Something to build on

A preview of the 2014 Cleveland Indians

By Jimmy Sawczuk
By Jimmy Sawczuk
Published · 12 min. read
Progressive Field

This past Christmas, my parents gave me a board game called Ticket to Ride. The game begins with you choosing up to three route cards, which become your mission for the rest of the game: it becomes your job to build a network of railroads across the United States that fulfill each of your route cards. You can only build track between certain cities, and your opponents may be competing for similar sections of the same route. But at the beginning of the game, everything is wide open and you’re starting from scratch. It’s a little intimidating at first because it’s not clear which segments will be in most demand and what your opponents are trying to do. But as the game progresses, you start to build your own little rail network. Most of the time, you’re able to finish your initial route cards and so you take more. But with your new routes, you usually have something to build on. For example, you might have had New York to Los Angeles as an initial route and a new route is Chicago to Boston. If you built your New York-LA route through Chicago, then you only need to connect New York and Boston and you’ve fulfilled another route, and you get the same amount of points even though you had to do very little additional work.

At the end of the game, everyone shows the routes they’ve fulfilled and the ones they failed to fulfill, and they add up their points. And then you declare a winner, and the game just sort of…ends. For me at least, it’s sort of a letdown. Playing again seems exhausting, because you’d have to start all over again, and you feel like you’d rather have kept going with the network of tracks you already have built.

That’s the same feeling I had at the end of the 2013 Cleveland Indians season. The Indians had made an improbable run, capped off by a ridiculous September where they went 21-6 and ended the season on a 10-game win streak. It was enough to capture the top Wild Card seed, and earn home-field advantage for a one-game playoff against the Tampa Bay Rays on October 2nd. But baseball is a tricky game, and even though the Indians were as hot as any team in the league going into that game, they came out flat against the Rays and failed to advance to the division series. Just like that, the season was over. Back to an empty board.

A lot went right for the Indians last year. The 2013 Indians had a Pythagorean win expectation of 0.553, which was only slightly below their actual win percentage (0.568) and means the Indians should only have won 2 less games (although it should be noted that those 2 wins were the difference between a Wild Card spot and not). But they were 10-2 in extra innings, which is somewhat indicative of a strong bullpen but mostly just means they got lucky. And outside of those basic statistics, the Indians got better-than-expected production: from Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who were were both as good we could have hoped; from the bullpen, who proved to be remarkably durable despite some bad performances by Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez; and from the offense, with contributions from journeymen like Mark Reynolds and Ryan Raburn as well as the ageless Jason Giambi.

In 2014, the Indians won’t have Jimenez or Kazmir, they won’t have Chris Perez, and they’ll be relying on bounceback years from Vinnie Pestano and Asdrubal Cabrera as well as repeated success from Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi.

The Offense

The Indians offense returns mostly intact, with the only notable departure being Drew Stubbs moving to Colorado and David Murphy moving in. Moving Carlos Santana out of the primary catcher role will get him in the lineup more, and moving him to third lets the Indians use Nick Swisher in the infield, meaning that newcomer David Murphy, Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley and Nick Swisher can all be in the lineup at the same time. Time will tell what Terry Francona’s everyday lineup will look like, and with Michael Bourn out of the Opening Day lineup with a bad hamstring, the Opening Day lineup will change pretty quickly. If it were me, the lineup would look something like this:

CF Michael Bourn
SS Asdrubal Cabrera
2B Jason Kipnis
3B Carlos Santana
LF Michael Brantley
1B Nick Swisher
RF David Murphy
DH Jason Giambi / Ryan Raburn
C Yan Gomes

Last year the offense wasn’t quite as good as the glory years, but they managed to score 745 runs. I predict they’ll need to score more this year, simply because the pitching is weaker and the rest of the division’s offense continues to improve. The Indians should expect bounceback years from Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, who were both pressing for a lot of last year (and Nick Swisher played hurt). Asdrubal Cabrera should bounce back too, just in time for him to hit the free agent market next offseason. David Murphy is also coming off a rough year but I expect him to return to form this season.

I expect a regression from Yan Gomes, who the Indians just signed to a Grady Sizemore-like extension. He had a good second half last year but will have to adjust this year as teams adjust to him (read: they’ll throw him more breaking balls). As long as no one else regresses and the bounceback hitters bounce back, the Indians can absorb a minor offensive setback from Gomes because he’s a major defensive upgrade. Apart from Gomes, I’m not sure how much more we can expect out of Jason Giambi, but at the very least he should provide some plate discipline. Ryan Raburn may also decline a little bit, but who knows? Maybe he’ll benefit with more playing time.

The Defense

Defensively, the Indians look a little more different. With Carlos Santana at third and Yan Gomes catching, the Indians are freed to use Nick Swisher at first on an everyday basis, which is a better fit for him. Losing Drew Stubbs was a bigger blow to the outfield defense than the offense, but David Murphy is no slouch either. Bench players Ryan Raburn and Nyjer Morgan should be serviceable replacements as well.

Carlos Santana is the only unknown quantity on the infield, and the Indians are relying heavily on him to hold his own at third so they can keep him in the lineup more often. It’s tough to say how he’ll do, but so far it looks like he won’t be Adrian Beltre, but he won’t be Jhonny Peralta either. And at least you know he has the arm strength.

Behind the plate, Yan Gomes is a significant upgrade both for his ability to frame pitches as well as his lightning-quick release when catching basestealers. If he maintains his defense, the Indians will be thrilled even if he only hits .250.

The Rotation

The Indians’ starting rotation has seen the most turnover and thus has most question marks going into the season of any faction on the team. The Indians lost Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir to Baltimore and Oakland, but it should be said that both teams, especially Baltimore, overpaid, and the Indians were wise not to match their offers.

That said, the Indians will be relying on Justin Masterson, Zach McCallister and Corey Kluber to repeat their success from last season. In addition, they’re counting on a big year from Danny Salazar to pitch deep into ballgames effectively. I think it’ll end up being Josh Tomlin who gets the bulk of the fifth starter slots, but as he’s just 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery, his innings count will be monitored.

The biggest question mark is Salazar. If he’s able to repeat what he did in the last quarter of last season for the whole year and pitch 150+ innings, the Indians will be in good shape. If he comes out and gives up too many home runs and consistently can’t get out of the fifth inning, they’ll be in trouble.

The Bullpen

The most significant departure from last year’s bullpen is Joe Smith, because the last couple years he finally evolved past being a matchup guy and last year became a consistent eighth inning guy when Vinnie Pestano went down. The Indians will miss him the most, even though Chris Perez is gone too.

Vinnie Pestano is the biggest question mark for the bullpen. If he can return to his 2011-2012 form and own the eighth inning, it’ll anchor the rest of the bullpen. I expect new closer John Axford to be pretty comparable to Chris Perez: he’ll blow some saves, some spectacularly, but by the end of the season he’ll be wildly underrated. With Vinnie Pestano as the rock between Axford and the rest of the bullpen, the mix of newcomers like Josh Outman and Blake Wood and veterans like Marc Rzepczynski and Cody Allen should be just fine.

I expect a minor regression from both the rotation and the bullpen, but as long as the offense improves slightly, the Indians should be able to absorb it.

So what does all that mean for the Indians’ return to the postseason? Without further ado…

Predictions

AL East

Prediction: Rays, Red Sox*, Blue Jays, Yankees, Orioles

The Rays are both ridiculously talented and younger than average. The problem with the Rays last year was that their offense was anemic without Evan Longoria (who was on the disabled list for a good part of last year), and despite that they still got the second Wild Card spot and snuck into the Division Series. The young offense has another year of experience under their belt, and ideally Longoria will be healthy this year, so they should win the East. I expect them to edge out the Red Sox for the division, but the Sox will get back into the playoffs via a Wild Card spot. The Jays will be better than last year, but this division remains exceedingly tough. I don’t think the Yankees got better enough to compete in this division, and I think Jeter’s last season will end in disappointment. And as for the Orioles: they’re not bad, but I do think they heavily overpaid for Jimenez who will probably get shelled in the East, and Chris Davis won’t be nearly as good this year.

AL Central

Prediction: Tigers, Indians, Royals, Twins, White Sox

The Tigers will continue to win this division as long as they have pitchers pitching like Verlander and Scherzer and hitters hitting like Cabrera. I think the Indians, who were 4-15 against the Tigers last year, will be tougher on them this year, but this remains a relatively weak division. As for the Indians, a lot has to go right for them to challenge for a Wild Card spot, and I look for them to win somewhere between 81 and 90 games and miss the Wild Card by a couple games. (I hope I’m wrong.) The Royals offense remains strong, but the pitching didn’t improve enough this offseason. And the Twins and White Sox, while improving, are in rebuilding mode.

AL West

Prediction: Angels, Athletics*, Rangers, Mariners, Astros

The Angels are really good, and one of these seasons they’ll figure that out and run away with the division title. The Athletics remain pretty good and will get the second Wild Card spot, with former Indian Scott Kazmir faring better than Jimenez in Baltimore. The loss of Ian Kinsler is going to hurt the Rangers more than they think it will, and the Mariners acquisition of Robinson Cano is just a first step. And as for the Astros, I’ll be more surprised than not if they lose less than 100 games.

NL East

Prediction: Nationals, Braves*, Mets, Marlins, Phillies

This is the year of the Nationals, and they’ll run away with this division after a slow start but strong finish last year. The Braves’ rotation is banged up now, but the rest of this division is so bad that they should be able to get a Wild Card spot anyway. As for the last three, it’s pretty much a pick-‘em as to who finishes last, but I’m going with the Phillies.

NL Central

Prediction: Cardinals, Pirates*, Reds, Brewers, Cubs

The Cardinals are the class of this division and World Series contenders and should win this division easily. I’m going to go on a bit of a limb and say the Pirates aren’t quite done yet and have another Wild Card run in them. They’ll narrowly beat out the Reds, who have the offense but not quite the pitching to reach the playoffs. The Brewers and Cubs will bring up the rear.

NL West

Prediction: Dodgers, Giants, Diamondbacks, Padres, Rockies

I honestly don’t follow this division much, but while money doesn’t buy rings, it can buy division titles, especially in the weak NL West. The Dodgers have the highest payroll in the league this year and should win this division easily.

Playoffs

ALCS: Tigers over Athletics
NLCS: Cardinals over Dodgers
World Series: Tigers over Cardinals

I should take a little time to mention what I think will be a big issue this season: the Indians’ name and branding. Even though they won’t admit it, the Indians are trying to phase out Chief Wahoo, maybe not because they think they have to, but because they think they’ll have to eventually anyway. I actually get why people might be offended by Chief Wahoo, but I’m not sure why “Indians” is such a bad word. That said, “Indians” with just the block C logo doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either, so if Wahoo goes, it seems like the Indians would have to consider rebranding completely. This might not be an issue that’s resolved in 2014, but it’s clear that it’s not going away.

It should probably go without saying that I’m pretty excited for baseball season again. It seems like the offseason takes forever, but at the same time it always manages to sneak up on me too. Here’s hoping my predictions about the Indians prove pessimistic, and maybe seven months from now I’ll be writing about how much fun that parade was. Have a good season, and play ball!