Nothing went as planned for Cleveland last year, as high expectations gave way to disappointment. That season of failure has led to a busy winter of incremental improvements which will combine to make the Tribe MLB's most improved team in 2013.
After improving by 11 games to 80 wins in 2011, the Indians were hopeful that Ubaldo Jimenez could bounce back to lead their rotation after they acquired him at the trading deadline two years ago. Jimenez proceeded to have a 5.40 ERA in 2012 and rotation-mate Justin Masterson regressed to a 4.93 ERA after putting up a stellar 3.21 ERA the year before.
The Indians finished second to last in the AL in ERA. The pitching staff wasn't helped by a defense that finished dead last in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), costing the Indians 57 runs with their futile glove work. The offense wasn't much to write home about, either. They were third worst in the AL, managing to score just 667 runs.
The Indians couldn't pitch, they couldn't field and they couldn't hit, so manager Manny Acta lost his job before the season even ended. Acta was a solid tactician who was able to help the Indians gain the platoon advantage a league-leading 70 percent of the time offensively. However, by the end of the season, it appeared that the team had quit on the skipper.
Chris Perez summed up the Indians lackluster performance under Acta last season by telling Jerry Crasnick of ESPN:
He [Nick Swisher] brings that energy every single day. We didn’t have that in the second half last year. It’s well-documented how bad we were, and it was kind of a dead atmosphere in the locker room. You don’t have to worry about that with him.
The Indians have replaced Acta with two-time World Series champion manager Terry Francona. Francona may not be a great tactical manager, but he was able to get the most out of his teams in Boston up until the infamous September collapse that ultimately cost him his job. A year out of the dugout, and a change of scenery to a place with a less scrupulous media contingency should allow Francona to reemerge as one of the game's best motivators.
With Francona in the fold, the Indians set about fixing the rotation by dealing Shin-Soo Choo in a three-team trade that was highlighted by potential ace Trevor Bauer and speedy outfielder Drew Stubbs.
The third pick of the 2011 draft, Bauer has struck out 200 hitters thus far in his 156-inning minor league career. He may need more seasoning in the minors after walking 13 in his 16.1-inning big league debut last year, but he could give the rotation a shot in the arm sooner rather than later in 2013.
To replace Choo in right field, the team initially signed Nick Swisher to a four-year, $56 million deal to bring the native Ohioan home. Choo was a year away from free agency, and with super-agent Scott Boras representing him, he was probably going to cost more to retain than Swisher will over the next four years. Turning one year of Choo into six years of a potential ace in Bauer was an excellent use of assets by general manager Chris Antonetti.
With the signing of Michael Bourn to a four-year, $48 million deal to complete the Tribe's offseason makeover, Swisher will now move to first base and Stubbs will move from center field to right. Mark Reynolds—who was signed to a one-year, $6 million deal—will move from first base to DH.
Replacing Choo, Casey Kotchman, oft-injured DH Travis Hafner, Johnny Damon and Jack Hannahan with Bourn, Stubbs, Swisher, Reynolds and Lonnie Chisenhall will make the Indians a better offensive team this year. The additions of Brett Myers, and eventually Bauer, to the rotation will help as well.
However, where the Indians are most improved is on the defensive side—particularly in the outfield. Bourn saved 22 runs with his glove last year, according to UZR. Meanwhile, Indian center fielders combined to be about three runs below average last season.
Stubbs, the eighth pick of the 2006 draft, is a tremendous athlete with plus range in center field. Moving him over to right should be a significant defensive upgrade after Choo and company cost the Indians 20 runs out there last year.
In left, the Indians were in the middle of the pack defensively in 2012, and Michael Brantley should be an upgrade there this season. Two years ago, he was about three runs above average in left field before moving back to center last year.
The three center fielders outfield alignment of Brantley, Bourn and Stubbs will help the pitching staff cut down on their 4.79 ERA from a year ago. If Bauer can develop into a front-line starter and Myers can eat up innings at the back of the rotation, Cleveland's run prevention is going to drastically improve.
Stubbs is also working on his hitting mechanics in order to get the bat to the ball more after striking out 30.5 percent of the time last season. More contact would be a boon for his career .241 batting average because he's one of the fastest players in the game.
Signing Bourn and Swisher for a combined $104 million when both players were initially seeking much bigger paydays was a solid job of playing the market by Antonetti. Instead of trading away top prospects like the Royals did in dealing Will Myers and others in a desperate attempt to contend, the small-market Indians opened their checkbook in free agency and used their best trade asset in Choo to upgrade the team.
Did the Indians do enough this winter to make themselves a contender? Time will tell on that front, but the Tribe are going to be significantly improved upon last year's 68-94 record.
If another sleeper team makes a giant leap forward this year as the Orioles and A's did last season, the Indians are the team to bet on.