2012 Outlook: Cleveland Indians

After getting off to a 30-15 start, the Cleveland Indians sputtered to a 80-82 record in 2011.  The pitching and hitting was about average, but their defense really hurt them.  They did see two young players have a breakout season and they acquired a very good starting pitcher.  There are still some injury concerns with their two former all-stars, but if Cleveland can get production from those two, they should eclipse .500 for the first time in five seasons.

Asdrubal Cabrera was one of the breakout players, showing an extreme spike in power.  After averaging a home run every 90 PA his first four seasons, that rate was lowered to one every 27 PA in 2011.  I would guess his ISO should regress some, and with his defense being worse than his reputation, he’s probably no more than a 3 WAR player.  His new double play partner is Jason Kipnis, a second baseman in the Dan Uggla mold, a very good bat but a poor glove.  Since he has only played two seasons at the position, he may show some improvement for a few more years.  Jason Donald will be the primary middle infield reserve, with NRI Jose Lopez having a chance to back up second and third.

Lonnie Chisenhall will likely get most of the starts at third base, hoping to improve upon his debut 2011 season.  Posting average walk and strikeout rates in the minors, Chisenhall showed horrible plate discipline, with a 3.6% walk rate and 22% strikeouts.  He does not have a high ceiling, but he looks to be a solid player.  Jack Hannahan and his great defense could get a good amount of starts again if Chisenhall falters.  First base should be manned by late free agent acquisition Casey Kotchman.  The only difference between his awful 2010 and good 2011 was his BABIP, so I expect the middle ground, a 1 WAR player.  Another disappointing top prospect, Matt LaPorta may not even break camp in Cleveland, a bad sign for the 27-year-old who was the main return piece in the CC Sabathia trade.

Carlos Santana did not lose ground on his development after his 2010-ending knee injury.  He has very good power and walks a ton, so if he can get his BABIP up a bit, he could be the best hitting catcher in the majors.  I don’t know if he’ll get 650 PA between catching and first base again, however.  Lou Marson is his backup again, a standard poor bat, good glove catcher.  At DH, Hafner provides a 120 wRC+, good but nothing close to his old .300/.400/.600 days.  LaPorta, Shelley Duncan, and Russ Canzler are likely replacements when Hafner has his yearly injury.

Coming off of two great seasons, Shin-Soo Choo had a rough year, with off-the-field issues and a broken thumb.  He had his lowest BABIP (still .317), lowest ISO (.131), and he turns 30 in July, so he may not post any more 5 WAR seasons.  If he stays healthy, he should end up around 4 WAR in right field.  In center field, Grady Sizemore returns on a one-year contract, hoping to show glimpses of his amazing ’05-’08 seasons.  His power returned last season, but his plate discipline was way out of whack.  If he can provide average production over 500+ PA, the Indians should be very happy.

Left field sees a conglomerate of names, with Michael Brantley as the frontrunner.  He’s had a below-average walk rate in Cleveland despite double-digit percentages throughout the minors.  His lack of power has lessened his chances of walks, negating his best skill, speed.  He finally came around defensively, rating average while splitting time in left and center.  Duncan and Aaron Cunningham could see at-bats against lefties, while NRIs Ryan Spilborghs, Fred Lewis, and Felix Pie will battle for a roster spot.

The starting rotation will be heavy in groundballs and righties, despite the probable loss of the Pitcher Formerly Known as Fausto Carmona.  Another tough loss comes in the form of the TJ surgery for Carlos Carrasco last September.  Justin Masterson leads the bunch, combining 55% groundballs, good control and average whiffs to a 3.30 FIP.  A big-ticket July acquisition from Colorado, Ubaldo Jimenez seemed to struggle last season.  At a closer look, his walk, strikeout, and groundball rates did not change much.  The difference in ERA stemmed from a 40 point increase in BABIP and a 4% increase in HR/FB%.  His true skill level has stayed around a 3.75 ERA the past three years, not matching the price Cleveland paid for him.  Derek Lowe brings his groundballs and durability over from Atlanta, hoping to correct the gross underperformance of his peripherals.  If they get a 4.50 ERA out of Lowe, he will be worth the $5M they are paying him.  Something hurting all three pitchers are the poor range of the middle infield, coming into play more often with their 50+% groundballs.  Josh Tomlin will provide a flyball look to the staff, not striking out or walking many along the way.  This approach is also used by fifth starter candidate Kevin Slowey.  Other possible starters are righty Jeanmar Gomez and lefties David Huff and Nick Hagadone.

The bullpen returns every main arm from last year except Chad Durbin.  Chris Perez is a flyball pitcher who walks a lot of guys, and now he’s stopped missing bats, very concerning for any pitcher, much less a closer.  If such trends continue, Vinnie Pestano should take over in the ninth, using an Octavio Dotel style repertoire to well over 30% strikeouts.  Dan Wheeler is on a minor league invite, possibly taking over Durbin’s spot.

It will be interesting to see how the Indians lineup shakes out, with all lefties and switch hitters as the projected starters, and only one probable platoon position.  Overall, Cleveland probably took a step back with the Jimenez trade, but there is a young nucleus of hitters and enough decent pitchers to compete for second place in the AL Central.  If they get a combined 1000 PA from Sizemore and Hafner, they should even finish above .500.

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