Cleveland Indians: OVER 80.5 wins
That number looks … off, doesn’t it? The Indians surged to 92 wins last year behind one of the most powerful offenses in the league and a young, effective starting rotation. Very little has changed for the worse. While losing Ubaldo Jimenez’s impressive 2013 numbers will hurt, getting a full season from Official 2013 Grantland Crush Danny Salazar and a breakout campaign from fellow right-handed starter Corey Kluber could mitigate that loss. With none of Cleveland’s five projected starters older than 28, there’s upside across the board here.
If you’re looking for an X factor, though, consider something for which the typical projection systems and even Vegas likely won’t properly account: This season, Carlos Santana will no longer be Cleveland’s primary catcher. Whether you’re examining multiyear or single-year numbers, Santana consistently grades out as one of the worst pitch framers in the game. And while analysts are just beginning to quantify the effects of pitch blocking and other defensive skills for catchers, the industry consensus has long been that Santana is a designated hitter who happens to wear a mask. Assuming the Tribe do the right thing by making Santana the everyday DH while handing primary backstop duties to Yan Gomes, who was one of the best receivers in the league last year according to the above metrics, it wouldn’t be a stretch to project something like a two- or three-win improvement based on that move alone. And that might even be understating it. If Gomes’s defensive skills are allowed to flourish over 120-plus starts, it could help push Cleveland’s young staff to elite status this season.
Combine all that with a balanced lineup that will get even better when top shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor reaches the big leagues — and frees up the Indians to consider trading Asdrubal Cabrera to address whatever weaknesses might arise — and it’s really tough to imagine the Indians finishing below .500 … which is what would have to happen to lose this bet. This is my highest-confidence wager for 2014.