Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Big Push for Second Place

The Indians enter 2013 with an organizational philosophy that from a surface-level, outsider’s perspective appears very different than it did at this time two years ago. The 2011 Indians appeared to be conservative almost to a fault, allowing young players ample chances to develop, avoiding spending money on the free agent market, and backing the manager as steadfastly as the front office itself--after all, this is a team that had announced Eric Wedge’s firing before the end of the 2009 season and allowed him to manage out the last series of the year anyway.

The Indians enter 2013 acting like a different organization. They went on a free agent spending spree the likes of which the organization has not undertaken since the mid-90s, bringing in Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn on four-year deals, plus Brett Myers and Mark Reynolds on non-negligible one-year deals. They have a new manager in Terry Francona as Manny Acta was unceremoniously dumped, treated as a scapegoat in a manner that Wedge never was, despite presiding over much several campaigns much more disappointing than 2012 (you see there was 2006, and then there was 2008, and 2009…) And the team has finally cut ties with its mid-aughts contenders, as Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, and the former Fausto Carmona are all gone.

Of course, as an outsider it’s impossible to say how much of this was a change in philosophy versus a change in tactics given changes in the environment. Perhaps Acta had a fatal flaw as a manager that those of us on the outside are clueless too. Perhaps the new CBA, or the sale of Sports Time Ohio to Fox Sports, changed the organization’s computations regarding the value of a win purchased on the market. Perhaps ownership decided that the poisonous atmosphere around the city on sports radio and in the pages of the local rags was too toxic, and that money needed to be spent to change the conversation. I will never know what led to the changes, but it certainly feels different to me.

Carlos Santana will be the catcher and entering his age 27 season, it may be time to celebrate him for what he is rather than as the superstar some once thought he might be. A TTO catcher with a career .384 secondary average is nothing to sneeze at regardless of his batting average, and .247 is plenty high enough to support a strong OBA. If Santana could raise his average while preserving his power and eye, he could yet be a star, but as is he’s one of the top catchers in the AL.

First base appears to be the likely destination for the big free agent catch, Nick Swisher. It remains possible that he could slide to right on a full-time basis if dictated by injury or a lack of performance from Drew Stubbs, but for now it appears that first base is the plan. It is difficult for me to evaluate Swisher objectively, and so I’ll refrain from saying anything more.

Jason Kipnis starts his second full season at second base. His 2012 featured a strong first half (.277/.345/.419) and a powerless second half (.233/.322/.328). On the bright side, Kipnis’ walk rate ticked up as he struggled to hit. His overall season was a strong offensive showing for a 25 year old second baseman, and I’m probably a little more bullish on him than projection systems.

Third base will belong to Lonnie Chisenhall, whose major league career so far has not gone according to plan. He was called up in 2011 in a panic move with the Indians flailing for offense as their ill-advised attempt to win now fell to pieces. Chisenhall’s walk rate, never a strength in the minors, has been abysmal in the bigs, and various injuries have kept him from regular playing time. Chisenhall is young enough to retain promise, but should not be counted on as a major contributor in 2013.

At shortstop, Asdrubal Cabrera is back despite trade rumors that enveloped him all winter. At this point Cabrera is something of a known quality, as he was able to sustain some of the growth in his power to remain a valuable offensive player. In the field, he makes more than his share of spectacular plays, but metrics of all stripes consider him suspect. He’ll remain a prime trade candidate if the Indians fail to contend or in the offseason.

The outfield should be good defensively, featuring three players capable of handling center, but is a less-than-stellar offensive group. Michael Brantley will be in left; he made strides offensively in 2012, but that brought him only to an average level for a corner outfielder. Late surprise signee Michael Bourn will man center and leadoff, giving the Indians their first full-time leadoff hitter that fits the traditional profile since Kenny Lofton (Coco Crisp was never Cleveland’s primary leadoff hitter). Whether Bourn’s value will hold up over the four-year contract term is up for debate, but his addition improves the team’s 2013 outlook. In right, Drew Stubbs will be given the opportunity, at least initially, to revive his offensive game, but his poor hitting against righties could force him into a platoon with Swisher.

Mark Reynolds will serve as the DH and could get significant time at first if Swisher plays right. Reynolds gives the Tribe right-handed power that they have been sorely lacking in recent years, but that power comes at the price of low batting averages (and, most terrifyingly to the traditionally-minded, copious strikeouts). Mediocrity should be the expectation for production out of his spot.

Two sports on the bench are obvious. Lou Marson will be the backup catcher. Marson is a replacement-level offensive player, but in 2012 his usually strong throwing results took a nosedive as he threw out just 14% of runners on 78 attempts. Still, it would be a major surprise if Marson lost his job to Yan Gomes, who would also be an infield corner option. The other bench lock is Mike Aviles, utility man and potential stopgap replacement should Asdrubal Cabrera be dealt in the next two seasons.

Francona appears to be set on putting what’s left of Jason Giambi on the roster, which leads me to believe that Ryan Raburn has an excellent shot at claiming the final bench spot. Since Giambi will not play the field, Raburn’s ability to just about anywhere but shortstop will be more attractive. The other top option is Ezequiel Carrrera, who is out of options but whose center field ability is not as important given that three potential center fielders will man Cleveland’s regular outfield.

On the mound, the Indians desperately need to improve their starting pitching to turn their fortunes around. In 2012, Cleveland ranked third-to-last in MLB in both innings per start and starters’ eRA. While the performance was so bad that regression should be an ally and the Indians made an attempt to address the rotation, it seems doubtful that the situation will improve enough for the team to contend.

As of this writing, the first four spots in the rotation have been made official by Terry Francona with nary a surprise. For the second consecutive season, Justin Masterson has the opening day assignment. Masterson appeared to have turned a corner in 2011, holding lefties to a league-average batting line, but in 2012 lefties once again had their way with him (296/376/450 and a career line of 292/367/432). The question of whether there is the potential for Masterson to get back to respectability against lefties is better left to the PitchF/x type of analysts, but his 2012 performance was good for just 3 RAR.

Next up is Ubaldo Jimenez, who fell deeper into the abyss in 2012, with a strikeout rate of 6.8 versus a walk rate of 4.5 and a whopping 6.07 eRA. While it’s impossible to write off a talent like Jimenez, it’s equally impossible to predict that he will be an effective major league starting pitcher. While I am usually able to set aside emotion when watching the Indians, it’s tough to manage when Jimenez is on the mound given the combination of extraordinarily frustrating pitching and the huge price it took to acquire him.

Brett Myers will slot in as the #3 starter, Cleveland’s attempt to stabilize the rotation with a veteran innings eater (the 2012 version, Derek Lowe, started hot but imploded in a big way). Myers has been below average in terms of run prevention in three of his last four seasons as a starter, and the year spent in relief is not an encouraging sign. He may eat innings, but he shouldn’t be counted on for an effective performance.

The number four spot went to Zach McAllister, who pitched effectively at times for Cleveland in 2012, but for the season was below replacement level with a 5.81 RRA. McAllister has the potential to develop into something more, but counting on that would be a mistake.

The fifth starter job remains open, with the candidates appearing to be Scott Kazmir, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Corey Kluber. Kazmir appears to be the favorite: he has pitched well so far in the spring, would be the team’s only left-handed starter, and at least has a history of effectively pitching in the majors. Matsuzaka has suffered an injury setback that will likely knock him from contention. Carrasco is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and will be stashed in AAA, waiting to vulture one of the other starter’s jobs. The Indians obviously are high on Bauer, making him the centerpiece of the Choo trade, but may be inclined to patience and allowing him to break into the organization at AAA. Kluber is a generic replacement-level type arm who will remain an emergency option.

Cleveland’s bullpen is perceived very differently depending on who you talk to. Indians fans and announcers seem to think it is very good, but a baseball writer who’ll remain nameless cited it last year as the #1 reason why the team wouldn’t contend (which was bizarre given that the rotation looked shaky at the time, even before it was exposed to be an abject disaster). Over the last three seasons it has ranked seventh, seventh, and twelfth in the AL in eRA, which means that what had been average was bad in 2012. The heavy workload didn’t help, and the Tribe had a decent trio at the end of games, but struggled to find middle relief. It comes as no surprise then that the team’s primary offseason bullpen tinkerings were to add middle relief depth. The Choo trade netted Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw while Matt Capps was brought in as a NRI.

The key three pitchers at the end of the game are Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, and Chris Perez. Perez may be sidelined at the beginning of the year with shoulder discomfort, but for now I’ll assume he’ll be ready to go. Perez is a fairly average reliever who can be incredibly frustrating when his command deserts him and he pumps straight, hittable fastballs. He’s the type of player that I wouldn’t have expected the Indians to shell out $7.3MM for in the past. Paired with Pestano, he continues the recent Indians tradition of the setup man being the top reliever, best exemplified by Joe Borowski and Rafael Betancourt.

Smith’s sidearm delivery makes him an ideal ROOGY, working 70+ times in each of the last two seasons with just a shade under an inning/game. His LOOGY counterparts, will be new in 2013. For each of the past X seasons, Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp have served as the Indians lefties, although both briefly transcended LOOGY-dom. The pair combined for 100 appearances in 2009, 140 in 2010, 140 in 2011, and 71 last year as Perez was slowed by injury. The duo has been broken up as Sipp was dealt to Arizona in the Choo trade and Perez allowed to sign with Minnesota.

In their place, Rich Hill has been added to the 40-man and thus essentially assured a roster spot. I suppose it was too much to ask the Cleveland bring in an OSU star without sullying the team with a UM product. Nick Hagadone seems likely to join the pen as well, apparently forgiven for the incident in which he broke his hand punching a wall. Hagadone has exciting stuff for a lefty, but has yet been able to harness it (or perhaps stay healthy enough to do so). Scott Barnes and David Huff are other lefty options.

Matt Albers is a pretty good bet to take a generic righty job, which leaves one spot for Cody Allen, Matt Capps, or Bryan Shaw. Capps may be the best bet due to his veteran status and lack of options, while Allen is the more exciting young arm and Shaw falls somewhere in between.

Terry Francona is the new manager; while I was agitated by the firing of Manny Acta, I certainly have no qualms with the choice of Francona. While his time with a non-contender in Philadelphia was not particularly encouraging, that tenure ended thirteen years ago. Francona was successful in Boston and seems to be a relatively saber-friendly skipper, something that was likely sought by both
organizations.

As for the front office, though, the Jimenez trade marked the beginning of my disenchantment and the phony contention attempt of 2012 with corresponding bluster that was used to justify the Acta filing marked my complete disillusionment. The open wallet in the offseason has been attributed by many observers to the new CBA rules, and the opportunity for teams with protected picks to swoop in on the middle tier of free agents. There’s surely some truth to this, but in the case of the Indians, this observer feels that the most likely explanation is that management realized that fan sentiment had grown toxic and that something had to be done to restore people’s interest in the team.

Most analysts feel that the Swisher and Bourn deals are reasonable, maybe even good values. How they’ll look at the tail end is another story, but the real problem is that Cleveland is still several pieces short from being a true contender. Those several pieces all happen to be starting pitchers. The Indians starters were so dreadful last year that regression is their friend, but they can’t regress to the level of adequacy necessary to put this team in the playoffs. That would take real improvement, and while 2010 Jimenez + 2011 Masterson + rookie of the year Bauer might fit the bill, the odds of that happening are remote. Detroit looks better on paper this preseason than they did last year (at least to me), Chicago almost always finds a way to win in the 80s, and Kansas City preceded the Tribe into this offseason’s contention derby. Even if Detroit falters, the Indians have plenty of competition. Given the weakness of the rotation, it’s hard to pick this team to achieve much. As a baseline guess, I’m going with 76-86, third place.

Predicted lineup (generic):

1. 8 Michael Bourn
2. 6 Asdrubal Cabrera
3. 4 Jason Kipnis
4. 3 Nick Swisher
5. 2 Carlos Santana
6. 7 Michael Brantley
7. D Mark Reynolds
8. 9 Drew Stubbs
9. 5 Lonnie Chisenhall

Bench: C Lou Marson, IF Mike Aviles, UT Ryan Raburn, DH Jason Giambi

Rotation:

1. Justin Masterson (R)
2. Ubaldo Jimenez (R)
3. Brett Myers (R)
4. Zach McAllister (R)
5. Scott Kazmir (L)

Bullpen: Matt Albers (R), Matt Capps (R), Nick Hagadone (L), Rich Hill (L), Chris Perez (R), Vinnie Pestano (R), Joe Smith (R)

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