Cleveland Indians

Cleveland Indians State of the Union at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario

Can Michael Brantley rub off on Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn? I sure hope so.
Can Michael Brantley rub off on Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn? I sure hope so.

You can almost smell it, can’t you.

If you close your eyes and take a deep breath, you can catch a distant whiff of baseball at Progressive Field; the hot dogs covered in Ball Park Mustard, the leather of freshly oiled baseball gloves, and the fresh cut grass of finally coiffed turf.

You can hear it too, that symphony of sound that any true baseball fan dreams of on the coldest of nights during the dead of winter.

If you tilt your head just right, you can hear a Corey Kluber fastball popping into Yan Gomes framed glove. You can catch the crack of Carlos Santana‘s bat after working a 10-pitch count before lacing a home run. There’s nothing more satisfying than hearing spikes on cement, or the tapping of a bat on home plate, or a sliding runner, or a middle infielder and basestealer hitting the bag at the same time.

It’s almost spring here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and while the North Coast has been overcome by what can only be described as the second ice age, visions of baseball sugar plums have begun to dance in our heads.

Spring training has arrived.

The players have reported to Goodyear, Arizona, and while the season of spring is still buried under an avalanche of snow, hope ‘springs’ eternal for your Cleveland Indians, and the fans that follow this team.

A season ago, the Lake Erie Warriors were coming off a season in which they made the playoffs (unless you’re Kenny Lofton) and were looking to build off their first season under the tutelage of Terry Francona. While they failed to match their 2013 win total of 92, they finished the year a more than respectable 85-77, and Francona may have been an even better manager than in their playoff run during his initial campaign along the friendly confines of Lake Erie.

So many good things happened in 2014, that it’s hard to see the playoff-less season as anything but a victory. The great Corey Kluber’s sublimely good season ended with his first Cy Young award, and Michael Brantley seemed to be his offensive doppelganger, finishing third in the MVP race.

The starting rotation behind Kluber proved to be pretty special, and Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana provided meat to a line-up that seemed really close to becoming something more than what it really turned out to be.

No, they didn’t make the playoffs, but there’s something in the back of every Cleveland fan’s mind that clicks when you think about that team. They were close. If a couple of hits had fallen the right way, if the defense had been a little better, the Indians could have made a run in the playoffs similar to the Kansas City Royals.

As Darryl Hall and John Oates would say, the 2014 Tribe was “So close, yet so far away…”

If you squint your eyes just a bit, that 2014 team didn’t really look like an 85-win team, even though they were.

They were missing parts.

They were missing experience.

They were missing something.

2014 is over, and It’s time for optimism.

It’s time to stop having to squint when talking about the Indians, and to look squarely in the face of a baseball team that could be on the precipice of something special. It’s a baseball team that should have one of the top five rotations in the entire league. It’s a team that may have added the one piece that can take the offense into that consistent day-to-day threat production that seemed to be missing last year. It’s a team that surely has one of the best coaching staffs in all of baseball, if not the best.

This is a team that can win the World Series.

Once again, it’s time for the Corner of Carnegie’s State of the Union Address. It’s time to ponder what could happen if the Indians build upon their last two seasons, and finally finds a way to maximize a potential in which the entire team finds their upside, and they take the next step.

Mr. Dolan, Mr. Antonetti, Mr. Francona, members of the Indians’ front office, field management, the players, and most especially, the fans; today at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, it’s time to take a closer look at a baseball team that has been building up to this moment over the past two-plus seasons.

Your owners, the Dolans, along with their General Manager, Chris Antonetti, have quietly and smartly built not only a contender for the A.L. Central Division, but a team that very well could represent the American League in the 2015 World Series.

Many experts are beginning to hop on the bandwagon. We all know, these experts are always looking for a trendy pick, and the Indians fit that bill in their superficial choices. They see a Cy Young winner and an MVP candidate and a very popular manager, and think, “What a sleeper.”

I say they can stick the term sleeper where the sun doesn’t shine. This is a team built to win baseball games.

Yes, there have been bumps in the road. No, this hasn’t been a mistake-free ride. Still, this team that will take the field in 43 days will represent what can happen when a front office understands how to spend money, and how to find the right people to lead the players they’ve acquired.

The Indians are now perennial winners again. I want you to really understand that phrase. The Indians are perennial winners again.

No, they haven’t matched the teams of the 90’s who were built with money spent in a land that’s been gone for a long time. It’s time to put down the 90’s comparisons once and for all, and to realize that this newly built, streamlined ball club may very well be further above the current league mean than those vaunted 90’s clubs were.

I know that saying that can be deemed heresy. I was there in the 90’s. I saw the Albert Belle and Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez home runs dancing in the mid-summer night skies. I watched the wreckless abandon of Kenny Lofton streaking across the outfield and bases, and the Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar ballet up-the-middle.

It was a magical time in Cleveland back then, but those teams never won a World Series. As amazing as those teams were, they couldn’t take that last step.

The whys aren’t important, because it’s not those 90’s teams that we’re worried about. It’s the team that will take the field in 2015 that’s the focus of this State of the Union.

And this is a team that’s built to take the next step.

This team can win a World Series.

They are led by a non-descript pitcher, who two years ago looked to be a Quad A player, who literally came out of nowhere to win the Cy Young award in 2014. Corey Kluber overcame those Triple A struggles to force his way onto the club in 2013, then managed to become the Ace in 2014. Sure, Major League baseball skipped over him for the All-Star game last year, but he used that to motivate himself for a strong finish. His dominance over the last three months cemented his status as a top-five pitcher in the game, and while many are preaching regression, I question whether-or-not he’s actually reached his potential.

They are led by the same unassuming leftfielder that I talked about last year in my State of the Union, and made his 2013 season look like little league. Michael Brantley made a statement in 2014. His home run total doubled, from 10-to-20. His RBI total improved by 24. He scored nearly 30 more runs, had nearly 50 more hits, and improved his slash line from .284/.332/.396, to .327/.385/.506. While last year, I noted that he was the smartest offensive player on the team. I’ll now add that he’s the most important offensive player on the team. He can hit anywhere in the line-up, hit for power and average, has decent speed, plays good enough defense, and never seems to break. Like the steely gazed Cy Young winner, it’s his game-under-pressure brilliance that sets the tone for the rest of the team.

There’s a former catcher, who lost his starting position behind the plate, and decided he wanted to be a third baseman in 2014. When reality set in, Francona moved Carlos Santana to first base, and he was good. Many call him underrated. Many call him under-appreciated. I call him just what he is: a top-tier offensive player. It’s funny how the opposition once said, “His core value offensively goes down at first base.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get your wizardry, but I don’t care. I’m pretty sure I can live with his .912 OPS at first base last year, and before you start attacking my side of the aisle with semantics, he has a career .887 OPS as a first baseman in his career. I think he may have just found something.

At the forefront of this team is one of the three best managers in baseball. Terry Francona understands the game of baseball better than you or I. Sure, he can be frustrating at times. He often shows loyalty that goes far beyond reason. Here’s what you need to understand though. It’s this underlying reason that teams will run through walls for him. They understand that Tito will give them a chance, stick by them, and if they fail, they equally understand that they’ve been given a fair shake. There isn’t a true baseball person in the league that wouldn’t love to have Francona as their manager.

A couple of things to remember about Francona: he’s not only trusted by the players, but he has the ear of every member of the Indians’ front office. This is a group of people that click together, are on the same page, and while I hate this word, I can think of no better to describe the Indians as an organization: synergy.

Francona’s best field general is Mickey Callaway, who has cultivated a rotation and a bullpen that contend with the tops in the league.

Who does Corey Kluber credit for his turnaround?

Mickey Callaway.

Who does Carlos Carrasco credit for his turnaround?

Mickey Callaway.

Who has overseen Trevor Bauer‘s overhaul?

Mickey Callaway.

Who has spent the winter working with Danny Salazar?

Mickey Callaway.

I can go on-and-on about the Indians’ pitching-whisperer, but Callaway’s influence on this team has been nothing short of spectacular.

What he’s done with with the bullpen is often overlooked, but he’s utilized Cody Allen as an anchor, and has really built the career of Bryan Shaw, rebuilt the careers of Mark Rzepczynski, Nick Hagadone and Scott Atchison, and has slowly incorporated youngsters such as C.C. Lee and Kyle Crocket into the fold as supplemental arms. This year, we’ll likely see Zach McAllister added to the equation, and his velocity spike from the pen in 2014 could add a special piece to a pen that likely needs a couple of guys to step up.

There’s not doubt, under the tutelage of Callaway, that someone won’t step up. Regardless, it’s key that this team finds a depth of arms to use, so that the core of the pen isn’t ready to die in September, as they were last year.

It was clear that Francona was frustrated last year. It was a team that he believed could win the World Series, even though many others didn’t see it the same way. This “group-think” built team needed certain players to at least be average. Nick Swisher was paid really good money to hit .260, with 20 homers, but was far worse than that. Michael Bourn was paid good money to hit .270, steal a bunch of bases, be a good lead-off hitter, and an outstanding defender. There aren’t any checks next to anything on that list. Then there’s Jason Kipnis, who signed a new deal, and was just not very good. Had they have been close to average, perhaps our conversation about last year would be a little bit different.

Perhaps we’d be talking about a run through the playoffs, the same way that the Royals are talking now.

But, I’m bullish on your Cleveland Indians in 2015. I believe that this team will be a better version of their 2014 selves, and I really believe that by October, they’ll be the best team in the American league.

Kluber will be in the running for another Cy Young, and while I’ve already mentioned the naysayers talking about regression, I just don’t see it. He commands the zone, and has since he’s added to his repertoire. Inside, outside, up or down, heat or finesse, Kluber has it all. He’s in his prime, and he’s got a fantastic make-up and IQ. He’ll refigure the league out before they figure him out next year.

The new number two in this rotation is Carlos Carrasco, who did his best Corey Kluber impression in 2014. How long have we waited for this to come? I still worry about his make-up. I still worry about his longevity. I still just worry about who Carlos Carrasco is, at the end of the day. While I say that, there’s the part of me that also realizes that he may have more talent than anyone else in the rotation. He has better velocity than Kluber, and showed the same type of control. If he’s that guy again, whatever happens after these two is icing on the cake.

Penciled in at #3 is Gavin Floyd, who came into this season coming off a second major arm injury in as many years. If he’s healthy, he was a great signing. If he isn’t, he’ll likely turn into Brett Myers, and disappear through the wardrobe back into Narnia. I like his upside, and it appears as though he’s on the correct timetable to be back. Please understand this: if Floyd is Floyd, the Indians rotation is clearly going to be hard to prepare for. If he’s not, well, we have some arms that may make it a moot point anyways. Ed Carroll discussed veteran “presents” the other day, and Floyd really is that. I love the influence that he could have on Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and T.J. House.

Bauer is the #4, and I could have the same conversation about him that I had with regards to Carrasco. Bauer DOES have good makeup, and is nothing but confident with regards to what he can do. He made huge strides last year, and if he continues his natural progression, I really believe that he has ace potential this year and beyond as well. He certainly has the type of stuff to do it. He’s eccentric, and he plays a little too much with homemade drones, but he hasn’t even touched the surface of the domination that he can bring to the rotation. Could he be the next guy to surface?

Fighting for the #5 spot in this rotation are Danny Salazar and T.J. House. My brain tells me that T.J. House is the guy to take the #5 slot while Salazar continues to work on the teaching of Callaway-san. Here’s the thing though: Danny Salazar is really, REALLY good. While House starting the year off at #5 makes sense with regards to what we know of Salazar’s development of whatever third pitch or fourth pitch that Callaway is working with him on, there’s also the distinct possibility that with a corrected spring regimen, he could just win the spot.

Now, I believe Salazar could win a Cy Young someday. He should NEVER be used in the bullpen now, then, or ever. He should be a starter, and build up that arm, and create that third pitch, so he can get to wiping out hitters.

Imagine him as your freaking number five.

It may send shivers down your spine, but I’d also have to believe that A.L. hitters will feel like they are walking through the woods at night, at Crystal Lake, on Friday the 13th.

Don’t count out House though. He’s better than you think (not us, here at #EHC), and if he’s your #5, I’d be okay with that.. We’ll see both in Cleveland regardless.

This last one is for my good friend over at Wahoo’s on First, Steve Kinsella. I like Shaun Marcum. I don’t know where he is on the ladder back to the big leagues, and I’m not really sure if that ladder is even high enough to get there. I do like the idea of Marcum being good again. I worry that it won’t happen in the spring, and that it could happen with another team, but I’m going to mention him, just because I wouldn’t put it past him to figure out a way.

There’s that Callaway guy too…remember him?

Rotations are finicky beasts, but for two years, Mickey Callaway has done his best McGyver impression and put together rotations that haven’t just been good, but have been impressive. This one looks impressive already.

I’ve already talked about the bullpen, and I’m really not going to waste my breath on the semantics of it. Let me just get in and out here quickly. I think Cody Allen will be the best reliever in baseball by the end of 2015, if he’s handled right. I think Zach McAllister will be a late-inning guy as well, who will be better than Bryan Shaw. McAllister will be the guy that can go anywhere in the pen, and do whatever Francona needs. I think Kyle Crockett is still figuring out the bigs, and can be special. I think Nick Hagadone finally figured it out, and is another Callaway project turned good. I don’t trust him in the eighth, but he has the stuff. I think C.C. Lee can be really good, and I think Shawn Armstrong can be that good too.

But in the end, the pen will be about Allen’s brilliance, and McAllister’s presence.

On the offensive side of things, let’s start with Jason Kipnis. He was dreadful last year. He was hurt, had bad habits, couldn’t play defense, and did everything that he could on the field to make fans hate his contract. He has to be better. He just has to be. He has had these moments over the years in which he has just taken over baseball games, and longer moments in which he’s carried entire teams. Now, he seems broken down, and I’m concerned that there’s more to this than meets the eye. If he can be healthy, he’ll be productive. If he can’t, there are others knocking on the door. I think he’ll be at least average this year.

Prove me wrong Kip, be your better self.

My god do I love Yan Gomes. I love that he’s one of the best two or three catchers in baseball. I love that he’s one of the best three or four defensive catchers in baseball. I STILL love that we dealt Esmil Rogers to get him. I just think he’s a star. I think that there’s a whole Jorge Posada persona about him on this team. He commands a game behind the plate (which is likely the unsung here in the development of the rotation), can hit the ball really hard, and like the rest of this team, seems to have some sort of super-human make-up. You need to love Yan Gomes.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve gotten this far and not mentioned Jose Ramirez, who many know that I’m a firm supporter of going forward…forever. I love his defense…everywhere. I love that he makes unreal contact, has plus speed, and I really believe could hit well over .300, and win a gold glove. He’ll start the year at short, but likely won’t end there…

…because of Francisco Lindor.

You need to really listen carefully about Lindor. He’s better than Jose Ramirez (yeah, I just said it out loud). I think his bat is better. I think he MAY be the best defender in the bigs the year he makes the bigs. He is the hardest worker in the organization already, and has the make-up of a superstar. He’s going to have pop, have speed, and play for years if he stays healthy. I love you JRam, but Lindor is going to be the king of this town for a long time.

JRam will still have a home.

Brandon Moss is going to be a really exciting ballplayer, and could mirror the numbers we see from Carlos Santana, other than walks. In other words, the A.L. Central better not relax with this line-up.

I don’t have any faith in Michael Bourn or Nick Swisher. I also don’t think they are going anywhere either. Bourn simply has to stay healthy. If he does, I actually think he could be fine in centerfield. I also think there are better options, but that’s for another day, and another time.

Swisher is an old baseball player. I hope he’s healthy. I hope he finds at least one more year, but I just don’t buy it.

I hope they both prove me wrong.

In the end though, this team has so much to be proud of, as Cleveland Indians fans. They have youth. They have veterans. They have a manager understands how to handle people, and knows the game like one of his kids. They have depth, and experience, and they have the ability to add and subtract as the season goes on.

On paper, they have everything.

In past years, I talked about a team that needed things to bounce right, and a team that needed to make moves as the season progressed to add missing pieces.

This isn’t that team.

This Cleveland Indians’ team is built to win…

…and win now.

The 2015 World Series is in play, and not just because “everyone has a chance in spring.” This team is in play, because they can play…

…all the way to October.

Believe THAT.

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