(SportsNetwork.com) - Terry Francona's first season as manager of the Cleveland Indians was a hit and the club has even higher expectations for 2014.
The Indians will try to compete with the Detroit Tigers again in the American League Central and finished behind them last season with a 92-70 mark. They were 68-94 the year before and Francona hopes to build on a successful debut.
"I'm hoping that it's kind of a springboard into next year," Francona said, "as opposed to a nice little year that ended quicker than we wanted. It was still a fun year. Saying that, it's going to be hard to do. If anything, our goals are set higher."
Cleveland made the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and lost to Tampa Bay, 4-0, in the American League wild card playoff game at Progressive Field. The usually hot bats of the Indians went cold on the October evening.
"That loss to Tampa was crushing," Francona said. "It really stung. It was hard for me to talk to them after the game. It hurt so much, because we were having so much fun together, and we didn't want it to be over. I think the guys that got a taste of it liked it, and want it again."
Now the Tribe is back and feeling more confident than ever and look to overthrow a Tigers team minus slugger Prince Fielder. Fielder took his numbers to Texas this offseason, but Detroit still has a solid rotation and Triple Crown threat Miguel Cabrera.
The rotation for the Indians is a question mark after Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister. It's still in the air on who will be the fifth starter and currently Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Shaun Marcum are in the running. Danny Salazar could be in the third or fourth spot.
"You don't know what's going to happen. But, going into the year, we have a Danny Salazar that we're going to have for a full year. Corey Kluber. Zach McAllister," Francona said. "There's some younger guys that should be better and, not only better, but have them for the whole year. I think we feel pretty good about things. We know we need to get better, but we have the guys that can do it."
Cleveland needs its younger starters to step up now that Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir are gone. The two combined for 23 wins in 2013. Gone is closer Chris Perez, who will be replaced by John Axford at the back of the bullpen. Middle reliever Joe Smith left town, too.
2013 FINISH (92-70) - Second Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: OF David Murphy, OF Jeff Francoeur, INF Elliot Johnson, CL John Axford, RHP Shawn Marcum, LHP Josh Outman
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, LHP Scott Kazmir, RHP Joe Smith, RHP Matt Albers, CL Chris Perez, C Lou Marson, OF Drew Stubbs, DH/OF Jason Kubel
PROJECTED LINEUP: CF Michael Bourn, 1B Nick Swisher, 2B Jason Kipnis, DH Carlos Santana, LF Michael Brantley, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, RF David Murphy, C Yan Gomes, 3B Lonnie Chisenhall
PROJECTED ROTATION: RHP Justin Masterson, RHP Corey Kluber, RHP Zach McAllister, RHP Danny Salazar, RHP Carlos Carrasco
PROJECTED CLOSER: RHP John Axford
MANAGER: Terry Francona
CAN THE LINEUP BE EVEN BETTER IN 2014?
The Indians tinkered with their lineup last season and it helped them finish fourth in the league in runs. Nobody had more than 22 homers and 84 runs batted in, but the club came together as a team.
Nick Swisher had the 22 homers and Jason Kipnis drove in the 84 runs. Carlos Santana finished with 20 homers and 74 RBI, and could see action at third base along with Lonnie Chisenhall. Yan Gomes will do most of the catching, while it's important to keep Santana's bat in the lineup as often as possible. Santana could also DH as well.
Kipnis, Ryan Rayburn, Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn and newcomer David Murphy make up the rest of the lineup. Bourn underwent hamstring surgery in the offseason and hope to have an injury-free season batting in the leadoff spot.
"This year, we know the guys we have in the locker room. We know that we can win with these guys in the locker room, so everyone is kind of optimistic and looking forward to getting started," Kipnis said. "It's a good group of guys to play with, I can tell you that."
Jason Giambi could miss the opener with a broken rib suffered in spring training by a pitch. He had nine homers and 31 RBI in 71 games last season, and is a major presence in the clubhouse simply for his experience and leadership. Outfielder David Murphy joined the team in the offseason after a seven-year stint in Texas.
HOW WILL THE BULLPEN FARE WITH NEW FACES?
Closer Chris Perez is no longer with the Tribe and recorded 25 saves in 54 games a season ago. Perez was shaky at times last season, so the Indians brought in John Axford to replace him. However, question marks loom around Axford, who didn't record a save last season after posting 81 the previous two seasons. He opened with Milwaukee, then was dealt to St. Louis.
Axford pitched to a 1.74 ERA for the Cardinals down the stretch and struck out five batters over 2 1/3 scoreless innings in two World Series appearances.
Cleveland ranked near the bottom of the league in save percentage last season and blew 22 saves in 60 chances. The 63 percent conversion rate was 13th in the American League.
With Joe Smith, who made at least 70 appearances in each of the last three seasons, now out of the picture, right-hander Cody Allen and left-hander Marc Rzepczynski are expected to be the set-up guys. Expect to see Vinnie Pestano, Bryan Shaw and Josh Outman in middle/long relief. The key to having a successful bullpen is for the starters to eat up innings. It will be tough sledding in the AL Central and entire American League if the bullpen falters.
David Aardsma, Scott Atchison and Chen-Chang Lee will battle the losers of the fifth spot in the rotation: Tyler Cloyd, Marcum, Carrasco and Josh Tomlin.
IS MASTERSON READY FOR A BREAKOUT SEASON?
Justin Masterson is coming off a career-year in which he recorded a 14-10 record in 32 games (29 starts) to go along with a 3.45 earned run average and three shutouts across 193.0 innings. Masterson has only two winning seasons since becoming a full-time starter in 2010 and was named Opening Day starter earlier this month.
"He's getting his foundation, and he's getting deeper and deeper, and he'll continue to do so," Francona said. "He's got good movement on his two-seamer, he'll ramp up his fastball when he wants to and he's working on getting that breaking ball into season form. That's what a good pro does."
Masterson agreed to terms on a one-year contract back in February, avoiding arbitration, and hopes to earn an even bigger contract in the offseason. He is arguably Cleveland's most dynamic arm in the rotation.
X-FACTOR: JASON KIPNIS
His numbers have improved in each of the last three seasons and he'll try to make the AL All-Star roster once again. He has played in over 300 games (301) the last two season and his durability will be vital in the team's success. Yes, the Indians still have Swisher and Santana among other to contribute offensively, but Kipnis is a young star in the making.
There's no reason why the Indians can't compete for an AL Central title this season. Detroit and Kansas City will be there, too, and may not live up to the hype. Pitching could be a problem and there's always health concerns. Bourn needs to play at least 150 games to keep Cleveland's lineup balanced from top to bottom. If the Indians fail to overthrow the Tigers in the division, another wild card appearance seems likely.