The Indians were three wins shy of reaching the postseason for a second straight year, but their 85-77 record and late-season contention were signs that their successful 2013 season was no fluke. It was particularly encouraging given that two of the players key to the Indians' emergence as contenders -- Jason Kipnis and Justin Masterson -- had highly disappointing seasons.
One year after clouting 17 home runs and batting .284, Kipnis mustered only six home runs and hit .240. Masterson went 4-6 with a 5.51 ERA in 19 starts before he was dealt to the Cardinals. However, Michael Brantley emerged as the Indians' most powerful offensive force, picking up the slack for Kipnis, while Corey Kluber was a far more dominant ace than Masterson had been the year before.
While Brantley and Kluber were clearly the team's headliners, they received plenty of support. Former catcher Carlos Santana -- converted to third base and then to first base -- and current catcher Yan Gomes were particularly critical to an offense that ranked 11th in the majors in runs scored. Young starting pitchers Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and T.J. House had their moments as well, though only House compiled an ERA under 4.00. One area that was a clear upgrade was the closer's slot, which was previously held by Chris Perez. John Axford struggled in his brief time as the team's ninth-inning man, but Cody Allen thrived as his replacement, putting up a 2.07 ERA with 24 saves and 91 strikeouts in 69 2/3 innings.
The Indians haven't messed too much with success this offseason, with their splashiest move being the acquisition of first baseman/outfielder Brandon Moss from the Athletics for minor league second baseman Joe Wendle. Moss could fill one of two needs, providing an upgrade over incumbent right fielder David Murphy or replacing designated hitter/first baseman Nick Swisher if he is not fully recovered from knee surgery. Moss himself could have the start of his season delayed as he is working his way back from hip surgery he underwent in October. The team also signed free agent starting pitcher Gavin Floyd, who was on the verge of a breakout at age 31 before a fractured elbow and subsequent surgery put an early end to his 2014 season.
One of the biggest moves is not really a move at all. For most of last season, Carlos Carrasco thrived in a relief role, but he finished out the season in the rotation in spectacular fashion. His 5-3 record and 1.30 ERA in 10 stretch-run starts earned him a return engagement in the rotation. Not only does Carrasco give the Indians a potential stud to complement Kluber, but as a relief-eligible starter, he becomes highly-prized among Head-to-Head owners.
Though the Indians have the potential makings of a 90-win team, they don't have many players who have established themselves at a high level over an extended period. Santana comes closest to that profile, and even though he is no longer catcher-eligible, he is still worthy of a pick in the first five rounds in standard mixed leagues. Despite their more limited track record for success, Brantley and Kluber are legitimate early-rounders, too. The riches for Fantasy owners extend well beyond these three, and like a certain former member of the Miami Heat, you may be tempted to return to Cleveland in search of your next title.
2015 projected lineup
1. Michael Bourn, CF
2. Jose Ramirez, SS
3. Michael Brantley, LF
4. Carlos Santana, 1B
5. Jason Kipnis, 2B
6. Brandon Moss, RF
7. Yan Gomes, C
8. Nick Swisher, DH
9. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B
BENCH: Mike Aviles, 2B/3B/OF
BENCH: David Murphy, OF
2015 projected rotation
2015 projected bullpen
Bounceback candidate ... Jason Kipnis, second base
Kipnis burst onto the Fantasy scene three years ago with a blend of power and speed, and while he stole 22 bases in 25 tries in 2014, the power was largely absent. Perhaps the strained oblique Kipnis suffered early in the season was to blame, but even if not, it seems unlikely that he would completely lose an established skill in his age-27 season. Kipnis actually cut his strikeout rate last year, and his flyball and line drive rates were largely intact, so even if the reason for Kipnis' decline is unclear, there is reason for optimism that he can rebound. Offseason finger surgery should further depress Kipnis' value on Draft Day, but he could be a real bargain if he slides beyond the first six rounds in standard mixed leagues.
Sleeper ... Gavin Floyd, starting pitcher
Floyd only stuck around to make nine starts for the Braves last season prior to having elbow surgery, but his return from 2013's Tommy John surgery was looking to be a triumphant one. He registered a 12.5 percent swinging strike rate -- a mark that wouldn't look out of place on Max Scherzer's stat sheet. If Floyd could maintain that rate while getting more called strikes, he could become an elite strikeout pitcher. That's a tall order, but Floyd shouldn't cost more than a late-round pick, and he could offer an enormous return on investment if he takes the next step.
Deep league sleeper ... Giovanny Urshela, third base
The Indians' most glaring weakness last season was their defense, as they ranked dead last in team Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and second-to-last in defensive WAR. There are several spots on the diamond where they could improve in this regard, but one of the places where they could upgrade their defense without sacrificing offense is third base. Lonnie Chisenhall turned in his best season at the plate last year, but his production tailed off badly in the second half and his defense was abysmal. Urshela, on the other hand, has been noted for his good glove work, and he handled his first season in Triple-A well, posting a .276/.331/.473 slash line over 104 games. He doesn't project to be a world-beater offensively, and he could very well return to the minors, but Urshela could have enough of a bat to be worthy of a late-round pick in deeper leagues.
• Francisco Lindor never got the call to the majors last season, as Jose Ramirez took over as the Indians' shortstop after Asdrubal Cabrera was traded. Lindor is almost certain to make his debut
sometime this season, and he could offer a little something for everyone
in Fantasy -- a potentially high batting average and steals for
Rotisserie owners and a high walk-to-strikeout ratio for points leaguers.
• The Indians' first-round pick in the 2013 amateur draft, Clint Frazier spent 2014 in full-season A ball, and with 13 home runs and 12 stolen bases, he showed some power and speed potential. He struck out in more than one-third of his at-bats, though, so this popular dynasty league outfielder has some work to do as he rises through the minors.
• Outfielder Bradley Zimmer was the Indians' first-round pick in the 2014 amateur draft, and aside from three games in the Class A Midwest League, his first year in the organization was spent at the short-season A level. Zimmer showed considerably better contact skills than Frazier, and he, too, deserves strong consideration in dynasty leagues.
• Tyler Naquin doesn't have the ceiling of Frazier and Zimmer, but coming off a strong campaign at Double-A Akron, he could be in Cleveland much sooner. He only played 76 games because a broken hand abbreviated his season, but Naquin stole 14 bases in 17 attempts and batted .313 with a .371 on-base percentage. A lack of power limits his appeal in dynasty leagues, but he could have his uses in single-season Rotisserie leagues if he arrives at some point in 2015.