No. 17 Indians: Playoff repeat seems like a long shot

Mike Oz
Yahoo Sports
No. 17 Indians: Playoff repeat seems like a long shot

Editor's note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Cleveland Indians.

2013 record: 92-70
Finish: Second place, AL Central. Earned wild-card berth.
2013 final payroll: $88.9 million (21st of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $94.8 million (20th of 30)
Yahoo Sports offseason rank: 17th
Indians in six words: Can the Governor of Brohio pitch?

A year ago, the Indians like the Toronto Blue Jays , were one of baseball's more intriguing offseason overhauls. The Tribe went out and spent money to get Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, plus struck a trade deal to bring prospect Trevor Bauer to town. There were a number of lesser deals too, like signing reclamation project Scott Kazmir. Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona came aboard to lead the bunch and there was excitement in Cleveland for the first time in a while.

Unlike the Blue Jays – hereby the forever-to-be-name-checked example of winning the offseason and losing everything else – the Indians actually succeeded in their mission to turn around the franchise.

Swisher bro'd out, Kazmir revived his career, Jason Kipnis excelled, the whole roster exceeded expectations and the Indians made the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Francona looked like a wizard, winning AL Manager of the Year.

[Also: No. 18 Blue Jays: They can't be as bad as last year, right? ]

Heading into 2014, the Indians now have to deal with some of the issues that follow a team exceeding expectations. Mainly, other teams came around to throw more money at their players. So, as it stands, this offseason story of the Indians is more about loss than gain.

Kazmir, having made the best of his one-year deal, got a nice payday in Oakland. Ubaldo Jimenez, having also rejuvenated his career in Cleveland, jumped into free agency where he's awaiting a deal. While the Indians could bring him back, signs point toward a richer contract elsewhere. Joe Smith, the best reliever the Indians had, signed with the Angels as a free agent. Chris Perez, the troubled closer, was also sent out of town, though at the Indians' choosing.

All this equals a pitching need in Cleveland. The Indians have addressed it somewhat, but not enough that a return trip to the playoffs seems anywhere close to a sure thing, not with the Kansas City Royals getting better and the Detroit Tigers remaining a power.

The Indians dealt underwhelming outfielder Drew Stubbs to the Colorado Rockies for lefty reliever Josh Outman, who had a 4.33 ERA last season, but lefties hit just .198 against him. Scott Atchison, the 37-year-old former Met, was added on a minor-league deal in hopes that he too can help the bullpen.

Still needing a closer, the Indians signed John Axford, ex of the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals, a former saves leader who had a rough go of it in 2013. Another used-to-be-good pitcher, Shaun Marcum, signed a minor-league deal in hopes that he can be this year's Kazmir instead of the pitcher who posted a 5.29 ERA last season.

On the offensive side, the Indians' biggest addition is David Murphy, who signed a two-year, $12 million contract. The former Rangers outfielder hit a career-low .220 in 2013, but has a career average of .275. He can play both corner outfield positions.

The Indians then made a few more low-risk deals, adding outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Nyjer Morgan on minor-league contracts, then giving 2008 first-round pick David Cooper, whose career had been derailed by back problems, a one-year contract.

This leads us to the most intriguing move – a different kind of "move." Carlos Santana, Cleveland's cleanup hitter, has spent the winter learning third base. He's a catcher turned DH who has also played a little bit of first base.

With Yan Gomes taking over full-time behind the plate and Swisher at first, Santana moving to third could be huge, because it opens up a spot at DH for another bat. Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall doesn't have the bat (.225/.270/.398 last season) required to be an effective corner infielder. If Santana can get the defense down, he's a third-base solution that won't blow up the payroll.

A lot of things went right for the Indians last year, which is a blessing in a 162-game baseball season. Having a lot of things go right two years in a row? That doesn't take a blessing. It takes a miracle. Just ask the 2013 Baltimore Orioles.

There are many gambles on the 2014 Indians roster, some with higher risk than others. The biggest one, really, is not investing enough in pitching and hoping what's left without Kazmir and Jimenez is good enough.

Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and Zach McAllister are the pieces in place now. Masterson is rightly the ace. Salazar is young and full of potential. Kluber and McAllister have room to improve, but even if they get just a little better than they were in 2013, they'd be solid late-in-the-rotation guys.

Marcum should be in the mix for a rotation spot, and Bauer, the former No. 3 overall pick, has a chance to finally put things together. If either Marcum or Bauer surprises us in 2014, the Indians will be happy. If they both do, general manager Chris Antonetti will be dancing.

Offensively, Swisher, Bourn, Santana and Kipnis are a solid core, with Kipnis, 26, continuing to improve. Michael Brantley is an underrated piece in their outfield too. The Indians' outfield, in fact, could be one of the team's strengths. They have Brantley, Bourn and Murphy as starters, Ryan Raburn available to help out, and Francoeur and Morgan as wild cards. The latter two can't be counted on, but either could be a nice surprise.

Looking further into the future: Clint Frazier, Cleveland's first-round pick from 2013, is already among the top outfield prospects in the game. But he's just 19 and is still deep down the pipeline.

Whether now or later in the season, the outfield could become a trade chip for the Indians. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is another player who could be involved in a trade. Any deal the Indians try to make should be to improve their pitching, because let's face it: They'll need to if they want to keep up with the Tigers and the improved Royals.

Nick Swisher and his big personality will be the face of the franchise as long as he wears an Indians jersey. But it's second baseman Jason Kipnis who is most important for the Indians' short- and long-term success. Kipnis was the Indians' MVP in 2013, posting a 5.9 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. That's up from 4.0 a year earlier, and the highest on the team by a win and a half. This means Kipnis' value to the Indians is at a David Wright or Jacoby Ellsbury level. He'll be 27 in April, so he'll keep getting better. We might talk about other players on the Indians because of position changes and their risky storylines, but Kipnis is the glue of this team.

Playoffs this year too?
Anything is possible
With Francona there

Previous teams
No. 18 Blue Jays
No. 19 Mariners
No. 20 Phillies
No. 21 Orioles
No. 22 Padres
No. 23 Rockies
No. 24 Marlins
No. 25 Brewers
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No. 27 Mets
No. 28 Twins
No. 29 Cubs
No. 30 Astros