The Indians have posted a winning record in back-to-back years for the first time since 2000 and 2001. In 2014 three different members of the Tribe went from being solid players with some potential for improvement to among the very best at their position in baseball. The starting rotation, largely in shambles in late July, transformed into the best group in the league for the final two months of the season. The team's top prospect seems ready to begin what we hope will be an All-Star career, but might have to wait because another young player already has his foot in the door at the position.
As with most teams (and with any team whose payroll is so limited), there are plenty of questions to be answered, plenty of uncertainties that need to break the right way, but there is more reason for optimism than there has been in years. The Cleveland Indians are legitimate contenders in 2015.
Key offseason additions: Brandon Moss (Gavin Floyd could be included, but an elbow injury means he's probably out for the year)
Key offseason departures: Does Jason Giambi's clubhouse presence count?
The Indians added Moss while only having to give up Joe Wendle, a midlevel prospect who was unlikely to ever have a big impact on the MLB roster. Moss brings some health concerns with him, but has the potential to lead the team in home runs while also drawing walks at a higher clip than anyone on the roster not named Carlos Santana. Aside from him, the roster is pretty much the same as it was at the end of last season. Rather than outsiders, the Indians are depending primarily on continued success for a number of breakout talents, and rebounds from a couple guys who suffered through disappointing seasons a year ago.
The Starting Rotation
Reigning Al Cy Young winner Corey Kluber leads the rotation, and while it's safe to assume he'll suffer a bit of downward regression, there's nothing about his 2014 campaign that screams out "lucky" or "unsustainable." He ought to me among the league's best pitchers again.
Beyond the Klubot, things get a little murky.
Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer are all but locked in for spots in the rotation. Floyd was supposed to be as well, but the best laid plans of mice and men and all that... things change. What was supposed to be a spring training competition for the final spot has become a competition for two spots. Danny Salazar and T.J. House, who along with the three guys already set for the rotation, did most of the starting during last August and September, seem like the leading candidates. Either one of them could find themselves in Triple-A Columbus instead though, with Zach McAllister or maybe even Shaun Marcum in the rotation instead. McAllister is a tricky case because he's out of options, so if he's not in the rotation he's either in the bullpen or on waivers.
Half full: The rotation led MLB with a 2.69 ERA during August and September. Tack on half a run to that, and you still might have the best rotation in the American League.
Half empty: None of these guys, including Kluber, have anything resembling a long track record of success. Even most Tribe fans didn't know who Kluber was two years ago; Carrasco was given up for dead as a starter after struggling so much in the role, and only got another opportunity because so many other options had floundered; Bauer and Salazar have great stuff but haven't shown any consistency in their ability to harness it; House was seen as something of a fringe prospect, unlikely to become more than a capable #5 starter.
In each of the last two years, the Indians have set a new American League record for most relief appearances, including a staggering 573 of them in 2014, an average of 3.54 per game. Bryan Shaw led the way with 80 appearances, while Cody Allen, loogy Marc Rzepczynski, and elder statesman Scott Atchison each also appeared in 70+ games.
The bullpen posted a combined ERA of 3.14 last season, 4th lowest in the American League and their 8.84 strikeouts per 9 innings ranked 5th.
Cody Allen stepped into the closer role after the since departed John Axford struggled early on. Allen turned in the best season by an Indians closer in years, and for Tribe fans not prone to always expecting the worst, Allen probably inspires more 9th inning confidence than there has been in a long time.
Francona seems adept at mixing and matching his guys, so while I generally prefer a 7-man 'pen to the 8-man relief corps Tito prefers, I can't argue with his results.
Michael Brantley became one of the best hitters in baseball in 2014, Yan Gomes showed that his impressive 2013 was no fluke, and Carlos Santana recovered from a brutal early-season slump to lead MLB in walks and lead the Indians in home runs. Lonnie Chisenhall had a rough second half, but a huge first half, and Brandon Moss was putting up big numbers before being slowed by injuries in the second half. All five of those player finished in the top 25 of the American League for wRC+, which I view as the top metric for rating hitters. No other AL team has more than three players in that group.
Jason Kipnis, on the other hand, followed up his very impressive 2013 with a very disappointing 2014. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn continued to fall short of what was hoped for when they were signed as free agents prior to the 2013 season. David Murphy and Ryan Raburn were supposed to give the Tribe a solid platoon in right field, but that did not develop.
That leaves shortstop, which in 2014 saw the end of Asdrubal Cabrera's time in Cleveland. He was replaced by Jose Ramirez, who (after a rough going of things in an earlier stint) hit pretty well down the stretch. There's a sense that he's just keeping the position warm until top prospect Francisco Lindor is ready, but I think he earned the right to be more than a seat filler.
The Indians were 7th in runs scored last year, and tied for 5th in wRC+. Those rankings put them a little above the middle of the American League. Plan on some downward regression for Brantley, but expect Moss to be an improvement over whomever's at bats he ends up taking away. If Kipnis rebounds to something closer to his 2013 form, the Indians should have one of the top five offensive units in the AL.
The Indians "led" all MLB teams with four million errors in 2014. (I might be rounding up.) It's not hard to argue that they cost themselves four or five wins with defensive ineptitude, four or five wins that could have been the difference between missing the postseason the way they did, and winning the AL Central.
The good news is the defense was a lot better in the second half than the first.
Yan Gomes had a bad April before transforming back into arguably the best defensive catcher in the league. Lonnie Chisenhall went from really bad to only kind of bad. Ramirez was an upgrade over Cabrera. The Indians weren't a good defensive team after the All-Star break, but they were something closer to average, instead of historically awful.
If the pitching holds up and the offense does what is expected, something closer to average defense could be enough for the Tribe to win 90 games.
Francisco Lindor has been the team's top prospect pretty much since the day he was drafted in 2011. He's ready to be one of the top defensive shortstops in MLB just as soon as he's called up. His bat could probably use more improvement, but if Ramirez struggles, or Kipnis has trouble staying healthy again, Lindor could be up by May 1.
Beyond Lindor, it's hard to see anyone coming up and making a big impact. Many of the team's top prospects are still down in Single-A, at least a couple years away from helping. There are some outfield options nearer at hand, such as Tyler Naquin, Tyler Holt, and Carlos Moncrief, but none of them is likely to represent an upgrade, so they're more like potential injury replacements. (Though with Bourn, Murphy, Raburn, Swisher, and Moss all having spent some time in the nurse's office recently, decent injury replacements aren't a bad thing to have nearby.)
If the Indians need help in the rotation, it's more likely to come from veterans who didn't make the Opening Day roster than from top prospects. The farm system is thin on pitching, and what's there is mostly still working its way from farther down the ladder.
The Indians are only projected for 80 wins by PECOTA, though that's second most in the AL Central and only three games behind Detroit. FanGraphs projects the Indians to win 84 games, which has them tied atop the division with Detroit. Jonah Keri put the Indians 5th in his opening power rankings of 2015, tops in the Central and third best in the American League.
I'm a pessimist when it comes to the Tribe, so I can't bring myself to expect them to win the division or make the postseason, but I'm closer to optimistic than I've been in years. I don't think the Royals are going to repeat their good fortune, and I don't think the White Sox have done quite enough to contend. I expect the division to come down the the Tribe and the Tigers, and while I think Detroit's roster remains the most talented, they've let their starting rotation slide from baseball's best to only very good, which means they have less margin for error from their bullpen and aging lineup.
The Indians should be in contention all season long, and the baseball should be very exciting come late September... and hopefully beyond.