Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Oh, Hi Cleveland Indians!


This is the second installment of a series in which I'm going to do a preview of each of the Tigers' division foes. This series will be focusing mainly on the changes the teams have made so Tiger fans will be aware of what each team did to try to break Detroit's string of division titles. I'm going alphabetically (click here for Chicago), so we move on to Cleveland. 

When I imagine a team doing their offseason planning, I picture them going position by position. Identifying each position to determine whether it was a strength or a weakness. After that assessment is finished, I imagine them discussing what their options are to address the weaknesses. Ideally, when the offseason is over and the team is reporting to spring training, each of the weaknesses will have been addressed. I don't know the actual process for evaluating a team after the season, but broken down to its most basic parts it almost has to have those elements. Whoever is in charge of that process for the Indians, at the very least, did a good job of identifying the weaknesses from 2012.

If you look at the production the Indians got from each position in 2012, the weaknesses stand out. First base? Third base? Left field? Designated hitter? Starting pitching? These were all clear problem areas and the Indians took steps to address each.


Position players

Adding: Mark Reynolds (1B/DH), Nick Swisher (1B/RF), Michael Bourn (CF), Drew Stubbs (OF), Mike Aviles (IF)
Losing: Shin Soo-Choo (OF), Travis Hafner (DH), Jack Hannahan (3B), Casey Kotchman

The Indians' primary firstbaseman in 2012 was Casey Kotchman. Heading into the season, Kotchman seemed like a good candidate to offer good value for his $3 million contract. It didn't work out that way. The veteran known for a good glove, who had hit over .300 for the Rays the year before, hit just .229/.280/.333. There's no value for that line from a first baseman no matter what his contract says. So the Indians signed Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher.

I'm a little dubious of the value Reynolds is going to provide. People see his massive power and think you can always find a spot for a guy like that in the lineup. If any player were going to challenge that line of thinking, it might be Reynolds. His historic strikeout totals make it difficult for him to hit for average. He's hit .221 each of the last two seasons and even with good walk totals and power, it's been hard for him to make up for that low average. Throw in the fact that his fielding earns games a PG-13 rating and well...you have a guy with 40 homer potential who signed a one year contract for $6 million.

But maybe the Indians aren't going to play Reynolds at first base all that much. They did sign Nick Swisher, after all. He seems to rate as a decent first baseman, and he can hit the part as well. Swisher may have fallen out of favor with Yankee fans late last season, but they probably should've looked harder at what they had. His lowest on-base percentage in the four years he was in New York was .359. He also slugged better than .450 every year but one and that year (2011), it was .449. It's true those numbers came with him playing half his home games in Yankee Stadium, but make no mistake: Swisher will be an asset to the Indians in 2013. He's a good hitter from both sides of the plate who can offer versatility in the field and durability on the roster. However they use him, they will likely be happy with the results.

At third base, the change the Indians made was less drastic. You could argue it's not much of a change at all. Jack Hannahan pulled the most time at third base for the Indians last year, but that's owed to Lonnie Chisenhall breaking his arm last June. Otherwise, Chisenhall likely would have held starting third base duties after he was called up in late May. How did that impact the team? Well, when Chisenhall played he hit .268/.311/.430. Jack Hannahan hit .244/.312/.341. I'm going to guess the Indians are excited to see a full season from Chisenhall.

Part of the Indians' problem in left field last year was they couldn't find a left fielder. They had nine different players start a game at the position and none started more than 52. That was an honor shared by Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon and neither of those two cleared a .700 OPS and neither finished 2012 with the squad. What they did while they were with the team was clearly unacceptable output from a corner outfield spot. To address the problem, the Indians signed Michael Bourn and traded for Drew Stubbs. This didn't address left field directly, but trading for Bourn allows the Tribe to slide Michael Brantley over to left. Brantley hit .288/.348/.402 last season while playing average defense in center. Taking his center field defense to the less demanding left field should be a big pickup for Indians pitchers.

The pitchers may be the happiest people on the roster about the way the Indians handled their outfield situation. When the Indians play Brantley, Bourn and Stubbs in the outfield, they'll have a center fielder at each position. That should allow them to gobble up a lot of balls that were falling for hits last season. Of course, Bourn has more to offer than elite defense in center field. He's stolen more than 40 bases each of the last five seasons and is also more than willing to take a walk. As for Stubbs? The Indians will have to hope he gets back to the young star he looked like in 2010. In 2012, he hit just .213/.277/.333. If he can't outperform those numbers, the Tribe will have to turn to other options like Swisher and a player who best profiles as a fourth outfielder, Ezequiel Carrera. It could even lead to time for a former Tiger the Tribe signed to a minor league deal, Ryan Raburn.

Pitching

Adding: Matt Albers (RP), Trevor Bauer (SP), Brett Myers (SP)
Losing: Derek Lowe (SP), Esmil Rogers (RP), Tony Sipp (RP)

The Indians were not without their excitement on the pitching side of things. They may not have the equivalent of adding Swisher and Bourn, but they tried to address their rotation's shortcomings. In 2012, they had only two starters clear 130 innings and they had ERAs of 4.93 (Justin Masterson) and 5.40 (Ubaldo Jimenez). The only other starter with more than fifty innings of work and an ERA under five was Zach McAllister. What did they do to try to put a tourniquet on this disaster? They traded for the promising young Trevor Bauer and signed Brett Myers and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

None of these moves come without their concerns. Bauer is 22 and has 16.1 innings of major league experience. He has a good arm, though, and some eye-popping strikeout numbers in his brief pro career. It will be interesting to see if he's able to earn a rotation spot right out of spring training. Cleveland signed Brett Myers as a starter, but he didn't start a single game last season. When he was last a starter for the Astros in 2011, a home run problem (31 allowed in 216 IP) elevated his ERA to 4.46. He brought that ERA down as a reliever last year. The homer troubles still didn't really go away and despite better velocity as a reliever, his strikeouts were down.

That brings us to Daisuke Matsuzaka. I didn't include him in the "adding" listing because he's a minor league signing with contract language that allows him to walk if he doesn't make the team. But he's certainly in the mix to make the rotation. If they don't Bauer is ready or don't like what they see from other starters, Daisuke could take a spot. That might be a bad sign, though. He hasn't been a good, healthy starter since at least 2010. Many would say 2008.

In the Tribe's bullpen, things were much quieter. They lost a very good reliever from last year, Esmil Rogers, but added Matt Albers. That looks for all the world like a net loss to me. Albers is a 30-year old right-handed ground baller who managed a 2.39 ERA last year because of a career low BABIP and a career high percentage of runners stranded. He's not likely to offer what Rogers did for the Indians in 2012, but given Rogers past volatility he probably wasn't either. Tony Sipp was sent out in the same trade that brought in Bauer and Albers, but the Indians will try to replace the lefty's role with Nick Hagadone. That's a risky proposition as Hagadone throws hard, but has yet to click in the majors.

On the whole, I'm going to say the Indians were less successful in addressing their holes in the pitching staff. That's not surprising, though. They had zero good starters last season and it would be incredibly expensive to bring that number up to two or three. They'll just have to hope one of these new pitchers clicks and year-to-year variations are in their favor. In the bullpen, I can see them taking a step backward. I'm just not sure how much they're going to get from the guys behind last year's high leverage guys (who are all coming back), Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith.

Summary

The Indians made big changes to their lineup, which could offer some substantial upgrades to their offensive production. They're well equipped to play matchup games against lefty or right-handed starters or for subs in late innings. Not only should they see improved numbers at the plate, they figure to have a vastly improved outfield defense. That will help a pitching staff that still looks like a huge obstacle to their ability to make a true run at the playoffs. I don't think the Indians will be a real threat to Detroit, but they seem like a good bet to have Cleveland's first winning season since 2007.

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