Five Indians Storylines to Follow All Season Long

The curtain goes up tonight on the 2014 season at 10:05 pm, locally, when the Cleveland Indians take the field against the Oakland Athletics from the Bay Area. The Indians have been clear they have Unfinished Business and while no one has said it in so many words, the organization seems dedicated to their second straight playoff appearance for the first time since 1998-99. Anything short of another playoff birth, and this time more than a nine-inning appearance, seems to make this chapter of Indians’ history a disappointment.

With the Detroit Tigers re-tooled and the Kansas City Royals looking to contend, the American League Central Division is as wide open as it has been in the last five seasons. On Opening Day, every team thinks if things break right, they’ll find themselves in contention in September with a chance to chase October.

The Indians are no different, but with a veteran team and new attitude continuing from last season, it could be October or bust. Here are five storylines that will likely be a major determining factor as to whether the Tribe plays past Game 162 or not.

5. Carlos Santana at third base

The most talked about storyline in spring training will continue into the season. Santana started as a third base possibility over the winter after Yan Gomes asserted himself at the Tribe’s starting catcher last September. When he arrived in spring training it was something Indians manager Terry Francona said they would take a look at, and by the end of the spring, Santana had won the job. His sample size at third base is still relatively small, so it still remains to be seen if Santana can handle the hot corner over the course of 162 games, or if his inexperience at the position will be exploited.

While the Indians say they have confidence in Santana, they’re still carrying Lonnie Chisenhall on the Opening Day roster and Santana is still expected to be the team’s back-up catcher. Santana will assume a role no other player in baseball is currently playing. If he falters at third base, Chisenhall will be right over his shoulder to re-assume his spot. If Santana proves an adequate third baseman, Chisenhall could be the Indians’ top trade piece to improve the roster for a playoff push this summer.

4. Starting Pitching depth

After a 92-win season in 2013, the Indians lost over 330 starting pitching innings when Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir departed via free agency. While Jimenez struggled for much of the first half of the season before blossoming into the Tribe’s ace in the final six weeks and it’s tough to tell how Kazmir will progress in his second season after being out of affiliated baseball in 2012, two veterans will be tough to replace.

Corey Kluber didn’t even make the Opening Day roster in 2013, but will be expected to fill the second spot in the rotation behind Justin Masterson. Zach McAllister will also be expected to move up a step in the rotation. Both he and Kluber missed time a year ago with a strained tendon in their finger. But the pitcher who likely carries the brunt of the weight to replace some of those innings is young fireballer Danny Salazar. Salazar has been monitored closely for the last two seasons since his Tommy John surgery and discomfort in his ulnar nerve, but the Indians promise he will pitch without restriction or limitation in 2014. After a spring where the Indians continued to guard him, he’ll be the Opening Day starter on Friday at Progressive Field.

If any of the starters struggle behind Masterson, the Indians will look to Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin to step in and assume the load. Each of the three have had big league opportunities with varied success.

3. Will the Indians receive a spark from their minor leagues?

A year ago it was Salazar that gave the Indians a second half spark. He made his first start in mid-July and was recalled in August to face the Detroit Tigers. He pitched the final two months of the season for the Indians and started their Wild Card playoff game.

This year, the Indians could be looking to right-handed starter Cody Anderson for a second half surge. Anderson will likely start the season at Double-A Akron. Like Salazar, he’s been monitored very closely over the last two seasons in regards to his innings and pitch limits. Anderson is a converted outfielder who is still learning to pitch. However, he has a plus-fastball and has had success at the lower levels of the minor leagues. If the starting pitchers in front of him falter, and he succeeds in the first half of the season, he could hear the phone ring to bring him to Cleveland just as Salazar did a year ago.

Other contenders from the farm system include former top picks Tyler Naquin and Francisco Lindor. Naquin, at 23-years old, could be a mid-season call-up if Michael Bourn’s hamstring injuries linger or the Indians do not receive the production they hope for from Ryan Raburn or David Murphy. Naquin has had success in a year and a half professionally and could make a quick climb to the big leagues. Lindor is the top prospect in the Indians organization. While he’s just 20-years old, he’ll open in Double-A and could receive a 2014 promotion if Asdrubal Cabrera struggles or is injured for a large length of time. If not, he could be a late-season addition to the roster like Jose Ramirez was a year ago or Xander Bogaerts was for the Boston Red Sox.

2. Attendance

Every winning season since 2001 has been followed with a non-winning year. With unfinished business and high expectations, a winning season is expected in 2014. It should build momentum for the Indians and their attendance problems.

Cleveland has a manager dedicated to winning and a core group of players to contend with for this season and beyond. Fans have used excuses like dynamic pricing, the weather and top teams not coming to Progressive Field during the summer months. The Indians can’t control the weather, but they’ve put a quality product on the field for 2014 and the summer months are full of promotions and top teams to see. If the Indians win, and attendance does not improve, it will speak more to the fans than the organization.

1. Justin Masterson

With every start the questions will rise concerning his expiring contract at the end of the 2014 season and his impending free agency. Masterson has had varied results in his career as a starter, but at 29 years old, he’s entering his prime and he’s the best pitcher the Indians have. If Masterson shines—like he did all spring—he may price his way right out of the Indians budget before the two sides have time to negotiate at the All-Star break or the end of the season.

If the Indians struggle as a team, he could become a name that by June is on the list of potential deadline deals for contenders and be the next name in a line of pitchers traded away from the Tribe instead of extended.

Every start in 2014 could see Masterson’s value rise and fall, just like the Tribe in the standings. His performance and the Tribe’s success could be the kingpin to many of the other storylines of the season unraveling.

Photo: Getty Images

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