A Position-by-Position Breakdown of the Cleveland Indians at Spring Training
The Cleveland Indians open up their spring training schedule today in a game against the Cincinnati Reds—game begins at 3:05 p.m. ET, but can be seen on MLB Network at 5:00 p.m. ET—and that warrants a position-by-position look at the team the Indians will field during the 2014 season.
The cast of position players will look largely the same as the 2013 crew, with David Murphy and Elliot Johnson being the only additions.
Conversely, the pitching staff experienced a great deal of turnover, and a lot of newcomers will help round out both the bullpen and the starting rotation.
So, to prep you for spring training games, and also the 2014 season, here's a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Cleveland Indians.
Starter: Yan Gomes
Bench: Carlos Santana
Between relative newcomer Yan Gomes and veteran slugger Carlos Santana, the Cleveland Indians have one of the more enviable catching situations in all of baseball.
Gomes broke in last season after arriving as a throw-in to the back-end of the Mike Aviles trade. Over 88 games played, the 26-year-old managed a .294/.345/.481 slash line with 11 home runs, 18 doubles, 38 RBI and 45 runs scored.
Gomes also showed off his defensive prowess, throwing out a whopping 41 percent of would-be base stealers, while also logging a DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) of 11.
Gomes' strong season earned him the team's starting spot this season, bumping Santana to the backup role. The move isn't as much a knock on Santana as it is an endorsement of Gomes' ability to make the team better.
Santana put forth an outstanding offensive effort last season. In 154 games, Santana worked to a .268/.377/.455 triple slash with 20 home runs, 39 doubles, 74 RBI and 75 runs scored.
Defensively, Santana was substantially less valuable, logging a -11 DRS with a caught-stealing percent of just 18 percent—compared to the 26 percent big league average.
Despite his deficiencies behind the plate, Santana makes a fine backup option for the Tribe, and the two complement each other very well.
Probable Starter: Nick Swisher 95%
Potential Starter: Carlos Santana 5%
Nick Swisher will hold down starting duties at first base for the Indians in 2014.
Last year, the 33-year-old veteran appeared in 145 games, working to a .246/.341/.423 slash line with 22 home runs, 27 doubles, 63 RBI and 74 runs scored. For the fourth straight season, Swisher logged HR%, BB%, XBH%, LD% and HR/FB rates higher than the MLB average over his career, and while he would certainly benefit from a reduction in his strikeout rate—21.5 percent over that four-year span—Swisher should continue to be a productive member of the Indians' lineup.
Last season, Nick Swisher played 112 of his 145 games at first base. With Carlos Santana knocking on every door possible to get at-bats, it's likely that we'll see Swisher play a similar number of games at first base, with Santana appearing in roughly 40 games at first.
Santana brings a steady bat to the position, as well as a decent glove. In 942.2 innings at the position, the 27-year-old owns a with a revised zone rating of .807, and a DRS of -1.
Conversely, over 2984 innings at first, Swisher boasts an RZR of .774 and a DRS of 7.
To be fair, Swisher has improved as a first baseman, logging RZRs of .804 and .833 over the last two seasons, respectively. However, he's still a shaky defensive option at the position.
Starter: Jason Kipnis
Bench: Mike Aviles, Elliot Johnson
Barring injury, Jason Kipnis will appear in nearly every one of the Indians 162 games this season, and for good reason. Last year, the 26-year-old earned his first all-star game nod behind an outstanding effort at the plate.
Over 658 plate appearances, the 26-year-old managed a gaudy .284/.366/.452 slash line with 17 home runs, 36 doubles, 84 RBI, 86 runs scored and 30 stolen bases.
Kipnis may have benefitted slightly from some good luck—his BAbip took a huge jump from .291 to .345 between the 2012 and 2013 seasons. However, Kipnis also saw improvements in his already stellar LD%, BB% and GB/FB rate, so sustainable success comparable to the level he experienced in 2013 is a complete possibility.
Kipnis isn't a great defender—zero DRS and .827 RZR for his career—but he's serviceable, and his bat makes him nearly indispensable.
Behind him, the Indians' depth chart will certainly feature Mike Aviles, and, most likely, Elliot Johnson.
Aviles was hardly a valuable player last season—.252/.282/.368 slash line, 0.3 fWAR and -3 DRS—but he's under contract through 2014, and it's unlikely that the Indians will cut him in favor of another player.
Assuming Johnson earns the final spot on the Indians' roster, he'll likely serve in a very limited capacity with the Indians in 2013. Johnson isn't much of a hitter, as evidenced by his career .218/.273/.319 slash line—but he's a capable defender and can lock down multiple positions, including second base, third base, shortstop and both corner outfield positions.
Likely Starter: Lonnie Chisenhall 80%
Potential Starter: Carlos Santana 20%
Bench: Mike Aviles, Elliot Johnson
As it stands, Lonnie Chisenhall is the team's starting third baseman for the 2014 season. That being said, the Indians' third-base situation could get very complicated this spring.
Over parts of three MLB seasons, Lonnie Chisenhall has failed to live up to expectations. The 25-year-old owns a paltry .244/.284/.411 slash line, with 162-game averages of 18 home runs, 29 doubles, 59 RBI and 58 runs scored.
Despite these disappointing numbers, Chisenhall still harbors the potential to be a .275/.350, 20-plus home run hitter at the big league level. While that sounds great, there's still a significant gap between his current level of play, and the potential he occasionally flashes.
This year though, with the only other alternative being to start Carlos Santana—who is still in the very early stages of his transition back to third base—it appears as though Chisenhall will get the opportunity to take hold of the everyday job at third base.
After him, the next player on the depth chart is Carlos Santana. Santana has been discussed in detail on multiple slides in this article, but aside from DH, this is the position at which Santana could see the bulk of his appearances.
Starter: Asdrubal Cabrera
Bench: Mike Aviles, Elliot Johnson
If any position in the Tribe's infield needs an upgrade for the 2014 season, it is shortstop. Asdrubal Cabrera has held down a starting spot at the position since 2009, and while he's been a solid offensive contributor in that time, 2013 was a struggle.
Over 136 games played—his lowest total since 2010—Cabrera slashed a paltry .242/.299/.402 with 14 home runs, 35 doubles, 64 RBI, 66 runs scored and nine stolen bases.
For the second straight season, Cabrera saw regression in his batting average, slugging percentage, RBI, runs scored and home run totals. Additionally, in two out of those three seasons—2010 and 2013—Cabrera posted walk and strikeout rates that were worse than the MLB average over his career.
Frustration with Cabrera—and also the imminent arrival of top prospect Francisco Lindor—showed back in the 2012-13 offseason when rumors of a possible trade to the Cardinals swirled. Those rumors re-surfaced in 2013, and again this offseason, but nothing became of them.
Cabrera is now in the final year of his contract, and while he could still be traded, it's looking less and less likely that this will actually happen.
So, with Cabrera here for the time being, he'll be backed up by Mike Aviles and Elliot Johnson.
Mike Aviles isn't much with the stick anymore, but the 32-year-old can still go get it at short. His .830 RZR suggests that he's about an average defender at the position, but he's been worth 28 DRS over his career and owns a UZR/150 of 7.2.
Johnson isn't at his best as a shortstop—.774 RZR over 1079.1 innings—but he's serviceable as a third option.
Starter: Michael Brantley
Bench: Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles, Elliot Johnson
Over the last two seasons, Michael Brantley has blossomed into one of the more productive players on the Indians roster.
Between 2012 and 2013, Brantley appeared in 300 games and slashed .286/.340/.399 with season averages of eight home runs, 32 doubles, 66 RBI, 64 runs scored and 14 stolen bases. Although all three of his triple-slash components dropped from 2012 to 2013, it was a minor reduction at most—.288/.348/.402 to .284/.332/.396.
Brantley eclipsed the 10 home run mark for the first time in his career last season, and posted his second straight season with a bWAR above 2.5.
Brantley is in the upper echelon of American League left fielders. Over his five-year career, Brantley owns an RZR of .931 and has been worth 12 DRS—10 of those 12 came over the last two seasons.
Behind him, the Indians won't need much, as Brantley's durability is one of his stronger qualities. However, Ryan Raburn will get some limited time in left field.
The 32-year-old had an outstanding showing in 2013, primarily serving as a right fielder and DH. In just 243 at-bats, Raburn logged a .272/.357/.543 slash line with 16 home runs, 18 doubles, 55 RBI, 40 runs scored and a gaudy 153 OPS+.
After Raburn, Mike Aviles and Elliot Johnson will fill in as emergency options.
Starter: Michael Bourn
Bench: Michael Brantley
Over eight MLB seasons, Michael Bourn has functioned as one of the game's premiere leadoff hitters. Last season, a hamstring injury cost Bourn some significant time—21 straight games between Apr. 15 and May 9—and the injury can be blamed, partially at least, for Bourn's lack of stolen bases last season—full-season low of 23 steals last year.
Even so, Bourn struggled last season. His .263 batting average and .316 on-base percentage represented his lowest single-season totals since 2008—Bourn's first full season at the MLB level—and his 2.0 fWAR represented the lowest total of his full-season career.
With a healthy hamstring, he'll likely swipe a couple of more bases in 2013. However at 31 years old, the 2013 form might be a more accurate representation of the player we'll see over the remainder of his contract—three or four seasons, dependent on vesting option for 2017.
Bourn is still a decent offensive option atop the lineup, and he should continue to play solid defense in 2014. Last year, Bourn's RZR was a gaudy .940, and he was worth three DRS. Over time, we'll likely see Bourn lose range in center, but that's still two or three years away.
Michael Brantley will serve as the team's backup in center field. In the event that Born suffers an injury causing him to miss time, Brantley would slide into center, with Ryan Raburn assuming starting duties in left.
Starter: David Murphy
Bench: Ryan Raburn, Elliot Johnson, Nick Swisher
Last year, Drew Stubbs and Ryan Raburn combined to appear in 159 games in right field. Stubbs was dreadful, and the idea of Raburn being an everyday player never truly caught hold, so, this offseason, the Indians scoured the free-agent market and came back with David Murphy.
To be fair, Murphy was highly productive over his five full seasons in Texas. In 641 games, Murphy averaged a .283/.346/.449 slash line with season averages of 128 games played, 14 home runs, 24 doubles, 61 RBI, 58 runs scored and 10 stolen bases.
Murphy also accumulated a bWAR of 10.1 over that time frame, but topped the 2.0 mark in just two of those five seasons.
However, last season, Murphy was dreadful. In fact, he was less productive than Stubbs. In 142 games played, the 32-year-old slashed a paltry .220/.282/.374 with 13 home runs, 26 doubles, 45 RBI, 51 runs scored and just one stolen base.
Murphy's season was worth a bWAR of 0.2 and an fWAR of 0.4, so neither site saw any value in Murphy's 2013 season.
Should Murphy suffer an injury, need a day off or just be downright awful like he was last season, Raburn would be the team's immediate replacement. If his performance in limited time last season is any indication, then Raburn will be a solid fall-back option.
Likely Starter: Carlos Santana 90%
Potential Starter: Jason Giambi 10%
Bench: Nick Swisher, Ryan Raburn
With Carlos Santana in need of a steady stream of at-bats, the Indians will look to utilize him as the everyday DH in 2014.
Keeping Santana's bat in the lineup is a top priority. Over five MLB seasons, the 27-year-old boasts a strong .254/.367/.446 slash line with full-season averages of 22 home runs, 34 doubles, 76 RBI, 77 runs scored and a 115:94 K/BB ratio.
Santana is a player who understands the strike zone well, and although he won't hit for the highest average—2013's .268 was his career high—he'll get on base at a high rate, while hitting 20-25 home runs and 35-40 doubles.
Santana's 2013 season was arguably his best as a big leaguer.
In 154 games played, the Dominican native posted full-season bests in batting average, on-base percentage, doubles, line-drive percentage and contact percentage, earning him a 15th place finish in AL MVP voting. Those improvements should carry over into the 2014 season, making him the best option to serve as the team's DH.
After Santana, Jason Giambi will get some reps as a DH, but the position will largely be used to give players a day off in the field, and possibly to get Ryan Raburn some at-bats.
Starters (in order): Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister
Potential Starters: Trevor Bauer (30%), Carlos Carrasco (40%), Josh Tomlin (15%)
Long Shots: Shaun Marcum (10%), Aaron Harrang (5%)
The Indians' starting rotation this season is significantly different than the most frequently used version from 2013. Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir have moved on to other teams—Baltimore and Oakland, respectively—and the team will look to replace them with 2013 breakout performer Danny Salazar, and the winner of the position battle for the fifth rotational spot.
Justin Masterson anchors the rotation as the team's ace. Although his numbers won't blow you away—3.86 ERA since 2010—Masterson does a great job of missing bats—9.1 K/9 in 2013—and inducing ground balls—1.35 GB/FB since 2010.
Kluber and McAllister are the other two familiar names.
Kluber was outstanding last season and flew under the radar of many baseball analysts. Over his 147.1 innings pitched, Kluber managed an ERA and WHIP of 3.85 and 1.26, respectively, while striking out 8.3 batters compared to just 2.0 walks per nine innings pitched.
Kluber's ERA hardly seems indicative of a strong No. 2 starter, but his FIP, xFIP and SIERA from 2013—3.30, 3.10 and 3.32, respectively—suggest that Kluber would fall in a group of pitchers that Fangraphs would label as "great." Based on those metrics alone, Kluber out-pitched Masterson last season, and we should expect him to continue to improve heading into his age-28 season.
McAllister is a bit of a regression candidate, and that's why he'll slot in as the team's fourth starter. Over 24 starts—134.1 innings pitched—McAllister pitched to a 3.75 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP, but his FIP, xFIP, SIERA and K/9 figures suggest that his ERA may rise into the 4.00-4.20 range.
Salazar slots in as the team's No. 3 starter, and for good reason. The 24-year-old had a massive breakout season in 2013 spanning the Double-A, Triple-A and MLB levels.
Over 30 combined starts—145 innings pitched—Salazar allowed a 2.86 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP while averaging 12.0 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 4.97 K/BB and 7.1 H/9. The team will likely look to limit Salazar's innings in some capacity—think 175-180 innings—but Salazar should continue to be a highly effective starter in his age-24 season.
The fifth spot in the order is a bit more complex, and will be filled by the winner of a spring training position battle. I broke down the position battle in my spring training preview, where I predicted Trevor Bauer to win the job, so I'll roll with that here.
Since being drafted third overall back in 2011, Bauer has struggled to reach his once lofty potential. However, reports from spring training have Bauer showing vast levels of improvement in his mechanics, and he could finally be ready to assume a meaningful starting role with the team.
Carlos Carrasco also has a solid chance to make the rotation, despite some disappointing numbers as a starter. In 40 career starts, the 26-year-old boasts a 5.53 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP, with averages of 6.1 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.96 K/BB and 11.0 H/9.
Conversely, in relief appearances, Carrasco has shown flashes of great potential. Over eight appearances—13.2 innings—Carrasco owns a 1.32 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP and averages of 7.2 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 2.20 K/BB and 4.6 H/9.
After Carrasco, Josh Tomlin has the next best chance to make the starting rotation, based largely on his past experience as a back-end starter with the Indians. However, at this point in his career, Tomlin looks to be better suited for a long relief role.
Starters Jonathan Axford (Closer), Bryan Shaw (Setup Reliever), Cody Allen (Setup Reliever), Vinnie Pestano (Middle Relief), Marc Rzepczynski (Left-Handed Specialist), Josh Outman (Left-Handed Specialist)
Likely Starter: Carlos Carrasco (60%), Josh Tomlin (40%)
The Indians' bullpen is arguably the shakiest unit of the entire team. Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen will return for the 2014 season, and the two should form a nice setup crew for the team's new closer, Jonathan Axford.
Vinnie Pestano also returns in 2014, and while it seemed as though he'd be one of the in-house options to take over for Perez prior to the 2013 season, a dreadful showing last year has him pegged for middle-relief duty in 2014.
The team will utilize newcomer Josh Outman as a second left-handed specialist, and he should pair well with Marc Rzepczynski, who had an outstanding showing with the Tribe last season.
Outman should do well in his new role based on an outstanding .189/.251/.272 slash line allowed against lefties—.198/.278/.261 in 2013. However, the other newcomer, Axford, is far less of a sure thing.
Over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Axford went from being one of the most revered closers in Major League Baseball, to flopping out of both the closer's role and Milwaukee. In 150 appearances over two seasons, Axford put together a horrifying stat, including a 4.35 ERA, a 1.48 WHIP and averages of 10.6 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, 2.43 K/BB and 9.0 H/9.
However, Axford seemed to turn his career around, and in 13 appearances with the St. Louis Cardinals last season, the 30-year-old allowed a 1.74 ERA, a 1.36 WHIP and averaged 9.6 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 3.67 K/BB and 9.6 H/9.
Axford learned from the Cardinals coaching staff that he had been tipping his pitches, and if that was what caused his 2012-13 struggles, then the Indians may have a solid late-inning relief crew.
The final spot in the Tribe's bullpen will likely be filled by one of the losers from the position battle for the final rotational spot. Of that group, Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin appear to be the most likely, and worthy candidates.
Carrasco, as mentioned in the previous slide, has been outstanding in limited relief opportunities. The young righty is also out of options, and that will play heavily in his favor.
In order for the Indians to send Carrasco down, he'd have to clear waivers, and it's almost guaranteed that some team would claim him. To avoid losing him to another team, the Tribe will keep him this year as a reliever.
Assuming he loses out on a starting rotation spot, Josh Tomlin would work well as a long reliever. The 29-year-old has the stamina to eat multiple innings in mop-up duty, or in relief of an injured starter.
The Indians will also benefit from Tomlin staying fresh against big league hitters, in the event that an injury hits the rotation, or if Trevor Bauer flops out of the rotation.