By Coach Ryan
Going into the 2014 season seems to carry with it the same feelings of doubt and skepticism that went into last season. The pitching staff is young and unproven while the lineup lacks pop, and is hoping that older players will find be able to bounce back from miserable seasons. Looking at the Indians doesn’t seem to bring much hope on paper, yet last year essentially this same group of players managed 92 wins, a spot in the postseason, and finished only one game behind the Tigers. What is it that the Indians possess that could make all that possible again and will it? Let’s take a look at what magical ingredients could turn this team from 90 losses to 90 wins in part 3 of the 2014 Cleveland Indians Preview: The X-Factors.
The Goon Squad- Last season when the Indians brought on Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles I thought they possibly could contribute at some level off the bench but didn’t think too much about it. When I heard Jason Giambi had a Spring Training invite I thought it was a great way to bring in an extra coach to mentor and help out with the prospects but didn’t think he had any chance of making the club. Yet after 162 games these bench players (along with now starting catcher Yan Gomes) tagged as ‘The Goon Squad’ led to Cleveland’s most memorable moments of 2013. Ironically enough nobody created as many jaw dropping moments last year as Jason Giambi who proved to be much more than an extra coach in the dugout. From sliding head first into first base to creating “Mardi Gras in September” with walk off home runs, Giambi turned into much more than just talk. He turned into the leader the Indians had been looking for, but he wasn’t the only one.
The combination of Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles, and Yan Gomes continuously stepped up, getting the huge play in the field and the clutch hit when the Indians needed it. If you were to look around MLB there may not be another team that relied as much on their bench as the Indians did. The Goon Squad meant way more than filling in for a tired player, they were major contributors the whole way. This season the bench loses Yan Gomes to the everyday lineup but he is replaced with other players who fit the mold of unwanted misfits such as Jeff Francoeur (and/ or David Murphy) and maybe even another year of Jason Giambi. It’s hard to replicate the magic that happened last year but if any group of players can come up when they need to these guys can.
The Prospects- Whenever you deal with a small market team the hopes of the fan base seems to be based on the growth of prospects. More times than not your top power hitting first baseman turns into Matt Laporta, but there’s also the chance you’ve landed Jason Kipnis. This season a lot of the talk seems to be revolving around Fransisco Lindor and whether or not he is ready for the Show. That answer has a lot to do with Asdrubal Cabrera and if he’s even going to be with Cleveland for the entire 2014 campaign. I think at some point this season (post All Star Game) Lindor should get a few at bats at the MLB level but there’s nothing wrong with continuing to develop a player with his level of talent for another year or two.
More immediate pressure will be felt on Trevor Bauer and Lonnie Chisenhall who might already be faced with a put up or get out type scenario. Chisenhall has been the Indians hope of landing a home grown All Star Caliber third baseman for years and going into this year he just hasn’t been able to come close to expectations even with plenty of at bats. One thing that Lonnie has been able to do with his time in at the MLB level is put the ball into play, which is positive. Last season 72% of his hits were in play which if you look at his .225 average means he’s making contact, but not placing the ball where it needs to be. If Lonnie is able to take more of those hits and place them where the fielders aren’t the Indians could finally have the third baseman they’ve been wishing for.
One of the key pieces in the trade of Shin-Shoo Choo was the Indians getting Trevor Bauer. It’s been documented about the problems Bauer had with the Diamondbacks along with his problems rapping, but the Tribe hopes he can put all that behind him and focus on winning games. If anyone can get him to pitch to his full potential it’s pitching coach Mickey Callaway who is credited with fixing the mess that was Ubaldo Jimenez as well as getting Scott Kazmir to be productive again. Bauer’s velocity is improving and his delivery has become much more compact. If Bauer is able to make an impact as the fifth starter (or the first call up) and pitch anywhere close to the hype than the Indians will walk away with the best pitcher received in a trade since the Tribe landed Justin Masterson from Boston.
The X-Factor- Terry Francona: If you poll most baseball fans (including Red Sox fans) most of them will have positive views on Terry Francona, and will agree that he got the short end of the stick in Boston. Why? Because he’s arguably the best manager currently managing in the game. Tito has the uncanny ability to get the most of his players and is able to walk the thin line between a player’s manager and a respected manager. If last year’s Indians team would have been managed by Manny Acta there’s no way the Tribe would have made it to 92 wins. Terry not only understands teams with losing cultures but he seems to excel on turning those views around by getting the most out of his players while also being a fan favorite.
Francona, like most great managers has been able to put together, and maintain a great coaching staff made up of several pieces that have managerial experience at different levels throughout baseball. Mickey Callaway may be one of the best pitching coaches in the game having the Midas Touch when it comes to developing and fixing pitchers. With teams always looking for new managers, names such as Sandy Alomar Jr. always pop up yet Tito has been able to keep his team together adding only assistant hitting coach Matt Quatraro from the Rays system. Whether or not this team makes another run like last year he will get the most out of his players while being loved by the fans of the city where he was raised. In short having Terry Francona adds wins.
Season Outlook- The Indians are hoping to go over the 90 win mark for the second year in a row. Last season the Indians were able to squeak into the playoffs due in part by an amazing string of wins during the last month of the season. This year, if the Tribe plans on playing in October they’re going to have to play better against tough opponents while still being able to take care of the teams who are .500 or worse. The Indians are hoping that they can play better ball in April to eliminate those tough series in September which may be hard considering the slow starts that several of their hitters are accustomed to. Newcomer David Murphy is notorious for having terrible Aprils but heating up as the season goes. If the Indians do have to win down the stretch they could put together some wins as over the last month and a half of the season 22 of their last 43 games are against either the White Sox, Twins, or Astros. A big piece to the puzzle will take place right in the Central, and depend on how well the Tribe fairs against the Royals who are much improved, and the always dangerous Tigers.
In the big picture this should be a fun Indians team to watch even though I remain skeptical of the starting rotation who remains young and untested. Until pitchers like Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, and Trevor Bauer prove they can get it done at the big league level over the course spanning 162 games it’ll be tough for the Indians to finish better than a year ago. In the end I think the Tribe is another year or so away experience wise with the rotation to truly contend although I can still see them being an exciting team to watch well into summer.
If the pitching staff is able to blossom as the Indians hope, their lineup lacks pop but that doesn’t mean they can’t manufacture runs. The name of the game in Cleveland is sabermetrics and scoring runs in any fashion you can, whether it’s Giambi sliding into first or a suicide squeeze, every run is valuable on this team. I have no worries about players such as Brantley or Kipnis but how well Swisher and Bourn can adjust their second year will go a long way to helping this club win ball games. The two big question marks going into the season will be third base and right field. Will it be Chisenhall or Santana? Can Murphy bounce back or will the Tribe rely on a player like Jeff Franceour? Last season Yan Gomes was a nobody and this year he could be a Gold Glove catcher. Is there another diamond in the rough ready to terrorize pitchers as part of the Goon Squad? It could be Francisco Lindor or it could be another player the Tribe gets in a trade, perhaps for a player such as Asdrubal Cabrera.
Vegas has the over/ under on the Tribe between 80-82 wins which seems fair, but if you ask me now I’m going to take the over. I think the Terry Francona factor adds 5-7 wins on that total although I still think they’ll finish below what they did last year. That being said, don’t think this will be a bad team. They should be a team that combines youth with a splash of veteran leadership that ultimately could lead for great things in the coming years if they’re able to keep the key pieces in place. The game is baseball, and in this great game anything can happen. Teams can collapse and teams can suddenly bond and go on an amazing run to a pennant which is why having a manager like Terry Francona can do nothing but help.
I still have the Tribe finishing second in the Central just ahead of what should be a very tough Royals team but once again behind the Tigers. This team will be streaky but it will be a fun team to watch develop. If by chance the Indians win the division check back here as I will proudly sport a ‘Rick the Wild Thing Vaughn’ haircut all the way through the Series if I have to.
Final Record: 88-74, 2nd in the Central. (92-70 again if the Rally Chicken makes it back)
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