As the calendar ticks through February, and pitchers and catchers get ready to report to Spring Training, all the professional prognosticators are busy making their (often ill-advised) predictions. The Indians are getting a remarkable amount of buzz for a team that finished in 3rd place and failed to make the playoffs. Some of that attention is warranted, of course, but many Indians fans would probably be surprised to hear that the media thinks their hometown team is the favorite in what figures to be a tight AL Central race.
Does it make sense? Well… yes and no. Let’s start by looking at the competition:
The Tigers undoubtedly got worse, losing Max Scherzer to the Nationals and losing the ever-aging Victor Martinez to a torn knee meniscus. They still have Miguel Cabrera, however, and my own personal prediction is that the rumors of Justin Verlander‘s demise are just a bit premature. I have heard and read whispers that the Tigers will be 2015’s Texas Rangers (that is, a team with a huge payroll that fall flat on its face early and often). While I can certainly see this storyline unfolding, the Tigers are the class of the division until proven otherwise in my book.
The Royals should have gotten an Oscar nomination for their portrayal of Cinderella last postseason… they were the nation’s darling until the clock struck midnight and Madison Bumgarner reminded everyone that the Giants win it all in even years. I actually think the Royals are more likely than the Tigers to flounder a bit this season for a number of reasons: they lost James Shields to the Padres, they got a lot lucky (Pythagorean W-L, which is based on runs scored vs runs allowed, pegged them as an 84-78 team, a full five games worse than their actual record). Additionally, Ned Yost is still bumbling around in the dugout.
The White Sox very quietly got very good this past season. Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzjia is a fearsome 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation (though the bottom of the rotation is significantly less fear-inducing), and Adam Eaton, Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu, and Adam LaRoche might just be the best top-four of a lineup in the division. What I’m saying is that the White Sox are VERY top heavy offensively and on their pitching staff, but that might be enough if it all clicks. Don’t sleep on the White Sox.
The Twins? Well, the Twins are still in Minnesota, we can say that.
But what about the Indians? What makes them a potential favorite? Let’s start with the obvious strengths and then look at potential candidates for positive regression.
The Coaching Staff
There is no question that the Indians have the best coaching staff in the division (and maybe in the American League). Terry Francona is not without his faults – he sticks with some players too long, and he tinkers with reliever matchups perhaps a little too much – but no other manager in the division routinely and regularly gets as much out of the 25-man roster. Tito trusts his guys and as a result they are willing to go to war for him – I feel comfortable saying that Francona significantly raises the floor of any team he presides over.
I shouldn’t need to say much about Mickey Callaway, but lord help me, I just can’t help waxing poetic. In 2013 he helped turn Ubaldo Jimenez into one of the best pitchers in baseball for a couple months en route to a Wild Card berth (I still believe he could fix him again, by the way). Then in 2014, just to prove the previous season wasn’t a fluke, the Pitcher Whisperer helped to turn Corey Kluber into the AL Cy Young winner and remade Carlos Carrasco into a legitimate ace for a couple months.
The Indians pitching coaches were so good the bullpen coach (Kevin Cash) got the job as the Rays manager. That’s… kind of unbelievable.
Now that we’ve talked about the foundation of the Indians’ pitching strengths, let’s talk about the weapons we have the arsenal.
The conversation has to start with Corey Kluber, once an organizational afterthought, who developed a devastating cut-fastball/slider combo and parlayed it into the Cy Young Award. Normally I would immediately discount any sudden improvement as a fluke season, but I really have to stretch to do that for the Klubot. His ERA (2.44) was actually WORSE than his FIP (2.35), which means Kluber got slightly unlucky in 2014. There’s always the possibility that he will regress really hard back into obscurity, but the chances of that feel much lower than almost any other pitcher.
Carlos Carrasco will probably regress. He’ll probably be terrible again and we’ll forget the summer of 2014. These are the things I need to tell myself so I don’t get too excited. He looked incredible at the end of last season, and projects to be the second best pitcher in the rotation. I have nothing more to add other than that I trust in Callaway and crew and I have my fingers crossed for the best this season.
Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar are the 3-4 guys in the rotation, and while neither has really proven anything yet in their career, they both have top-of-the-rotation stuff, so if even one of them reaches that potential, look out. Maybe these two guys will be the 2015 projects for the Pitching Coaches?
The fifth spot is up for grabs right now, but TJ House or Gavin Floyd will probably fill that role at the start of the season. Regardless, Josh Tomlin is mercifully 8th or 9th on the depth chart, and that is a good thing.
The offense underperformed in 2014, there is no question about it. But there are some hopes for positive regression and improvement.
Jason Kipnis has to be better this season… not just because he is healthy and has a full offseason without contract drama under his belt, but because he can’t be much worse than he was last year. The team awarded him franchise-player money last Spring, and he needs to realize that potential. I have to believe there’s a good chance he bounces back in a big way this season.
Yan Gomes is kind of/sort of the Carlos Santana we thought we were going to get a handful of years ago. That’s not to say Carlos is a bad player or hitter (he is not, though he can be frustrating), but Yan is really something special. I don’t know if he can match or exceed last season’s 122OPS+ (100 is league average), but if he does, he could be an All-Star.
Nick Swisher has to be better. He just has to be… he was so putrid last season and I could be persuaded to write it off as injuries, but he needs to be league average this year or it’s going to be ugly.
Michael Bourn has battled nagging injuries for his first two Indians seasons, and we saw glimpses last season of what he can do when he’s 100%. I have said since last year that he’s going to have a huge season in 2015 and I really believe that. The steals will be back, and the defense will sparkle, as always.
Michael Brantley has quietly grown into a stud at the plate, but I need to see him repeat it for a second season before I buy in on him as a perennial All-Star. I think Brantley has the biggest drop-off potential of anyone on the team outside of Carrasco.
I’m not super stoked about Brandon Moss as another low-average “masher” at pitcher-friendly Progressive Field, but he will help, and he does make the lineup longer and deeper.
Indians as AL Central favorites? Sure, why not?
The team has failed to live up to expectations as recently as 2008 and 2009, but Francona and Callaway have started to build a long-lasting foundation on the shores of Lake Erie. If the team can get to that 90-win plateau again this year, they may find themselves back in the playoffs… and this time, not just for a one-game sudden death matchup.