Record-Courier staff report
Fresh off a 2013 season that featured 92 wins and franchise's first playoff berth since 2007, expectations are running wild for the 2014 Cleveland Indians.
And like the start of all seasons for all teams, everything looks budding for greatness right now.
Optimism is never higher for fanbases than they are when heading into a season.
For the most part, it is human nature to play things out in your head to the best-case scenarios.
Even in Cleveland.
However, the Indians have offered plenty of reasons to get excited for the summer months.
First and foremost is the team's glittering spring training record of 20-8. The mark is not only the best in the American League, but also in all of baseball throughout the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues.
Some put a lot of stock into spring training records, while others consider it fruitless since the games technically have no direct correlation to how a team will play once the big show gets under way.
For the Indians, the lights are on beginning on Monday, when the Tribe travels to Oakland to take on the Athletics to begin the season.
Cleveland will complete a three-game series with the A's, take Thursday off, then return home for Friday's home opener against the Minnesota Twins.
Win or lose, the lineup that will run onto the field will be one is surprisingly refreshing for professional sports. General manager Chris Antonetti and manager Terry Francona have acquired players and created an atmosphere that features a group of players that showcase the excitement and energy that is more typically found on youth baseball diamonds. As opposed to the calloused, jaded and money-hungry professional athlete that is so typically stereotyped.
The Indians take things seriously, but not to the point that they forget they are playing a game. No team that includes Nick Swisher would have a problem with that.
Here is a look at what to expect from the upcoming season.
Closer John Axford, outfielder David Murphy, outfielder Nyjer Morgan.
Starter Ubaldo Jimenez (Baltimiore), starter Scott Kazmir (L.A. Angels), closer Chris Perez (L.A. Dodgers), outfielder Drew Stubbs (Colorado), reliever Joe Smith (L.A. Angels).
Cleveland's lineup in 2013 did not feature many league leaders or MVP candidates. No single player hit more than 22 home runs (Swisher) nor did anyone have more than 84 RBI (Jason Kipnis). Additionally, Michael Bourn had some injuries throughout the year and couldn't be the speedster that averaged 51 stolen bases over the previous five years.
Still, the Tribe averaged the fourth-most runs scored in the American League.
How? With consistency from the top of the lineup to the bottom. Hitters like Swisher, Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera, Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana offer enough depth at the plate that allows little in the way of easy outs for opposing pitchers.
Cleveland's outfield in 2013 was filled with speed and quality play.
Brantley will again play in left, Bourn will play in center, but will miss the first few games of the season with a hamstring injury and will be replaced by Morgan, while right field will belong to newly acquired Murphy.
Murphy had a down year in 2013, but the Indians are hopeful he can produce closer to his numbers in 2012 (.304 average, 15 HRs, 61 RBI).
The infield is above average at shortstop (Cabrera), second (Kipnis) and first (Swisher). However, third base remains a question mark as both Lonnie Chisenhall and Santana will platoon and neither have a gold glove.
Cleveland received amazing years from Jimenez and Kazmir last season. However, both are gone -- lost to free agency in a market the Indians had little intent in matching their high offers from other teams.
Left, though, is ace Justin Masterson, who is a legitimate No. 1 that will be on plenty of teams' radar after the season when he becomes a free agent.
Behind Masterson is a group of young and talented, but inexperienced collection of starters. Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber showed quality signs last year, but had moments of up and down. Danny Salazar bursted onto the scene late in the year, and actually was handed the ball in the team's Wild Card matchup against Tampa Bay, but it has yet to be seen if his rocket arm can withstand an entire season. Or multiple seasons for that matter. The best of the rest feature a number of pitchers hoping to land the fifth and final spot -- Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Aaron Harang.
The core of the bullpen the previous three seasons is gone. Closer Chris Perez wore out his welcome with controversial comments and a failure to produce, while set-up man Joe Smith was lost in free agency to the L.A. Angels.
In their place steps in free-agent signing closer Axford, while the set-up duties will be handed to right-hander Cody Allen. Allen emerged as a quality bullpen option in 2013 and actually could find himself in situations to close games at points this season. Lefty Marc Rzepczynski is also expected to be a big component of the bullpen, along with plenty of others as Francona prefers a very deep group of relievers. A big question mark will be whether or not Vinnie Pestano can return to his form of 2011 and 2012 after a dismal 2013 season that had setback after setback with confidence and injury issues.
The pieces for a team to not only compete with the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central Division, but also a playoff spot are certainly in place.
The Indians appear excited at the opportunity to prove that last season's 92 wins and Wild Card playoff spot was not a one-year fluke, but rather the first year in a title window beginning to open.