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8 Reasons to Be Optimistic for the Cleveland Indians' 2014 Season

Tyler DumaFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2014

8 Reasons to Be Optimistic for the Cleveland Indians' 2014 Season

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    Mark Duncan

    The Cleveland Indians surpassed even the most optimistic projections for the 2013 season en-route to their first playoff appearance since 2007.

    This year, the Indians will return a somewhat-similar team, with a few changes scattered across the team. Impact players like Joe Smith, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir have moved on to other teams, but the Tribe brought in a couple of solid players like David Murphy and John Axford, while also promoting players, like Danny Salazar and Yan Gomes, into full-time roles in order to help patch up the holes left by departing players.

    In short, things in Cleveland look pretty good. The offense is stout, the bullpen looks to have improved over its' 2013 form, and if the individual members of the starting rotation perform to their respective capabilities, the Indians could have a very, very good season in 2014.

    These are just a few of the reasons why fans should be optimistic for the 2014 season, and I'll detail eight over the course of this article.

    Let's get started.

     

    All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

John Axford Is Back in Form

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    Paul Sancya

    A largely overlooked signing back in December, John Axford's presence in the Indians' bullpen could produce some major dividends by the end of the 2014 season. 

    Overall, Axford's 2013 season was nothing to write home about. However, after being given a second opportunity in the form of a trade to the St. Louis Cardinals, the 30-year-old made some significant strides toward turning himself back into the standout closer he was during the two years prior.

    According to Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Axford was told by the Cardinals coaching staff that he had been tipping his pitches for quite some time. With that behind him, Axford pitched the final 13 games of the 2013 regular season like a man on a mission.

    Consider Axford's splits with the Brewers and Cardinals.

    2013 SplitsGIPKBBERAWHIPK/9BB/9K/BBH/9
    Brewers6254.254234.451.568.93.82.3510.2
    Cardinals1310.11131.751.369.62.63.679.6

    Axford kicked off his Indians debut with a solid spring training performance, allowing a 1.13 ERA over eight innings pitched. In addition to his outstanding ERA, Axford allowed just 3.4 BB/9 and 3.4 H/9 while striking out 10.1 batters per-nine innings.

    Axford looks to have kept his outstanding form from the end of the 2013 season, and if that's the case, then there's a lot of room for optimism surrounding the Indians' bullpen.

Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana Will Both Be in the Lineup Full Time

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    Mark Duncan

    Last year, the Indians spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to get both Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana into the everyday lineup. Consider what the two did last season as a percentage of the team's total output in 2013.

    2013 SplitsABH2BHRRBIRKBBAVGOBPSLG
    Gomes & Santana8342315731112120177111.277.366.464
    Team Stats546513912901717117451283562.255.327.410
    % Of Team Stats15.3%16.6%19.7%18.1%15.8%16.1%13.8%19.8%---------------

    The duo combined for just 15.3 percent of the team's total at-bats, but managed to account for a higher percentage of the Indians' hits, doubles, home runs, RBI, runs scored and walks. In addition to those outstanding numbers, Gomes and Santana managed to limit their strikeouts, accounting for just 13.8 percent of the team's strikeout totals.

    Gomes may experience a slight bit of regression given his extremely high BAbip from 2013—.342 compared to team average of .300.

    Even so, having both of these players in the lineup at the same time will prove to be a huge boon for the Indians in 2014.

Early Season Injuries Will Affor Longer Looks at Players Who Would Have Been Cut

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    Lenny Ignelzi

    It's never good to go into a season with players on the DL. However, there's a silver lining to every cloud, right?

    The Indians had two players from last year's roster go down with injuries this spring, those being Jason Giambi and Michael Bourn. Because of that, the team was able to clear early-season roster space for Nyjer Morgan, while also allowing for a continuation of the position battle between Blake Wood and Scott Atchison in the bullpen.

    Morgan signed on with the Indians back in January under a minor league deal, but was able to work his way onto the roster on the back of a spring training performance that included a .208/.333/.292 slash line with four doubles, seven RBI, 12 runs scored, three steals and an 8:8 K/BB ratio.

    It's highly unlikely that Morgan will continue on with the team beyond the duration of Bourn's injury, but he'll likely make good use of the opportunity and gain a second chance with another team this season.

    The injury to Giambi also gave the Indians a chance to carry a position battle in the bullpen, between Wood and Atchison, over into the regular season.

    The two relievers pitched well this spring, but Wood led the way with a 1.69 ERA over 10.2 innings pitched. Wood struck out a whopping 11.0 batters per-nine this spring, but his walk total—seven in 10.2 innings—will need to come down if he hopes to hold on to the remaining bullpen spot once Giambi returns. 

    Though he logged a higher ERA—2.70 in 10 innings this spring—Atchison looked to have out-pitched Wood. The 38-year-old righty averaged 9.9 K/9 compared to just 0.9 BB/9 over his 10 innings this spring, and has been an effective reliever in prior seasons.

    One of these two relievers would have been cut at the end of spring training, but both will be given an extended look due to the two injuries mentioned above.

Danny Salazar Is in the Rotation Full Time

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    Paul Sancya

    Danny Salazar was named the starter for the Indians' home opener—per MLB.com's Jordan Bastian—and there was much rejoicing!

    Salazar came out of nowhere during the 2013 season and staked his claim to the title as one of the game's most exciting young pitchers. Over 31 appearances—30 starts—between the big league and minor league levels, Salazar put up a gaudy stat line, including a 2.86 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and season averages of 12.0 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 4.97 K/BB and just 7.1 H/9.

    Salazar's overall metrics were carried by outstanding minor league numbers, but even his starts at the MLB level provide a wealth of optimism for 2014. In 10 big league starts last year, Salazar allowed a 3.12 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP while averaging 11.3 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 4.33 K/BB and 7.6 H/9.

    As expected, Salazar's numbers dipped when he arrived in Cleveland on a full-time basis—he had a one-start call up in early July—however, the regression was minimal.

    Over his first full season at the big league level, we should expect Salazar to regress slightly from the pace he set over his first 10 starts. Even so, given Salazar's penchant for throwing high-90s fastballs with a wipeout slider and devastating splitter, we can expect him to stay somewhat in line with the league's learning curve.

    Salazar's ERA should settle somewhere around 3.30 for the 2014 season, which would make him roughly a 3-WAR pitcher. In case you're wondering just how good that is, the Indians only had one other pitcher top the 3.0 WAR mark in 2013, and we'll talk about him next.

Justin Masterson Is in a Contract Season

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    Lenny Ignelzi

    It may have been better news had Justin Masterson and the Indians been able to work out a long-term deal this offseason. Even so, the 29-year-old is pitching for his first free-agent contract and will be looking to post a huge season in 2014 in order to go into the offseason as one of the top free-agent pitchers available.

    Last year Masterson had one of his best seasons to date, allowing a 3.45 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP over 193 innings pitched.

    Masterson set full-season bests in a number of categories last season, including K/9, H/9, WHIP, wins, xFIP and SIERA. In addition to that, the veteran righty has seen his GB% increase in each of the past two seasons. If that trend continues, expect less home runs, less line drives, less hits, and all-around better seasons.

    ZiPS, Steamer and Oliver projections—via Fangraphs.com—have Masterson projected to ERAs of 3.78, 3.89 and 3.47, respectively. However, given the improvements he's shown over the past two seasons, Masterson could be in line for his best season to date.

    In addition to those improvements, Masterson has the added motivation of being able to pitch his way into a big contract this offseason. It's no secret that big-time players tend to ramp things up when big money is on the line.

     

It Can't Get Much Worse for Asdrubal Cabrera...

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    Lenny Ignelzi

    Like Justin Masterson, Asdrubal Cabrera will enter the 2014 season without a new contract for the 2015 season. Unlike Masterson, however, Cabrera has a hell of a lot more to prove before he can land a big contract.

    Last season was Cabrera's worst as a pro. The 28-year-old posted full-season lows in batting average, on-base percentage, bWAR, K% and BB%. In short, Cabrera was awful.

    To be fair, Cabrera was incredibly unlucky in 2013, and suffered through a season in which he posted the worst BAbip—.283—falling 30 points short of his career average. Had Cabrera managed even a career-average BAbip in 2013, the veteran shortstop would have experienced a season much closer to his career averages.

    Last year, Cabrera accounted for approximately 55.1 percent of his plate appearances while batting in the No. 2 or No. 3 hole. This year, he'll likely drop in the order—I have him hitting sixth in my season preview. That move toward the bottom of the lineup should afford him an opportunity to see more fastballs, which lends itself to higher offensive output in 2014.

    ZiPS and Oliver projection systems—via Fangraphs.com—both have Cabrera rebounding from his disappointing 2013 season, and inserting a more potent version of his bat into this lineup could prove crucial for the Indians.

... but If It Does, Francisco Lindor Is Almost Here

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    Rob Tringali/Getty Images

    So, maybe the preseason projections for Asdrubal Cabrera prove to be too optimistic, and maybe he posts a season that looks way too much like 2013. Well, if that happens then the Indians have a shortstop prospect who, well, he's pretty good.

    Francisco Lindor is one of the best shortstop prospects in all of baseball, and although he's played just 21 games beyond High-A Carolina—21 late-season games at Double-A Akron in 2013—he could be in Cleveland by mid-season if the Indians need him.

    Lindor ranks as the No. 6 prospect on Mike Rosenbaum's top 100-prospects list—via Bleacher Report—and also as the No. 13 prospect in Baseball America's top-100 prospects list. Those rankings are well justified given Lindor's most recent performance in the 2013 season.

    Between High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron, Lindor appeared in 104 games last season, logging a .303/.380/.407 slash line with 22 doubles, seven triples, 34 RBI, 65 runs scored and 25 stolen bases.

    Beyond his ability to steal bases, and to hit the ball with startling consistency for a player of his age—Lindor doesn't turn 21 until November—Lindor is also one of the best fielding shortstops in all of baseball—including big league and minor league players.

    In short, Lindor is a stud, and he provides a few options for the Indians moving forward. The team could use Lindor as insurance, calling him up in the event that Cabrera stumbles again in 2014.

    Or, Lindor could force his way onto the roster with a solid first half at Double-A Akron. If this happens, the team could find themselves in a great position, with the ability to trade Cabrera, possibly in exchange for a back-end starter.

    Either way, 2014 should be an exciting year for this talented young player.

Michael Brantley Is Poised to Break out

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    Mark Duncan

    Over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Michael Brantley has put up the best offensive numbers to date. Now, entering his age-27 season, Brantley is in the prime of his career, and looks poised to throw up a breakout season for the Tribe in 2014.

    The young outfielder put up some monster numbers this spring, slashing .521/.571/.771 with two triples, eight doubles, 14 RBI, seven runs scored, one stolen base and a 2:5 K/BB ratio. In just 48 spring at-bats—8.6 percent of his 2013 season total—Brantley accounted for a whopping 37 total bases, which works out to about 16.8 percent of his season total from 2013.

    Brantley saw his triple-slash components drop from 2012 to 2013, but, nonetheless, was able to make improvements in some of his contact metrics. Between the two seasons, the 26-year-old saw his HR/FB%, LD% and HR% increase, lending credence to the idea that Brantley is developing more power as we head into his all-important age-27 season.

    Brantley has posted bWAR figures of 3.2 and 2.4 over the last two seasons, respectively, but a WAR figure in the 4-5 range is certainly within reach as we head into the 2014.

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