Coming off their first playoff appearance since blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2007 ALCS, the Indians will look to get back to the Promised Land (if you can call a one-game playoff the Promised Land). And they’ll have to do it with two of their three best pitchers from last season, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, potentially departing. The lineup remains intact, though they have added underrated outfielder David Murphy so that they don’t have to give nearly 500 plate appearances to Drew Stubbs again.
Yes, the Indians are a better franchise now than they were 25 years ago when they had Ricky Vaughn and Jake Taylor in uniform, but that element that causes us not to take them seriously as a World Series contender still exists. They have a couple of strong, underrated players about to enter their primes in Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, but they’ll need others to step up and join them on that stage to make a deep playoff push. With the Tigers improving their roster (and flexibility) by trading for Ian Kinsler and the Royals possibly on the rise, the Indians will have their hands full in the AL Central.
- CF Michael Bourn
- 1B Nick Swisher
- 2B Jason Kipnis
- C Carlos Santana
- LF Michael Brantley
- SS Asdrubal Cabrera
- DH Ryan Raburn
- RF David Murphy
- 3B Lonnie Chisenhall
There has to be some concern about Bourn’s fantasy value after last season. After swiping 103 bases over the 2011-12 seasons, Bourn amassed… 23 in 2013. That’s a putrid number if you’re also going to put up with a sub .700 OPS. His BABIP was lower than the last few years, but not decidedly so, so we can’t blame it on the luck dragons. There should be some hesitation in projecting him as normal, so there’s an opportunity for value here, though it does come with a sizable amount of risk. Swisher also experienced a dropoff, as the two pricey imports helped legitimize Cleveland despite their downturn in production. Swisher did experience a significant BABIP decline, but we can also assume that going from the short porch in the Bronx to Progressive Field affected him. Kipnis and Santana remain studs, with the former a top-notch (top 3-4 depending on how you feel about Matt Carpenter) option at the keystone.
Brantley made some waves with a hot start to 2013, and posted career highs in both home runs and stolen bases. That said, he’s only a middling power type with a mild on-base percentage. You can do worse as a fourth outfielder, but there’s limited upside here. Asdrubal had an ugly year, no doubt, but he’s got his position working for him and his batted-ball profile wasn’t drastically different from previous seasons. He’s not going to be special, but if someone has thrown in the towel, there’s ample opportunity for a rebound, and he’s got back end top-10 SS potential. Despite a clear preference for facing southpaw’s Raburn logged almost equal at-bats against right-handed pitching. While they’ve previously destroyed him, Raburn did well enough (.800 OPS) in 2013 to make his overall stat-line worthwhile. His 1.000 OPS against lefties is unlikely to be repeated though, so while he’s likely to be a fine platoon bat in fantasy, counting on him for anything more would be foolish. Freshly signed David Murphy is another platoon bat, though unlike Raburn, he is banking on a return to 2012 form.
The Cleveland bench isn’t exactly deep but it will be used, with Yan Gomes receiving the most attention of late. While the Brazilian-born Gomes is a defensive whiz, he broke out at the plate last year, leading to some speculation that Santana will see more time out from behind the plate going forward. This might come to fruition, though it’s likely to expose some of Gomes’ flaws, rather than directly increasing his fantasy value. Let him start to prove it again before jumping on the bandwagon. Drew Stubbs is the only other worthwhile bench name, and given the signing of Murphy, it’s unlikely that Stubbs sees the playing time necessary to gather fantasy value on the short side of the platoon.
The exciting part of this rotation lies squarely in the middle of it. Salazar burst onto the scene in 2013, staying healthy and showing off his filthy stuff. With Ubaldo Jimenez departing, there’s no one else in the rotation that can touch Salazar’s raw stuff, and he should have the opportunity to pitch fairly deep into the season after throwing 145 innings between the majors and minors last year. While the stuff is good, he was able to maintain control over it in the big leagues, with a 1.14 WHIP in 52 innings, which is actually a step down from what he was producing in the minor leagues. For comparison’s sake, I’d put Salazar over another helium kid in Yordano Ventura, if I had to rank them today.
While Masterson will go from playoff bullpen member back to the front of the regular season rotation, he is only the second-most-desirable starter in the rotation. That said, if he continues to repeat his strikeout-per-inning ways of 2013, he could easily challenge Salazar for value. It’s fair to expect a dropoff though, based on his history, even if he is using his four-seam fastball to neutralize left-handers more often. Close to 200 innings of a rock-solid ERA with solid-to-above strikeout rate is plenty valuable enough to be a third starter or better in fantasy.
Kluber is more valuable than McAllister, thanks in part to his strikeouts, though neither has pitched a full season in the majors. McAllister is maybe a back-end option in 18-to-20-team leagues, though Kluber should be rosterable in anything 14-team or above. In shallower leagues, Kluber is a nice streaming option, and McAllister can be left well enough alone.
With Chris Perez out of the picture, it’s not clear who gets the first crack at closing. I covered the Cleveland closer situation way back in early September, and it seems now as it seemed then that Allen is the likely choice here—hence his top billing. Recency bias is likely to cost Pestano the first shot here as his 2013 struggles will likely weigh heavily on Cleveland management. They’ll like make whoever they select “prove it” so a tight leash is to be expected, and securing both Pestano and Allen is likely necessary to feel even a modicum of security. Allen is the guy to own from a peripherals perspective as well, so if you’re willing to gamble on the uncertainty, Allen is the guy with the best chance of earning his coffee. I threw the two lefties in here because LOOGYs can often be a solid source of holds. We know what Scrabble is at this point, and Hagadone has shown stretches of effectiveness in the past, including a solid prospect history. I wouldn’t expect either to accrue more than a save or two, but if you’re looking for cheap holds or decent strikeouts (Hagadone), they might be of service.
The DH Shuffle: Yan Gomes vs. Ryan Raburn
While not a direct competition, more playing time for Gomes (who had a higher OPS than all but one member of the Indians’ starters) could mean more starts for Carlos Santana at DH—and in turn, less playing time for Raburn, whose .901 OPS was even higher than Gomes’. Of course, it’s also still early in the off-season and the Indians may still sign someone to take the majority of the at bats at DH, leaving Gomes to his backup role and Raburn to a straight platoon with David Murphy. Both Gomes and Raburn are likely to regress (potentially heavily) from their 2013 stats, but they remain on fantasy radars as long as they are getting the playing time to deserve it.
Trevor Bauer vs. Himself
The depth chart at starting pitcher is listed above, and surely it was noticed that Bauer was not on it—even with both Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez likely to depart due to free agency. This was not exactly what the Indians had in mind when they traded for the former Golden Spikes winner last off-season. The simple reality is that if Bauer can get his head on straight and learn how to pitch at the major-league level, there is no depth chart in baseball that can keep him off it. But until that happens, he’s likely to languish in the Triple-A rotation, continuing to show off the #slack that he has badly misinterpreted as #rig.
Lonnie Chisenhall vs. Mike Aviles
This one isn’t extraordinarily important for fantasy purposes, outside of 16-plus-team leagues, but Chisenhall has not developed into the player the Indians thought he would when they took him in the first round of the 2008 draft. At 25 years old, he’s sitting with a career .284 on-base percentage and just 23 homers in more than 200 games played. Aviles is nothing special with the bat (and has his own issues getting on base as well—his career on-base percentage is .303), but could sneak into semi-regular playing time if Chisenhall can’t get it going in 2014. Of course, third base in Cleveland may be occupied in the second half by Asdrubal Cabrera, if he slides over to make room for uber-prospect Francisco Lindor.
Player to Target: Nick Swisher
Over the last five seasons, Swisher has increased his line-drive rate with each year—topping it off with a career-high 23.1 percent in 2013. This line drive rate and his .288 BABIP (his lowest since 2009) didn’t make the most sense leaving a party together at the end of a long night, but it happened. His .241 batting average and his age (33 as of yesterday) will cause Swish to drop in drafts, but there should be confidence in his stability and ability to provide a value floor. Of course, with Swisher signaled for full-time first base duty, this package won’t look as pretty when it comes without outfield eligibility. But that’s future Nick Swisher owner’s problem.
Player to Avoid: Ryan Raburn
I know, it seems like shooting fish in a barrel. Raburn doesn’t need to travel far to find someone to ask about what happens when a player puts up such an outlier HR:FB rate season. After all, he shares a dugout with Asdrubal Cabrera. Raburn’s 23.9 percent in 2013 was nearly double his career rate of 12.4 percent—and as the icing on the cake, he actually set a career LOW in fly-ball rate in his first season with the Indians. The one thing in his favor is that he did set a career-high walk rate of 10.5 percent, which was buoyed by a big drop in swings on pitches outside of the strike zone. Waiting for your pitch is a great thing, but not as great as it seems for Raburn.
Deep Sleeper: Jose Ramirez
While his natural position of second base may not be available to him without an injury to the Indians’ most valuable player, Ramirez would be a name to pay close attention to if he were to receive any semblance of playing time in 2014—regardless of which infield position that was at. The speedy infielder stole 38 bases in 2013 in 113 games at Double-A (though he did get caught 16 times) and is a high-contact hitter, striking out only 41 times in 533 plate appearances. That combination could make him a poor man’s Jose Altuve, and (like oh so many people) is a possibility to take over at the hot corner if the underwhelming options in front of him fizzle out.
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