Michael Bourn is your stereotypical speedy leadoff hitter, though in 2013, his stolen base success rate (and overall total) took a huge dive. His once-great defense slipped a good deal as well. Bourn was just 30 last year, so it's hard to blame Father Time just yet. At his best, he can reach base at a good clip and play a pretty great center field. A hamstring injury currently has Bourn sidelined, but he's expected to return during this series. Until then, Nyjer Morgan will be filling in for him. Now 33 years old, Nick Swisher continues to do Nick Swisher things, most of which involve the Three True Outcomes and/or goofballery. Swisher consistently puts up homer totals in the 20s, posts an above-average OBP, and plays a good first base. The strikeouts are still there in full force, but as Swisher was oh-so-kind to remind us last year, he's a much better player than what he showed in his lost season in Chicago.
The pride of Northbrook, Ill., Jason Kipnis is one of the top-hitting second basemen you'll find. He has great power for a middle infielder and draws more than his fair share of walks. To complete the package, Kipnis even steals bases both frequently and efficiently. His defense at the keystone remains a work in progress, but even at his present level, Kipnis is already one of the best players in the division. We'd better get used to him, because Cleveland recently locked him up through the end of the decade. The Indians moved Carlos Santana's primary position from catcher to third base this year to maximize the potency of their lineup. It's something of a relief for Indians fans, because as a catcher, Santana is miserable at both throwing and framing. With the lumber, Santana has good pop and great plate discipline. He saw more pitches per plate appearance in 2013 than anyone not named Mike Napoli, so he'll be a notable obstacle to the efficiency of our starting pitchers.
I am very surprised that Michael Brantley wound up shedding the "tweener" label over the past couple of years. Brantley's contact skills and modest plate discipline now get him on base enough to be playable in a corner, though his defense in left is surprisingly uninspired for someone who was tasked to patrol center on a regular basis just two years ago. In Cleveland media circles, he's tabbed with the nickname "Dr. Smooth". Do with that what you will.
Age-27 seasons can sure be magical, but Asdrubal Cabrera would probably prefer to forget his. The offense-first shortstop saw his OBP dip below .300, due in large part to a career-high strikeout rate. Cabrera is a good bounce-back candidate that can still be counted on for good power for his position, defense that's sub-par (despite how much you'll hear Hawk Harrelson gush about his glovework), and a moniker that lends itself to derogatory nicknames. In most cities, if you have a good-but-flawed sports team that reaches the playoffs, you'd generally expect management to make a big acquisition to maintain momentum. In Cleveland, management buys low on David Murphy and hopes fans don't complain too loudly. On the plus side, Murphy has pretty much nowhere to go but up from a disastrous 2013, because it's near-impossible to have a .227 BABIP without a good deal of bad luck. On the minus side, there was a good deal of weak contact involved, so he needs to get back to squaring up pitches. Assuming that was a one-year blip for the 32-year-old, you can expect Murphy to be a near league-average hitter in 2014.
Cleveland looks like they've bagged themselves yet another pretty good asset in Yan Gomes, a slugging catcher that won't embarrass himself behind the plate. Gomes broke out down the stretch last year for Cleveland and has enough power to keep the Indians well in the black at the position, even if his batting average tails off a little bit in 2014, which it likely will. Lonnie Chisenhall, cool name and all, has been something of a disappointment, but he possesses good (and still developing) power. BABIP woes contributed to last season's struggles, which resulted in lost playing time to Mike Aviles and (indirectly) Jason Giambi. Chisenhall isn't a lost cause just yet, but the Indians may run out of patience if he has a rough couple of months. He can't find it too comforting that he's the one bumped to DH when Santana isn't spelling Gomes at catcher. The Sox won't see him right away, because he's on paternity leave.
Justin Masterson absolutely terrorized the White Sox last year, holding our hitters to a mere line of .193/.267/.275. That's more or less equivalent to what right-handed hitters across the league do against him. Against lefties, however, Masterson remains quite mortal. Baseball's premier wormkiller led qualified pitchers in ground ball percentage last year, but what really helped Masterson take another step forward was an uptick in strikeouts fueled by increased reliance on his very good slider.
Corey Kluber is living evidence that pitchers, too, have magical age-27 seasons. The late bloomer exhibited very good command and control in 2013, and the result was a 4.12 K/BB ratio. Kluber mixes in curveballs, sliders, and changeups well, but it's the sinker that he's increasingly started to favor, so there's reason to believe that his ground ball rate may be on the climb. Danny Salazar is scary, and he can get scarier. His heater sits in the mid-upper 90's, and it's accompanied by a wipeout splitter. Like most Cleveland Indians, he gave our Sox fits last year, including a game in which he fanned 9 White Sox in fewer than 4 innings.
Zach McAllister's to-date run prevention ability is something of an enigma. His strikeout rate is just okay, he doesn't have great control, and he's a fairly extreme flyball pitcher. xFIP thinks that tough times are ahead because theoretically, more of those fly balls should be leaving the premises. It's likely that he's due for regression this season, but as fans that have had the privilege of watching Mark Buehrle should know, metrics aren't necessarily everything.
Carlos Carrasco's potential has been tantalizing for years, but the 27-year-old's results continue to be nothing but frustrating. After missing the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery, he returned to the majors last year and allowed a 9.00 ERA in his seven starts, with peripherals to match. A brief stint in the bullpen last season showed Carrasco's stuff play up in a relief role, but the Indians are still holding out hope that he can stick in the rotation.
After Chris Perez failed his way out of town, the Indians brought in John Axford to slam the door in the ninth. Axford finished 2013 strong with St. Louis, but that was a pretty small sample. The larger sample tells the story of a pitcher with a track record of command and control issues. Although he has plenty of swing-and-miss ability, Axford has historically allowed more homers, hits, and walks than your average reliever. Against a lot of great closers, you get a helpless feeling watching your trailing team bat in the ninth, but as long as Axford's the man in Cleveland, the door will be open.
Outlook & Prediction: Last season, the White Sox and Indians struck a deal before the games took place. The Sox agreed to get the Indians into the playoffs, and in exchange, the Indians had to secure a top-three pick in the draft for the Sox. Both sides played their part perfectly, but it's now 2014 and in the absence of another under-the-table handshake, there's no way Cleveland will win 17 games against the Sox again. The Indians' starting rotation will likely struggle to be as good as last year's. Predicted record and finish: 80-82, third place, AL Central