The Indians had a big turn around in the 2013 season, led by their new manager Terry Francona. It also helped that the team brought in free agents Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds, Ryan Raburn and Scott Kazmir. This off season, the team lost free agent pitchers Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez and traded OF Drew Stubbs. They signed free agent OF David Murphy from the Rangers, but did little to build off the 92 wins of last season. Murphy is coming off a .220, 13, 45 in 142 games last season.
If the Indians expect to compete with the likes of the serious AL Central teams, they need their offense to pick it up a level. In other words, veterans like Swisher, Bourn and Murphy need to do better than they did in 2013. Asdrubal Cabrera (.242, 14, 64) and Lonnie Chisenhall (.225, 11, 36) have to give a little more offensively, especially with Cabrera playing for a contract. 2B Jason Kipnis (.284, 17, 84) became one of the top performers at his position in the AL last season. Talk is catcher Carlos Santana could move to 3B where he can play more often and allow for Yan Gomes (.2894, 11, 38) to be the everyday catcher. At the very least, Santana will get a chance to be the team's primary DH. LF Michael Brantley (.284, 10, 73) is another emerging star who took some big steps last season. If I was lining up this team, I'd go: Bourn CF, Kipnis 2B, Santana DH, Swisher 1B, Brantley LF, Cabrera SS, Gomes C, Murphy RF, Chisenhall 3B. Yes, using Santana at 3B allows the Indians to better utilize another bat, such as Raburn or minor league invites Jason Giambi, Jeff Francouer or Nyjer Morgan. Infielder Mike Aviles covers them in regards to any position on the infield.
The Indians let Jimenez (13-9, 3.30 in 32 starts) and Kazmir (10-9, 4.04 in 29 starts) go because of the belief in their young pitching. Justin Masterson (14-10, 3.45 in 32 games, 29 starts) is the leader of the staff. RHP Corey Kluber (11-5, 3.85 in 26, 24), Zack McAllister (9-9, 3.85, 24) and Danny Salazar (2-3, 3.12, 10) are going to be counted on heavily for a team that will be expected to win. Carlos Carrasco (1-4, 6.75, 15, 7) and Shawn Marcum (1-10, 5.29, 14, 12) will battle for the 5th spot in the rotation. Hope is that longtime pitching prospect Trevor Bauer makes his mark this season. He still has a ton of talent, but command continues to be an issue.
RHP John Axford comes over as a free agent to be the team's closer, replacing Chris Perez, who was non-tendered. Axford was 7-7, 4.02 in 75 games last season with Milwaukee and St Louis with 0 saves. He did pitch better for St Louis after he was acquired and gave up just 1 run in 5 2/3 innings in the postseason. The Indians biggest loss may be RHP Joe Smith (6-2, 2.29, 70), who signed with the Angels. RHPs Cody Allen (6-1, 2.43, 77) and Bryan Shaw (7-3, 3.24, 70) and LHP Marc Rzepcynzski (0-0, 0.89, 27) will have major roles in the pen this season. RHPs David Aardsma and Scott Atchison are in on minor league deals and are expected to have a good chance to make the club.
I would have expected the Indians to build a little more off of what they build last season. Francona changed the culture in the clubhouse and the team had a winning mentality, not just based on wins and losses. There was a swagger to this group that was different from Indians teams of the past. They will need to rely on that same swagger if they want to overachieve again this season. The losses of Jimenez, Kazmir and Smith and the lack of replacements will severely hurt this team. A rosy scenario can be painted if Swisher, Murphy, Chisenhall and Bourn all have big seasons and Salazar and Kluber somehow replace Jimenez and Kazmir. Though I think Axford will be serviceable as the closer, I think the bullpen is in bad shape. Add in the fact that opponents are going to be expecting a 92 win team and I think it is all a recipe for disaster. Vegas is down on them as well, putting their O/U at 82.5. I think they will win less than that, finishing 76-86, 4th place in the AL Central.