The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ players who will be in a new role this season than they were in 2013.
One year ago, Ryan Raburn was in Cleveland’s spring training on a minor league contract, hoping to resurrect a career that seemed to be on life support after a disastrous 2012 season. New manager Terry Francona had pushed for general manager Chris Antonetti to give the former Detroit Tiger a shot due to the success he’d had prior to that.
Antonetti obliged his skipper’s wishes and the team was richly rewarded. Raburn came to camp focus and rediscovered his hitting stroke last season. He earned a spot on the regular season roster and proved his 2012 numbers of one home run, 12 RBI and abysmal .171 batting average in 205 at bats were a fluke. He helped to power the Indians run to the postseason with 16 bombs, 55 RBI and .272 average in 243 at bats, in 87 games played.
As a part-time player, Raburn’s bat proved invaluable off the bench. Perhaps, just as key is Raburn’s ability to play all over the field. Last season, he played games at right field, left field and second base. Combined with Mike Aviles, the two super subs can play everywhere but catcher. The duo being on the bench allowed Francona to carry a clubhouse leader like Jason Giambi who can do no more that DH two or three times per week.
Raburn’s 2013 campaign came as shock to everyone, outside of his manager. It probably should not have been so surprising, considering his numbers of a season ago are right on part with the years he had from 2009 through 2011. In those three years, he averaged 15 homers, 52 RBI and batted in the .275 range. The Tigers pegged him to be their regular second baseman 2012, before the wheels fell off and they released him.
Able to prove his down year was, just that, a down year, the Indians rewarded Raburn with a contract extension through the 2015 season, with a team option for 2016.
This year in spring training, Raburn is focusing more on continuing to hit like he did last year. He no longer is fighting for his baseball life. He has come into camp this season as a lock to be on the Tribe’s bench with Aviles.
Raburn will again be key in any hopes the Indians have at getting to the postseason, only now it is expected. He is likely to play several positions again this year. The thought is that he will primarily platoon in right field with newcomer David Murphy. However, he could also spell Michael Brantley in left field. Time at second base and first base are not out of the question, either.
Whereas Raburn was a question mark a year ago, he is now an exclamation point. Chances are he will play more than the 87 games he appeared in last year. He played more and more down the stretch as he proved his numbers would remain at a solid clip all season. He was not a one or two-week wonder as some initially feared he might be.
Through the first portion of the spring schedule, Raburn had continued to swing a hot bat. Through Tuesday, he was 6-for-10 with a pair of home runs and four RBI in 12 plate appearances. He injured his right knee a week ago, crashing into the wall chasing a home run, but has already returned to the field.
Bench players are seldom thought to be an important commodity. However, when they can play multiple positions and put up power numbers that translate to middle-of-the-order in full slate of games, guys like Raburn are big in picking up the pieces for an injured or struggling regular.
Raburn’s ability to hit like he does off the bench is a big reason the Indians want to give him another position to play beyond the three (RF, LF, 2B) he appeared at last year. Francona intends to give him time at first base at some point this spring.
“It’s just having one more position where you can get his bat in the lineup,” Francona told reporters earlier this spring. “On a day game when somebody is tired, or when somebody is nicked up, that’s a nice bat to have in there.”
Raburn may not be an all-star, but without him the Indians were probably not a Wild Card team in 2013. Without him, their chances to get back in 2014 would not be as good as they might be.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer