Fighting for October
There’s a problem with overachieving as a sports team, and it starts with the first game of the following season.
Once fans get accustomed to unexpected success, they become greedy. They not only demand more of the same, they expect it.
The Cleveland Indians crept up on the American League in 2013. Considered a fringe playoff contender entering the season, the Indians willingly adopted the infectious optimism of manager Terry Francona and rode it to a 92-70 record and one of the two Wild Card spots.
Cleveland lost a one-game playoff to the Tampa Bay Rays, a glitch on what was an otherwise exciting season. That loss only strengthened the Indians’ resolve for a return to the playoffs and perhaps advance further along the path this season.
“To feel playoff baseball at Progressive Field for the first time since 2007 and capture that energy was just a reminder of what we work for,” Indians President Mark Shapiro said. “It was great to do it with Tito (Francona) at the helm. He’s such an incredible leader for us.
“It’s going to be a challenge. Our division is a good division. The Royals are a very good young team. The Tigers are one of the best teams in baseball again, but I think we’re going to be in the mix. That bar is the one we’re looking to get back to. Once you get in, anything can happen.”
The Indians will have to generate wins in the same manner they did last season, which means solid starting pitching and manufacturing runs. There were no .300 hitters in the lineup in 2013, but power was supplied by Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, a trio that’s expected to bat second, third and fourth, respectively.
Kipnis had an offensive outburst during the middle of last season before settling down and finishing with a .284 average with 17 home runs and 84 RBI.
Kipnis also brings the value of speed on the base paths, registering 30 steals in 2013. Center fielder and lead-off hitter Michael Bourn had 23 steals in 130 games. He can be expected to steal at least 30 bases in a full 162-game schedule.
One of the biggest questions entering spring training concerned what to do with Santana, who split time between catcher, first base and designated hitter last season. Francona will make Yan Gomes the primary catcher, and the hope is that Santana can handle the fielding demands at third base.
Near the end of spring training Francona expressed his belief that Santana can deal adequately with the responsibilities at third, which would move Lonnie Chisenhall into a utility role.
Santana hit .268 with 20 home runs and 74 RBI last season. Not being saddled with the physical demands of playing behind the plate might allow Santana a chance to improve upon his numbers.
“I think our position-player club has a lot of upside,” Shapiro said. “We really didn’t have the kinds of years we typically have from Bourn and Swisher. Asdrubal Cabrera is another guy that will bounce back.
“I really feel that Yan Gomes catching for a whole year is a pivotal guy for this team, both from a leadership standpoint and offensively what he brings.”
Swisher was inconsistent in hitting .246 with 22 home runs and 63 RBI. Francona would ideally like to see a little more production from the first baseman.
One addition to the lineup is outfielder David Murphy, who signed with the Indians after spending the previous seven seasons with the Texas Rangers. Murphy, 32, saw a reduction in his slugging percentage to .374 after a run of six seasons during which the number was above .400.
Bourn and left fielder Michael Brantley will cover plenty of ground in the outfield. Brantley’s sweet left-handed swing produced a .284 batting average with 10 home runs and 73 RBI.
Justin Masterson returns as the ace of a solid rotation that also includes Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin and Danny Salazar. Masterson was 14-10 with a 3.45 earned-run average, 195 strikeouts and 76 walks.
The rotation will have to overcome the loss Scott Kazmir, who signed with the Oakland Athletics. The flame-throwing Salazar could be the answer. Salazar was dominant at times in 10 starts last season and was entrusted as the starter in the playoff loss.
McAllister had a 3.75 ERA and Kluber finished with a 3.85 ERA in 2013. Tomlin is trying to return from Tommy John surgery of nearly two years ago.
Closer Chris Perez is gone, which might be considered a good thing given his off-the-field exploits. John Axford was signed away from the St. Louis Cardinals and has a chance to replace Perez.
“I don’t want to overlook how hard it is to get those last three outs, but I think Axford’s stuff and ability to strike people out is going to be a plus for us at the end of the game,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro’s biggest concern on the pitching staff is finding a capable replacement for Joe Smith, a versatile short reliever now with the Los Angeles Angels.
“It’s easy to overlook the impact he made,” Shapiro said. “Arguably the best set-up, eighth-inning guy in Major League Baseball last year. That’s going to be tough shoes to fill there.”