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Functional Band-Aids: A Cleveland Indians preview

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A look ahead at the team many predicted to win the AL Central

Pictured: Moondog (left), a Cy Young winner (right)
Pictured: Moondog (left), a Cy Young winner (right)
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals had similarly quiet offseasons, but while the latter's plan represented a failure to make a push to cash in on a window of opportunity, the former's strategy is much easier to understand.

The Indians have had the payroll of a small market team for years, and 2014 was certainly no execption.  Their $82.5 million player budget for 2014 ranked 26th in baseball, and it got just a slight bump this season to $88 million. With that constraint in place, wiggle room on player moves can be hard to come by.  Further hurting their cause is the fact that a big chunk of their cash for 2015 is tied up in two players who are coming off of extremely disappointing seasons in Nick Swisher ($15 million) and Michael Bourn ($13.5 million).  A big market team might be able to absorb that, but for the Indians, that's about a third of their payroll in dead money if neither guy bounces back.

Still, the Indians were able to execute a couple of notable moves on the cheap to help their chances for this season. They traded for Oakland's Brandon Moss, a lefty slugger who should be able to displace the similarly left-handed David Murphy's disappointing play in right field. Also brought in was former White Sox starter Gavin Floyd, who looked very good in nine starts for the Braves last season before breaking his olecranon. Floyd unfortunately re-injured his elbow during spring training, and it's unclear whether he'll pitch this season.

Moss and Floyd (if he returns) will supplement a very nice core of young talent that should keep the Indians contending for years to come.  Leading the charge is left fielder Michael Brantley, who in 2014 became baseball's unlikeliest MVP candidate by posting a .327 batting average, 20 homers, and 45 doubles. Dr. Smooth was the fourth-toughest player to strike out in baseball last season, so there's a good chance he'll be able to maintain a lot of his gains, provided the back issue that's been bothering him all spring doesn't hamper his play too much.

Less surprising was Yan Gomes' powerful bat giving the Indians a true offensive weapon from the catcher position and challenging Salvador Perez for the title of best catcher in the division. Gomes is no slouch behind the dish either, as he provides value with his framing ability and by controlling the running game. He's unfortunately out for six to eight weeks with an MCL sprain that he sustained when Rajai Davis slid into his leg. That's a tough pill for the Indians to swallow, but the injury could have actually been a lot worse, and backup Roberto Perez is one of the game's better reserve catchers.

The third Indians hitter to break out in 2014 was third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, though if you look hard at his 2014 season, you'll see a lot of Conor Gillaspie in there.  He's disappointing at defense, hit for average and middling power, absolutely crushed it in the first half of last season, and came crashing down to earth down the stretch. That's where the similarities end though, as he hugs out of his own free will.

Elsewhere, former All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis will look to rebound from a rough season in which he was hampered by abdominal and leg injuries, while power-hitting Carlos Santana looks to lead the major leagues in walks again and prove he's very valuable no matter how far he falls down the defensive spectrum. Shortstop Jose Ramirez should be an effective stopgap until the Indians promote defensive wunderkind Francisco Lindor, who is a top-10 prospect in all of baseball.

The Indians back up their lineup with a rotation headlined by American League Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber, whose superb mechanics help him command his hard fastball and biting slider. The latter induced whiffs on 45 percent of swings last season, which actually compares pretty favorably to Chris Sale, who sits in the 36-41 percent range. Backing up Kluber is Carlos Carrasco, who I described last year as a pitcher with tantalizing potential but frustrating results. The results finally caught up in the second half of 2014, as he allowed just a .487 OPS to opposing hitters that were stymied by his off-speed stuff.

In addition to a strong top-two, the Indians have a deep cast of starting pitchers that aren't all that exciting, but can eat innings without burning the place down. Trevor Bauer looks like he'll be able to stick after 26 respectable starts last year, despite some wildness. His first start of 2015 featured him getting pulled after six innings with an 11-strikeout no-hitter in progress due to control issues inflating his pitch count.

Continuing down the line, T.J. House's slider and excellent control make him a great swingman, and Zach McAllister is coming off of a great spring in which he made encouraging progress with his curveball and splitter. McAllister's preseason performance (and lack of remaining minor league options) gave the Indians enough confidence to stash hard-throwing Danny Salazar at Triple-A after a rough spring. There's a chance that Floyd comes back later this year, and heck, if the Indians still need another guy, Josh Tomlin is still haunting the bowels of Progressive Field someplace (though he'll be out for awhile).

This extensive group of starting pitchers and the excellent balance the Indians have all over the roster probably mark their greatest strength: depth. No team in the division looks better-poised to withstand an injury to a key guy. That's being tested early on, as Swisher, Floyd, Brantley, and now Gomes have been banged up already, but the Indians should find a way to persevere. Thanks to their ability to patch holes, the Indians look to be the least likely team of the four AL Central contenders to just fall out of the race entirely. They're well-poised to make a run at the division crown in 2015, and appear to be set up for future years better than any other rival. All of this has been accomplished while being the only franchise in the division with a payroll below $100 million. If success leads to increased financial flexibility, the Cleveland Indians could become a very serious problem.

Predicted Record and Finish: 84-78, 2nd place, AL Central

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Michael Bourn - CF

SP1. Corey Kluber - RHP

2. Jason Kipnis - 2B

SP2. Carlos Carrasco - RHP

3. Michael Brantley - LF

SP3. Trevor Bauer - RHP

4. Carlos Santana - 1B

SP4. Zach McAllister - RHP

5. Brandon Moss - RF

SP5. T.J. House - LHP

6. David Murphy - DH

CL. Cody Allen - RHP

7. Lonnie Chisenhall - 3B

RP1. Bryan Shaw - RHP

8. Jose Ramirez - SS

RP2. Scott Atchison - RHP

9. Roberto Perez - C

RP3. Mark Rzepczynski - LHP