It’s been six years since the Cleveland Indians last ended a season above .500. Even during the team’s surprising second place finish in 2011, they still only won 80 games. But it’s a new era in Ohio. Not only does the team have a new manager in Terry Francona, but also several new players, including a couple of stars like Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, as well as top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer. Heading into this season, the team won’t be the AL Central favorite, but it could be a dark horse that remains in contention into September.
The latest big move coming from Cleveland came just as spring training was getting underway, as the Indians signed Bourn to a 4-year, $48-million deal. The free agent center fielder had been hard-pressed to find a home, in part, because of the draft pick compensation tied to him, even though he may have been the second-best outfielder on the market this offseason. The Indians already proved they weren’t concerned about surrendering a pick to acquire a star, having signed Swisher in December.
Bourn has been one of the game’s speediest players and best leadoff hitters over the last few years and, after losing their primary leadoff hitter when they traded away Shin-Soo Choo, the Indians had an opening. Bourn should help the team that finished near the bottom of the American League in runs scored. He finished in the top 10 in the National League in runs scored each of the last two seasons. While his career batting average is very pedestrian, he gets on base quite a bit and can be dangerous on the base paths as evidenced by being a 3-time NL stolen base champ. The two-time Gold Glove Award winner will also be a strong anchor for the Indians’ outfield.
Joining Bourn to his left and right may be a rotating cast. Swisher, Michael Brantley, and Drew Stubbs will all see playing time at those positions. The 25-year-old Brantley is coming off of his second full season in the Majors and hit .288. A .303 career hitter in the minors, he could continue to blossom with another year with the Indians. Stubbs, meanwhile, is entering his first year in Cleveland after arriving from Cincinnati in the Shoo trade. After a fairly impressive 2010 season with the Reds, it’s been downhill for Stubbs since, leading the league in strikeouts in 2011 and hitting only .213 last year. He brings more speed to Cleveland, though, having stolen at least 30 bases in each of the last three years.
Swisher, meanwhile, may see time in a couple different spots. He was originally brought in to replace Shoo in right, but that may not necessarily be the case now that the team has signed Bourn, as well. With Brantley potentially in right and Stubbs in left, Swisher could actually find himself playing more first base than anything else. Regardless of where he plays, Swisher will be a power bat in the middle of the Indians’ lineup. His 24 home runs last year with the New York Yankees would have led Cleveland.
If Swisher does end up playing a lot of first base, another new addition, Mark Reynolds, may end up as the team’s primary designated hitter. Like Swisher, Reynolds’ 23 home runs with the Baltimore Orioles last year were more than anyone with the Indians. With his bat in the lineup every day, though, Cleveland will have to deal with his low batting average and high strikeout rate. So, unless Stubbs becomes a fourth outfielder or is traded, either of which is a possibility, the Indians will have two such hitters creating lots of outs.
Elsewhere in the infield, Lonnie Chisenhall is expected to be the Opening Day third baseman. The 24-year-old has spent the last two seasons splitting time between the Majors and minors, hitting .260/.295/.421 with 12 home runs in 109 career Major League games. To his left will be Asdrubal Cabrera, the two-time All-Star who is entering his seventh season, but only just turned 27. His double play partner will again be Jason Kipnis. Like Cabrera, he is still young and will be just 26 when the season begins. He is another player who brings speed to the team, having had 31 steals last year. Mike Aviles will serve as an experienced backup infielder with the ability to fill in at any position.
Carlos Santana will be looking to truly emerge with another year as Cleveland’s starting catcher. He’s still yet to really have a breakout season as many predicted he’d be capable of when he was a top prospect. During his two full seasons in the Majors he hit 45 home runs, however his batting average has lingered in the mid-.200s. He did possess the AL’s second-best WAR for a catcher last season and the organization is happy with the way his defensive ability and game-calling have progressed.
Among the pitchers who will be throwing to Santana this season will be ace Justin Masterson. The league leader in starts last year is coming off of his second consecutive 200+-inning season. The 27-year-old regressed a bit last year after a great 2011, but the organization believes he can still be their number one. Behind him is another pitcher who has slipped over the past couple of years. Ubaldo Jimenez hasn’t sniffed the success he found in Colorado since 2011, combining for a 19-30 record and a 5.03 ERA. He will be a risky number two starter, but does have upside if he can regroup. Brett Myers will return to a starter’s role after a steady season pitching from the bullpen with the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros.
The back half of the Indians’ rotation is still up in the air and will likely be decided in March though Zach McAllister may command one of the last two slots. Even though he was 6-8 with a 4.24 ERA last year, the team is impressed with the confidence he showed and the improvement of his fastball. New arrival Daisuke Matsuzaka, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, and Scott Kazmir will all likely compete for the final spot in the rotation.
Chris Perez will once again anchor the Cleveland bullpen. He is coming off of his second straight all-star season during which he notched more than 30 saves. He finished fourth in the AL last year with 39, though he did also have four blown saves. The bullpen as a whole finished next-to-last in ERA in the AL and several new players were brought in to help late in the games. Those include Matt Albers, Bryan Shaw, and, Matt Capps if he makes the club. Returning to the team are Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith, who both have both been very good in setup roles.
The key to the success of the 2013 Indians will likely be their pitching. Masterson is not really a number one and Jimenez hardly a number two. Their offense should be good enough to score some runs and, at the very least, will be dangerous when players get on base. That won’t translate to wins, though, if the rotation doesn’t perform better than the 13th-best it was last year in the AL. If their starters are able to hold their own, it is conceivable this team could be in the Wild Card hunt late in the season. If not, it could be another frustrating season in Cleveland.