MLB March Report: Cleveland Indians

The Cleveland Indians made a surprising run at the AL Central title for much of last year before they were left in the dust by Detroit and ended up 80-82. For all the positive things 2011 brought, the franchise still has three straight losing seasons and hasn’t finished on the plus side of .500 since coming within one win of the American League pennant n 2007. TheSportsNotebook evaluates this year’s Cleveland squad through the prism of the ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is a reasonably consistent hitter as far as getting on base, and you can realistically bet on his on-base percentages to range anywhere from a low of .330 to a high of .350. Last year he also showed a sudden outburst of power. His middle infield mate, second baseman Jason Kipnis, has promise here. Kipnis was on base a third of the time in limited work last year and he now has the job full time. First baseman Casey Kotchman had a career-high .378 OBP, and in spite of it seeming like he’s been around for a long time, Kotchman is only 29 years old. While I’m a little suspicious of his ability to sustain last year’s performance, we can’t rule that he just came into his own a couple years behind schedule. And while DH Travis Hafner has lost his power stroke over the last four years, he does get himself on base very consistently. This area of the team is not a strength—there’s question marks at every spot, and you’d obviously like to say more about your first baseman and designated hitter than that they take their walks. But it’s not hopeless here either.  Something that could turn this part of the offense completely around is if 24-year-old centerfielder Michael Brantley has a breakout year in his second season as a starter.

POWER: Cabrera’s 25 home runs were the big surprise, given that the shortstop had never so much as hit 10 prior to 2011. Even allowing a power downturn, Cleveland can count on a return to form by rightfielder Shin Soo-Choo. After spending 2008-10 as the American League’s best rightfielder, Choo’s 2011 season was marred by injuries. He’s healthy and ready to hit. It’s also worth noting that Kipnis slugged .507 in his 136 at-bats a year ago. And catcher Carlos Santana slides under the radar because of his .239 batting average, but his plate discipline is excellent, especially given he’s only 25 years old. Santana’s OBP is a productive .351 and he hit 27 home runs a year ago.

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STARTING PITCHING: Cleveland swung a big trade for Colorado’s Ubaldo Jiminez last season, something I felt was a mistake, as the Indians emptied their farm system, including top pitching prospect Alex White, for a pitcher in Jiminez who usually put up ERAs in the mid-3s. He had a big year in ’10, a bad year in ’11, but otherwise has been fairly ordinary in an NL West where the lineups at fairly pedestrian, to say the least. Granted, he is moving out of Coors Field, but it’s not as though the Jake is a pitcher’s paradise and there’s now a DH in the equation. Bottom line—Cleveland paid a #1 starter price for a guy who’s better suited to be a reliable middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. And now the top starter in Cleveland is Justin Masterson, who had a 3.21 ERA in 33 starts a year ago. The team signed Derek Lowe to be the #3 guy. Lowe’s ERAs have run from 4 to 5 the last three seasons, including his 5.05 a year ago. Given that he’s 38 we can’t rule out that last season might be the most relevant benchmark. But the man has made 30-plus starts for ten straight years and reliability alone is a difference-maker in pitching rotations these days. Josh Tomlin is at #4, having gone 12-7 with a 4.25 ERA in 26 starts last year. Not a bad beginning to his big-league career. The fifth spot is up for grabs between former Minnesota Twin Kevin Slowey and 24-year-old Jeanmar Gomez. The odds say Slowey gets the gig because he’s the safe choice and major league teams generally do the safe thing. But Gomez has made 21 starts over the last two years and has a 4.58 ERA. That’s not far from being a respectable major league pitcher and given his age, I’d make his development a priority. Fausto Carmona is on the roster, but looks to be finished in more ways than one. First off, he changed his name to Roberto Hernandez. Secondly, he’s had three bad years in the five he’s been a regular starter.

RELIEF PITCHING: Cleveland’s bullpen was balanced and deep a year ago, the biggest reason they stayed in the race as long as they did. One of the young arms that helped make it happen was 27-year-old Vinnie Pestano, who appeared in 67 games with a 2.32 ERA. Vinnie’s going to get a chance to close this year. Tony Sipp had a solid year at a 2.93 ERA, although previous track record suggests he’ll probably settle in around the low-to-mid 3s on a consistent basis. Joe Smith was fantastic with a 2.01 ERA, while Rafael Perez has spent two straight years appearing in seventy games and posting ERAs under 3. The pen is filled out with veteran Dan Wheeler, trying to bounce back from a tough year in Boston, and Frank Herrman, a mediocre 27-year-old who’s done nothing to catch anyone’s eye.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 79—This was a number that surprised me. I was all set for the market to assume Cleveland improvement and see a total around 84 or so, at which point I would take the Under. Instead the market is going to assume regression, and I’m taking the Over. I see this team in a pretty tight window, so if you actually bet, this isn’t a team I’d touch. But with a bullpen like they have, winning half their games or a little bit more is a reasonable expectation and that’s why I’m going on the Over.