Michael Bourn makes the Indians an over-the-radar team

Daniel Shirey

All the Indians need now is some pitching. Which is kind of a problem. But the offense is sure looking good from here.

Eight teams finished with 90 losses or more in 2012. Three of them went into (or continued) active-selling mode. The Rockies kind of sat around, looking confused. And four of those eight teams -- the Red Sox, Royals, Cubs and Indians -- made short-term moves to improve their rosters.

The Red Sox you would expect. The Royals you can see, considering they have a young core of hitters in place. And the Cubs realized that while the good patrons of Wrigley Field will put up with a lot of losing, no one will put up with the 100-loss variety for too long.

The Indians were something of a surprise, though. The franchise has ridden the reload/rebuild cycle more often than most and, after another second-half meltdown, a full fire sale might have seemed in order. Instead, the Indians spent money and dealt wisely, signing Nick Swisher to a fair deal after some hardcore wooing, and turning a year of Shin-Soo Choo into one of Drew Stubbs and six of Trevor Bauer. They replaced Travis Hafner with Mark Reynolds, and signed Brett Myers.

But I don't think anyone expected them to sign Michael Bourn.

An appropriate question before the Bourn signing was "Why are they doing this?" The Tigers still have the division in something of a headlock, and they'll have Victor Martinez and Anibal Sanchez all season. The White Sox didn't get worse, and regardless of what you think of the Wil Myers/James Shields trade, the Royals should be at least somewhat improved. It wouldn't take that much for the Indians to vault over one of those teams, but all three is a bit of a stretch.

Even before the Bourn signing, though, the Indians were making a little sense. Before every season, a team unofficially wins the If Their Pitching Doesn't Wet the Bed Award when it's time to making prognostications. Last year, the winner was the Royals. If Bruce Chen mumble mumble mumble, and if Jonathan Sanchez something something something, why, the Royals could be going places! And in retrospect, it's pretty easy to laugh at those people.

Except the runner-up for the award before last year started was probably the Baltimore Orioles. And in last year's season preview, the Orioles' offense got a little credit:

5. (The Orioles) hit a little bit last year, and could do so again this year
They had a team OPS+ of 100. They scored 708 runs, just under the league average. They hit 191 homers, good for fourth in the A.L. Look at the first five hitters in the projected lineup:

Nolan Reimold - LF
J.J. Hardy - SS
Nick Markakis - RF
Adam Jones - CF
Matt Wieters - C

Not a stinker among them. All of them young(ish). Some of them (all of them, with the possible exception of Reimold?) worth building around.

The caveat was that the Orioles' pitching was going to wet the bed. Except that didn't happen. The 2012 Orioles had a 109 team ERA+, and good things followed. Sure it took them winning every possible extra-innings and one-run game to make the playoffs, but even without the absurd fortune, the Orioles had their best team in 15 years.

I could write almost the exact same thing about the 2013 Indians, but even more glowing. They now have four up-the-middle players worth coveting (Bourn, Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis), a shiny new cleanup hitter (Swisher), an interesting young third baseman (Lonnie Chisenhall), and the rest of the lineup is filled with acceptable complementary players. That's not a 90-loss collection of talent, at least in isolation.

All that needs to follow: the pitching. Which is, well, a heckuva rub. It seems like it should be easy to find five good starting pitchers out of the 200 or so who will pop in and out of rotations this year, but it really isn't. Of the 26 starting pitchers who posted ERA+'s under 80 with more than 75 innings pitched, the Indians had about a fifth of them. Justin Masterson had the second-lowest ERA among starters (4.93). Ubaldo Jimenez had the third-lowest (5.40) on the team, even though he also had the third-worst ERA among qualified starters in either league. That's pretty good shorthand for how lousy the Indians' pitching was last season.

And the Indians have signed two starting pitchers who might make you giggle at the news: Daisuke Matuszaka and Scott Kazmir. Oh, sure, they'll help, but only if you're looking to mess with someone in 2008.

Man from future: And in 2013, the Indians will have ... Dice-K and Scott Kazmir!!!

Person from 2008: Wow! Amazing! They'll be unstoppable! Let me ask some more questions, though. Do they re-sign CC after this season?

Person from 2008: They keep Cliff Lee, right?

Person from 2008: Grady Sizemore stays on the Hall of Fame track, I'm assuming.

Person from 2008: Lebron sticks with the Cavs, doesn't he?

Person from 2008: The Browns are probably good by then, right? Man, that'll be nice.

Man from future: ...

Man from future: And in 2013, the Indians will have ... Dice-K and Scott Kazmir!!!

But while, no, Dice-K and Kazmir aren't likely to help this season, they're kind of organizational metaphors. Or, rather, they're a part of the raffle-ticket strategy the Indians are trying. Dice-K? Sure, whatever. Hoping for Brett Myers to be significantly less awful than most of the starters from last year? Sounds good. Hoping like hell for a return to form from either Ubaldo or Masterson? Crazier things have happened. Trevor Bauer meeting the expectations the Diamondbacks used to have for him? Why not?

If just a couple of those happen, the Indians will be contenders. There will be sexier sleeper picks, I'm sure. The Padres are looking stronger than you think, and the Royals will fool more people again before the season starts. But even before the Bourn signing, the Indians were going to be a sleeper pick to be a hot sleeper pick. Their pitching can't be as awful, because no one's pitching is that awful. And if mumble mumble mumble happens, and something something something follows suit, the better-than-you-expected lineup will be well-positioned to surprise the rest of the Central.

It's probably not going to happen. But at least one team will be this year's Orioles, and the Indians are just as good a pick as any. Except with Michael Bourn, they aren't going to be that much of a surprise.

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