Sunday, March 30, 2014

Too tough an act to follow

Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to the Indians last season was making the playoffs, albeit for one game.

Now just about everyone rooting for the team expects a repeat this season. That’s not going to happen. A noticeably weaker pitching staff than last season is the great equalizer.

Last season, I figured the team would play around .500 ball in manager Terry Francona’s first season. They had that kind of talent. Too many “if” factors led to that conclusion.

Ifs like: If the starting pitching held up; if the hitting rebounded from a few down seasons; if the defense improved; and if the bullpen came through.

There is no question the 2013 Indians overachieved in just about every category. The starting pitching provided the biggest surprise, in large part due to the contributions of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir.

The hitting produced the fifth-most runs in the major leagues last season even though the leading home run hitter (Nick Swisher) had only 22 and second baseman Jason Kipnis led the team in runs batted in with just 84.

The defense, meanwhile, was steady, but not spectacular. Very few games were lost because the Indians beat themselves.

The bullpen, led by the erratic Chris Perez, blew 22 of 60 save opportunities. It would have been a lot worse if not for the strong setup work of Joe Smith, Bryan Shaw, Matt Albers, Cody Allen and Mark Rzepczynski.

Again, there is no question the 2013 Indians overachieved. No one figured they would be anywhere near contending status. But as the season progressed, the notoriously streaky Indians never lost sight of first place in the AL Central Division.

A highly favorable September schedule and a season-ending 10-game winning streak proved the correct formula for a return to the postseason, which caught many a Tribe fan by surprise.

The only surprise this season will be if the Tribe duplicates last season. After watching them in spring training, I came to the conclusion that the hitting will be every bit as good as last season, but the pitching won’t come even close.

Jimenez and Kazmir are gone from the starting rotation, taking advantage of their solid 2013 seasons to land lucrative contracts elsewhere. There is no way Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, who replace them in the starting rotation, come close to replicating their efforts.

The coaching staff is babying Salazar to protect his tender arm, and Carrasco has trouble finding the strike zone on a consistent basis. And if he has to work from the stretch, he has all kinds of problems. He will be either gone or in the bullpen with Josh Tomlin replacing him by no later than mid-May.

Justin Masterson is clearly the staff ace and one of the best pitchers in the American League. After Masterson, the quality drops off noticeably. Is Zack McAllister a .500 pitcher? Can Corey Kluber replicate his 11-5 season?

The bullpen is the key. If the starters can get to the sixth or seventh inning with a lead, the whole dynamic could change. Smith and Albers are gone, but Allen, Rzepczynski, Shaw, Blake Wood and Vinnie Pestano return, along with newcomers Josh Outman and Scott Atchison.

The X factor is John Axford, who replaces Perez as the closer. Axford flamed out as the Milwaukee closer last season before regaining his touch as a setup man in St. Louis. If he falters again, look for Allen and his 98-100 mph velocity to take over as the closer.

The hitting will be fine, although somewhat inconsistent at times. Once again, the power will be distributed throughout the lineup. Last season, 10 batters reached double figures in home runs. Don’t expect anyone to pound 30 or more home runs.

The Cleveland defense will be fun to watch this season, especially with Carlos Santana playing third base for at least half the season. Santana, who came up in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization as a third baseman before being converted into a catcher, did not embarrass himself in the field in spring training.

Santana most likely will start at third against left-handed pitchers, catch a couple of games a week in relief of Yan Gomes and serve as the designated hitter when Francona chooses to have Gomes and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall in the lineup.

Gomes represents a substantial upgrade behind the plate. He handles pitchers better than Santana and guns down potential base stealers better than most American League receivers. His strong bat is a bonus. The question is how he will hold up playing full-time.

The outfield is solid defensively with Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn (who starts the season on the disabled list) and David Murphy. Brantley had a brilliant spring, hitting well over .500. He hit everything hard, including many of the outs. Murphy, as usual, is a slow starter.

You can bet we’ll see a lot of Mike Aviles and Elliot Johnson, two of Francona’s favorites because of their versatility. They can play just about every position but pitcher, catcher and first base. Aviles swings the better bat, though.

Bottom line: As the pitching goes, so will go the Indians in 2014. Unfortunately, I do not see a repeat of 2013.

It may be a year later, but I’m sticking to the notion that the 2014 Indians will not overachieve as last season’s team did and finish where I thought the 2013 team would – at or around .500.

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