Five Questions: Cleveland Indians

It’s been a turbulent 12 months since last spring. The team went from a club weakened but still capable of competing for a division crown to one that has no pretense of doing so. The Indians have replaced their manager, traded several core players, and announced a front office reorganization to boot.

If the Indians aren’t going anywhere, what’s the goal this season?

Some of the moves (replacing Eric Wedge) came almost as a relief, while others (the trades of Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez) were expected, probably necessary, but all the same excruciating to a fan base that’s been let down regularly. That’s why this season’s success rests only indirectly on wins and losses. Because unless the casual fan is re-energized, it will be difficult to build on any on-field improvement. Ownership seems to be unwilling to get out in front of fan interest, so ticket sales will need to drive payroll, not vice versa.

For the casual fan to regain interest in the Indians, and not treat the club as a passing diversion between LeBron in the spring and the Browns in the fall, the club will need to show tangible improvement over the course of the season. Right now, it’s hard to identify what specific steps the Indians need to take to compete for the division, but by the end of the season, those steps should not only be identifiable but easily obtainable. Do that, and interest will return, along with the all-important season ticket sales.

What’s the biggest problem area on this team?

By this time next year, the Indians will have taken a big step forward if they have only a couple spots in the rotation to fill, instead of having to fill the entire rotation. In other words, it would be nice to reasonably expect three starting pitchers to pitch at least 180 innings, make 28-30 starts, and a roughly league-average ERA. I don’t expect any Indians starter to accomplish that this season for a variety of reasons including a lack of 2009 innings, a lack of big-league experience or major mechanical flaws.

The absence of starting pitching throughout the organization was what largely led to last year’s mid-season trades of Lee and Martinez, and while the Indians now have some depth thanks to those deals, they don’t yet have a credible rotation. The three pitchers who are expected to head the staff (Jake Westbrook, Justin Masterson, and Fausto Carmona) all have serious flaws, and in most rotations would be classified as back-end projects. Westbrook hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors in almost two seasons, Carmona was a disaster in 2009, and Masterson is still transitioning from the bullpen. Again, that’s the top of the rotation.

At the bottom of the rotation are several pitchers working their way into the majors. Aaron Laffey, David Huff, and Mitch Talbot are the three frontrunners for the final two spots, though Talbot has a procedural advantage because he’s out of options. Laffey is the most accomplished major-leaguer of the bunch and was the best pitcher on the staff after Cliff Lee was dealt. Huff racked up the most innings of the returning pitchers, and though he stuck around mainly through a lack of other credible or even quasi-credible rotation options, did show improvement as the season wore down. Talbot came over from Tampa for Kelly Shoppach this winter, and should make the team if he has a competent end to the exhibition season. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since the end of the 2008 season, and spent much of the 2009 campaign coming back from an elbow injury, though his career minor-league stats are promising enough to justify a shot.

What about the other part of run prevention: defense?

Depending on who makes the club, the Indians could start the season with a rotation full of groundball pitchers, so the range of the infielders will play a key role. The Indians, though, return three starting infielders (Asdrubal Cabrera, Luis Valbuena, and Jhonny Peralta) with negative 2009 UZRs. Cabrera and Peralta’s jobs are safe, but Valbuena could lose playing time when one of the more extreme groundballers is on the mound.

The outfield seems a much better defensive group. Grady Sizemore has excellent range and a poor arm in center, while right fielder Shin-Soo Choo has decent range and an excellent arm. Depending on the health of Russell Branyan, either Matt LaPorta or Michael Brantley will be patrolling left field, with Brantley being the better fielder.

So with a young, shaky, groundball-throwing starting rotation pitching in front of an infield that’s not likely to cover much ground, run prevention is going to be a major problem with this team.

Is the lineup good enough to make up for the pitching?

Not even close, though the offense should rank among the best in the league. The Indians potentially have a very nice core of offensive players, led by Sizemore, Cabrera, and Choo. All three are threats at the plate and on the base paths, with Cabrera lagging a bit behind the other two in the power department. Sizemore played with an injured elbow most of last year, and a clean bill of health should mean another 30-30 season. Choo had a fantastic offensive season in 2009 (.300/.394/.489, 21-for-23 in stolen base attempts) which was largely ignored because of how poorly the team played. Cabrera was the other pleasant surprise; he solved right-handed pitchers, his previous weakness, and did everything but hit home runs.

The supporting cast is also good. Branyan and Travis Hafner, if healthy, will give the lineup traditional power threats. Valbuena has surprising power for a player of his build. And LaPorta and Brantley, promising prospects received for CC Sabathia in 2008, should both get regular at-bats for the first time. Brantley gives the lineup another base stealer, though he’ll either have to hit for power or rack up the walks to stick around as a left fielder. LaPorta is a more typical corner outfield prospect, a power hitter with a very quick bat. Catching prospect Carlos Santana, when he’s ready defensively, will contribute with the bat right away

What happened to Jhonny Peralta, and what are the Indians going to do with him?

It had been several years since the Peralta-to-third calls began, but with the emergence of Asdrubal Cabrera, the time was right to make the move last season. Jhonny wasn’t happy with the position change, and even this spring still thinks himself a shortstop. But the major problem right now is his offense; he hit .254/.316/.375 in 2009, an anemic batting line for just about any position. Instead of hitting line-drive extra-base hits the other way, Peralta hit more pulled ground balls than in past seasons. His 11 home runs were his lowest full-season total in his career. He’s coming into the last guaranteed season on his contract, and though it would make sense to deal him in July, a third baseman who isn’t hitting for power is a poor trade chip. In a perfect world, Peralta will rebound, allowing the Indians to trade him for a couple of prospects at the deadline and give prospect Lonnie Chisenhall some at-bats in August and September.

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Rob Johnson
14 years ago

No mention of Scott Lewis?

Ryan Richards
14 years ago

Hi Rob,

Scott Lewis was outrighted off the 40-man roster last October, and while he’s still with the organization, he doesn’t have a chance of making the Opening Day roster. Last I saw he was on the AAA roster, though I don’t think he’s pitched yet.

14 years ago

Wow, this was incredibly deep in terms of insight with how the team is going to stack up. I actually can’t wait for the season, because we get to see some youngsters earn their place for years to come.

Red Sox Talk
14 years ago

“…the offense should rank as one of the best in the league”?

Not sure about that one. There’s potential there, but I’m not sure they’ll even be the best in their division. And there’s at least three offenses that are better in the East.

14 years ago

good article. not sure i agree with the offense being among the best, but totally agree that the pitching is the biggest concern.
that’s why i, again, state that the dolans need to sell the team to someone who will spend some money. i counted 32 of the 40 man roster making at, or near, the league minimum. i am tired of hearing ‘small market’. that’s b.s….. when dick jacobs fielded a team, we sold out the jake and had to drive to detroit to see the indians play.
we had one of the best minor league farm systems in baseball, and now have to rebuild? what’s up?
shapiro hasn’t been a good steward of our team, and the owners are awful…….
with all that said,
“GO TRIBE!!!!!!!”