CLEVELAND — Five things to know about the Cleveland Indians as they start spring training camp:
RAISED BAR: Manager Terry Francona’s magic touch helped the Indians return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 last season. In his first year with Cleveland, the AL manager of the year guided the club through a sometimes turbulent six months, which ended with a one-game loss to Tampa Bay in the AL wild-card game. Francona’s steady hand kept the Indians on track, and their 92-win season and postseason appearance has them believing they can challenge Detroit for the AL Central title and play deeper into October.
CLOSE THE DEAL: After four seasons, the Indians cut ties with colorful and controversial closer Chris Perez, whose off-the-field issues overshadowed the two-time All-Star’s successes and became a distraction. The club signed John Axford to a one-year contract during the offseason to replace Perez. Axford had 46 saves for Milwaukee in 2011 but has struggled the last two years. He lost his job with the Brewers last season and was traded to St. Louis, where he pitched in middle relief. In case the right-hander falters, the Indians can turn to Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw or Vinnie Pestano, in-house options they considered before adding Axford.
BOUNCE BACK: Asdrubal Cabrera wasn’t himself in 2013. The All-Star shortstop had a rough season, batting a career-low .242 with 14 homers and 64 RBIs. As he enters his final year under contract, Cabrera, who has been mentioned in trade rumors for more than a year, needs to rebound for the Indians to climb to the next level. Cabrera played despite an assortment of nagging injuries last season. The Indians have highly touted prospect Francisco Lindor waiting in the wings, but the club would prefer to wait on making any rash moves as long as the 28-year-old Cabrera produces.
YOUNG GUNS: With Scott Kazmir already gone and Ubaldo Jimenez unlikely to re-sign with Cleveland, the Indians are hoping right-handers Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber are ready to step in and fill rotation spots from the outset. Salazar began last season in Double-A, but quickly rose through Cleveland’s system and wound up starting the playoff game. The 24-year-old impressed everyone with his fastball and fearlessness. Kluber, too, showed poise beyond his years and went 4-0 in his last five starts.
HOT CORNER: Yan Gomes’ emergence as an everyday catcher has the Indians toying with the idea of moving Carlos Santana to third base permanently. Santana volunteered to play third during winter ball, and Francona will wait to see how he does there during the early portion of camp before moving forward. Lonnie Chisenhall’s disappointing 2013 — he batted just .225 in 94 games — has made improving offensive production at third base a priority and there’s no doubt Santana (20 homers, 74 RBIs) can hit. Chisenhall is still in the mix, but he’s running out of time.