masterson.
Ubaldo Jimenez may have been the Tribe's more impressive starter late in the season, especially with Masterson suffering an oblique injury that kept him out for most of September and limited him to the bullpen when he did return. But Jimenez is obviously gone now, leaving no question as to who the team's No. 1 starter is. Provided he stays healthy, Masterson will give the Indians 200 innings with 200 strikeouts. He'll also likely have the best ERA among Tribe starters, though Danny Salazar may have something to say about that.
The question hanging over Masterson and the Indians is how long he'll be in Cleveland. The right-hander can be a free agent after the season, and both the Tribe and its fans probably freaked out when they saw the six-year, $105 million contract Homer Bailey received from the Reds. Did that take Masterson out of the Indians' price range? Maybe not. Masterson wants to stay in Cleveland, as evidenced by his proposal of a three- to four-year worth $40 million to $60 million. He could surely get a larger deal in free agency, but apparently acknowledges the Indians' financial limitations. That has to be encouraging for the front office.
Swisher's laid-back, broham persona might make him a bit of a polarizing figure among MLB fans. That act likely wore thin with Yankees supporters when he struggled in the 2012 postseason with a possible contract on the line. But he does seem to be a calming presence in an Indians clubhouse that needed some leadership. That's continued this spring with Swisher making t-shirts with "Unfinished Business" on the front, playing off a comment from manager Terry Francona about the objectives for this season.
It's probably the perfect sentiment for a team that finished one game out of first place in the AL Central and lost a one-game wild-card playoff to the Rays. Swisher showed a similar touch with Cleveland fans last season, dubbing the region "Brohio," which led to the Indians naming a section of Progressive Field after the goofy phrase.
Yet Swisher's penchant for clever wordplays and mottos will only go so far with teammates and fans if he doesn't produce on the field. Last season, he had one of the worst seasons of his career, batting .246 with a .763 OPS, 27 doubles, 22 homers and 63 RBI. Swisher actually led the Indians in home runs, but would that total have been higher had he hit for a higher average?
Swisher admitted that returning to Ohio (where he was born and played college ball at Ohio State) made him "really nervous" and "uptight." Signing the largest free agent contract in team history — four years, $48 million — surely added to the pressure he put on himself. He also dealt with a shoulder injury early in the year. But Swisher bulked up in preparation for playing first base this year and perhaps that will result in some increased power and run production. Having his pop near the top of the batting order could give the Indians some quick early leads.