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Indians begin season relatively healthy

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The Cleveland Indians escaped spring training without any major injuries, although they were not able to avoid a few minor ones that will cause them to play their first few games of the regular season without two key players -- OF Michael Bourn and DH Jason Giambi.

Bourn (hamstring) and Giambi (fractured rib) will both start the season on the disabled list, but both are expected to be activated within the first week of the season.

One of the Indians' top priorities in spring training was to select the rotation replacements for RHP Ubaldo Jimenez and LHP Scott Kazmir, both of whom left as free agents after the 2013 season. Filling those two vacancies in the rotation will be RHP Danny Salazar and RHP Carlos Carrasco. They will join the top three of the rotation which, in order, is RHP Justin Masterson, RHP Corey Kluber and RHP Zach McAllister.

The Indians also had to do a mini-overhaul in their bullpen. Gone from last year's bullpen are closer RHP Chris Perez, RHP Joe Smith, RHP Matt Albers and LHP Rich Hill. The newcomers are new closer RHP John Axford, plus RHP Scott Atchison, LHP Josh Outman and RHP Blake Wood.

The only position player drama was at third base, where former C Carlos Santana won the third base position from 3B Lonnie Chisenhall. Santana, who originally signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a third baseman, made the switch after losing the catcher's job to C Yan Gomes during the 2013 season. The switch of Santana to third base means the Indians' list just one pure catcher on their opening day roster. That would be Gomes. Santana will serve as the backup catcher.

The Indians added one significant position-player free agent in OF David Murphy, who hopes to bounce back from a disappointing 2013 with Texas, although the early returns were not encouraging as Murphy hit just .184 in his first 16 spring training games. The left-handed hitting Murphy and the right-handed hitting Ryan Raburn are expected to share right field in sort of an unofficial platoon arrangement.

The biggest question mark coming out of spring training is whether the revamped pitching staff can pick up in 2014 where the 2013 staff left off.

Indians pitchers last season had a 3.13 ERA after the all-star break, the second lowest in the American League and the fourth lowest in the majors. Gone from that staff are six pitchers, and of the five pitchers in the opening day rotation this season only one, Masterson, has pitched a full season in a major league rotation.

Two other subplots to keep an eye on as the season begins is the situation with Masterson and SS Asdrubal Cabrera. Both can become free agents after this season. The Indians' history is that they tend to trade players who are in the last year of their contracts, although it seems unlikely they would trade Masterson or Cabrera as long as they remain in contention for a berth in the postseason.

Masterson and the team engaged in some negotiations on a contract extension during spring training. But no agreement was reached and the two sides decided to table any further negotiations until the end of the season.

Cabrera is in a slightly different situation since the Indians have top prospect SS Francisco Lindor, waiting in the wings to take over at shortstop next year. So it seems a virtual certainty that Cabrera, if he is not traded before then, will leave as a free agent after the 2014 season.

How much, if any, their contract situations affect Masterson and Cabrera remains to be seen. But for the Indians to reach the postseason for the second consecutive season they will need big contributions from both their free agents-to be.

NOTES, QUOTES

--DH Jason Giambi, who suffered a fractured rib when hit by a pitch on March 7, will start the season on the disabled list. However, the placement of Giambi on the DL will be back dated far enough to allow him to be activated on April 5. Assuming that is the case, Giambi would only miss the Indians' first four regular-season games.

--OF Michael Bourn, who strained his hamstring in the Indians' last regular-season game last year and had surgery on the hamstring after the season, strained the hamstring again in spring training. Bourn suffered the injury on March 16. He will start the season on the disabled list, but he will be eligible to be activated on April 5. Thus Bourn will only miss the Indians' first four regular-season games.

--RHP Carlos Carrasco beat out three other candidates to win the fifth spot in the Indians' opening day starting rotation. Carrasco was selected for that spot over RHP Josh Tomlin, RHP Trevor Bauer and RHP Aaron Harang. The final decision came down to a choice between Carrasco and Tomlin. "It was a really tough decision," general manager Chris Antonetti said. "But this was based not just on what's best for us on opening day, but what gives us the best pitching depth during the season." Tomlin will start the season at Triple-A Columbus.

--3B Carlos Santana has made a successful position switch from catcher to third base. At the end of last season, Santana told Indians officials that he wouldd like to try to move to third base after losing the starting catching job to C Yan Gomes. Santana, who originally came up with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a third baseman, played well enough in spring training at that position to convince manager Terry Francona that he could be the club's everyday third baseman. "What Carlos can do is a skill set no other player in our league has," Francona said. "He's a switch-hitting cleanup hitter who plays third base and is also our backup catcher."

--INF Elliot Johnson came to spring training as a non-roster player on a minor league contract, but by the end of camp Johnson had won a spot on the Indians' opening day roster. Johnson's versatility -- he has played every position on the field but pitcher and catcher during his career -- made him an instant hit with manager Terry Francona, who craves rosters with maximum flexibility. "Wherever you put him, it looks like that's his position," Francona said of Johnson.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You'd like to see everyone get hot at the same time, but it doesn't work like that." -- Manager Terry Francona, on players who will start the regular season after battling slumps at the end of spring training.

ROSTER REPORT

The Indians have not made it to the postseason in consecutive years since 1998-99. They will attempt to end that drought by reaching the postseason in 2014, a year after making it as a wild-card team in 2013. They will have two new starters in their opening day rotation, RHP Danny Salazar and RHP Carlos Carrasco. C Carlos Santana has been moved to third base, with C Yan Gomes having won the starting catcher's job last season. The new closer will be RHP John Axford, replacing RHP Chris Perez, who was released after last season. The Indians' only significant free agent position player signing was OF David Murphy, who will platoon in right field with OF Ryan Raburn.

ROTATION:

RHP Justin Masterson

RHP Corey Kluber

RHP Zach McAllister

RHP Danny Salazar

RHP Carlos Carrasco

Of this group, only Masterson has spent a full season in the rotation at the major league level, so there are some question marks, although Kluber and McAllister emerged last year as solid major league pitchers. Masterson can become a free agent at the end of the season. He and the Indians agreed to table discussions on a contract extension until after the season, so it remains to be seen if that unsettled situation could be a distraction for Masterson, a first-time All-Star last year.

Salazar and Carrasco replace RHP Ubaldo Jimenez and LHP Scott Kazmir, who were the team's two best starters last year during September when the Indians went 21-6 and won their last 10 games in a row. Salazar made 10 starts last season, and was very impressive, as in his first career appearance against Detroit, when he struck out Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera in each of the first three times he faced him. Salazar was on innings and pitch count limits last year, but there will be so such limits on him this year, according to manager Terry Francona.

Carrasco won a spring training competition for the last spot in the rotation. His mid-90s fastball is his main weapon, but his lack of consistency has plagued him in the past. Carrasco was a narrow winner over RHP Josh Tomlin for the last spot in the rotation. Tomlin will start the season at Triple-A Columbus and will be the first starter recalled when there is a need in the major league rotation.

BULLPEN:

RHP John Axford (closer)

RHP Cody Allen

RHP Scott Atchison

LHP Josh Outman

RHP Vinnie Pestano

LHP Marc Rzepczynski

RHP Bryan Shaw

RHP Blake Wood

Allen, Pestano and Shaw are the only returning relievers from the opening day bullpen last year. Axford was signed as a free agent to replace RHP Chris Perez, whose troubles on and off the field coupled with his rising salary resulted in the team releasing him. Axford lost his closing job with Milwaukee last year, so he is not a sure thing in that role with the Indians. Allen would be the Plan B closer, if needed.

Atchison, who pitched for manager Terry Francona in Boston, made the team in spring training as a non-roster player. Outman was acquired in a trade with Colorado to serve as the second lefty in the pen with Rzepczynski, who was very effective last year after being acquired in a midseason trade with St. Louis. Pestano is trying to bounce back from his disastrous 2013 season. Shaw was solid last year and Wood, who throws in the mid to high 90s, could be the X factor, having completed a long comeback from Tommy John surgery.

LINEUP:

LF Michael Brantley

1B Nick Swisher

2B Jason Kipnis

3B Carlos Santana

SS Asdrubal Cabrera

DH Ryan Raburn

RF David Murphy

C Yan Gomes

CF Nyjer Morgan

CF Michael Bourn will start the season on the disabled list, but it will be backdated and he is expected to be activated on April 5. At that time, Bourn would return to center field and the leadoff spot in the order. Brantley would likely move to the No. 5 spot in the order, and Morgan would return to the bench. The left-handed hitting Murphy and right-handed hitting Raburn will frequently platoon in right field, with Raburn seeing DH duty on days he is not in the outfield. DH Jason Giambi (fractured rib) will start the season on the DL, but, like Bourn, is expected to be activated April 5.

Santana, converting from catcher, won the third base job from 3B Lonnie Chisenhall, who will be on the opening day roster, but is a candidate to be optioned to Triple-AAA Columbus when Bourn and Giambi are activated. Morgan would appear to be the other position player in jeopardy when Bourn and Giambi are activated. Gomes is the only pure catcher on the roster, but Santana will also serve as the backup at that position.

RESERVES:

INF Mike Aviles

INF Elliot Johnson

3B Lonnie Chisenhall

Aviles and Johnson are ultra-versatile utilitymen who can play almost any position in the infield or outfield, which makes them both favorites of manager Terry Francona, who is a big believer in using his bench liberally to keep his regulars fresh. Chisenhall, who lost the third base job to 3B Carlos Santana in spring training, is a candidate to be demoted to Triple-A Columbus on April 5, when OF Michael Bourn and DH Jason Giambi are expected to be activated off the disabled list.

Giambi, when activated, can only DH, and at 43 cannot do that on an everyday basis, but Francona loves him for his leadership and clubhouse presence. The fourth reserve will be either OF Ryan Raburn or OF David Murphy, whichever of the two is not starting in right field, or at DH, on a given day.

MEDICAL WATCH:

--DH Jason Giambi (fractured rib) was hurt when hit by a pitch on March 7. He will start the season on the disabled list, but is expected to be activated on April 5.

--OF Michael Bourn suffered a mild left hamstring strain on March 16. He will begin the season on the disabled list but is expected to be activated on April 5.
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