Monday, April 6, 2015

Tribe, Astros bring high hopes into Opening Day tilt

Within the past year, the Indians and Astros have both been placed upon a Sports Illustrated cover and touted as a World Series pick -- the Astros for 2017, the Indians for 2015.
So maybe, on that surface-level scale, the contention timetables for these two clubs meeting at 7 p.m. ET on Monday night at Minute Maid Park appears to differ. But Terry Francona's Indians, having made the playoffs in 2013 after losing 94 games the previous season, provide a template for Houston, which lost 92 last year, to follow after a very encouraging offseason.
In other words, don't dismiss either of these clubs, even if their payrolls pale in comparison to that of some of their respective division peers.
The Indians, with their up-and-coming rotation led by reigning Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and their solid middle of the order, and the Astros, with their power-prone lineup and underrated rotation, both have high hopes for 2015.
"I don't think you need to look at salaries," Francona said. "When the game starts, you need to try to figure out a way to be one run better than the other team. That's how we always view it."
Yes, baseball lends itself to surprises, and the two men taking the mound Monday -- Kluber and Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel -- are prime examples.
They are of a similar age (Kluber is 28, Keuchel is 27), they are at similar points in their big league careers (Kluber has pitched 450 1/3 innings in the bigs, Keuchel 439), and both broke out in a big way in '14.
Kluber has his hands full if he's going to repeat last year's success, which prompted a too-close-to-call Cy Young debate that pitted him against established Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. Kluber was sensational in 34 starts, with a 2.44 ERA, 269 strikeouts against just 51 walks in 235 2/3 innings and an unrelenting steely gaze.
Suffice it to say the Indians don't think the Popular Mechanics cover boy (within the issue, he teaches you how to throw a curveball) is a fluke.
"That was not smoke and mirrors," Francona said. "That was a kid figuring it out." The Indians rewarded Kluber for his efforts on the eve of Opening Day inking the hurler to a five-year contract that includes team options for the 2020 and '21 seasons. With a guaranteed base value of $38.5 million, the deal is the richest for a pre-arbitration pitcher in Major League history. It also has the potential to keep Kluber in a Cleveland uniform through his 35th birthday.
Keuchel has figured some things out, too. He hit the 200-innings mark square on the nose in 29 starts last year and delivered a 2.93 ERA. He doesn't rack up K's at the rate of a Kluber, but he has begun to successfully implement a slider as his third pitch to go with his changeup and sinker.
"Dallas very rarely misses badly, and I think hitters realize that," said Houston pitching coach Brent Strom, "so they're always on swing mode."
Watch the way Kluber and Keuchel work around the knees of opposing batters in this game. Per BaseballSavant.com, they both ranked in the top 10 in swinging and called strike percentage below the defined strike zone last season.
The Opening Day starters are, of course, just one small part of the bigger picture that makes these two clubs intriguing.
If the Astros can harness the strikeouts, a Jose Altuve-led lineup now featuring key acquisitions Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus, big power from Chris Carter and rising talent George Springer can take them far. If Michael Brantley can repeat his near-MVP successes of '14 and new addition Brandon Moss can bring a power boost and Jason Kipnis can rebound, the Indians' lineup looks pretty productive, too.
Opening Day is but one little window into whether these two clubs can make some noise in their divisions this year. So think of it as the cover photo enticing you to see what's inside.

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