By Mike Bates

One of my favorite movies is Major League, where a bunch of castoffs form the core of the Cleveland Indians and help the franchise throw off decades of losing while thwarting a hostile owner. At times this year, I thought I was watching that movie unfold in front of me in real life.

The resurgence of the Indians was one of the best stories of 2013, as AL Manager of the Year Terry Francona played Lou Brown and led the club to the top wild-card berth and its first winning campaign since 2007. One of the keys to the turnaround was a pitching staff that improved from 14th in the American League in runs allowed to seventh, and cut their raw total by almost 200 runs. It's all the more impressive given that their biggest offseason pitching acquisition, Brett Myers, only made three starts and finished with an 8.02 ERA on the year.

Alas, each offseason brings new challenges for teams that play in baseball's smaller markets, and Cleveland faces the daunting task of replacing two of their best starters and three key members of the bullpen. This is especially apparent now, as the Cleveland Plain-Dealer's Paul Hoynes reports that little progress has been made in negotiations with Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, both of whom were integral to this turnaround. Without these two, I wonder if the Indians lose any hope of being more than just a one-and-done blip, relegated back to the rest of the pack in the AL Central.

Part of Cleveland's run prevention problem in 2012 was an atrocious Indians defense that finished dead last in the American League in defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating. But despite swapping out Shin-Soo Choo and the two-headed monster of Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon for Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs (essentially giving the Indians three center fielders in the outfield), the club's defense improved by, at best, 10 runs in 2013 according to the advanced defensive metrics that are available.

Instead, the biggest and most meaningful change came directly from the pitching staff -- one that struck out almost 300 more batters in 2013 than it did in 2012, jumping from 14th in the AL in punch-outs to 2nd. That's almost 11 additional games worth of outs that Cleveland's fielders didn't have to chase down, at bats where there was no chance of a seeing-eye single or a shot to the gap. Here are the two staffs side by side, listed by starts made:

2012

Starts

Strikeouts

2013

Starts

Strikeouts

Justin Masterson

34

159

Ubaldo Jimenez

32

194

Ubaldo Jimenez

31

143

Justin Masterson

29

188

Zach McAllister

22

110

Scott Kazmir

29

162

Derek Lowe

21

41

Corey Kluber

24

131

Jeanmar Gomez

17

43

Zach McAllister

24

101

Josh Tomlin

16

53

Danny Salazar

10

65

Corey Kluber

12

54

Carlos Carrasco

7

19

David Huff

4

11

Trevor Bauer

4

12

Roberto Hernandez

3

2

Brett Myers

3

8

Chris Seddon

2

5

621

881


As you can see, the Indians concentrated more of their starts in the hands of their best five pitchers, while those pitchers (with the exception of McAllister) struck out significantly more batters. The difference alone between Derek Lowe and Scott Kazmir alone provides almost half of the difference between the two cohorts, while Jimenez struck out 50 more batters in essentially the same amount of playing time.

Now, both Jimenez and Kazmir are off for greener pastures. Their innings will be taken up, in part, by Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber's increased workloads. But Salazar remains an injury risk who has never thrown more than 145 innings in a professional season, and Kluber already started 24 games last year. Both of them will need to be healthy and productive all year. Even if that happens, the Indians are going to need another reliable starter in the short term, unless Trevor Bauer gets his head on straight and can find the strike zone (neither of which he's shown any indication of doing) or if Carlos Carrasco can finally figure out how to translate his impressive minor league numbers to the majors at age 27.

That's a lot of uncertainty, and so the Indians would be well-served to look outside their organization for another arm. But Kazmir was a real life "Wild Thing" Vaughn last year, resurrecting his career after essentially two years out of the majors, and playing just a level above the California Penal League. He was lightning in a bottle. To get a pitcher of Kazmir's caliber again, GM Chris Antonetti would almost certainly have to play in the deep end of the free agent market.

That seems unlikely. Last year's opening day payroll, according to Cot's Contracts, was $80.6 million, a jump of almost 20 percent over 2012 and essentially tied for the highest it's been since 2001, and Baseball Reference estimates that the club, as currently constructed, will have an opening day payroll around $77.4 million. We all want to believe that our favorite team's owner cares enough about winning to let that payroll rise regardless of the revenue the team takes in. But, of course, that's not what generally happens, and it doesn't make Larry Dolan into Rachel Phelps if he insists on at least breaking even with his team. So unless the Indians plan to dramatically increase their spending for the second year in a row, it's hard to see how they could afford to bring in a pitcher with the kind of upside that they got last year.

And we haven't even addressed the holes that Joe Smith, Matt Albers and even Chris Perez are leaving in the bullpen. With Perez gone, Vinnie Pestano, Bryan Shaw, or Cody Allen presumably becomes the closer, with Marc Rzepczynski remaing the primary lefty. But then who fills the vacated spots in the pen? Nick Hagadone? Preston Guilmet? Bryan Price? Random free-agent X? These options may not cost the Indians money, but they could cost wins, a huge problem given that they scraped into the postseason by just a game last year over the Rangers. Or maybe they do shell out for a Brian Wilson or a Fernando Rodney, but will that leave any money for a starter?

It's far too early to say the Indians won't work out solutions and overcome these problems, of course. Chris Antonetti put together a surprising contender in 2013 and I'm sure he and Indians fans are confident he can do it again. But I'm incredibly skeptical. The sequel to Major League, after all, was a huge disappointment.

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Mike Bates writes for SBNation and NotGraphs, and is one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage. His work has also been featured on ESPN.com, Baseball Prospectus and Getting Blanked.