A preview of the 2013 Cleveland Indians
The Cleveland Indians, to say the least, had an atypical offseason. During most offseasons, Indians fans gaze wistfully and briefly through the toy store windows at high priced free agents who are being wooed by richer teams, before coming back to reality and settling for secondhand free agents who are longshots at best. To the credit of the Indians scouting department, some of those longshots actually do pay off (Derek Lowe in 2011 springs to mind), but many of them don't (Grady Sizemore, Mark DeRosa, David Dellucci. I had abusive nicknames in mind for Dellucci, but in light of the coming baseball season, I'll hold back). But this offseason was different. Not only did the Indians land Nick Swisher after a somewhat-touching, somewhat-pathetic courting process, but they also landed Michael Bourn (how long until the Indians PR team makes their first Bourne Identity joke?), Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, and a plethora of other players on minor league contracts like Daisuke Matsusaka, Scott Kazmir and Jason Giambi.
It was really nice to see how Indians fans reacted to the Indians investment in their future. But will it be enough? Is this team good enough to contend?
One area the Indians significantly upgraded was their outfield. In fact, it's almost an embarrassment of riches: after signing Michael Bourn to a four-year deal, the Indians found they had no room in the outfield for their other marquee pickup, and so Nick Swisher will be playing first base instead. The Indians have three legitimate center fielders in their outfield now, and barring any territory or communication issues early on, they'll be pretty good: at least one should be a Gold Glove finalist, there's a reasonable shot that all three could finish high in the voting.
The Indians’ infield should be a little better too. They don't have defensive specialist Casey Kotchman at first base anymore, but I'll take Nick Swisher's bat in place of Kotchman's, as long as Swisher's glove is “good enough”. From all reports out of Arizona, Asdrubal Cabrera came to camp this year in much better shape than he has in years past, so hopefully his range will be improved as well. Jason Kipnis has one more year of experience under his belt, and I'm looking forward to seeing what Lonnie Chisenhall can do on an every day basis.
Offensively, the Indians aren't a team that will rely on the home run, but will live off of doubles and die from strike outs. Let's make sure everyone knows this: the 2013 Cleveland Indians are going to strike out a lot. I'm not crazy about it either, but I'm hoping they can at least be mitigated somewhat by the veteran coaching from Terry Francona and his staff. I think the Indians will be at their best when they're hitting a lot of gap shots, which mean doubles (or triples, for Michael Bourn) and driving them in via singles or sacrifices. And failing that, the Indians have above-average speed (for a change) that should let them be more creative with bunting, stealing and sacrificing as well. I think the key to the Indians’ offense is Carlos Santana: if he can come back from a tough 2012 and not be so feast-or-famine, but learn to take some walks and hit some doubles, the Indians will be in really good shape. He was a different hitter last year when Travis Hafner was protecting him in the lineup (he saw more fastballs), so hopefully Terry Francona will be able to find someone who can serve a similar role this year.
My biggest worry with the Indians is the starting pitching, but even that seems to have come together fairly well. The Indians managed to pick up some formerly A-list talent like usual, but unlike most seasons, this season the talent isn't quite so former. Daisuke Matsusaka and Scott Kazmir, in particular, were stellar prospects just a few years ago, and the chance of catching lightning in a bottle with those guys has to be better than the chance of doing so with Paul Byrd or Derek Lowe.
Ultimately, I think they'll be okay in the fifth spot. The rotation spot that worries me the most is the #1 rotation spot, which is where Justin Masterson will start the season. He might be the single most critical player on the Indians to get off to a good start; if he's able to start strong early on, despite the tough schedule, and barring any crucial injuries, I think the Indians will be well on their way to surprising some people this year.
And so, without further ado…
2012 Standings: Yankees, Orioles*, Rays, Blue Jays, Red Sox **2013 Predictions**: Blue Jays, Orioles, Yankees, Rays, Red Sox
The 2012 season was a weird one for the AL East, as it saw the Red Sox lose more games than they had since 1965. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, I don't see this season finishing much better for them, at least in terms of standings position; the Red Sox will be an okay team stuck in a great division. The Orioles and Rays will also stagger a bit this year, mostly due to the strength of the rest of the division. The Blue Jays, who also made headlines by acquiring most of the Miami Marlins, will overpower this division. And I don't have the empirical evidence to back this up, but while I believe the Yankees will have a strong showing in this, Mariano Rivera's last season, they won't be quite good enough to get a Wild Card spot.
2012 Standings: Tigers, White Sox, Royals, Indians, Twins 2013 Predictions: Tigers, Indians*, Royals, White Sox, Twins
The Tigers made the World Series last year and look good to repeat as AL Champions, especially when you consider that Victor Martinez will be back behind the plate for them. The Royals continue to improve, with their hitting slightly outclassing their pitching. The White Sox and Twins should both be in rebuild mode.
And as for the Indians? I'm probably being overly optimistic, but I have a good feeling about this team. It all might be over by May 1, but there's real excitement about the Indians in this town for the first time in a number of years, and with good reason. I feel really good about Terry Francona and his coaching staff, and if the Indians can hold their own in the first month of the season against some tough AL East teams, I think the sky's the limit.
2012 Standings: Athletics, Rangers*, Angels, Mariners **2013 Predictions**: Angels, Rangers*, Athletics, Mariners, Astros
Good news and bad news, Mariners fans! The good news is: your team won't be in last place this year. The bad news is: your team will still be in fourth place this year. However, the better news is: at least you're not the Astros, who lost more than 100 games last year in a significantly weaker division. I don't think the Athletics will go quietly, but in the end, the Rangers’ pitching superiority and the Angels’ hitting superiority will beat the Athletics. I think the Angels are deeper than the Rangers and so they'll win this division outright, but both will be playing baseball in October.
2012 Standings: Nationals, Braves*, Phillies, Mets, Marlins **2013 Predictions**: Nationals, Braves*, Mets, Phillies, Marlins
Not a whole lot of change in this division, except that the Phillies are getting older. The Nationals, with a year of experience and a playoff collapse under their belt, should dominate this division, with the Braves sneaking in for a Wild Card spot. The Mets should improve slightly in this division, while the Marlins, after selling most of their talent to the Blue Jays, figure to be pretty bad.
2012 Standings: Reds, Cardinals*, Brewers, Pirates, Cubs, Astros **2013 Predictions**: Reds, Pirates*, Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs
The Reds are still (unfortunately) the class of this division, and figure to repeat as division champions. I think the Pirates will finish what they started in 2012 and make a serious run at a playoff spot. The Cardinals and Brewers are probably in rebuilding mode (at least somewhat), while the Cubs, like they have been for the last 105 years, are firmly entrenched in rebuilding mode.
2012 Standings: Giants, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Padres, Rockies 2013 Predictions: Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Giants, Rockies, Padres
Former Red Sox Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford should be able to help the Dodgers win the division this year, while the Diamondbacks will be close all year before just missing out late in the season. The Giants will slip a little bit from a lack of offense, and no one else should really contend in this division.
AL Wild Card: Rangers over Indians NL Wild Card: Pirates over Braves AL Champion: Tigers over Angels NL Champion: Nationals over Dodgers World Series: Tigers over Nationals
And there you have it. If you're a gambler, I don't advise you to take those picks, but I did pick the eventual World Series champions in two of the three most recent odd-numbered seasons (2007 and 2009) so take that for what it's worth. Happy baseball season, and go Tribe!