The Cleveland Indians surprised a lot of people last year by finishing the season strong and qualifying for the playoffs, falling to Tampa Bay, 4-0, in their single-game wild card matchup.
Now, the Indians are looking to harness some of the momentum built up last season and make it back to the postseason.
This, despite the fact that the team allowed two of its starting pitchers, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, and relief pitcher Joe Smith to leave via free agency. The owners, the Dolan family, as they're accustomed to doing, decided not to spend the money necessary to keep the team's top free agents and time will tell if it comes back to haunt the club.
Both Jimenez and Kazmir pitched well in 2013. Jimenez went 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA, 194 strikeouts and 80 walks. Kazmir finished 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA, 162 strikeouts and 47 walks. Smith was a valued member of the bullpen for the last five years. Replacing their production will be key to the Indians’ success.
Cleveland brought in David Murphy from Texas to play right field and signed closer John Axford to replace Chris Perez. They are moves the front office believes will round out the roster.
Murphy (.220 BA, 26 2B, 45 RBI) brings with him valuable postseason experience, having gone to the World Series in 2010 and 2011. In his previous three seasons, Murphy didn't hit lower than .275, so last year’s struggles at the plate may have been an aberration. Murphy will platoon with Ryan Raburn (.272 BA, 16 HR, 55 RBI) in right and primarily face right-handed pitchers.
Despite not having a bona fide slugger, Cleveland did not pursue a number of available power hitters in available free agents Carlos Beltran, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli, Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, instead going with Murphy.
Manager Terry Francona, known for bringing two World Championships to Boston, did a magnificent job in his first year with the Tribe, overseeing a 24-game improvement. Francona was named the Manager of the Year as Cleveland went 21-6 in September, highlighted by a 10-0 run to finish the regular season. His ability to mix and match with the lineup worked well last year, and it will be instrumental in determining the Indians’ fate in 2014.
Center fielder Michael Bourn (.263 BA, 21 2B, 23 SB), who hit leadoff last year, will began the season on the disabled list with a strained hamstring. Francona is currently unsure of who will replace him in the lineup. On the field, it looks as though left fielder Michael Brantley might move to center and have Nyjer Morgan in left. Morgan played baseball in Japan last season.
First baseman Nick Swisher (.246 BA, 22 HR, 63 RBI) struggled at times, failing to duplicate the numbers he consistently put up with the Yankees, though he did play well in September, hitting seven home runs and driving in 17 runs out of the No. 2 spot in the lineup.
Bourn and Swisher, both of whom were signed as free agents before last season, did not produce like they were accustomed to. If they’re able to revert back to form, it will be a huge bonus for the club.
Second baseman Jason Kipnis (.284 BA, 17 HR, 84 RBI) was arguably the team’s best hitter and provided consistent pop in the lineup, and DH Carlos Santana (.268 BA, 20 HR, 74 RBI) helped to supply some power in the cleanup spot. Combined with Brantley (.284 BA, 26 2B, 73 RBI), the three of them made for a potent heart-of-the-order.
Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (.242 BA, 35 2B, 64 RBI) struggled last year, hitting 31 points below his career average. However, he is expected to bounce back with this being the last year of his contract. Players are known for performing at a high level when entering free agency. Because he is in the last year of his contract, Cleveland may look to trade him at the deadline in July.
Murphy will hit seventh, followed by catcher Yan Gomes (.294 BA, .481 SLG, 18 2B), who was a pleasant surprise last year, and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (.225 BA, 17 2B, 36 RBI) will round out the lineup.
Veteran Jason Giambi, who came through with a number of clutch hits last year, will begin the year on the disabled list. He is joined on the bench with Raburn, infielder Mike Aviles and utility player Elliot Johnson.
Justin Masterson (14-10, 3.45 ERA, 195 K, 76 BB), who team failed to reach a deal with on a contract extension, is the team’s go-to guy in the starting rotation. Corey Kluber (11-5, 3.85 ERA, 136 K, 33 BB) and Zach McAllister (9-9, 3.75 ERA, 101 K, 49 BB), both of whom pitched well last year, fill in the No. 2 & 3 spots, young flamethrower Danny Salazar (2-3, 3.12 ERA, 65 K, 15 BB) is the fourth starter and Carlos Carrasco (1-4, 6.75 ERA, 30 K, 18 BB) rounds out the rotation.
In bullpen, Axford will serve as the closer with Vinnie Pestano and Cody Allen filling the setup roles. Marc Rzepczynski is the left-handed specialist and Josh Tomlin, Bryan Shaw and Josh Outman are the other pitchers out of the ‘pen.