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Swinging for the Fences: New beginnings

Unique opportunities await the Indians and Major League Baseball in 2014

Swinging for the Fences: New beginnings
February 11, 2014
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It may not feel like it right now, but we are entering the final weeks of winter with a glimpse of spring now on the horizon.

New beginnings.

Jimmy Fallon will be taking the reins of "The Tonight Show" from Jay Leno after his successful 22-year run as host of America's number one late night talk show.

New beginnings.

And of course, pitchers and cachers are now reporting to the various spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona to kick off a new season of Major League Baseball.

New beginnings.

This offseason has seen a lot of key figures in baseball call it quits after long successful careers.

The Core Four is now down to one in the Bronx with Mariano Rivera andAndy Pettitte bidding baseball farewell. Staff aces Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay are hanging it up only a little over two years after battling in arguably one of the greatest pitchers' duels in postseason history. Longtime Lone Star All-Star Michael Young is choosing family over one more year in the show. Todd Helton ends a Colorado Rockies career nearly as old as the franchise itself.

As several of the game's greats ride off into the sunset, the baton is now being passed to the young and upcoming generation of talent. And the Clayton Kershaws and Mike Trouts of the world are ready and willing to step into the spotlight and take over as the new face of baseball.

New beginnings.

Major League Baseball has approved the implementation of expanded replay in the game. For the first time in baseball (other than home runs), the call on the field will not be the final say on controversial plays. From trapped balls in the outfield to tag plays on the base paths, managers will now be able to exercise an official challenge during a dustup with an umpire and call for video review of the play in question.

The ballpark experience will also be enhanced with this new system as teams will now have permission to show all replays on the scoreboards and give fans in attendance some of the high-definition comforts of home.

New beginnings.

Various players will be joining the Indians at their major league camp in Goodyear, Arizona in hopes of either jump-starting or reviving their big league careers.

Nyjer Morgan and Bryan LaHair are back in the States after spending last year playing overseas. But they both received calls from Chris Antonetti and will compete for part-time roles on the team coming off the bench.

Other new Goon Squad recruits include cannon-arm outfielder Jeff Francoeur, super-subs Elliot Johnson andDavid Adams, journeyman folk hero Matt Carson and the young slick-fielding speed demon Jose Ramirez.

Like Ryan RaburnScott Kazmir and Jason Giambi last season, these guys are coming in looking for a chance to prove that they either have something left in the tank or that they are worthy of a spot on the big league roster.

New beginnings.

After being just a blip on the major league depth chart a year ago, Danny Salazar is fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery and will have no restrictions heading into the 2014 season as he figures to be part of the big league rotation.

Throughout his minor league career, in addition to throwing a 99 mph fastball, he has continuously learned and made adjustments in order to become more than just a flame-thrower. 

His challenge this season is to apply that due diligence to the major league level in order to put his name in the same class as Stephen StrasburgJose Fernandez and Matt Harvey as the next generation of top of the line pitching in the game. Plus, with the Indians losing Scott Kazmir and potentially Ubaldo Jimenez to free agency, Salazar will need to prove that he is capable of replacing at least one of those pitchers in the rotation.

New beginnings.

John Axford is getting a fresh start in Cleveland and another opportunity to become an effective closer once again. After a breakout year in 2011, the right-hander has seen regression over the last couple seasons with the Brewers before being traded to St. Louis.

In working with Cardinals coaches, he appeared to pinpoint and correct his issues on the mound, one of which could have included pitch-tipping, and responded in kind posting an ERA under two during his brief stint with the National League champs.

Now he comes to Cleveland, a team in need of a closer and ready for a fresh face in the ninth inning after dealing with the antics of former All-Star Chris Perez both on and off the field. It's a new opportunity and with Terry Franconaand Mickey Callaway there to guide him along the way, it's up to him if he can take advantage of it.

New beginnings.

Carlos Santana has played third base all offseason in the winter leagues and will more than likely get a shot at doing so for the Indians this spring and potentially into the regular season since he will no longer be the starting catcher due to Yan Gomes's success at the backstop last season. Team and winter league officials have spoken highly of his progress over at third throughout the offseason.

How much will he actually play at third for the Tribe in the upcoming season? That's something that will resolve itself throughout the course of spring training as the team is able to better gauge his defensive abilities at the position, but my guess would be that the Indians would ideally like to have Santana and Lonnie Chisenhall platoon at third in order to keep the latter away from left-handed pitching.

As far as Gomes, he came virtually out of nowhere last season and proved to the Indians that he was worthy of an everyday role. Without hesitation, Terry Francona named him the starting catcher for at least the start of 2014 shortly after the season ended last year. All in all, not a bad start to the career of Major League Baseball's first Brazilian-born representative.

New beginnings.

Down in the minor leagues, the new ownership of the Indians' AA affilliate has rebranded the organization the Akron RubberDucks in an effort to embrace the tire-manufacturing heritage of the city.

Additionally, the team has announced a series of renovations at Canal Park to improve the fan experience, including the opening of a new restaurant in the ballpark and the addition of new picnic areas down the left and right field lines.

That and the expected influx of Tribe prospects such as Francisco LindorTyler Naquin and Cody Anderson at the AA level this season should help make Akron one of the hotter tickets in the minor leagues.

New beginnings.

Finally, the Indians are fresh off a wild card run in 2013 and have experienced a complete cultural turnaround in just one year with the hiring of Terry Francona and the establishment of a new veteran core of players in Nick Swisherand Michael Bourn to compliment the young talent already in place.

This year, their mission is to prove that they are not a one-hit wonder and that they will be a force to be reckoned with for hopefully several years to come.

For many, the new year begins in January, but for baseball-minded people (like yours truly), the new year begins when pitchers and catchers report. And if you ask me, that isn't a bad way of thinking considering the time of year with warming temperatures and the renewal of life after a long winter slumber.

New beginnings, folks. Take advantage of every one of them.

Quick Thoughts

Indians agree to 4-year/$25 million extension with Michael Brantley... Now I know many would have rather seenJustin Masterson or Jason Kipnis extended first, but if you ask me, Michael Brantley is just about as significant a factor in the team's success.  He may not put up superstar numbers in any one category, but he does so many things well enough to increase his value to the team.

Last season, he had a career-best season in left field playing errorless defense in 151 games and finishing in the top five in outfield assists with 11. At the plate, he had acareer highs in home runs, RBI and stolen bases with 11, 73 and 17, respectively. Additionally, he was third in the league when batting with runners in scoring position as he boasted a .375 average in those situations only topped by Miguel Cabrera and Salvador Perez

Since the deal covers his remaining arbitration years and potentially two years of free agency with an average-annual value of $6.25 million, I'd say this is a win for the Indians as they may have saved some cash down the road in arbitration if Brantley continues to improve, which at only age 26, he may very well do.

Bronson Arroyo signs 2-year/$19 million deal with Arizona... From supposedly having "no offers on the table" to being signed in a week. I don't know if I believe that Arroyo had no offers, but in the end, he still got an offer that he liked as he will be joining the Diamondbacks rotation on a two-year deal with an $11 option for a third year and a $4.5 million buyout, so he will be guaranteed a minimum of $23.5 million.

It may be only a two-year deal, but an average-annual value of $9.5 million seems a little steep to me, but with him staying in the National League and a pretty good chance of him giving Arizona 200 or more innings, it could work out well for them.

And don't look now, but both divisions out west are about as stacked as you can get. The Dodgers and Rangers are the favorites to win the dicision crowns, but teams like the Angels, Mariners, A's and D-Backs have bulked up this offseason as they hope to make each race more interesting. And I, for one, am looking forward to it.

Alex Rodríguez drops lawsuit against MLB and Players Association... I know I promised no more A-Rod talk on here, but due to this unforseen turn of events, I don't see how I could avoid it. Whether it was change in legal advice, fear and realization as to who he was taking to court or even a change of heart, whatever the case may be, Alex Rodriguez made the right decision.

He's still got a pretty deep hole to dig himself out of, but not as deep as it would've been if he had gone through with the lawsuits, which I'm confident in saying would have ended his major league career. Now he still may not take another at-bat in the big leagues, but now at least he can now allow the healing process to start working in order to give him any chance, slim as it may be, of keeping his MLB career in tact after the suspension.

Is this an admission of guilt. Possibly considering that despite his various public denials, he has yet to issue any under oath, but whether it is or not, he'll serve out his suspension and try to start fresh in 2015. He's also stated that he will not be attending spring training, which, in my opinion, is the best thing for him, the Yankees and his teammates.

The development I'm most interested to see possibly come out of this debacle now that Rodriguez is likely accepting his record suspension is the potential discussion of lengthening drug-related suspensions. To me, 50 games is not enough anymore for first-time offenders since despite their suspensions in 2013, Jhonny Peralta and now possibly Nelson Cruz are still profiting this offseason with multi-year deals.

It's been a long, hard battle these last several months, but now hopefully Major League Baseball can move on and continue their efforts to clean up the game.

Fernando Rodney signs 2-year/$14 million deal with Mariners... I'm trying to avoid falling into the trap again that was set by the Blue Jays, Marlins and Angels in years past as the talk of the offseason and the "sure thing" contenders in the upcoming season. But it's becoming hard not to with the way the Mariners have been bulking up this offseason. Unlike the teams that have fooled us in the past, I think Seattle has a better foundation in the rotation, the lineup and the bullpen. In other words, they appear to be more multi-dimensional than the aforementioned clubs in the past.

Now whether they can match up head to head against the Rangers, A's or even the Angels is still an uphill battle, but with Robinson Cano anchoring the lineup, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma at the front of the rotation and now Fernando Rodney locking things down in the ninth, they have pretty good opportunities ahead of them if they can fill the rest of the puzzle.

I know with the Seahawks fresh off their Superbowl win, fans in Seattle are going to be ready to watch another winner.

In conclusion...

Neither snow, nor cold, nor the Browns cleaning out the front office can distract me from pitchers and catchers reporting. I cannot wait to get the new season underway with so many new and exciting opportunities and innovations with the Indians and Major League Baseball in 2014.

Will the Indians repeat as contenders and go to the next level?

Will Danny Salazar step up and become one of the league's elite young pitchers?

How much will Carlos Santana play third base this season?

How well will expanded replay be implemented?

Will home plate collisions be eliminated from the game?

I know questions like these crop up every season, but it seems like there are a lot more storylines to watch unfold in the upcoming season and probably even ones we won't see coming.

Here's to another great season of America's Pastime!

The Indians are fresh off a wild card run in 2013 and have experienced a complete cultural turnaround in just one year with the hiring of Terry Francona and the establishment of a new veteran core of players in Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to compliment the young talent already in place.

This year, their mission is to prove that they are not a one-hit wonder and that they will be a force to be reckoned with for hopefully several years to come.

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

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