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Second Thoughts: Opening series pros and cons

Positives and negatives from the Indians' 2014 opening series win in Oakland

Second Thoughts: Opening series pros and cons
John Axford records his first save as an Indian against the A's on opening night. (Photo: Getty Images)
April 4, 2014
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Baseball is back. 

It can't be summed up any better than that.

After a long and especially unpleasant winter, the boys of summer have returned and are about to make their way back to Cleveland as the Indians finally return from the West Coast, where they spent spring training and the first series of the regular season.

In Oakland, the Tribe didn't exactly play flawless baseball, but they managed to leave with a series win under their belts, which is pretty much all you can ask for. This scrappy bunch proved their resilience is still alive and well despite the daunting competition of the A's and their own mistakes and shortcomings throughout the series.

The man they call "Dr. Smooth" was the biggest hero in Oakland for the Tribe (well, aside from A's closer Jim Johnson, of course), Justin Masterson had himself a solid opening day start despite walking away with a no-decision and John Axford recorded a save in each of his first two opportunities as the new Indians closer. On the negative side, Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber struggled in their respective starts while Asdrubal Cabreraappears to still struggle with runners on base.

Pros

Michael Brantley: 3 G, 11 AB, 4 H, 2 2B, 3 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K.

In case you don't follow me on Twitter or if you missed my Google Hangouts broadcast this week, you haven't heard my bold prediction for the Indians in 2014 regarding Michael Brantley, which is that he would either win or finish in the top three for the American League batting title. 

Through the first three games, "Dr. Smooth" is already making good on that prediction by batting .364 with four hits in 11 at-bats. His bat was key to the Indians' victory in game two of Wednesday's doubleheader in Oakland to secure the series win as he drove in the tying and go-ahead runs with a 2-run single off A's closer Jim Johnson in the 9th.

There's been some discussion and debate about whether Brantley should move to another spot in the lineup, but I really think he's taken to batting fifth. He's not the prototypical middle-of-the-lineup hitter, but his intelligence as a hitter and success with runners in scoring position make him as viable an option as anyone even if he doesn't hit 30 home runs a year.

Keep my prediction in mind...

Justin Masterson: 1 GS, 7.0 IP, 0 R/ER, 3 H, 1 BB, 4 K.

It's early and only one start, but based on how Masterson has pitched in spring training and how he pitched on opening night in Oakland, he's certainly on the right track for another big year at the top of the Tribe rotation. The control and location on his pitches was about as good as I had ever seen it.

The movement on his sinker is good enough to make him a successful starter as a ground-ball pitcher, but the development of his slider over the last couple seasons has been what's really taken him to the next level and made a case for him being the ace of this staff. When he gets two strikes on a hitter, that slider that tails away from right-handed hitters and bears down on lefties becomes a serious weapon capable of racking up the strikeouts.

Have we heard the last from the negotiation table between the Indians and Masterson? I don't think so, but we'll see.

John Axford: 2 G, 2.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R/ER, 2 BB, 3K, 2 SV.

It looked like Axford was a bit jacked in his first appearance as the Indians' closer on opening night as he walked two and struggled with his command a bit, but was able to get out of the inning and secure the save. He looked more relaxed in his second appearance on Wednesday.

Off the bat, it appears the pitch-tipping problem that plagued Axford in the past is no longer a factor as he has yet to give up a hit after two innings of work. Hopefully that is the case because one of my biggest takeaways from Axford's first two outings was the fact that he has a nasty curveball.

As long as he maintains his mechanics and continues to locate his pitches like he did mostly during his second appearance, I think he'll be perfectly capable as the Tribe closer.

Marc Rzepczynski: 2 G, 2.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R/ER, 1 BB, 2 K.

Not that I didn't like him before, but Marc Rzepczynski is quickly starting to grow on me after just his first two appearances. He was an unsung hero during the latter half of Wednesday's doubleheader where he came into the game in relief of McAllister and pitched two and a third innings of long relief to keep the Tribe in the game so that they could hang on and eventually win.

He looked absolutely unhittable during that outing and the fact that he pitched over two innings is especially encouraging, given his primary role in the bullpen as a matchup lefty.

It's so nice finally having stability from the left side in the bullpen after the days of Rich HillDavid Huff and Chris Seddon.

Cons

Corey Kluber: 1 GS, 3.1 IP, 8 H, 5 R/ER, 1 HR, 3 BB, 2 K.

One of the biggest keys to Kluber's success aside from his unflappable demeanor on the mound is his ability to command his pitches and establish the strike zone. And that is precisely what did not happen on Wednesday during game one of the doubleheader against the A's.

Now some of you may know that I am a big Corey Kluber fan and was among the first to predict his rise to dominance last season. I was probably almost as frustrated as he was when his finger injury cropped up since he was on such a roll at the time. The problem with him, though, is that if he can't, at the very least, establish his fastball and throw it for strikes, he'll be in for a long, hard day on the mound.

Maybe it was just nerves, considering that this is the first time in his career that he is opening the season with the big league club, but either way, Kluber needs to get a handle on his command if he wants to return to being effective.

Zach McAllister: 1 GS, 4.0 IP, 6 H, 3 R/ER, 4 BB, 4 K.

Like Kluber, McAllister is a pitcher that relies on command and throwing strikes to be successful. The difference is the right-hander doesn't have the same stoic presence on the mound, nor does he have as much in his arsenal to work with. He did manage to last slightly longer than his teammate during game two of the twin bill in Oakland, but command was also an issue as he wound up throwing a lot of pitches, including 30+ pitches in the first inning.

McAllister is mainly a fastball pitcher as he can throw his four-seamer and two-seamer to all parts of the strike zone and get swings and misses. In fact, while he did struggle with establishing his fastball on Wednesday, his four strikeouts did, for the most part, come courtesy of his heater. Throwing both his two-seam and four-seam fastball for strikes consistently is priority number one for the right-hander.

Next is his offspeed pitches. If he wants to become a middle-of-the-rotation caliber starter, he needs a legitimate compliment to his fastball. He throws a changeup and curve as well as an occasional slider, which he dabbled with last season, but after his finger injury, I don't know if he plans on going back to it. Being able to throw them for strikes is key to his success moving forward.

Asdrubal Cabrera: 3 G, 10 AB, 2 R, 2 H, 2 BB, 1 K.

Cabrera wasn't horrible in this opening series, but the reason he makes the "Cons" list is for what he did with runners on base. Over the course of three games, the Tribe shortstop logged five plate appearances with runners on base and had only a walk to show for it. 

Anyone who watched the games in full probably knows what I'm talking about as far as Cabrera's plate approach, or lack thereof, with runners on base. Swinging at either the first pitch or early in the count that usually resulted in a routine ground-out or fly-out.

What is it about batting with runners on base that changes and diminishes his plate approach? Maybe the pressure gets to him. Maybe he tries to do too much too quickly. Or maybe the double play he grounded into is still fresh in my mind and I'm overreacting to a small sample size.

It's opening week. Sometimes you just need a reminder that this will be going on for the next six months.

Up Next: Twins (1-2) vs. Indians (2-1) @ Progressive Field. First pitch at 3:05 pm ET.

The Indians will return home for the first time in 2014 after taking two out of three from the defending AL West champs to begin the regular season campaign. Flame-throwing right-hander Danny Salazar will take the mound against veteran right-hander Mike Pelfrey and the division rival Minnesota Twins, who just barely managed to avoid getting swept on the South Side of Chicago.

The current weather forecast calls for showers and thunderstorms most of the day, although there's a chance the storms could taper off by late afternoon. Word is from the Indians that they are optimistic about playing on Friday, but the initial 3:05 pm start time may not be etched in stone.

Jake Dungan is a communications student at Stark State College and an intern with the Akron RubberDucks. Follow him on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake.

User Comments

Hermie13
April 4, 2014 - 11:27 AM EDT
I'm not that worried about the defense as I don't believe overall it's any worse than last year. Santana is not good at 3B...but we saw Reynolds play 3B a quarter of the time last year and he was been one of the worst defensive 3Bs in all of baseball in the last decade. Swisher at 1B, Kipnis at 2B, Cabrera at SS, Brantley in LF, and Bourn in CF (eventually)...all the same as last year. Raburn still in RF as a platoon....can maybe argue Murphy is a downgrade from Stubbs in RF...and maybe Santana is downgrade overall at 3B, but also gettting a huge boost behind the plate with Gomes there over Santana for the most part.

Not saying the defense will be good...but we won last year with arguably a worse defense.
Hawk1228
April 4, 2014 - 11:24 AM EDT
I agree Rich The defense does worry me. I made a comment yesterday about the only glove Santana should be wearing is a batting glove and I got some very unfavorable responses
Rich
April 4, 2014 - 8:39 AM EDT
I'm also concerned about the defense. Santana butchered an easy ground ball. Murphy took a bad route on a fly ball that dropped on the grass behind him for a double with runners on. Santana is a butcher behind the plate and can't throw anybody out. Asdrubal has no range at short.

I'm not going to mention the dropped fly ball by Brantley/Raburn or the dropped throw by Shaw because I don't expect those to happen again. But I think defense is going to be a problem going forward.

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