There were times last season when Carlos Santana looked like he was swinging a guitar instead of a baseball bat, as the switch-hitting slugger hit below .160 well into June. Nick Swisher—plagued by injuries—hit just .208 for the entire season. The injury bug also bit table setter Michael Bourn, who hit .257, with an OBP of .314 and an uncharacteristic 10 stolen bases. Jason Kipnis played through nagging injuries and hit only .240, a large drop of from a stellar 2013 where he finished 11th in AL MVP voting.
Yet, despite all the injuries, off years, and unexpected poor production from key members of the lineup, the Tribe won 85 games in 2014 and finished in the middle of the pack in both batting average and runs scored in the American League. Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes had breakout seasons and displayed great consistency, while the late-season emergence of Jose Ramirez brought balance and versatility to the top of the order following the departure of Asdrubal Cabrera.
Wipe the slate clean and fast forward to 2015: The healthy return of veteran regulars, the addition of Brandon Moss, and the continued growth of young players, and the Tribe has to be excited about the potential to score many more runs this upcoming season. Expect to see a lineup with a great core, very good balance, underestimated speed, and increased power. Let’s break down the Indians lineup heading into 2015:
A Great Core
Michael Brantley highlights the core of the lineup, as the ideal #3 hitter with the ability to get on base, drive in runs, provide great speed, display growing power, and hit in the clutch…and my goodness does he thrive in the clutch. Dr. Smooth hit .376 with runners in scoring position in 2014, in addition to a ‘beast mode’ .545 with the bases loaded.
Despite the rough start to last season, Santana settled admirably into the cleanup spot and hit 27 bombs and drove in 85 runs. However, what makes him equally valuable is his elite ability to work the count and get on base to the tune of 113 walks, which led the American League. If Santana can avoid the slow start and hit like he did during most of the second half of 2014, then he will be poised to have a great year.
Santana’s ability to work the opposing pitchers could prove even more important in 2015, where he’ll be followed in the order by a true power bat who feasts on the first pitch: Brandon Moss hit .361 on the first pitch in 2013 and followed that up with .388 in 2014! It is not difficult to imagine Moss seeing some first-pitch meatballs after Santana coaxes one of his many 8 or 9-pitch walks. Advantage Moss. I love this 4-5 lineup combination and think the aggressive Moss tends to complement Santana perfectly.
Additionally, Brantley and Santana both sport high OBPs, setting the table nicely for Moss, whose splits are considerably stronger in batting with men on base. Moss hit 21 homers before the All Star Break last year and if this Spring is indicative of the slugger’s ability to bounce back from his second-half injury, then he could be in store for some big power numbers and plenty of RBI opportunities in 2015.
The Tribe batting order will sport three switch hitters (Ramirez, Santana, Swisher), which gives Francona great flexibility to balance the lineup and not stack his many lefties altogether. When healthy, it will stack up similar to this:
This lineup boasts solid team speed (I’ll touch on that in a moment) along with an ability to bunt at both the top (Bourn, Ramirez) and bottom (Kipnis) of the order. The Top 3 in the Tribe lineup go from first to third as well as any team in MLB and those same table setters tend to work the count as well. Even the bench brings balance from both sides of the plate, with a touch of speed, decent pop, and veteran leadership, with Aviles (R), Murphy (L), and Raburn (R).
What do the numbers 41, 61, 52, 61, and 42 mean to you? Those are Michael Bourn’s stolen bases by season from 2008-2012. Though the Tribe leadoff man may not flash the burner speed he did during his younger days, he did put himself through some well-documented training during the offseason and appears to be returning to his healthiest state since he came to Cleveland in 2013. Even if Bourn can return to 30-35 SBs, this would be a major boost to the Tribe offense and change the tone at the top of the lineup. Unlike past years where Asdrubal Cabrera manned the #2 hole in the batting order with declining speed, Jose Ramirez stole 10 bases (against just one caught stealing) in only 68 games. None of us will miss Cabrera’s uncanny ability to hit into double plays in the clutch either.
Despite his move to the middle of the order in becoming a greater run producer, Michael Brantley still stole 23 bases last year and was caught only one time! Opposing teams cannot sleep at the bottom of the order either, as Jason Kipnis has averaged 27 SBs over the past three seasons as well. Lastly, the sneaky Tribe speedster in 2014 was Mike Aviles, who actually stole 14 bases last season and brings some speed and smart base running off the bench. Two other Triple A speedsters will probably see time with the Tribe in 2015 as well: The versatile Tyler Holt and vaunted prospect Francisco Lindor.
What do 8, 6, and 4 mean to you? Those were the respective homerun totals of Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, and Ryan Raburn in 2014. That trio combined for 22, 17, and 16 taters (respectively) the season before. Even a return to their career averages from this key trio would be a significant improvement in the Indians’ homerun numbers and overall run production. Add the fact that Brantley and Gomes’ power numbers have been on the rise for three consecutive seasons and the Tribe may surprise many fans with their ability to hit for more power. Of course, the ultimate x-factor is Moss. If the veteran is healthy and returns to the way he was jacking bombs during the first half of 2014, then Progressive Field may need to order some more fireworks in 2015, as Moss is the first Tribe hitter in quite a while with 40-homer potential.
To me, most people will tend to look at how Swisher, Kipnis (and to a lesser extent, Raburn) bounce back in the power department in 2015. I’m actually far more interested in seeing the growth of Brantley, Gomes, and Moss, who all have the potential to continue to increase their HR totals and who also enter this season with far greater lineup protection than they had in their respective spots in the lineup during most of last season.
Despite great seasons from Silver Slugger winners Brantley and Gomes, the Tribe offense still had many underachievers in 2014. Though Brantley and Gomes will be heavily counted upon to repeat their stellar seasons at the plate, strong bounce-back seasons from Kipnis, Swisher, and Bourn would be huge for the Indians. The lineup is full of upside at almost every spot in the batting order and has the potential to be among the league leaders in runs scored if 2014’s stars have repeat years and the aforementioned key veteran trio returns to form.
The lineup—when healthy—boasts impressive balance along with strong speed and power throughout. I expect the Indians to jump into the Top 4 in the American League in runs scored in 2015 and parlay that with a significant jump in their homerun total as well.