2014 Indians preview: Can Tribe catch Tigers in AL Central?

Cleveland won 92 games -- finishing second to Detroit -- and made the postseason, only to lose to Tampa Bay in the AL Wild-Card Game last year. Does Terry Francona's club have what it takes to improve?

Carlos Santana (left), who will see more time at third, will be a key to the Indians' success.

Gary A. Vasquez / USA TODAY Sports


2013: 92-70, second in AL Central (Lost wild-card game to Rays)
Manager: Terry Francona (second season)
Key additions: John Axford, David Murphy, Nyjer Morgan
Key losses: Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, Chris Perez, Drew Stubbs

Offense: For a lineup that didn’t have anyone hit more than 22 homers or drive in more than 84 runs, the Tribe still tied for fourth in the American League in runs scored. Leadoff hitter Michael Bourn battled injuries for most of the season and stole only 23 bases after averaging 51 the past five years. Nick Swisher led the team in homers with 22, while Jason Kipnis was the top-RBI man with 84. Right fielder Murphy, who signed as a free agent, is expected to bat seventh. If he can have a year like he did in Texas in 2012 (.304, 15 homers, 61 RBI) that would bolster the bottom of the lineup.

Rotation: The Indians have a lot of young arms, but many are unproven. Justin Masterson becomes the ace of the staff and had three complete-game shutouts last season. He has handled questions about a contract extension with aplomb during spring training and is hopeful that something can get done by Opening Day. Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber were inconsistent last year, but have been solid this spring. Danny Salazar has the most potential on the staff -- 65 K’s in 52 innings last season -- but he has been brought along slowly. Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and non-roster invitee Aaron Harang are vying for the final spot.

Bullpen: The foundation of last year’s pen is gone. With Perez wearing out his welcome in Cleveland, the Indians signed John Axford in the offseason to be the new closer. After being traded last season from the Brewers to the Cardinals, Axford fixed his delivery, where he was tipping his pitches, and posted a 1.93 ERA over his final 12 games. Right-hander Cody Allen and left-hander Marc Rzepczynski are expected to the set-up guys,

Player to watch: Carlos Santana. During Winter Ball and spring training he has been playing third base. The results have been mixed so far as he has had two errors in the first six games. Batting mostly cleanup, Santana hit .268 with 20 homers and 74 RBI last season -- those numbers should improve this year, especially if he plays just third base or designated hitter. Francona has not closed the door though on Santana returning to catcher.

Why they will win: The starting rotation ends up exceeding expectations and rounds into form. The Tribe lost veterans in Jimenez and Kazmir but are banking on the potential of Kluber and Sanchez. Bauer, who was the third overall pick by Arizona in 2011, could be a starter before the year is over. Santana becomes a solid third baseman along with hitting 25 or more home runs while Bourn and Murphy bounce back after subpar seasons.

Why they will lose: The rotation and bullpen struggle. It’s one thing to have potential but another for it to deliver. Add to it an inability to beat the Tigers. The Indians were 40-17 against the rest of the division but won only four of the 19 games in which they faced Detroit. 

Jon Paul Morosi’s outlook: The Indians were a surprise playoff team in Francona’s first season, finishing only one game behind the wealthier and more talented Tigers. Now the Tribe must try to replicate that success without help from veteran starters Jimenez and Kazmir, who combined to win 23 games last year and left as free agents. If right-handers Kluber and McAllister account for 180 innings apiece – along with an increased contribution from the electric Salazar – the Indians will challenge the Tigers again. The Cleveland lineup is among the most balanced in baseball – with switch hitters Swisher, Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera – and should improve as Swisher and Bourn become more comfortable in their second seasons with the team.

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