Cincinnati and Cleveland battle ‘if’ factor

By: Steven Miller – Asst. Sports Editor

Each Major League Baseball team is giddy in February, knowing that if everything goes according to plan, they could become the new champions of baseball. But it’s the “if” factor that separates the eventual champions from everybody else.

Neither the Cincinnati Reds nor the Cleveland Indians have won a World Series in a quarter century. This season, if health and performance pan out for them, both Ohio clubs could conceivably be championship contenders. If not, 2015 could be another year of dismal Buckeye State baseball.

The Reds made the playoffs three times between 2010-2013, but took a major step back in 2014, finishing the season with 76 wins—10 games below .500. In order to regain respect in the National League, Cincinnati must first sort out major personnel questions.

First baseman Joey Votto’s health is of foremost concern. The 2010 National League MVP sat out 100 games in 2014 with an injury to his quadriceps. Votto hit above .300 for five consecutive seasons before hitting just .255 in 62 games last year. If Votto begins this season truly healthy, he has the talent to be one of the best, if not the best, hitters in this league again. But the “if” is a major question.

Fan-favorite second baseman Brandon Phillips also took time off last year due to injury. He played in 121 games, which is about 30 fewer than his typical season. After eight consecutive seasons of 17 or more home runs, Phillips hit just eight dingers in 2014. And since he hit .300 in 2011, Phillips’ batting average has dipped to .261 and .266 in the last two seasons. Four years ago, he was one of the most dynamic players in the league but the 33-year-old second baseman may never produce that way again.

Homer Bailey, Cincinnati’s No. 2 starting pitcher, had arm surgery in September. Although he has not dealt with any setbacks in the recovery process, he has also not yet thrown off the mound. Bailey won double-digit games for the Reds in 2012 and 2013, and his earned run average has been below 4.00 for three straight seasons. Bailey’s return to form will be critical for Cincinnati’s pitching rotation, which will have two inexperienced arms in 2015.

The Reds traded away starters Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon in the offseason, leaving a two starting slots unfilled going into spring training. Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake will join Bailey at the front of the rotation, but Cincinnati will try out a crop of minor leaguers and offseason additions in the spring to round out the staff.

Unrelated to on-field performance, Cincinnati’s fan base is buzzing about the summer. On July 14, the Reds will host Major League Baseball’s 86th All-Star Game at Great American Ballpark. It will be the first time since 1988 that Cincinnati has hosted the Mid-Summer Classic.

In the other corner of Ohio, the Cleveland Indians are coming off an 85-win season, and the franchise’s first set of back-to-back winning seasons since 2001.

Ace pitcher Corey Kluber flew under the radar for most of 2014, but finished the season with 18 wins and a stellar 2.44 earned run average, winning the American League Cy Young Award.

Outfielder Michael Brantley finished the year with a .327 batting average and 20 home runs, both career highs.

The bulk of Cleveland’s roster returns for 2015, fired up from narrowly missing the postseason in 2014. The Indians remained in playoff contention until the final week of last season. The division-rival Kansas City Royals ended up winning an American League wild card slot, and swept their way to the World Series, only to lose in seven games. The Indians feel that with an energetic roster and talented pitching rotation, they can make a run similar to Kansas City’s.

“That was almost bittersweet,” Indians catcher Yan Gomes said in a recent interview with MLB.com. “It’s bitter because they’re there, but it’s sweet because you know you can be there.”

This offseason, Cleveland set out to accomplish just that, by filling the most prevalent holes in the depth chart. They traded with Oakland for first baseman Brandon Moss, who tallied 25 home runs in 2014 for the Athletics. The Indians, however, already have an everyday first baseman in Carlos Santana, so Moss position outside designated hitter will vary.

The Tribe also signed free agent starting pitcher Gavin Floyd, who, if healthy, could be a valuable addition to a young rotation. Between 2008-2012, Floyd averaged more than 12 wins per season. Last year, Kluber was the only double-digit winner in Cleveland’s rotation. Trusting Floyd, however, may be risky. Since 2012 he has not pitched a full season, and underwent common elbow recovery  surgery, Tommy John surgery, in 2013.

The most prevalent point of concern for Cleveland may be its defense. In 2014, the Indians led the Major Leagues with 116 errors, five more than second-place Oakland. From reducing the wear and tear on pitchers’ arms to easing the offensive workload, clean defense improves a team in every respect. Cleveland, though, still managed to win 85 games despite being the most erroneous team in the league last season. That speaks volumes of the resiliency of the offense and pitching. One can only speculate how this team may perform with tight defense.

The talent is undoubtedly in house for both the Indians and Reds in 2015. But if execution lacks this season, championships will remain elusive to the Ohio teams.