Cleveland Indians Season Preview: Are They Ready to Win the Division?

Can the Indians dethrone the Tigers in the AL Central?

The 2012 season was just your usual losing one in Cleveland. The Indians finished 68-94, which included losing 22 of 26 games from the end of June through the end of July, finishing in the bottom-third of baseball in runs scored and ERA.

But sparked by the signing of former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, a breakout season from Jason Kipnis and solid campaigns from Ubaldo Jimenez, the 2013 version of the Indians turned things around, winning 92 games and making their first postseason appearance since 2007.

With a 92-win season under their belts, expectations in Cleveland will be high. How will they fare?

An Offensive Leap

The Indians made a significant leap from 2012 to 2013 offensively, as shown in the table below:


The obvious improvement was in the runs category, as a 78-run improvement is a major leap for a team without a superstar-type contributor. Kipnis was a big factor, seeing his oRAR (offensive runs above replacement) jump 19 points. The other big improvement came in the power department. The Indians, as a whole, hit 35 more home runs and saw their SLG% increase from .381 to .410 from 2012 to 2013, making them a top-10 SLG and HR team in baseball after finishing 25th in 2012 in both categories.

This is an offense that improved a ton last season, but for the Indians to be a playoff team again in 2014, players like Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis must continue to progress. This is one of the reasons I’m not as high on the team as some people.

The two guys can certainly progress, but considering Kipnis is coming off a career year and Santana has basically produced the same amount of runs every single season of his career, it's hard to envision any sort of improvement from either of them that will be substantial enough to make up for what the Indians lack in pitching and defense. With that being said, players like Yan Gomes, recently extended Michael Brantley and David Murphy are going to have to produce at high levels. The Indians also need Nick Swisher to have a big rebound year. In all reality, Swisher wasn't really bad last year, but the Indians definitely need more from him in 2014.

This lineup doesn't have a whole lot of 25-homer or .300-hitting guys, but if everything goes right, it looks like it could have just enough juice to be a playoff team once again. However, with an average defense and a pitching staff that could very well regress, they’re going to need someone like Santana or Kipnis to take the next step.

Defense (Or Lack Thereof)

Simply put, The Indians defense is not good. The total Rdrs (runs saved on defense) of the eight players with more than 800 innings last season was -30. Ouch. They were also 21st in baseball in fielding percentage, and had the 11th-most errors in baseball. The team had the sixth-worst defensive efficiency rating in baseball, too, and compiled a -2.4 defensive WAR. One positive thing Indians fans can look forward to in 2014, however, is the addition of David Murphy, who comes over from Texas on a two-year, $12-million contract

Murphy, who will spend most of his time in right field, has a career Rdrs of 5 in his 184 games in right field. Honestly, this isn’t a big thing to look forward to, but there isn’t a lot of defensive talent on this team going forward. The only exception would be Swisher - that is, when he’s playing first base. Swisher had an Rdrs of 7 and a RF/9 of 8.90 in 2013 when playing first. That number is Swisher’s highest that he’s ever recorded at a position he played more than 900 innings at. However, that could be more of a fluke than anything. Outside of a minor improvement in the outfield, and Swisher possibly maintaining stability at first, the Indians won’t be a lot of fun to watch on defense in 2014.

Salivating Over Salazar

The Indians pitching staff looks to be a huge question mark going into 2014. The first of which is the status of free agent pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. The Indians already lost Scott Kazmir to free agency, and it isn't looking like Jimenez will return. Even if Jimenez returned, we still don't know which Ubaldo will show up. Last season was Jimenez’s best season since he finished third in the Cy Young Award voting in 2010. However, the two seasons in between saw him post a combined 5.05 ERA, losing a salty 30 games in the process.

Aside from Jimenez, there are not a lot of sure-fire options in the rotation. Masterson looks to be the ace if Jimenez parts ways, following his best season as a big leaguer where he posted a 3.45 ERA in 193 innings of work. His 9.1 K/9 ratio is a very encouraging sign going forward for the 28-year old righty.

After that, it will look like a mix of these pitchers, in no particular order: Zach Mcallister, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and, possibly, Shaun Marcum. Kluber and Mcallister were both solid last year and Marcum looks more like a lame duck, safety net in case of any unforeseen blow ups in the rotation during spring training. The pitcher Cleveland fans will most look forward to seeing in 2014 will be Salazar.

Salazar has an electric fastball that will sit in the mid-90s, but it can hit 100 on the gun. He has confidence in his changeup even though hitters hit .246 off it, the highest average against any pitch he threw more than 100 times in 2013. His change is definitely his best out pitch though, as he posted a 41.4% SO% on the pitch in 2013. Salazar's fastball, however, is electric and the pitch he has the most confidence in. Overall, he's a top-of-the-rotation, ace-type talent, and will need to bust out for the Indians to win the central.

Outside of Masterson and Salazar, the rest of the rotation is a big question mark. The bullpen will also be a question mark with relievers Joe Smith and Chris Perez being gone.

Perez was a lightning rod off the field, but wasn't really great on the field, so that won't be a tough fix. Though it should be noted that he registered 25 saves last season. Smith, on the other hand, was arguably the best Indians reliever last season and will be tough to replace. They signed John Axford in the offseason though, which should stabilize the Indians pen a little, and Mark Rzepczynski is a solid reliever and possibly the best of the bunch.

In the end, the rotation and pen are "meh" at best. This is why the offense will have to step up if the Indians want to think about winning the division in 2014.

The Kids

The highest-rated prospect in the Indians system is by far Francisco Lindor, ranking fifth in MLB’s top 100 prospects. The 20-year old switch hitting shortstop is known for his slick glove at the infield's premier position, being arguably the best defensive shortstop in all of minor league baseball.

Lindor has a hose for an arm and above-average range to go with excellent instincts. He has a quick bat and will spray line drives all over the field. He is mostly a contact hitter, but he will develop some power over time, as he tries to move past his current 175 pound frame.

His ability to get on base is probably his most valuable skill, as he has a career .364 OBP and had a .380 OBP in 104 games at High A and Double A ball. He also has good speed and great instincts on the bases, stealing 27 and 25 bases in each of his first two seasons of pro ball, making him a prototypical leadoff guy. It looks like Lindor has a better chance to see innings at the major league level in 2015, but if he continues on the fast track he’s been on so far, Indians fans could see him in September.

The guy Indians fans are most likely to see in the bigs this season is Trevor Bauer. Bauer’s major league career has gotten off to a bumpy start, posting an ERA of 5.67 in his two stints with Cleveland, but the stuff is there. He has a plus fastball that can reach 96 and sits 92-94 consistently, but has little life on it and is mostly flat. When he comes down over his curve and doesn’t get inside the ball, it has a really good 12/6 bite and will be an above-average major league pitch, maybe even a dominant one, when the consistency develops. He has solid arm action on his change and provides a good velocity change at 80-81 compared to his fastball, but it is fairly straight. Although all of his pitches aren’t fully developed, he has such a deep arsenal that he can get by with inconsistency of certain pitches.

Will The Indians Be Postseason Bound Once Again?

The Indians were a great story in 2013. They could be a playoff team in 2014, but only if things go perfectly. They will most likely be without their best pitcher from 2013 in Jimenez, and the rest of their rotation is iffy at best aside from Masterson.

The offense should score some runs, but with a rotation looking like it will regress, the offense will have to improve quite a bit to see the Indians nab the wild card again, let alone dethrone the Tigers in the AL Central. In a best-case scenario situation, Masterson continues progressing, Salazar has a breakout season, Kipnis, Santana and Gomes all have huge seasons and the Indians take advantage of a weak AL Central and an underwhelming season from Detroit en route to winning their first division title since 2007. The most-likely scenario though sees the loss of Jimenez and Kazmir proving to be too much slack for the offense to pick up, as the Indians slide out of 2014 around .500.