After a busy offseason, starting pitching still remains key for the Tribe.
By PAT McMANAMONFS Ohio
Indians had one of their busiest offseasons in recent memory.
But are they better?
The players think so.
The manager thinks so.
The front office thinks so.
Are they better enough to overcome Detroit, which welcomes Victor Martinez back and adds Torii Hunter to a team that won 88 games and reached the World Series?
Not on paper, by any stretch of the imagination.
But with spring training less than a week away, are they better enough to challenge for a wild card?
Part of the beauty of baseball, though, is that every team has the right to be optimistic in the spring. The Indians have some justification for that feeling because of their offseason, when they traded Shin-Soo Choo for bullpen depth and a young starting pitcher with great potential. They added a big bat at first base, albeit with a ton of strikeouts. They added a manger with World Series rings and experience who wants to be in Cleveland. They have a left fielder, a position that the past couple years seemed to drag guys down like they were in quicksand.
And they added those parts while maintaining their core, which includes relievers Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano, second baseman Jason Kipnis, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, outfielder Michael Brantley and catcher Carlos Santana.
A team that seemed on the verge of a complete rebuild somehow found a way to retool without tearing down.
Among the moves:
* At first base, the Indians essentially swapped a good defense/no-hit first baseman in Casey Kotchman for Mark Reynolds. He’s averaged 32.8 home runs the past five seasons — but has also averaged 198.6 strikeouts and led the league in four of those seasons. He’s a right-handed bat, which was needed, and he has power, which also was needed. But he’s literally hit or miss.
* At third base Lonnie Chisenhall gets the chance to keep the job. Somehow, this move seems overdue for the former first-round draft pick.
* In the outfield Drew Stubbs will play left or center. Stubbs is coming off a tough season when he hit .213 in Cincinnati, but he has had more than 500 plate appearances the last three years, and his 100 steals in those seasons provide something the Indians have lacked: Speed on the bases.
* Nick Swisher was the signature offseason move, the one that put the stamp of approval on all the others. He takes over for Choo in right. He’s a switch hitter who’s hit at least 20 home runs in each of the last eight seasons. He’s a guy who never gets hurt. And his enthusiasm will bring a different attitude to a pretty staid group.
* Brett Myers returns to the starting rotation after pitching in relief last season in Houston and Chicago. The good: He can pitch 200 innings. The bad: He hasn’t won more than 14 games in any season. He’s also the third starter.
* Trevor Bauer is a prime prospect, but the Diamondbacks gave him up, which is odd for a guy considered such a prime prospect. No matter, in trading Choo the Indians added a potential standout starting pitcher, two solid bullpen guys and Stubbs.
* Francona might be the most important hire of all. He’s a guy who has credibility and World Series winning experience.
All that matters.
But the Indians still have one large lingering question, and that is what let them down last season. In the offseason team president Mark Shapiro said the 2012 collapse began when the starting pitching fell apart, and the entire team followed. Cleveland finished with a 5.25 ERA from the starters, 28th in the league.
The Indians have a manager they believe can, and will, do something to stop 11-game losing streaks, but Francona can’t concoct starters where they don’t exist.
The Indians top three are Justin Masterson, the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez and Myers — who combined were 23-40 a year ago. Fourth and fifth starters have to come from a group that includes Zach McAllister or Carlos Carrasco (coming off Tommy John surgery) or maybe even Bauer. Others could step forward, but that’s the key: Someone has to step forward. The bullpen is deep and good enough to cover for some starting problems, but not all.
Are the Indians improved?
Only if they find — or refine — some starting pitching.