October 22, 2014

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Indians: Five biggest stories to watch this spring

Cleveland Indians John Axford, third from left, and David Aardsma joke in the dugout before a spring training game against the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear, Ariz., Wednesday. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Cleveland Indians John Axford, third from left, and David Aardsma joke in the dugout before a spring training game against the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear, Ariz., Wednesday. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — All those yearning to forget, for a moment, the wicked winter weather that has engulfed Ohio for much of the past three months got their wish Wednesday.

The Indians were back — well, almost — and that’s likely plenty good enough for Tribe fans that caught wind of an 8-3 loss to the Reds in the exhibition opener at Goodyear Ballpark.

With the start of the exhibition season come different expectations than last year for a team that surprisingly won the American’s League’s top wild-card spot under the direction of first-year manager Terry Francona.

But even with raised expectations, there are still questions surrounding the Indians.

Here are five of the biggest stories this spring, as the Tribe begins its countdown to the regular-season opener March 31 in Oakland:

The final piece
The Indians lost two members of their rotation in Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who landed long-term contracts with other teams after successful seasons in Cleveland.

The Indians appear to be covered in one of the spots by phenom Danny Salazar, whose future looks bright after a breakout end to last season.

But Cleveland will have to find a fifth starter to join Salazar, Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister. That figures to come from a pool that includes Carlos Carrasco, Wednesday’s starter Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and veterans Aaron Harang and Shaun Marcum.

Carrasco and Bauer are young and have loads of ability, but both have dealt with mental issues. The Indians would like to see one of them stand out this spring and not have to hope they hit on another veteran addition, such as Kazmir in 2013.

Third’s the word
This is a spring of experiment for the Indians and Carlos Santana, who is giving third base a whirl after the emergence of catcher Yan Gomes. Santana’s competition is a familiar face in former first-round draft pick Lonnie Chisenhall, who has failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities on the big league level.

Unless Santana is a total failure defensively at third, he’s going to be the starter. He’s a proven run producer and one of Cleveland’s top offensive weapons — and he is not in favor of serving as the designated hitter.

The only way Chisenhall makes the team is if he’s the starter at third. Unlike Santana, DH opportunities won’t be available for Chisenhall, who bats left-handed, just like veteran Jason Giambi.

Revamped relievers
One of the strengths of the club for years, the bullpen lost four members from last year’s group this offseason, including two-time All-Star closer Chris Perez and elite setup man Joe Smith. John Axford takes over for Perez, and the Indians are confident they have the replacements for Smith in right-handers Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw — both of whom pitched well last year in late-inning roles. Cleveland is also hoping former elite setup man Vinnie Pestano returns to form after battling injuries and ineffectiveness for much of last year.

Bullpens change faces on a constant basis and are fickle by nature. Still, this new one needs to mesh fast. A weakness in this area spells doom for plenty of talented teams.

The right choice
Drew Stubbs is gone after one unproductive season in Cleveland, and veteran David Murphy is here to take his place in right field.

Like Stubbs, Murphy is coming off a down year, but he’s a proven hitter — .275 lifetime in six-plus seasons — and is a serviceable defender.

If Murphy stumbles again, the Indians have Ryan Raburn, who earned a multiyear contract after one of his best seasons in the majors in 2013. It might wind up being a platoon situation, with the left-handed-hitting Murphy facing right-handers and the right-handed-hitting Raburn facing lefties.

Either way, the Indians appear to be better off in right field than they were when they opened last season — at least offensively.

Stars are reborn
The Indians are counting on much more from two of their 2013 marquee offseason additions — Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. The pair struggled through injury-plagued, unproductive debut seasons in Cleveland after securing lucrative long-term contracts.

The Indians are easing both back into the lineup this spring in hopes that they can hit the regular season with a clean bill of health. Neither played in the exhibition opener.
The Indians were able to overcome down years from both, ranking among the American League leaders in runs. Just think what they might be able to do with Swisher and Bourn having better years.

Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or cassenheimer@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him @CAwesomeheimer on Twitter.