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Indians Hope to Keep Pace in Much Improved AL Central

When the 2015 baseball season begins in just a little over two months, it is likely that the team projected to be in the World Series representing the American League will come from the Central Division. No other division in baseball saw as many teams make major moves to improve than the AL Central, but the Cleveland Indians have to wonder if they have done enough to compete in what should be the toughest division in baseball. Let’s take some time to break down what the rest of the division has done to improve themselves this offseason.

Chicago was pitiful in 2014, finishing 73-89, good enough for fourth place in the AL Central, 17 games behind the Tigers. The club lacked pitching with the exception of CY Young candidate Chris Sale, so they went out and acquired Jeff Samardzjia from Oakland to give him some help. They shored up their bullpen by signing closer David Robertson for four years, reliever Zach Duke for three years, and acquiring lefty Dan Jennings from Miami. To improve their offense, the Sox signed outfielder Melky Cabrera, infielders Emilio Bonifacio and Adam LaRoche and catchers George Kottaras and Rob Brantly. Of the five teams in the division, the White Sox have done the most to put together a team that is likely to contend this season provided Robin Ventura can mold all of these new pieces together into a cohesive unit.

As pitiful as the White Sox were in 2014, the Minnesota Twins were worse. After a 70-92 last place finish, the Twins parted ways with long-time manager Ron Gardenhire and replaced him with Paul Molitor, who finished his career with the ball club in 1998. The Twins lacked an offense last season to compliment a core of developing pitchers, so they looked to correct that by bringing back veteran Torii Hunter, who spent his first ten big league seasons with the club from 1997-2007. To add some depth to their pitching staff, the club signed veteran right-hander Ervin Santana to a four-year deal. The Twins look to still be on the outside looking in compared to the rest of the division, but they could make some people turn their heads later in the season as their young roster matures.

The Kansas City Royals were the darlings of baseball in 2014, reaching the World Series for the first time in thirty years, and though they lost in seven games to the San Francisco Giants, it was clear that the Royals had finally turned the corner from perineal bottom-feeders to legitimate contenders. Unfortunately for the Royals, even a World Series appearance cannot change the fact that they are a small-market franchise, and they will be hurt by a few key losses in free agency. The club will lose their face in DH Billy Butler, who opted to sign with Oakland as a free agent. They’ll also lose a top-notch starting pitcher in James Shields, who remains unsigned but is not likely to return to the club for 2015. Despite those losses, the Royals were built to withstand some losses and still contend, and there is little reason to believe that they will be unable to keep pace at the top of the division again this season.

The Detroit Tigers still look to be the team to beat in the central division, though they were dealt a blow this week when 18-game winner Max Scherzer opted to sign with the Washington Nationals in lieu of returning to Motown for 2015. The loss of Scherzer may not mean that a complete collapse is imminent, but given that Justin Verlander is coming off a horrible 2014 the club does have reason for concern. Clearly Detroit’s offense is built to last with sluggers Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, and Ian Kinsler now being joined by Yoenis Cespedes, one of the hottest young hitters in the game. Cespedes came with a price though, as the club had to send starting pitcher Rick Porcello to Boston to get the young slugger. With that kind of line-up this club should have no problem scoring runs, but if their rotation struggles after losing two huge pieces games will be a lot closer than they should be. They key to Detroit remaining atop the division will likely be their bullpen, which will have to improve greatly over 2014 to make up for what they’ve lost in their starting five.

So that brings us to the Cleveland Indians. The club finished better than expected last season given their horrific start. The Tribe missed the playoffs by an eyelash and finished the season at 85-77. If the Indians had played in April the way they played in August and September, they would have won the division. Instead, the Tribe struggled early as sluggers Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana batted around .160 for the first month and a half of the season. The club wrestled with their starting rotation as well, with Justin Masterson tanking as their ace and youngsters Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco failing to make the adjustment from the minors to the majors on a full-time basis.

With the big names struggling, the Indians leaned on the rest of their young roster to carry them through the first months of the season. Catcher Yan Gomes emerged as one of the best backstops in the game, and also proved that he could deliver at the plate as well. Outfielder Michael Brantley caught fire early in the season and never looked back, delivering clutch hits seemingly on queue and winding up finishing in the top 5 for the American League MVP award. When the Indians opted to trade shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera in July, Jose Ramirez stepped in and improved the club defensively and also showed that he could be a clutch hitter as well. Santana rebounded as the season progressed, and Swisher contributed when he could though much of his season was lost to injury.

All of that however failed in comparison to the season that Corey Kluber had for the club. At the start of the 2014 campaign, the Indians had hoped that Kluber might develop into a solid number two or three starter, but few expected him to become the club’s ace by the second month of the season. By the trade deadline, there was no doubt who was in control of the Tribe’s starting rotation, and when the club cut ties with Masterson, it was clear that Kluber was the man who would lead this team for the foreseeable future.

Kluber finished the 2014 campaign with an 18-9 record and a 2.44 ERA and won the American League CY Young award. He will lead a rotation this season that will consist of Trevor Bauer, Carrasco, Salazar and veteran Gavin Floyd, whom the Indians acquired this offseason as a free agent. Floyd will bring some much needed experience to the rotation and looks to be healthy for the first time in several years.

The only other notable move the Indians have made this offseason was the signing of free agent Brandon Moss from Oakland to hopefully add a powerful right-handed bat to their line-up. Moss will likely open the season in right field, though he also plays first base and can be on option at DH as well.

The Indians have a bit of a log-jam at first with Carlos Santana, Nick Swisher and Jesus Aguilar all having spent time there last season. Likewise, the Indians have David Murphy, Swisher, Zach Walters and Trevor Holt as options in right field so someone is going to lose out given that Moss will find a spot on the opening day roster. If Moss is healthy, he could be just the bat the Tribe has been looking for to protect Swisher and Santana and give them a legitimate candidate to hit behind Michael Bourn, Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley. If Moss is the player the Tribe hopes he is, it will also give the club the option of shopping Swisher around this summer to make room for younger talents such as Aguilar and Walters to rejoin the club in August.

So at the end of the day, have the Indians done enough this offseason to compete in the much improved American League Central Division? The short answer is probably, yes. The Tribe will return nearly their entire 2014 roster, a roster that despite major injuries and absolutely horrific defensive play got them within one game of the American League Wild Card. The Indians have a rotation that should be one of the best in baseball if all of their young arms perform at the same level that they did in the last two months of the 2014 campaign and they get 8 to 10 wins from Gavin Floyd. Their offense should be much improved if Swisher comes into camp healthy and Moss can stay healthy and deliver a season with 15 to 20 homers. If Brantley and Gomes continue to improve and the club can get Jason Kipnis back to his 2013 form, there is no reason why the Tribe won’t be in the race for the division title come October. However, if the rotation struggles and Swisher and Santana have Aprils like they did last season, even the addition of Moss will not be enough to keep the Tribe on pace with the likes of the Tigers, Royals and White Sox this year.



Robert Gonzalez

Cleveland Indians Correspondent