The Cleveland Indians may have been the most surprising playoff team in 2013. After getting out to hot starts in 2011 and 2012, the Indians fell apart down the stretch. In each of those seasons, they led the AL Central into June, but finished the season under .500. But in 2013 they flipped the script.
On June 10, the Indians were 30-33, in second place and fresh off losing their eighth straight game. From that point on, the Indians went 62-37 in their final 99 games. The Indians went on a furious change in the final 10 games of the season, winning them all and clinching a playoff spot on the final day of the season.
They hosted the first AL Wild Card game, but came up short. The Indians will be looking to make another playoff appearance in 2014, but will this similar squad be able to make an encore performance.
The Indians went with an interesting mix of veteran and minor league free agents. In an attempt to bolster their weak bullpen, the Indians added low cost relievers John Axford and J.C. Ramirez. Ramirez has just 24 major league innings, but Axford is just two seasons removed from a perfect 46-for-46 save season for the Brewers. In those two years, however, Axford has really struggled. He lost the touch on his curveball, resulting in him becoming predictable. His walk-rate increased, his strikeouts dropped off and his homerun rate nearly tripled. The Indians are hoping Axford can replace Chris Perez in the ninth inning, which may be a stretch.
The Indians also added two veterans who had their worst seasons in 2013. David Murphy became expendable to the Rangers this offseason, and was not offered a contract as a free agent. The Indians picked him up despite his bad 2013. Despite having nearly 500 at-bats, Murphy hit just .220 and had an on-base percentage of jut .282. But there may be a silver lining to Murphy’s 2013. Despite having a line drive rate similar to his earlier seasons, his BABIP was just .227. This means his was likely hitting into some tough luck. If his luck comes back to him, Murphy will be a solid asset for the Indians.
Finally, they brought in Shaun Marcum. In his only year for the Mets, Marcum really stunk. He was 1-10, had an ERA of 5.29 and started just 12 games. These were all career worsts, and he also watched his hit rate rise and his strikeout rate fall. He finished the season on the DL after having season ending surgery in July. The Indians may have hopes for Marcum, but they only signed him to a minor league deal, so if he can’t make the team there will be not financial loss for the team.
The main losses for the Indians came from the pitching side. Scott Kazmir, Ubaldo Jimenez, Joe Smith and Chris Perez all entered the season with key roles. Perez ended up flairing out during the season, criticizing the fans and losing his grip on the closer role. Kazmir was a solid starter, finishing over .500 with an ERA of 4.04. Smith appeared in 70 games, had an ERA of 2.29 and was the most consistent performer out of the bullpen.
Those three were important in 2013, but Jimenez will be the biggest piece missing from this team. After getting off tho a slow start with the rest of the team, Jimenez took off. From June 10 on, when this team won 62 of 99 games, Jimenez was outstanding. In 120 innings, Jimenez struck out 131 batters, compiled a 2.40 ERA and went 9-5 in 20 starts.
The Indians have a payroll of $77 million, in the bottom third of the league, so they won’t have very many qualms about the payroll, but it certainly impacted the type of free agents they went after in the offseason.
Player to Watch
Danny Salazar made his Major League debut in July and showed his metal as a strikeout pitcher down the stretch. He fanned ten in a game against the Tigers, nine in a game against the White Sox and had to eight K games all in the last 2 months of the season.
He came up short against the Rays in the Wild Card game, but at just 23 years old, Salazar will be at the top of the Indians rotation for a long time to come.
In the first year of his new contract, Michael Bourn had two 15-day DL stints, and a hamstring injury slowed the speedster down a bit. His 23 steals and .316 OBP neared career lows and his 130 games played was his least since 2007.
If Bourn can get back to his 162 game averages – .335 OBP, 48 steals and 86 runs – he can be the sparkplug at the top of the order that the Indians were missing last year.
Player Likely to Regress
I was grasping for straws to find someone who might take a step back, and Yan Gomes was the most likely.
Yan Gomes was a pleasant surprise for the Indians last season, and this year he will get even more playing time with Carlos Santana moving from behind the plate. This is good for Gomes, but will the scouting reports catch up with the second-year catcher. In his first full season, Gomes had a BABIP of .342, which ratcheted his batting average. But his high strikeout rate, 20.8 percent, may be more telling of his skill level.
The Indians are hoping that Gomes can be the everyday catcher that they need, and they might be right.
The Cleveland Indians haven’t made the playoffs in consecutive years since their streak of 5 straight from 1995 to 1999. This team has nowhere near the offensive firepower of those teams, but what they do have is grit. Guys like Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley lead a young core supplemented by character veterans like Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi will try to carry this team in to the playoffs behind a young starting rotation. This team could take off of fall off, and that will be decided by the young players on this team. They had a weak offseason while others in their division got better. I don’t think they will return to the playoffs, but it wouldn’t be a huge shocker if they slipped in again.