SAN DIEGO: There is so much energy, so much fun, so many good people in the clubhouse that it’s hard not to feel optimistic about the Indians’ chances in 2014.
Especially before they’ve played a regular-season game.
Although I must confess that all that optimism vanished in the 24 hours after talks broke off with Justin Masterson, who will start his third consecutive Opening Day on Monday against the Oakland Athletics.
Even as some of those good vibes came flowing back, especially with the way Nick Swisher and Ryan Raburn have been hitting of late, I still don’t believe the front office did enough to catch the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central.
Here are some of my likes, dislikes and issues I’m 50-50 on going into this season. (All spring statistics are going into Saturday’s game.)
1. Michael Brantley is ready to make a name for himself.
By October, Brantley might not even need his “Dr. Smooth” nickname any longer. He’s leading the majors this spring with a .521 average. Since early in 2013, I’ve believed the Indians go as Brantley goes. If he goes as well as his teammates suggest, the Tribe will be a playoff contender.
2. Jason Kipnis looks like a cornerstone.
Kipnis typifies the gritty, hard-working demeanor of the Indians, who don’t have a superstar but have a solid, close-knit team. Last season, only his second full year in the majors, Kipnis led the Tribe in runs, hits, RBI and steals and his .284 average was second on the team.
3. No situation is too big for Cool Hand Danny.
Right-hander Danny Salazar is only 24, but he’s got the moxie to handle the big moment. In his last outing, he started the AL wild-card game. Next is the April 4 home opener. His unflappable calm seems nearly as important as his 100-mph fastball. You can see why the Indians have been careful after his 2010 right elbow reconstruction.
4. Vinnie might be the Vinnie of old.
Spring training means nothing, except perhaps when it comes to Vinnie Pestano. The right-handed reliever was mechanically and mentally dreadful in 2013 and was sent to Triple-A. He had a 7.36 ERA in 7⅓ spring innings, but that was skewed by four earned runs he gave up in one-third of an inning against the Colorado Rockies on March 22. The rest of the way he allowed two earned runs. Pestano returning to his 2011 and ’12 form would go a long way to make up for the loss of free agent Joe Smith.
5. Masterson remains focused in his contract year.
Many soon-to-be free agents might come unglued during spring contract talks, but Justin Masterson was steady as ever. There’s no hint his status will be weighing on him this season. Some might wonder if his bright outlook after talks broke down was calculated to keep fans on his side, but I believe Masterson is as genuine as they come.
6. Carlos Santana embraces the experiment.
Yes, it was Santana’s idea to try converting from catcher to third base, a position he hadn’t played since his minor-league days with the Los Angeles Dodgers, because he didn’t want to be a full-time designated hitter. Even though how much he’ll play at the hot corner is uncertain, Santana looks happy and inspired. I also must give the Indians credit for thinking outside the box. I often wonder why such position changes aren’t tried in NFL training camps.
1. David Murphy fits the Tribe mold of a friendly, down-to-earth guy who is good in the clubhouse. But I still wonder if his .220 average last season with the Texas Rangers was an aberration for a career .273 hitter or the beginning of a downward slide. He’s 32. Indians manager Terry Francona has faith Murphy will hit. But this is not like the Tribe’s usually successful reclamation projects with pitchers.
2. Bourn’s left hamstring continues to balk.
Center fielder Michael Bourn underwent surgery on the hamstring Oct. 15, then suffered a strain while running the bases against the San Francisco Giants on March 16. I know the Indians kept speedster Nyjer Morgan as insurance, but Bourn in the leadoff spot is a valuable component.
3. Where’s the bat?
Francona conceded that the Indians have no 100 RBI guy, even as he hopes that will change. Kipnis, Brantley and Santana all have that potential, especially when Santana’s not catching. But of the past six World Series champions, only two didn’t have a player who hit that milestone — the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 (Albert Pujols, 99) and the San Francisco Giants in 2010 (Aubrey Huff, 86).
1. John Axford was brought in on a one-year, $4.5 million free-agent contract to take over the closer’s role after Chris Perez was let go. The right-handed Axford didn’t have a save in 2013, losing that role with the Milwaukee Brewers and was traded Aug. 30 to the Cardinals. The Indians are gambling Axford will return to the pitcher who saved 46 and 35 games for the Brewers in 2011-12. We’ll see.
2. Is Zach McAllister ready? After the departure of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir in free agency, the biggest question for me in the Tribe rotation is right-hander McAllister at No. 3. McAllister went 9-9 with a 3.75 ERA in 24 starts last season and was 6-8 with a 4.24 ERA in 22 starts in 2012. He’s only 26 and has one full season in the bigs. He’s been off and on this spring with a 2-1 record and 5.75 ERA in six outings.
3. Will the Indians get good Carlos or bad Carlos?
There’s no questioning the repertoire of pitches of No. 5 starter Carlos Carrasco or his 96-97 mph fastball. But I’m not sure I’m convinced Carrasco will pitch like he did in his last spring-training start, when a spot in the rotation was on the line. With Jimenez gone, he could be the next project for pitching coach Mickey Callaway. But at least if Carrasco flops, Josh Tomlin is waiting in the wings at Triple-A.
Season prediction: 90-72 and in it until the end.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.