Indians Have Business to Finish

On the eve of the start of their regular season, the Cleveland Indians know that they have “Unfinished Business” to tend to.

The long offseason has come to an end and, despite the spring snowstorm blanketing the northeast Ohio region this weekend, the crack of the bat, the pop of the ball in a glove, and the roar of the crowd are all sounds soon to return to the shores of Lake Erie.

It’s about time.

An incredible run to end the 2013 regular season catapulted the Indians into the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Last year’s trip was regrettably shorter, as the Indians were eliminated in a one-game Wild Card game against the Tampa Bay Rays, 4-0, in front of a sellout crowd at Progressive Field.

It took a ten-game winning streak at the end of the year to capture the playoff berth. At the end of August, the team was 8.5 games in back of front-running Detroit. They finished the season just one game behind the Tigers in the closest of the races in baseball’s six divisions.

Cleveland will begin this season on the west coast in Oakland for three games before returning home to a second consecutive sellout crowd at the ballpark still affectionately known as “The Jake”. The season comes hot on the heels of an impressive run through Cactus League play, which concluded on Saturday afternoon, when the Indians dropped a 9-8 final to the San Diego Padres at the University of San Diego. Cleveland finished the spring with an MLB-leading 20 wins and topped the standings in the Cactus League. They also had a pair of ties.

While fans clamored for the acquisitions of a power hitting right-handed bat to pump offense into the lineup and of a big name arm to complement the existing pieces in the starting rotation, the Indians made much more quieter and cost-conscious moves to upgrade what was an effective roster in 2013. The team will still have to deal with losses in the rotation and in the bullpen, but they have confidence that the current makeup, if healthy, can continue to contend and compete in the American League Central.

From a position player standpoint, the Indians did not lose anything of significance following last season. Outfielder Drew Stubbs was traded to Colorado after the signing of free agent left-handed hitting outfielder David Murphy from Texas. Murphy will essentially platoon with the returning Ryan Raburn in right field. Murphy has averaged 14 home runs and 58 RBI while batting .272 over the last six full seasons in Texas. He had a disappointing 2013 season, hitting just .220, but hopes to return to the form that saw him topple the .300 mark just one year prior.

The offense itself last season was underrated, possibly due to the lack of a true power hitter in the lineup. Cleveland averaged 4.60 runs per game, the fourth-best production in the American League and trailing just fellow playoff teams Boston, Detroit, and Oakland. While they were just slightly above the league average in home runs (167) as a team (171), they manufactured runs well. They were fourth in the AL in stolen bases (117) and walks (562). They had 56 sacrifice flies, second to Los Angeles’ 64. They grounded into the third fewest double plays in the league.

They did all this without the expected contributions of their two biggest free agent signings heading into the season in Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.

Swisher dealt with a shoulder injury for much of the year and his production at the plate suffered mightily. He still managed to hit a team-leading 22 home runs, his lowest output since 2007, and hit .246, his worst mark since hitting .219 in 2008. His 63 runs batted in were the fewest in any full season in his career. This spring, he hit over .300 and had three home runs in 18 games.

Bourn will start the season on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, a tough pill to swallow after a notably down year for him offensively last season. His .263 average was his worst since 2008 (.229) and his 23 stolen bases were his fewest since stealing 18 in 2007. The Indians will need a healthy Bourn at the top of the lineup to set the table and to help manufacture potential runs for the heart of the Cleveland order.

The injection of Yan Gomes into the lineup behind the plate on an every day basis should make the team’s offense, defense, and the pitching staff better than last season when Carlos Santana was the regular catcher. Gomes, who has reportedly been inked to a six-year, $23 million contract extension, was a key piece of the Goon Squad bench bunch last season. In 88 games, he hit .294 with eleven home runs and 38 RBI. Even more impressive were his handling of the pitching staff and his cannon arm, which limited base stealers with one of the best caught-stealing percentages in all of baseball.

Santana will move into more regular time at third base with Lonnie Chisenhall, a move made to help keep Santana happier and out of the designated hitter spot, a position he has expressed he does not enjoy playing. The former catcher and cleanup hitter is a valuable piece of the Tribe offense, noted by his 20 home runs and 74 RBI last season. His eye at the plate continued to develop, as he again finished in the top six in all of baseball in bases on balls for the third straight season.

Non-roster invitees Nyjer Morgan and Elliot Johnson, both of whom have made the Opening Day 25-man roster, hope to latch on with the club with the same level of success as Raburn and Jason Giambi did one season ago.

The pitching staff will have to step up to replace the numbers lost in the free agent departures of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir.

The starting rotation was clearly the biggest surprise of 2013. Four of five starters posted sub-4.00 ERAs, with Kazmir’s 4.04 just on the outside. Corey Kluber emerged with an 11-5 season with a 3.85 ERA in 26 games, filling in for Kazmir and Brett Myers during injuries, and could have compiled even more impressive numbers had he not lost a month to a finger injury. Zach McAllister was 9-9 with a 3.75 ERA in 24 starts, but like Kluber lost significant time to a finger injury. Jimenez was nearly perfect in the stretch run, posting a 4-0 record with a 1.09 ERA in six September starts to conclude his Indians career. Justin Masterson was an All-Star and pitched well until an injury knocked him out for three weeks and left him to finish the season in the bullpen.

Young right-hander Danny Salazar could immediately slot in to eat up a chunk of the production provided by the lost two. Full seasons from Kluber and McAllister could also help to make up the difference. Masterson will undoubtedly play a substantial role on the field as he approaches potential free agency after the season. The fifth spot in the rotation will be manned by Carlos Carrasco, with Josh Tomlin waiting in the wings in Columbus and veteran Shaun Marcum also a potential option as he continues to recover from thoracic outlet syndrome.

The bullpen corps saw the largest turnover following last season. Two-time AL All-Star closer Chris Perez was released after a tumultuous season on and off the field and ultimately landed in Los Angeles with the Dodgers. Versatile side-armer Joe Smith also found himself in LA with Anaheim’s Angels on a free agent contract. Matt Albers signed in Houston to aid their bullpen and ineffective left-hander Rich Hill was signed by Boston but was sent to minor league camp after missing a portion of the spring due to a personal tragedy.

The bullpen may be one of the bigger unknowns moving into the 2014 season after being viewed just one season ago as one of the club’s most stable pieces.

John Axford was brought in to close via free agency from St. Louis, joining the returning Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw at the back end of the bullpen. Vinnie Pestano reclaimed a role in the pen, joining lefty Marc Rzepczynski, who replaced Pestano on the roster at the trade deadline last season when he was sent to Columbus. A second lefty, Josh Outman, who was acquired for Stubbs from the Colorado Rockies, looks to fill the bullpen void with 38-year-old veteran Scott Atchison and power arm Blake Wood, who returns after missing almost all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The AL Central could be wide open this season due to the moves made around the rest of the league.

Detroit was busy. They started the offseason with the loud trade of Prince Fielder to Texas for Ian Kinsler, allowing the club to move Miguel Cabrera back to first base while plugging a long-term hole at second with Kinsler. They shipped out starting pitcher Doug Fister to Washington for bullpen pieces and replaced free agent closer Joaquin Benoit with 39-year-old Joe Nathan. They lost bullpen arm Bruce Rondon to Tommy John surgery. Starting shortstop Jose Iglesias, who was acquired last season to fill the void at short when Jhonny Peralta left in free agency, may miss the season with stress fractures in both of his legs.

Kansas City, who remained in the mix in the top third of the Central for chunks of last season, did little in the offseason to upgrade their existing roster. They added outfielder Norichika Aoki in a trade from Milwaukee, signed lefty Jason Vargas and second baseman Omar Infante, and re-signed Bruce Chen. They lost valuable bullpen arm Luke Hochevar in camp to the same Tommy John surgery running rampant across professional baseball.

While the Indians rotation could take a step back in their numbers on the mound, the offense should be slightly improved with the gradual progressions of Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Santana, and Gomes, and a return to form from Swisher and/or Bourn. The bullpen will need to remain healthy and effective, something that decimated the team for much of last season.

Everything is up for grabs. A talented, hungry, and largely young group of players will adorn the Indians uniform to quench their cravings for playoff baseball again in October.

Business opens Monday night at 10:05 PM.

Photo: Thomas Ondrey/The Cleveland Plain Dealer

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