Swinging for the Fences: New Year's resolutions
An early 2014 outlook for the Indians and their goals moving forward
It's a new year, a time when goals and resolutions are made. And while some are planning a new exercise and weight-loss regimen or aiming to get that big promotion at work, Terry Francona and his crew at Progressive Field are setting their sights higher as they hope to push their way to the next level as a ball-club coming off a year where they got a brief taste of postseason play.
What are their realistic expectations for next season? What strengths are they banking on to contend? What weaknesses do they hope to see improve? Heading into the new year, the Indians have high hopes, but also questions they need to address.
1. Improve and maintain strong starting pitching.
While the Indians were marketed at the beginning of last season as a strong offensive team, it was really their starting pitching down the stretch that was the true driving force behind their wild card push. However, they have lost Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir to free agency. Will their presence be missed?
The emergence of the staff to establish long-awaited stability in the rotation, the likes of which hasn't been seen since Cy Young-winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee were still on the team. Of course, they have not returned to that level of dominance just yet, but there are a lot less questions with the starting pitching heading into 2014 than there has been the past few seasons.
Projected 2014 Starting Rotation (tentative):
- Justin Masterson
- Danny Salazar
- Corey Kluber
- Zach McAllister
- Carlos Carrasco/Shaun Marcum/Josh Tomlin/Trevor Bauer
Justin Masterson is heading into his final season with the Tribe prior to free agency and his stock is only going up after a solid bounce-back performance as the leader of the staff prior to injury in September. While he may not be regarded as an ace on the open market, he will get a big paycheck if the Indians fail to negotiate a contract extension with the right-hander. Until then, though, I wouldn't expect much different from Masty next season as far as pitching and leadership (hopefully minus the oblique strain, though),
In a season of many great stories, the emergence of Danny Salazar was probably the best to watch unfold. As someone who has followed this young right-hander's career since he first was promoted to AA Akron, I can say firsthand that his recovery from Tommy John surgery and continued development of mechanics and command has been remarkable.
But as my colleague Jim Piascik pointed out in an article last week, he is not a finished product yet and has some concerns and questions surrounding him. His talent is worth getting excited about, though. After all, striking outMiguel Cabrera three times in one game is no easy task.
The biggest goal for Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber heading into 2014 is most likely to keep those pitching fingers healthy. Both pitchers have emerged as 'late bloomers' of sorts as they have finally reached the potential of quality big league starters after showing minimal signs of it prior to this year as pitching prospects. Kluber's renaissance was especially surprising as he had figured in as a sixth starter at best on the depth chart. Both need to prove they can return to their pre-injury forms as they look to anchor the middle of the rotation.
The current field for the fifth starter's job is wide-ranging with a variety of different pitchers. Carlos Carrasco is the last remnant of the Cliff Lee trade who has dominant pitches, but has yet to get his mentality straight on the mound consistently. Trevor Bauer is the former top draft pick looking to make the right adjustments so he can finally stick at the big league level. Josh Tomlin is a command specialist on his way back from Tommy John Surgery. And finally, the newly-acquired Shaun Marcum is recovered from injury and gopes to return to a big league rotation.
I also wouldn't rule out a return for Jimenez. Now that Masahiro Tanaka has been posted, we'll see how the rest of the free-agent pitching market responds, but so far, the draft pick compensation attached to him and Ervin Santanamay be hurting their market value more than expected.
2. Get consistent run production from lineup.
The young core of Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley and, to a lesser extent, Lonnie Chisenhall was finally established for Chris Antonetti and new skipper Terry Francona to build around last offseason as they shocked the baseball world with the acquisitions of more veteran hitters Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn as well as various lesser pickups, some of which have worked out and some that haven't.
The lineup did live up to expectations to some degree as they did finish in the top five in baseball in runs scored (745), although Swisher and Bourn did not light up the scoreboard as much as expected. However, they did lack a consistent run producer as they failed to have any player eclipse 30 home runs or 100 RBI.
Projected Lineup (tentative):
- Michael Bourn CF
- Nick Swisher 1B
- Jason Kipnis 2B
- Carlos Santana DH
- Michael Brantley LF
- Yan Gomes C
- Asdrubal Cabrera SS
- David Murphy/Ryan Raburn RF
- Lonnie Chisenhall 3B
The Indians have not made any significant upgrades to the lineup thus far in the offseason as their only changes have been signing outfielder David Murphy to a two-year deal to platoon with Ryan Raburn in right field as well as promoting upstart young catcher Yan Gomes to the everyday backstop position.
So the question becomes is this lineup as it stands right now one the team can bank on to produce again in 2014?
Well, based on career averages, Murphy and Raburn could potentially combine for 25-30 home runs and 80-100 RBI out of right field, which is without a doubt better than what Drew Stubbs provided last season.
You can also make an argument that Kipnis and Santana have yet to reach their full potential as possible offensive superstars in this league. I know I, for one, am looking forward to seeing if the two of them can take another step or two forward in 2014.
As for Bourn and Swisher, one would certainly hope that their regression in 2013 was just an anomaly and that they should return to their career norms. I'm more optomistic with Swisher due to his recurring shoulder problems during the season that should be healed now. With Bourn, I believe his drop in the stolen base department was mostly due to unfamiliarty with American League pitchers. Being a career National League player, he only faced AL pitching sporadically. Hopefully 2013 served as a learning curve for Bourn and he can begin to wreak havoc on the base paths again.
Asdrubal Cabrera is coming off an abysmal season both at the plate and in the field and many fans wouldn't be sad to see him sent packing. With Francisco Lindor now in AA Akron and Mike Aviles and Jose Ramirez available at the big league level, the Indians would certainly seem to be able to afford trading Cabrera and they still might. Although there is also something to be said for trying to get production on the field during a contract year as he is eligible for free agency at the end of 2014. There's still time left in the offseason for a deal to be made, but it's looking like they may be leaning towards keeping him at least until the trade deadline.
Finally, the biggest x-factor in the lineup right now is Lonnie Chisenhall. He was an exciting prospect that possesses a swing that many scouts and analysts have spoken highly of. But there's no more reason to wait. His time is now. If he cannot figure things out in the upcoming year, there's likely very little chance that he will continue to find favor with the franchise. If he can finally find his niche, the lineup looks a whole lot deeper and more dangerous.
3. Resurrect the Bullpen Mafia.
The Indians bullpen was a surprise in 2013, as well, but not in a good way. The fall from grace of Vinnie Pestanoand Chris Perez was a tough pill to swallow as the once-dominant back of the Tribe bullpen was in question for much of the year. Pestano started out as the setup man, but lost the job not too far into the season to rookie Cody Allen and veteran side-armer Joe Smith. Perez hung around longer in the closer role, but inconsistency and eventual lack of dominance by the end of the season cost him the job.
Perez is gone now as he has joined the Dodgers on a one-year deal as well as other relievers in Smith, Matt Albers and Rich Hill. The good news is, the Indians have sufficient depth in the relief pitching department and have already made moves they hope will make up for the losses.
Projected Bullpen (tentative):
- John Axford - CL
- Cody Allen - SU
- Bryan Shaw - SU
- Josh Outman - LOOGY
- Vinnie Pestano/CC Lee - MR
- Marc Rzepczynski - MR
- Carlos Carrasco/Josh Tomlin - LR
The team has pegged free agent right-hander John Axford as their new closer. Axford coming off two poor seasons after racking up 46 saves for Milwaukee in 2011. It's a gamble, but after spending time in St. Louis with their exceptional pitching coaching and development staff and now coming to Cleveland to pitch under the tutelageMickey Callaway, he has a pretty good chance at getting back on track.
Cody Allen has been one of the more exciting rookies to watch develop in just a year and a half at the big league level. His high-power heater now coupled with a devastating curveball make him perfectly capable of stepping up as a setup man for Axford. You know it, I know it and Tito knows it.
Bryan Shaw is an interesting option. As I wrote in this column earlier this offseason, I believed he had the right stuff to be able to step up and become a mainstay in the back of the bullpen. Of course, command was a bit of an issue for him last season, but if he can continue what he did down the stretch, he'll be just fine.
The left-handed relief finally appears to have some stability thanks to the additions of Marc Rzepczynski during the season and Josh Outman earlier this month. Needless to say, Nick Hagadone has his back up against the wall right now, but as long as he doesn't punch it, maybe this is what he needs seize this opportunity to finally find his stride in the majors. (Sorry, Nick. I couldn't resist.)
Now you may be asking "What about Vinnie?". I assure you that I am confident that he is capable of returning to form again. But for now, realistically, I don't see him getting his job back outright unless he flat-out dominates in spring training. He'll have to earn his way back, but if he does, it can change things in the bullpen so much for the better.
I see the long relief spot vacated by Matt Albers will most likely go to either Carlos Carrasco or Josh Tomlin. It's no secret Carrasco flourished in the bullpen late last season where he had failed miserably as a starter. Now, the Indians still have high hopes for Carrasco as a starter, but I see him starting out the year in the bullpen at least until he builds up confidence in his pitching.
The Tribe will continue to develop their relief pitching prospects and build up depth in the upper levels of the minor leagues. Right now, Blake Wood, Frank Herrmann, CC Lee, Austin Adams, Kyle Crockett and more are working their way up to AAA or are already there, so bullpen depth should not be a major concern next season.
4. Keep calm and Goon on.
So many different factors played a part in the success of the Indians in 2013, but one of the more prominent contributors was the corps of utility players now known to many as the Goon Squad. The quartet of Jason Giambi, Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes proved to be one of the more productive benches in the league stepping in for injured or fatigued players on a regular basis.
Heading into 2014, Aviles and Giambi will in all likelihood be back on the bench as well as Raburn to a lesser extent, as he will be getting more regular playing time as a platoon right fielder with David Murphy. However, Yan Gomes will not be donning the red Goon Squad shirt this year as he has been given a starting role behind the plate. Right now, there are a lot of candidates for the final spot on the bench, but I think Jose Ramirez has a pretty good chance of taking that last spot as an infielder and pinch-runner.
Projected Bench (tentative):
- Mike Aviles INF/OF
- Jason Giambi DH
- Ryan Raburn/David Murphy RF
- Jose Ramirez INF/PR
Mike Aviles was a valuable asset as the super-sub on the bench to not only play three infield positions, but also the corner outfield spots on occasion. He doesn't do a lot with his bat, but he can rack up somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 home runs and 50 RBI as a part-time player. I'd expect him to provide more of the same in 2014.
It's no guarantee that Giambi will make the team since he will have to play for a roster spot again in spring training. But knowing how much Francona values his presence on the team, it's probably going to be hard to convince him otherwise. Maybe the magical moments he made happen in 2013 were a one-time thing. Regardless, the players love having him as a teammate and look up to him as a leader.
Let me just say I am a big fan of Jose Ramirez. Of all the prospects to see at AA Akron last season, he was probably the most fun to watch at the plate, in the field and on the base paths. And him get the call to the show in September was truly deserving. His future with the team depends in part on the future of Cabrera. Although I think he has a good shot of making the club regardless, his chances do look better if Cabby is traded.
As far as depth, there are several options to choose from. First baseman/DH David Cooper was signed to a major league contract, although he does have an option remaining, so he can be sent down to AAA. The journeyman outfielder and walk-off hero Matt Carson is back on a minor league deal. Then you have infielder David Adams who can play three positions and potentially hit around .300.
Who will be deemed 'Goon' enough? We'll find out in Goodyear.
5. Don't stop believing!
Probably the most important thing for both the players and fans to remember heading into this new year is that in the past year, Terry Francona and the rest of the Indians organization have given us all a reason to believe. Don't lose sight of that during what is a long season in Major League Baseball.
To the players, don't forget the camaraderie in the clubhouse last season and how important it was to get the team throught the tough times. It was that type of culture and unity that not only helped the Tribe to the playoffs, but also aided the Red Sox in their World Series championship.
To the fans, don't sell this team short. They accomplished many unexpected goals last season even with injuries to their starting pitching, inconsistency in their bullpen and underwhelming performances in their lineup. To me, the question isn't about whether they can repeat their success, but rather a question of how much further can they go? Give them the support they deserve.
Rakuten Golden Eagles agree to post Masahiro Tanaka to free agency... News has been slow for the most part during the holidays, but this is the headline everyone has been waiting for since Hot Stove season began. Now over this next month, any team can place the $20 million bid to negotiate with Tanaka in hopes of signing him. Right now, the Yankees are the favorites to land the Japanese phenom (surprise surprise), but the Cubs and other teams have been linked to the right-hander.
What I'm more interested in seeing, though, is how the posting and eventual signing of Tanaka by a team affects the rest of the free agent starting pitching market. Things have pretty much come to a standstill as teams waited for the posting. Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana are two of the top pitchers on the market seeking multi-year deals, but is their lack of suitors at the moment due to Tanaka or the risk and draft pick compensation attached to them? Now that Tanaka is posted, we should find out soon enough.
Could the Indians use another starter and/or another bat? Absolutely, and there's no reason why they cannot make another move or two before the offseason is over.
Yes, they haven't made that Nick Swisher-type signing that everyone can get excited about, but that doesn't mean the moves they have made haven't improved the team. They needed a closer, they got one. They needed a left-handed reliever, they got one. They needed a better corner outfielder, they got one. Like it or not, they are accomplishing what they set out to accomplish and they are likely not done yet.
What will 2014 hold in store for the Tribe? Can they make it to the next level? Will we see a second playoff game at Progressive Field?I don't know, but with this team, they will try to make it a fun ride for the fans no matter what.
Follow me on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake for all the latest Cleveland Indians news and baseball chat.
I'd love it if Bauer figured it out and opened in Cleveland. Very eager to see what he can do this spring.
ACab needs to prove himself before he gets pushed back in to the 2 hole, but I do see some logic in wanting to bat Swisher 5th or 6th. I'd still prefer him in the 2 hole to start the year though.
Kipnis is arguably our best hitter. Batting him 5th is just silly. I can understand why you don't want someone who strikes out a lot in the 3 hole, but Kip's K totals in 2013 weren't so bad that I would feel the need to move him, and his strikeout totals from this year were considerably higher than his career norm and would expect that number to decrease in 2014. Now, if you want to make an argument about wanting Kipnis in the lead off spot, that is something most of us here would probably be on board with.
I think they will have him start in AAA because of the fact that they really don't need another starter until later
It would be a very good option. Idk if they like him better than Carrasco
My projected lineup would be as follows:
Asdrubal(I know it's a risk in this but he's an ideal #2 hitter when he's going ok)
Brantley(Kipnis strikes out too much to be in the #3 spot,
Brantley is clutch also)
Kipnis(Ideal spot, IMO)
Swisher(his RBI potential is too valuable to bat #2, they did that last year because ACab was so terrible)
Murphy/Raburn(I expect a combined 30-100 from these two)
Chisenhall(time for Chiz to use that bat speed and beautiful swing to get results)
Gomes(most predicting a step back, I'll wait and see)
The bullpen appears to be versatile and very deep with even more power arms coming up. The starting lineup appears to be very solid and perhaps the only issue I do have is the projected batting order because from my PoV it really doesn't make sense from what I'm seeing. I don't want to criticize others for having their order but I would do things differently,
IMO, what will help the Indians alot more is bargain shopping in January with getting a platoon INF and another bullpen arm. INF like Tejada, Betancourt or a Baker to platoon at 3B and RP like a Neshek, O'Flaherty to fill out the bullpen. Also, more so than previous years the Indians will be able to bring up guys from farm system. Aguilar, Lee, Ramirez, Moncrief(I know he didn't do well in Winter Ball), Price, House and others,
I consider the Indians rock solid and think at the end of the day they will be very tough to beat for anyone in MLB, Believe it or not folks you have a legit WS contender
How has John Mirabelli kept his job, seriously? He's done a terrible job for over a decade now, but still he's around? I mean, WTF
The development of Carrasco, Bauer and or Tomlin's recovery may make up for the loss of Kazmir and Jimenez. Salazar also makes that a smaller pill to swallow. Everyone is operating on the assumption that the other pitchers, who broke through last year, will continue to improve. Or at least maintain their progress from 12 to 13.
Other issues that affect the Tribe is that the Tigers no longer have Prince and a dominant 5 pitcher rotation. How much progress the Twins and White Sox made? KC has not done anything terribly stupid this off season and should be better as they develop their young players.
Still there was only 10 players to do this last year. So it isn't like this is a staple among playoff contending teams.
Davis, Jones, Goldschmidt, Encarnacion, Soriano and Trumbo all did this and their teams missed the playoffs.
So did 26 other teams as only three teams had a player accomplish this last year. Two of the four players that did this played for Baltimore and they missed the playoffs.