Ranking the Cleveland Indians' Most Important Players Heading into 2014

Cody Norman@@Cody_GainesCorrespondent IJanuary 30, 2014

Ranking the Cleveland Indians' Most Important Players Heading into 2014

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    Absent the free-agent spending frenzy of 2013, the Cleveland Indians find themselves in a familiar position heading into this season.

    Despite few personnel changes to a roster that was ousted in last year's Wild Card Game, few experts see the Tribe as anything more than a mediocre ballclub. Not surprisingly, many sportsbooks have given Cleveland unfavorable odds on appearing in its first World Series since the catastrophe that was Jose Mesa.

    While it may be true that those who enjoyed career years last season will regress slightly in 2014, it is hard to imagine such a talented team reneging on the magic of last season.

    While the Tribe has the talent and ability to contend with the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central crown, the following list denotes the team's most important players heading into the 2014 season.

    All stats are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com or FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.

No. 9: Francisco Lindor

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Per CBS Cleveland, manager Terry Francona stopped short of providing a timetable for Francisco Lindor's arrival in the big leagues, but that time seems to be rapidly approaching for the 19-year-old phenom.

    Per the Garner-Cleveland Record, he has been compared to future Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel, and according to SB Nation, “The Indians haven’t had a teenaged prospect of this ilk since CC Sabathia, and haven’t had a teenaged position player prospect of this ilk since Manny Ramirez.” Those comparisons fuel the anticipation for his arrival.

    He has the ability to be the best overall defender in the majors and has a knack for being in the right position to make plays. Furthermore, Baseball America (subscription required) has given Lindor glowing reviews on his makeup and drive, a trait that tends to separate the elite from the average.

    Though questions still remain about his ability to hit at the professional level, his .303/.380/.407 line in Carolina (High-A) and Akron (Double-A) brings a glimmer of hope that Lindor may transform his defensive tools to become a perennial All-Star for the Tribe.

    Either way, with their former All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera entering the final year of his contract, the Indians must get a good look at their shortstop of the future before the end of the season in order to make a determination on 2015 and beyond.

No. 8: Goon Squad

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    One of the biggest keys to the Tribe's successful 2013 was the bench, whom Mike Aviles famously dubbed the "Goon Squad," per MLB.com.

    Jason Giambi, the 42-year-old veteran face of the Goon Squad, made a significant impact off the field and seems to be one of the most beloved players in the locker room. Though he was not particular productive as a starter, he was 3-for-14 with four RBI as a pinch hitter. On Sept. 24, he slugged his third (and most memorable) pinch-hit game-winning walk-off home run of the season (above) to breathe life into the Indians' season.

    Alongside Giambi, the Tribe returns utility men Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn as key members off the bench. Aviles, who filled in for Asdrubal Cabrera during his stint on the DL, hit .252 with nine home runs and 46 RBI in almost 400 plate appearances last season. Meanwhile, Raburn was one of the most productive hitters for the Tribe during the month of July. The former Detroit Tigers outfielder bounced back from a dismal 2012 season and finished 2013 hitting .272 with 16 home runs and 55 RBI.

    With the promotion of Yan Gomes to an everyday catcher, the Goon Squad will be without one of its key pieces from 2013. In his place, the Tribe will have to find one of their low risk, high-reward investments (i.e.., David Cooper, David Adams or Jeff Francoeur) to step in and contribute.

    No matter who fills the void left by Gomes, the Tribe will rely on Goon Squad 2.0 to spell stars like Jason Kipnis and Cabrera.

No. 7: Yan Gomes

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Indians scored one of their biggest deals of the 2013 offseason when they acquired two members of the Goon Squad, Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes, from the Toronto Blue Jays.

    While Aviles was projected to be a productive piece on the Goon Squad, Gomes was just a throw-in player who may have never gotten a serious look if not for an early-season injury to Lou Marson. Gomes eventually took over as the team’s everyday catcher in the latter half of the season and finished the season hitting .294 with 11 home runs in 88 games.

    His success, of course, happened over a small sample size.

    Questions remain about his ability to handle the physical burden of an entire season, as he has made just 433 plate appearances over the last two campaigns. However, last season's rate of a home run every 26.6 at-bats puts a 20-home run season well within reach—a feat that was accomplished by only six catchers in 2013.

    Defensively, Gomes provides a significant upgrade over Carlos Santana. With a limited workload, Gomes threw up 20 of 49 potential base stealers (40.8 percent) and committed just three errors on the season. Intangibly, perhaps, confidence in a defensive backstop may be vital in the progression of the Tribe's youthful starting pitching.

    Francona and the Indians likely will not rely too much on offensive production from Gomes in the bottom half of the order, but his defensive prowess makes him a valuable piece moving forward. If he is able to duplicate an impressive 2013 campaign, the Tribe could be looking at one of the top catchers in the American League.

No. 6: Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Both Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley continued their progression toward stardom and put up their best statistical seasons to date.

    After getting off to a rough start during the first two months of the season, Kipnis quickly turned his season around in June. In 27 games during that month, he posted a slash line of .419/.517/.699 and posted a season-high 25 RBI. His production was key to the Tribe’s success, as he hit .323 in Indians’ victories versus just .230 in losses.

    On his way to making his first career All-Star Game, the 26-year-old second baseman finished the season hitting .284 with 17 home runs and a team-best 84 RBI and 30 stolen bases.

    Brantley turned himself into perhaps the most versatile hitter in the lineup, hitting in eight different spots. He was by far the Tribe’s most productive hitter with runners on, contributing a slash line of .375/.411/.458 and 59 RBI with runners in scoring position. "Dr. Smooth" hit .305 with two outs and finished the season at .284 with 73 RBI. Defensively, he doubled his career high (five) by gunning down 11 runners without making an error in either center or left field.

    In order for the Tribe to compete with Detroit for the AL Central crown this season, they will need continued production from both of their rising stars. Both players are capable of upping their production and turning in averages over .300, which would set the stage for the more natural RBI hitters like Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana to spark the offense.

No. 5: Justin Masterson

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    With long-term extension talks shelved for the time being, Justin Masterson could enter the 2014 season pitching for a new contract.

    After a disastrous 2013 that saw the Indians ace finish 11-15 with a 4.93 ERA, he won a career-best 14 games. He improved in seemingly every statistical category and was a catalyst in the Tribe’s resurgence into the playoff picture.

    Before Ubaldo Jimenez re-emerged as a staff ace in the second half, Masterson carried the load for the Tribe, going 8-3 through the month of May and beating both 2012 Cy Young winners (R.A. Dickey and David Price) in his first two starts of the season.

    After being sidelined with an oblique injury in the latter half of the year, he proved himself to be invaluable out of the bullpen. He appeared in three games out of the pen, striking out seven and holding opponents scoreless over 3.2 innings.

    As good as he was to begin the 2013 season, he will have to be better this time around. Barring a late signing of a proven No. 2 starter, Cleveland may enter the season with four pitchers with less than 300 career innings apiece.

    An overall lack of experience in the Tribe’s pitching rotation, coupled with the need to have a legitimate No. 1 starter when facing the Tigers, means Masterson will have to be as good—if not better—than he was in 2013.

No. 4: Nick Swisher and Asdrubal Cabrera

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Despite the Indians’ improbable run into the postseason, veteran sluggers Nick Swisher and Asdrubal Cabrera endured the worst seasons in their successful careers.

    Swisher, who battled through a shoulder injury for much of last season, had his worst offensive season since joining the Yankees in 2009. He tallied a career-worst 63 RBI despite being brought in during the offseason to solidify the middle of the batting order, and his 22 home runs tied for second worst in his career.

    Now that he is fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, the Indians will need him to return to his career average of 25 home runs and 81 RBI if they plan to make another run at the AL Central Division.

    He quickly became a fan favorite among Cleveland fans. An Ohio State alumnus, Swisher was key in rallying "Bro-h-i-o" and leading the Indians to their first playoff appearance since 2007.

    As unproductive as Swisher was at times during the season, Cabrera was even worse. An All-Star in 2012, he had the worst year of his big league career and posted the worst batting average (.242) in the Tribe’s end-of-season starting lineup. If he cannot rebound from a disastrous 2013, he may find himself taking a seat in favor of Lindor earlier than we expected.

    Because the Tribe cannot reasonably expect Yan Gomes and Ryan Raburn to be as productive as they were in 2013, the Indians will need better numbers in all facets from two of their most recognizable players.

No. 3: Carlos Santana

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Carlos Santana is quickly becoming one of the most valuable players on the Indians.

    After losing the starting catcher role to Yan Gomes in the middle of last season—and noticing the team’s overall lack of production at the hot corner—Santana spent much of the offseason working to become the team's starting third baseman, per Cleveland.com.

    In his best overall season since taking over as the full-time catcher in 2011, Santana hit .268 with 20 home runs and 74 RBI. Most importantly, he turned the corner on being a viable option for Francona as the team’s everyday middle-of-the-order slugger, hitting .287 with 12 home runs in that role. With a 4.4 WAR rating, he is right on the cusp of becoming a legitimate All-Star selection and is more than capable of surpassing his career-best 27 home run total from 2011.

    To his credit as well, he has become one of the most patient hitters in baseball. His 93 walks last season ranked second in the American League, giving him three consecutive seasons in the top three in that category.

    Santana got progressively better after being relieved of his catching duties, so the move away from the plate might be the key to him reaching his full potential. Regardless of what position he plays in 2014, the Indians will need Santana to take another step forward and become one of the most feared middle-of-the-order hitters in the American League if they stand to compete with the Tigers.

No. 2: Bullpen

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The loss of Chris Perez and Joe Smith from the bullpen exposed a major need for the Tribe heading into the offseason. Perez led the team in saves in each of the last four seasons, and Smith had been the poster child for consistency since joining the Tribe in 2009.

    General manager Chris Antonetti replaced one erratic closer with another by signing John Axford to a one-year, $4.5 million contract. The 30-year-old is the one piece to the revamped "Bullpen Mafia" who has any significant closing experience. He has a 22-19 career record with a 3.29 ERA and 106 saves, including 46 in 2006 with Milwaukee.

    Alongside Axford, Francona will likely have a host of unproven or inconsistent arms. Cody Allen, who was terrific in the setup role last season, posted an average of 11.26 strikeouts per nine innings and owned a 6-1 record. He made a significant impact after stepping in for the struggling Vinnie Pestano, who posted the worst season of his career before being sent down to Triple-A Columbus.

    Pestano, though, will have an opportunity to rebound in 2014 and return to form as a force in the back end of Francona’s pen. Bothered by a sore right elbow, he lost more than 2 mph on his fastball and induced significantly fewer swing-and-misses.

    Bryan Shaw was one of Francona’s favorite arms out of the pen last season, as he appeared in 70 games and posted a 7-3 record with a 3.21 ERA. He got better as the year progressed, holding opponents scoreless over his last 13 appearances (15.1 IP), and veteran lefty Marc Rzepczynski posted a 0.89 ERA in 27 appearances after pitching coach Mickey Callaway got a hold of him.

    That core group of relievers will likely be joined by at least three more arms, none of whom has endured any long-term success. The bullpen pitchers can ease the pressure on the young starters if they can build upon last season’s success and keep the Tribe within striking distance late in games.

No. 1: Young Starters

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    Phil Long/Associated Press

    Much like the bullpen, the Tribe’s group of young and unproven starting pitchers presents a huge question mark heading into the 2014 season.

    Barring the addition of another veteran arm such as Ubaldo Jimenez or Bronson Arroyo, which seems unlikely given Francona’s comments to MLB.com, the Indians will have four starting pitchers who have never pitched more than 300 innings in the big leagues.

    With the 23-year-old Danny Salazar (2-3, 3.12 ERA) still at least one year removed from seriously challenging Masterson as the team’s ace, the Tribe is lacking a legitimate No. 2 starter. In his 52 innings pitched, including his playoff loss to the Rays, Salazar was 2-3 with an impressive 3.12 ERA. Perhaps most impressively, the 24-year-old right-hander had 65 strikeouts to just 13 walks (4.33 K/BB ratio).

    Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber will need to repeat their formidable 2013 seasons in order to ease some of the pressure off the young Salazar and whoever wins the No. 5 spot in the rotation. McAllister, who has the most experience outside of Masterson with 277.1 innings pitched, was bothered by a midseason injury but finished the season 9-9 with a 3.75 ERA.

    Kluber, who will likely be the No. 3 starter posted an 11-5 record and a 3.85 ERA. He, along with Jimenez, caught fire at the end of last season and went unbeaten (4-0) in September and October. Kluber proved himself as an excellent strike-thrower, fanning 136 batters to just 33 walks (4.12 K/BB ratio) in 147.1 innings pitched.

    No matter who wins the final spot in the rotation, the Indians will have to rely on either Salazar, McAllister or Kluber to lock down the No. 2 spot in the rotation.