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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Season Previews, Part Fifteen: Cleveland Indians

Cleveland Indians

2011 Record: 80-82
Pythag Record: 75-87
Games out of First: 15.0

2011 Recap:

Oh boy.  Where to start?  Well, the Cleveland Indians started the 2011 season with a bang, and were easily one of the most exciting teams in baseball for the first third of a season.  Asdrubal Cabrera was making highlight worthy plays almost every game, Pronk had one of the coolest walk off home runs I think I've ever seen, and the club was winning games in exciting ways at a frequent rate.  However, the team had several early set backs that would eventually help in derailing them.  Early in the season, star outfielder Shin-Soo Choo was convicted of a DUI with a reported BAC of 0.24, which is three times the legal limit.  Choo has said that this impacted his performance, and that wouldn't be surprising given that he saw major dropoffs all across his game in 2011.  Then, once again, outfielder Grady Sizemore suffered an injury that kept him sidelined for most of the season.  However, the misfortunes didn't end there.  Travis Hafner also suffered an injury, which interrupted what had been a fairly good season.  Then, at the deadline, the club traded for Kosuke Fukudome and Ubaldo Jimenez in separate moves in hopes that they would find a way to catch the Tigers, but they did not work out.  And lastly, we arrive at the early off season, where the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona was cited and jailed for using a false identity in order to get into the states.  So the Indians had plenty of attention in 2011, and then either had old guys, young guys, or injured guys that were supposed to be in their primes (most notably Choo and Sizemore).  There are many directions this team could take from here.

Top 5 Position Players by WAR:

1. Carlos Santana: 3.9
2. Asdrubal Cabrera: 3.7
3. Michael Brantley: 2.2
4. Jack Hannahan: 2.2
5. Travis Hafner: 1.4

Top 5 Pitchers by WAR:

1. Justin Masterson: 4.9
2. Josh Tomlin: 1.8
3. Vinnie Pestano: 1.5
4. Fausto Carmona: 1.5
5. Carlos Corrasco: 1.4

Off Season Overview:

The Indians made a lot of moves that don't make a ton of sense to me.  For starters, they picked up Fausto Carmona's option, which was unlikely to be a good move prior to the fact that he's now not eligible to pitch in the majors and isn't actually "Fausto Carmona".  They also re-signed Grady Sizemore at $5 million, and while that is a high risk/high reward move, Sizemore has already gotten hurt this spring, and the chances he is ever healthy enough to play at a top level again are about as low as anyone can expect. Then, they went out and traded for Derek Lowe, which is a solid move, outside of the fact that he's costly and is old as dirt.    They also went out and added such players Kevin Slowey, Ryan Spilborghs, Dan Wheeler, and Casey Kotchman to help fill out the roster.  They have gone with a rotation that will get a bunch of ground balls, which is nice...outside of the fact that their infield can't exactly...well....field ground balls, so that could potentially be a bit of a problem.

Notable Additions:
SP Derek Lowe
1B Casey Kotchman
RP Dan Wheeler
RP Kevin Slowey

Notable Subtractions:

RF Kosuke Fukudome

Projected Lineup:

1. Jason Kipnis, 2B
2. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
3. Shin-Soo Choo, RF
4. Travis Hafner, DH
5. Carlos Santana, C
6. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B
7. Casey Kotchman, 1B
8. Matt LaPorta, LF
9. Michael Brantley, CF

Let's not pretend like we can count on Sizemore to be an every day starter.  At this point, that is not realistic at all, so it makes sense to draw up the lineup and team as if he isn't available.  Take the "glass half empty" approach with this roster.  Sure, without Sizemore, that outfield is lacking, but if Sizemore is healthy and ready to go, they've got a great advantage in depth.  However, that's not likely to happen. What about the rest of the lineup?  Well, it features a bunch of power.  1-6 could end up being very strong, and 2-5 is really good if everyone stays healthy and people regress to the mean.  The back end of the offense is rather interesting.  I don't think anyone is expecting Kotchman to repeat last year, but LaPorta and Brantley are both relatively young players that still have a good amount of offensive potential.  Since we are talking about the guys batting 7-9 in the lineup, we aren't anticipating elite production, but rather simply guys that can perform roughly average relative to their positions, and the Indians have that.  This offense should be rather capable if healthy.

Projected Starting Rotation:

1. Ubaldo Jimenez
2. Justin Masterson
3. Derek Lowe
4. Josh Tomlin
5. Fausto Carmona/Carlos Carrasco

This rotation is all over the place in terms of how it could end up.  2010 Jimenez or 2011 Jimenez?  Will Carmona (as he was formerly known) even pitch in 2012?  Will Derek Lowe be able to pitch a full season of quality baseball at 39 years old?  Will Masterson and Tomlin develop properly and go into their primes (at 27 years old each) and step up their performance?  Now I think you see what I mean here.  This could either be a very good rotation or a very bad rotation, and a lot of that depends on how you view pitching.  One thing is very certain however: they are going to get a lot of ground balls, so the infield better be able to field early and often in games, because this rotation might not even strike out a combined 500 guys.

Roster Strengths:

The most notable strength here is going to be offense.  The Indians will have a bunch of power, and they should have a fairly strong ability to drive in runs.  I think outfield defense could be a strength if Sizemore can get healthy, because that creates an outfield of Brantley, Sizemore, and Choo which is pretty darn good.

Roster Weaknesses:

Lack of depth, defense, and the pitching staff.  They are going to have to have great defense from Kipnis and Chisenhall in their younger years in order to be able to prevent runs successfully.  Santana behind the plate can be a bit of adventure, but his offensive value should easily make that irrelevant.

2012 Outlook:

Ever hear of the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?  Yeah, that just so happens to be what the 2012 Cleveland Indians are staring at.  Their entire division, oustide of Detroit, is at a crossroads (whether they be the rebuilding Twins, the "I honestly don't know what they're doing" White Sox, or the young Royals who look like they might be ready to take a step forward).  This provides them with a golden opportunity to compete.  However, the Indians are a team with a lot of players that have something to prove.  Does Asdrubal Cabrera truly rank among the top shortstops in the game?  Is Carlos Santana going to develop into the superstar that he can be?  Will Shin-Soo Choo return to his elite level of play?  Can Pronk and Sizemore actually stay healthy over a full season and provide the value necessary to take the team to the next level?  I think the safest best is to aim for the midpoint between their extremely different potential endpoints: an average team.  More likely than not, the benefits and improvements will be countered by the subtractions and regressions and the team will end up right where it was before: an average team.

Potential Breakout Player:

SP Josh Tomlin

Control, control, control, and more control.  I love pitchers that know where the pitches they throw are going, and very few pitchers know where their pitches are going better than Josh Tomlin.  While he doesn't get much at all for velocity on his pitches, that really doesn't matter a whole lot.  He throws a heavy miz of fastballs, cutters, and curveballs that he can control very well.  Typically, I don't expect non-strikeout pitchers to suddenly break out, but I think Tomlin is a great exception to the rule, here.  He doesn't walk anyone, and if he can get good defense behind him, he will put up some great numbers.  Also, if his HR/9 dips below one, you'll probably see his ERA plummet this year.

Potential Bust Player:

SS Asdrubal Cabrera

How do you take a player that doesn't really change his BB, K, LD%, or BABIP rates and turn him into a fantastic, if not elite, offensive shortstop?  Easy, have him hit 7.3% more fly balls, 7.9% fewer ground balls, and jack his HR/FB rate from an average of around 6 to 13.3%.  I really have thought hard about this one, because I can't decide if I think Cabrera really changed anything or if he just got lucky.  I really hesitate to put him in this section, but it provides an opportunity to talk about him.  The word "potential" is key here, because there's a chance he could bust, but I really don't think he will.  Looking at his swing, it appears he finishes with more of an uppercut, and he will be 26 years old, so he's likely developed some power. The numbers I've run for well-hit balls also like Cabrera going forward, so I don't think he's going to bust.  But alas, he *could* bust, and I wanted to talk about him, so there he is.

 Prospects Who Could Contribute in 2012:

2B Jason Kipnis
3B Lonnie Chisenhall

If you want to still call them prospects, these two guys are perfect fits here.  Both of these guys are going to play a lot in 2012.  In fact, both of them are going to be key factors in how well Cleveland can actually perform.  If they play very well defensively, then Cleveland can be a very good team.  If they don't, then Cleveland is going to have issues giving up runs.


Projected Record: 84-78
Projected Finish: 2nd Place
Projected MVP: Shin-Soo Choo (5.8 WAR)

Final Thoughts:

As I mentioned in the outlook section, this team could be all over the place.  I would say that they legitimately have a 20 game window of difference here.  They could have 90 win potential, but they also could have 70 loss potential.  They need a lot of things to go right or wrong either way to have that happen, and I like their upside too much to be lazy and fit them in at 80 wins, so 84 it is.  I really think they would be in a better position as an organization if they had not made the trade for Ubaldo Jimenez, since they won't be in a position to compete for a couple years now that Detroit is loaded.  However, I think this Indians team could be a very exciting team to watch in 2012.  The Detroit Tigers had better watch out, because if they falter, the Indians could make the AL Central race an unexpectedly excited one (despite the odds being highly against that).

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