Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pessimism on the 2012 Indians

The 2011 Indians were not expected to do much; even within the organization, 2011 was likely viewed as a transitional year, with the goal of sorting out some nagging questions about the major league roster (Will Carlos Santana and Grady Sizemore be able to return from their injuries? Can Justin Masterson be an effective stating pitcher? Will Matt LaPorta ever amount to even a small fraction of his potential? Will Fausto Carmona ever come close to matching what he did in 2007?) and breaking in some younger talent as the season went along (Alex White, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis). Minnesota, Chicago, and Detroit all seemed to be better clubs on paper. Instead, the team started 30-15 and built a relatively sizeable lead in the American League Central, making 2011 a surprise contention season.

Of course, the team was not as good as their gaudy start, and while Chicago and Minnesota never recovered, Detroit came on strong as the summer progressed. Still, the Indians made moves that were consistent with a team that fancied itself a real contender. They promoted Lonnie Chisenhall to try to inject some life into a slumping offense, despite the fact that he wasn’t really tearing up AAA. They appeared to dabble in the trade market, being linked to names like Carlos Beltran and Josh Willingham, but given the organization’s historical reluctance to pull the trigger on a major deadline deal, even in seasons when they were real contenders, this observer discounted the rumors. But on July 30, the Tribe jumped into the trade game, sending three of the organization’s top pitching prospects to Colorado for Ubaldo Jimenez.

It didn’t do any good--Jimenez was terrible for Cleveland, and a three-game sweep at Comerica Park August 19-21 (including an excruciating 8-7 loss in the finale, a game started and seemingly lost by Jimenez before a valiant comeback effort) put the Indians 4.5 back; they’d never get closer and wound up 80-82 and fifteen games out.

The Indians were aggressive at the deadline, but mostly passive in the offseason while Detroit went out and signed Prince Fielder, a move which greatly diminished any residual optimism about Cleveland’s divisional hopes for 2012.

The Indians will once again go with the duo of Carlos Santana and Lou Marson behind the plate. Santana will also see time at first base and DH, although perhaps less than he may have initially seemed in line for as the Indians signed Casey Kotchman. It is quite possible that Santana will play first against left-handed pitchers, as Kotchman’s career platoon OPS split is 754/668. In Marson’s 199 PA against lefties, he has posted a 763 OPS, so it seems likely the Tribe will hope that even with some platoon split regression, Marson will be an asset.

At second base, Jason Kipnis will be handed the starting job after an impressive power display in his first 150 major league PA. Kipnis’ track record would indicate that his production should be tilted less towards power and more towards getting on base than it was in Cleveland, but he has the potential to be an offensive plus at the keystone.

Third base will be an open competition between Lonnie Chisenhall and Jack Hanahan. Hanahan was the opening day starter in 2011 and actually was a league average hitter (albeit fueled by a hot April) in addition to playing excellent defense. However, with the offense faltering in late June, Chisenhall was recalled and given a chance to take over the position. Poor strike zone judgment (8/49 W/K) held back his production, and Chisenhall hadn’t exactly been tearing up AAA prior to his promotion (.267/.353/.431 in 292 PA). Chisenhall will have to perform extremely well in the spring to win the job, and my money is on Hanahan.

Asdrubal Cabrera will return at shortstop after a season that included some great highlights. A surprising power surge early in the year plus several spectacular web gem plays ensured that his season would be remembered in Cleveland. While defensive metrics may dispute his fielding prowess and he’s no offensive star, there aren’t many AL shortstops I’d prefer.

The outfield consists of three question marks. In left field, it remains unclear if Michael Brantely can hit at an acceptable level to be anything more than a fourth outfielder. Playing him in left field is suboptimal, and there was even idle talk of giving him some time at first prior to the Kotchman. In center, Grady Sizemore returns on a one-year deal. Upon Sizemore’s return, there was a brief period in which he looked like the dynamic player he had been from 2006-08. Sadly, Sizemore was again bogged down by injuries and his once outstanding walk rate was nowhere to be found (18 walks in 295 PA and a .285 OBA). It will be interesting to see whether Brantley or Sizemore leads off. My guess is that Sizemore will start in the position but be on a short leash.

In right, Shin-Soo Choo seemed poised for another big year with his exemption from the Korean military secured. Instead, he got off to a slow start, was arrested for DUI, and suffered a broken thumb when hit by a pitch in San Francisco. DH Travis Hafner was productive when in the lineup, but again without the power he once showed (just 13 home runs).

Marson will be the backup catcher, but there are no locks for the rest of the bench. If Chisenhall wins the third base job, Hanahan is a good bet as a corner backup; if not, Chisenhall will go to Columbus. Russ Canzler, Shelley Duncan, and Andy LaRoche are corner backup options, with Jason Donald, Cord Phelps, and Jose Lopez as potential middle infield backups. Donald would seem to have the edge as he at least masquerades as a shortstop, and Hannahan would be the only other player on the roster (besides Cabrera, of course) remotely qualified to play short. Aaron Cunningham, Fred Lewis, Felix Pie, and Ryan Spilborghs are possible outfield reserves. Matt LaPorta will likely be ticketed to AAA with the Kotchman signing.

The Indians will try the interesting pairing of a groundball heavy rotation with infield defense which is considered less than brilliant. Justin Masterson had a terrific season, justifying Cleveland’s faith in his ability to start. Ubaldo Jimenez must pitch better than he did in 2011 to prevent the trade from going down as a disaster, and the Indians will bet that Derek Lowe’s peripherals will triumph over his advancing age and poor 2011. After that, Josh Tomlin is a good bet for the rotation (and a good bet to implode at any given moment, given his low strikeout rate and flyball tendencies. Any spike in his walk rate, which was just 1.1 per nine in 2011, will endanger his ability to pitch in the majors).

With Roberto Hernandez Heredia nee Fausto Carmona unavailable for the start of the season, the fifth starter spot will be up for grabs between Kevin Slowey, Jeanmar Gomez, Zach McAllister, and David Huff. Slowey’s experience may give him the upper hand, but the other three are all well-known by the organization and have started for the team in the past. Slowey has a decent chance to win a bullpen job if he’s shut out of the rotation. Additional depth comes from lefty Scott Barnes, but after missing a good chunk of last season with a knee injury he is likely to start in Columbus.

The Indians seem to have the foundation for a solid but unspectacular bullpen. Chris Perez is a power arm but a shaky closer, while Vinnie Pestano had a very effective rookie season as his set up man. Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp both are used in a more expansive role than simple LOOGY. Joe Smith serves the ROOGY role with his sidearm delivery. The other two bullpen spots are up for grabs, with Frank Herrmann and lefty Nick Hagadone as the 40-man roster options. Non-roster invitees Jeremy Accardo, Chris Ray, Robinson Tejada, Dan Wheeler, and Chen Lee will also be in the mix.

I would like to be optimistic about the Indians 2012 season, but I can’t force it. Detroit is the class of the division, and it would take a lot going wrong for the Tigers and right for the Indians to wipe out the gap. While many people will pick the Indians to reprise their second place finish, they don’t tower over the White Sox on paper, and both the Twins and the Royals have enough potential areas for improvement that it’s not hard to envision them jumping Cleveland. My median expectation is 77 wins and third place, with a nagging feeling that it will be worse than that.

Personally, a lot of my confidence in the organization was shaken by the Jimenez trade. While there is a case to be made that 2 1/3 years of control of Jimenez at a reasonable salary is worth the package of pitching prospects the Tribe surrendered, it wasn’t the kind of deal that the organization has made, even with better teams in more of a win-now mode. Had the trade landed a pitcher at the top of his game I might have been inclined to shrug it off, but Jimenez was not having a particularly good season for the Rockies and has just one season in his career in which he has been a top-flight starter. Jimenez *looked* horrible with the Indians, unable to command his secondary pitches and getting crushed on straight fastballs in hitters counts.

The Indians have a decent group of young position players in Santana, Kipnis, and Chisenhall (not to mention older players still under club control for multiple seasons like Cabrera and Choo), but frustratingly, the organization has been unable to produce any even league average performers at the corner positions (Choo was a trade acquisition). With production from first base and left field, one could feel pretty good about the offense.

Starting pitching has been a similar stumbling block. With Alex White and Drew Pomeranz shipped out in the Jimenez trade, there is little hope for even a mid-rotation type of homegrown starter on the horizon. The Indians have produced scores of back-end starters but have relied on trades to fill out the front end of the rotation.

Overall, I respect the front office: Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti, and of course I have a great deal of respect for the analytical arm which includes Keith Woolner and Sky Andrecheck. I consider Manny Acta to be a pretty competent manager and have been impressed by his thoughts on Twitter. I like them and I want them to be successful, but I don’t think it will happen in 2012.

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