The 2012 version of the Cleveland Indians was a disaster. Only the wretched Minnesota Twins saved them from the worst record in the American League. Nobody gave up more runs in the AL than the Tribe’s dismal staff. Across all of MLB only the Colorado Rockies allowed more runners to cross home plate. And when that’s the company you keep, it’s time for a change.
GM Chris Antonetti conducted his version of an extreme home makeover this offseason. New bodies suiting up by the lake this season include Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, Nick Swisher, Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn (gasp!), Brett Myers, Trevor Bauer, Matt Albers, and Bryan Shaw. That is potentially more than 40% of the roster turning over, and rightfully so.
Perhaps the biggest ‘get’ by Antonetti wasn’t a player at all, it was luring Manager Terry Francona out of the broadcast booth and back into the dugout. Francona is one of the best around, is beloved by his players, and has a track record of winning a lot of baseball games.
Significant contributors from 2012 like Shin-Soo Choo and Casey Kotchman are gone as well as other longtime standbys such as Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner.
Now that the rubble has settled and a roster has been assembled, the question is simply: how much can they improve?
Best Case Scenario for 2013
The starting pitching is going to keep this team from competing for a playoff spot but playing in the relatively weak AL Central affords them the opportunity to fight for 2nd place if things come together quickly. Francona will keep things loose and make sure his guys play hard. If Stubbs and Reynolds can have positive seasons at the plate then the offense should be really strong. But again, due to the lack of talent in the starting rotation, the best-case scenario is a surprising 2nd place finish and a near miss in the Wild Card race.
Most Important Indians
It’s hard to pin this on a newcomer, but I truly feel that Nick Swisher is the most important position player on this team. Things could go very badly for the Tribe this year, but not if Swisher’s fun loving character has anything to say about it. The big knock on Swisher is that he doesn’t produce in the playoffs. Well, then Cleveland is just the place for him! He will come over from New York and show the young guys like Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley, and Carlos Santana what it means to train, practice, and play like a champion. Since becoming a full-time player back in 2005 with Oakland, Swisher has averaged just under 26 homers and a shade over 83 RBI’s per season. His .361 career on-base % will land him near the top of Francona’s lineup. Watch Swisher relish his role as a veteran leader, something he never had to be in New York. With Bourn coming in via free agency, that likely squeezes Swisher out of the outfield and over to 1st base and moves Reynolds to the DH role.
On the mound, the Indians put a lot of eggs in the Ubaldo Jimenez basket and so far have been utterly embarrassed for doing so. In 31 starts in 2012, Ubaldo was 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA and 1.61 WHIP. When Jimenez broke in with the Rockies in 2007 his average fastball speed was 96.7 MPH. In 2012 it was a career-worst 92.5. Power was the element that put him on the map and allowed him to break out in 2009 and ’10. At age 29, Jimenez is unlikely to recapture the upper 90’s heat that made him so special. And the fact remains that he doesn’t have the type of command to pitch effectively with finesse. Cleveland picked up his $5.75M option this year and have another club option next year. If nothing else, they figure he can take the mound every 5th day but if this team is to take a big step forward, it desperately needs a huge rebound year from Jimenez.
Potential Breakout Players
Catcher Carlos Santana will turn 27 in April and it’s time for him to become the star that he seems destined to be. He has shown plenty of flashes but has yet to put the full package on display. He flexed his muscles in 2011 with 27 homers but hit just .239. In 2012 he hit only .252 with 18 homers. Santana has lightning quick hands and legitimate thunder in his bat. He was a career .290 hitter in the minors and his last 3 full minor league seasonal averages looked like this: .326, .290, and .316 and his lifetime on-base % in the minors was .401. If he can finally put it all together in his 3rd full season in the big leagues he has the capability to put up a .280 average, 30 homers, and 90+ RBI’s.
[Find the links to all 30 MLB team previews here: 2013 MLB Team Previews]
In the big 3-team deal the Indians made in the offseason, Trevor Bauer was the most intriguing name that switched teams. For some reason the D’backs quickly soured on the unique Bauer and Antonetti took the opportunity to scoop up one of the game’s brightest prospects. He was recently ranked the #17 prospect by MLB.com. He made 4 rocky starts for Arizona last year but otherwise dominated the minors in his first full season of professional ball. Between AA and AAA he went 12-2 with a 2.42 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. Using his wide ranging arsenal he struck out 157 hitters over just 130.1 innings. He did walk 61, which he will need to cut down. Bauer will be given a shot at making this team’s rotation out of camp and I’d be shocked if he didn’t, given the rest of the competition. Projecting his stats seems a bit premature but it’s a certainty that fans far and wide will be tuning in to watch him pitch.
Worst Case Scenario
4th place in the AL Central is certainly on the table. I think the Twins have done their best to lock up the basement yet again in an effort to continue stockpiling their farm system. Meanwhile, Cleveland went out and grabbed some veterans to try and mesh with their young talent in order to win now. The Tribe will battle with Kansas City and Chicago for 2nd-4th place behind the Tigers. If Bauer doesn’t produce, Ubaldo keeps being Ubaldo, and Justin Masterson and Myers can’t pick up the slack, a losing season is very likely, and a 4th place finish their worst-case scenario.
Areas of Concern
It all boils down to the starting rotation. Bringing Albers and Shaw in via the Choo trade to help complement the dynamic 8th and 9th inning combo of Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez will immediately add credibility to the pen. A rotation without an ace is usually a rotation in trouble. Cleveland has no true #1. Their most accomplished pitcher is probably Bret Myers but he pitched exclusively out of the bullpen for Houston and the ChiSox last year. If he can effectively convert back to being a starter then that would be a major plus for Francona. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see Myers get the ball on Opening Day. (Update: 2/26/13 – Masterson has been named the Opening Day starter.) A best-case scenario rotation is probably Myers, Masterson, Jimenez, Carlos Carrasco, and Bauer. Well, that might be optimistic. Zach McAllister might very well be a more effective option than Jimenez at this point. Same goes for newly acquired Daisuke Matsuzaka. Carrasco will be on an innings limit as he missed all of 2012 after Tommy John surgery so McAllister will factor into the rotation at one point or another.
Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2012
Drew Stubbs has almost gone overlooked as a key piece in the Choo-Bauer trade. Stubbs is still just 28 years old but is coming off what was far and away his worst season in the big leagues. His power-speed combo should land him in one of the corner outfield spots for Francona’s Indians on most days, but he has to find a way to put the bat on the ball with greater regularity. Stubbs, despite all of his upside, is a virtual strikeout machine. Over 4 seasons with the Reds he struck out in 33% of his at-bats. That is a sickening number and leads straight to his paltry career on-base % of .312. His downside is obvious but let’s not forget that he has stolen 100 bases and hit 51 homers over the past 3 seasons. He has hit leadoff a lot in his career but Francona will have him in the bottom 3rd of the order to take the pressure off and hope he can find a way to tap into his vast potential. Since Bourn’s signing, Stubbs’ name has already popped up as a potential moveable piece in a trade for a much needed upgrade to the starting pitching.
I can’t pick on Jimenez anymore but I’ve barely scraped the surface on Justin Masterson. When he came over from Boston he was projected to be a #1 or #2 type of pitcher. Which, technically, he is that in Cleveland, but I’m not sure it counts. He appeared to put it all together in 2011 by posting a 12-10 record, 3.21 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. Two things really stand out with Masterson: his inability to get lefties out and his elevated walk rate. Left-handed batters hit .296 with a .376 on-base % against him in 2012 as compared to .232 and .308 numbers v. righties. Regarding the walks, in 10 less innings in 2012 than in ’11, Masterson walked 23 more hitters. That might not sound like much, but it directly correlates to his bloated ERA and WHIP. His hits allowed and strikeout numbers were right on par with his strong 2011. He must find a way to command the strike zone with consistency and keep left-handed batters off balance.
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