The Seattle Mariners head to Ohio in the A.L. West's second position and just one win away from .500. Ryan Richards of Let's Go Tribe is this series' guest.
|5/17||4:05 pm PDT||Ubaldo Jimenez vs. Brandon Maurer|
|5/18||10:05 am PDT||Zach McAllister vs. Joe Saunders|
|5/19||10:05 am PDT||Justin Masterson vs. Felix Hernandez|
|5/20||9:05 am PDT||Scott Kazmir vs. Hisashi Iwakuma|
Jon: The Indians unexpectedly emerged over the offseason as the top suitor for two of the best free agent hitters: Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. How did your expectations for this season change between the end of last season and Opening Day 2013? How have the new guys looked so far?
Ryan: The mood surrounding the team at the end of last season was about as dark as it could be. Manny Acta was a lame duck from the middle of August onwards, and it was apparent even from an outsider's perspective that he had completely lost the clubhouse. But even more painful than the remainder of the season was the prospect of the offseason. Yes, the Indians would hire another manager, but the scariest thoughts were centered on the upcoming roster shakeup. The farm system didn't really have any prospects ready to help in 2013, and the Indians had never been major players in the free agent market, so that meant veteran-for-prospect trades. Most of us expected that Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, and others would be dealt for prospects, a couple minor free agent signings would take place, and the team would treat 2013 as a rebuilding year, similar to what happened in 2002-2003 and 2009-2010. There was also the possibility that the entire front office would be let go given the failures in the farm system and at the major league level.
Then suddenly Terry Francona became interested in managing the Indians. It turned out that he had maintained friendships with Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti that began during his time with Cleveland in 2000, and saw the Indians, even in the state that they were in, as a great opportunity to return to managing. Francona even had a clause placed in his four-year contract that allowed him to leave if there was a change in the front office. So when the Indians hired Francona, it was a package deal, and that set the stage for what happened later that winter.
I don't want to go too much into what happened last offseason, other than that Choo was dealt, but three position players were signed (Swisher, Bourn, and Reynolds) that improved the lineup even with Choo's departure. I don't think many expect this club to win the division or anything, but they do see that the franchise seems to have a direction now, which is quite a departure from how things looked nine months ago.
As for how the additions have done this season, the answer is very well (with the exception of Brett Myers, who was throwing batting practice before going on the DL). Michael Bourn has been sidelined a large chunk of the season after he cut his finger in the middle of April, so I haven't really gotten a chance to see him play in long stretches, but of the little I have seen of him, he's matched expectations (excellent fielder, disruptive on the bases, a decent hitter). To say Nick Swisher has a bubbly personality would be a vast understatement; he was the one that put this together in Spring Training. Thankfully that's not all he brings to the table; he's been as advertised on offense, a patient hitter with power from both sides of the plate. And the Bourn signing has allowed Swisher to play more first base, which improves the defense at several positions (Bourn in center, Drew Stubbs in right, Swisher at first). While Bourn and Swisher have largely met expectations, Mark Reynolds has surpassed them. When the Indians signed him, I thought that Reynolds would hit some home runs but not much else. Well, he's hit home runs....
..but to this point he's also been a surprisingly complete hitter, cutting down his swing with two strikes and taking a pitch the other way if that's how he's pitched. At the rate he's going now, he'll strike out "only" 150 times if he has 600 Plate Appearances, quite a departure from his career norms.
Jon: Carlos Santana had a stellar rookie season cut short by a play at the plate back in 2010, but bounced back to put up strong walk and power numbers in 2011 and 2012. Now 27, Santana has started 2013 off with a bang, hitting .325/.438/.605. How much of this can be attributed to improvements in Santana's game? Is he capable of being one of the game's premier sluggers? Does your answer change if he abandons catching?
Ryan: Santana has been a patient hitter from the time he got the majors, but so far this season he's had more polished at-bats. Maybe that's a function of knowing the pitchers now, streamlining his swing, or a combination of both. I don't know if he'll ever become a good defender behind the plate, but his arm is good enough to limit the opposition's running game, so there's been no talk of moving him to a less demanding position. If later in his career he becomes more of a first baseman or DH (a la former Indian Victor Martinez), his bat should be good enough to keep him a valuable player even without the positional bonus.
Jon: Jason Kipnis and Dustin Ackley reached the big leagues at about the same time, sparking some debate (especially Indians fans versus Mariners fans) about who was better equipped to emerge as baseball's next great second baseman as Chase Utley, Brandon Phillips, Robinson Cano et al hit their 30s. Kipnis has outhit Ackley thus far, but both have fallen short of lofty expectations. Do you believe Kipnis can still make the leap to the top tier of second basemen? What areas of his game need to improve?
Ryan: To this point Kipnis hasn't put together a complete season, though he's shown stretches in his early career of dynamic play. Last year he really tailed off in the second half of the season (.233/.322/.328), perhaps because he wore down physically over his first full season. This season the Indians have some actual viable backup infielders (for long stretches in 2012 the backup middle infielder was former Mariner Jose Lopez), so Kipnis should get regular days off now, especially against difficult left-handers. He started this season in a gigantic slump (hitting .200/.269/.286 in April) before really catching fire over the past 2-3 weeks (along with the rest of the team) to get his season OPS to around league average. He's only been a second baseman for a little over four seasons, so you can sometimes tell that he's not a finished product in the field (turning double plays, for instance), so that area of his game still has room for improvement. I think he's still very much capable of becoming one of those top tier second baseman, although if you had asked me this question a couple of weeks ago, my answer might have been different.