At the end of last season, I figured that the Indians should just focus on building for 2014/2015, when star shortstop prospect Franicso Lindor would be ready for the big leagues. Trade Choo, I said, trade Perez, trade Cabrera. Get young arms and outfielders in return. As far as I was concerned, there were just too many holes in this team to fill with a traditional Cleveland off-season.
We didn't so much get a traditional Cleveland off-season, did we?
Now, we shouldn't go too crazy about the extra spending we saw this winter. Keep in mind that the Tribe had a bunch of money come off the books from Travis Hafner alone. Add in Grady Sizemore and Casey Kotchman and we're right around $20M in savings, an amount that more or less covers what Swisher and Bourn will make this season (as their deals are all back loaded). But those salaries are going to go up over the next few years, so the payroll is going to get even bigger, which means these deals were still out of left field for the Indians.
What's particularly interesting to me is how fans are excited while simultaneously admitting that the Indians probably can't catch the Tigers! That's pretty impressive, to get a fan base hot and bothered for a team everyone assumes will come in second. But at least we have hope to compete, and there are two wild cards now.
That's going to be a fight in and of itself. There are a lot of vastly improved teams in the American League this year. My projected AL Central standings (if I'm going with my head and not my heart) is pretty much the same as everyone else's:
4. White Sox
The Twins are something of a disaster, but it's clear by their off-season moves that they know they're a disaster and they're taking the appropriate steps. It could be a couple of years before they're back to where they used to be.
I don't think the White Sox have the pitching, offense, or defense to match what they did last year. It's really just a matter of the fact that they had so many guys with career years last season. It's just not going to happen again.
So if I work under the assumption that the Tribe has to go through the Tigers to win the division, how do they match up? Let's take a look.
For all the moves that the Tribe made in the off-season, it was always going to be impossible for them to match Detroit's offense. They were 6th in the AL in runs scored last season and that was without Victor Martinez. Cabrera and Fielder could be the best 3-4 combo in baseball and now they're going to add Martinez in. Imagine Fielder batting between Cabrera and Martinez. That's just crazy. Add Tori Hunter and Austin Jackson to that line-up, and you've got a pretty potent offense.
That's not to say the Tribe don't look great on paper. They actually might have a more consistent offense through the line-up than the Tigers, and they certainly have more speed. But getting through that 3-4-5 is just too intimidating to give this category to anyone but the Tigers.
How's this for an easy breakdown of this position: the Indians traded away Peralta so Cabrera could move to short, because Cabrera is a better shortstop.
But if we really want to dig into it, how about the fact that the Tribe has what could be one of the top 5 outfields in all of baseball? Add in potential all star Kipnis at second, and it's clear that the Indians take this category.
Here's where it falls apart.
You would think that the problem is Justin Verlander, but it's not. No, no one should expect the Tribe to have a pitcher who can match up with the Tigers' ace. That's just not going to happen. The problem is that the Tribe doesn't even match up very well after that. Doug Fister, in particular, is a problem for the Tribe, because at this point we don't even have a starter as good as Detroit's #2.
Beyond Masterson and Jimenez, there's the unlikable Bret Myers, probably Zach MacAllister, and then I would say either Dice-K or Scott Kazmir. This gives Bauer and Carasco more time in AAA. I would imagine we'll see both of them in the second half, though.
Regardless, we'd have to have a lot go right to match the Tigers' 2-5, adding in Verlander makes it pretty much impossible. Tigers take this category.
We might actually have a better bullpen than we did last year, and we had a pretty good one. We bring back one of the best 7-8-9 combos in baseball in Smith, Pestano, and Perez. Our two lefties will go from Sipp/Perez to, I would guess, Hagadone/Hill, which should be an upgrade. That leaves two spots. If I had to guess, I'd go with Matt Capps for one, assuming he's recovered from his injuries. He could be a nice addition, if that's the case. He's saved more games than anyone else on the team. The last spot will go to either Matt Albers, Bryan Shaw, or Cody Allen. My guess at this point would be Shaw; he's got better numbers than the other two. Shaw might still have options, though, and I'm pretty sure Allen does, so it's entirely possible that good spring gives Albers the edge based on experience.
I honestly have no idea who's in the Tigers' bullpen anymore, aside from, I think, Daniel Schlereth, who we generally shell, and Al Alburquerque. Oh, there's that Benoit guy, who we also generally shell. I'm glad Valverde is gone, because he was an ass.
The bottom line, however, is that the Tribe takes this category.
It would seem that we're split 2-2 in the breakdown above, but starting pitching will always be the deciding factor, and offense is generally more important than bullpen. While defense may win championships, it only wins divisions if they other teams are just god awful, and the Tigers are at least average.
But here's the silver lining: of the categories listed above, pitching is always going to be the most mercurial. The Indians have enough depth in the bullpen that they should be able to withstand any flukes in performance. They also have a lot of depth in the starting rotation, even if that depth is fairly average across the board. It still means consistency. If the Tribe can get a spike up and the Tigers a spike down, the Indians definitely have a chance of taking the division.
Something else to consider: the Tribe is in good shape for years to come. They have a potentially great rotation of Bauer, Carasco, Masterson, and MacAllister all signed for years to come. They have a superstar replacement in waiting when Cabrera's contract is up after 2014 to go with Kipnis and Chisenhall in the infield. Swisher and Bourn are all around through 2016 with options through 2017. Brantley and Santana are also under club control for a few more years.
The moves the Indians made this off-season weren't just for this year, they were for the future, too.
The only thing that really matters at this point, though, is that the Indians are better than they were last year and that they're an intriguing team. Hopes have never been higher for Indians' fans, and right now that's enough.