Winter Report Card: Cleveland Indians
With only a few weeks remaining until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2013. To see the report cards already published, click here.
2013 results: 92-70 (.568), 2nd place AL Central (Hot Stove Preview)
The Indians made an impressive turnaround in 2013. In their first year under manager Terry Francona, they broke a streak of four straight losing seasons, and thanks to a 21-6 September — including a season-ending 10-game winning streak — they returned to the postseason for the first time since 2007. While they wound up losing the American League Wild Card Game to the Rays, their progress was impressive nonetheless.
Duplicating that success won't be easy, however, particularly given general manager Chris Antonetti's lack of impact moves this winter. Key in Cleveland's 24-win gain from 2012 to 2013 was the vast improvement of its rotation, which went from second-to-last in the league in both ERA (5.25 ) and strikeout rate (6.1 per nine) to sixth in the former (3.92) and second in the latter (8.6).
It's unfair to attribute that improvement entirely to reclamation projects Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, but both were a big part of the story. Jimenez, whom the Indians traded for in mid-2011 only to suffer through 42 starts of 5.32 ERA-level awfulness through 2012, ironed out his mechanics, trimmed his walk and homer rates struck out more batters than ever before (9.6 per nine) and posted a 3.30 ERA. A free agent at this writing, he's found his market cooled by the protracted Masahiro Tanaka situation and the qualifying offer that will cost his new team a draft pick. Kazmir, who climbed off the scrapheap after pitching in just one major league game in 2011 and '12, delivered a 4.04 ERA (3.79 after April) while whiffing 9.2 per nine; he already parlayed that into a two-year, $22 million deal with the A's.
That leaves a rotation with Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar as the front four, a problem in that only Masterson has spent a full major league season as a starter. The potential fifth-starter options aren't tremendously encouraging. Prospect Trevor Bauer has gotten off to a rocky start in his second organization, while Carlos Carrasco's ship as a prospect sailed a long time ago; he turns 27 in March and owns a 5.29 ERA through 238 1/3 major league innings. Minor league free agent Shaun Marcum could be this year's Kazmir. He's had plenty of success at the major league level but was limited to 78 1/3 innings of 5.29 ERA misery with the Mets before undergoing surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome in July, that after a 2012 season shortened by elbow woes.
The bullpen has undergone a significant shakeup as well. Gone are closer Chris Perez, righties Joe Smith and Matt Albers and lefty Rich Hill, only some of whom will be missed. The leading candidate to replace Perez as the ninth-inning go-to is John Axford, whom the team signed to a one-year, $4.5 million deal plus incentives. Axofrd saved 105 games for the Brewers from 2010-12, but lost his job in the latter season and has been touched for a 4.35 ERA over the past two years. The good news is that during a late-season run with the Cardinals, he learned that he'd been tipping his pitches, so the chances of him regaining form have increased.
Also joining the bullpen via minor league deals are David Aardsma and Scott Atchison; apparently, Antonetti didn't get past the first letter of the alphabet in his Rolodex. Aardsma, who made just one major league appearance in 2011 and '12 due to Tommy John and hip labrum surgeries, whiffed 8.2 per nine in 39 2/3 innings with the Mets in 2013 but struggled to keep the ball in the park (1.6 HR/9) en route to a 4.31 ERA. Atchison battled elbow and groin woes but threw 45 1/3 innings of 4.37 ERA ball for the Mets as well; he won't miss as many bats but his career 3.64 ERA offers hope that he can be serviceable as a mid-reliever. Lefty Josh Outman, acquired via a trade with the Rockies, is at least an upgrade on Hill's 6.28 ERA; he should be able to lower his 4.33 mark at a lower altitude and prove an effective complement to lefty specialist Marc Rzepczynski.
Outman arrived in exchange for the disappointing Drew Stubbs, who hit .233/.305/.360 with 10 homers and 17 steals as the Indians' regular rightfielder. Replacing him is David Murphy, whose two-year, $12 million free agent deal represents the team's largest expenditure this winter. The Murph did his share of disappointing last year with the Rangers, slumping to .220/.282/.374 with 13 homers; the 32-year-old lefty is a better hitter than that (.275/.337/.441 career), but he's best used in a platoon.
Ryan Raburn, another of last year's reclamation successes, could also find significant time in that role, as could Jeff Francoeur, who got a minor league deal. The latter collapsed to .204/.238/.298 in 256 PA after a lousy 2012, but he owns a career .285/.335/.465 line against lefties, and in the hands of a manager like Francona who excels in getting his hitters the platoon advantage —a major league high 71 percent of the time in 2013 — he could be useful. Also of interest among the new faces in the outfield is Nyjer Morgan, who's back on a minor league deal after a year in Japan; the 33-year-old lefty is a career .280/.341/.364 hitter who could offer some speed off the bench.
Unfinished Business: Rotation, Carlos Santana's position
The Indians have a clear need for at least an innings-eater in the rotation. While they could bring in the ever-durable Bronson Arroyo to provide bulk, it makes more sense to aim higher and renew the effort to retain Jimenez, whose price may be dropping. With Justin Masterson, Michael Brantley, Vinne Pestano, Rzepczynski and Josh Tomlin all arbitration eligible and likely to push the team's payroll back to around last year's Opening Day figure of $80.6 million, they'll need a willingness to spend, but in the name of contention, it's worth it.
Not only would the 30-year-old Jimenez not cost Cleveland a draft pick, but pitching coach Mickey Callaway is the man who turned him around after two seasons of mechanical woes. Jimenez's swing-and-miss stuff and his ability to generate groundballs offer a contrast to Arroyo and fellow free agent Ervin Santana, who would cost the Indians a pick. Another groundballing alternative is A.J. Burnett, who enjoyed a nice renaissance in Pittsburgh (3.41 ERA and 8.9 K/9 in 2012 and '13) after turning into a piñata in the Bronx. The 37-year-old righty only recently decided that he wants to pitch for another season, and he won't require a lengthy deal or cost a draft pick.
As for Santana, the 27-year-old switch-hitter is the team's most potent bat; he hit .268/.377/.455 with 20 homers and 93 walks in 2013. Francona and predecessor Manny Acta have used him at first base and DH to get his bat into the lineup often enough that he's exceeded 600 plate appearances in each of the last three seasons. With the emergence of Yan Gomes as a similarly effective hitter (.294/.345/.481 with 11 homers in 322 PA) and a much better defender, the team now plans to try Santana at third base, a position he played in the minors (52 games combined in 2005 and '06) before the Dodgers shifted him to catching. Santana has been getting time at the hot corner in the Dominican Winter League, though reports of his progress have been scant.
Third base was the weakest link in Cleveland's lineup in 2013, with Lonnie Chisenhall, Mike Aviles, Mark Reynolds and others combining to hit .218/.274/.364 while being six runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved. The now-25-year-old Chisenhall hit just .225/.270/.398 in a career-high 308 plate appearances, and after three seasons of failing to seize the opportunity, it may be time to look elsewhere. Santana will get a long look at third during spring training; if he can hold down the fort, it will help get Gomes' bat in the lineup more often while still providing the kind of moving-part flexibility Francona enjoys with Raburn, Nick Swisher and others.
Preliminary Grade: C-Michael Bourn Asdrubal Cabrera