Third time charm for Francona?
Observations after watching the Indians play 16 exhibition games in Goodyear, Ariz., the past month . . .
First of all, let’s get one thing straight. This team, despite Sports Illustrated’s hair-brained notion the Tribe will win the 2015 World Series, will not win the 2015 World Series. It won’t get to the World Series.
It is a club with just enough flaws that playing extremely competitive and representative baseball will carry it a long way. It is not abundantly loaded with talent.
Their greatest strength is their manager. Terry Francona’s ability to squeeze out the maximum amount of talent from his players cannot be emphasized enough. They love playing for him.
There is something about Francona that transcends the normal manager-player relationship. Maybe it’s the fun-loving, loose clubhouse he runs. Then again, it might be the profound respect he shows his players.
Whatever it is, Francona’s success in his first two seasons with the Tribe is a testament to his prowess as a manager. Working with one of the (comparatively) lowest payrolls in baseball and nothing more than marginal talent, his Indians have won 177 games and surprisingly qualified for the playoffs in 2013.
It’s hard to figure out why SI believes the Indians will do something they haven’t done since 1948. The starting pitching is all right, not great; the defense should be better than last season, but that’s not saying much because last season’s defense was mediocre at best; and there is virtually no scary power.
Breaking that down . . .
The starting rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Zach McAllister and TJ House is adequate. Yes, I know Kluber is coming off a Cy Young season. And I know the light turned on for Carrasco the second half of last season. Both are late bloomers who should be able to continue their success.
But that’s where the success stops. The unpredictable Bauer is inconsistent, McAllister was slated for bullpen duty at the beginning of spring training and House is just getting started.
Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway (another team strength) have absolutely no idea what they are going to get from Bauer on a game-to-game basis. This season, though, they know he will not beat himself as he has in the past with walks. His control has been superb.
But by hitting the strike zone with more accuracy, he has been prone to surrendering home runs.
The monster back-to-back-to-back shots he gave up to Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant in the fourth inning of the March 10 exhibition against the Chicago Cubs were awe-inspiring from a Cubs standpoint. They traveled an estimated 1,300 feet.
McAllister arrived in camp and was penciled in for bullpen duty based on his success there last season. But after the failures of Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin in camp, the big right-hander was returned to the rotation and earned a spot with some solid pitching. The question is whether he can carry over that success to the regular season. The brass is hopeful he channels the success of Kluber and Carrasco.
The club’s biggest strength, without question, is its bullpen. Cody Allen anchors an eight-man pen (yikes!) that features five righties (Allen, Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison, Anthony Swarzak and Austin Adams) and three lefties (Nick Hagadone, Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle Crockett). All throw hard.
It gives Francona, who uses the bullpen more than any other major league manager, all kinds of opportunities to mix and match. If the starters can get through six innings with the lead, advantage Cleveland with that bullpen.
As for the offense, don’t expect any 30-home run hitters. But don’t expect slumps, either. First baseman Carlos Santana (getting better defensively), right fielder Brandon Moss, left fielder Michael Brantley and catcher Yan Gomes can provide some pop and are consistent enough hitters to withstand prolonged slumps.
Yes, I know Santana’s batting average has slipped the last couple of seasons, but he also owns perhaps the best batting eye on the team and draws a lot of walks.
The key to the Tribe offense this season, though, will be how the top of the batting order performs. Center fielder Michael Bourn and second baseman Jason Kipnis, coming off poor seasons, need to improve.
Bourn, whose on-base percentage screams for him to bat much lower in the lineup, had a terrific spring, spraying the ball all over the field. He still needs to work the pitcher harder for walks. Kipnis, healthier than last season, has lost some weight and looks quicker.
Francona needs to turn them loose on the basepaths. The Indians rarely tried to steal bases in spring training. Bourn, recovering from hamstring problems, tried only once and was gunned down. He used to be one of the best base stealers in baseball. Both men also looked better in the field.
So where are the Indians hurting? Third base defense and lack of a power right-handed bat.
Lonnie Chisenhall, who swings a nice bat, is not exactly a butcher with the glove at third base, but he’s close. He seems to have a problem with balls hit right at him, something you’d think would be easy. Most of his errors this spring were of that variety.
Chisenhall has no trouble diving into the hole and toward the foul line and displays a fairly accurate arm. His inconsistency has to alarm Francona.
As for a right-handed bat, I thought the signing of 27-year-old free agent Jerry Sands was a terrific move. The big former Dodger, who can play all three outfield positions and first base, had a solid spring. It included one of the longest home runs ever hit at Goodyear Ballpark, an estimated 470-foot shot over the batter’s eye in center field.
Francona chose instead to keep Ryan Raburn, perhaps hoping to recapture some of Raburn’s heroics from the 2013 season. But two sub-par seasons in the last three for the soon-to-be 34-year-old Raburn should serve as a warning sign.
Mike Aviles and David Murphy are back, too. Not a big fan of Murphy’s, but love Aviles’ versatility. Must be fun for him to report for a game, not really knowing where he’ll play, but knowing the fans are going to receive a solid performance. You’ll find the ultimate utilityman anywhere in the infield or outfield at any given time.
The 2015 Indians will be classic overachievers and seriously challenge the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox for the championship of the well-balanced American League Central Division, but fall agonizingly short.
Look for the slightly weakened Tigers, who have dominated the division the last several seasons, to come back to the field; the Royals to sustain the great run on their way to the World Series last season; and the vastly improved White Sox to hang in there until September.
It very well could wind up in a four-team race down the stretch with pitching the deciding factor. But Cleveland’s pitching, which provided the impetus for a strong finish last season, will fall short this season with a tired bullpen the chief culprit.
Miscellaneous: Best addition has to be Moss, whose power bat should produce at least 25 home runs this season. Plus, he’s versatile enough to play right field and first base. That’s what Nick Swisher did the last two seasons before injuries disabled him. Swisher, great in the clubhouse and on the bench, has been a huge disappointment on the field. Two bad knees did not help the situation. . . . Jose Ramirez provides a solid glove and adequate bat to hold down shortstop until Francisco Lindor is ready. . . . Francona has more pitchers (13) on the team than batters. . . . Roberto Perez had a nice spring and there should be little dropoff when he gives Gomes an occasional rest behind the plate. . . . Look for Salazar to join the rotation once he gets straightened out at Class AAA Columbus.