Sunday, April 02, 2006

Near the Banks of the Cuyahoga

Since I follow the Indians more closely then any other team, I will give do a little team-specific preview for them. This is hardly stuff that you can’t get elsewhere, but oh well. Since the OSU preview was titled “Near the Banks of the Olentangy”, it only was natural to name this one as I did. I suppose at this point I could digress into rating these two dirty looking rivers--(Cuyahoga has caught on fire, -5 pts; Olentangy is dirty mostly just because it is shallow and muddy, +3 pts; my parents’ property runs right up to the Cuyahoga, +3 pts; the Olentangy runs outside Ohio Stadium, Value City Arena, etc., contest over), but instead I will try to briefly recap the season and off-season that was, run down the roster, and refer you back to my last entry to see how I think it will shake out in the standings.

The story of the Indians’ 2005 season has been told many times, and is not a particular pleasant one, but the team started slowly but caught fire over the summer, charging back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to the White Sox in the division to give them a September scare, as well as establishing a lead on the wildcard heading into the final week. Then it all fell apart, losing five of six at home to the Devil Rays and White Sox to finish six back in the division and two back in the wildcard.

The Indians’ offense scored 806 park-adjusted runs, good for fourth in the American League. Ranked by RAR at each positions, the Indians had the best catcher, sixth-best second baseman, fourth-best shortstop, fifth-best left fielder, best center-fielder, and second-best DH. Unfortunately, the team struggled to get production out of the three remaining corner positions, as their first baseman was tenth, third baseman dead last, and right fielder fourteenth.

Surprisingly, though, it was the Indians’ defense that carried the team. They allowed 655 park-adjusted runs, trailing only the White Sox (although in a virtual dead heat tie with Minnesota and Los Angeles). The starters were solid, as Kevin Millwood led the league in ERA and was fifth with +53 RAR; Cliff Lee was +41 RAR; CC Sabathia was +36; and while Scott Elarton and Jake Westbrook were both below average, they ate up innings and were both around +15 RAR. The rotation also stayed healthy almost all year, as the five combined to start 158 games, and the other four were all taken by Jason Davis.

The bullpen was a huge strength, as the key contributers were Bobby Howry with a 2.36 RRA; David Riske, 3.22; Bob Wickman, 2.78; Rafael Betancourt, 3.51; Scott Sauerbeck, 2.88; and Arthur Rhodes, 3.46. Those six not only pitched brilliantly, but combined to work 352 of the approximately 460 innings logged by the bullpen. Matt Miller was injured and missed most of the second half, but pitched 29 innings with a 1.82 ERA, and then youngster Fernando Cabrera came up and pitched 30 innings with a 1.47 ERA. That totals to around 412 innings all thrown by pitchers with RRAs of 3.50 and lower.

While the team finished with a record of 93-69 and a .574 W%, the Expected W% based on runs scored and runs allowed was .598, best in the AL and second only to St. Louis. The Predicted W% based on RC and RC Allowed was .617, the highest in baseball. So, in the sense that sabermetricians often mean it, the Indians were “unlucky” last year. Please note that I, at least, do not mean this to imply that they somehow deserved to win but did not. The team that has the highest W% is the champion, and that was the White Sox. However, these type of indicators are often (or appear to be) better correlated with future performance then the actual winning percentage.

The off-season was relatively uneventful until January. Prior to that, the Indians let Kevin Millwood leave for free agency, as he received a massive and IMO foolish contract from the Rangers. Given Millwood’s injury history and peripherals, it seems unlikely that he will be able to duplicate his excellent pitching of 2005. Millwood still projects as a solid starter, but probably not a good investment at the price the Rangers paid. Scott Elarton was also allowed to leave to sign with Kansas City, as was Bobby Howry with the Cubs.

Their[Millwood and Elarton] replacements will be Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson, both signed as free agents. While it would be silly to expect them as a pair match what Millwood and Elarton did LAST year, it is not unreasonable to think that they could match what Millwood and Elarton will do THIS year.

Then in January, the Indians sent Coco Crisp, David Riske, and backup catcher Josh Bard to the Red Sox for top third base prospect Andy Marte, reliever Guillermo Mota, and catcher Kelly Shoppach. They also flipped Arthur Rhodes to Philadelphia for Jason Michaels to help fill Crisp’s spot in the lineup. I have written about this trade in a previous post, so I won’t belabor it here, but if I had to call this trade, I would say that the Indians will benefit in the long run, but it probably does weaken their position this year, especially since Marte will start the season in Buffalo.

So, after all of this, what will the team look like in 2006? Offensively, exactly the same with the exception of Crisp. Victor Martinez has established himself as the premier catcher in the AL, if not all of baseball, and at 28 would appear to be in the prime of his career. He will be backed up by Kelly Shoppach, who hit 253/352/507 at AAA for Boston last year. He hit poorly in the spring, but one the backup job over the shockingly still employable Einar Diaz, who has not hit since he was traded by the Indians, with Ryan Drese for…Travis Hafner, who apparently will play some more first base this year. If Hafner can play some games in the field, hopefully Martinez can DH and save himself from catching, as Shoppach would appear to not be an offensive sinkhole as Josh Bard was last year. Whether he plays the field or not, Hafner has established himself as one of the best hitters in baseball--his 8.44 RG trailed only A-Rod in the junior circuit. Ben Broussard, who hit just 258/306/468 last year will be the primary first baseman. His career averages are 258/327/459, so it would be silly to expect him to perform much differently this year.

Broussard will be spelled some at first base, at least against lefties, by Eduardo Perez, signed as a free agent from Tampa Bay. Last year this role was served by Jose Hernandez, who did not hit whether the pitcher was left-handed, right-handed, or was an octopus. Perez tagged lefties for a 259/371/526 line last year in around 155 PAs, so hopefully he will add some runs in this role. At second base, Ronnie Belliard returns and should provide average hitting and his unusual deep defensive positioning. At third base, Aaron Boone will try to recover to be his mediocre self after an atrocious 245/294/381 comeback season. This year, though, with the Indians expecting to contend from day one, he will need to hit or else Mr. Marte, who seemingly has nothing left to prove in the minors, could dislodge him. Jhonny Peralta was tremendous in his first full season at shortstop, and while it might be wishful thinking to believe he will create 6.6 runs per game again, he appears to be one of the brighter young players in the league. Ramon Vazquez will hopefully be the little seen and little needed utility infielder he was last year after the trade of Alex Cora.

The outfield will be anchored by Grady Sizemore in center, who had a tremendous 106 RC season last year. While he may be due for some regression/sophomore slum/whatever, he should be one of the league’s better centerfielders. Jason Michaels is a bit of a question mark in left as it will be his first time handed a full-time job (although he could platoon with fourth outfielder Todd Hollandsworth). He has showed good on-base skills in Philly, and provides a nice backup for center. Casey Blake had a horrible year(243/301/442) in right, but the Indians lack a clear alternative. Like Broussard, his career 255/324/439 line does not give a lot of reassurance that he will do any better. Jason Dubois had a strong spring, but was sent back to Buffalo and seems to have fallen out of favor with the brass after striking out in half of his 50 PA with the Indians last year. He may be an emergency option if Blake struggles, as could prospect Brad Snyder.

The rotation will be anchored by CC Sabathia, who seems to have been around forever despite being just 26 this year. As each year passes, it seems less likely that he will break out, but last year he did match 2004 for his best control, and 7.4 was his best strikeout rate since his rookie year. I picked him as a dark horse Cy Young candidate, because he is young enough to put it all together and become a great pitcher, although I’m not betting on it. He is a solid starter either way. Cliff Lee will follow him, and while not as good as his 18 wins a year ago may lead some to think, he is a solid pitcher with a 4.26 eRA last year. He combines with Sabathia to give the Tribe one of the better left-handed pitching combos around, with the exception of Minnesota, where Johan Santana and his aunt would be the best duo, let alone the fact that they have the top left-handed pitching prospect in baseball.

Paul Byrd has been brought back after a long time away to fill the role of #3 starter. Byrd was solid last year as well, with a 4.42 eRA. He is 36 and does not have a really impressive strikeout rate, so he’s the kind of guy you worry about losing it. But for the short-term, it would seem best to expect more of the same. He is followed by Jake Westbrook, who struggled to a 5.29 RA last year, although his 4.40 eRA is much more in line with his very good 2004 season in which he was at 4.09. Again, I think it is prudent to expect more of the same. Jason Johnson will be the #5 starter, at least until Fausto Carmona or Jeremy Sowers are deemed ready to take over. He is a slightly below average pitcher who can toss 200 innings, which is not a bad thing to have in a fifth starter. Given his extra durability, lower price, and similar performance, I am glad the Indians signed him rather then retaining Scott Elarton.

The bullpen, a true force last year, is much more of a question mark this year. Bob Wickman got a bunch of saves last year with a 2.52 RA, but his 4.26 eRA and 5.30 GRA give you an indication of why Cleveland’s retailers could not stock enough Tums during the season. With his, erm, impressive physique, advanced age, and low strikeout rate, you can relataively low K rate(6.0), you can forgive me if I predict that somebody else will be handling the closer’s role by July.

But who will that someone be? Well, the Indians have three righties to set-up, led by Fernando Cabrera, who dominated the AL at age 24 in 30 inning debut. He will not record another 1.47 ERA, but there is a reason why Baseball Prospectus included him in their top 50 prospects, rare for a reliever. Then there is Guillermo Mota, who suffered through an injury-plagued year in Florida last year. Given his age and lingering concerns about injury, there is legitimate cause for pessimism, but on the other hand, it was just two years ago that he was one of the top ten relievers in the NL. Finally, Rafael Betancourt has been the underrated member of the Cleveland pen for a couple years now, as he consistently eats middle innings with sub-3.5 RAs and excellent strikeout rates. Early reports had him being included in the Crisp trade; if true, the Indians wisely substituted David Riske instead, whose rising homer and falling strikeout rates spell trouble.

The Indians have just one lefty after sending Arthur Rhodes to the Phillies, and that will be Scott Sauerbeck. Sauerbeck was great at stranding inherited runners a year ago (+7 runs over an average reliever), but his run averages were all in the mid-4s. He fits the LOOGY role, as over the last three years lefties have a 620 OPS against him v. 846 for righties. For perspective, that’s about the same as Omar Infante(626) and Rondell White(843). The sixth spot in the pen falls to Matt Miller, whose sidearming motion automatically endears him to me, let alone the fact that in 89 career innings he has struck out 83 batters with a 2.62 ERA. At 35 and having missed most of the second half last year, there are definite concerns but he looks to be a useful piece.

The last guy in the bullpen, or at least the buy I hope Eric Wedge will treat as the last guy in the bullpen, is Danny Graves. Why the Indians think they can fix Graves, I do not know, as even in his best seasons he was not that great, but looked good cause he got the saves. Graves beat out Steve Karsay, another hopeless ex-Indian reclamation project, Jason Davis, and Andrew Brown for the spot. Brown had intriguing numbers in the minors last year and will probably be the first option if anyone gets hurt, or Graves or Wickman spontaneously combust. Davis is apparently now moving to the pen full-time, which hopefully will kick start his career, because as it stands now, he’s going nowhere fast. That will leave Carmona as the first backup for the rotation.

To summarize, the Indians have an above-average lineup that will put some runs on the board, they have a solid starting staff that will not dominate anyone but will eat some innings and let the offense work, and a bullpen that does not profile to be spectacular as it was a year ago, but still looks above-average to me. I think that’s a 90 win team right there, and a team that can win this division. It’s also a team that could finish third and not really surprise me. But it should be a good race, and while 1995-2001 may have spoiled Cleveland fans, that’s really all you should ask for.

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