If there are eight million stories in the naked city, there are at least 25 on any major league roster. While they’re all intriguing stories, here are the ones I’m most eager to watch unfold during the upcoming season.
1. Will Ubaldo Jimenez finally live up to expectations?
I asked the same question about Jimenez at the beginning of last season, and the answer at the end of the 2012 season was a resounding “No.” Jimenez’s career in Cleveland has been a deep, dark vortex where fans’ dreams go to die, yet he entered Spring Training with the #2 spot in the rotation guaranteed. He was pretty much the worst pitcher in the league during 2012, and his 2012 Spring Training numbers raised only red flags, not expectations: 7.43 ERA/1.96 WHIP and a BB/SO rate of 15/15 over 23 innings. His Spring Training numbers this year are a heck of a lot better: 4.62 ERA/1.342 WHIP and (most encouragingly) a BB/SO rate of 4/17 over 25.1 innings. Not fabulous, but certainly respectable. If he just pitched like that all season, he would be able to exorcise the ghosts of The Trade.
2. Can Scott Kazmir give his comeback story a Disneyesque ending?
The last time Scott Kazmir pitched in a major league game was on April 3, 2011, when he pitched pitched 1.2 innings as an LA Angel against the Royals. He gave up 5 earned runs on 5 hits for a 27.00 ERA. Yep, 27.00. He was released and spent the last two seasons playing in independent leagues and winter ball leagues. This from a guy who was a two-time All Star with Tampa Bay and had been a highly touted prospect in the Mets organization. And now he’s secured the 5th spot in the Indians starting rotation. You’d have to go back to real-life rookie Jim Morris to find an underdog story this appealing. The big question, of course, is whether Kazmir really can come back and pitch effectively at the major league level. His Spring Training numbers are the best of any of the Indians’ five starters. That’s encouraging, but it’s based on 13 innings pitched over six weeks, not 30-some starts over six months. That he’s made it this far is pretty cool. You’d have to have a cold, cold heart (or perhaps be a White Sox or Tigers fan) to not want Kazmir to succeed.
3. How much magic does Terry Francona have up his sleeve?
Francona’s presence is the big reason we managed to sign Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. It’s the reason that Indians’ ticket sales are up something like 40% over last year. He’s been the impetus for what is perhaps the funniest promotional video the Indians organization has ever done. This off-season honeymoon has been, in a word, delightful. I want it to last forever, or at least until October. I don’t think we have a World Series-caliber team, but perhaps we have a playoff-worthy team. Francona and Antonetti have put together a respectable roster of players. I’m eager to see how Francona puts those pieces together and makes them work.
4. Will the Indians set the single-season strikeout record?
Mark Reynolds was 1st in the league in striking out in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, and 7th in the AL in 2012. His 223 strikeouts in 2009 are the most ever by a major league player, he’s also #3, #5, and #10 on the all-time single season strikeout record list. #4 on that list is Drew Stubbs (who was 6th and 5th in NL strikeouts in 2010 and 2012, respectively). And while Nick Swisher didn’t lead the league in strikeouts in 2012, he still amassed 141 of them. There’s a whole lot of whiffing going on. The single season team strikeout records is 1,529, set by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010. That is not a record you want to top. Please God, no.
Onward, my beloved Tribe!