August 1, 2014

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Chris Assenheimer: Believe it, Indians will win Central

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — I know we are less than a week into the exhibition season, but I’ve got a prediction to make and it can’t wait.

The Indians are going to win the Central Division.

Don’t act so shocked. Though they weren’t given much credit for it when they lost the ridiculously formatted one-game American League wild-card playoff to Tampa Bay, the Indians finished last year atop the wild-card race.

That means they would have qualified for the postseason under the old playoff format, regardless of an extra available spot.

The Rays couldn’t say as much.

Know where else the Indians finished? One game behind three-time division champion Detroit. Granted, the Tigers were resting regulars at the end of the season after clinching the division, but finishing a game behind a team that challenged for a World Series title, is still Am — pardon the pun, Chief Wahoo haters — a feather in the Tribe’s cap.

Of course, for my call to ring true, the Indians have to finish ahead of those same Tigers, who have dominated the division over recent years and — with Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer still residing in Detroit — figure to once again be the favorite going in.

I know what you’re thinking. How in the world are the Indians going to unseat the Tigers when they couldn’t beat them head-to-head all season long last year? And that’s a legitimate question after watching Detroit win 15 of 19 games against Cleveland in 2013.

Here’s how.

While the Tigers are clearly still a talented bunch, they did take some significant hits in the offseason, losing one of their top offensive weapons in Prince Fielder, and one of their quality starters in Doug Fister. Detroit also saw the departures of All-Star shortstop Jhonny Peralta and top-shelf reliever Joaquin Benoit.

The Tigers added Ian Kinsler and closer Joe Nathan, but there’s no way you can say they are a better team now than they were in 2013.

I think the Indians are.

Young core players such as Michael Brantley and All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis have another year of experience on their resumes. If they continue to progress, one could expect even better seasons than the above-average ones they posted last year.

The Indians are also counting on increased production from a number of players with proven track records, such as Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Asdrubal Cabrera — all of whom struggled last year, with Swisher and Bourn dealing with injuries.

It’s not like all three are ancient veterans that have lost a step or no longer have it at the end of a sparkling career. It would be surprising if they all didn’t come closer to their traditional numbers in 2014, which makes the Indians a better team instantly.

For the most part, Cleveland’s wild-card roster has returned intact. That’s a plus. And the pivotal players the Indians lost in the offseason have been replaced, despite the club experiencing a much quieter winter than last time around.

Yes, the Indians are without two members of their 2013 rotation in Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, but they are covered in one of the spots by a phenom named Danny Salazar, who appears pegged for stardom after a breakthrough season last year.

Elite setup man Joe Smith is gone, and so is closer Chris Perez. But the Indians might have found a better closer on the free-agent market in John Axford, who saved at least 35 games for Milwaukee in 2011 and ’12.

They are counting on Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen — two highly effective relievers last year — to fill Smith’s role, while Cleveland is hoping to see a return to form from Vinnie Pestano, who was an elite setup man for two years before struggling with injuries and ineffectiveness last season.

Once again the Indians’ bench is on solid ground, with Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi all back in the fold.

The only glaring hole I can see at the outset of the season is the fifth starter. The same can probably be said about nearly every team in the majors.

Then there’s the Terry Francona factor. He obviously had an effect last season, with the Indians making the postseason for the first time since 2007 in his debut year. Guys just want to play for Francona. You hear it all the time. If Tito has the means, he WILL get results.

Obviously, injuries to key players, such as the ones that dogged Swisher and Bourn last year, could sidetrack the Indians. But if they stay healthy, don’t be surprised to see them sitting atop the Central Division at the end of September.

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