In 2013, the Cleveland Indians surprised the American League by finishing 22 games over .500 and making the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Despite the losses of two valuable starters, their setup man and their closer, the 2014 Tribe actually have high potential to build on last year's results. With just a few bounce-back seasons from key contributors, Cleveland could once again turn heads.
Get excited, Cleveland! Here are the top five reasons to believe in your boys this season.
If Axford visits the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, I hope he visits Frank Zappa's section
I had a soft spot in my heart for Chris Perez. Not only does he look like a few of my punk rocker friends, but he also has a pretty hip dog.
That being said, everyone was ready for him to go.
The save stat has masked many mediocre pitchers' numbers for years, and Perez was no exception. Even with his exceptional 2010 campaign, he's averaged a 3.73 ERA since joining Cleveland in 2009. His hits-per-nine-innings total had climbed each of the last four seasons as well, topping off at an embarrassing 9.3 last year.
John Axford's 2013 wasn't anything to brag about, either. But Cleveland is banking on him returning to his previous career patterns. From 2009-2012, Axford dominated, with just over 11 strikeouts per nine innings and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.72. Those are the kind of numbers that would make Cleveland general manager Chris Antonetti look like a genius for stealing Axford at $4.5 million.
If Cleveland can overtake Detroit in the AL Central, this could be many Tribe fans' Christmas card.
Any Cleveland fan who's been paying attention this offseason has to be encouraged by the moves Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has made. Sure, the season is still over two months away, and many believe that Detroit still has a trick up its sleeve. But the shipping away of Prince Fielder and Doug Fister for Ian Kinsler and a pile of fringe prospects will likely have a bigger impact on the Indians than any moves GM Chris Antonetti will make.
Both players have completely owned the Tribe throughout their careers. Fister has dumbfounded Wahoo hitters with a 2.73 ERA and a jaw-dropping 5.07 K/BB ratio over his career. Fielder (who stole a base against Cleveland in 2013) has also had no problem against the Tribe. His .290 average and .902 OPS left the AL Central not a moment too soon.
These trades are likely to help Detroit stay competitive in the long run, but for 2014, they must be seen as an opportunity for every team in the Central Division.
Asdrubal Cabrera is one of three players expected to improve in 2014.
In 2013, Cleveland ranked in the top five in many important offensive categories in the American League, including runs and OBP. This all occurred despite down seasons from three core players.
Michael Bourn, Asdrubal Cabrera and Nick Swisher are all former All-Stars who underperformed in 2013. Per Cot's Contracts, the trio is set to make roughly $38 million in 2014, and the law of averages predicts bounce-back seasons for all three.
Cabrera's power will always be a question mark. His jump from three home runs to 25 in 2011 surprised everybody, and few expect him to reach that number again. But his .242 batting average in 2013 was more than 30 points below his career average.
Swisher, too, hit well below his career norms. With a 10-year OPS of .820, 2013's .763 left fans drooling for more.
As for Michael Bourn, Cleveland is hoping that his career low in stolen bases was a result of learning a new league. Before 2013, Bourn had never stolen less than 41 bases over a full season. His 23 steals, combined with being caught 12 times, led to a mediocre season from the leadoff hitter.
Baseball is a game of numbers and averages, and it is fair to assume that all three of these players will return to career norms in 2014.
Terry Francona has something special.
Terms like "gritty," "clutch" and "gamer" are slowly disappearing from baseball grammar books. But the phrase "team chemistry" isn't going anywhere.
Of all major league sports, it's been argued that MLB managers have the least control in the outcome of an individual game. Pitching changes, platoon decisions and pinch hitters are amongst few in-game decisions a manger can make.
However, certain managers bring much more to a team than a lineup card.
Terry Francona is known for creating a winning atmosphere in his team's clubhouse. In his first season with his new franchise, Francona turned a team with 94 losses in 2012 into a 92-win playoff team in 2013.
This was a team that was consistently bullied by the division-winning Tigers in 2012. It was a team without an ace or a cleanup hitter, instead relying on depth and creative platooning. It even featured Jason Giambi.
If you weren't a believer going into 2013, Terry Francona has done everything possible to convert you for 2014.
Francona Gets the Awards, but Pitching Coach Mickey Callaway is his Secret Weapon.
Heading into the 2013 season, it was clear that the Indians pitching staff was a mess. Youngsters like Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister had yet to prove anything in the majors. Ubaldo Jimenez was a mess, Justin Masterson was coming off a very poor season and Scott Kazmir had been out of baseball for years.
By the end of 2013, though, all five of those starting pitchers had turned a corner and helped form a very young, reliable rotation.
What was the common thread in this development? That would be Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway.
"The thing about Mickey is that he doesn't only have good advice to give you, he's also a good listener," Jimenez said, per Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "That's a huge thing."
While Kazmir and Jimenez will need to be replaced in 2014, Cleveland fans should be confident that Callaway will continue to develop the young guns that will be dressed in red and blue. Masterson, Kluber and McAllister will return, while late-season sensation Danny Salazar is expected to be a big factor in his first full season.
That leaves one spot in the rotation.
Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco will likely compete for the spot. Both pitchers have dynamic arms but almost zero success in the majors and questions about their makeup. This is where Callaway can work his magic. If he can help just one of these pitchers reach his potential, the Indians could showcase one of the best young pitching staffs in baseball.
In the AL Central, pitching wins divisions.