2011 Season Forecast: Cleveland Indians

Last Five Years:

2010:  69 – 93  (Fourth in AL Central)
2009:  65 – 97
2008:  81 – 81
2007:  96 – 66
2006:  78 – 84

Remember 2007, anyone?  the Indians were a game away from getting to the World Series.

Runs Scored: 646 (12th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 752 (12th in the AL)

With this combination of runs scored and allowed, the Indians would have been expected to win 69 games – which is what they did.

Season Recap:

Most experts had the Indians and Royals battling for the bottom of the AL Central, and the Indians did just that – edging the Royals by two games to claim fourth in the division.

The Indians got off to a moderately slow start, but fell way off the pace in May, going 9 – 18.  Other than that month and a rather poor August (10 – 18, but played better than that), the Indians roared down the stretch with a 15 – 12 September, catching the Royals to get out of the cellar.  Part of this was adding a few nuggets – like rookie catcher Carlos Santana and infielders Jason Donald and Jayson Nix – who were happy to get playing time and helped lead the charge.

Starters:

Fausto Carmona returned to form, tossing sinkers and sinking fastballs, and giving the Indians 210.1 innings of solid baseball.  Justin Masterson’s first season as a regular in the rotation wasn’t a complete loss.  Sure, he allowed a lot of runs, but he had decent strikeout numbers and hung in there for the whole year.  He needs to work on his control, but there’s something to build on here.  Mitch Talbot won 10 games, but I’m not sure how.  He doesn’t strike a lot of guys out and he tends to walk even more guys than Masterson.  Jake Westbrook returned to make 21 fair starts before being shipped off to St. Louis for the stretch run.  David Huff, Josh Tomlin, and Jeanmar Gomez served as fifth starters – only Huff looked way out of place and of the three, Tomlin looks to be ready to take a turn 30 times and be successful.

Looking forward, a rotation of Carmona, Masterson, Talbot, Tomlin, and another kid named Carlos Carrasco has some potential for growth.  I see Talbot falling off a little, but if Carmona can hold form, the other three guys could certainly shave 30 – 40 runs off the runs allowed side of the ledger.

Relievers:

Chris Perez did a great job as the closer and returns for another season.  Tony Sipp, Rafael Perez, Joe Smith, Jensen Lewis, and Frank Herrmann will tote some innings as well.  Justin Germano did an okay job last year and gets a non-roster invitation to training camp.  He has a shot at being the 11th man on the staff.  Of these, I am less inclined to believe that Perez and Smith will be as successful, so Lewis, Herrmann, and SOMEBODY will have to step up.  I think the bullpen may be off by 10 runs over the course of the season.

Catching:

Carlos Santana had a great first 40 games.  He’s a convert – came to the Dodgers in 2005 as a third baseman and played all over the infield and outfield – an Elmo Plaskett sort of career.  I 2007, he was switched to catcher and has shown himself to be a quick learner with a strong arm.  As a hitter, he has a .401 OBP in the minors with 25 homer potential.  His backup, Lou Marson, has solid defensive skills but struggled at the plate last year – even after being sent to AAA.  I don’t think this will happen again.

Infield:

Last year’s infield started out as Russell Branyan, Mark Grudzielanek or Luis Valbuena, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jhonny Peralta.  By August, Grudzielanek was released and now is retired.  Branyan was returned to Seattle, and I have no reason why they would have done that – but what the hey.  Matt LaPorta came in to play first.  Jayson Nix outplayed Andy Marte to win the third base job, and Jason Donald earned a shot at second base.  Only Cabrera played most of the season – but even he, by the end of the season, was seeing less playing time because his bat had tanked from where it was in 2009.

Looking forward, Donald or Nix looks to be the third baseman, LaPorta will get one more shot at first base, and Asdrubal Cabrera will get a shot to return to form at short.  More importantly, the Indians have imported Reds infielder Orlando Cabrera to play second base.  Jayson Nix and Valbuena return as depth.  I like adding Orlando Cabrera, though he’s getting long in the tooth and hasn’t really played a whole lot of second base in his career.  Donald can hit as well as Peralta these days, and LaPorta has room for growth.  Defensively, it’s not awesome – but it’s not bad either (well, LaPorta didn’t impress me).  If nothing else, it’s an infield that gives a manager a lot of daily options if necessary.

Outfield:

In right field, Shin Soo Choo is awesome – 20/20 with a high batting average and on base percentage.  He’s one of the best in the game.  The problem is the other two positions.  In center, the Indians are hoping that Grady Sizemore can return from microfracture surgery on his left knee.  At peak, and Sizemore is just 29, Sizemore is a potent bat in the middle of the lineup.  He hasn’t had centerfield range in years, though, so I’d rather see him play left field.  That leaves Michael Brantley or Trevor Crowe in left (or center) and neither impressed at the plate, being low average, low power guys with speed.  Crowe might be the better defensive option in center, but neither has 1000 innings in the field yet, so it’s still open for debate.  Austin Kearns returns to be a fourth or fifth outfielder and DH option.

DH:

Travis Hafner, no longer the threat he once was, still helps put runs on the board.  Carlos Santana, Shelly Duncan, or Austin Kearns will be the other half of a platoon arrangement.

Down on the Farm:

The guys at AAA who looked like they could play a little, Brantley, Crowe, Donald, LaPorta (who caught in AAA), all got shots with the parent club.  Of those who did not, Jose Constanza hit .319 with less power and a lower OBP than Brantley, so that won’t work.  Cord Phelps moved up from AA, is just 24, and hit .317 with a little power.  Phelps is a 3rd round pick out of Stanford in 2008 who has been moved up quickly and played better at each level.  That being said, the entire Columbus AAA team hit .285, so I wouldn’t put stock in those averages holding up at the big league level.  None of the guys who hit .300 in AAA hit anywhere near .250 in the bigs in 2010.  A couple of pitchers were rushed to the bigs, including Gomez and Huff, while Carlos Carrasco pitched better than all of them (10 – 6, 133Ks in 150.1 innings, good control, 3.65 ERA in a hitter’s park).  So of the young arms in camp, I like his the best.

AA Akron features a couple of pitchers who might make you look for them in a year or two.  Alex White is just 22, had a 2.28 ERA in 17 starts, and had good control, decent K numbers, and kept the ball in the park.  The UNC grad was the #1 pick of the Indians in 2009 and appears to have a fast track to the majors.  Chen Lee pitched relief, fanned 82 and walked just 22 in 72.2 innings of work.

The second round pick of the 2009 draft, Jason Kipnis, hit well at A+ Kinston, batting .300 with a .387 OBP and power, earning a trip to Akron, where he continued to hit well (.311/.385/.502).  I like him because he’s from Northbrook, IL – a graduate of Glenbrook North, where a bunch of my cousins went to school.  He’s still figuring out second base, but he will be in the majors before you know it.  The 2008 #1 pick, Lonnie Chisenhall, has migrated to third base and shows power – but right now projects out as an Andy Marte clone – and that’s not MLB ready yet.

2011 Forecast:

Let’s call it guarded optimism.  The young pitchers should be able to build on 2010, but I think the defense will suffer if Sizemore is allowed to play center and with Orlando Cabrera learning a new position (and LaPorta likely getting 1000 innings at first).  It’s not a total wash, but it’s at least mitigating some of the potential improvement.  If Sizemore plays left and Crowe plays center, the team will remove 30 runs from the runs allowed side.  If Sizemore is still in center, I don’t see any change.

The offense will certainly be better at catcher, and if Sizemore can hit, that’s another huge plus – possibly 80 extra runs on the board between the two positions.  Cabrera or Donald or Nix will be better than a full season of Luis Valbuena, too.  When I feel optimistic, the system says that the team should score 725 runs and allow about 740 – but managerial decisions and Sizemore’s health aren’t guarantees, so I’ll hedge my bet and guess it will be more like 700 and 750 instead.  That puts the Indians at 75 wins – a nice step in the right direction.  On the other hand, the potential is there to get to 80 games if a lot of things work in their favor.  Besides, Cleveland could use some good news from a sporting standpoint.  As such, I’ll be rooting for the pleasant surprise…

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Filed under Alex White, Andy Marte, Asdrubel Cabrera, Austin Kearns, Carlos Carrasco, Carlos Santana, Chen Lee, Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians, Cord Phelps, David Huff, Fausto Carmona, Frank Herrmann, Grady Sizemore, Jake Westbrook, Jason Donald, Jason Kipnis, Jayson Nix, Jeanmar Gomez, Jensen Lewis, Jhonny Peralta, Joe Smith, Jose Constanza, Josh Tomlin, Justin Germano, Justin Masterson, Lonnie Chisenhall, Lou Marson, Luis Valbuena, Mark Grudzielanek, Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Mitch Talbot, Orlando Cabrera, Russell Branyan, Shelly Duncan, Shin Soo Choo, Tony Sipp, Travis Hafner, Trevor Crowe

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