“On with the show, this is it”
I like to look at the start of the 2014 season as our big, collective flip of the bird to Mother Nature here in midst of the Endless Winter.
Oh, sure, she pounded Cleveland with another spring snowstorm over the weekend, and it says here that she’s bound to wreak havoc on that sin of scheduling – Padres at Indians in the second week of April. But we’re doing this thing, Mother Nature. You can pause us, but you can’t stop us. We will make this work, come hell or high water (both of which, I’m sure, are in the forecast for the home opener).
The baseball season has begun, and it’s a highly anticipated season for your defending American League First of Two Possible Wild Card Spots champions.
Here are 14 thoughts as we enter ’14.
1. As a long-time advocate of getting Carlos Santana out of the backstop role and into a position where his power can be maximized, I’m happy to see that the third-base experiment was encouraging enough for the Indians to ride it into the season proper. Truth be told, it would have had to have been a total train-wreck for them NOT to go in this direction. This team needs flexibility, and the 27-year-old Santana is simply more valuable at third base than he’d be as a full-time DH, particularly given the way the Tribe utilizes its bench. Don’t underestimate the mental grind of the DH duties, especially for guys who aren’t eager to embrace the role.
2. Santana at third is not an ideal defensive arrangement, obviously (especially with Asdrubal Cabrera at short), but, then again, neither was having Lonnie Chisenhall at the hot corner (and to that point, color me skeptical about the whole “Chisenhall-as-late-game-defensive-sub” speculation). In a perfect world, Chisenhall would a full season’s worth of at-bats to determine whether or not he can succeed at this level. But on a team built to win now – and one so dependant on roster flexibility – that’s a tough sell in the present tense. I have no earthly idea what Francona is going to do with the Chiz Kid at the outset of this season (there are some people in the organization who have wondered for a while now if Chisenhall might need an Alex Gordon-like move to the outfield), but Chisenhall is obviously going to have to make every at-bat count.
3. This will be the year Jason Kipnis puts up two good halves. I’m not nearly as confident that Kipnis will sign an extension, but, given that he’s a second baseman under control through his age-30 season, I’m not sure I see the point of an extension right now, anyway.
4. For a team built to contend, the Indians sure have an awful lot riding on three guys – Corey Kluber, Zach McAlllister and Danny Salazar – with less than 100 big-league starts between them. The development of Salazar’s slider is particularly important, but his impact will again be somewhat limited by his workload.
5. That said, I’d be less worried about the rotation than about center field and right. That Michael Bourn has already injured the same hamstring he had surgically repaired at season’s end is an ominous start for a speed-dependent 31-year-old. And what the Indians will get out of the David Murphy/Ryan Raburn concoction in right is an absolute mystery.
6. The Indians learned so much about Yan Gomes last season. The six-year, $23 million investment they’re making in Gomes is not just an investment in last year’s .359 weighted on-base percentage at the plate or his 10.9 called-strike percentage and 40.8 caught stealing percentage behind it. The investment is in the attitude and aptitude Gomes displayed, his diligent work with Kevin Cash, Ty Van Burkleo and strength and conditioning coach Joe Kessler to improve every facet of his game and his routine. I think Gomes is going to be hard-pressed to maintain last year’s offensive numbers over the course of a full season, because enduring the grind of the everyday catching duties from the outset and almost doubling last year’s 322 plate appearances is going to be a big adjustment. But Gomes’ defensive value makes the extension worthwhile right off the bat, and the Indians know they’ve got a guy who won’t short-change them in his approach and preparation.
7. Obviously no surprise that the Indians went with Carlos Carrasco over Josh Tomlin in the rotation, given their respective Minor League options situations. But it will certainly be interesting to see how long of a leash Carrasco gets here. In the grand scheme, he’s only thrown 238 innings on the big-league stage, and FanGraphs.com goes into great detail here to explain why he might still be on the rise. Personally, I’m leaning toward the bullpen being the more realistic landing spot for Carrasco long-term, because we’ve seen how his mind plays tricks on him over the length of starts. I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s closing games as soon as the end of this season.
8. So who makes more Major League starts in 2014: Trevor Bauer or Shaun Marcum? I’m going with Marcum.
9. The bullpen should be fine. I’d write more, but previewing bullpens is even more fruitless than previewing the rest of this stuff.
10. When Nick Swisher arrived last year, I can’t tell you how many friends asked me, “Is this guy for real?” It was hard to know if the perpetually upbeat personality was factual or phony and, more to the point, if it would grow tired by season’s end. But what I’ve seen from Swisher is a genuine embrace of this team and this town. Passing out the “Unfinished Business” T-shirts, paying for a late-September fireworks display, getting in Kenny Lofton’s mug… Swisher’s passion is unquestioned. Now he just has to produce like the middle-of-the-order bat he is in this offense. Nobody’s balking at the nine straight seasons of 20-plus home runs. That’s a consistency you don’t see much in today’s game. But last year’s shoulder struggles are worrisome for a 33-year-old who has played at least 145 games every season since 2006. Swisher’s left shoulder appears to be healed, but it will remain an important source of monitoring and maintenance as the season progresses.
11. Can totally see Nyjer Morgan/Tony Plush following a Mark Reynolds-like timetable (OK, not that extreme) in which his impact is greatest in April.
12. We enter 2014 with the same question we’ve had about Michael Brantley since 2009: Is there more power in the tank? His .382 slugging percentage is the fourth-lowest among outfielders with 2,000 plate appearances since ’09.
13. Asdrubal in a contract year. So much of his panache is tied to his 2011 homer breakout, which is likely unrepeatable. Last year, his strikeout rate rose while his walk rate declined. He needs to be more selective, focus on making contact and forget the ’11 surge ever happened.
14. My gut says there will be meaningful baseball played at Progressive Field this September, in an AL Central division that ought to be more competitive. You can look this thing up and down, left and right and throw out all the projected records and numbers you want, but, in the end, that’s all that really matters.