Monday, March 30, 2009

In Lieu of Clever Title, Indians Preview

After winning the AL Central in 2007 and falling just one game short of the pennant, the 2008 Indians were expected to once again contend for the division crown. After a couple of high-profile off-season additions, once again the Tigers were expected to be their top rivals.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Tigers/Indians pennant race. Detroit faltered out of the gate, dropping their first seven games. Meanwhile, the Indians puttered around the .500 mark, going into the game of Saturday May 17 in Cincinnati at 22-20 with a 1/2 game division lead.

I am hesitant to bestow great significance upon single games, but if you insist on finding a turning point in the season, the May 17 loss to the Reds is my nomination. The Indians had entered the series with their downstate rivals off a three-game sweep of the A’s in which they scored just ten runs, but allowed just two. In fact, over the Indians’ last seven games they were 5-2 with a runs tally of 29-4. It was obvious that the pitching could not continue to dominate so thoroughly, but the hope was that the offense would come around soon.

On Friday night, the Reds beat the Tribe 4-3. On Saturday, Cleveland nursed a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning with temporary nominal closer Masa Kobayashi on the hill. He had gotten the third out in the eighth, but would not retire a batter in the ninth. When Adam Dunn’s three-run blast landed in the right-field seats, the Indians had fallen into a tie for first and a .500 record; it would be the last time all year they would go into a game with either.

The two games in Cincy were the start of a seven-game slide, and things didn’t get much better from that point forward. In early July, in the midst of what would be a ten-game losing streak, the Indians dealt free agent to be CC Sabathia to Milwaukee with Casey Blake being shipped out to the Dodgers a short time later. Meanwhile, on the field the nadir came on July 9 with the Indians’ tenth straight loss, which put them at 37-53 and 15.5 games behind the White Sox.

The Indians managed to catch fire for the rest of the campaign, ending with a 44-28 spurt that left them at breakeven in the final standings, and just seven games behind Chicago.

The season was a disaster for several high-profile players:

* Victor Martinez hit .278/.338/.365 in just 73 games
* Travis Hafner was awful, hitting .197/.293/.323 in 57 games
* Fausto Carmona’s control collapsed and he regressed from a Cy Young candidate to a replacement-level performer
* Jake Westbrook went down with an elbow injury requiring Tommy John surgery
* Rafael Betancourt went from one of the AL’s top relievers to a replacement-level performance
* Joe Borowski’s high-wire act unsurprisingly failed to play as well the second time around.

On the flip side, there were at least a few pleasant surprises:

* Cliff Lee went from AAA demotion in 2007 to Cy Young winner with one of the best winning percentages in light of team W-L record in baseball history
* Shin-Soo Choo shone when handed the right field job after his return from Tommy John surgery, hitting .309/.393/.549 in 361 PA
* Kelly Shoppach, pressed into starting duty behind the dish when Martinez went down, belted 21 homers and helped the Cleveland catching unit rank second among its AL peers in RG

In the offseason, the Indians’ key moves were signing Kerry Wood to attempt to plug the closer role, which has been a perpetual weak link; trading for Mark DeRosa to fill the black hole at third base; signing Carl Pavano as a bullpen flyer; and trading Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners as part of a three-way deal with Mets’ sidearmer Joe Smith as the key return for 2009.

Behind the plate, Victor Martinez will look to bounce back from his poor 2008 campaign. I am pretty optimistic about his chances. Martinez was lacking any sort of power in the early portion of the campaign, but in his 76 PA after returning from the DL he managed an ISO of .176, just above his career average of .164. While the potential for further injury, his heavy workload, and his advancing age (30) raise concerns, I think that assuming he’ll be one of the more productive catchers in the league when on the field is warranted.

He may get to play a little more at first base this season, as Kelly Shoppach emerged last year as more than just an adequate backup. I hope the Indians recognize that last year may well have been a career year, however; many of the fans seem to be oblivious to the possibility. Shoppach is not young (29), managed an excellent BABIP last year (.359, albeit with a career average of .355), and saw a high percentage of his outfield flies wind up as home runs (23% compared to an average of 11%). I suspect that the average Tribe fan will consider Shoppach a big disappointment in 2009.

At first base, Ryan Garko is a pretty average performer. He has been working at playing LF and even RF a little bit in spring training games, but I find it difficult to imagine him actually being thrown into the outfield in a regular season game. I do however like the fact that the Indians are looking to creatively deploy their players.

Second base will apparently belong to Asdrubal Cabrera, with newly acquired Mark DeRosa at third and Jhonny Peralta at short. Many people (myself included) assumed that the acquisition of DeRosa would pave the way for Peralta to move to third and Cabrera to slide to short, his natural position and one which by all indications he could handle. That does not seem to be the case, however, as it appears DeRosa will be a one year stopgap at third as Cleveland hopes Luis Valbuena (acquired in the three-way trade from the Mariners) will claim second in 2010.

Cabrera struggled mightily in the first half (529 OPS) and was demoted to Buffalo, but had an 892 OPS in the second half. As long as Cabrera can match his overall 2008 offensive output, his defense should make him an average performer at second for the Tribe, with his age and strong second half offering hope for a little more. Peralta’s fielding may be poor, but he’s a fine offensive performer and at worst an average all-around package. While DeRosa cannot be expected to hit 21 homers again, he should be an upgrade over what the Indians got out of Casey Blake, Jamey Carroll, and Andy Marte in 2008.

The one sure thing in the outfield is the brilliant yet still underappreciated Grady Sizemore in center field. One of these years, Sizemore is going to luck his way into batting .290 or .300, and the rest of the world will recognize what serious observers already know--he is one of the best players in the game. He will be flanked at least off the bat by Ben Francisco in left and Shin-Soo Choo in right.

Francisco has been built up by many casual Tribe fans to be something he’s not, and it didn’t help matters when he was hitting third for much of May and June. Francisco is 28, and in what now is around the equivalent of a full season has hit .267/.329/.446 in his major league career. He would be an asset as a fourth outfielder who can play a passable center, but as a starter in a corner he leaves much to be desired. The team is likely hoping that top prospect Matt LaPorta can overtake him by mid-season.

Choo on the other hand may not be a bad bet to exceed his 946 OPS of a year ago, but he should be an adequate performer and is in his age 27 season in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

DH Travis Hafner, one of the best hitters in the game just two years ago, is now a major question mark. In 2007 he signed a multi-year extension and slipped to a .266/.385/.451 line. In 2008, plagued by lingering shoulder weakness, he plummeted to 225 PA of .197/.305/.323 output. Without a clear diagnosis as to what went wrong, it is impossible to project with confidence any sort of rebound, unlike the case of fellow heart-of-the-order stalwart Martinez. Right now, his contract looks as if it may reach albatross level; he is untradeable and has nowhere to play but DH.

Shoppach will be the backup catcher, with Jamey Carroll returning as utility infielder and David Dellucci playing out his contract as reserve outfielder. Erstwhile second baseman Josh Barfield will fill out the bench as a utility man.

The starting rotation has two sure things (membership, not performance wise) in Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona. Lee will not go 23-2 again, but 2007 now stands as the aberration in a career that marks him as a solid mid-rotation lefty. If he can retain some of the progress displayed last year, he should be one of the top fifteen pitchers in the AL.

Carmona is an enigma; he lost all semblance of control last year and was shelved with a hip injury. He has always garnered less strikeouts than his stuff might suggest, relying on his heavy sinker to generate groundballs. I’m inclined to think that last year was an aberration and that he will proceed with an adequate Chien-Ming Wang impersonation in 2009.

Behind them are two pitchers who will be in the rotation if healthy: Carl Pavano and Anthony Reyes. Pavano was signed as a low-risk free agent flyer, and Reyes pitched well after coming over from the Cardinals but was shut down in September.

The fifth starter will be Scott Lewis, who has impressive minor league numbers and pitched solidly in three September starts last year. The downside is that his stuff is middling, but he is left-handed and best of all he is an OSU alum. He beat out fellow lefties Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers for the spot, and they would be the first call-ups in case of the inevitable Carl Pavano injury.

Overall, the rotation appears to be Cleveland’s biggest question mark and weakness. Even with healthy performances from Pavano and Reyes and an adequate fifth starter, it is difficult to predict that it will be a positive for the team.

The bullpen, which struggled in 2008, should be much better this season. Kerry Wood, when healthy, will be the closer, and at least will give the Indians a true power arm out of that spot instead of the soft-tossers (namely Bob Wickman and Joe Borowski) they’ve run out in the ninth over the past several years. I would not have signed him for $10 million annually over two seasons with a vesting option for a third, but it’s not my money.

His top setup men will be Rafael Betancourt from the right side and Rafael Perez from the left, although Perez is capable of pitching multiple innings and is far from a LOOGY. Betancourt scuffled in 2008 after a brilliant 2007, but retained some solid peripherals (64 K/25 W in 71 IP). His biggest problem was a large number of homers given up (1.4 per 9 innings), unfortunately without an abnormal HR/OF rate. However, I’m willing to be bet on an adequate performance from Betancourt, although one a far cry from his dominance of 2007.

Jensen Lewis and Joe Smith will be the key middle relievers; Lewis recorded 13 saves as the end-of-year closer in ’08, but his 5.04 eRA gives cause for concern. Smith, with his sidearm delivery, has been a righty-killer for the Mets in his two-year career (643 OPS), but must be handled with extreme caution against lefties (881 OPS).

Masa Kobayashi will be in the pen due to his contract more than any merit; he was pounded last season (5.04 eRA, 5.03 dRA) and has not pitched well to this point in the spring. He will be mopping up in low leverage spots until he can demonstrate his effectiveness.

The final bullpen spot is down to lefty Zach Jackson, veteran righty Vinny Chulk, and righty Edward Mujica, if for no reason other than that he is out of options. Chulk has pitched better this spring, but Jackson is appealing because of his southpaw status (only one of the other six relievers shares it) and with a background as a starter could serve as the long man.

The Indians have the good fortune of playing in a weak division, and my expectation is that they will have an above average offense, an average defense, and thus a slightly above .500 record that may well be good enough to beat out their division foes. I legitimately believe that they are the best team in the division on paper, but by too thin a margin to predict a playoff berth. Cleveland may be the most likely winner of the AL Central, but I don’t think this team has much better than a 40% chance of playing in October.

4 comments:

  1. I don't believe that you need a "power-arm" to be a successful closer. You seemed to have implied that Wickman wasn't an effective closer by labelling him a "soft-tosser" and mentioning him in the same sentence as Borowski.

    Despite being a soft-tosser, Wickman still managed to post decent K rates with the Indians, 7.14 K / 9 IP. Overall, I'd say he was an above-average closer with the Indians. He posted a respectable 3.23 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, while recording 139 saves. Of course, he had problems staying healthy. I wonder if that had anything to do with his weight.

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  2. I can see how a reader might see that as the implication, but that's not really what I was going for. Of course I'd love to have a Dan Quisenberry or a Hoyt Wilhelm as my closer, and they were about the furthest closers from having a "power arm" imaginable.

    Wickman was solid, but hardly a dominant. The Indians really haven't had one of those, ever really; Doug Jones was very solid, and then Jose Mesa had the one huge year in '95, and Mike Jackson was great in one year and solid in another. Other than that, it's been painful to watch--Borowski, Danys Baez, ...--and of course the call-in show and mainstream media folks exaggerate the importance of it all. It will be a welcome relief to have them shut up this year (at least until Wood gets hurt or blows two saves in a row).

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  3. Doug Jones was outstanding while he was with the Indians, except for his last year with the club in 1991. Mesa had one of the biggest fluke seasons of all-time in 1995. Wickman is actually the all-time saves leader for the Indians. You could argue that the list of Indians setup guys is more impressive than the list of closers they have employed over the last 15 years. For instance, Rafael Betancourt, David Riske, Paul Shuey, Steve Karsay, Eric Plunk.

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  4. All this discussion about Indian relievers, and nary a mention of John Rocker?

    j/k of course; I still can't believe John Hart traded Steve Karsay AND Steve Reed for that yahoo.

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