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Playing Pepper: Previewing the 2014 Indians

Ubaldo Jimenez

Ubaldo Jimenez (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

Spring Training is upon us, and on fields across Florida and Arizona, baseball players are gathering for games of pepper as they prepare for the upcoming season.  So too with baseball writers: fellow Baseball Bloggers Alliance member Daniel Shoptaw invited several Indians bloggers to answer questions about the 2014 Tribe for his “Playing Pepper” series. You can read my responses below, but be sure to stop by C70 At the Bat tomorrow for the full story.

How would you grade the offseason?

Ownership made it clear that they spent any new revenues to be realized from local and national TV deals last year on Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, making departure the theme of the Indians’ offseason.

Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, collectively responsible for 61 starts and 340 innings of 3.65 ERA, departed for the greener pastures of Baltimore and Oakland. Setup man Joe Smith signed a lucrative 3-year deal with Los Anaheim. The Indians front office sent Drew Stubbs and Chris Perez packing before either could reap the benefits of arbitration, in Stubbs’ case swapping him for left-handed reliever Josh Outman.

Several credible in-house candidates to replace Smith exist in Vinnie Pestano, Cody Allen, and Bryan Shaw. New addition David Murphy will be an upgrade over Stubbs, whose poor plate discipline and struggles against right-handed pitching the past three seasons should have relegated him to a fourth-outfielder role. John Axford was brought in to close, and his reasonable one-year deal and three remaining years of control make him the best acquisition of the offseason.

The Tribe did little to address the gaping hole in the rotation, signing only a project (Shaun Marcum), a reject (Aaron Harang), and the usual suspects (Tyler Cloyd and Kyle Davies) to fill the void. If any end up pitching significant innings in 2014, the season will not have gone well. Instead, the Indians will hope that Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, and Zach McAllister can replace much of the missing innings, in not only quantity but quality. The rest will have to come from Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin or Trevor Bauer.

GM Chris Antonetti did well to avoid signing any lucrative, long-term contracts with mediocre free agent starters such as Ricky Nolasco or Ervin Santana. Moreover, by signing Axford, he didn’t commit guaranteed money to any of the aging closers on the market. Signing Murphy to platoon with Ryan Raburn seems like a cost-effective solution in right field. The Indians won their first two arbitration cases in 22 years, and avoided two others by extending Michael Brantley and coming to terms with Justin Masterson before his hearing. Yet the offseason was disappointing because the Indians treaded water, failing to make any significant improvements to capitalize on their first playoff appearance since 2007.

Grade: C+

Given the Cardinal connection, I have to ask what are you expecting to get from John Axford?

Axford credits his late-season success to the Cardinals’ coaching staff, who corrected a tell in his delivery that tipped hitters off to his pitch selection. He still possesses the blazing four-seamer and two quality off-speed pitches that enabled him to dominate the NL in 2010-11, but the control issues that have plagued him throughout his career will likely provide Terry Francona some white-knuckle moments along the dugout rail. Still, Axford should easily better the numbers of Perez provided he can navigate through the pitcherless lineups of the big boy league.

Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

Yan Gomes‘ surprising bat and superior pitch framing have pushed Carlos Santana out of the starting catcher’s job and into a battle with Lonnie Chisenhall at the hot corner.

Santana has the jump on Chisenhall, playing 29 games at third in the Dominican Winter League to prepare for spring training, but results there were mixed. Santana at times showed good range, but committed nine errors and allowed nine infield hits.

Chisenhall, 25, has the first-round pedigree but his major league career has sputtered through three false starts. Still, he has just over a season’s worth of plate appearances to his name; should he manage to put his offensive and defensive games together, Chisenhall has the potential to become a league-average third baseman.

The possibility of Santana becoming the regular third baseman has some Indians fans excited, though a more realistic scenario has him spelling Chisenhall at third versus tough left-handers and spending the rest of his time filling in around the diamond as needed (DH, C, 1B).

Chisenhall has the surer glove of the two, making him the likely starter when groundballer Justin Masterson is on the mound, and his splits against RHP, while not inspiring, are playable.

What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

The most-rumored departure of the offseason–that of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera–never occurred, delaying the ascension of top prospect Francisco Lindor until mid-season at the earliest. Lindor would improve the infield defense dramatically, but he is still refining his offensive game. Should the Tribe fall out of contention, Antonetti will be tempted to find Cabrera a new home by the trading deadline so the Lindor Era can begin in earnest.

If the Indians are still in the thick of things come July, however, the greatest rookie contribution may come from Bauer, who has retooled his delivery and refined his command this winter at the Texas Baseball Ranch. Ranked among Baseball America’s Top 100 for three years running, Bauer could justify that status if his hard work leads to a rotation spot this spring.

What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

The Indians were one of baseball’s surprise teams last season, improving by 24 wins over 2012. As is often the case with surprise teams, the 2013 Tribe overachieved, bettering their third-order wins by more than five. Given the defections from the pitching staff and the reliance on rebounds from aging players such as Bourn and Swisher, I expect the Tribe to slip by as many as 10 wins this season. That could be good enough for second place in what should be a more competitive, though depleted, AL Central.

Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

With every pitch, Danny Salazar walks a high wire, daring hitters to swing at 96-mph fastballs up in the zone then defying them with an 86-mph split-change that drops off the table. Win or lose, each matchup is electric.

Thanks to Daniel Shoptaw and C70 At The Bat for giving TribeScribe the opportunity to get up off the mental couch and stretch some writing muscles.

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