After moving in an infield triangle from first to third to catcher, Carlos Santana will settle in at just first base in 2015. It would be easy to blame his career low .231 average on all the shifting around. I just chalk it up to a freakishly low BABIP (batting average of balls in play) of .249 because the rest of his statistics didn't take any damage. His 27 home runs led the team and his 113 walks led the Majors. The average will come back up this year and Santana will be a stud at first. Second baseman Jason Kipnis is looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2014. Fresh off putting pen to paper on a new 6 year, $52.5 million contract, Kipnis posted full season career lows across the board (with the exception of doubles). His strikeout rate of one out of every five at-bats may have had something to do with the drop. I trust the former All-Star to rebound and make the right side of the Tribe's infield one of the AL's finest. Most of my non-playoff teams have at least one "place holder" for a top prospect on every squad. Cleveland is no exception at shortstop. Jose Ramirez will get the Opening Day nod, but it is just a matter of time before we see Francisco Lindor. Rated the 4th best prospect overall by both MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus, Lindor is at 21 already considered the best defender in the Minor Leagues. He also possesses a more than adequate bat. He won't produce a ton of home runs, but look for lots of doubles and triples from the slick fielding Puerto Rican. Lonnie Chisenhall gets third base all to himself in 2015. For the first three months of 2014, you couldn't get Chisenhall out. He was hitting .393 through the middle of June. He cooled off considerably over the final months, ending at .280, prompting Indians fans to wonder if he was any more than a platoon player. He'll get his chance to prove himself again this year with only utility man Mike Aviles or a Santana switchback as cover. Yan Gomes is one of the better catchers in the American League. He hits, is good with the pitching staff, and can throw runners out. The lone Brazilian position player in the Majors, Gomes won his first Silver Slugger last year. Expect him to add to that tally this year.
Outside of AL MVP bronze medalist Michael Brantley, the outfield is a project in redemption. Brantley broke out in 2014, hitting 20 home runs, driving in 97 with a staggering .327/.385/.506 batting line in 156 games. While some believe he may come back to his mean production in 2015, I think last year was his introduction into perennial All-Starhood. While Brantley is trending up, his outfield compatriots need to try to keep their declines from steepening. The right field/designated hitter mess was clogged up even further with the trade this offseason for Brandon Moss from Oakland. Moss, David Murphy, and Nick Swisher will play musical chairs between the two roles throughout this year. It probably won't be a big to do as to who plays because at least one of them will probably be injured at any point in time. Right now, that odd man out is Swisher who is still recovering from surgery on both his knees this winter. Whoever is in right is going to provide atrocious defense, but Moss will provide the most pop of the three. He hit 76 home runs in the his past three seasons in the Bay Area. In center, Michael Bourn needs to find out who stole his speed. It isn't completely gone as shown by his ten triples but he only stole an unconscionable 10 bags last year. He stole 22 in just 53 games with Atlanta three years ago. He could just be hitting an age wall or the hamstring injury that sidelined him for portions of 2014 was worse than he led on. Bourn should be looking over his shoulder though as James Ramsey, acquired at the trade deadline last year for Justin Masterson, is ready to step up if need be.
The starting pitching is led by the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, Corey Kluber. I don't expect Kluber to replicate his masterful 2014 (18-9, 2.44 ERA, 269 K in 235 2/3 innings) but I don't expect him to fall off the proverbial cliff either. Terry Francona is going to hope the pitchers behind Kluber can follow his example this year. Analysts are eagerly anticipating that Kluber leap from Trevor Bauer. The 3rd overall pick in the 2011 Draft, Bauer fell out of favor with his drafted club, Arizona, and made his way to Cleveland in the three team Shin Soo-Choo trade. Bauer got his first chance as a full time Major League rotation guy last year, with mixed results. The stuff is there but unfortunately the high walk totals are there too. If he can trim those back by even 25 or so percent, Bauer's 2015 may be one to keep an eye on. Carlos Carrasco's early season woes last year saw him demoted to the bullpen. The kick in the ass definitely worked as when he returned to the starting five in August, he immediately became Cleveland's second best pitcher behind Kluber. Carrasco needs to avoid a similar spring swoon this season. The last two rotation spots are held down, for now, by Zach McAllister and TJ House. McAllister has more to worry about than House. McAllister had a dismal 5.23 ERA and 1.44 WHIP last year. Only awful springs from Danny Salazar (optioned to Minor League camp) and Anthony Swarzak (long man out of the bullpen) have saved his job.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins had the No-Name Defense. I would like to have the moniker for the 2015 Indians' bullpen to be the No-Name Bullpen. Now I am not predicting a perfect season from the Indians, just pointing out that they are really good, very much unknown entity. Cody Allen will begin his first season as full time Cleveland closer in 2015. He was the primary set up man to both Chris Perez (2013) and John Axford (2014) but ended up stealing the show from both of them. He'll be one of the top closers in the American League this year. While Allen is more of a blow it by you guy (91 K in 69 innings), his middle relief is more of a smoke and mirrors crew. From the right side, Bryan Shaw and Scott Atchison will give up some hits. But they also get a lot of ground balls, Atchison more than Shaw, to get them out of self induced trouble. From the left side, Mark Rzepczysnki held opposing lefties to just a .180 average in 2014. He should be used more as a situational lefty than a full inning guy like Tito Francona used him as last year. Right handers battered him, slugging .507 and drawing 12 walks.
Like Kansas City and Chicago before on 30 Teams In Under 30 Days, the Indians fall short because of their competition not their composition. Terry Francona has done very well developing a young crop of players that previous manager Manny Acta was ready to move on from. The Tigers time is now but it won't be for much longer. The Indians are young, hungry, and talented. This division could be theirs as early as next year. For now, over.500 and just missing out on the Wild Card again is their fate.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #17 (UP 2)
PREDICTED RECORD: 84-78
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Carlos Santana (first baseman), Michael Brantley (outfielder), Corey Kluber (starting pitcher), Cody Allen (relief pitcher)
Trevor Utley is contemplating having the Indians be his favorite American League team this year so that next year he doesn't look as much like a bandwagon jumper.
Image Credit: Indians logo (sportslogos.net)