Here at Wahoo’s on First we’ve written countless words about the Cleveland Indians’ outstanding offseason. The Tribe signed Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and Michael Bourn. They brought in Trevor Bauer, a top pitching prospect. After years of mediocrity, the Indians seem to be moving in the right direction. On paper, this might be the best team since the Indians made their magical ALCS run in 2007.
However, a playoff berth for Cleveland is far from a certainty. The Tigers and White Sox look poised to compete for the AL Central crown this year, and there are several question marks surrounding the team. It would be surprising to see the team finish too far above .500. The Indians will need to exceed expectations on the field in order to have a chance to win the division or grab one of the two coveted wild card spots.
In order to enter the postseason for the first time in six years, the Indians require an uptick in production from several key players. Here are three key things that have to happen for there to be baseball in Cleveland this October.
1. Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis need to break out: Despite the lack of MLB-ready players in the farm system, the Indians have quite a few young players on the roster who have breakout potential, and Santana is at the forefront of the Tribe’s youth movement. He’s played well since being called up in 2010. The power and patience he has displayed has been very encouraging. At 26 years old, Santana will soon be entering his physical prime. It may happen this year or a few years down the line, but he’s due for a breakout season. A fully realized Santana has all the tools to be an outstanding power hitter.
Jason Kipnis has been a fan favorite since his call up in 2011 (Anyone remember the “We Are All Kipnisses” movement?) and definitely has the potential to be in the top tier of MLB second basemen. After hitting 11 homers and stealing 20 bases in the first half of 2012, Kipnis went on a disappointing slump in the second. He had 61 hits in 262 at bats (.233 average), hitting 3 homers and stealing just 10 bases. The numbers are there for Kipnis—it’s simply a matter of showing the consistency needed to keep up that pace for a full season. It’s a possibility that when the Tribe took a nose dive after the All-Star Game last year, Kipnis got caught up in the downward spiral.
Kipnis and Santana are without a doubt the Indians most promising young assets. If they can put it all together this season and the veteran pickups (Swisher, Bourn and Reynolds) play as expected, the Tribe offense will be exciting to watch.
2. Drew Stubbs needs to improve: Stubbs has been underrated by Indians fans since the team acquired him in the Bauer/Choo trade. If you can get over his horrendous strikeout numbers, Stubbs is actually a solid contributor. He steals when he gets on base—30 stolen bases last year despite a .277 OBP, and 40 the previous year—and displays a decent amount of power. In his three full years at the MLB level, Stubbs has never hit below 14 homers. Combine these numbers with his defensive prowess (he was one of the best fielders in the NL last season) and Stubbs is definitely a more valuable asset than perceived.
The good news is Stubbs’ batting average has nowhere to go but up. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him hit around .240 this year. He’s not going to wow you with his numbers and an improved Stubbs isn’t going to win the team the division, but he may be an important, if small, cog in the Tribe machine.
3. A starting pitcher or three must have a decent year: Unfortunately, the team’s offensive improvement will mean little if the pitching stays at its 2012 level. At this point, Indians fans are well aware of the teams’ rotational struggles last year: Justin Masterson failed to come close to his outstanding 2011 season, Ubaldo Jimenez dealt with mechanical issues, and the rest of the rotation was a revolving door of players undeserving of the role, including Derek Lowe (now a reliever), Jeanmar Gomez (traded to Pittsburgh) and Corey Kluber (sent down to the minors). Inconsistency was the only constant.
The team failed to address this need in a manner that will provide an instant impact this season—none of Brett Myers, Scott Kazmir, and Daisuke Matsuzaka is the kind of front-of-the-rotation starter the team needed. To have a shot at the postseason, at least two or three of these marginal starters will need to prove themselves as quality MLB pitchers. And though each had quality outings and displayed some form of improvement, none truly asserted themselves as a top pitcher in spring training.
In the end, winning the division is going to be an uphill battle for the Tribe. But thankfully, the best-case scenario for the team is far better than it has been in a few years. Rejoice Tribe fans, for cautious optimism may be warranted in 2013.