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No. 24 Indians: Now equipped to score runs, Cleveland's rotation takes center stage

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Cleveland Indians.

2012 record: 68-94
Finish: Fourth, AL Central
2012 final payroll: $69.2 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $72 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 24
Hashtags: #swishalicious #supernatural #returnoftito #thedrummer #trevortime #kip #theU #butnoO #orP

OFFSEASON ACTION

When the promise of 80 wins in 2011 became the reality of 94 losses in 2012, when the headiness of July relevance became a five-win August, when a crappy division still wasn’t enough to keep them around, the Indians needed change. As in, something new. As in, that stuff clanging around in Larry Dolan’s pocket.

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Ubaldo Jimenez finished the 2012 season 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA. (AP)

The third winter of Chris Antonetti in the GM seat has, in fact, seen the Indians reconsider their middle management and, to some degree, a roster that presented a pitching staff and offense that were among the American League’s worst. Manager Manny Acta didn’t make it through September. Travis Hafner had his option year bought out. Grady Sizemore, who didn’t play in a single game, had his contract expire. The former Fausto Carmona made three starts, lost them all, and would be gone.

Those were just the gimmes.

The Indians hired Terry Francona, who’d once batted .311 for them over a half-season and years later served in their front office, to be their manager. Seeing as the 53-year-old Francona was unlikely to hit .311 for them again, the Indians got to work on a lineup that outscored only the Seattle Mariners and a pitching staff that outperformed no one. The result was not completely unreasonable, though substantial holes remain.

Antonetti went big by inserting himself into a three-team, nine-man trade. In the end, he was out Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Donald, Tony Sipp and some cash, and came away with Trevor Bauer, Drew Stubbs, Bryan Shaw and Matt Albers. Bauer should make the rotation out of spring, Stubbs will open in center field and Shaw and Albers could help the bullpen. He went small – but not insignificant – by trading for Mike Aviles, who will serve as designated hitter and/or super utility guy.

[Also: Hall of Fame rejection of PED-era players reveal outdated ideals]

Then the organization turned to free agency, and not in all ways small. Nick Swisher’s four-year, $56-million contract – a fifth-year vesting option is worth another $14 million – is the largest free-agent deal in franchise history. Mark Reynolds signed for $6 million and Brett Myers for $7 million, with a second-year option. Along the way, the Indians dabbled in the markets for Shane Victorino, Jason Bay and Edwin Jackson, as well.

In framing his free-agent journey, Swisher noted, “All roads led to Cleveland.” And while that didn’t describe the Indians’ offseason entirely, enough routes ended on Ontario Street to constitute change.

REALITY CHECK

We’re in that area – somewhat familiar to folks in Cleveland – where we point out all the things that would have to go right in order for the Indians to hang around in the AL Central. By "hang around" we mean "finish well behind the Detroit Tigers but not embarrassingly so." Also, close enough that Asdrubal Cabrera and Chris Perez aren’t being shopped on June 1.

The Indians haven’t posted a winning record since 2007. Then they bounded from 81 wins to 65 to 69 to 80 to 68. Like most franchises in their class, they’re especially vulnerable to poor trades, injuries, poor trades, depth limitations and, um, poor trades.

Look, the Indians have gotten better. Swisher is a consistent, reasonably productive player. Reynolds plays a mean first base and could hit 35 home runs. Stubbs has to find his offensive center sometime, doesn’t he? (Granted, we could be talking 400 strikeouts between Reynolds and Stubbs alone.)

Just two years ago, Myers was coming off a 14-win season. And no one’s ever doubted Bauer’s stuff or talent.

[Also: Arizona's Justin Upton nixes trade to Mariners]

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Nick Swisher hugs Terry Francona during his introductory news conference. (AP)

What will return the Indians to a promising course – and it’s going to take time – is for Justin Masterson to regain his mechanics and become the pitcher he looked like he was becoming two seasons ago. And for Ubaldo Jimenez to be that guy again. And for Carlos Carrasco to return healthy and effective, and for Zach McAllister to be the starter who had some real moments in ’12. That’s both the short and long terms. The rotation hasn’t been good enough since Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia were in Wahoo blue.

They also could use another breakout season from Carlos Santana, who backslid in areas last season, and for Lonnie Chisenhall to grab hold of third base, and for second baseman Jason Kipnis to keep coming.

That’s not to say it couldn’t all go right. It is to say there’s a lot of it that has to.

SAVIOR

Ubaldo Jimenez is 28, soon to be 29. He once won 19 games pitching for the Colorado Rockies, in the greatest hitters’ ballpark ever conceived. He had a 97-mph fastball. He was a stud. This we know. Two seasons later, he was among the worst starting pitchers in the game. His velocity, command and, seemingly, his confidence were shot. This we know.

The Indians become competitive on the shoulders of their starting rotation. The rotation becomes competitive on the right arm of Ubaldo Jimenez.

HAIKU

First he was Fausto
Then, Roberto. And now, well,
You can call him Ray

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