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2012 Cleveland Indians: Counting Coup Spring Preview
by Keith Glab,
February 4, 2011

The Cleveland Indians went 32-20 in the first two months of 2011, then a mere 48-62 the rest of the way.  The resulting 80 victories actually outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by five wins.  A 38-year old pitcher who led the NL in losses and posted an ERA over 5.00 represents their most notable offseason acquisition.  So why are these Indians a great darkhorse pick to win the AL Central?

2011 Standings - AL Central
Central W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Detroit Tigers 95 67 .586 0 50-31 45-36 787 711 .546 64-47 31-20
Cleveland Indians 80 82 .494 15 44-37 36-45 704 760 .465 57-56 23-26
Chicago White Sox 79 83 .488 16 36-45 43-38 654 706 .465 55-61 24-22
Kansas City Royals 71 91 .438 24 40-41 31-50 730 762 .480 55-65 16-26
Minnesota Twins 63 99 .389 32 33-48 30-51 619 804 .383 42-73 21-26

The most important thing to remember about the 2011 Indians is that their surprise start to the season wasn't due to everything going right.  It would be more appropriate to say that their June swoon occurred because nearly everything was going wrong.  
Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Derek Lowe SP
Kevin Slowey SP
Casey Kotchman 1B
Russ Canzler 1B
Jose Lopez IF
Aaron Cunningham OF
Dan Wheeler RP
Departed Pos.
Travis Buck OF
Austin Kearns OF
Kosuke Fukudome OF
Chad Durbin RP
Jim Thome DH

For his first 17 games of the season, Grady Sizemore appeared to be his old self at the plate, slugging .641 in that admittedly small sample size.  He then sustained another injury and apparently returned too soon, since he slugged just .296 from that point until the end of June and suffered yet another injury just as he was beginning to regain his stroke in July.

Travis Hafner was hitting .345 on May 17, harkening back to his 2004-2006 heyday, prior to getting injured and hitting .245 for the remainder of the season.  Shin Soo Choo, coming off a .300-20-20 season, was a huge disappointment through late June before getting injured.  He looked like his old self again for a dozen games with a 1.020 OPS in August before - you guessed it - getting injured again. 

Ubaldo Jimenez

In a desperate attempt to re-assert themselves in the AL Central race, Cleveland traded their only blue-chip prospect to obtain Ubaldo Jimenez from the Rockies, figuring that the man who had a 2.88 ERA in 2010 might perform even better after a favorable switch in home ballparks.  Ubaldo's strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates remained constant, but improbably, his hit and home run rates soared after the trade.  His ERA in 11 starts with the Indians was 5.10.

Basically, if you look solely at the Indians' roster and their 2011 stats, you can't help but be unimpressed.  But in this case, we've got to look beyond those stats.  Cleveland employs a number of players still in their 20s who have had excellent seasons recently.  Take a look at the following table and see the star potential in the event that these players hit their peak potential:

Player '12 Age Year BA HR RBI SB OPS
Grady Sizemore 29 2008 .268 33 90 38 .876
Shin-Soo Choo 29 2010 .300 22 90 22 .885
Asdrubal Cabrera 26 2011 .273 25 92 17 .792
Pitcher '12 Age Year W-L K BB IP ERA
Kevin Slowey 28 2008 12-11 123 24 160.1 3.99
Ubaldo Jimenez 28 2010 19-8 214 92 221.2 2.88
Justin Masterson 27 2011 12-10 158 65 216.0 3.21

Additionally, 30-somethings Derek Lowe and Dan Wheeler are only one year removed from very effective seasons themselves.  Tribe elder Travis Hafner led the 2011 Indians with an .811 OPS, trialed closely by part-timer Shelly Duncan at .808.  But the team's real strength lies in its preponderance of players in their mid-20s with lots of potential.

If Carlos Santana (26) can get his career .244 BABIP near the .300 range that most hitters normalize around, he will probably be the best-hitting catcher in baseball.  He has a secondary average of .413 in 201 career games.  Second baseman Jason Kipnis (25) slugged over .500 in 150 plate appearances last year and has an .863 OPS for his minor league career.  Michael Brantley (25) has taken some lumps at the big league level, but he has 162 stolen bases and a .388 OBP in his minor league slate, and it isn't a stretch to suggest that he could be one of the league's top leadoff hitters this season with a little improvement. 

Shin-Soo Choo

The first base position might best explain why the Indians are poised to be a better hitting team in 2012 than they were last season.  Rather than rely solely on Matt LaPorta (27) to finally live up to his hype and minor league OPS of .956, alternatives Casey Kotchman and Russ Canzler are in the fold.  Kotchman (29) is coming off a career-best .306 batting average that led to an .800 OPS and his .998 fielding percentage is the best ever for a first baseman who has played at least 700 games.  Canzler (26) won the International League MVP Award last year by posting a .314/.401/.530 line.  While you wouldn't bet on any one of these players to have a memorable 2012 season, the odds are pretty good that at least one of them does.  If a couple do, that gives them a DH to cover for Hafner's inevitable injury.

With the added depth this year, fewer at-bats will be wasted on out-artists such as Orlando Cabrera, Kosuke Fukudome, Ezequiel Carrera, Austin Kearns, and Travis Buck.  None of those five players had an OBP over .302 last season, yet they combined for 1,162 trips to the plate for Cleveland.  Carrera is the only one of that group remaining on the 40-man roster; he's 24-years old, has a .371 OBP in the minors, and is fighting Aaron Cunningham for the fifth outfield spot.

Indians Fun Fact
In 2011, Cleveland won more games than its Pythagorean expectation for only the second time since Charlie Manuel was fired in 2002.  The other occasion was 2007, their only playoff season during that span.

Cleveland's other big strength lies in their bullpen.  Though it ranked middle-of-the-pack in ERA last year, they have a quartet of relievers currently in their 20s who each tossed over 60 innings and posted ERAs under 3.05: Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith, Rafael Perez, and Tony Sipp.  Their closer, Chris Perez, is 26-years old and has an 88% save percentage and 2.49 ERA over his two seasons as closer despite some pretty dodgy peripheral stats.  Besides Wheeler, formerly solid relievers Chris Ray, Jeremy Accardo, and Robinson Tejeda are invited to camp, as well as promising youngsters Hector Ambriz, Tyler Sturdevant, and Nick Hadagone. 

Comeback Candidate
Shin-Soo Choo
Honorable Mentions: Ubaldo Jimenez, Grady Sizemore, Dan Wheeler
Fantasy Find
Vinnie Pestano
Infinitely better stuff than Chris Perez; should be team's closer by midseason

The starting rotation does raise some concerns, particularly since it is an extreme ground ball staff with a poor infield defense behind them (explaining Jimenez' jump in hits, but not the homers).  Lowe, Justin Masterson, and the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona are even more extreme groundball pitchers than Ubaldo is, each ranking among the top eight in baseball in that department last season.  The infield defense doesn't figure to improve much in 2012, especially if 23-year old Lonnie Chisenhall takes time away from Jack Hannahan at the hot corner.  Across the diamond, Kotchman would represent a huge upgrade over Laporta, who cost the Tribe seven runs with his defensive miscues last season.

A subpar defense is not the best way to support a rotation with no strikeout pitchers besides Jimenez.  Still, the rotation has to be better than last year's incarnation. Masterson may regress a bit from his breakout 2011 performance, but he is by no means a one-year wonder.  Although Lowe's plummeting velocity is a legitimate concern, he has an ERA of 2.95 at Jacobs Field and should at least serve as an innings-eater who prevents the Mitch Talbots of the world from taking the hill. Josh Tomlin actually had the best walk rate of any MLB starter last season, though Slowey would have had that distinction if he'd thrown enough innings to qualify.  Ex-Carmona has gone from being the team's #2 to perhaps their sixth starter, assuming his legal issues get resolved at all.   He, Jeanmar Gomez, Zach McAlister, Carlos Carrasco, and David Huff aren't great by any means, but they're not a bad group to choose from as fill-ins should something happen to the team's front five.

Final Word

Given the incredible ground ball and anti-walk tendencies of their pitching staff, the Cleveland Indians could be a force in the American League with the right defense behind those pitchers.  But as Ubaldo Jimenez will tell you, they don't exactly have Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez flagging down balls.  As constructed, they nevertheless have enough talented players in their mid-to-late 20s to take advantage of a weak division even if they suffer through some injuries or the occasional disappointing performance.  In contrast, the team that they will likely chase in the AL Central is reliant upon a handful of superstars to keep them afloat.  All it would take is an injury to Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Avila, Prince Fielder, or Jhonny Peralta for the Indians to shock the baseball world and count coup on the AL Central.

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