Monday, March 22, 2010

2010 Indians: Bad (but not as bad as some think)

Even by the meager standards of my own writing, I am not good at writing micro- or trend analysis of players and teams (and even by the meager standards of my own post titles, this is a bad title). There will be dozens of better previews of the Indians' 2010 season that you can read elsewhere on the internet. What I hope to do here is express some broad thoughts on the team's outlook from the perspective of a fan without a tremendous amount of emotional investment.

Cleveland fans suffered through a second consecutive season of underperforming expectations in 2009, as a team that was expected to contend got off to a slow start, stumbled around for a while, and then fell all the way to sharing the cellar with Kansas City. This (along with the salary dump/rebuilding trades of Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez) has caused fans to take a pessimistic outlook towards the 2010 season and the organization in general.

Some of the frustration is certainly warranted--it is frustrating when a team trades away two homegrown Cy Young winners in as many years, and it's even worse when the team came within a game of the pennant just two and a half years ago. However, much of the pessimism is over the top.

To listen to the fans who call talk shows, the team will be lucky to match last season's win total of 65. Of course, such a finish is well within the confidence interval I'd set for the team, but I don't think it's a particularly good median projection.

Looking at the personnel, it's best to start with the team's biggest weakness: starting pitching. The good news about Cleveland's starting pitching is that there should be enough warm bodies to run out to the mound. The bad news is that the back-of-the-rotation options are nearly indistinguishable from those that would replace them.

The #1 starter will be Jake Westbrook, making his return after one and a half years on the mend from Tommy John. Behind him comes Fausto Carmona, still seeking to recapture the low-strikeout hard sinker magic of 2007. He's been pounded in every other major league stint of his career and in the last two has lost all semblance of command. The third starter is Justin Masterson, yet another sinkerballer, and one who has seen most of his major league appearances out of the Boston bullpen.

Westbrook, Carmona, and Masterson all have the potential to be valuable members of a rotation. But when they are the front three, there's cause for serious concern.

The fourth and fifth spots will likely go to Aaron Laffey and Mitch Talbot, besting David Huff. Jeremy Sowers' March injury left him out of the running and will likely provide an avenue to forestall a decision on his future (he's out of options), while OSU product Scott Lewis remains hampered by shoulder trouble. Carlos Carrasco should be second in line to get the call from Columbus, while the team will seek to get top prospect Hector Rondon another season on the farm prior to a possible September callup.

Laffey, Lewis, Sowers, and Huff (along with prospect TJ House) are all emblematic of what's become an organizational hallmark--the finesse left-handed starter. I certainly don't want to overstate their similarities lest the PitchF/x-ers correctly rebuff me with detailed analysis of the differing repertories of the group, but it's quite a departure from the teams of the 90s which had next to no left-handed starters (Brian Anderson led 1994-99 Indian southpaws with 17 starts).

The bullpen will be anchored by Kerry Wood, at least until he gets injured or is traded. (Editor's note: I wrote this about a week before Wood was officially pronounced out for eight weeks, but he was already behind schedule. Plus, seriously, it's Kerry Wood.) Chris Perez is penciled in as the top righty setting him up; his stuff continues to outrank his performance. If Rafael Perez can bounce back, he should combine with Tony Sipp to give the team a pair of lefties that can hold their own against right-handed batters as well.

Joe Smith and Jensen Lewis would appear to have the upper hand to gain middle relief jobs, but both had disappointing '09s and have not impressed to this point in the spring. Rule V pick Hector Ambriz is another option, and if Mitch Talbot fails to win a starting role he will surely be in the pen. Jess Todd will likely be sent to AAA, while Saul Rivera is a longshot despite his history with Acta in Washington. Jamey Wright may well win a spot as a veteran presence, even if a mediocre one; Jason Grilli was a prime contender for the spot but was injured and is out for the season. Josh Judy may be the nearest to ready among a group of young relief possibilities, but he's not pitched above AA and would it would be a surprise if he made the team.

My best guess (and it's just that) on the bullpen makeup is: Chris Perez, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Jamey Wright, Joe Smith, Jensen Lewis, and Hector Ambriz.

The offense was essentially average last year, scoring 4.9 runs/game versus the 4.8 league average. I expect that the 2010 offense will perform similarly. Lou Marson should best Wyatt Toregas for the starting catching job, holding it down for a few months while Carlos Santana gets some AAA seasoning. Marson projects as an average-ish offensive catcher with the ability to draw some walks. Mike Redmond will serve as the veteran backup, and hopefully will not weasel his way into too much playing time at Marson or Santana's expense.

Russell Branyan, a late signing, will play first when healthy and drive fans crazy with his strikeouts. He also could spell Travis Hafner at DH if his shoulder does not allow him to resume everyday status. However, as of this writing Branyan has yet to make his spring debut and could open the season on the DL.

Second baseman Luis Valbuena showed surprising power spurts last year, but his fielding metrics and OBA leave lots of room for growth if he is justify his status as the centerpiece of the Franklin Gutierrez trade. At third, Jhonny Peralta should rebound from a dreadful offensive season to get back into the hunt for "most average player in the league" status. If he has any success, look for the Indians to move him at the deadline as they are unlikely to exercise his $7 million option for 2011. The team appears to be high on Lonnie Chisenhall and is positioning him as the third baseman of the future.

Asdrubal Cabrera will be under the microscope this year as he assumes leadoff duties. He has emerged as one of the better young shortstops in the game thanks to a good fielding and solid offensive contributions. His walk rate is not great, so if he has a BA dropoff he might become shaky as a leadoff option.

Thanks to the presence of Valbuena and Peralta (each of whom played shortstop last season) on the roster, it is not imperative that Cleveland carries a utility infielder that can play short, which could open the door for Mark Grudizelanek as utility-man and Valbuena insurance. Jason Donald, acquired in the Cliff Lee trade, will likely play everyday in Columbus, leaving former Met Anderson Hernandez as the top utility candidate that can play short. Brian Bixler is also under consideration but his inclusion would be a surprise.

Many fans want to see Michael Brantley in left field and leading off everyday, but Brantley projects to an ISO in the neighborhood of .100 and would probably be better served with another season at AAA. Depending on Branyan's status, he could open the season in Cleveland, but it's more likely that the team would go with a veteran in that case. Matt LaPorta originally appeared to be ticketed for first, but with the Branyan signing he figures to remain in left for another season.

Grady Sizemore looks to bounce back from an injury-plagued campaign, and this observer is still waiting for him to luck his way into a high-BA season that will make the average fan take note of what a great player he is when healthy. Sizemore will bat second this year, somewhat placating fans who still think he should be batting third. Shin-Soo Choo combines with Sizemore to give the Indians two of the better outfielders in the AL.

When Travis Hafner played last year, he rebounded to average production for a 1B/DH. Of course, it is not average production that the team is paying for, and 379 PA is far from full-time. He may be an albatross to the bottom line, but he wasn't an albatross to the lineup, at least in 2010. His largest cost to the team on the field was leaving them a man short every third day and a fielder short every day (the latter being expected for a DH-exclusive type of player like Pronk).

Trevor Crowe has a good shot at a reserve outfield spot as he can play center and could serve as a pinch-runner. Austin Kearns also has a decent shot to make it as a 1B/LF/DH and a right-handed bat in a lineup whose power threats are predominantly left-handed (Choo, Hafner, Sizemore). If I had to guess, I'd say that the bench is Mike Redmond, Anderson Hernandez, Trevor Crowe, and Austin Kearns. If Branyan is on the DL to start the season, add Andy Marte to that prognostication as I assume Brantley is headed for Columbus regardless. Marte had a superficially impressive season as a Clipper in '09 (.327/.369/.593), but didn't hit in the majors (85 OPS+ in 175 PA) and is now 26.

I'm not big on "best-case" scenario forecasts; they'd probably be better termed "90th percentile" or something along those lines. In any case, the best-case scenario I see for this team as the term is used by these types of previews is: Carmona, Westbrook, and Masterson are effective enough to drag the rotation close to average, while the bullpen is above-average and the offense pretty sold--enough to earn 86 wins or so with some magic Pythagorean dust the Indians have lacked lately and thus a team right in the thick of the AL Central race.

Worst-case? Disastrous pitching, continuing injuries for Sizemore, Hafner, and Branyan, and an epic anti-pennant race with the Royals.

Median? Solid offense, below average bullpen, and bad starting pitching leave the Indians at 74-88 or something in that neighborhood and a fourth-place finish several games ahead of Kansas City and a few games behind Detroit.

I actually happen to be fairly optimistic about the organization's long-term prospects--I generally think that Mark Shapiro's regime makes sound decisions (which is not to say that they are perfect, or to excuse the poor drafts the team has had). Chris Antonetti will become GM later this year as Shapiro is promoted to President (of the team, not the USA, although I doubt he'd be significantly worse in that capacity than the current occupant of the office), ensuring organizational stability for the next few years. Manny Acta got my tacit endorsement as a managerial hire. There remain legitimate questions about ownership's commitment to payroll, but I don't disagree with the decisions not to pay market value for Sabathia, Lee, and Martinez, so it's hard for me to criticize too much on that front, at least at this time.

2 comments:

  1. I'll take the under, based largely on the pitching - I see very little pitching upside there, meaning guys who are likely to beat either projections or recent performance.

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  2. It's certainly tough to argue with that, and it's quite possible that my 74 wins arises from wishful thinking/homerism.

    I would have a tough time predicting they'll allow significantly more runs than last season, though, when the 5.45 park-adjusted RA/G was the highest in MLB, and even with that they managed a .445 Pyth record.

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