“Ready to let go of the steering wheel”
By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince
This Opening Day entry is coming to you live from Marlins Park in a little town called Miami, where, some of you Indians fans may recall, the Tribe last appeared in a World Series game. That game, a majority of those people will probably remember, did not end well for the Indians, but we’re not here to dwell on that. We’re here to dwell on the fact that these 2015 Cleveland Indians have suddenly become a sexy – or, as my Sports on Earth colleague Will Leitch recently dubbed it, a “hipster” – World Series pick. Or at least, in the minds of a few prominent prognosticators, an American League Central favorite.
Indeed, it has been a stunning rise in standing considering the Indians were very recently viewed as more sleeper than Sports Illustrated cover material, but preseason chatter is always a bit of a strange beast. And in that vein, one last time (before we have our first official swing in anger tonight), here are 15 random thoughts on the Indians going into this ’15 season of high hopes.
1. I’m not picking the Indians to win this division. I’ve got them winning 87 games and settling for a second Wild Card. And even there, I don’t know if I’m giving them too much credit because I see them so often and am so in-tune with them (and will always be in favor of covering games in Cleveland in October versus taking the5:55 a.m. flight to San Diego with the connections in Chicago and Denver) or if I’m not giving them enough credit because I see them so often and am so in-tune with them. I felt better about this team before the rotation depth started to take some major hits. Not that I expected Gavin Floyd to pitch 200 innings or anything, but I did expect him to buy some more developmental time for Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer before the Indians outright needed those guys to succeed in prominent roles. And not that I expected Josh Tomlin to log a significant number of starts for this squad, but he is/was a valuable insurance piece that is now absent early on. So that’s a concern. Obviously, you love a rotation that begins with Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, but you wonder if this club will end up having to look for a mid- or back-end upgrade in-season.
2. Speaking of Kluber and Carrasco, memo to the Dolanz R Cheep crowd: When you lock up core players to affordable deals, that still counts as spending money. Not that Kluber had any choice to go anywhere anytime soon, but his genuine feelings about wanting to finish his just-blossoming career in Cleveland say a lot about the sense of stability and camaraderie the Indians have built up just in the last three years.
3. Of course, now the worry is that Kluber or Carrasco (again) blow out their elbows at some point in the next few years and either of these deals becomes Jake Westbrook 2.0, but that’s the worry with any pitcher you lock arms with.
4. Bauer threw more strikes this spring, so color me encouraged. The fact that Salazar has supplanted Carrasco as the wayward youngster who can either dazzle or frazzle depending on the day only increases the onus on Bauer to be a positive X-factor for this club. And though I know he despises the suggestion, I sincerely do hope Bauer doesn’t outthink himself at this level and finds a pattern in which he can trust his stuff in the zone.
5. The defense will be better, by default. It will not be great. All the Indians can reasonably hope is that it’s unnoticeable.
6. Michael Bourn worked out with a gold medal-winning track coach, but he’s 32 and trying to outrun time. It’s really hard to envision Bourn suddenly emerging as the base-stealing weapon he once was, but that’s not the big issue anyway. The issue is that he needs to get on-base more. Otherwise, this team doesn’t have a leadoff hitter, unless Terry Francona is going to suddenly go sabermetric crazy on us and bat Carlos Santana No. 1. In his time with the Indians, Bourn’s batting average on balls in play isn’t significantly different than what it was in his walk year with Atlanta, but he’s swung at more pitches outside the zone and seen his walk rate dip three percentage points. The thing you do have to love about Bourn, though, is the dedication to improve midway through the last major free-agent deal he’ll ever sign. He came back from the leg issues last year and made a headfirst slide into home plate on the final weekend of the season, when the Indians were already eliminated. The guy wants it. Sometimes that’s half the battle.
7. Michael Brantley swung at more strikes last season and finished third in the MVP vote. Hope to see more hitters (not just on the Indians) demonstrated a more aggressive mentality at the plate, because it might be one of the few effective defenses against our ongoing pitching boom.
8. Big question might be who is playing third base by season’s end? Does Lonnie Chisenhall put it all together offensively (we know he’s not going to draw any Adrian Beltre or Josh Donaldson comparisons in the field) and stick? Does Jose Ramirez move to his right to make room for Francisco Lindor? Does Giovanny Urshela rise up another level? Does the Tribe have to go outside (as I’m in Miami, I’ll throw out St. Ignatius product Derek Dietrich as a realistic trade possibility)?
9. Carlos Santana will hit north of 30 home runs, which, in today’s game, is no small thing.
10. Brandon Moss will fall shy of 30. Strikeouts, lefties, etc. But on the whole, he will make a positive impact on the offense.
11. Got a bad feeling the Nick Swisher Story (“Brohood”?) might get worse before it gets better. Dual knee surgeries are no joke, and he’ll have to adjust to a diminished role, to boot.
12. Because we entered the winter with the Indians seemingly resigned to Zach McAllister as a bullpen guy, and because he only claimed a rotation job because of the injury to Floyd and Salazar’s spring struggles, it only stands to reason that Zach McAllister is going to have a dominant, breakout season. Because baseball is weird like that.
13. Bullpens. As Francona would say, “Oh boy.” I don’t know. The risk of regression from overwork is real. We know that. But Francona has been so tactical with usage patterns that perhaps it won’t be much of an issue at all. It would be great if Anthony Swarzak establishes himself as the workhorse he’s been in past years, and it would be doubly great if the rotation stabilizes enough that the eight-man unit is more luxury than need. Whatever the case, Cody Allen appears primed to step into the role of elite closer, and the rest, as always with relievers, is a straight-up mystery.
14. Jason Kipnis might be the key to the whole damn thing. Jerry Kipnis, not so much.
15. Looking forward to the home opener and the new-look Progressive Field on Friday. I might just start setting up my laptop in “The Corner.”
There’s plenty more to discuss. But we’ve been discussing this stuff for months. Let’s find out what’s real.