Pressing Questions: The Cleveland Indians

Although the story ran out of steam quickly in October, the 2013 Indians were a success by any measure. Cleveland improved 24 games in the standings, winning a stunning 92 matches and making it to the coin-flip party. The Indians added 78 runs to their ledger, shaved 183 on the other end, and kept Jennifer Keaton smiling all summer. Take a bow, Terry Francona. Well played, Ohio.

The dirty regression word looms overhead, but keep in mind regression is supposed to be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. In other words, here's the real question with any outlier or surprise: regression to what level?

I haven't seen a posted win total on Cleveland yet, but I suspect it will be in the mid-to-low 80s. Currently there are nine teams with more optimistic AL Pennant odds (Cleveland and Kansas City are tied for tenth); this isn't a Vegas darling by any means. Clay Davenport's first run of stats projects an 85-77 season; Joe Sheehan's January estimate calls for a 75-87 run. (Split the Davenport/Sheehan difference and that's probably where I fall in all this - before the snow melts, anyway. I could feel much differently in March.)

I know, I know, you're just in it for the fake numbers. You'll find seven Indians in the Yahoo Top 200 to start the year, and there are some interesting player angles to consider. Let's tackle a few of them, below (use Cincinnati tackling techniques, if you please - the Browns won't be fixed for another 47 years). Bang the drum slowly.

Q: Where is Carlos Santana going to play? What's the wheel play here?

Catcher defense can be a tricky thing to evaluate and it's downright maddening to quantify, but Santana's work was given a failing grade on everyone's clipboard last year (mine included). Defensive WAR hated him. Baserunners had a field day on his watch. The Indians staff had a considerably-lower ERA when Santana wasn't catching. Consider what Cleveland's two primary backstops did last year, over a similar amount of catching time:

You're welcome to distrust any of these evaluation methods, of course. Not everyone buys into defensive metrics, and catcher ERA is a controversial stat as well. My observational chops might mean nothing to you. And everything from this grid comes from a one-year sample; Santana wasn't this bad in earlier seasons, while Yan Gomes wasn't even in the majors. But what does matter is how the Indians see things - they shifted to Gomes as the primary catcher down the stretch last year, and Gomes will be given every opportunity to win that job for 2014.

Meanwhile, Santana played third base in winter ball (instantly collecting a boatload of errors) and considers himself a third baseman. The plot thickens.

I'm rooting for Gomes to stick, in part because I see some nifty profit potential here. He gave us a useful .294-45-11-38-2 line over his 293 at-bats last year, and while the average isn't supported by the secondary numbers and minor-league profile, the pop seems repeatable. This could be a downright-cheap 20 homers.

I'd also like to see the Cleveland pitchers get some help behind the plate. You name it, Santana failed in it last year (and not all of his foibles show up in numbers). Pitchers need to work with someone they have confidence in. That wasn't Santana in 2013.

Assuming Gomes is fine, Santana will find another position. Maybe he'll be the No. 2 catcher, maybe he'll just be the emergency guy. His bat is good enough to play at a corner or at DH; we know he'll be in the lineup somewhere. Would a fresher Santana give us more in the second half of the year? Would a shift to third base free Santana's mind or tax it further? All we can do is take intelligent guesses. There's no fundamental rule of psychology with this stuff. (Does this ink blot remind you of Ohio? Tell me about your childhood.)

Santana's best 2013 play coincided with his 29 games at first base (.287/.385/.489). He offered less pop as a DH (.288/.378/.441 over 47 games) and saw an average dip when catching (.249/.370/.451). Again, it's one season and a collection of modest samples. Some batters embrace the DH role, some don't. Some players relax at a secondary position, while others press. You're free to push the theme in any direction you like.

If Santana gets the third base assignment, it means less Lonnie Chisenhall in our immediate lives - and I don't know anyone who's going to complain about that.

Q: What's the story with Cleveland's young starting rotation?

The trendiest Cleveland sleepers this year are found on the pitcher's mound. Corey Kluber stepped up in his first full year while Danny Salazar was electric in a late 2013 trial. Their bandwagons might completely fill up before March.

We'll discuss Salazar first, because his nasty stuff demands it (96.2 mph fastball, plus slider). Salazar was a strikeout machine at two minor league levels last year, then gave the Indians 52 impressive innings out the door (3.12 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 65 K, 15 BB). He just turned 24 this month; fun days are ahead. The Indians might be careful with Salazar's workload for 2014, but we could see 200 strikeouts anyway. Esteemed colleague Andy Behrens slots Salazar No. 23 on his board, and the entire Yahoo staff ranks him optimistically.

Kluber's fastball isn't in the Salazar class - take it down 3 mph - but his cutter was a huge value winner in 2013. And Kluber missed plenty of bats over his 147.1 innings, striking out 8.3 per nine (against a modest 2.0 walks). If Kluber can keep the ball in the park a little more often (his 3.85 ERA was notably higher than the peripheral-estimated numbers), we could see another fantasy spike for 2014. Kluber should be cheaper than Salazar this spring, and he's on the eve of his Age-28 season. There's a lot to like here.

With Salazar and Kluber stepping forward as the shiny new toys, it's easy to forget about the team's expected Opening Day starter, Justin Masterson. The veteran righty had his strongest across-the-board year in 2013 (14-10, 3.45/1.20, 195 K), posting the best strikeout and K/BB clips of his career. The dreamy ground-ball rate is always part of the story; it's 56.4 percent for Masterson's career. He's never been dominant against left-handed batters, but he showed notable improvement in that area last year. Add it all up and Masterson is a budding star, and perhaps an overlooked fantasy commodity, into his Age-29 season.

Q: What happens in the ninth now that Chris Perez is gone?

No one was surprised when Perez was released, ironically enough, on Halloween. He had a messy 2013 season on and off the field, and the Indians had no faith in him come the stretch drive. It was time to move on.

John Axford landed in Cleveland on a one-year deal, and he'll get first crack at the ninth inning. Axford's messy 2012 form ran into last summer: too many walks and homers offsetting a zippy strikeout rate. But Axford had a late revival after a trade to St. Louis, perhaps tied to a mechanical adjustment. The Cardinals felt Axford was tipping his pitches (check this terrific article from Jason Collette), and while a 19-game sample (playoffs included) isn't definitive, we did see the vintage Axman in the fall.

The Indians have solid depth behind Axford, should anything go wrong. Cody Allen and Brian Shaw were excellent in non-closing work last year. Vinnie Pestano comes to camp with something to prove; he had six saves in June as a temporary closer, but was sent to the minors in late July. He wasn't a factor after a September callup.

Bloodbuzz Ohio: Right-hander Carlos Carrasco reportedly dropped 15 pounds over the winter. He'll get a shot at the No. 5 rotation spot, not that the Indians lack for options there. Enigmatic Trevor Bauer is one of the longshots for that gig, and it's possible the Indians could kick the tires on someone like Bronson Arroyo if the cost were cheap enough . . . David Murphy was lost in his final Texas season, but the Tribe handed him a two-year, $12 million deal - and the right-field job. Murphy will probably sit against most left-handed starters . . . Michael Bourn's first Cleveland season was an absolute flop (.263 average, 23 steals), a shocker given that he just turned 31. It's too early to write him off completely, albeit I'm not a fan of taking limited-category guys for my fake rosters. Still, after the Top 200 or so names are gone, Bourn's theoretical upside starts to look appealing . . . If you have autograph requests for Scott Kazmir, forward them to Oakland. Ubaldo Jimenez isn't expected to return, either, though he's currently unsigned . . . Francona says he might use Santana as the dedicated cleanup man if Santana isn't behind the plate; apparently Francona didn't like to connect the catching and cleanup roles last year. Santana's most common slot last year was the No. 6 position . . . Jason Kipnis is coming off an outstanding season, though the signal weakened in the second half (.261-33-4-27-9). He seems to have figured out left-handed pitching, rocking a .308/.370/.480 line against them. I'd have no problem taking Kipnis in the second round of a standard mixer . . . There's nothing exciting about Michael Brantley, but he made modest gains in 2013: four more homers, five more steals (that was all about success rate; he did it in the same amount of attempts). He's a career .277 batter and he's been in the .280s for two straight years. Not a bad late-round option if your league goes past 50 collective outfielders.

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