All of a sudden, the AL Central looks like one of the more interesting divisions in all of baseball. The Tigers are still a star-studded team that is not afraid to spend. The Royals are coming off of an improbable World Series run and will bring back much of their core. Even the White Sox have some fun young pieces to go along with one of the best pitchers in the game. Then, there’s the Indians, who are often forgotten but remain a possible dark-horse team to make a playoff run in 2015.
While they likely don’t have the payroll flexibility to add many major pieces to their roster this winter, they already have a nice core in place. Their pitching staff is headed by a Cy Young candidate, and their lineup is built around one of the better catchers in baseball, a breakout star in left field and an OBP machine at first base. They’ll need some of their young players to take another step forward, but they should be a fun team to watch in the coming year.
A note for our readers. While informative, since we are still months away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, these previews are far from definitive or complete. Free agent signings, trades, and other offseason news will change the landscape for most if not all teams. For any moves that take place after a team preview is written, please look to our Transaction Analysis coverage for instant reactions, and then check back on the Team Previews for more detailed updates (including lineups, rotations, bullpens, etc.) as we get closer to Opening Day.
Another note for our readers. The characterizations below (for example, “stud”) are designed to be taken in context for each team. Not every team has a Mike Trout or Giancarlo Stanton, so the “stud” category represents the best player or players on each team, not necessarily in comparison to the league.
Corey Kluber – SP
After putting together a quietly solid 2013 campaign, Kluber broke out in a big way last season, turning himself into a legitimate Cy Young candidate. He watched his strikeout rate climb up above 28 percent, while his walk rate stayed steady at 5.4 percent. Most impressively, he limited home runs at a rate he never has before, while reaching a 50 percent ground-ball rate for the first time in his career. Entering his age-29 season, he remains firmly in his prime, and he doesn’t have much of an injury history. With all of this in mind, Kluber should enter 2015 as one of the top fantasy starting pitchers in the league.
Yan Gomes – C
Last season, only the middle-infield positions performed worse at the plate than backstops across the league. Because of this, equipping your fantasy team with a competent catcher can be incredibly valuable. Enter Yan Gomes. A few eyebrows were raised when Cleveland decided to sign the 27-year-old to a big extension after just a half-season in 2013, but he more than backed up their commitment in 2014. Although he doesn’t walk as much as one would like, his batting average figures to stay hovering around .300, and he has the power to hit around 20 homers on a yearly basis. He has carried a high BABIP in the last couple of years, but last year he buttressed that with a high line-drive rate, suggesting he can keep his batting average up. On top of all that, he is a very good defensive catcher, meaning he won’t be moved off the position any time in the near future. Catcher is a weak fantasy position across baseball, so having a guy like Gomes on your roster should go a long way.
Michael Brantley – OF
I was a bit conflicted as to whether Brantley should be included in the studs category after one great year, but there are enough positive signs in his game for me to believe he’s here to stay. He’s the rare high contact hitter who can also hit for some power. He’s always been a low-strikeout-rate batter, but he took it to a new level in 2014, striking out just over eight percent of the time. Those numbers, combined with consistently carrying a BABIP above .300 leads to high batting averages year after year. Last year, he was able to reach a new level by making his contact harder, with a career-best HR/FB ratio and a line-drive rate over 30 percent. When you add in his base-running ability, you have yourself a player who can hit .300 with 20 homers and 20 stolen bases, making Brantley an outfielder you should be targeting in drafts next year.
Nick Swisher – OF
Brohio is dying, you guys. After being one of the more under appreciated hitters in the game for the last five years, Swisher finally hit his wall in 2014. His numbers fell across the board, finishing up with a dismal .208/.278/.331 line. This was not just a BABIP drop, though It was a little below his career norm, but the real problem was his 27.7 percent strikeout rate. Pitchers noticed his diminishing skills and started attacking the zone much more against him, and he couldn’t adjust. He’ll be 34 in 2015, and is clearly on the back nine of his career. It’s hard to write off a player after one bad year, but Swisher had a career-high in strikeout rate and career lows in walk rate and ISO, along with a knee surgery to end the year. Avoid him in drafts next year.
Michael Bourn – OF
Speed-dependent entering their age-32 seasons are always scary. That becomes especially true when that player is coming off a season plagued by leg injuries. Bourn’s bat has not been able to show any success in Cleveland, with a .260 batting average and .675 OPS in his two years there. What’s made him worth carrying has been the stolen bases, but he’s fallen far in that category, too, swiping just ten bags in 106 games in 2014. As he ages, his batting average only figures to get worse while his legs go, sapping any value he can hold.
What You See Is What You Get
Carlos Santana – C/1B/3B
I really wanted to put Santana in the “Studs” category, and I wouldn’t argue if you think he should be there. If you’re playing in an OBP league, he’s definitely there. In standard leagues, though, I’m not sure I can be that confident. His batting average hit a new low at .231 in 2014, and while it should see an uptick this year, he’s still just a .250-.265 hitter. He will hit you 20-30 home runs, though, and his positional versatility is a nice addition. If Cleveland’s lineup can give him more RBI situations, he can prove me wrong for not putting him among the “studs.”
Cody Allen – CL
Allen took over the closer role from John Axford midway through last season, and didn’t show any signs of giving it up. He has shown himself to be a very capable ninth-inning man, striking out almost a third of the batters he faces while keeping his walks down at a respectable level. He could get a little better at limiting homers, but it’s not a problem that will cost him his job. How well you think Cleveland will play is how you’ll decide exactly how much to value Allen, but there’s no reason to think he can’t hold the closer role all year long.
Jason Kipnis – 2B
Kipnis is one of the handful of players I’m most looking forward to watching next year, as he was a huge disappointment in 2014. He came into the year as one of the top second baseman in the league, but saw his numbers fall across the board. I’m not overly confident in him getting back to a 15-20 home runs threat, but he should still reach double digits. However, he should also see a rise in batting average and OBP, and with it, he should cross the plate a few more times, to go with his stolen-base potential.
Danny Salazar – SP
Cleveland’s rotation is filled with guys who could be considered X-Factors, but Salazar might be the most interesting of the bunch. In his first extended look at MLB hitters, he was able to rack up the strikeouts, but he also gave up a lot of hard contact. Next season could go either way for him, as he’ll have time to adjust to the highest level of hitting, but hitters will also have time to adjust to him. If he can limit the hard contact and get a few more grounders, he could be a very valuable player in 2015, but it’s far from a certainty.
Carlos Carrasco – SP
Carrasco struggled in his first stint in the rotation to start the year, but when he rejoined it late in the season, he was lights-out. If he can sustain his huge spike in strikeouts, he can be a monster once again in 2015, but that remains a big if.
Trevor Bauer – SP
Bauer is one of the more frustrating pitchers in the game, as his stuff should be good enough to make him a legitimate play in mixed leagues, but he remains unable to put it all together. He put up a solid strikeout rate last year, and his walk pace wasn’t obscene, but hard contact remained a problem for him. With that being said, he’s still just 24 and still has a chance at putting it together to give him some value.
Lonnie Chisenhall – 3B
Chisenhall finally had the season people were waiting for him to have in 2014, but I don’t see it being “real” enough for him to be seriously in play for mixed leagues. While it’s unfair to pin all of his success on BABIP, it certainly played a role. In an AL-only league, it could be worth seeing if he can keep up his 2014 performance, but it’d be smart to have a backup plan in place.
Prospects for 2015
Francisco Lindor – SS
Lindor is easily the most high-profile prospect who will see time in the majors for Cleveland this year, though his real-life value trumps his fantasy value. With that being said, he should be able to contribute in SB right away, and will eventually be a contributor in batting average. Jose Ramirez looks like he’ll start the year at short, but he’s far from a sure thing, and Lindor should see the majors sooner rather than later.
Jesus Aguilar – 1B
Aguilar got some time in the bigs in 2014, and he looked completely overmatched in that small sample. He’ll only get time if Santana gets hurt or if Swisher becomes completely unplayable, but he has real power potential and is worth keeping an eye on.
James Ramsey – OF
Like Aguilar, Ramsey is going to need some injuries to get any playing time. After coming over in the Justin Masterson trade last July, he was sent to Triple-A, where he figures to start 2015. If he does get any playing time, his hit tool can help AVG-starved teams, but don’t expect much more beyond that.