Thursday, March 13, 2014

Are the Indians this good?

I struggle between thinking that Spring Training means diddly to seeing a team like the Cleveland Indians being 11-2 so far in their spring schedule and wondering if I should be impressed. I think that if everyone expected the Indians to be terrible--and they don't--then I would think nothing of the record. But in light of a surprising 92-win season in 2013, maybe the spring record means something and looks ahead to the season to come.
At first glance, the Indians did not seem to improve over a year ago. In fact, some notable subtractions lead you to wonder if the team's pitching will be weaker than a season ago. Gone are Ubaldo JimenezScott KazmirMatt AlbersRich Hill and Joe Smith--all to free agency.
Jimenez and Kazmir accounted for 61 starts and 23 wins and Kazmir was the team's only left-handed starter, something the team has none of this season. Joe Smith was one of their best relief pitchers in 2013, Albers had a good season and Hill was a LOOGY with occasional successes and failures.
The current rotation projects to be Justin MastersonCorey KluberZach McAllisterDanny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. That has the potential to be a pretty solid rotation. Salazar has to take the next step in his development and Kluber and McAllister have to consistently show what they did in flashes a season ago. Masterson is not your typical ace and can be anywhere from terrific to mediocre depending on the start.
For depth, Tyler Cloyd has looked good this spring, Shaun Marcum has to come back from injury, T.J. House was already optioned, but he is the only left-handed option. And Trevor Bauer continues to baffle with why he cannot break through in the Majors.
The bullpen will benefit from a healthy Vinnie Pestano, who is very hard to hit when he is on, John Axford, who needs to find his old Brewers form and Josh Outman and Mark Rzepczynski from the left side. Rzepczynski must stay in baseball because his nickname, "Scrabble," is among the funniest ever!
The bullpen could be and should be as good as last year's model. If not, they are fairly easy to rebuild.
The only real upgrade on offense should be David Murphy in right field. Murphy, if you discount last year as a fluke, is a big offensive upgrade on what Stubbs gave the Indians last year.
The other offensive upgrades should come from within the team itself. To consider the team won 92 games with Nick SwisherMichael Bourn and Asdrubal Cabrera all having seasons below their career norms. If two of the three bounce back, a lot more offense will be created.
Jason Kipnis has turned into a star, Michael Brantley is reliable and predictable and should have some new-found confidence with his new contract. Yan Gomes has taken over behind the plate and excelled last season while former starting catcher, Carlos Santana will play third if Lonnie Chisenhall cannot figure it out, or DH.
The bench should be very strong with Ryan Raburn mashing from the right side, Jason Giambi walking more than hitting and good utility options with Justin SellersMike Aviles and funnyman, Elliot Johnson.
The pitching can be as good as a year ago or it could be worse. I cannot see it being better than 2013. But if it can be as good, then the offense should be better just with internal options having bounce-back seasons.
The wild card here is Terry Francona. I happen to think Francona is in the group of top five managers in baseball. His record with the Red Sox and with the Indians last season speak volumes of somehow getting his players to perform better than the average team.
Fangraphs has the Indians projected at 82 wins. That is a full ten wins less than a season ago. That is a pretty big drop-off. I am hard pressed to think they can repeat 92 wins, though I can never discount the Francona-effect. I cannot see them losing 80 games either as predicted.
I am pretty sure this is a good enough team to win 85 to 88 games. That will put the Indians in the hunt. Just don't expect the Indians to win 82% of their games, which the team is doing this spring.

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