There has been no season in recent history where the Indians have entered the season feeling so positive. Everything started with the signing of Terry Francona which completely changed the perspective of everyone in Cleveland. A slew of big free agent signing filled all the holes in the roster when it had looked prior to the end of the season that they would be filled internally or with AAAA Spring Training invitees (like Mike McDade).
This has changed the expectations from being picked to finish in fourth, competing with the Minnesota Twins for last place to being contenders for the division title along with the Tigers and White Sox. All this may be a little overblown as the Indians still have a very problematic starting rotation and an offense that is still not on the level of the Tigers or either of the big AL West teams (the Rangers and Angels).
The good news for the Indians is two-fold. First, every part of the team has been improved from the 2012 season (and they actually played very well for the first half of that season). The defense has been dynamically improved, starting with the removal of the lead weights who stood in left field last year and replacing them with the greatest active defensive outfielder, Michael Bourne. With three career centerfielders starting in the outfield, it truly should be a "death to all flying things" situation. The biggest offensive improvement was switching out Casey Kotchman for Nick Swisher and adding a DH (Mark Reynolds) after playing most of 2012 with Travis Hafner on the DL. Even the pitching has improved with Derek Lowe and Tony Sipp (among others) gone, replaced by Brett Myers and a crew of top end relievers.
The second point of optimism for the Indians is that this team is not built to win in 2013. Swisher and Bourne each signed four year deals while Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera and the other young Indians that were developed in house are under team control for years to come as well. In fact, the only players signed to one year deals are Myers and Reynolds, who each have replacements already with the team (Trevor Bauer and Jesus Aguilar) who should be upgrades for the 2014 season. This long-term establishment allows the Indians a window of contention much longer than just this year. It also leaves them able to compete this season by using the players signed to single year contracts. Remember to keep this in mind if the Indians struggle at all this year, that it isn't time to panic and pull the rip cord, instead, just relax and enjoy the ride.
We are coming off an eventful off season that saw the acquisition of several free agents to enhance the 25- man roster and potentially help the Indians reach the postseason for the first time in six years. With the contracts of non-performing former Indians stars coming off the expense sheet, the organization was able to add roughly $7.6 million to the player payroll for the 2013 season. That is an 11.3% increase from 2012. Although a little of the aforementioned increase came from pre-salary arbitration settlements, most of it came from the addition of free-agents. While the starved fans are excited, the moves did not erase the need for young, inexpensive and high ceiling talent; particularly in the starting rotation.
There are many ways to express how bad the rotation was in 2012. The staff was 3rd worst in ERA, WAR, and FIP. They were 29th in K% and 28th in BB%, which left them tied with the Twins for the worst K%-BB%. Their “best” pitcher was Zach McAllister who gave them 125.1 innings with a 4.24 ERA. Ubaldo Jimenez continued to see his velocity decline, and his ERA was over 5.00 as a result. The man who is going to pitch in their 2013 season opener, Justin Masterson, posted the worst ERA of his career (4.93). They had three other pitchers who threw more than 80 innings, Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez, and none of them had an ERA below 5.50.
The Indians only made three acquisitions this off season to bolster their staff. One of them, Brett Myers, is seen as pitcher on the decline. Myers’ fastball velocity dropped in each year from 2007 to 2011, and he ended up in the bullpen in 2012. His fastball ticked back up in the pen, but he is likely to lose the velocity he gained once he is back in the rotation full time.
The second acquisition was much flashier and a great move for the long term, something the Indians should have done more of this offseason. In a three-team swap, the Indians acquired the #3 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Trevor Bauer. Bauer’s stuff includes a mid-90s fastball and very good curveball. He also mixes in a slider, splitter and change-up and both his command and control need to be polished. According to scouts, he is a very raw talent and could take several years to develop. With some polish and maturity, Bauer has the ultimate ceiling of a No. 2 starter. So while Bauer can help over the long-haul, it will be a stretch to say he will have an impact this season in the starting rotation.
The third acquisition, Scott Kazmir, was recently named the fifth starter. He had promising numbers over the winter and had a good spring. The reality of fifth starters is that they’re well below-average, and Kazmir, like in 2009, is a capable fifth starter. If he can get back to that level, he can serve a purpose, even if he isn’t the Kazmir of old, the guy who pitched like a dominant ace early in his career with the Tampa Bay Rays. However, all postseason ready teams have competition for the fifth spot in the rotation and is usually not correlated
With no impact free agent starting pitchers available this past off-season, the organization decided to bolster the defense, the outfield defense to be exact. As you know, run prevention is a combination of pitching and defense, with the former being highly correlated to the latter. There are concerns about how the Indians’ pitchers will contribute to the run prevention, but the defense should make a stronger contribution, helping the pitchers out. To say that the Indians’ rotation isn’t good enough is to say that the Indians will allow too many runs. The infield is still a defensive mess and with a staff made up primarily of ground-ball pitchers, could turn out to be one of the main culprits. That’s without even considering Santana’s work behind the plate. But the outfield is where the Indians could shine. Let’s group the corner positions together. These should be occupied by Nick Swisher, Drew Stubbs, and Michael Brantley. Swisher is getting older, but his defensive track record in the outfield is pretty good. Stubbs’ numbers with Cincinnati were great, and he played in the middle. Brantley has been a center fielder, but the numbers don’t speak kindly of him. Will it be enough for the poor infield-defensive performance? I am not willing to bet my hedges.
The organization needed to focus it's efforts on acquiring high-ceiling, major-league or near major league talent. Because they did not do that this past offseason, they are only delaying the inevitable. For a low-revenue team, higher-priced free agents should only be pursued when the team is ready to winnow. With 90+ losses three of the last four years, they are obviously more bullish on their 2013 forecasting than I am.
Therefore, I must conclude that the Indians will not make the postseason.
Brett Myers could be the question to everybody's answers in 2013.