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Tribe Happenings: Managing expectations on Opening Day

Tribe Happenings: Managing expectations on Opening Day
April 2, 2013
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook on Opening Day…

First off, a quick note to point some in the direction of some pieces I have recently written that are not on the IBI. Over at FoxSportsOhio.com, last week I wrote a lengthy feature piece on Nick and Tom Hamilton and yesterday wrote a piece on the five most memorable Indians’ opening day games. Be sure to check them out!

Cautious optimism

The Indians have certainly built a ton of momentum going into today’s opener.

They had as great an offseason as they ever have with the additions of marquee names such as Terry Francona,Nick Swisher, and Michael Bourn, along with several other good acquisitions made through the free agent and trade market.

They sold their TV network SportsTime Ohio to Fox News Corp and have used some of the money from that sale to help with their offseason spending. They will also likely use some of that money to continue to add more players in the future and also keep some of their core players.

They had a good spring training where they had a winning record, but more importantly they avoided any major injuries and really seemed to mesh well as a group showing great clubhouse chemistry from day one.

The marketing department has had a ton of fun posting videos of Francona riding around on his little red scooter, the Indians doing the Harlem Shake, and even a clever and hysterical TERRi spot.

The vibe around town with regard to the Indians today on Opening Day is about as positive as it has been since the end of their “Era of Champions” run in the 90s and early 00s. There is a lot of genuine excitement that has been drummed up among the fan base that looks to have their hope restored and their faith in the team is growing.

But not to be a downer on what is such a fun day, but I hope a lot of fans are taking a cautious approach to this season and not overextending their expectations. For as much change as the Indians employed in the offseason, there are still some serious questions marks with this team going into the season that the organization and fans can only learn more about as the season progresses.

The Indians spent most of their resources in the offseason rebuilding the lineup adding four new key components in Swisher, Bourn, Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds. You could even go a step further and say a fifth component was added as Lonnie Chisenhall is the everyday third baseman now, and the bench has been upgraded with the likes of Mike AvilesRyan Raburn and Jason Giambi.

The lineup looks like it will be much improved – and it very well should be – if they avoid major injuries this season. No longer a problem area of the team, it should be a strength of the team by mixing in a good amount of power, speed, and on-base ability. Sure, the strikeout totals will be high, but if the lineup remains intact with health this season, the overall performance should be much better than in years past.

The bullpen looks as solid as ever and if health holds up should be one of the top groups in baseball. It looks to be even deeper than in years past as it no longer should just be the trio of Chris PerezVinnie Pestano and Joe Smithat the backend as there are capable arms in Nick HagadoneCody AllenBryan ShawMatt Albers and Rich Hillwho all have a chance to impact the game in the sixth and seventh innings.

The decision making should be much improved in the dugout with Francona taking over for Manny Acta, and with an improved coaching staff. Francona will surely make mistakes like any manager will, but his conviction, presence, and most importantly his trust with his players should help keep things together in between the white lines and in the clubhouse.

All of that said, the biggest question mark going into the season, and the one that really has the biggest bearing on how successful the Indians can be this season, is the starting rotation. The rotation is deeply talented and could round into a very good group and end up one of the best rotations in the league, but it is also deeply inconsistent and loaded with red flags everywhere where it could once again end up as one of the worst rotations in the league.

The Indians simply put a band aid on the starting rotation issue in the offseason, at least for this season. The pickups of Brett Myers and Scott Kazmir are merely short term solutions to help bridge the gap to the big prizes that are Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer. Once Carrasco shakes off the rust and is ready to go, and Bauer finishes himself off after a few months in Triple-A this year, the hope is that by the end of the year or the start of next season that both are ready to be two of the top three or four starters in the rotation.

But the current rotation of Justin MastersonUbaldo JimenezZach McAllister, Myers and Kazmir are a major wildcard. There is so much volatility with that group to go in either direction – and given past history probably more so leaning in the negative direction – that it does bring a lot of concern going into the season.

Thankfully, the Indians do have some depth in the minors with Bauer, Carrasco, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Corey Kluber to help them when a need arises in the rotation due to injury or poor performance; however, those some options in the minors also bring great uncertainty with them as well.

That rotation is why so many people outside of Indians fans are not picking the Indians to win the AL Central. Even Vegas odds makers are not convinced as they have the Indians with an over/under of about 77-78 wins.

The time from the beginning of spring training until Opening Day is a fun time. Everything is mostly positive because the setting is so relaxed, but all of that will change today as the games finally begin to count and the intensity significantly increases.

What that means is some of the problems that people have forgotten about because they were so sucked into the positive PR machine that is spring training will once again be remembered.

This is still a work in progress. All of the Indians’ problems have not been fixed in one offseason. They need to let these new changes play out, see what sticks, and then continue to tinker with the roster through trades this season and moves in the upcoming offseason to become a more established and consistent winner.

So be sure to manage those expectations as the season begins. If the Indians maintain good health and the rotation hits on its upside, this team could have a very fun year. But with a few injuries here and there and some continued inconsistency from the rotation, it could be another tough year in the win-loss department.

Wins don’t matter

I’ve heard a lot of people wonder how the Indians are going to improve and gain 15-17 wins this season to go from a 68 win team last year to an 83-85 win team this year.  That’s the beauty of baseball as there are no true acquisitions that add or subtract wins, it is the season itself and the way the games play out that truly determine that.

Obviously, the quality of the roster certainly impacts how much a team wins, but in addition to the performances by the roster it is the amount of injuries a team has to deal with and some luck in close ballgames that can fluctuate win totals significantly from year to year in the 65-80 win range.

The Tigers went out last offseason and picked up Prince Fielder, yet went from 95 wins in 2011 to just 88 wins in 2012. The same thing happened when they made the big trade in the 2007-2008 offseason to pickup Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis as they went from 88 wins in 2007 to 74 wins in 2008.

On the flip side, the Orioles did not make any significant moves last offseason, and the Athletics actually mostly subtracted as they traded away their major pieces for a lot of young talent. The result was the Orioles going from 69 wins in 2011 to 93 wins last year, and the Athletics went from 74 wins in 2011 to 94 wins last year.

Heck, even the Indians went from a 69 win team in 2010 to an 80 win team in 2011 without much change to the roster.

Bottom line, it is almost impossible to predict what moves or non-moves will result in a jump or drop in wins from one year to the next. There are way too many other factors in play that affect how a season plays out for any one or two losses or additions to have a severe impact on a team’s success in a given season.

The easy part is becoming a mediocre team that wins 79-83 games, but the toughest part is finding the right mix of players and luck with avoiding injuries to push into the 87 or more wins area. Luck, health, and performance all equally have a big impact on the amount of wins a team has from one season to the next. Maximizing the wins in close games is probably the best way to impact a win total, and hopefully with the addition of Francona in the dugout, a deeper bullpen, and a better lineup all will help in that regard.

Opening Day fear

I actually fear what a poor start or poor season could do to all of the momentum built this offseason. If the Indians go out and have a 10-17 April showing, or go out and by the end of July are ten or more games under .500, then they could be back to square one with the fan base.

If there ever was a season that it was important to get off to a good start and just have a solid, consistent showing, it is this season. The fan base has been stirred with all of the activity in the offseason and they have responded by buying into the team with tickets and such, but that momentum has to continue to carry itself through this season to make people truly believe things are different.

There is no doubt that the culture within the organization from the front office down to the players is decidedly different than past years. There is a new energy throughout the organization that has carried down through the players and into the fans. But sustaining that energy is the toughest challenge ahead for the Indians, and the best way to do it and even add more to it is to go out and have a good start and good season overall.

No one should be expecting playoffs come hell or high water. But an exciting, fun season without too many lulls and 83-85 wins should be enough to maintain that momentum into what could be one of the most important offseason’s in the clubs history as they look to retool and make the final changes to the roster to make this team a true playoff contender in 2014.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

Rich
April 3, 2013 - 9:47 AM EDT
Great column. So much depends on the rotation as it could be anywhere from pretty good to very bad. However, if the offense steps up and does what they're capable of doing it could really help the starters.

Last night was a good example with Masterson being staked to an early lead which was increased to 4-1 by the 5th inning. If the starters have a few runs to work with they can relax and pitch more aggressively, leading to fewer walks and more balls put in play as the pitchers learn to trust the defense.

Once the starters realize (if they haven't already) that they have a good defense behind them and they don't have to hold the opponents to one or two runs, they can pitch aggressively and challenge the hitters.
Jim
April 2, 2013 - 12:15 PM EDT
OPENING DAY!!!!!

Normally, we can all scream happy as the Indians are in first place!

Of course, today, the Indians are in second, a half-game out.

DAMN YOU MLB!!!!

Cautious optimism indeed. This team could be really, really good, and a hard one to prognosticate for...which is the focus of Corner of Carnegie and Ontario tomorrow...should be fun...
Daingean
April 2, 2013 - 10:42 AM EDT
As an Indians fan (one who grew up in the 70's and survived the '80's) I will always have optimism this time of year. If not for optimism, I'd have probably switched favourite teams. Saying that, I do have a good deal of optimism for this team. Realistically I'm hoping for a Wild Card but I think we can overtake the Tiggers because of their Bullpen (which I think is just as important as starting pitching in this era).

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