Since coming within one game of the World Series in 2007, the Cleveland Indians have gone 363-447 (.448) over the last five seasons after dealing with the loss of pitchers like C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee and catcher Victor Martinez.
Last year was even more excruciating as the Tribe limped to a 68-94 record, going 18-44 to end the season after playing .500 ball through the first 100 games. That included a second straight fast start that saw them in first place in the early going.
Because of the additions of Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Brett Myers and manager Terry Francona, there is reason to believe better days lie ahead for Cleveland.
Francona, who was the head man for the Boston Red Sox from 2004-11, compiled a 744-552 (.574) during his tenure there and is famous for leading the franchise to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007.
The free agent signings of Swisher, Bourn, Myers and Mark Reynolds have fans believing that this might be the year in which the Indians return to prominence. The additions of Bourn and Drew Stubbs, who will team with Michael Brantley to improve defense in the outfield, gives the team three speedsters and the look of a National League club. If Francona has his way, the club will play its share of small ball this year.
Bourn (.274 BA, 26 2B, 42 SB), who played last season with Atlanta, should prove to be a sufficient leadoff man and center fielder with the double play combination of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (.270 BA, 35 2B, 68 RBI) and second baseman Jason Kipnis (.257 BA, 22 2B, 76 RBI) trailing him in the lineup.
Swisher (.272 BA, 24 HR, 93 RBI), the team's prized free-agent signing, will play first base and hit cleanup, followed by catcher Carlos Santana (.252 BA, 18 HR, 76 RBI), Reynolds (.221 BA, 23 HR, 69 RBI) at designated hitter, Brantley (.288 BA, 37 2B, 60 RBI) in left field, Chisenhall (.268 BA, .430 SLG, 5 HR) at third base and Stubbs (.213 BA, 30 SB, 75 R) in right field.
Questions remain: Will Santana take the next step and become a more consistent hitter? Will Chisenhall realize his potential? Can Swisher handle the burden of being the face of the franchise and live up to his $56 million contract? The answer to these will indicate how the lineup will fare this year.
The ultimate success of the Indians will be determined by their starting pitching, and that's precisely where the team is lacking.
With a one-two punch featuring Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, there is plenty of reason for Tribe fans to be skeptical. In 2011, Masterson was magnificent, but he struggled last season, going 11-15 with a 4.93 earned run average. Jimenez was woefully inconsistent and finished with a 9-17 record and a 5.40 ERA, but late in the season last year neither got much run support.
Both pitchers have shown the potential to be top-flight starters. Two years ago, Masterson was 12-10 with a 3.21 ERA and, in '10, Jimenez went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA and flirted with winning the Cy Young Award while playing for Colorado,
After performing well in his first full season as a starter, Zach McAllister (6-8, 4.24 ERA) is back with newcomers Brett Myers and Scott Kazmir helping to round out the rotation. Carlos Carrasco, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, could challenge Kazmir for the final spot. Myers, who will be the No. 3 starter, pitched out of the bullpen for Houston and the Chicago White Sox last season after going 7-14 with a 4.46 ERA in 2011 as a starter for the Astros.
Kazmir, a two-time all-star with Tampa Bay who has been out of baseball for nearly two years, is attempting to make a comeback. His performance in spring training likely earned him the last spot in the rotation. Carrasco went 8-9 with a 4.62 ERA in 2011, his first full season as a starter.
If Masterson and Jimenez return to old form and Myers, McAllister and Kazmir can provide solid contributions, then Cleveland will contend. The bullpen was the strength of the team last season and, with the likes of Chris Perez, Vinny Pestano and Joe Smith returning, should be solid.
The Indians have a tough schedule for the first part of the season, opening with six consecutive road games against Toronto and Tampa Bay followed by a 10-game home stand with New York, Chicago and Boston.
If everything goes right for the Indians — if starters pitch well, if Bourn, Swisher and Reynolds provide much-needed production to a lineup that finished 13th in the American League last season in runs, if the bullpen performs like it has in the past — then they'll have an outside shot at winning the division title or, at the very least, contend for a wild-card berth.
As I see it, Detroit and Chicago will compete for the division title and Cleveland will finish third, just ahead of Kansas City, a team many expect to take the next step and compete for a playoff spot. I expect Minnesota, which has finished last in the division each of the last two seasons, to do so again.