Courtesy of MCT
Ohio’s two Major League Baseball clubs had two very different tales to tell at the end of last season. Up in Cleveland, the Indians put together one of the most painful seasons in franchise history, erasing a strong start with an unfathomable 5-24 record in August, putting them at 68-94 for the year and in desperate need of some changes.
At the other end of the state, the Cincinnati Reds enjoyed their second National League Central division title in three seasons, finishing with the National League’s second best record at 97-65. While the season would eventually end on a sour note after blowing a 2-0 series lead over the eventual-champion San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series, the Reds were put in good position to only improve on an already balanced club.
For the Indians, it was a mystery to everyone involved what general manager Chris Antonetti’s approach to the offseason would be after the abysmal year. As it turned out, the club decided to open up the checkbook and make a series of unprecedented moves. Never known for spending much on free agents, the Indians signed two of the biggest ones available, first baseman Nick Swisher and center fielder Michael Bourn. That was not all for the Tribe in the free agent market, as they also inked designated hitter Mark Reynolds and starting pitcher Brett Myers to sizeable deals.
Antonetti also tried his hand in the trade market, opening the offseason with a minor deal, moving relief pitcher Esmil Rogers to Toronto for utility infielder Mike Aviles, and later making a huge splash, trading right fielder Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds as part of a three-team deal, getting back outfielder Drew Stubbs from the Reds, and top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer from the Arizona Diamondbacks, along with two relief pitchers, Bryan Shaw and Matt Albers.
Many attribute this aggressive offseason to new manager Terry Francona, whose presence and influence seems to have ushered in a new era of Indians baseball. Signed as a bit of a surprise move in October following the firing of former skipper Manny Acta, Francona brings with him two World Series rings from Boston and a great deal of respect from around the league.
So what can be expected from Francona’s Indians this year? The lineup certainly looks dangerous on paper, blending speed from Bourn, Stubb and Michael Brantley; power from Swisher, Reynolds and Carlos Santana; and all-around hitting from Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Lonnie Chisenhall. The individual team defense, especially from the outfield, is among the league’s best, and should be able to save the pitchers several runs. The Indians also bolster a strong bullpen, led by closer Chris Perez and set-up man Vinnie Pestano.
What will likely keep the Indians out of the postseason, however, is the starting rotation. Their ace, Justin Masterson, had a 4.93 ERA last season, Ubaldo Jimenez has been a disaster since being acquired from Colorado in 2011, Myers did not start a game for Houston or Chicago last season, Zach McAllister is unproven, and Scott Kazmir was last seen struggling for the independent Atlantic League Sugar Land Skeeters after pitching his way out of the MLB. The Indians do have strong depth for the bottom of the rotation at Triple-A Columbus, including Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Daisuke Matsuzaka, but the holes at the top are just too big for a strong lineup to overcome. Expect the Indians to finish with about 80 wins, though it’s not unreasonable that they could contend for a wild-card spot if Masterson or Jimenez can regain their old form.
Moving south, the Reds had a far less busy offseason. Already owning an elite lineup, rotation and bullpen, anything they added would simply be icing on the cake as they go for their second consecutive NL Central title.
As a result, the Reds will be putting out a very similar team to the one Cincinnati fans witnessed last season. The only major change is in center field, where Stubbs was swapped with Choo. The rotation of Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake is identical to last season’s, as is the bullpen, led by all-star closer Aroldis Chapman, who was considered being moved to the rotation but ultimately stayed in the bullpen, and set-up men Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton.
The lineup also remains strong, adding Choo to a group that includes all-stars Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce, as well as power hitters like Todd Frazier and Ryan Ludwick, and defensive specialists Zack Cozart and Ryan Hanigan.
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If a weakness had to be pointed out for Cincinnati, it would have to be its outfield defense. Choo, who struggled in right field for several years in Cleveland, is now being forced to play the more treacherous center field by default. If he struggles, manager Dusty Baker might be forced to explore other options. This could open the door for top prospect Billy Hamilton to make his debut. Hamilton, who stole a minor league record 155 bases last season, is considered one of the most exciting prospects in baseball.
There’s not a ton of mystery for how strongly a team as well-balanced as the Reds will perform. St. Louis could challenge for the NL Central title, but it’s hard to imagine the Reds falling short of a wild-card berth. Pencil them in for 88-96 wins and a third trip to October baseball in four years.