Who the Indians' fifth starter will be appears to be their biggest question during the spring. But the team has covered itself with five to six options to consider. While the everyday lineup looks solid, it does carry some underlying concerns. Will one of last year's breakouts turn out to be a one-year fluke? Will one of the team's top young players finally fulfill his potential? OK, there's also still a pitching concern — at the back end of the bullpen.
Which Ryan Raburn will the Indians get this year?
Raburn seemed like a nice depth signing for the Tribe last season. Originally inked to a minor league deal in spring training, Raburn was a player that could play multiple positions (though he's probably better suited for the outfield) and had plenty of experience facing AL Central pitching, having played seven seasons with the Tigers. He'd also shown a tendency to be an explosive second-half hitter in previous seasons.
Not a bad guy to add to the major league roster for $1 million. However, Raburn proved to be far more valuable to the Indians last year. This time, he was productive from the very start. In April, Raburn hit .320 with a .990 OPS and four home runs in 54 plate appearances. He added another four homers with 10 RBI in June. In the second half, the 32-year-old stayed hot, batting .280 with an .888 OPS, though he didn't hit as many balls out of the park.
Overall, Raburn topped or matched career highs with 16 home runs, 29 walks, a .543 slugging percentage and .901 OPS. That kind of production compelled the Indians to keep Raburn around. In August, he signed a two-year, $4.85 million extension. Going into this season, Raburn is slated to be Cleveland's fourth outfielder, likely platooning in right field with David Murphy and possibly getting some time at designated hitter if Carlos Santana plays at third base.
But will he continue to be the streaky player he was with Detroit, following up a strong season with a poor one? Or will the stability that comes with having a regular position and defined role result in more consistency?
Is John Axford a major league closer anymore?
Though releasing Chris Perez was something of a surprising decision, the Indians had to get rid of him. His battles with media and fans had become a major clubhouse distraction. But more importantly, he wasn't performing well as the team's closer. Five blown saves wasn't outrageous, though the Indians surely would have preferred fewer of them. (By comparison, Mariano Rivera blew seven saves last year.) But Perez gave up far too many hits, surrendering 56 in 54 innings. And he gave up too many runs, compiling a 4.33 ERA (and a 5.08 FIP).
Enter Axford, who's not necessarily a surer thing than Perez but will likely cause fewer headaches among teammates and management. He's something of a reclamation project, having lost his closer job with the Brewers after becoming much too hittable and having difficulty locating his pitches. But Axford appears to have righted himself after being traded to the Cardinals in August. Coaches told him that he'd been tipping his pitches and worked to refine his delivery. The results were generally good, as Axford posted a 1.74 ERA in 13 appearances with 10 strikeouts (versus three walks) in 10.1 innings.
However, even with that improvement, Axford still allowed 11 hits. Was this because he was trying to stay in the strike zone and thus gave opposing batters more pitches to hit? He also featured a slider and curveball more often than in previous seasons. Difficulty throwing those pitches for strikes would have compelled Axford to come back with a fastball that hitters were sitting on.
Cleveland has some insurance if Axford struggles again in the ninth inning. Setup men Bryan Shaw or Cody Allen could presumably take over, if needed. The Tribe also still has Vinnie Pestano on hand, though he pitched poorly in save situations last season. But the bullpen will be much better if Axford pitches more like the guy who racked up 105 saves from 2010 to 2012.
Will Lonnie Chisenhall hit enough to be the full-time third baseman?
Experimenting with Carlos Santana playing third base could be an attempt to make the lineup more versatile. Perhaps it's also believed that Santana will hit better while also playing a position, rather than focusing solely on hitting as a DH. Of course, another likelihood is that the Indians want to keep Santana's bat in the lineup when they play in National League parks during interleague play and playing him at third base is the best way to do that.
But giving Santana an opportunity to play third base also seems to be sending a strong message to Chisenhall. His position is not assured if he doesn't begin to hit better in the major leagues. Last season, Chisenhall hit .225 with a .668 OPS, 11 home runs and 33 RBI in 308 plate appearances. He largely platooned at third base with Mike Aviles throughout the season because of difficulty hitting left-handed pitching. In 38 PAs versus lefties, Chisenhall compiled a .111/.158/.250 slash average.
At 25 years old, Chisenhall is far too young to give up on — and the Indians surely have no intention of doing so. He's clearly conquered Triple-A pitching, batting .390 with a 1.125 OPS in 125 PAs with Columbus last season. There's nothing more he can do at that level. Francona has faith that Chisenhall will eventually hit left-handers. But while the Indians are competing for a division title and postseason bid, they can't keep waiting for their young third baseman to figure it out.
Is Cleveland a better team with Santana at third base and someone like David Cooper at DH? Probably not, especially in the long term. But if Chisenhall continues to struggle with his hitting, that's an option the Indians may very well consider against left-handed pitching.