Tuesday, March 08, 2011

2011 Indians “Preview”

If you close your eyes and dream just a little bit, you can see the Indians contending in a division without a clear favorite. A healthy Grady Sizemore and a healthy Carlos Santana teaming up with the overlooked Shin-Soo Choo to form a secondary average all-star wrecking crew at the heart of the offense. Maybe Matt LaPorta lives up to his potential, just a little, and provides average first base output. Michael Brantley is able to get on base, and Asdrubal Cabrera fields well, and second and third base are not complete black holes. Meanwhile, the bullpen is anchored by Chris Perez, with Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp combining to give the Tribe two solid left-handed relievers. A couple of other somewhat promising righties take bullpen spots and run with them. That team is no threat to win 100 games, but it could win 87 games.

“But wait”, you say. “Your rosy scenario said nothing about the starting pitching.” Oops. And that is the problem with the 2011 Indians in a nutshell; they might not wind up having a good offense or a good bullpen, but it's not that hard to envision how it might happen. On the other hand, it's very hard to see the starting pitching performing in a manner that could make Cleveland a legitimate threat in the AL Central.

Carlos Santana will be the catcher, and is said to be back to normal after recovering from the knee injury that prematurely ended his rookie season. Even assuming that to be reality, it's easy to see Santana being something of a disappointment to fans in 2011 after hitting .261/.408/.469 in 187 major league PA. Whether those expectations are met or not, Santana should be on of the Tribe's best offensive players and have the bat to carry first base, where he is slated to see some time.

The competition to be his backup will continue throughout the spring. Lou Marson started last season as the Indians catcher, but my money would be on him beginning the season in Columbus. He's still young enough that the organization would presumably like to get him some regular playing time rather than the rare chances that figure to come behind Santana. That leaves an assortment of uninspiring choices (veterans Paul Phillips and Luke Carlin and youngster Juan Apodaca). I would be very surprised if it was Apodaca, and the fact that Marson is already on the 40-man roster may wind up winning him the position after all.

At first base, the hope that Matt LaPorta could be the impact hitter that would really make the CC Sabathia trade payoff have essentially been extinguished--it's now just a question of whether he can be an adequate major league hitter at the position. The jury is still out on that, but his former prospect status still has at least another year or so with which to tease observers. LaPorta has seen time in left field in the past, but appears anchored to first base now.

Second base figures to be a black hole for the team as it has been since Asdrubal Cabrera moved across the bag for good. Luis Valbuena played himself out of Cleveland's plans last season, and while he is in camp and ostensibly competing for the job, the odds against him are staggering. If the team wouldn't promote Santana at the outset of the 2010 season, you can forget about seeing prospect Jason Kipnis (or Lonnie Chisenhall at the hot corner, although he is considered to be farther away anyway). That leaves Jason Donald, who'll likely instead be slotted at third base, and non-roster invitee Adam Everett as options (and let's be honest--if you're not going to use Everett's shortstop glove, you're not going to put him in your everyday lineup).

Thanks to this grim outlook, the Indians decided to bring in a veteran to at least give a steady presence at the position--Orlando Cabrera. Cabrera really doesn't offer much more than his name at this point, but given the choice of watching Luis Valbuena or just about any human being other than Muammar Gaddafi, things could be worse.

Third base is the other position where the team has thrown their hands up. Jayson Nix was thought to be the favorite, and will almost certainly be on the team one way or the other, but his late season trial at the hot corner was scary from a fielding standpoint, and the man has a career 77 OPS+ in over 700 PA, so it's not as if there's a tradeoff being made between fielding and offense. Donald now appears to have the inside track on the position, but he too leaves much to be desired offensively. Jared Goedert, who hit 27 homers between Akron and Columbus last year, will also get a look, but at 26 and without much a previous track record, he's more suspect than prospect. Jack Hannahan is also in camp as an option of last resort.

Cord Phelps, like Chisenhall and Kipnis, could be a midsummer or later addition to the team. Phelps is trained to play some third as Kipnis has surpassed his as the second baseman in waiting, but third base puts him in competition with Chisenhall, so he may really be preparing to take a utility job down the line. The Indians will have decent flexibility, as Cabrera and Donald can both back up short and second; there will be no need for an Everett type to be tacked on the roster solely for Asdrubal Cabrera's days off.

The outfield picture is much clearer than the infield, particularly if Sizemore is able to perform. Right field belongs to Shin-Soo Choo, who is not really appreciated by the home fans anymore than the general consensus. If you tried to tell a typical Tribe fan that Choo was roughly comparable in value to Carl Crawford in 2010, they'd laugh you off as most people from Chicago or San Francisco would as well. Sizemore will likely not be ready for Opening Day; apparently two weeks into the season is the target, but personally I don't expect to see him before May. The brass seems to be committed to playing him in center when he returns, but left is a possibility with Michael Brantley sliding over to center as he will in Sizemore's absence. I remain a Brantley skeptic, as he has yet to display a hint of power; he will need a .350ish OBA to be an asset. His .270 BABIP suggests some bad fortune, but given that his major league OBA is .313 in over 400 PA, it's going to take more than a few hits dropping in to make him a legitimate major league outfielder.

I was not particularly pleased that Austin Kearns was brought back; his hot start obscured the fact that he was a below average hitter in a corner position. He does provide a right-handed bat to platoon with Brantley, and he's borderline playable in center (as is Choo), so he brings a bit more to the table than Shelley Duncan. Duncan is left-handed, more of a liability in the field, and has performed no better at the plate. He'll probably make the team anyway and also see time at DH, particularly on days Hafner is scheduled to sit and a righty is pitching. Travis Buck, signed to a minor league deal, is a more intriguing option, similar but more useful in the field than Jordan Brown (a LF/1B). Both are left-handed, which is problematic given Brantley's presence.

Trevor Crowe would be another candidate for the bench, but he is held back by an injury and may not be ready for some time. Ezequiel Carrera, Chad Huffman, and Nick Weglarz are also in camp but don't figure to win a spot on the team.

Travis Hafner is the DH, and it's worth noting that he still contributes to the offense. 5.7 RG is still an acceptable and even slightly above-average performance from a DH. His production was similar in 2009--5.9 RG, which was actually a little worse relative to the league. The problem with Hafner as a player is that he requires frequent days off due to nagging elbow problems (only 118 games in 2010 and 94 in 2009). The real problem with Hafner as an asset is his massive contract, which still has two years and $26 million to go (one could argue that his platoon splits make him a liability against southpaws, too, I suppose). However, the typical Tribe fan carries on about Hafner the hitter as if he's completely useless, unable to separate judgment of the contract and the memory of the hitter he was from a fair assessment of the hitter he is.

Nick Johnson was a late addition to the first base/DH mix on a minor league deal. Usually I'd be very excited about Johnson joining my team, but with the Tribe not going anywhere there's really no reason to throw obstacles in the path of letting LaPorta take 600 PA. Johnson can also fill in at DH, and gives the Indians the potential to have a number of Secondary Average beasts (joining Sizemore, Choo, and Santana); of course, concerns about his effect on opportunities for other players have a high probability of being rendered moot given Nick the Stick's injury history.

The Indians' starting rotation is pretty well set, barring injury; this can be a good thing if you're the Phillies or the Giants, and a bad thing if you have Mitch Talbot and Carlos Carrasco locked into starting jobs. Fausto Carmona will take the ball on opening day; there has been so much written about him that I feel completely incapable of providing any analytical insight. Carmona stands out from other pitchers that have had flukish Cy Young type seasons (Joe Mays and Esteban Loaiza come to mind in the last decade) because he does have the stuff that makes you want to overlook the low strikeout rates and believe that he could be an exceptional pitcher with an unusual profile. But believing doesn't make it so, and Carmona is a groundball pitcher typecast as an ace by a team desperate for an ace that doesn't have very good infield defense.

Left-handed batters have remained the scourge of Justin Masterson, and as such he might well be best suited for a relief role. However, of all teams Cleveland needs to try to resist that temptation as long as possible. While as a rule I'd usually support not giving up on a pitcher's rotation potential until absolutely necessary, it is even more imperative in the case of Masterson and the Indians. The team is thin in starters, and three of the team's top pitching prospects (Alex White, Jason Knapp, and Nick Hagadone) are considered to be potential future relievers.

Mitch Talbot is a perfectly acceptable back of the rotation filler type who'll likely slot third in this club's rotation because his 159 innings and 14 RAR in 2010 constitute a track record relatively. Carlos Carrasco's stuff has always outranked his results, but he pitched well in September and will thus be given a rotation spot with little resistance this spring.

Fifth starter options are numerous, but most lack potential to ever be much more. Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez are forgettable righties, David Huff is the last man standing of the Indians once prodigious collection of left-handed soft-tossers with the rade of Aaron Laffey.. Hector Rondon was one of the team's top prospects but has been stopped cold by injuries, while deadline trade swag Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber figure to be in the mix to fill in during the summer, but not break camp with the club. The aforementioned White has more upside and will also be a possibility late in the campaign.

The wildcard in the fifth starter competition is Anthony Reyes, who will be given every opportunity to win the job. Reyes was acquired in 2008 and started 2009 in the rotation before requiring Tommy John. The Indians would love to see him physically able to pitch thanks to his experience if nothing else, but it is pretty clear that he will not be ready for Opening Day. The team was linked to veteran free agents Kevin Millwood, Jeremy Bonderman, and Bartolo Colon; the latter signed with the Yankees, sadly denying Tribe fans of seeing a former contributor return home and perhaps fall flat on his face with a flair not seen in these parts since Juan Gonzalez' one-game appearance in 2005. The former two remain on the market but each day diminishes the likelihood that they will turn up in Cleveland.

Recent developments have made the bullpen picture clearer than one might expect under the circumstances. Chris Perez will be the closer, and is a good bet to disappoint; his .234 BABIP should go up, and even without using DIPS-inspired metrics, his peripheral RA was a good three-quarters of a run above the actual figure. None of this is to say that Perez will be bad, only that one should not expect a repeat performance of the second half, in which he was a lockdown closer.

Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp give the bullpen a pair of left-handers who tease their potential to be more than specialists while often proving combustible on the mound. Chad Durbin, briefly an Indian in 2003-04 (~ 60 innings), has been signed to a major league contract and thus will be the team's primary middle innings reliever. The Durbin signing may seem unnecessary given the club's outlook, but it appears as if giving Manny Acta some hope of a stable, experienced right-handed middle reliever outweighed other considerations.

Those four are locks; two others, Jensen Lewis and Joe Smith, are strong possibilities. Both were signed to contracts rather than being non-tendered, which leads one to believe that they will be pitching in Jacobs Field this year. Smith is a pleasure to watch if nothing else, and Lewis' childhood Indians fandom allows the fans a degree of warm fuzzies.

The final spot appears to be reserved for a long reliever; if that is the case, two pitchers jump to the front: Justin Germano and Joe Martinez. Both have started and relieved in their careers; Germano has the upper hand as his BABIP gave the impression of effectiveness in 35 innings with the Tribe in 2010.

If the team is willing to eschew a long man requirement, Frank Herrmann and Vinnie Pestano will be very much in the mix. Herrmann is a 27 year old righty without good stuff; his performance over 45 big league innings was average but he lived on a low walk rate (1.8 per nine) and a low strikeout rate (4.8). The fall off the high wire could be ugly. Pestano throws hard and impressed in his September callup; his AA and AAA performance was impressive as well (1.81 ERA, 77/16 K/W in 59 innings). It would be nice to see the team go with Pestano, as there really aren't any right-handers with power arms to set up Perez (I don't want to give the impression I have a fetish for power arms--”effective” arms would have worked too).

Other relievers who could appear as the season progresses include Josh Judy, Jess Todd (definitely stuck in neutral at this point), Nick Hagadone (if moved to the pen), Bryce Stowell and Zach Putnam (who'll immediately become my least favorite Indian of all-time). There are a number of arms with potential in that group, and so it's possible that the Tribe bullpen could be a lot more exciting by September and perhaps positioned to be more effective in 2012.

Last year I predicted a 74-88 season, which was five wins too many; I've learned my lesson and will go with 72-90 this year. It's dangerous to attempt to project further down the road, but I could see 2012 as a similar season to 2011 with some more young players breaking in, with 2013 as a season in which to make a push. But by that point the contract status of players like Sizemore and Choo will be an issue, and so it's best to keep an even keel and say that it's not at all clear when Cleveland's next contender will take the field.

A best case scenario (really more like 90th percentile)? Let's say 81-81. The starting pitching makes it tough to go much higher even if one assumes favorable health for the offense and an effective bullpen.

Worst case? Any time you expect to win 72 games, you could lose 100 if things don't go your way. I don't think this is the worst team in the majors, but only a homer could argue that median expectation wouldn't put them in the bottom third or quarter of the league.

Sadly, this is an organization that needs a break from a public relations standpoint. The performance of the organization has been a disappointment over the last three seasons without question, but the fickleness of the fanbase has been a disproportionate response. Indians fans have every right to demand better from the organization, but when just four years ago your team was one win away from the World Series, it is unbecoming to act as fans of a club that has spent a generation planted in the second division. Perhaps more than any other fanbase, Indians rooters have swallowed the vision of baseball as hopeless for small markets hook, line, and sinker--even when they could simply look to the city's other major league franchises and see that salary caps can neither compel “homegrown” players to stay home (even when the team wins a lot of games and the player is actually from the area) or ensure that an organization will put a decent team on the field even once in a decade. The pathetic, feeble whining about a ballclub by denizens of a declining, corrupt city is a bit much for me.

C: Carlos Santana, Luke Carlin
IF: Matt LaPorta, Orlando Cabrera, Jayson Nix, Adsrubal Cabrera, Jason Donald (Shelley Duncan in lieu of Johnson)
OF: Michael Brantley, Grady Sizemore, Shin Soo-Choo, Austin Kearns, Shelley Duncan (Travis Buck in lieu of Sizemore)
DH: Travis Hafner
SP: Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, Mitch Talbot, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin
RP: Chris Perez, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Chad Durbin, Jensen Lewis, Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano

1 comment:

  1. Just stumbled across your blog today, and as a longtime Indians fan I love your bluntness and honesty. It's very refreshing.

    I'm not completely drinking the coolaid of the Indians hot start. They did start 11-1 in 2002 only to finish with 74 wins, but I am impressed by Masterson and Carrasco. If Masterson can figure out how to get lefties out, he could be a solid number 2 starter.

    I'm hoping for a 81 win season. Like you said multiple breaks must go their way, but at least the first week helps!


I reserve the right to reject any comment for any reason.