Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cleveland Indians 2012 Preview

2011 in Review

Last season the Indians got off to a fantastic start. They took over sole possession of 1st place in the Central on April 8th, and raced further and further ahead of the competition as the season’s early weeks continued. At the end of play on May 23rd, Cleveland had a 30-15 record, best in the Major Leagues, and a 7-game lead over Detroit in the division. Things were going well on both sides of the ball; only the Yankees were scoring more runs per game among American League teams, while only the A’s were allowing fewer runs per game.

Despite their record and those figures, there were many who doubted the legitimacy of the Indians’ success. This sent a lot of Indians fans into a tizzy; many played the “no respect” card so popular in sports among both players and fans. For my part, I didn’t expect it to last. As ESPN’s Keith Law (arguably the highest profile doubter) wrote in late April, “We notice these ‘streaks’ only because nothing preceded them, so the standings reflect the hot/cold starts and nothing else. Just about every good team will have a bad stretch, and just about every bad team will have a strong week or two.”

May 23rd turned out to be the high water mark. The Indians would lose 14 of their next 18 games, and by the end of June 12th, less than three weeks after their peak, the team had fallen into a tie for 1st with Detroit. Neither team played well for the next couple months, and on the morning of July 31st, with the trading deadline only hours way, the Indians, just 1.5 games back, traded away their two best pitching prospects for Ubaldo Jimenez, who’d recently been one of the best pitchers in baseball. The trade did nothing to push them over the top though, Jimenez had an ERA of 5.10 in eleven starts, and the Indians were 15 games back of Detroit by season’s end.

The Lineup

I don’t see the 2012 Indians as being very different from the 2011 model. The lineup options are much the same. Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera were among the very best at their position last year, and while regression to the mean will likely lead Cabrera’s numbers to drop this year, I think Santana has the potential to be even better. Jason Kipnis tore the cover off the ball after being called up in late July, collecting 17 extra-base hits in just 36 games, with an OPS of .841. I’m not prone to a lot of optimism when it comes to my favorite team, but I think Kipnis is the real deal. Elsewhere though, there are serious concerns.

Matt LaPorta has been sent down to Triple-A to start the season. He’s never going to be even a league average 1B, a major disappointment for the player who was the cornerstone of the CC Sabathia trade back in 2008. Casey Kotchman was brought in and has won the job. He’s a fair enough defender, but there’s almost no way he puts up the same hitting line as he did in Tampa last season though. He simply doesn’t provide the kind of offense a team ought to be getting from his position.

Shin-Soo Choo was one of the most underrated players in baseball in 2009 and 2010, but had a rough 2011. Choo was playing far below his previous level when he was hit in the hand by a pitch in late June, which fractured his thumb and basically ended his disappointing season. I am hopeful he can rebound in 2012, but even if he does, the rest of the outfield is likely to be a mess. Michael Brantley is a decent player, but hasn’t shown enough to be more than a fringe starter, and even that little is more than can be said for projected leftfielder, Shelley Duncan. Grady Sizemore, re-signed to a fairly inexpensive deal, is already injured again, and I’m (sadly, so very sadly) resigned to his never being much of a contributor again.

Going into Spring Training, Jack Hannahan vs. Lonnie Chisenhall at 3B was the one real position battle. Chisenhall is supposed to be the 3B of the future, and I hoped he would hit well enough in the spring to declare the future has arrived, and end the debate. However, that is not what happened; the job has been given to Hannahan, Chisenhall will go back down to the minors, so that he can play every day, while continuing to develop. Hannahan is an outstanding defensive player, something that will come in handy, given the starting rotation’s tendency towards ground-balls, but it’s hard to get too excited about a 3B with a career OPS of .675.

The Pitching

Justin Masterson surprised everyone but his mother by pitching 216 innings with an ERA of 3.21. Masterson was one of the 20 or so best starting pitchers in baseball, and if you really want to put things in a favorable way, you could argue he was the 2nd best pitcher in the AL Central (while conveniently overlooking that he was miles and miles from the division’s ace, Justin Verlander and the fact that the AL Central was a pretty damn weak division). He’s a strong candidate for falling back to Earth some, but even 80-85% of his 2011 production would be a strong season.

In a case of Don Draper-esque false identity, Fausto Carmona turned out not to be Fausto Carmona. It turns out he’s actually a man named Roberto Hernandez, and (more importantly to the baseball side of things) he is actually three years older than the Indians had been led to believe these last few years. He’s been kept in his native Dominican Republic while some of the legal ramification of this news play out, but seems likely to return to Cleveland soon, albeit with a reworked contract to reflect this new information. I expect him to reclaim his spot in the rotation before too long.

Derek Lowe was brought in to bolster the rotation, and at little cost, as the Braves will still be paying a healthy chunk of his salary. It’s now been four years since Lowe was much of a pitcher though, so I doubt he’ll be much of an improvement. Like Masterson and Carmona/Hernandez, Lowe tends to create a lot of ground-balls when he pitches, in-fact all three of them were among the top ten in baseball in ground-ball rate last year.

Ground-ball pitchers are especially dependent on the quality of their infield, as good fielders will turn more of those grounders into outs. This was likely a factor in giving Hannahan the 3B job, as well as bringing in Kotchman at 1B. Cabrera’s defensive ratings come in all over the map, with some arguing he is among the very best defensive SS in baseball, others claiming he is a liability. Such is the nature of defensive statistics in this day and age. It’s too early to say much about Kipnis’ defense; scouting reports have tended to mark him as fair, if not spectacular. The defense’s ability to convert ground-balls into outs will be worth watching.

All of this has overlooked the man at the top of Cleveland’s rotation, last season’s trade acquisition, Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez was arguably the best pitcher in baseball in 2010. His 2.88 ERA that season is a Rockies franchise record (and his 3.47 in 2009 is the second best mark in team history). Last season his velocity dropped noticeably, leading to his being traded to Cleveland. This spring, his velocity has been better, not quite to 2010 levels, but an improvement from last year. Probably the single biggest thing that could help the Indians outperform expectations would be a return of the 2010 Ubaldo Jimenez, so I expect most Indians fans will watch his early starts with special interest.

The Indians bullpen was very good last year, and with mostly the same cast of characters returning for this season, it stands to reason that the group could be a strength again. Closer Chris Perez may only be the 4th or 5th best pitcher in the group, but save situations oftentimes aren’t the most pivotal in a game, so it’s not the end of the world to have a lesser pitcher going into those “bases-empty with a two run lead” situations, getting to the 9th with a lead will be the more challenging feat.

Bottom Line

The Tigers were the class of the division in 2011; then they went out and signed Prince Fielder. They are deservedly favored to win the AL Central again in 2012. The rest of the division has as many issues as the Indians though (in some cases, even more). If Detroit should stumble, and if Jimenez and Choo return to 2009-2010 form, Masterson, Cabrera, and the bullpen come close to maintaining their 2011 numbers, and the younger members of the lineup continue to develop, it’s not impossible that the Tribe could win 88 games or so and have that be enough to win the division. You may have noticed though, that was a lot of “ifs,” and I find it far more likely that the Indians show some improvement overall, without improving their actual record (while they won 80 games last season, other factors point to their true performance having been more in line with a 75 win team, meaning decent improvements could end up leading to the same 80 or so wins).

My prediction: 82-80, 2nd place in the AL Central

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