Playing Pepper 2014: Cleveland Indians

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Cleveland Indians
92-70, second in the AL Central, lost in the Wild Card Game

Talk about ending on a rush.  The Indians ran off a ten-game winning streak to finish the regular season, needing every bit of it to slip past Texas to get into October.  If ever there was an argument for a hot team going far, Cleveland would have seemed to be it.

So, of course, they lost their first playoff game and went home.

Still, things look good up there in northern Ohio.  Young, exciting players and a division that, save for maybe the Tigers, has no dominant teams.  It would seem reasonable to think that Cleveland might get a chance to redeem their postseason pratfall in short order.

To that end, we have a wide variety of opinions to sort through today, as the Indians have one of the stronger blogging fanbases.  With us are:

Pull up a chair and find a nice beverage as we talk about the other Ohio team!

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

DTW: I would give it a C or C+. They didn’t make any splashy moves like last season, but they did make several moves that improved the team. David Murphy should be an improvement to Drew Stubbs, offensively and the bullpen has been re-tooled. Both should be improvements from where they were at the end of the season. I’d give them a higher grade if I had trust in their starting rotation to do what they did last season. I don’t know that they had to resign Ubaldo Jimenez, but letting him walk without any real veteran replacement is risky, I think.

LGT: I’d give the offseason a C. When David Murphy is your biggest addition, it’s hard to consider the offseason a success. On the other hand, I didn’t go into the winter expecting big moves, because bringing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn aboard last year amounted to two years’ worth of spending.

TB: After the huge offseason last year, when the Indians picked up Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds (who was productive until no later than mid-May), and others — a total spending of $122.7MM — it’s hard to look at this offseason and think anything but, “meh.” They didn’t pick up a proven pitcher, which they really should have done given the loss of Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez. So pitching is a huge question mark. Their biggest offensive signing was David Murphy who’s been solid for most of his career, but still another question mark after his horrid 2013 campaign. They did pick up some much-needed bullpen pieces. I’d say they’ve improved slightly. To put a grade on it, I’ll go an even C.

TD: The Indians had a few objectives that they would have loved to hit on, but needed to be intelligent in how they went about completing them. It would have been nice to retain Scott Kazmir or sign a starter the caliber of him on a short term deal. However, Kazmir received too much from the A’s for the Indians to think about bringing him back and no other option out there became appealing given the pricey short-term deals being handed out. They had to commit near $10 million to Justin Masterson as an arbitration eligible player and that right there alone is a significant jump in payroll. So the Indians do what they always do, sign guys like Shaun Marcum and Aaron Harang to minor league deals and use them as depth. Luckily they have a lot of young arms ready for a fight in the rotation, so overall, they didn’t compromise their positioning just to sign someone. The Indians are not in a desperate position, so the way they handled their offseason in my opinion was rather well. They locked up Michael Brantley and soon could do the same with Jason Kipnis, added another member to their bench (also known as The Goon Squad) in David Murphy, and retooled a bullpen that lost some arms with John Axford and Josh Outman. I’d grade it at a solid B for not getting too aggressive when they didn’t need to be.

TS: Ownership made it clear that they spent any new revenues to be realized from local and national TV deals last year on Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, making departure the theme of the Indians’ offseason.

Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, collectively responsible for 61 starts and 340 innings of 3.65 ERA, departed for the greener pastures of Baltimore and Oakland. Setup man Joe Smith signed a lucrative 3-year deal with Los Anaheim. The Indians front office sent Drew Stubbs and Chris Perez packing before either could reap the benefits of arbitration, in Stubbs’ case swapping him for left-handed reliever Josh Outman.

Several credible in-house candidates to replace Smith exist in Vinnie Pestano, Cody Allen, and Bryan Shaw. New addition David Murphy will be an upgrade over Stubbs, whose poor plate discipline and struggles against right-handed pitching the past three seasons should have relegated him to a fourth-outfielder role. John Axford was brought in to close, and his reasonable one-year deal and three remaining years of control make him the best acquisition of the offseason.

The Tribe did little to address the gaping hole in the rotation, signing only a project (Shaun Marcum), a reject (Aaron Harang), and the usual suspects (Tyler Cloyd and Kyle Davies) to fill the void. If any end up pitching significant innings in 2014, the season will not have gone well. Instead, the Indians will hope that Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, and Zach McAllister can replace much of the missing innings, in not only quantity but quality. The rest will have to come from Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin or Trevor Bauer.

GM Chris Antonetti did well to avoid signing any lucrative, long-term contracts with mediocre free agent starters such as Ricky Nolasco or Ervin Santana. Moreover, by signing Axford, he didn’t commit guaranteed money to any of the aging closers on the market. Signing Murphy to platoon with Ryan Raburn seems like a cost-effective solution in right field. The Indians won their first two arbitration cases in 22 years, and avoided two others by extending Michael Brantley and coming to terms with Justin Masterson before his hearing. Yet the offseason was disappointing because the Indians treaded water, failing to make any significant improvements to capitalize on their first playoff appearance since 2007.

Grade: C+

WOF: Right now, I’d have to give the Indians a C+. While I don’t feel like they’ve gotten any worse, they also haven’t done a whole lot to get better. Looking at the expected opening day roster, their only noteworthy additions were David Murphy and John Axford AND they’re hoping both can have bounce back years. They’re also hoping Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and Asdrubal Cabrera can bounce back too. Hard to envision of that happening right now. I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic.

C70: Given the Cardinal connection, I have to ask what are you expecting to get from John Axford?

DTW: I’m expecting to get the same type of numbers your average closer produces. Axford struggled the last season and a half in Milwaukee, but he really attributes his month in St. Louis to fixing his mechanical issues. Depending who you talk to, he made a minor mechanical change, or stopped tipping his pitches. I expect Axford to come in and be the closer. That’s the first step to defining everyone else’s role in the bullpen. I don’t think you’ll see the best John Axford season ever, but you will also see a better season than Chris Perez put together in 2013.

LGT: I don’t allow myself high expectations for Indians closers, that way I can’t be disappointed. That said, the idea that Axford was tipping his pitches is intriguing, though it can’t explain the full extent of his decline prior to last August. Whatever the case, he did very well for the Cardinals, and if he can split the difference between those numbers and and his production in Milwaukee, he’ll be a solid upgrade over Chris Perez.

TB: It’s hard for me to imagine he will struggle the way he did with the Brewers. After being traded to the Cardinals, he learned that he’d been tipping his pitches — which must have been a bit of an awkward moment when they told him that. Anyway, he pitched well down the stretch in St. Louis. While it’s obviously unreasonable to think that he’ll keep up the 1.74 ERA that he had with the Cards, I expect him to be an upgrade from Chris Perez in the closer’s role.

TD: The other addition the Indians made was in the bullpen by signing Axford. After letting Chris Perez go, and seeing Joe Smith walk in free agency, the Indians needed to try and at least address their veteran depth in the bullpen. Vinnie Pestano is expected to bounce back, but you can’t count on him to be a closer right out of the gate. Axford is expected to provide stability at the back end to start the year. If the Indians can settle him into a role, similar to how Chris Perez did, the rest of the bullpen can then fall into order. Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw are expected to play big parts, and asking either of them or Pestano to fill Perez’s shoes could work, but at the expense of needing others behind them to step up and fill their roles. Axford provides a smooth transition from last year’s situation to this year, and perhaps, brings a bit more stability if he can return to form from his Milwaukee days. With the “tipping pitches” fiasco out of the way, Axford should do just what Perez did, provide a reliable ninth inning arm and let Terry Francona use much more durable and versatile relievers in Shaw and Allen in the earlier innings where they thrived last year.

TS: Axford credits his late-season success to the Cardinals’ coaching staff, who corrected a tell in his delivery that tipped hitters off to his pitch selection. He still possesses the blazing four-seamer and two quality off-speed pitches that enabled him to dominate the NL in 2010-11, but the control issues that have plagued him throughout his career will likely provide Terry Francona some white-knuckle moments along the dugout rail. Still, Axford should easily better the numbers of Perez provided he can navigate through the pitcherless lineups of the big boy league.

WOF: I actually think Axford is the most likely of the players I listed above to bounce back. Given the adjustments he made with the Cardinals to prevent him from tipping his pitches combined with the tutelage of Mickey Callaway, there’s no reason to think he can regain the form that made him a dominant closer with the Brewers. I fully expect him to win the job and hold it for the entire season while also endearing himself to the Cleveland fan base (he’s already a hit). One positive, if he does falter, Cody Allen is waiting in the wings as the possible closer of the future. That’s not a bad plan B.

C70: Which roster battle will be most intriguing during Spring Training?

DTW: I think it’s scary that there aren’t really any serious roster battles. The Indians have Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer and Shaun Marcum all competing for the fifth starter’s spot. I’m not sure that is really intriguing, since most teams have a fifth starter battle. To me, I’m interested to see if Carlos Santana can really play an adequate third base. The realist in me has a hard time seeing him be able to make the transition since he was moved away from third base as a minor leaguer. If he had long term potential at third base, the Indians and Dodgers would have stuck with him. Instead, he’s really been below average defensively at both first base and catcher in his career. The optimist in me wants to see him be able to do it. It would buy the Indians a lot more flexibility with their roster and a much deeper team. Santana does not want to just be a DH. If he can play third base, even part time, it may allow room for someone like Jason Giambi or David Cooper to make the roster. I’m also intrigued by this because if Santana asserts himself as even a part-time option at third base, I’m not sure what role Lonnie Chisenhall has on this roster. It could be the end of Chisenhall’s long list of chances to become the Indians’ starter.

LGT: The fifth spot in the rotation is probably the most significant battle, but my attention is drawn to third base. Lonnie Chisenhall is the likely starter, but he’s not the only guy who’ll be getting reps at the hot corner. Carlos Santana, formerly the Tribe’s catcher, spent much of the offseason playing third base in the Dominican Winter League, in attempt to increase his versatility and keep from being used as a DH 4 or 5 times a week. He’s the team’s best hitter, and I love that he wants to find other ways to help. He could become the first player in franchise history to start 10+ games at catcher, first base, and third base, which would be kinda cool.

TB: The third base situation. As much as we all want to see Lonnie Chisenhall finally come around, whether or not he’ll do that will remain a question. If he doesn’t, the Indians will probably go to Carlos Santana as the everyday third baseman. At first, the idea of Santana playing third base seemed silly, but it is an interesting idea. If the defense is there, it’ll be a huge relief to have a bat at third. It would also open the DH spot in the lineup, giving guys like Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles more at-bats.

TD: Keep an eye on what will be happening with Lonnie Chisenhall. The Indians have been flirting with the idea of moving Carlos Santana over to third, not full-time, but for a decent amount. Because they want Nick Swisher mostly over at first (to allow Brantley and Bourn to roam the outfield and platoon Ryan Raburn and Murphy), Santana is suddenly a man without a position with hot-shot Yan Gomes taking over as full-time catcher. You could DH him, but Santana is a good athlete and wants to play the field and the Indians could maximize that DH spot if they had Santana penciled in to third on a regular basis. Chisenhall isn’t expected to go down without a fight though, reportedly having a really good (and normal) offseason working on what has been tripping him up from completely breaking out in the big leagues. No one is really sure what will happen at third, but Chisenhall needs to make the roster and with an All-Star hitter perhaps contending for time at the hot corner, it makes things just a bit tougher for him.

TS: Yan Gomes’ surprising bat and superior pitch framing have pushed Carlos Santana out of the starting catcher’s job and into a battle with Lonnie Chisenhall at the hot corner.

Santana has the jump on Chisenhall, playing 29 games at third in the Dominican Winter League to prepare for spring training, but results there were mixed. Santana at times showed good range, but committed nine errors and allowed nine infield hits.

Chisenhall, 25, has the first-round pedigree but his major league career has sputtered through three false starts. Still, he has just over a season’s worth of plate appearances to his name; should he manage to put his offensive and defensive games together, Chisenhall has the potential to become a league-average third baseman.

The possibility of Santana becoming the regular third baseman has some Indians fans excited, though a more realistic scenario has him spelling Chisenhall at third versus tough left-handers and spending the rest of his time filling in around the diamond as needed (DH, C, 1B).

Chisenhall has the surer glove of the two, making him the likely starter when groundballer Justin Masterson is on the mound, and his splits against RHP, while not inspiring, are playable.

WOF: Hands down, it’s the battle for third base. Typically, wondering whether or not one of your top prospects can finally grab hold of the position would be interesting enough. Combine that with your former starting catcher and best offensive weapon also battling for the starting spot and it becomes one of the most intriguing battles in all of baseball. The idea or Carlos Santana playing third has taken us all hostage. No one can decide if this is a good idea or not. If he wins the job, we have no idea what that means for Lonnie Chisenhall’s future. This has the potential to alter how this team looks for years to come. It certainly doesn’t get more intriguing than that.

C70: Which rookie, if any, will make the biggest impact on the team in 2014?

DTW: He doesn’t have rookie status by two innings, but Danny Salazar is still very young in his MLB career. He’s the guy everyone is banking on assuming much of the load left from Jimenez. He was pretty incredible at times last season (i.e., striking out Miguel Cabrera three times in a game) despite a tight pitch count. The Indians insist the the pitch count limits are removed and Salazar can pitch a full season in 2014. I thought it was rather telling that Salazar got the nod in the Wild Card Game and no one questioned it, that’s how highly fans and the organization alike feel about him. With that said, I think the expectations placed on him for this season are pretty lofty for someone with just 10 MLB starts. I think a lot of people feel he can just walk into 2014 and win 15 games. I hope so, but if he doesn’t, I’m afraid this season could be a disappointing one.

At some point, I think top prospect Francisco Lindor will make his MLB debut. He’s pretty much slated to be the Opening Day shortstop in 2015. I can see him being a contributor down the stretch if the team is in contention, or potentially taking time from veterans if the team falls out of the race.

LGT: Francisco Lindor, the team’s top prospect, is the only guy I can see making a big difference for the Indians in 2014, and he might not even get called up (he’s only 20). Asdrubal Cabrera is entering the final year of his contract, and Lindor is the shortstop of the future. If Cabrera gets hurt, or if plays well enough to rebuild some trade value, he could be out of the lineup by late July. That would clear a more immediate path for Lindor, who’s ready to be a plus defender already, and projects to be an above-average hitter in time as well.

TB: Every fiber of my being wants to scream “DANNY SALAZAR! Danny Salazar!” And while I fully expect him to be a huge part of the 2014 Indians’ starting rotation, rules are rules. Danny Salazar does not technically qualify as a rookie, as he logged 52 innings last season, and to qualify as a rookie, you need under 50. After Salazar, the Indians are pretty thin as far as rookies go. But if I had to choose, I would pick Trevor Bauer. He will be competing for a rotation spot this spring, and although he struggled last season in Triple-A (partly due to lingering injuries), the kid is as talented as they come. He’s only 23, and the former 1st round pick still has ace potential. If he can crack the rotation this spring, he could become something special for the Indians.

TD: A lot of people are going to be talking about Francisco Lindor at shortstop this year, especially if Asdrubal Cabrera does not produce, or if the Indians fall out if contention by the trade deadline. Cabrera is a free agent and has been the subject of a lot of fan unrest the past year and a half. The idea is that they could trade him now and start looking towards the future with Lindor (and have Mike Aviles fill the shortstop role until then). But Cabrera is the guy right now and Tito Francona is staunchly behind him until further notice and I think he’ll last the entire year. He’s playing for a contract and that may bring out the best in him (just look at what the Cards gave Peralta as a starting point). That means, you’ll have to look in other spots for a rookie, but there are very few major league-ready rooks in positions the Tribe needs help in. Jose Ramirez however was skipped right up the professional ladder last year and made quite an impact in the little time he had. I’m pretty sure he still qualifies as a rookie and he might be gunning for a bench job right out of the gate. Even if he doesn’t, he will play a role in the 2014 season as a versatile fielder with elite speed. Francona loves his game and if Cabrera does falter, Aviles could take over, but it would mean an increase in the time Jose Ramirez sees.

TS: The most-rumored departure of the offseason–that of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera–never occurred, delaying the ascension of top prospect Francisco Lindor until mid-season at the earliest. Lindor would improve the infield defense dramatically, but he is still refining his offensive game. Should the Tribe fall out of contention, Antonetti will be tempted to find Cabrera a new home by the trading deadline so the Lindor Era can begin in earnest.

If the Indians are still in the thick of things come July, however, the greatest rookie contribution may come from Bauer, who has retooled his delivery and refined his command this winter at the Texas Baseball Ranch. Ranked among Baseball America’s Top 100 for three years running, Bauer could justify that status if his hard work leads to a rotation spot this spring.

WOF: Probably none of them. The Indians are pretty much set with their roster and no one is really ready to break through. But, if I had to pick someone, I’d say Francisco Lindor. If Cabrera struggles, gets hurt, or is even traded at some point, it could push Lindor through the minor league levels at warp speed. There’s also the possibility that he performs so well that he can’t be ignored. That said, we aren’t likely to see him this year because the Indians don’t want to start the service clock prematurely and want to be sure that when they call him up that they are calling him up for good. But again, you just never know. Desperate times often call for desperate measures. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

DTW: I hate to say this, but I think they are a third place team. I think Kansas City is a year better and improved. The Indians were 30-17 in one-run games a year ago and finished the season on a 10-game win streak to get in the playoffs. I’m just not sure they can re-create that. I think the quality of the division is better from top to bottom, too. Cleveland won 15 of 18 from the Chicago White Sox a year ago. I can’t see that happening either. My biggest reservation though is that they are counting on several young starting pitchers (Salazar, Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber) to pitch as well as they did in 2013, or better. Young pitchers sometimes regress. If any of those guys regress, or are injured for a considerable amount of time, I’m not sure the Tribe has a suitable replacement that can keep them in a pennant race.

LGT: 85-77, 2nd place in the division.

TB: The Indians last year were lucky in many ways (Raburn, Gomes, etc.), but they were also unlucky in probably even more ways (Cabrera, Swisher, Bourn, Pestano, etc.). I think the offense will again be one of the league’s elite. I really doubt that Cabby, Swish, and Bourn would struggle again like they did in 2013, so I expect them to be back. The pitching I think will be around the middle of the pack again, maybe slightly below; but with the potential to be in the top 10 in the majors. I don’t expect that, but it’s possible. All in all, the talent is close to the level of last year. I’ll go between 88-93 wins, second place in the AL Central behind the Tigers and ahead of the Royals, and again fighting for a Wild Card spot.

TD: After last season, it is really hard to not go eternal optimist and pick them to win the division. Here is what it boils down to though. This team needs to beat Detroit. They finished just a game back of the AL Central winners and that was with losing 15 of the 19 games played against the Tigs. You would assume that all they have to do is win a few more games against Detroit, even come close to splitting, and this team could realistically win the division. If they cannot beat Detroit though, they cannot win the division. I think they’ll once again make the playoffs and win 90 games, but until we see both of these new-look teams out on the field in 2014, I’m not sure if the Indians can close the gap on the Tigers, but they certainly have the potential to.

TS: The Indians were one of baseball’s surprise teams last season, improving by 24 wins over 2012. As is often the case with surprise teams, the 2013 Tribe overachieved, bettering their third-order wins by more than five. Given the defections from the pitching staff and the reliance on rebounds from aging players such as Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, I expect the Tribe to slip by as many as 10 wins this season. That could be good enough for second place in what should be a more competitive, though depleted, AL Central.

WOF: As much as I want to say they’ll win 95 games and the AL Central crown, I just don’t see that happening. I think right now this is an 85 win team that will battle for a wild card spot once again. A lot will be determined by how much Kansas City improves. If they can finally get over the hump, they could be a serious thorn in the Indians side. So again, I’ll say 85 wins, battle KC for second behind Detroit, and contend for a wild card spot for the second year in a row.

C70: Which player on your team do you most enjoy watching?

DTW: On this team, I really enjoy Michael Brantley. He has the nickname in Cleveland of, “Dr. Smooth,” and that is the best description one can find to describe him. He doesn’t do anything amazing, but he does everything well. He is so consistent and the ultimate team player. Whenever I’ve spoken with him, or heard him speak, he is focused on team success. He’s a guy that wants to play every day and do anything to help the team win. He’s sacrificed his own role, moving from center field to left field, and has hit in nearly every spot in the lineup during the last couple seasons. He’s a guy, that if they can win the division and make a playoff run, deserves it as much as anyone. Brantley has been here for some tough times in 2010-2012. He deserves all the team success they can muster in 2014.

LGT: Danny Salazar was something to behold at the end of last year. He’s got some things to learn about pitching in the big leagues, but it’s been a while since an Indians pitcher had such electrifying stuff, a guy who made every start feel like appointment viewing.

TB: I have to go with my man Michael Brantley. He plays such fundamentally sound baseball, and never tries to do too much. Defensively, he was among the league leaders in outfield assists in 2013, and one of only 5 outfielders in the majors to not commit an error last season. While defensive metrics do not smile upon Brantley, the question is asking which player I enjoy watching, and there’s no doubt it’s fun to watch Brantley play left field. Offensively, there’s nothing not to like about him. Both traditional and advanced statistics say Brantley is an excellent hitter. He’s the most calm hitter I’ve ever seen in clutch situations. Dr. Smooth is one of the most fun players to watch that I can think of.

TD: You can’t help but love the way Jason Kipnis plays the game, always getting dirty, playing tough, not giving up at-bats. It really is perfect that he is the face of a team from Cleveland. I love watching Vinnie Pestano though, especially when he is at his best. Pestano had a rough year in 2013, but he is full of fire and determination. The way he sprints out to the mound when he is called in from the bullpen, the intensity that he has when he is out there pitching. He makes it fun to watch a reliever come in and do his job. They’re the two players on this team that get me excited to watch a game at any time.

TS: With every pitch, Danny Salazar walks a high wire, daring hitters to swing at 96-mph fastballs up in the zone then defying them with an 86-mph split-change that drops off the table. Win or lose, each matchup is electric.

WOF: Tough question, but I’d say Jason Kipnis. He’s our best all around player and is just so much fun to watch play baseball. It’s so cliche, but he plays the game the right way. Following him on Twitter and Instagram has added another layer to why I love watching him play for the Indians. Kipnis just seems like a good guy and someone you’d love to hang out with. You could throw him into your group of friends and things wouldn’t skip a beat. It looks like he’s just beginning to tap into his potential too so the next few years should be fun. Honorable mentions to Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher.

My thanks to all of these guys for bringing us some good information.  The AL Central could be a very competitive division and you have to like the Indians’ chances of making some noise.

  • Buddhasillegitimatechild38

    The volatility of 1 run game records should scare Indian fams right now.amd I’m glad it was mentioned. Detroit keeps seeming to underperform thier Pythagorean record amd third order win percentage and Cleveland has some talent to there is some hope for a division championship, especially with Detroit’s starnge and poor offseason (especially the Fister trade. Seriously, WTF were they doing?) But Detroit is still a very good team and Cleveland is probably a little worse than last year in the win column. Of course I felt the se way about the Cards in 2003 (given we had a once in a generation talent and I had no idea what a third order win % was or how volatile 1 run records were) so we’ll see if Cleveland wins 80 games or 105

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