For many fans on the south shore of Lake Erie, there was a state of shock watching the Indians this offseason. Free agent signings? Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Brett Myers, and Mark Reynolds will all wear the home-team colors? And be managed by Terry Francona?
In addition, trades brought in Trevor Bauer and Drew Stubbs. Heck, even Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka signed minor league deals, hoping for a spot in the rotation. The Indians went from team-building through trades and drafting to a team that making a push by bringing in free agents.
What caused the change?
The Indians finally were able to see that they didn’t have a very talented team. They had pieces to the puzzle, and the minor league organization is not devoid of talent, but the Indians had failed to produce major league talent under both Eric Wedge and Manny Acta. It was obvious when watching the Indians that they had serious holes that could not be fixed by simply trading players near free agency for younger players. Ssimply put, they were going to have to pay for some proven talent.
With the Indians selling their regional sports channel, Sportstime Ohio, to Fox Sports Cleveland had a nice chunk of money to spend at the right time. And it was a good time for the Indians to make this shift, since teams like the Yankees and Red Sox are looking to add younger talent and shed payroll.
This put the free agent market in a good position for a team like the Indians. While they were not going to go on a Josh Hamilton spending binge, they could benefit by going after free agents without the threat of New York or Boston (or like-minded teams) driving up the price. This allowed them to lure Swisher to Cleveland for a reasonable four-year deal.
The Indians also were able to get Bourn with a probable thanks to the Twins. Because Minnesota traded Denard Span and Ben Revere, filling other teams’ center-field holes, the market for Bourn was small. The Indians were able to sign him to a fairly team-friendly deal, back-loading the contract and making Bourn a movable piece for a year or two.
It was an good time for the Indians to take the risk of signing known talents instead of appearing to hold money back to sign younger players through arbitration years and year one or two of free agency.
New skipper Terry Francona?
Francona already has been a part of the Indians, playing for them in 1988 and working as an assistant to general manager Mark Shapiro in 2001. Since then, he has added two World Series championships with the Red Sox to his resume.
It probably is not a coincidence that after the Indians got Francona, they were able to bring some good players into camp via free agency or minor league contracts. Separated from Boston’s Sept., 2011 meltdown by a year—and in light of Bobby Valentine‘s unsuccessful stint as the Boston manager—Francona seemed to have regained any lost standing in the game and has made the Indians look like a good destination for players. Reportedly, he has also earned rave reviews from returning Tribe players. So without managing a game yet, Francona is off to a good start.
Unlike the last two Indians skippers, Francona has a good mix of veteran and younger players to work with. He is going to have quite a bit of work to do, but given the Indians’ additions, they have moved into the talk of contenders for the AL Central title. Given Francona’s experience and success in Boston, the Indians finally have a proven quantity manning the controls.
Does it seem breezy to you?
It is possible that the wind patterns over Progressive Field will be changed about 81 times this year. The Indians are going to strike out. A lot. With Reynolds, Stubbs and Swisher in a lineup with Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera, the Indians probably will generate about 20 percent of their outs via the strikeout. Of course, they did so about 19 percent of the time last year.
The Indians are going to need to move players around the bases, since their power is going to be limited to Reynolds, Swisher, Caerera, and Santana. Kipnis, Stubbs, and Bourn are going to give the team some speed and ability to steal bases, so the Indians will be in a position to use that team speed, but only if players get on base and can get the ball in play.
This is a team that will have three center fielders (Stubbs, Bourn and Michael Brantley) playing somewhere in the outfield. In fact, the makeup of the team should put a real test for Francona. Swisher will get most of the time at first base, and Kipnis is slated for second base. Caberera will remain at shortstop, and Lonnie Chisenhall should be the third baseman. Not a whole lot of home run power there, particularly at the corners. But having three center fielders should help defensively to hide an average infield defense.
Reynolds will be the designated hitter and also get time at first base, moving Swisher to the outfield when the Indians want to get Santana from behind the plate and have him DH. Francona is going to have some work cut out for him.
Where is Bauer? The starting rotation is going to need a hero.
The Indians’ lone front end-caliber pitcher probably will start the season in Columbus pitching for the Indians’ Triple-A affiliate. During that time, the Indians will put out five starting pitchers who will define the stereotype for middle-of-the-rotation guys. Now, the question is, will that be an altogether bad thing?
There is one saving grace. The Indians play in the AL Central. The Indians don’t have to worry about beating the likes of the Angels, Rangers, Blue Jays, Yankees and A’s. Basically, they have to beat the 88-win Tigers. The Indians will have 72 games in the division—54 against the White Sox, Twins and Royals—so a great rotation might not be needed to get into the playoffs.
As I write this, there are three locks for the rotation: Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Brett Myers. Only Jimenez has ever shown signs of front-of-the-rotation talent, but that was in the National League. Masterson had a good year in 2011, but in 2012 his walk rate jumped again, making 2011 look like an aberration rather than a pitcher turning the corner.
Myers is … Myers. He is capable of closing, which may be part of the reason the Indians signed him as a backup to a possible Chris Perez trade, but as a starter he’s just an innings eater. This does not make Myers bad; he certainly is an improvement on the Carl Pavano and Derek Lowe appearances of years past.
This leaves two rotation spots for Zach McAllister, Carlos Carrasco, Matsuzaka, Kazmir, Corey Kluber and David Huff. Anybody who gets one of the last two rotation spots is not going to have much time to be less than successful. There are simply too many options available for those spots, and if four turns through the rotation does not provide any results, it looks like there will be plenty of suitors. Bauer will get his chance this year, but I think the Indians will give him some time in Triple-A to help them get a better grasp on Bauer the pitcher and Bauer the person.
I have a feeling that the Jimenez experiment is coming to an end. If the team can’t help Jimenez reduce his number of release points from five to perhaps one or two, I can see the Indians trading him to a team like the Padres, with their pitcher-friendly park.
But in the end, the Indians are going to look toward Bauer to head the rotation. The remaining pieces are going to be replaceable parts unless a younger pitcher like Carrasco can turn the corner. Francona and his staff will have a tough job. They need to balance this starting rotation to have some stability yet still make sure they give the Indians the best chance to win the AL Central—even if that means winning just 85 games.
What if this new direction doesn’t work?
The simple answer is, the Indians’ front office will go though a major change. If this approach doesn’t work, club president Shapiro, GM Chris Antonetti and Francona are going to be fired.
This is perhaps the first time this type of pressure has been placed on Shapiro and Antonetti, so it should be interesting to see how they respond. Cleveland is a town that knows about front office change, thanks to the Browns’ consistent upheaval since 1999.
Also consider that there is talk, already, of the Cleveland Cavaliers signing LeBron James in 18 months. The Indians need to be successful now, which means they may have to sacrifice some of their past beliefs and planning if they’re going to keep their share of the sports entertainment market in Cleveland.
Face it, winning gives people a reason to spend money on your team as well as get businesses to send money your way. The Indians’ past success happened when the Cavs and Browns were not so good or not playing at all. To capture part of the market, not just be successful for a year or two, the Indians need to win.
The area is tired of talk about how the Tribe is doing things right. Doing things right has not translated into success or even the availability of major league talent. The last time the Indians’ front office was in this type of situation was at least 20 years ago.
Given the situation, the hiring of Francona make sense. He’ll be able to handle the pressure, since it surely can’t compare to what he had to deal with in Boston. If a player or players are needed for a playoff run, the Indians have a history making small deals for good dividends.
They turned Ben Broussard into Shin-Soo Choo, whom they used to help them get Bauer and Stubbs. Eduardo Perez got them Cabrera who, given their shortstop depth in the minors, could turn into another key addition in a deadline deal. The Indians flipped Casey Blake for Santana, and Austin Kearns got them McAllister.
The front office problem is that they didn’t get much for the likes of CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee. The Jimenez trade is just another example of a “blockbuster” trade that didn’t work out for the Tribe’s front office.
But what the next two seasons come down to is, if the front office wants to keep their jobs in Cleveland, Francona is going to have to whip this team into the playoffs. If not, the luster will be gone and they’ll get walking papers.