Friday 5: Questions the Cleveland Indians face this season

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The Cleveland Indians have turned in back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since the mid-to-late 1990s and the whole world is talking.

Reigning Cy Young winner Corey Kluber returns to the top of the rotation and AL MVP candidate Michael Brantley remains a staple in the middle of the lineup. Sports Illustrated has tabbed the youthful bunch as one to be reckoned with in 2015, even despite not having won an AL Central crown since 2007.

Sure, the Tribe has a talented group of budding stars. From Brantley and Kluber to Jason Kipnis and Yan Gomes, this team could challenge the division heavyweight Detroit Tigers for the division. But they could also regress and wallow to the middle of a competitive division.

What can we realistically expect from this year’s version of the Cleveland Indians? Here are five questions they face heading into the regular season.

(1) Can Indians’ starters turn potential into results?

Many experts around the league have tabbed this bunch as one of the top rotations in possible, ranking them alongside the elite groups in Washington and Los Angeles.

All of that, of course, is based on potential. But potential is a dangerous word.

Kluber is the only “sure thing” in the rotation, but even he has started just 70 big league games to date. Kluber was 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA last season, posting three complete games and throwing nearly 90 innings more than he did the year before.

Still, the Tribe had a member of its staff post a 1.30 ERA and allowed the opposition to hit just .179 against him in his last 10 starts in 2014 — and it wasn’t Kluber. It was Carlos Carrasco, who is also listed first on Sports Illustrated’s list of American League breakout players. Remember, though, this is still the same Carrasco who was 0-3 with a 6.46 ERA in five starts last April. Left-hander T.J. House quietly threw 102 innings while posting an impressive 3.35 ERA. He, too, is listed as a sleeper pick in 2015. And for good reason. House posted a 2.89 ERA in August and an unhittable 1.50 mark in September. But his career has only begun and a strong rookie campaign is not always the most appropriate litmus test for a player’s career.

As if those were not big enough question marks, throw in the wildly inconsistent Zach McAllister and Trevor Bauer and the Tribe is looking at an unproven, untested group of arms that could carry them deep into the playoffs.

Or it could not. It’s still too early to tell.

Sep 28, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians left fielder Michael Brantley (23) and second baseman Jason Kipnis (22) leave the field after the Indians

(2) Who will help Michael Brantley carry the offense?

Michael Brantley nearly carried an inconsistent offense into the playoffs last season. He hit .328/.385/.506 on the year, setting career highs in seemingly every offensive category.

Dr. Smooth was nothing short of incredible.

Still, the Tribe missed out on a second consecutive playoff appearance because the rest of the offense struggled with consistency. Despite ranking in the top half of the league in runs scored, the Indians wasted a number of dazzling pitching performances in the middle part of the season.

Cleveland certainly has a number of capable sidekicks, as a healthy Jason Kipnis and stable Carlos Santana could prove key. The power of Brandon Moss, especially outside the pitcher-friendly confines of O.co Coliseum, could be the missing piece to an Indians’ playoff run. And another full season with one of the game’s best catchers, Yan Gomes, could very well be the answer.

No matter the player, the Indians desperately need a second dynamic — and consistent — bat in the lineup. Detroit has Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez (plus more). Chicago has Jose Abreu and Melky Cabrera.

Who will step up and take some pressure off Brantley this season and, eventually, lead the Tribe to another playoff appearance?

(3) Who is the real Lonnie Chisenhall?

Despite a near flawless performance before the All-Star break last season, the Cleveland Indians still have no idea what Lonnie Chisenhall can provide moving forward.

He was a breakout performer for the Tribe through June, batting .332 with nine home runs and 41 RBIs in the first three months of the season. Though he was often protected from strong left-handed pitching, Chisenhall made significant strides toward realizing his potential in 2014. He, along with Michael Brantley, carried the load for a sputtering Tribe offense — so much so, in fact, that Chisenhall was widely considered a snub after being left off the All-Star roster.

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  • Then he never showed in July and remained absent for the rest of the season.

    He posted atrocious numbers at the plate, hitting .218/.277/.315 in 63 games. Chisenhall regressed back to the same player who hit .225 and .268 in part-time roles in the previous two seasons. Even worse, Chisenhall was equally bad in the field. He had 18 errors in 108 starts, good for the No. 19-ranked range factor (2.21) among qualified third basemen. His dWAR of -1.5, too, was good for second-to-last in the league.

    Given those defensive inefficiencies, the leash is extremely tight this year for Chisenhall. If he doesn’t produce at the plate and show significant improvement at the hot corner, Francona could very well be in search of a third baseman — likely either Mike Aviles or Giovanny Urshela — to man the position down the stretch.

    (4) Is the bullpen still a point of strength?

    The Cleveland Indians bullpen was among the best in baseball last season, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a repeat effort in 2015. Pitching, especially out of the bullpen, is often an unpredictable, inexact science. (If you don’t believe me, just ask former Tribe reliever Vinny Pestano how quickly things can go downhill.)

    Cleveland returns six relievers from last season, including Kyle Crockett, Scott Atchison, Bryan Shaw, Nick Hagadone, Marc Rzepczynski and closer Cody Allen. Much of the Indians’ success this season is going to fall heavily on that group, as nobody asks more from the ‘pen than Terry Francona, who established an American League record with 574 relief appearances in 2014.

    Rich Exner of the Northeast Ohio Media Group put together a fascinating piece, grading the Tribe’s bullpen based on what happened after the starters left. He wrote:

    "Francona’s record-setting use of the bullpen was a success. The team was ahead in 71 games and behind in 72 when the starters were removed. Another nine games were tied. They were basically a .500 team when the starters were pulled. But, in the end, the Indians finished eight games above .500 last season with a record of 85-77."

    While Tribe fans might reasonably expect a similar performance this season, nothing is guaranteed until it comes to fruition. They could be looking at another set of baseball’s most dynamic relief corps.

    Or they could be looking at a group chalked full of the next Pestano or the next Jim Johnson. Let’s hope for the former.

    (5) Have the Indians done enough to fill the seats?

    Can you see it now? Picture Downtown Cleveland in May. The Cavaliers are competing for the NBA Championship and the Tribe season is in full swing. It’s an exciting time for Cleveland sports.

    More from Away Back Gone

    By the looks of attendance figures over the last  10 seasons, though, a legitimate World Series contender does not actually reside in Cleveland. They have been ranked no higher than 24th in the league in attendance over the last three season, as the per-game average has fallen drastically since 2008, when the Tribe attracted 28,448 fans to Progressive Field.

    To combat the issue, Tribe brass poured several million dollars into renovating Progressive Field this offseason with the goal of enhancing the guest experience. The renovation trades nearly 7,000 seats and some empty suites for new gather areas, bringing the total capacity from 42,404 to 35,400. Among the changes are:

    • an expanded Kids Clubhouse, which will grow to two levels and introduce new and improved attractions for families
    • a climate-controlled, two-story bar in right field
    • a dramatic new entrance at Gate C, which will give fans a breathtaking view of the Cleveland skyline
    • redesigned bullpens that allow for unique interaction with players
    • a strong connection to Indians’ storied history, with the Bob Feller and Jim Thome statues consolidated at Gate C — and to be joined this season by a Larry Doby statue
    • a strong connection to Cleveland, as popular neighborhoods like Ohio City and Tremont are incorporated into the new concourse

    In addition to the ballpark renovations, the Indians will field one of the most exciting teams in baseball. The addition of slugger Brandon Moss gives Cleveland a power bat they haven’t seen since the heyday of Travis Hafner.

    But is all that enough to inspired a depleting fan base?

    Next: 5 bold predictions in 2015

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