Going into the 2015 season, the bad news for the Cleveland Indians is that the renovations to their 21-year old ballpark might not be complete by the home opener. It was a historically cold winter in northeast Ohio, and despite the conservative planning and scheduling and the best efforts of the construction crews, the renovations to Progressive Field fell a little behind and it might end up being too much ground to make up this late in the offseason.
The good news is that Progressive Field is really the Tribe's biggest question mark, which is refreshing because for the Indians that's pretty abnormal. It seems like most offseasons feature a lot of roster turnover, some low-risk but nominal free agent signings, and at least a couple roster slots that are open for competition if not completely up in the air. But this year, the Indians will enter the season with their 2014 team largely intact: there were no major departures and there was only one major arrival in Brandon Moss. This is a team that won 85 games last season in one of the league's more competitive divisions, so the fact that it's mostly the same team returning is a really good thing. In fact, I think this is the best the Indians have looked going into a season in a long time, and with any luck, Tribe fans will be in for a fun summer and maybe even a fun October.
The 2014 Indians scored 669 runs, a far cry from the offensive output of the 90s-era Indians, but about the league average in the pitching-dominated 2014. They managed this despite some vastly disappointing seasons from Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis, as well as to a lesser extent Carlos Santana and Michael Bourn. But the Tribe did get breakout seasons from Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes. If Kipnis, Santana and Bourn are able to bounce back, the Indians get anything at all out of Nick Swisher, and Brandon Moss has a decent season, the offense should stand to improve slightly in 2015. Here's what the opening day lineup might look like:
Michael Bourn didn't hit for an especially high average last year (.257), but he was hampered by a hamstring injury for most of the year, and there's really no better place for him to hit than the leadoff spot, so he's sort of there by default. It's easy to see Jose Ramirez struggling early and maybe being moved down in the order, but I do think he'll start in the number two slot because he's a switch hitter with good bat control.
Slots three through seven are pretty interchangeable, and might be moved around based on the matchup on any given night. Michael Brantley was second only to Mike Trout in offensive wins above replacement in 2014 (7.2), and perhaps the only thing disappointing about his season was that he didn't win the batting title (he placed third). His 2014 season was so good that the Indians should expect and be content with a slight regression this year. Carlos Santana's season was really interesting in that while his batting average was only .231, his on-base percentage was over 130 points higher at .365 and he led the league in walks. Santana's still maturing as a hitter, but is becoming more consistent with his plate discipline, and because he's swinging at less bad pitches, he's a more consistent threat in the lineup. After an All-Star season in 2013, Jason Kipnis had a disappointing 2014 but was hampered by injuries, and is poised for a bounceback year. A good season from him would be a really welcome sign for the Indians’ playoff chances. Brandon Moss is the team's only real newcomer, but he should benefit from the move from the cavernous O.co Coliseum to the more power-friendly Progressive Field. Yan Gomes had a stellar season and somewhat unexpectedly won the Silver Slugger award last year, and should be a pretty safe bet to repeat his success in 2014. With all the lefties in the Indians lineup, Gomes should see a lot of favorable matchups.
Lonnie Chisenhall had a good season overall last year but his overall line of .280/.343/.427 masks the fact that his second half was far worse than his first half (.332/.396/.519 vs. .218/.277/.315) and so he's not coming into the season as a given. David Murphy will start the year in right field for the Indians, but he'll platoon with Nick Swisher once Swisher is healthy. And if Nick Swisher is productive at all, he'll probably get the majority of the playing time since the fact that he's a switch hitter provides more flexibility for Terry Francona.
And once Swisher is healthy, I like David Murphy off the bench because he brings good contact and always seems to put in a good at-bat. Mike Aviles is another valuable bench player because he can fit in anywhere and should be able to hold his own at the plate to spell a possibly struggling Jose Ramirez.
The 2014 Indians allowed 653 runs, which was also about the league average last season, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story. They allowed 425 of those runs in the first half of the season compared with only 228 in the second, a pretty stunning improvement. The Indians also had the worst defense in the majors last year: of the 653 runs allowed, only 581 of them were earned, and their earned run average as a team was slightly better than league average. The Indians’ porous defense allowed 72 unearned runs, which led the majors.
The Indians’ rotation was far better in the second half last year largely because it replaced the ineffective Justin Masterson with Carlos Carrasco, who's been with the Indians since 2009 but only last season managed to put it together and have a stellar second half. It remains to be seen if he can sustain that brilliance over a full season, but the good news is that he's only one of five solid pitchers in the Tribe rotation:
What more can be said about Corey Kluber, who won the American League Cy Young award over Felix Hernandez despite the defense behind him? He might regress this year too, but his stuff is so good that he can absorb a minor regression and still have a great season. If Carlos Carrasco pitches in 2015 like he did in the second half of 2014, he could very well win the Cy Young this year. Trevor Bauer and TJ House made great progress last year as middle-of-the-rotation starters, and Josh Tomlin should be able to hold down the fifth slot until Danny Salazar is ready for the big leagues again. The Tribe has good starting pitching depth as well, so if a starter goes down for a short or moderate amount of time, the Indians should be able to absorb it fairly seamlessly.
The Tribe bullpen also looks pretty solid. Before last season I was worried that the Indians wouldn't be able to absorb the loss of Joe Smith, but the rest of the relievers stepped up, particularly Cody Allen. Bryan Shaw looks like a good setup man and journeyman Scott Atchison and lefty specialist Mark Rzepczynski contributed as well. What's more, the Indians have good depth in the bullpen, with Nick Hagadone, Kyle Crockett and Josh Tomlin also able to chip in. It's also not a coincidence that the Indians have had a good bullpen for the entire Terry Francona era, and he'll still be in the dugout for the Tribe in 2015.
The defense stands to improve in 2015, if only because it really can't get any worse. Jose Ramirez is a definite upgrade over Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop, and unlike last season Carlos Santana will go into the season having only one position to play (and he actually plays first base really well). Now that Jason Kipnis is healthy he should be a little better at second base. Yan Gomes might already be the second best catcher in the American League (behind Salvador Perez of the Royals) and he's still improving. Michael Bourn had slightly limited range last year while dealing with a nagging hamstring injury, but shouldn't have any limits this year.
All of that is to say the Indians should be a pretty good team in 2015. So without further ado…
Prediction: Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays
I've picked against the Orioles too many times, and they have a young team with a solid offense and good pitching that should be good enough to repeat in an uncharacteristically weak AL East. I think the Red Sox will improve significantly in 2015, but they'll miss a wild card spot by a couple games. The Yankees won't be as bad as some people fear, and at least they don't have any farewell tours to worry about this year, but they'll struggle with injuries and continue to drift in mediocrity. (And I think Alex Rodriguez will start strong before fading in the second half.) The Blue Jays pitching will continue to be their downfall, and they'll struggle. The Tampa Bay Rays have some good pieces, but without David Price, Joe Maddon or Andrew Friedman they're without the leadership they've had in years past.
Prediction: Tigers, Indians*, Royals, White Sox, Twins
A lot of experts are picking the Indians to win this division, but I think the Tigers have at least one more division championship in them. I don't see Victor Martinez, who finished second in the batting race last year and absolutely annihilated Indians pitching, repeating his success completely in 2015, but the Tigers still have a really good offense. That allows more room for error, so to speak, and means the Tigers will be better at beating up on the bottom-feeders in the league, while the Indians, who rely more on pitching, will lose their fair share of hard-luck games. I do, however, think the Indians will win a wild card slot, in a race that will come down to the wire. The Royals, fresh off their American League pennant, will struggle without the leadership of James Shields and Billy Butler, but I trust their pitching more than the White Sox. The White Sox are improved, but still young, and I expect Jose Abreu to regress a bit. Meanwhile, the Twins continue to stockpile talent and probably won't be competitive for at least another season.
Prediction: Angels, Mariners*, Athletics, Rangers, Astros
Having the league MVP in your outfield helps a lot, and should help the Angels to their second consecutive division title. I like both the Mariners and the Athletics, but the Mariners are in better shape right now, and I see them getting the other wild card slot. With Yu Darvish out for the season, both the Rangers and Astros are in rebuild mode, but it's worth saying that the Astros might really be scary in a couple years.
Prediction: Nationals, Marlins, Mets, Braves, Phillies
With the addition of Max Scherzer, the Nationals are the clear favorites in this division and probably the entire National League. They'll take advantage of the rest of the division, which is pretty weak, but the Marlins will come out second thanks to their young pitching and emerging offense to compliment Giancarlo Stanton. The Mets will be glad to get Matt Harvey back, but they'll still struggle to score runs. The Braves and Phillies are still in rebuild mode, and the Phillies don't use analytics, so we'll see how well that works out for them.
Prediction: Cardinals, Pirates*, Cubs*, Brewers, Reds
The Cardinals are going to have to have a couple of bad seasons in a row before I pick against them, and they're still the class of this division. The Pirates and Cubs will grab the two wild card slots with young, athletic teams and solid pitching, while the Brewers and Reds are getting older and probably headed towards rebuilding.
Prediction: Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Diamondbacks, Rockies
With Pablo Sandoval out of the division, the Dodgers are the clear favorites to win the National League West. The Giants will still be pretty good, but they'll miss the playoffs because it's an odd year (obviously). The Padres are improving, particularly in their rotation, and should have a good season but won't quite be there yet. The Diamondbacks and Rockies, who both play in offense-friendly parks, are incredibly short on pitching and will be fourth and fifth in the division, in some order.
ALCS: Indians over Orioles
NLCS: Nationals over Dodgers
Nationals over Indians
…actually, it's really not much fun to pick against your own team in the World Series, so:
World Series: Indians over Nationals
(I'd have felt a lot more comfortable with this pick a couple weeks ago, before Sports Illustrated got involved. Thanks a lot, guys.)
In the last two seasons with Terry Francona at the helm, the Indians have been out of playoff contention for a whopping 2 out 325 games played. Obviously the players should get most of the credit, but I don't think Terry Francona gets enough credit for his role. The Indians have been a young team before, but in years past they've had managers with less experience, and it was easy to tell when the team was getting tight during a tough stretch. Francona, on the other hand, excels at keeping everyone loose throughout the long season, something he's able to do because he knows that in a lot of ways, a regular season that leads to a World Series feels a lot like a regular season that ends with everyone going home. Terry Francona is one of the Indians’ best assets, and as long as he's managing the team, the Indians will always have a chance.
Only one more week until games that matter. Happy Opening Day everyone, and go Tribe!