Cactus League countdown: Cleveland Indians

As hard as it might be for sentimental Cleveland Indians fans to move on from the era of Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, there are two things that seem to be getting the fan base fired up for the next generation: The pair of World Series rings owned by new manager Terry Francona.

The once-beloved Red Sox manager returns to the dugout with the Indians one season removed from his tumultuous exit from Boston. He brings with him a strong track record of success, including the two championships and five playoff appearances in eight seasons with the Red Sox.

Francona, who replaced Manny Acta in Cleveland, has garnered a reputation in recent years as the definitive players’ manager — that is, a manager players respect and enjoy playing for due to his somewhat hands-off approach and loyalty to players. The Red Sox decided not to pick up Francona’s contract option following the 2011 season due to the team’s late-season meltdown and a perception of too much freedom in the clubhouse.

The decision to let Francona go was viewed by many as the Red Sox casting off one of baseball’s great managers. If that’s the case, the Red Sox’s loss is the Indians’ gain. And if Red Sox players’ reactions to Francona’s departure are any indication, Indians players will enjoy their next skipper.

Some of those players will be just as new to Cleveland as Francona. The Indians made a slew of offseason moves, including a couple blockbusters to reshape the lineup. Former Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher highlights the group of fresh faces, having signed a four-year deal with the club.

Swisher brings power — he tallied 93 RBI and 24 home runs in 2012 — and personality to the Indians’ lineup as well as key veteran leadership to what is still a young core. He won’t be the only new outfielder in camp this spring, as Drew Stubbs takes over center field after coming over from Cincinnati in a deal for Shin-Soo Choo. Stubbs is a solid defensive piece with good speed on the basepaths and power potential, but he was plagued by strikeouts and prolonged slumps in Cincinnati, batting .213 last year while striking out 166 times.

Strikeouts are another calling card of the Indians’ new first baseman, former Diamondbacks slugger Mark Reynolds. Reynolds concluded his two-year stay in Baltimore with the lowest RBI (69) and home run (23) totals since his rookie season in 2007. Reynolds also had his fewest at-bats since ’07, and the Indians are hoping that with a regular gig, he can bring his numbers back up while adding some much-needed pop and right-handedness to the lineup.

General manager Chris Antonetti also addressed his team’s starting pitching depth by adding veteran Brett Myers in free agency and landing top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer from Arizona. Bauer only has four major league appearances, but he could end up in the rotation on Opening Day if he shows enough development and maturity — something he seemed to lack in Arizona — in camp. In the same trade, the Indians also picked up serviceable bullpen arms in Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw.

With any roster shakeup always comes the question of whether the new mix will work. Given the Indians’ 94 losses last season, it might be suggested they had little to lose. Improvement, rather than contending with the Tigers in the AL Central, is the more realistic goal for the short term. That improvement could be measured by the progress of the team’s young talents like outfielder Michael Brantley, second baseman Jason Kipnis and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall.

There is no question, however, that with Francona, Swisher, and Bauer on the scene, Goodyear Ballpark will be full of personality this spring.

Who’s new:
P Albers, trade (D-backs); IF Mike Aviles, trade (Blue Jays); P Bauer, trade (D-backs); 1B/3B/C Yan Gomes, trade (Blue Jays); P Shaw, trade (D-backs); OF Stubbs, trade (Reds); P Myers, 1B Reynolds, OF Swisher, free agents; P Matt Capps, OF Matt Carson, OF Ben Francisco, OF Jeremy Hermida, P Scott Kazmir, P Joe Martinez, OF Ryan Raburn, minor-league free agents.

Who’s gone: OF/1B Lars Anderson (White Sox), OF Choo (Reds), OF Aaron Cunningham (Rangers), 3B Jason Donald (Reds), OF Shelley Duncan (Rays), SP Jeanmar Gomez (Pirates), DH Hafner (Yankees), 3B Jack Hannahan (Reds), P Roberto Hernandez (Rays), OF Brent Lillibridge (Cubs), P Esmil Rogers (Blue Jays), P Tony Sipp (D-backs), P Dan Wheeler (Royals); 1B Casey Kotchman, P Rafael Perez, OF Sizemore, free agents.
 
Battle grounds: Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez own the only two guaranteed starting rotation spot, and veteran Myers appears penciled in behind them, so the two final spots will be up for grabs among young hurlers Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber, David Huff and retread Scott Kazmir. Carrasco is coming back from elbow surgery. Kluber had offseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, so he might be behind in the competition. … There’s no clear favorite at designated hitter. Rookie Chris McGuiness will get an audition, and utility whiz Mike Aviles is another option. … Non-roster signees Ryan Rayburn, Ben Francisco and Jeremy Hermida will try to earn a spot on the bench, and the bullpen roles beyond Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano need to be determined.
 
Health watch: Carlos Carrasco is expected back for spring training after Tommy John surgery in Sept. 2011. He should be a favorite for one of two vacant rotation spots but could be on an innings limit in 2013. … Starting pitcher Corey Kluber had offseason knee surgery and should be ready for at least part of spring training. … Reliever Blake Wood had Tommy John surgery last May and is expected back by midseason at the earliest.
 
Sneak preview: Indians camp might be light on prospects this season after a number of free-agent signings, but first baseman Chris McGuiness is one to keep an eye on. The Indians snagged the 24-year-old lefty in December’s Rule 5 Draft, less than a month after he was named MVP of the Arizona Fall League. He led the AFL with 27 RBI in 25 games after hitting 23 home runs and tallying 77 RBI in Double-A last season. He’s got an outside shot at landing a big league job as a DH.  
 
Spring training info:
Goodyear Ballpark, 1933 S. Ballpark Way, Goodyear. First workouts Feb. 12 (pitchers and catchers), Feb. 15 (full squad). First game: Feb. 22. Tickets: indians.com.