This series will evaluate one team per day, starting on January 23, 2013 and ending on February 22, 2013 (the first game of spring training). It is based on last season's performance, offseason changes since and the author's outlook for the team in 2013. Please keep in mind that rosters can, and will, change before Opening Day. We started in the AL East, previewed its NL counterpart, and now go back to the AL and tackle the Central in alphabetical order. Next up, the Cleveland Indians.
2012 finish: 68-94 (4th place, AL Central)
LHP Scott Kazmir, RHP Matt Albers, RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Bryan Shaw, RHP Brett Myers, RHP Matt Capps, OF Ben Francisco, OF Nick Swisher, OF Drew Stubbs, 1B Mark Reynolds, 2B Ryan Raburn, SS Mike Aviles, C/3B Yan Gomes
LHP Tony Sipp, RHP Esmil Rogers, RHP Kevin Slowey, RHP Roberto Hernandez, OF Shin-Soo Choo, OF Grady Sizemore, OF Vinny Rottino, OF Brent Lillibridge, 1B Lars Anderson, 1B Casey Kotchman, 3B Jason Donald, 3B Jack Hannahan, DH Travis Hafner
Why they will improve this year
The Indians made a couple of smart trades this winter to acquire some young talent in the place of some of their better players from years past. Out with the old, in with the new, they always say. And even though Choo, Sizemore and Hafner have all been faces of the franchise in recent seasons, letting them walk or making a trade brought in some great potential.
I love the acquisition of Bauer from the Diamondbacks, and I still see upside in Stubbs, despite the disappointing batting average in Cincinnati. Swisher is another solid pickup on the free-agent market, and they sacrifice a ton of strikeouts for the power of Reynolds at first base.
Cleveland deepened its bullpen and bench, and now has a quality core of players with a supporting cast that can make an impact. With last year's mess behind them, the Indians can set their lineup with Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis.
Adding in Swisher, Stubbs and Reynolds gives them a more well-rounded lineup. Likely the most important addition was new skipper Terry Francona, who has the chops to really pull this team together and will them to a wild-card spot. It may not happen in season one, but he's a great fit for this team.
Why they will regress this year
With all the solid moves made to improve the lineup and bullpen over the winter, it seems as if the Indians ignored a pretty important component: the rotation. I really like Justin Masterson at the top, but he needs to put together a consistent season for me to truly consider him an ace. And while I don't necessarily expect Ubaldo Jimenez to bounce back, I wouldn't be all that surprised.
After those two, we are looking at Brett Myers, Zach McAllister and Bauer rounding out the staff. It's not exactly the most terrifying rotation for opposing hitters. Cleveland was dead last in the American League in overall ERA last season and didn't do much to improve it.
If anything, the Indians might creep up the standings with better seasons out of the top of the rotation, a strong campaign from Bauer and an improved bullpen performance. Even with Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and the rest of the "Bullpen Mafia" on hand, there is quite a way to go to improve upon their second-to-last league ranking in relief ERA.
I truly think Francona will have a very positive overall effect on this team. But as potentially helpful as bats like Reynolds and Swisher are to the lineup, they aren't elite. And Stubbs has all the tools, but I can't be convinced that he will be a regular contributor until he puts a full season of average, speed and power together as he was always supposed to with the Reds.
The outlook for 2013
I can't reasonably expect the Indians to regress from 2012. Last year was an absolute, all-around disaster for a team many thought would be making positive strides. As previously mentioned, Francona is a huge addition to a team desperately in need of stability and leadership.
Assuming the injury bug doesn't bite terribly hard in 2013 for the core players, the Indians have a chance to eclipse the .500 mark. The starting rotation is what's really holding them back, and even with good seasons from the top two, I think it would take a legitimate No. 1 to even consider the word "playoffs" in Cleveland.
That being said, I like what they are doing. If the coaching staff can help develop Stubbs and Kipnis, they have two more young studs in the lineup to complement the plethora that already exists. Maybe the front office throws a little money at a Kyle Lohse-esque starter to hold down the fort until McAllister, Bauer and Carlos Carrasco sink or swim.
It's this writer's opinion that the Indians do improve, but not by enough to make a run at the playoffs. Francona and Swisher are going to loosen up that clubhouse and keep it bearable in Cleveland. But it may be another year or two before the Tigers feel any heat from the Indians. For now, it's looking like an 80-win peak and a third-place finish.
Potential changes before Opening Day
UPDATE: The Indians inked free agent outfielder Michael Bourn to a four-year, $48 million deal with a fifth-year vesting option. The outfield gets very crowded with Bourn taking over in center, but should push Reynolds to DH and Swisher to first base. Instant upgrade to the offense. It will increase the win total a tad, but not enough. They still need more help in the rotation.
Word around the league is that Cleveland is looking to add one more bat at a "modest price." They were originally reported to be looking at a reunion with Hafner, but he signed with the Yankees. Former basher Jim Thome could be in line to return to the Indians, but nothing has been confirmed yet.(via mlbtraderumors.com)
Signing Raburn and Francisco gives the Indians plenty of options to shuffle the role players between backup roles and at DH, depending on the matchup. But the most important issue facing the Indians before Opening Day is finding a pitcher or two who can make up the difference and give them a fighting chance.
Biggest surprise: Trevor Bauer
Biggest disappointment: Mark Reynolds
Bold prediction: Masterson returns to his 2011 form, putting up a low-3.00s ERA and winning 15 games
1. Michael Brantley, LF
2. Jason Kipnis, 2B
3. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
4. Nick Swisher, RF
5. Carlos Santana, C
6. Mark Reynolds, 1B
7. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B
8. Drew Stubbs, CF
9. Mike Aviles, DH
1. Justin Masterson, RHP
2. Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP
3. Brett Myers, RHP
4. Zach McAllister, RHP
5. Trevor Bauer, RHP
Projected finish: 79-83, 3rd place
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You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @Jamblinman.