As the sun rises in Goodyear, Arizona this morning and pitchers and catchers officially report to spring training, many things have changed around the Indians while very little has changed internally.
Chief Wahoo smiles atop the page this morning for the first time since last season’s disappointing 85-77 third place finish. The 2014 goal, Unfinished Business, was clear: build upon a 2013 wild card birth and make a prolonged playoff journey. However, an 11-17 start in April, headlined by slow starts from Justin Masterson, Asdrubal Cabrera and Nick Swisher and an injury to Michael Bourn put the Indians behind in the standings and in a deficit they could never recover. Masterson, Swisher, Bourn and 2013 All-Star Jason Kipnis each spent considerable time on the disabled list in 2014.
Despite a 53-55 record at the trade deadline, manager Terry Francona, vowed his team would never wave the white flag, even when Cabrera and Masterson were traded to National League contenders at the deadline. Even though they helped contribute to the 2013 playoff season, Cabrera and Masterson were detriments to the Tribe’s first four months in 2014. The moves were made to jettison the two free-agents-to-be, and clear roster space for young players ready to assume larger big league roles.
Francona was able to do what his predecessor, Manny Acta, was unable to do and keep a young team, focused and hungry after the trade deadline. Corey Kluber turned a strong first half, into a phenomenal second half and eventually winning the Cy Young Award. Kluber was 7-3, with a 2.09 ERA in August and September. After falling out of the original starting rotation, Carlos Carrasco re-emerged and assumed Masterson’s spot in the rotation. For the final eight weeks of the season, Carrasco was the best pitcher in baseball, going 5-3, with a 1.70 ERA. The two made a strong, 1-2 punch, carving up and striking out hitters around the American League.
Offensively, Michael Brantley assumed the spot as the team’s best hitter and #3 hitter, replacing Kipnis. Brantley continued to make every season of his career better than his last, hitting, .327, with 20 home runs and 97 runs batted in. His breakout season left him third in the American League Most Valuable Player voting behind just Mike Trout and Victor Martinez. A strong offensive second half from Carlos Santana to go with Brantley’s season, combined with improved defense from Yan Gomes and Jose Ramirez got the upstart Indians back into contention while disappointments Swisher, Ryan Raburn and David Murphy all watched from the disabled list.
Cleveland was 32-22 in the final two months, but it wasn’t quite enough to finish the business they set out to achieve. The Tribe got as close at 2.5 games back of first place on Aug. 31, but could never scratch their way to the top. Instead, they finished a disappointing three games out of a playoff spot and just four games back of the upstart, Wild Card Kansas City Royals that played all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.
The Indians finished just four games behind the American League Champions, and just four games above the .500 watermark. Like many things the Indians do, the line between reaching the top, or dropping to mediocrity, is a very fine one. The final eight weeks of 2014, is the foundation that the 2015 season is being built upon.
Kluber is now the clear, ace of the pitching staff. Carrasco, along with newcomer Gavin Floyd, and Trevor Bauer are assured spots. Cody Allen is now the closer and Bryan Shaw the primary set up man. The front office has remained adamant that Ramirez will open the season at shortstop while top prospect, Francisco Lindor, continues to mature in the minor leagues. While each player made strides and were surprises last year, Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, Allen, Shaw and Ramirez each enter 2015 with expectations of success for the Indians to achieve their continued goal of a postseason run. Santana is expected to put together a full season, Kipnis is expected to return to 2013 form and former free agent splurges, Bourn and Swisher are expected to provided better production than they have in the first two years of their contract. Each will have to help aid Brantley and Gomes to improve a hot-and-cold offense and one of the worst defenses assembled since 2000.
Despite a disappointing 2014, the expectations remain the same while most of the roster does too. Only Floyd is a potential new impact pitcher and Brandon Moss is the only impact hitter expected to move the needle of the Tribe’s win total.
But while the Indians roster and landscape has not changed, the remainder of the division has had a drastic shake up around them, and in the eyes of many, the Tribe has become the favorite. The defending Central Division Champion, Detroit Tigers, lost several key veterans in Torii Hunter, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. Yoenis Cespedes will provide a free-swinging, high-reward, power hitter, the Tigers will count on more younger, unproven players than they have in years. Martinez will miss much of spring training, if not the start of the season, with a torn meniscus. Miguel Cabrera is returning from offseason ankle surgery.
Kansas City have lost top-of-the-rotation starter James Shields, outfielder Nori Aoki and designated hitter Billy Butler, but replaced them with Edinson Volquez, Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales. Each replacement may be a cheaper, older, lesser version and that may be all that is necessary to drop the Royals below that fine line of contender to disappointment.
But, the biggest improvement this offseason is in the Windy City where the Chicago White Sox added Jeff Samardijia, David Robertson, Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera to their core of Chris Sale and Jose Abreu. The White Sox now make the Central Division a four horse race. Certainly they’ve made the biggest stride forward, time will only tell if their additions are enough to improve from 73 wins last season to a playoff team.
The favorites seem to have come back to the pack and the bottom feeders have improved in the division, while the Indians seem to have remained status quo. Cleveland has the young core, growing and improving. Only time will tell if that core is enough to win the division and return to the playoffs, while sporting the smallest payroll of the five teams.
Many of the questions that surrounded the Indians at the end of 2014, continue to loom as the first workout of 2015 begins. Will Kluber and Brantley remain stars of the American League, or was 2014 their career years? Can a young rotation behind Kluber continue to grow and have the dominance they did in August and September? Will Swisher, Bourn and Kipnis rebound to help an average offense find consistency? And maybe most importantly, can the Indians defense be just average enough to not ruin strong pitching performances like it did so many times a year ago?
For the Indians, today is a new season but the same expectations from a year ago remain.
Photo: Arizona Tourism