2011 pre-season preview: AL Central – Cleveland Indians

Indians CF Grady Sizemore

Cleveland Indians (2010 record: 69-93)

If there is little reason to buy a ticket in Houston, there is even less reason to buy one in Cleveland. The Indians did very little this winter in terms of improving the roster … and since everyone else in the division is as good or better than they were last year, the upcoming campaign is not looking promising. Cleveland finished last in the big leagues in attendance last year and then reduced payroll. If you’re an Indians fans and you’re looking for a reason to go see the club in person, you can rationalize the expenditure by telling yourself that this year will be your last chance to see Grady Sizemore or Fausto Carmona in an Indians uniform, as both most certainly will be dealt sometime this season (assuming good health) … otherwise, there is really no reason to go to the ballpark. Watch them on television until they produce a club worthy of your hard-earned dollars!

Okay, so I am prone to a bit of hyperbole – but only a little bit! OF Shin-Soo Choo and C Carlos Santana are obviously good reasons to go see the Indians … but the rest of the team promises to be below-average, unless someone has a career year. I’m sorry to be a pessimist, but I call ’em like I see ’em.

In 2007, the Indians were just a win away from going to the World Series, but that accomplishment seems like a distant memory. Faced with expected big-money demands from impending free agents, the franchise began trading its stars for prospects. Sabathia. Lee. V-Mart. Sizemore and Carmona are next.

The youth movement may bear fruit … but it won’t be this year.

Notable additions: OF Travis Buck, IF Orlando Cabrera, OF Austin Kearns

Notable subtractions: 3B Andy Marte

The offense:

Catcher: Carlos Santana

Infield: Matt LaPorta (1B), Orlando Cabrera (2B), Asdrubal Cabrera (SS) and Jack Hannahan (3B)

Outfield: Michael Brantley (LF), Grady Sizemore (CF) and Shin-Soo Choo (RF)

Designated Hitter: Travis Hafner

Sizemore missed most of last season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee, and now comes word he will not be ready to open the 2011 season. After major knee surgery, it is unlikely he will be the player he was in 2005-08… but at this point the Tribe would probably be thrilled if he could approximate the player he was in 2009 (,248, 18 HR, 64 RBI and 13 SB).

Choo followed up his breakout 2009 season by posting substantially identical numbers in 2010. Now freed from anxieties relating to compulsory service in South Korea, it is likely he will build on his .300 / 21 HR / 88 RBI average season (over the last two years).

Brantley, 23, earned himself some playing time as part of a platoon coming out of spring training last year, but was awful in the month of April (.156 in 32 AB)and in the process, earned himself a demotion to Triple-A. After working things out in Columbus, he returned to the Indians in July and was much better after the All-Star break. He hit .292 in August and September and earned himself another shot at the starting gig this year; but if he struggles, veteran Austin Kearns is waiting in the wings. He’ll be on a short leash.

Santana’s arrival in Cleveland was highly anticipated, and he was thrust into the middle of the lineup from the moment he was promoted to The Show. He appeared to be well on his way to living up to the hype until suffering a season-ending knee injury (lateral collateral ligament) on a play at the plate in Boston. Like Sizemore, he had surgery, but he should be in the lineup on Opening Day barring any unforeseen setbacks.

LaPorta was one of baseball’s most highly-rated prospects when he was with the Brewers back in 2008 and ultimately became the centerpiece of the trade that sent CC Sabathia to cheese country. Thus far, he has been a bust in Cleveland, hitting just .232, with 19 HR and 62 RBI over parts of two seasons (557 AB). The Indians need him to become the run producer they thought they were getting when they made the trade.

Across the diamond, the Indians and their fans are awaiting the much-anticipated arrival of Lonnie Chisenhall. So, no matter who gets the nod coming out of spring training, they’ll just be a place holder. Jack Hannahan will be the starter when the season gets underway, but I expect Chisenhall will arrive by mid-July and lay claim to the job for many years to come.

The middle infield is more settled with the arrival of Orlando Cabrera, who will take over at second base for Jason Donald and Luis Valbuena. OC has bounced around quite a bit over the last few years, but he will be a steady veteran presence on a very young ballclub. This may prove to be another one-and-done scenario for him, as Jason Kipnis (rated the Indians #3 prospect by baseball America) should be ready to take over by next spring. At shortstop, Asdrubal Cabrera (no relation to Orlando) will return as the starter. He missed more than two months last year with a broken arm and his numbers suffered accordingly. While he won’t put up all-star stats, he should be good for .275/8/60 in 2011.

Travis Hafner is another aging veteran the front office would love to be able to deal, but his performance has deteriorated to such a degree over the last few years that it’s unlikely another team would surrender anything of value for him. At this point, he is just another .275/12/50, DH-only player – one who hasn’t hit a home run in spring training in spite of facing a bunch of pitchers who won’t make a major league roster in 2011.

The pitching staff

Rotation: RHP Fausto Carmona, RHP Justin Masterson, RHP Mitch Talbot, RHP Carlos Carrasco, RHP Josh Tomlin

Closer: RHP Chris Perez

Carmona returns as the de facto ace of a young rotation that has limited ability; but, it is very likely he won’t finish the year with the club. He appeared destined to be a front-of-the-rotation horse in 2007, when he won 19 games and posted a 3.06 ERA; but, he has been unable to follow up with anything close to that level of performance since then. Last year wasn’t bad, but he benefited from a low hit rate (28%) and still failed to post a respectable strikeout-to-walk ratio (it was just 1.7-to-1). The front office hopes he starts hot in the hope of finding a trade partner willing to surrender one good prospect. If that happens, it’s adios Fausto.

Disclosure: Justin Masterson and I became friendly when he played in Boston, so take my assessment with a grain of salt if you will, but I still believe he has the potential to be a solid winner as part of a big league rotation. I have read several assessments this winter suggesting he belongs in the bullpen, but IMO his underlying skill set screams that he’ll be a successful starter in the right situation. He gets opposing hitters to beat the ball into the ground – he compiled a brilliant 60% gb rate last year. He strikes out more than seven batters for every nine innings pitched. And he has been the recipient of some VERY bad luck – his BABIP over the last two years has been .323 and .327, which may say as much about the infield defense behind him as it does about his abilities. He is one of my top ten sleepers for 2011.

Carrasco has the potential to be a decent big league starter. Like Masterson, he induces more than his fair share of grounders (57% gb rate) and should strike out 7+ runners for every nine innings pitched … though he exhibits better control than Masterson. His main problem seems to be a penchant for giving up too many home runs (his equalized HR/fb rate over the last two seasons has been nearly 15%). He should produce double-digit wins and a 4.10-4.20 ERA if all goes well.

In my opinion, last year is about as good as it gets for Talbot and Tomlin. Talbot walks far too many hitters and doesn’t strike out enough batters to compensate for his lack of control. Tomlin has decent command is a fly-ball pitcher prone to giving up too many home runs. They should both win eight or nine games and post an ERA in the mid-to-high fours, but I don’t see either doing much more than that without some improvement in the skill set.

Perez wrested control of the closer’s job in the second half and showed no sign of giving it up, but there is lots to worry about here, as well. Historically, he has walked too many batters to be effective in the closer’s role over the long term (4.5 / 9 IP). Additionally, in 2010, he benefitted from an incredibly low hit rate (24%) and an other-worldly strand rate (88%). These rates are not sustainable unless your name is Mariano Rivera, so expect he will see considerable regression in 2011. That said, he has walked just one batter while striking out eight in his first 7.1 IP in spring training (though he has hit two batters). If he can sustain that kind of control, it would go a long way in balancing out regression in his hit and strand rates.

Prediction for 2011: 5th place (60-102)

This is a bad team in an improving division. The Royals will zoom past the Indians this year leaving the Tribe to wallow in the mud of last place, and it’s entirely possible they will earn the title as “the worst team in baseball.” It is possible (nay, likely!) that they will be worse than league-average at seven of the nine spots in the lineup (save, Santana and Choo), and it is possible they could go through the season without a single 10-game winner on the pitching staff (only Tomlin has an ERA of less than 4.50 in spring training).

But hope is on the distant horizon. I like the organization’s top five prospects (below) – as a group – more than I like the top five prospects for most teams. In my opinion, it is possible that Chisenhall, Pomeranz and White could develop into future MLB all-stars.


Top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall
Top Five Prospects:

1. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B
2. Drew Pomeranz, LHP
3. Alex White, RHP
4. Jason Kipnis, 2B
5. Nick Weglarz, OF

Chisenhall was drafted in the first round (29th overall) of the ’08 First Year Player Draft after htting .410 at Pitt (NC) CC that spring. His stock likely slid due to questions about his character after he was caught stealing computer equipment and $3100 in cash during his freshman year at South Carolina – prompting his expulsion from school. But Indians AGM John Mirabelli knows SC coach Ray Tanner and apparently was able to quell fears about Chisenhall’s character within the Cleveland organization.

He is considered one of the best pure hitters in the minor leagues, though based on all of the plaudits, I would have expected him to hit better than .278 at Akron (Double-A). He has a simple swing, excellent bat speed and routinely makes solid contact. He projects to have average power – or slightly better – in the big leagues, and should hit 20 homers on a regular basis. Defensively, he played shortstop in college but didn’t possess the requisite skills to play there in the big leagues, so he switched to third base – where he is considered to be an average fielder, with decent range and arm strength. He should be in Cleveland sometime after mid-season, though it’s possible he could earn an earlier recall (if he plays well and the combination of Hannahan/Nix/Donald don’t get the job done in the big leagues).

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