Tribe did little in off-season and will need Francona's magic touch again
JAN 23, 2014 12:44p ET
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Cleveland Indians were by far the biggest surprise of the American League Central in 2013, perhaps the biggest surprise in baseball.
Terry Francona deservedly captured Manager of the Year honors by mixing and matching an Indians roster not overwhelmed with major talent. Francona worked his magic and the Tribe became a playoff team.
After a relatively quiet off-season, Francona will have to work even more magic to produce similar results in 2014.
2013 FINISH: 92-70, 2nd place
PROJECTED 2014 FINISH: 85-77, 3rd place
The Indians didn't do much this off-season in terms of splashy signings or trades. They released former closer Chris Perez and watched left-hander Scott Kazmir sign a two-year deal with the A's. No. 2 starter Ubaldo Jimenez remains a free agent and could be back with a club-friendly deal. David Murphy somewhat qualifies as a significant signing because he will have the job in right field if he bounces back from a dreadful year with Texas (.220, 13 homers, 45 RBIs). Our old friend Jeff Francoeur was added along with Nyjer Morgan, and they will compete for the fifth outfielder spot. John Axford was signed to take Perez's spot, and right-hander Shaun Marcum signed a minor league deal.
And that was about it.
HOW THEY GOT BETTER
Not sure they did.
Losing Kazmir and most likely Jimenez puts a little pressure on Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister to anchor the rotation. Then again, opening two spots allows the Tribe to insert Danny Salazar, who could be phenomenal, much like the Royals are hoping with Yordano Ventura.
Francona can't wait to see what Salazar can do in a full season. "The sky is the ceiling," Francona said recently. "But you don't want to make too many proclamations for a kid who has made only eight or 10 starts. But I can't wait to see him log 34 or 35 starts."
The Indians also got better by announcing that Yan Gomes will now be the No. 1 catcher. Gomes has Sal Perez-type defensive skills and has power. Carlos Santana likely moves to DH full-time or third base.
CROSSING THEIR FINGERS
The Tribe is hoping it won't have closer issues like it did with Perez down the stretch. Axford was incredible in Milwaukee in 2011 with 46 saves and a 1.95 ERA, but he lost his closer's role last season and was traded to the Cardinals. The Tribe also is hoping that Murphy has a big bounce-back season and that Marcum can put his arm issues behind him and claim the No. 5 spot in the rotation.
This might be the last year the Indians wait on Lonnie Chisenhall, who will go into spring training with the third-base job. But he hit just .225 last year with a .270 on-base percentage. If he struggles again, Francona likely will go with Santana full-time at third.
The feeling in Cleveland is that the Indians really didn't do enough to improve upon last year's team this off-season. But there's also a feeling that guys like Michael Bourn (.263, 23-of-35 stealing) and Asdrubal Cabrera (.242) will bounce back to have big years. (We must point out that Bourn went .302/.345/.472 against the Royals, so it sure didn't seem like he had a down year.) Indians fans seemed disappointed in Nick Swisher, but he actually had a solid year with a .341 on-base percentage, 22 homers and 63 RBIs.
The Indians were smart to grab Francona before last season and he squeezed every drop out of a so-so roster to make the playoffs. He'll have to keep squeezing again in 2014.
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email email@example.com.