Complete Cleveland Indians 2014 Season Preview

Tyler DumaFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

Complete Cleveland Indians 2014 Season Preview

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    With Opening Day just four short days away, the time has come to preview the Cleveland Indians' 2014 season. Over the course of this article, I'll update you on everything you need to know for the season.

    Here's a quick breakdown of what you'll get from this article:

    • A spring training recap
    • Injury updates
    • Lineup preview
    • Rotation preview
    • Bullpen preview
    • Prospects to watch
    • Breakout candidates
    • The top keys to success
    • An opening series preview
    • 2014 season predictions

    Phew. That's a lot of stuff, but, after reading this article, you'll have everything you need to get you primed and ready for the Indians' season as they look to log back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since the 1998 and 1999 seasons.

    Let's get started.

     

    *All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs.com unless otherwise noted.

Spring Training Recap

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Surprises: Carlos Santana and Blake Wood

    Carlos Santana wasn't a surprise in the sense that he had an outstanding spring when many didn't expect it of him. The 27-year-old made a successful transition to third base, and, according to CBS Sports' Mike Axisa, will assume starting duties at the position once the regular season begins.

    The move comes as a bit of a surprise after Lonnie Chisenhall posted solid numbers over the spring, but Santana's defense and potential for superior offensive output placed him above Chisenhall on the final preseason depth chart.

    Blake Wood came to Cleveland prior to the 2013 season after being waived by the Kansas City Royals following Tommy John surgery during the previous season. The 28-year-old made 29 appearances with the Indians' various minor league affiliates and even logged two late-season appearances with the team at the end of 2013.

    This spring, Wood has been outstanding, allowing a 0.93 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP over 9.2 innings pitched. Expectations weren't incredibly high, but he struck out a whopping 10.2 batters per nine en route to earning one of the final spots in the team's bullpen, per Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer.

     

    Busts: Trevor Bauer and David Murphy

    Despite high expectations for the two, Trevor Bauer and David Murphy earned "bust" honors from spring training.

    Bauer came into camp with a legitimate chance to make the team's starting rotation as a fifth starter. However, the 23-year-old had a rocky spring, allowing a 10.29 ERA over four starts, spanning just seven innings pitched.

    Many hoped that a Bauer would help promote a healthier level of competition for the fifth and final rotational spot, but the young right-hander floundered in his best chance to make a starting rotation out of spring training.

    David Murphy will open the season as the team's starting right fielder, but that doesn't mean his job is safe if he continues to perform the way he did in spring training. The 32-year-old had a terrible 2013 season, posting single-season lows in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. But the Tribe took a chance anyway, signing him to a two-year, $12 million deal prior to the 2014 season.

    Murphy rewarded their confidence with a spring stat line that included a .163/.250/.256 slash line, three extra-base hits, three RBI, two runs scored and a single stolen base.

     

    Surprise Cut: Josh Tomlin

    It's one thing that Josh Tomlin didn't make the team's starting rotation. However, it's a whole other level of surprise that he didn't make the team at all out of spring training.

    The 29-year-old had shot at the fifth rotational spot, and according to Hoynes, he was one of the final two candidates for the spot as recently as Monday, Mar. 24. Tomlin out-pitched Carlos Carrasco this spring, but according to MLB.com's Jordan Bastian, he was cut from the 25-man roster and optioned to Triple-A Columbus on Mar. 26.

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Michael Bourn: Hamstring

    The Indians will be counting on a bounce-back season from Michael Bourn in 2014. Unfortunately for the Tribe, they'll have to wait a little while for him to become a regular contributor atop the lineup.

    Bourn has been dealing with a hamstring injury, and according to CBS Sports' Mike Axisa, the 31-year-old center fielder will begin the season on the DL. Early reports—per Matt Snyder of CBS Sports—had Bourn missing about one week; however, it appears he will need additional time to get himself back to 100 percent.

    The injury isn't expected to be a long-term issue, but it's worth keeping an eye on considering that the injury occurred to the same hamstring that Bourn had surgery on last season.

     

    Jason Giambi: Broken Rib

    Like Bourn, Jason Giambi will begin the 2014 season on the DL. The 43-year-old veteran was hit by a pitch during an early spring game and the result was a broken rib. According to Newsradio WTAM's Nick Camino, the team will place Giambi on the DL to start the season, leaving it short one position player.

    Giambi didn't have the biggest statistical impact last season, compiling a .183/.282/.371 slash line with nine home runs, eight doubles, 31 RBI, 21 runs scored and a 56:23 K/BB ratio. Although his statistical contributions weren't spectacular, he was commended for his clubhouse presence and came through with several game-winning hits.

    Giambi served as a mentor to some of the younger, less experienced players, so he'll still be able to function in that capacity. However, the team would certainly benefit from his clutch hitting and power off the bench.

Lineup Preview

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Go-To Lineup

    1. Michael Brantley (CF)
    2. Nick Swisher (1B)
    3. Jason Kipnis (2B)
    4. Carlos Santana (3B)
    5. Ryan Raburn (LF)
    6. Asdrubal Cabrera (SS)
    7. David Murphy (RF)
    8. Yan Gomes (C)
    9. Lonnie Chisenhall (DH)

     

    Projected Bench

    • Nyjer Morgan (OF)
    • Elliot Johnson (UTL)
    • Mike Aviles (UTL)

     

    Analysis

    The Indians will enter the season short-handed. As discussed in the previous slide, the team will go through some short, yet undefined period of time without the assistance of Bourn and Giambi, but it will afford Cleveland the opportunity to get an extended look at Nyjer Morgan.

    According to Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer, the 33-year-old outfielder was named to the 25-man roster on Monday, March 24. Even so, it's unlikely that he'll receive much starting time, and when both Bourn and Giambi become available, Morgan may again find himself without a job.

    In a separate article, Hoynes noted that 30-year-old utility man Elliot Johnson also made the 25-man roster after his contract was purchased by the team late last week.

    Johnson has been raking this spring, and with just three games left to play before Opening Day, he's totaled a .354/.392/.646 slash line with two home runs, two triples, four doubles, eight RBI, six runs scored and a pair of stolen bases. Should he rebound from his disappointing 2012 campaign, Johnson will fill a much-needed role as the team's go-to utility player, especially when you consider Mike Aviles' 2013 contributions.

    On to the starting lineup!

    The Indians lineup is going to look slightly different, at least during the season's early stages anyway. With Bourn on the DL, Michael Brantley will move to center field, while Ryan Raburn will assume full-time starting duties over in left.

    The two players were highly productive in 2013, posting wRC+ values of 104 and 152, respectively. 

    Aside from the subtraction of Bourn, and the addition of Daniel Murphy, the Indians lineup is composed of largely the same group of players as last year. The only notable difference is that Carlos Santana will be the team's starting third baseman.

    According to GM Chris Antonetti—via MLB.com's Jordan Bastian—the 27-year-old will play "some" third base to start the 2014 season, but it's unclear as to what that means exactly. Either way, expect him to start at third while Lonnie Chisenhall assumes full-time DH duties until the outfield gets healthy and Ryan Raburn goes looking for a job.

    From top to bottom, the lineup is pretty solid. Once Bourn returns, the Indians will have a slight upgrade over the group of players who combined to finish in the AL's top five in RBI, stolen bases, walk, on-base percentage and OPS+.

    At worst, the offense will post numbers similar to those of the 2013 group.

Rotation Preview

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Starting Rotation

    1. Justin Masterson
    2. Corey Kluber
    3. Zach McAllister
    4. Danny Salazar
    5. Carlos Carrasco

     

    Analysis

    The Indians starting rotation brings a different look to the table in 2014. Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir have both moved on, leaving room for Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco to join the rotation in their absence.

    Salazar had a near-guaranteed job prior to the start of spring training, and that position was well-deserved. The 24-year-old put up a 3.12 ERA over 10 big league starts last season, allowing a 1.14 WHIP while averaging 11.3 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 4.33 K/BB and 7.6 H/9.

    Carrasco earned his spot as the victor of a spring training position battle between him, Tomlin, Aaron Harrang, Tyler Cloyd and Bauer. Tomlin proved to be Carrasco's main competition, but the 27-year-old outlasted Tomlin, despite two poor performances in his most recent outings.

    Carrasco's always done a decent job of limiting his walks—he has a career average of 3.1 BB/9—but that comes with the caveat of some ghastly H/9 figures: 10.6 H/9. The Indians will need him to have one of the best seasons of his career in order to help make up for the 340.2 innings of quality work logged by Jimenez and Kazmir last season.

    Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister will occupy the team's one, two and three spots in the rotation, making for a solid top of the rotation. The trio combined for a 3.66 ERA over 474.2 innings pitched. Improvements in ERA can be expected of Kluber and possibly Masterson given their advanced pitching metrics from 2013.

    Both Kluber and Masterson logged xFIP and SIERA values that placed them right around the "great" or "elite" ranges determined by FanGraphs.

    If the rotation stays healthy, the group should keep the team in enough games for it to stay competitive in the AL Central.

Bullpen Preview

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Projected Bullpen

    • Closer: John Axford
    • Setup: Cody Allen
    • Setup: Bryan Shaw
    • Middle Relief: Blake Wood
    • Middle Relief: Vinnie Pestano
    • Middle Relief: Scott Atchison
    • Left-Handed Specialist: Marc Rzepczynski
    • Left-Handed Specialist: Josh Outman

     

    The Indians experienced a bit of turnover from the 2013 bullpen. With mainstays like Chris Perez and Joe Smith having moved on to other teams, the doors opened up for the likes of Blake Wood, Scott Atchison, Josh Outman and John Axford to join the pen in 2014.

    The Indians bullpen was very mediocre in 2013, logging AL rankings of eighth, sixth, 11th, sixth and 13th in ERA, AVGa, OBPa, SLGa and save percentage, respectively. This year's group, though, will look to improve upon those standings, and it all hinges on the performances of its newest members.

    After disappointing showings in back-to-back seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012 and 2013, a late-season trade to the St. Louis Cardinals helped rejuvenate Axford's career and netted him a one-year, $4.5 million contract with the Indians for the 2014 season. Axford seemed to experience a drastic turnaround with the Cardinals at the end of the 2013 season (we'll discuss this more in depth during a later slide), but the team will need that trend to continue through 2014 it it's going to experience improvements in the bullpen.

    Blake Wood, whom we discussed earlier, has shown an ability to be an effective reliever at the big league level, most recently in the 2011 season as a member of the Royals bullpen. Wood has been flat-out dealing this spring; his mid-90s heater looks to be in midseason form as we head toward the season's opening series.

    The final two pitchers who will help decide the fate of the team's bullpen this season are Scott Atchison and Josh Outman.

    Outman was acquired from the Colorado Rockies this offseason in exchange for center fielder Drew Stubbs, so his inclusion on the roster is no surprise. Last season, he was a serviceable member of the Rockies bullpen, logging a 4.33 ERA over 61 appearances. Given his impressive splits against left-handed pitching, Outman will likely fill a left-handed specialist role in 2013, but the move out of hitter-friendly Coors Field should provide a major boost to his 2014 stock.

    Atchison making this team was likely the result of uncertainties surrounding the final spot in the the starting rotation, as well as an attempt on the team's part to limit the early-season innings pitched of some of its younger starters (e.g. Salazar and Carrasco).

    Whether he sticks all year or not, Atchison could be valuable for the Indians early on in 2014. The 37-year-old boasts a 2.89 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP over the past two seasons, and although his most recent showing resulted in a 4.37 ERA with the New York Mets in 2013, he's able to eat innings and owns a career ERA+ of 117, signifying that he is capable of providing solid contributions out of the bullpen.

     

    *Bullpen composition courtesy of Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Prospects to Watch

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Francisco Lindor

    Francisco Lindor is easily the most exciting prospect in the Indians farm system. The 20-year-old has blazed a trail through four separate minor league levels, spending no more than a full season at any single one.

    Last season, Lindor put up a solid stat line over two minor league levels—High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron—including a .303/.380/.407 slash line, two home runs, seven triples, 22 doubles, 34 RBI, 65 runs scored and 25 stolen bases.

    He got a look this spring and put up some solid numbers in the process. Over 11 games played, the young shortstop put up a .316/.350/.579 slash line with one home run, two doubles, five RBI, six runs scored and a 3:1 K/BB ratio.

    Though he's clearly the future of the organization, it's unclear as to when in 2014 Lindor will make his long-awaited big league debut. His position is blocked by Asdrubal Cabrera, who will likely leave Cleveland at the end of the 2014 season.

    Even so, given the trade rumors that swirled around Cabrera over the last two seasons, it wouldn't be a surprise if Lindor broke in sometime near the midway point of this season.

    If Cabrera is still on the roster, then Lindor will serve in some sort of backup capacity. However, if the team feels he is ready to serve in an everyday role, then it could look to deal Cabrera and bring back a much-needed bullpen or rotational arm.

     

    Trevor Bauer

    If Lindor is the most exciting prospect in the team's system, then Bauer is the most divisive. Despite disappointing showings at the big league level in each of the last two seasons, the 23-year-old was given an opportunity to win a spot at the back end of the team's starting rotation.

    Unfortunately, he managed just seven innings pitched over four appearances, allowing a massive 10.29 ERA, a 2.43 WHIP and averages of 10.3 K/9, 6.4 BB/9, 1.60 K/BB and 15.4 H/9.

    Oomph.

    Bauer has struggled mightily since being drafted third overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks back in 2011. However, should he figure things out this season, he could have a huge impact on the team as a replacement for Salazar should the Indians seek to cap his innings or for Carrasco should he flop as the team's fifth starter.

    Bauer's running out of chances, so look for a decent season out of the former UCLA Bruin.

     

    Jose Ramirez

    Although he participated in just two games this spring, Ramirez is a prospect to watch for the 2014 season. The 21-year-old middle infielder made his big league debut in 2013 and experienced some great success early on. Over 12 at-bats with the Indians, he slashed .333/.429/.500 with one triple, five runs scored and a 2:2 K/BB ratio. 

    Ramirez has played just three seasons as a professional, but he's climbed through the system quickly, posting a .307/.354/.404 slash line in 231 games over four minor league levels. Prior to his big league call-up last season, Ramirez spent the entire season with Double-A Akron. But he'll start this season at Triple-A Columbus, according to Newsradio WTAM's Nick Camino.

    Though the team will employ two backup middle infielders through the season's early stages, a return to the big league level late in 2014 seems like a strong possibility.

     

    Jesus Aguilar

    Like Ramirez, Jesus Aguilar will begin the 2014 season with the club's Triple-A affiliate in Columbus.

    Last year, Aguilar put up a second consecutive positive showing at Double-A. Over 130 games played, the 23-year-old slashed .275/.349/.427 with 16 home runs, 28 doubles, 105 RBI, 66 RBI and a 107:55 K/BB ratio.

    He got a look this season as a potential bench bat for the Opening Day roster but failed to impress after logging a .000/.286/.000 slash line with one run scored and a 7:6 K/BB ratio over 21 plate appearances.

    Aguilar is a big, physical kid with the potential for 20-plus home run seasons at the big league level, and although he failed to show it in his 15 at-bats this spring, he could be a valuable source of power during the 2014 stretch run.

Breakout Candidates

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Lonnie Chisenhall

    Though the team has named Carlos Santana its starting third baseman for the first version of the 25-man roster, I'm not ready to cast off Lonnie Chisenhall as a complete bust. In fact, 2014 may very well be the year that he puts it all together and actualizes some of the lofty potential he was prescribed after the 2008 MLB draft.

    Last year, Chisenhall slashed just .225/.270/.398. Despite showing improvement in both his line-drive and strikeout rates, he was unable to cash in with even a semblance of a solid season.

    Despite all that, Chisenhall's spring training performance earned him a spot on the 25-man roster to start the regular season. With just three games left to play before the team breaks camp, he boasts a strong stat line, including a .321/.397/.571 slash line with three home runs, two triples, one double, nine RBI, 10 runs scored and a 13:6 K/BB ratio.

    If Chisenhall ever needed any additional motivation to get his game in order, Santana becoming the starting third baseman should prove to be just that. Once Giambi and Bourn get healthy, there are no guarantees as to who stays on the roster and who goes.

    So even though Chisenhall will likely receive the bulk of the team's at-bats at the DH position—as well as some at third base—he's essentially fighting for his job early in the regular season. If his spring numbers are any indication, the 25-year-old seems up to the task and primed to reclaim his job as the team's starting third baseman.

Top Keys to Success

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Carlos Carrasco Must Step Up in the Starting Rotation

    Though I'm not confident in him as a potential breakout candidate, Carrasco must step up if the Indians are to compete for the AL Central title in 2014. The 27-year-old was once one of the more highly touted prospects in baseball, but he's been generally ineffective as a big league starter.

    Over 40 career starts, Carrasco owns a 10-19 record with a 5.53 ERA, a 1.57 WHIP and averages of 6.1 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.96 K/BB and 11.0 H/9.

    Though they weren't the most effective duo in baseball, Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez combined for a 3.65 ERA, a 1.32 WHIP and averages of 9.4 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 2.80 K/BB and 8.6 H/9 over 340.2 innings pitched last season. Carrasco has never approached those numbers over a full season at the big league level, but the Indians will need him to post at least somewhat similar numbers over about half as many innings pitched as in order to shore up the back end of the starting rotation.

     

    John Axford Must Build Off His Late-Season Showing in St. Louis

    The Indians' closing situation was nothing if not shaky in 2013.

    Former closer Chris Perez appeared in 54 games last season—he finished 41—but finished the year with the worst statistical performance of his big league career. Over 54 innings pitched, the 28-year-old managed a 4.33 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP with averages of 9.0 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 2.57 K/BB and 9.3 H/9 while blowing a career-high five saves en route to an 83 percent save percentage.

    Axford had similar struggles over his last two showings with the Brewers in 2012 and 2013, allowing ERAs of 4.67 and 4.45, respectively. He was dealt to St. Louis late in 2013, but his time there proved to be incredibly well spent. Over just 13 games, Axford seemed to turn things around, allowing a 1.74 ERA with a 1.36 WHIP.

    In addition to posting much-improved numbers during his tenure in St. Louis, Axford learned a vital lesson from the team's pitching coaches and coordinators. According to Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer, he learned that he had been tipping his pitches for "the last few years" and the team worked with him to eliminate his tell-all motions.

    If Axford has truly eliminated this gaping hole in his approach to pitching, then there remains a strong possibility that the 30-year-old could revert back to his pre-2012 form, when he was one of the top closers in baseball. If that's the case, he'll provide the Indians with the type of late-inning insurance they've been searching for since the latter stages of the 2012 season.

Previewing Indians' Opening Series

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Opponent: Oakland A's

    Location: Oakland, Calif.

    Dates (time): 3/31 (10:05 p.m. ET), 4/1 (10:05 p.m. ET), 4/2 (3:35 p.m. ET)

     

    Game 1 Probable Pitching Matchup: Justin Masterson (CLE) vs. Sonny Gray (OAK)

    Game 2 Probable Pitching Matchup: Corey Kluber (CLE) vs. Scott Kazmir (OAK)

    Game 3 Probable Pitching Matchup: Zach McAllister (CLE) vs. Jesse Chavez (OAK)

     

    Analysis

    This season's opening series pits two 2013 playoff teams against each other and provides some interesting storylines.

    The first game features a solid pitching matchup between ace Justin Masterson and relative newcomer Sonny Gray. Masterson has had extreme difficulties pitching in Oakland, allowing a 7.71 ERA and a 1.78 WHIP over 30.1 innings pitched at the O.co Coliseum. He's also had difficulties against the A's in general, allowing a 6.84 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP over 51.1 innings pitched.

    Gray has only made five big league starts to this point, excluding the two made in the 2013 postseason. However, those two starts last October—especially the first one, when he thoroughly dismantled the Detroit Tigers and earned a 1-0 victory over Justin Verlander—made Gray a near-household name and a player to watch for the 2014 season.

    Given Gray's emerging status as a young star in this game and Masterson's overall struggles against the A's— and especially in his games against the A's in the Coliseum—this game will go to Oakland.

    The A's can flat-out hit and feature an offense led by the likes of Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Brandon Moss and Eric Sogard. However, the pitching matchup in the second matchup favors the Indians, as Corey Kluber will likely take the mound to face off against former Indian Scott Kazmir.

    Kluber's 3.30 FIP and 3.10 xFIP suggest that he was a near-elite-level pitcher in 2013, and although the A's feature a staunch lineup, he should have enough to get by his opponent (and former teammate).

    The third game is a bit of a toss-up. Although he posted a solid second full season in 2013, Zach McAllister has struggled through spring training, allowing a 6.06 ERA and a 1.71 WHIP over 16.1 innings pitched.

    On the other side, Jesse Sanchez hasn't started in a regular-season game at the big league level since the first half of the 2012 season. The 30-year-old has been quite the surprise this spring, however, posting a 2.74 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP over 23 innings pitched.

    Spring stats can be tough to decipher, but pitchers are generally further along in their progressions than hitters are, so we'll lean toward the guy who's likely to give up less runs. A's win.

     

    Prediction: Cleveland drops the first series, A's take it 2-1

     

    Pitching matchups determined through multiple sources, including SFGate.com's Susan Slusser, MLB.com and The Plain Dealer's Paul Hoynes.

2014 Indians Season Outlook

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Projected AL Central Standings 

    Detroit Tigers: 88-74

    Cleveland Indians: 83-79

    Kansas City Royals: 82-80

    Chicago White Sox: 75-87

    Minnesota Twins: 68-94

     

    Projected AL Wild Card Standings

    Tampa Bay Rays: 86-76

    Los Angeles Angels: 85-77

    Oakland A's: 84-78

    New York Yankees: 83-79

    Cleveland Indians: 83-79

     

    Though getting to the playoffs in 2013 was an accomplishment in its own right, last season ended in relative disappointment when the Tribe lost a one-game playoff to the Tampa Bay Rays.

    This year, the Indians return a similar team with a slightly better lineup, an average starting rotation and a bullpen with a decent amount of upside. The team will need major contributions from guys like Carrasco and Axford, but it's not impossible to imagine Cleveland competing for the AL Central crown again in 2014.

    The Tigers gained Nick Castellanos and Ian Kinsler, but their shortstop situation is a mess, and the bullpen is no sure thing, as the team will rely heavily on the likes of Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke and rookies Ian Krol and Evan Reed. Even so, the Tigers starting rotation and offense should provide enough fire power to stay ahead of the Indians. 

    The Royals have been tabbed as a breakout team for the last few seasons, but I still think they're one year away given the current state of their starting rotation. The Royals bullpen and offense will function at a high level, but until the team is able to round out the back end of the rotation with high-quality starters, it will still be a tick below the Indians.

    The Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins are going through rebuilding efforts. However, with pieces like Jose Abreu, Conor Gillaspie, Dayan Viciedo, Adam Eaton, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana already in place, the White Sox rank ahead of the Twins, who are waiting for their latest crop of top-tier prospects to make their long-awaited big league debuts and join the likes of Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier and Glen Perkins.

    The determining factor for the Indians this season will be the success of their starting pitching. Unfortunately, it doesn't look as though they've done enough to keep pace with the rest of the teams vying for one of the two wild-card spots, let alone keep pace with the Tigers in their own division.