Indians hoping the doctor ordered a rebound year after his double knee surgeries
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There has been a lot of chatter about what the Indians should do to improve their chances of being a playoff team in 2015. The debate mostly comes down to whether to add to the pitching staff or the offense. Both sides have sensible arguments. Most of the guys who contributed to the strong performance of the rotation down the stretch were having their first sustained success at the major league level, so it seems likely that one or more of them will regress somewhat or at least hit a bump in the road as hitters adjust to them, so acquiring some depth to guard against that would make sense. Against that you have the way the offense nosedived in 2014, especially down the stretch. The Indians actually finished seventh in the league in runs scored, but it sure seemed like scoring three runs in a game was a big accomplishment towards the end of the season.
I have already blogged about the need to add pitching, based on the idea that, after Corey Kluber, nobody on the staff has the kind of track record that justifies anointing them the number two starter. Obviously, a number two starter comes with a price tag the Indians may be unwilling to meet, unless they go after someone near the end of a contract, like Johnny Cueto. If the Reds would take, say, Trevor Bauer and Jose Ramirez for Cueto, I would probably do it, but I get the feeling the Indians wouldn’t.
Aug 2, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians designated hitter Nick Swisher (33) reacts after striking out during the fourth inning against the Texas Rangers at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
So the question is, is it a choice between pitching and hitting, or can they do both? I would rather fix one or the other in a big way than do a half-assed job of both. If I am sitting in the general manager’s seat, the choice probably comes down to two words: Nick Swisher. Quite simply, if Swisher can come back to the 25 homer, .350 OBP level that he was before he came to Cleveland, there is no need to add offense. If he can even get to his 2013 numbers again, I would probably stand pat offensively. I haven’t looked at the history of players coming back from knee surgery at age 34, but I suspect it would not be good news. If Swisher can handle a spot in the middle of the order and Jason Kipnis rebounds, you are looking at the first seven spots in the order being Bourn, Kipnis, Brantley, Santana, Swisher, Gomes, and Chisenhall. All but Bourn have had an OPS above .760 in either 2013 or 2014. If the Indians get an average of .760 OPS from those six spots and .650 from the other three, they would have one of the top five offenses in the American League, based on 2013 numbers. You can win a division with that lineup, if you get pitching anywhere near what the Indians got the last two months of the season.
There is one thing I would change, and it goes back to a pet peeve about manager Terry Francona. Because the Indians essentially went with a bench of Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn all year, there were no alternatives available for platoon situations, slumps, or minor injuries. Kipnis, Bourn, and David Murphy all had OPS above .700 against right handed pitching, so if the Indians had viable alternatives to platoon with some or all of those guys against lefties, the lineup could be strong no matter who was pitching. Aviles is a good guy and has value because of his versatility, but anytime he is hitting higher than eighth in the lineup it’s a bad sign. Raburn has alternated between solid seasons and faceplants for the past four years. While he is due for a bounceback, I can’t see going into next season planning on him playing regularly, even against lefthanders. That probably means that the Indians will need to swallow hard and have an additional guy on the bench with some punch to play right field against lefthanders, which would seem more important under the circumstances than an eighth reliever. Let’s hope the front office sees it that way. One solution would be to play Swisher in right field against lefthanders, possibly allowing righhanded Roberto Perez (even though he had a .398 OPS against lefthanders) to catch and Yan Gomes to DH. I would be very hesitant to do this, because I have no confidence that Swisher can play the field and stay healthy. I would rather have him focus on DH and keep his bat in the lineup than try him in right field (where he hasn’t been good lately, even when healthy) and cross our fingers that he doesn’t get hurt again. Let’s see how he looks in spring training before committing to that idea.