1. Will the Indians’ bullpen continue to be a dominating force?
The Tribe’s relief corps was by far the top performing segment of the roster, particularly the back-end pitchers: closer Chris Perez, setup man Vinnie Pestano and seventh-inning specialist Joe Smith.
Together, the three compiled a 10-11 record with 40 saves and a 3.01 ERA, issuing an average of three walks and striking out an average of 8.7 per nine innings.
All of them return along with a promising and deep crew that includes lefties Nick Hagadone, Scott Barnes and converted starter David Huff; Frank Herrmann; Cody Allen, who made his big-league debut in 2012 and might be the club’s next bullpen star, plus newcomers Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw.
Also waiting for a chance is Chen Lee, who has yet to pitch in the big leagues and is unlikely to make the roster out of spring training. He isn’t the only one. There are four positions to fill and seven pitchers (excluding Lee) to contend for them.
Relievers are allegedly immune to consistency from year to year, but there is no cogent reason why Perez, Pestano and Smith should stumble. Even if they do, there is a long line of guys with live arms waiting for an opportunity.
2. Can the offense score enough to compensate for what appears to be at best an average rotation?
Last year the Tribe scored the second fewest runs in the American League. General Manager Chris Antonetti tried to correct that flaw by bringing in Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs to replace Shin-Soo Choo, Casey Kotchman and a cast of thousands in left field.
The power numbers of the newcomers are significantly superior to those of the relatively powerless 2011 Tribe batmen, but Swisher hit a respectable .272 in 2012, Stubbs fell to .213 and Reynolds to .221. The good news is that all three have done better.
In addition, the threesome can bat from the right side (Swisher is a switch hitter), balancing a lineup that was overwhelmingly left-handed last season and a serious handicap to then-manager Manny Acta.
3. Do strikeouts matter?
The Tribe has the distinction of owning the services of two batters — Reynolds and Stubbs — who at one time led their league in strikeouts.
Last season, Stubbs struck out 166 times, a rate of once every 2.97 at-bats; Reynolds whiffed 159 times, or once every 2.87 at-bats. Swisher isn’t quite in their exclusive company, but he struck out 141 times, a rate of once every 3.8 at-bats.
In other words, it might be an upset if the Indians don’t lead the American League in strikeouts. But Antonetti pointed out that the club had the third fewest strikeouts in the league last year but scored the second fewest runs.
Striking out less often does not guarantee that an offense will percolate runs, but striking out a third of the time makes it much more difficult to string hits and put together big innings.
4. What are the chances that an Indians player will have a breakout season?
Lonnie Chisenhall has been on the verge of establishing himself as a bona-fide big leaguer for a couple of years, but injuries have held him back. So if he can stay healthy, this will be his opportunity, because he should start the season at third base.
Nick Hagadone struggled in the bullpen last year, but he has the ability to become the Tribe’s No. 1 left-handed reliever. But first he has to make the team.
Cody Allen impressed the Tribe and other clubs in his debut season last year. He probably will latch onto a berth in the bullpen, but he might not get the opportunity to excel at a late-inning job for awhile.
The pitcher with the highest upside on the entire roster is 21-year-old Trevor Bauer, but he might not have a chance to earn a spot in the rotation in camp. Consequently, it might be more appropriate to say he needs to have a break-in season before he can break out.
5. How far can this team go?
All the way to the end of the season; the Indians plan to play all 162. But that’s not what the question implies.
The American League Central Division title probably is beyond the Tribe’s reach; even a shot at a wild-card berth would seem to be a long shot. But unless the starting pitching collapses, this is not a 90-loss team.
If the Indians can avoid crippling injuries to important players, they might win 80 games. And there’s always next year. Or the year after that.