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2014 Indians Team Preview: Contender Or Fluke?

Darin Brown

Darin Brown

Darin has been a RotoWire contributor since the early 1998 "RotoNews" days. He is a diehard Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars fan who spent his college days working for the Rangers as a clubhouse attendant making little money but having a blast.

2014 Cleveland Indians Team Preview

The Indians, led by manager Terry Francona, restored some magic to the shores of Lake Erie with a 92-70 record (51-30 at home). They battled the Tigers for the AL Central crown before falling a game short but did manage to edge out the Rangers and earn a spot in the Wild Card game, losing to the Rays 4-0. It was an enormously successful year in Franconaís first year as the Tribe skipper as the team snapped a long postseason drought but it remains to be seen if last season was a precursor of things to come or rather catching lightning in a bottle.

The Indians finished fifth in the AL in runs scored and seventh in ERA thanks in large part to a strikeout heavy staff, trailing only the Tigers in the AL. Unfortunately for the Indians, two of last yearís starters are likely headed elsewhere via free agency. Scott Kazmir (10 wins, 162 Ks) inked a two-year deal with the Aís and Ubaldo Jimenez (13 wins, 194 Ks) appears to be landing with another club, though he could return to the team at a discounted price. The Indians seem content on filling those voids with in-house candidates, a decision that will go a long way in determining the fate of their 2014 season.

The Indians also had a major overhaul of their bullpen. The teamís closer, Chris Perez, was released before signing with the Dodgers and one of his setup men, Joe Smith, departed via free agency and inked a three-year deal with the Angels. The team also lost relievers Matt Albers and Rich Hill. That foursome combined for 218.2 innings pitched last year and the team made the re-tooling of the bullpen its primary offseason goal. The team added John Axford in free agency to presumably get the first crack at closing out games, as well as Josh Outman in a trade.

The teamís offensive attack will rely mainly on last yearís cast of characters as the only notable offseason addition was outfielder David Murphy. Perhaps the biggest offensive offseason move is the teamís experiment with Carlos Santana at third base, which figures to get a lot of attention this spring.

The Indians, coming off one of the most unexpected seasons in the teamís history, had a relatively quiet offseason despite losing 40 percent of their starting rotation to free agency and a sizeable chunk of their bullpen. The team will need a bounce-back season from Asdrubal Cabrera and appears set to rely heavily on some young arms (Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar) to help fill the gaps in the starting rotation in an effort to repeat last yearís magic.

Offseason Moves

Lost Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir to free agency. Signed Shaun Marcum to a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training.

Jimenez and Kazmir both entered 2013 with a host of question marks and both figure to cash in and leave the Indians after enjoying solid seasons. Kazmirís already inked a two-year deal with the Aís and Jimenez still figures to go elsewhere despite a soft free agent market thanks to some draft pick compensation attached to him. Both are likely to regress from last yearís performance with Jimenezís late season run being largely dependent on a host of well-timed starts against weak offenses and Kazmirís health and durability always being a question mark. That doesnít absolve the Indians from finding a way to replace 61 starts, 340 innings and 356 Ks from their starting rotation though. Weíll discuss the rotation picture further below but the only offseason move the team made to help fill the void was bringing in Shaun Marcum, who hopes to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2013 season with the Mets.

Lost Chris Perez, Joe Smith, Rich Hill and Matt Albers to free agency. Signed John Axford as a free agent. Added Josh Outman in a trade for Drew Stubbs. Signed David Aardsma to a minor-league deal and invited him to spring training.

As mentioned earlier, the Indians lost a sizeable portion of their bullpen ranks with these four departures. Perezís inconsistent performance and off-the-field issues punched his ticket out of town and Rich Hill and Matt Albers are both easily replaced parts. Smithís departure will leave the biggest void in the bullpen, though you can hardly fault the Indians for letting him walk for the three-year, $15.75 million contract he got from the Angels. The Indians figure to lean heavily on Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw to replace Smithís innings but will need Axford to recapture some of the form he showed back in 2010 and 2011 if they want a repeat performance of their bullpen. Outman figures to pair with Mark Rzepczynski to give the team a matchup of southpaws out of the bullpen, while Aardsma will face an uphill battle to land a spot in the revamped bullpen.

Signed David Murphy as a free agent. Extended non-roster invites to Jeff Francoeur, Nyjer Morgan and Matt Carson. Lost Jason Kubel to free agency and Drew Stubbs in an offseason trade.

Murphyís two-year deal constitutes the only real addition to the offense and he figures to settle into a platoon with Ryan Raburn in right field. Heís coming off of a down year with the Rangers but has handled righties well in his career (.280/.347/.469) and Raburnís presence should limit his exposure to southpaws. Itís a decent enough gamble for the Indians but hardly the impact move this team could have added to further bolster the offense. Morgan will look to land a reserve role after spending a season in Japan but the Indians already lean heavily to the left in the outfield so heíll face an uphill battle. Francoeur could factor into the fifth outfielder spot with his ability to handle southpaws, though the Indians can be flexible with their bench construction with Nick Swisher and Mike Aviles giving manager Terry Francona some nice flexibility. Carsonís an organizational soldier who will need to beat out Francoeur to land a reserve outfield spot.

Re-signed free agent Jason Giambi. Added David Adams and David Cooper as free agents.

Giambiís walk-off homer in late September against the White Sox was perhaps the sentinel moment for the Tribeís season and heíll be back in a bench role to give the team some veteran leadership in the clubhouse. Adams and Cooper are both coming off down years but figure to compete for bench spots. Adams could factor into the picture at third base if the Santana experiment fails given the developmental stall of Lonnie Chisenhall. Santanaís potential shift to third base could also impact Cooperís chances if the Indians decide to let Santana handle the third base duties on a full-time basis which could open up some playing time at first base. In any event, Adams will need to put last yearís struggles behind him and Cooper needs to stay healthy for either of them to carve out semi-meaningful roles with the Indians.

Signed Luke Carlin and Matt Treanor to non-roster contracts with an invitation to spring training. Released Lou Marson.

Yan Gomes has taken over the teamís primary catching duties but the backup spot could be up for grabs if the team decides that Carlos Santana can handle third base defensively. The arbitration-eligible Marson was non-tendered before settling for a minor league deal with the Phillies, leaving Carlin and Treanor to battle it out in spring for a roster spot if the team opts to shift Santana to third base. Neither are gifted offensively so thereís not much fantasy value in any event.

Extended non-roster invites to the following pitchers: Matt Capps, Mike Zagurski, Tyler Cloyd, J.C. Ramirez, Travis Banwart and Scott Atchison.

Capps will look to rebound from shoulder problems that have dogged him for a year and half and probably has the best chance of the group at landing a spot at the back of the bullpen. The other arms will look to impress this spring but figure to serve as organizational depth.

Signed Ryan Rohlinger and Elliot Johnson to non-roster contracts with an invitation to spring training.

Johnsonís ability to handle a couple of infield spots gives him a slight edge to earn a roster spot but both are facing uphill battles. A thumb injury to Jose Ramirez could open the door a crack for Johnson but donít expect either to make much of an impact.

Projected Lineup

1. Michael Bourn, CF
2. Nick Swisher, 1B/DH
3. Jason Kipnis, 2B
4. Carlos Santana, DH/1B
5. Michael Brantley, LF
6. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
7. David Murphy, RF
8. Yan Gomes, C
9. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B

Youíll see Ryan Raburn sliding into the lineup for David Murphy against southpaws but the lineup above should be pretty consistent on a nightly basis with one potential wrinkle at third base. The Indians remain high on Chisenhall despite some developmental hiccups but will give Carlos Santana a look at third base this spring. If Santana can handle third base it opens up a spot at 1B or DH, though the team doesnít have anyone screaming for an opportunity here. A late spring trade or signing to bolster the teamís offense isnít out of the question if Santana can handle third base so expect that to be a primary focus early in the spring.

Projected Rotation

1. Justin Masterson
2. Corey Kluber
3. Danny Salazar
4. Zach McAllister
5. Carlos Carrasco/Shaun Marcum/Josh Tomlin/Trevor Bauer

The Indians are leaning heavily on Salazar to help replace the innings left from the departures of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. The fifth starter spot will come from a variety of injury-reclamation projects (Carrasco, Marcum or Tomlin) or see if they can put the pieces back together with Trevor Bauer. Thereís a free agent signing to be had here which would greatly help the teamís chances but the budget may have been blown last year with the additions of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher.

Closer: John Axford was brought in to serve as the teamís closer despite some struggles last season. He dealt with some ďgopheritisĒ issues early in the season but did appear to right the ship as the season wore on with a strong finishing kick in the final month of the season, posting a 1.74 ERA and an 11:3 K:BB ratio over his final 10.1 innings following a trade to the Cardinals.

Key Bullpen Members: Cody Allen was seemingly in line to close out games following the offseason departures of Chris Perez and Joe Smith prior to the Axford signing but Allen shouldnít be ignored. Heíll be the teamís primary setup man and would figure to get the first crack at saves if Axford stumbles. He struck out 29.2 percent of the batters he faced last season (11.3 K/9) and managed to limit the damage of the baserunners he had by posting an 84.6 percent strand rate.

Bryan Shaw will step into a more prominent role and serve as the teamís primary seventh inning option, backing up Axford and Allen. Heís not a dominant force out of the bullpen (73 Ks, 28 walks in 75 innings) but the team will need him to help fill the void left by Joe Smith.

Marc Rzepczynski and Josh Outman combined to limit lefties to a .192 (32-for-167) average and should give manager Terry Francona some nice matchup options out of the bullpen. Both are vulnerable against righties so Francona will need to pick his spots carefully however.

Vinnie Pestano could be the missing piece in the Tribe bullpen. He struggled with an elbow injury for much of the season but he was a dominant force across 2011 and 2012 (10.9 K/9, 2.45 ERA in 137 appearances). Getting him back healthy and effective could really solidify the late-inning relief options for Francona.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

How serious are the Indians about Carlos Santana at third base?

Theyíre certainly going to give it a look in the early portion of spring training in order to see if Santana can handle it defensively. You have to assume that if heís passable defensively that theyíll give it some serious thought given the struggles of Lonnie Chisenhall. Santana is going to get his at-bats either at third base, first base or DH, though his fantasy owners would certainly enjoy some added positional flexibility. The biggest impact will come to Chisenhall as he stands to lose the most playing time.

How are the Indians going to replace Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir in the starting rotation?

The Indians will look primarily towards Danny Salazar to help fill the void. Salazar started the season at Double-A Akron before bringing his high-90s fastball to the Indians for 10 starts. The Indians kept a lid on his innings in all but a few starts, which certainly limited his impact, but he's clearly pitched his way into the team's plans for 2014. The short-term issue here is that he logged 145 innings over three levels in 2013, which could prompt the Tribe to cap him at something in the 175-180 range this season. Still, with an 11.3 K/9 and good control at each of his minor league stops (including a 2.6 BB/9 in his big league debut), Salazar has the highest upside in the stable of Cleveland starters.

Theyíll also rely more heavily on Corey Kluber. He missed a chunk of time in August with a finger injury and didn't fare well upon his return, but was effective enough overall to pitch himself into the team's plans heading into 2014. He struggles at times with the long ball, but helps out his cause by missing plenty of bats (8.3 K/9) and not allowing many free passes (2.0 BB/9). The underlying numbers (.329 BABIP., 72.9% LOB, 3.10 xFIP) suggest his breakout can be repeated.

Strengths

This is a team that finished fifth in the AL in runs scored thanks to a lineup with very few black holes. The team could afford to add a one-dimensional power bat to the middle of the order but this lineup should still keep putting up some runs. The bullpen has some question marks (Axfordís effectiveness and Pestanoís health chief among them) but should be a strength if everything clicks.

Weaknesses

The starting rotation has a lot of question marks once you get beyond Justin Masterson. Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir may have been unlikely bets to repeat their í13 seasons but the Indians have done little to fill the void left by their departures. Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar certainly have some upside but come with some question marks. Zach McAllister and the fifth starter candidates will likely give the Indians some league-average innings at best. Masterson, Kluber and Salazar miss enough bats to help alleviate some infield defense concerns but the rest of the starting staff could be hurt if Carlos Santana lands the third base job.

Rising: Yan Gomes - The catcher Gomes parlayed an injury to backup Lou Marson into a significant role with the Indians, hitting 11 homers in just 88 games and grabbing a larger chunk of the catching duties as the season wore on. He struggled to control the strike zone down the stretch (25 strikeouts in 90 plate appearances) as the scouting reports made the rounds, but Gomes still managed to punish mistakes. Over his limited time in the big leagues, Gomes has carried a low (5.5%) walk rate, and it should be noted that his .294/.345/.481 line is supported more by hard contact than a discerning eye at the plate. His batting average may not hold up under an increased role but his power should play behind the plate as the teamís starting catcher.

Declining: Asdrubal Cabrera - Cabrera's offensive slide continued again last season, as he hit just .242 with 14 homers, after dealing with nagging back, wrist and quadriceps injuries. Cabrera still offers above-average power from the shortstop spot but needs to turn around the downward trend and he seems to always be dinged up with some sort of nagging injury.

Sleeper: Carlos Carrasco - Carrasco struggled with the Indians in a starting role but excelled at Triple-A (3-1, 3.14 ERA, 1.12 WHIP in 14 starts) after missing the entire 2012 season following Tommy John surgery. He should get a look at the back end of the rotation following the departures of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, but could shift into a late-inning relief role if he's unable to crack the starting rotation. Although the results in the big leagues were disappointing, Carrasco saw a significant spike in the velocity of his fastball, which averaged a career-high 94.9 mph in 2013.

Supersleeper: Shaun Marcum - Marcum was an unmitigated free agent bust signing for the Mets, first missing almost all of April with nerve irritation in his neck. He made just 12 starts for the team, going 1-10 with a 5.23 ERA. Marcum was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome after experiencing tingling and numbness in his hand, sidelining him the last three months of the year. Marcum will enter spring as a fifth starter candidate and the move to the AL Central is about as good as a landing spot as he could have found.

Top Prospects

Clint Frazier, OF - Frazier hit the ground running after getting picked fifth overall in the 2013 draft by the Indians, slashing .297/.362/.506 in 44 games in the Arizona Rookie League. The only hiccup was a less than stellar ability to control the strike zone (17:61 BB:K in 196 plate appearances), but a few bumps are to be expected from a prospect right out of high school in his first pro exposure. A short, quick swing projects Frazier with a plus-power tool, and he does flash some speed despite just three stolen bases in his first season. He'll look to build off of his debut in his first full professional season, likely beginning with the Indians' Low-A affiliate in the Midwest League in April.

Francisco Lindor, SS - Lindor had another fine season splitting time between High-A Carolina (.306/.373/.410 with 20 steals in 83 games) and Double-A Akron (.289/.407/.395 with five steals in 21 games) before having his season cut short with a back injury. His glove makes him a fantastic prospect and he's certainly got plenty of time to add some pop to his bat, but it remains to be seen how much of a fantasy impact he will have, at least in that facet of his game. A lot of his value figures to hinge on his speed and power upside. Lindor offers good, albeit not great, speed and instincts on the basepaths and his power might eventually develop, but it's possible that he will peak as a 10-homer, 20-steal player with excellent defense at a premium position, offering a bit more to the Tribe in real-life value than to fantasy owners with his rotisserie contributions.

Tyler Naquin, OF - Naquin has been a mild disappointment since being selected 15th overall in the 2012 draft, but most considered the pick a bit of a reach when the Indians selected him that high. He played well enough at High-A Carolina (.277/.345/.424 in 108 games) to get a taste of Double-A, but he'll quite likely be a better asset to the Indians than he will be as a fantasy contributor. He profiles as more of a line-drive hitter with moderate speed who needs to stay in center field, as he doesn't have the bat for a corner-outfield spot. In general, 22-year-olds from a high profile college like Texas A&M should do more at the High-A level than Naquin did, so he'll need to start producing on the field quickly to avoid being tagged as a first-round bust.

Dorssys Paulino, SS - Paulino had some growing pains at Low-A Lake County but that's to be expected from an 18-year-old in the Midwest League. He hit just .246 with 91 strikeouts in 523 plate appearances, but managed to rack up 28 doubles and showed improvement as the season wore on. Francisco Lindor gets most of the ink in write-ups about the Indians' prospects, but Paulino's bat may actually wind up becoming a more useful tool. If he remains in the Cleveland organization long term, a move to second or third base seems likely, since Lindor is the superior defender at the premium position, but until the duo share the field together, Paulino is likely to remain at shortstop as he ascends the Indians' system.

Jose Ramirez, 2B - The Indians have a plethora of middle-infield prospects and it's easy to overlook a guy like Ramirez as a result. He received a short look with the Indians in September to give the team some speed off the bench, but he spent the rest of the season at Double-A Akron as a 20-year-old, hitting .272/.325/.349 with 38 steals. It certainly wasn't as impressive as his 2012 season (.354/.404/.465), but keep in mind that he skipped High-A entirely. He doesn't strike out much and has a decent enough eye at the plate to take full advantage of his speed. Ramirez won't hit for power, but his speed makes him an intriguing fantasy prospect at the keystone should he find his way into a situation where he's no longer blocked by Jason Kipnis.

Ronny Rodriguez, SS - Rodriguez saw his home-run output drop in his Double-A debut which isn't surprising given his inability to control the strike zone (16:76 BB:K in 498 plate appearances). He'll need to do a much better job of that as he moves up the ladder, otherwise he will get carved up by more advanced competition. His main fantasy tool is the potential to provide plus-power for a middle infielder, making it imperative that he begins to develop a more refined approach and improved plate discipline. The middle infield is very crowded in Cleveland, which should offer Rodriguez plenty of extra development time and a return to Akron to begin the season if the Indians choose to go that route.