Playing Pepper 2015: Cleveland Indians

It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form.  Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season.  It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are.  This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC.  Preorder this outstanding baseball simulation today!

Cleveland Indians
85-77, third in the AL Central

Cleveland rocks!  At least, they did last year, challenging for a wild card before finally settling for third in their division.  That, after being a wild card in 2013, puts the Indians on a bit of a run, one they could easily improve upon in 2015.

To talk about whether that will happen or not, we’ve got three stellar Tribe bloggers lined up for your edification.  First, we have long-time Pepper player Nino from The Tribe Daily, on Twitter @TheTribeDaily.  Next up is Mike from the unforgettable Did The Tribe Win Last Night?, whom you’ll find on Twitter @didtribewin.  Finally, we have Jason from Let’s Go Tribe, the SB Nation blog for the Indians.  You can follow the blog on Twitter @LetsGoTribe and him personally at @JasonLukehart.  Man’s got a LEGO Boba Fett as his avatar, so I’m pretty sure you can’t go wrong there.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

TD: A lot of fans get up in arms when the Indians “don’t do a whole lot” or make the one addition that they are hoping for. As always, the Indians have a plan and they execute it. They get what they need, they build up their depth, and they do their homework. I thought the offseason was fine. They added Brandon Moss to give them something legitimate to help support the middle of the order and added veteran depth to their rotation with Gavin Floyd. Those were really the only moves of note but this team’s growth will come in young players continuing their upward trend. Those were really the only moves that needed to be made.

DTW: In my opinion, no they did not. The Indians had the worst, or second worst, defense in all of baseball last year depending on what metrics you use. In terms of fixing their defense, the sentiment from the organization has been that Jose Ramirez is an upgrade from Asdrubal Cabrera and once that switch was made last year, things improved. I agree, it improved, but Michael Bourn has transposed from the best center fielder in baseball to one of the worst in just two years. Jason Kipnis is one of the worst defensive second basemen. A lot of people give him a pass because he had an oblique injury, but he has never been a good defender. Lonnie Chisenhall, Carlos Santana, Nick Swisher and David Murphy are each some of the worst at their respective positions and Brandon Moss is below average and coming off hip surgery. It’s not likely that is going to improve his speed or range. Offensively, they scored three runs or less in exactly 81 games last year, so changing the roster a little more to improve the defense could have also improved the offense. It isn’t like they hit their way out of their errors.

LGT: The Indians weren’t going to spend a lot of money this offseason, in part because anticipated arbitration raises for next offseason put their projected 2016 payroll somewhere above $90 million even without any new additions. Given the financial limitations, my hopes for the offseason were pretty modest. Trading Joe Wendle, a prospect I didn’t think was ever going to play a significant role for the Tribe, for Brandon Moss, who should be one of the three or four best hitters on the team, was a big victory in my mind. I realize additions like Moss and Gavin Floyd don’t excite everyone, but I think it was a successful winter.

C70: What are the chances that Corey Kluber approaches his 2014 levels?

TD: I’d say the chances he does exactly what he did last year are rather low. Kluber had a magical year, like the kind of year Cliff Lee had with the Indians a few years ago when he won his Cy Young. Kluber’s performance netted him the Cy Young and made him the the unquestioned leader of this staff. But to put up those same numbers? Unlikely. He’ll still be the number one and he could compete for the Cy Young again, but last year was magic and it is hard for magic to happen year after year for one player. Still, really really really good is okay too.

DTW: Um, not good, I’d say. Asking guys to win back-to-back Cy Youngs, or compete at that level doesn’t happen very often. No matter what anyone tells you, Kluber has exceeded every expectation anyone has had for him in the Indians organization. When he was called up in 2012, he was basically promoted because they were cleaning out the roster of angry veterans and he was already on the 40-man roster. People forget that he didn’t even make the roster out of Opening Day in 2013. He’s exceeded all expectations. Anyone that is building the 2015 Indians hopes around Kluber winning 20 games is likely going to be let down this summer. I think he wins 13-15 games, has an ERA around 3.30-3.50. Considering he was a toss in to a trade years ago, and a 25-year old Triple-A pitcher in 2012, that’s still pretty good. There’s nothing wrong with being above average.

LGT: I guess it depends what you mean by “approach.” I’m very confident 2014 will always be the best year of Kluber’s career, so in that regard, I don’t think he’s going to be as good. I also don’t think there was anything especially flukey about what Kluber did last year, and I expect him to be a very good pitcher this year, top seven or eight in the American League.

C70: What’s the most interesting decision Terry Francona has to make this spring?

TD: He has very few decisions to make this year outside the normal final roster spots. It mostly is what it is and that is a good thing. There will be posturing and a lot of opportunities for young guys to showcase themselves, which plays into the team down the road as the season goes on. I think all of the guys that are going to be attempting to win the fifth spot in the rotation will all get an opportunity this season, but it will be intriguing to see the battle play out to see who gets the first opportunity. Josh Tomlin, Danny Salazar, T.J. House, and Zach McAllister are the main contenders, with the decision likely come down to Salazar or House. That’s an interesting battle because House was sneaky good last year, but Salazar’s ceiling is super high. Tito will have to pick one to give the first opportunity to.

DTW: I think the most interesting decision Francona will be faced with this spring is whether he is willing to part ways with a veteran at the end of the spring or early in the season. At this point, Carlos Santana will play first base creating a DH/right field log jam with Nick Swisher, David Murphy, Brandon Moss and Ryan Raburn. The Indians have money committed to all four players for 2015. Cleveland is never big on eating veteran money before the season starts, and Francona is loyal to his veterans to a fault, but I have a hard time seeing four players fill two spots without a need for their roster spot elsewhere. Francona often likes to carry 13-man bullpens. I can’t see how that can happen if he is carrying all four of these players.

LGT: I think the starting rotation is the most interesting thing. It seems like Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Gavin Floyd, and Trevor Bauer are all “in,” so long as things don’t go very wrong for them during spring training. I’m a little surprised Bauer’s spot seems so secure, because I think Danny Salazar has been more accomplished. Salazar probably has the inside track for the fifth spot, and those five would feel to me like a very solid rotation. T.J. House pitched well enough last year to deserve serious consideration too, and I’d feel great about him as the sixth guy, same for Zach McAllister as the seventh guy and Josh Tomlin as the eighth. It’s big to have that kind of depth, because five starters are never enough.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

TD: Get ready to watch Trevor Bauer take that next step up the ladder. There’s a lot of optimism about Carlos Carrasco, and rightfully so after how on-fire he was to close out 2014. He’ll come in and be the number two and be expected to continue on like he did last year. But I think we’ll be talking about Bauer being the number two by the end of the season. As he continues to refine his mechanics and gain confidence, Bauer has shown that his work in progress is progressing and I think this is the year he takes off. He has a spot in the rotation and there’s not a good deal of pressure on him, so that gives him the perfect opportunity to settle in and make a giant stride towards living up to the potential he has.

DTW: If the Indians are going to make a push to win the division and make the playoffs, I think the player who has to make the greatest stride is Trevor Bauer. He’s had all the potential since before Cleveland acquired him, but mechanical issues and walks have been his downfall. He’s still young, but he’s also out of options. He needs to make a big stride and become a solid piece of the rotation. He, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar all have lights-out stuff. One of their young pitchers has to make that leap to go along with Kluber at the top of the rotation.

Offensively, I think this is a make or break year for Lonnie Chisenhall. The Indians have a number of young minor league infielders near big league ready in Francisco Lindor and Giovanny Urshela, along with Jose Ramirez already on the roster. If Chisenhall falters again, I can see him being replaced by one of the younger players. Lindor is the Tribe’s heir apparent at shortstop. Ramirez can play all over the field and Urshela has a big league ready glove, but must develop a little better plate awareness at Triple-A. All three players present a possibility to replace Chisenhall in the lineup though.

LGT: I think Jason Kipnis will rebound, but I suppose recovering from an in injury isn’t really the same as making great strides. Like many, I’ve been high on Francisco Lindor for a while now, and I think he’s going to play well enough in Columbus to force a promotion this season.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

TD: A lot of people are calling the AL Central the best division in baseball. Some people think the White Sox are going to be heavily improved. Some people expect the defending American League Champion Royals to be around. Some people think even though they’ve lost some pieces, Detroit is still a force to be reckoned with. But man, I’ve seen a lot of people outside of Cleveland on the Indians bandwagon. I don’t like getting into that, because yeah the White Sox improved on paper, but let’s see it on the field. Yeah, Detroit has lost some pieces, but how are we to know it will result in a giant step back? Cleveland certainly has the makeup to win this division. I think they’re in it to the end, but the deciding factor will be who can win the most games within the division. With a tight win last year, that is how Detroit separated themselves and that is how the Indians will need to if they want to win it.

DTW: A lot of people in Cleveland, and nationally, seem to really like the Indians. I feel like the biggest reason people like the Indians is because Detroit and Kansas City have each regressed. While they’ve regressed, I have a hard time seeing the Indians as a favorite to win the division just because they aren’t worse than last year. Defensively, they are still a mess. Offensively, they are very streaky, and while everyone remembers how strong their starting pitching was the last two months of the season, it was just as unreliable in the first half of the season. I always feel like a lot of young players are just assumed to progress and mature, while no one regresses. That’s not practical. The Indians won 85 games last year and have done little to improve, so I think they’ll win 85 games again.

LGT: I’m prone to pessimism when it comes to the Indians, but that feels harder this spring than it has in quite a few years. A number of projections have them basically in a dead heat with Detroit for the AL Central crown. The glass-half-empty side of me says 85-77 and 2nd place… that’s a pretty encouraging glass-half-empty forecast though, don’t you think?

C70: What do you like best about being an Indians fan?

TD: As frustrating as it can be sometimes, for more reasons than one, I love that frustration. It’s what makes being a Tribe fan unique. It is what will make an eventual World Series that much more sweeter. I can put up with that frustration because I know this team is always putting it all out there, especially under a guy like Tito. This club always assembles a team with a personality that embodies the city in the way they play. The other frustrating thing is some of the fans. Some fans don’t get that and jump up and down and complain about stupid things. But the ones who don’t, the ones who “get it” really believe in the process. Together we all sort of fight the good fight and stick by our team, even when it is hard to, because we know there is a reward coming at some point.

DTW: Every year you ask a question like this, and every year I struggle with it. The Indians don’t really have a long storied history, or a line of championships. They don’t have a big budget, or big crowds. They’re the third team in this town and both sportstalk radio stations would rather talk Browns logo changes, QBs in rehab, texts from the front office during games, drug-using wide receivers and how good Brian Hoyer can be long before they would ever consider an educated topic about the Indians. I feel like since Dick Jacobs sold the team in 2000, the Indians have slowly slid out of Clevelander’s attention, and I fear that some day they’ll move and Cleveland will be a two-sport town.

But I guess that’s why I remain an Indians fan, too. I grew up loving baseball and loving the Indians. They were the first professional team my dad introduced me to and I’ve never really wavered my fandom when it comes to the Indians. I’m realistic in my predictions, but I’m always a fan and hoping for the best. I think all seemingly negativity around the Indians is also some of the reasons I remain a fan. If they surprise all of baseball this year, or any year, and win the World Series it will be the most special sports championship of my life. I hope that day comes and I get to share it with my father, still, and now my wife and children. For the fans who have remained dedicated, that allegiance through good times and bad is what I think is the best part.

LGT: It builds character.

My appreciation to Nino, Mike and Jason for their time and responses.  I’m one that feels the Indians can be quite relevant in the AL Central race in 2015 and it’s going to be fun watching to see if that’s the case!

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