Why the Indians will win the pennant

Hannah Foslien

On Opening Day, everyone can dream a little... or a lot.

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To the surprise of just about everyone, the Indians won 92 games last season and took the top wild-card spot. In previous years this would have given them a spot in the ALDS, but with the addition of another wild-card team in each league, they were instead forced into a single-elimination game --  which they promptly lost. That was somewhat disappointing, but on the other hand they hadn't even finished with a winning record in six years, so by any reasonable measure the season was a success.

The Indians tied for fourth in the American League in runs scored in 2013 despite playing their home games in a slight pitchers' park. That unit comes back almost completely intact. Drew Stubbs has been replace by David Murphy (which should be a small upgrade), but that's basically it for changes. In examining last season's numbers, only Yan Gomes and Ryan Raburn look likely to see a drop in their production, while Nick Swisher, Asdrubal Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Michael Bourn all stand a decent chance of putting up better numbers in 2014. The Indians don't have a hitter like Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout, but they're solid just about all the way through (Chisenhall is the only real concern). It's not any sort of stretch to think the offense can be just as good or even a bit better than it was in 2013. The Tribe might score more runs than any other team in the AL Central, which would cover more than half the distance between Opening Day and another playoff appearance.

The major losses from last year's team are Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, each of whom started fairly slowly, then transformed into one of the best pitching tandems in the league after the All-Star break. Replacing them isn't quite as daunting as it at first seems though, because one of those two spots will be filled by Danny Salazar, who made a spot start in early July and was then called up to join the rotation for good in August. His 3.12 ERA (121 ERA+) led all Tribe starters, and his 11.25 strikeouts per nine innings set a new franchise record for pitchers with a minimum of 10 starts. He'll need to make some adjustments, but it's not out of the question that he'll put in a better season in 2014 than Jimenez or Kazmir did in 2013.

That still leaves the fifth spot in the rotation to be filled. There's no clear favorite for the job, but there are many interesting candidates: Carlos Carrasco is a former top-50 prospects who has never really panned out, but he had great velocity last summer. Trevor Bauer had a disappointing 2013, but it was only a year ago that he was viewed as a potential ace. Josh Tomlin is... Well, he's not especially exciting. He did post decent numbers for a fifth starter in 2011 though, so, you know... maybe. Finally, there' Shaun Marcum, who was a huge mess in 2013, but was very solid from 2010 to 2012, with a 3.62 ERA (113 ERA+) and 7.5 K/9 over that span.

Individually, none of those guys inspire a world of confidence, but the Indians have a secret weapon. In his first year as Indians pitching coach, Mickey Callaway helped Ubaldo Jimenez, arguably the worst starting pitcher in the American League in 2012, become the best starting pitcher in the second half of 2013; he helped Scott Kazmir, who was a Sugar Land Skeeter in 2012, post his best strikeout rate since 2008, and the best walk rate of his career. Give him enough talented arms to work with, and he could help one of them become an effective starter.

Justin Masterson has been a workhorse. He pitched three shutouts in 2013, and should anchor the rotation; Salazar could blossom into something as good or better than Jimenez; Corey Kluber is capable of building upon his 2013 numbers (his FIP, a more predictive pitching metric than ERA, was an impressive 3.30 last year); Zach McAllister can turn in another ho-hum, league-average season, making him a solid No. 4. Callaway could turn one of those back-end candidates into the next Scott Kazmir. It won't be a great rotation, but it could certainly be a good one, and good could be enough to push them back into the postseason.

From there, it's just a matter of getting the right breaks. The Tribe hasn't gotten those in October since 1948, but it's bound to happen someday... right?

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