New Expectations Meet Many Questions for 2014 Indians

It was one of the few Cleveland sports seasons in recent years that ended too soon.

Instead of crawling to another dismal 4-12 season or talking about how many ping pong balls are in the hopper, the newly rebuilt 2013 Cleveland Indians hung around the playoff race all season, then tore off a 10-game winning streak to end the season and secure a place in the American League Wild Card game. Winning: it’s something Clevelanders haven’t experienced a lot of recently.

It was the first playoff game of any kind in Cleveland since the spring of 2010. A sold out Progressive Field, waving towels and completely locked into the game went home disappointed, however. The Indians lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in the one-game playoff, 4-0. After 10-straight wins and building enthusiasm around the city, it was all over in just nine innings. It ended too soon.

“That playoff game was unbelievable,” Indians outfielder Michael Brantley said. “I mean the crowd that we had at that game, they were in to every pitch. It was something that I’ll never forget. My first playoff game…words don’t describe how fun it was, how exciting it was and I look forward to doing it again this year.”

The 2013 season may have been a surprise to new Indians manager Terry Francona, the organization and it’s players, but after 92 wins a year ago the expectations are clear from Brantley for the 2014 season. The Cleveland Indians are not just playoff hopefuls, they expect to contend for the American League Central Division and make a run in the playoffs.

But as the sun rises in Goodyear, Arz. on the Indians’ 2014 season this week as pitchers and catchers report, the Tribe has many unanswered questions that will help determine their playoff fate. Despite a young core and building enthusiasm, the Central Division is as wide open as it has been in the last five seasons. Cleveland, Detroit and Kansas City all report to spring training with their eye toward the division title and a playoff run.

In addition to a wide open division and high expectations, the Indians may have a sense of urgency in 2014. Justin Masterson and the Indians have been unable to reach a long-term deal and he heads into the season as a potential free agent at year’s end. The same is true for former All-Star Asdrubal Cabrera. While the Indians have’s #10 prospect in Francisco Lindor to step in for Cabrera, it’s uncertain how many changes could take place by 2015. The time for this group to win is now.

Cleveland’s biggest loss to their 2013 Wild Card run lies in the rotation. The Indians open camp without Ubaldo Jimenez. The controversial 2011 trade piece stepped forward in September going 4-0, with a 1.09 ERA—including pitching the game-162 clincher—to lead the rotation when Masterson was out with injury. Jimenez declined his option and elected for free agency. To date, his void is expected to be filled from within, without a new piece. Young rotation pieces like Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister will be asked to shoulder a bigger load after much improved seasons in 2013.

“I think it’s a little bit dangerous when guys start trying to add more pressure to themselves and start trying to do more than you’re capable of,” Kluber said. “Every body that’s on the team is pretty capable of giving us a chance to win. We always have to pitch within ourselves and have confidence in yourself and each other when we take the mound.”

Kluber and his rotation mates may not be adding pressure to themselves, but one pitcher expected to shoulder much of the void left by Jimenez is rookie Danny Salazar. After having Tommy John surgery in 2011 and suffering a scare to his ulnar nerve in 2012, Salazar remained on a tight pitch count and innings limit through 2013. But the reins are expected to be taken off in 2014 and the 24-year old, who dazzled at times in 2013, will assume Jimenez’s rotation spot. The electric fastball that struck out Miguel Cabrera three times in a game in August has the potential to make him a front of the rotation starter quickly, but those are lofty goals for a pitcher with just 10 big league starts and two wins.

The rotation is not the only place on the pitching staff that will see changes from 2013. Gone is controversial and outspoken closer Chris Perez and always-reliable set-up man Joe Smith. Free agent acquisition John Axford will assume the closer’s role after a season and a half of struggles in Milwaukee. He bounced back in a middle relief role during the second half of the season with the St. Louis Cardinals, posting a 1-0 record, with a 1.74 ERA in 13 September appearances. The rest of the bullpen roles are up for grabs. Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw will vie for late-inning, set up roles. Marc Rzepczynski and newly acquired Josh Outman will try to stabilize what was a weak left side of the bullpen a year ago.

Meanwhile, Vinnie Pestano—coming off a very disappointing season—and a plethora of young relievers and minor league invitees will fight for the final two spots in the bullpen. Blake Wood, C.C. Lee, Preston Guilmet, Scott Atchison and Colt Hynes will all try to win a spot in the center field bullpen of Progressive Field on Opening Day.

“With the way things ended last year and the new moves we have made this year I do feel like I have to prove myself once again,” Pestano said. “Its a task I welcome though because just like in 2011 I know I can help this team win games no matter the capacity.”

The new bullpen was partially built when the Indians acquired Outman from the Colorado Rockies for outfielder Drew Stubbs. Most of Stubbs production will be replaced by free agent acquisition David Murphy. Murphy will be the new platoon partner with Ryan Raburn in right field. Murphy will have to improve upon his .220 batting average a season ago to something closer to his career average of .275.

“I think I tried to pull the ball a little more than I had in the past,” Murphy said. “I tried to hit the ball for a little bit more power than I had instead of just trying to be me. When you’re a hitter and you’re not performing up to your own standards, you do a lot of thinking and you break things down.”

“I think that I kind of stepped out of who I was. I tried to force myself to hit for power a little bit. It made my swing a little bit longer, and it didn’t produce the same kind of results.  At the end of the day, I need to keep a small approach and hit some line drives up the middle.”

Raburn will need to have another season like his bounce back 2013 when he hit .272 and 16 home runs.

But the biggest question mark to the offense finishing in the top four in the American League in runs scored again this season may lie in Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes and Lonnie Chisenhall. Gomes has been entrusted to handle the pitching staff and become the starting catcher this season, replacing Santana behind the plate. Santana, meanwhile, has worked this winter in the Dominican Winter League to become a third baseman. He’ll compete with Chisenhall, who is running out of chances and options, to earn the starting spot at the hot corner. Santana’s ability to play third base will directly impact the roster’s flexibility and make up. Whether the Tribe has room for a veteran like Jason Giambi may rest in Santana’s ability to become a part of the infield.

For a 92-win team a year ago, the Indians have many questions as the 2014 season begins this week. Some will be answered this spring, while others will not be clear until the 162-game season begins to unfold. One thing is certain, the bar is set higher for the Indians than in any season 2008. For a team that’s struggled in attendance the Indians have a chance to build enthusiasm on the field and at the gate in 2014, while the Browns and Cavs continue to spin their wheels in their newest rebuilding schemes. The city is thirsty for a winner and the Indians seem the only franchise capable of quenching it soon.

Over the next six weeks while the Indians train and prepare in Goodyear, the Did The Tribe Win Last Night staff will try to introduce the new players to the roster, the key roles that need filled and the young players that could be new sparks to the roster at some point of this season to help answer the current lingering questions. After the 2013 season it’s clear it will take more than the 25 men that break camp to reach the postseason. A year ago Kluber did not make the Opening Day roster, Salazar was not a consideration and Matt Carson was just depth for Triple-A Columbus, but the Indians would not have made it to the postseason without all of them. This season will likely provide a new list of roster additions and sparks throughout the year.

The urgency to win is clear. If the Indians can reach a new level remains to be answered. The formula to success seems to be established, now it’s a matter of if this roster is able to reach the new expectations.

“We just have to make sure we remember what we did and what we did well and continue to do it,” Brantley said. “Make sure we always play as a team, play as one. If we do that, we’ll be just fine. We have great guys in this locker room and it will be another great year.”

Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

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