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…

Weekend Update: Aaron Boone’s Got Heart – an Amazing Comeback!

In what would be the greatest comeback that I can think of in recent history, Aaron Boone is getting ready to make a run at returning to the Astros.  Boone’s career and life was put on hold to have open heart surgery to repair a defective valve in March.  He’ll play for two weeks in AA Corpus Christi, spend some time at AAA Round Rock, and hopefully return to the Astros by the end of the year.  God Speed, Mr. Boone.  [MLB]

Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano’s back is bad enough to require a DL stint.  He left his start about a week ago after three innings, and didn’t make a run at his last start.  [FoxSports]

Aaron Cook missed his start with a jammed toe, out of fear that it will mess with his mechanics.

There really isn’t a trading deadline – is there?  David Weathers snuck through waivers and was sent from Cincinnati to Milwaukee for a PTNL.  Weathers is just a season away from 1000 lifetime games.  For those of us who saw him in Florida a long time ago, this seems amazing.  For those of us in Florida wondering if we can get an extra arm in the bullpen, this is disappointing that Milwaukee can do this but Florida cannot. [ESPN]

Stop me if you heard this before…  Houston’s Mike Hampton had to leave his start Saturday with a knee injury and is considered day-to-day (start to start?). [MLB]

 Cleveland’s Jake Westbrook can’t recover from his elbow injury because even his rehab starts get halted due to elbow pain.  A visit to Dr. Yokum is forthcoming.  [MLB]

A rested Gil Meche is expected to start for Kansas City on Thursday…  Meche is a very, very good pitcher and the Royals need him.

Welcome Back!  Eric Stults returns to the Dodgers from Albuquerque.  Except for the occasional injury trip, he should have never left.  Ronald Belisario returns to the Dodgers from the DL.  Yorman Bazardo returns to the Astros from AAA.

Hurry Back!  Angel starter Joe Saunders heads to the DL with shoulder soreness.  Boston SS Jed Lowrie has ulnar neuritis in his balky left wrist and heads to the DL.

Bye – and stay out!  Luis Ayala was sent to AAA by the Marlins.  I didn’t like that they signed him.  Good riddance.

Torrealba Talks About Son’s Kidnapping; Posnanski and James Discuss Pitch Counts

As a lot of you know, I’m in favor of using pitch counts to monitor fatigue for pitchers, but not to limit the number of pitches or innings a pitcher can throw in a game.  My thought was that for most guys, instead of limiting the number of total pitches thrown, pay more attention to a number thrown in an inning, and pay MORE attention in innings when a batter faces eight or more pitches, or a pitcher clears 20 pitches.

For example, I’d let any starter throw 33 pitches in the first inning.  But, in the second, I’d lower that number by two – and keep doing that for the rest of the game.  At the end of seven, I wouldn’t let my starter throw 19 pitches without having someone ready to go in the pen.  However, if the guy threw 20 or more pitches in the inning, you’d reduce that number in subsequent innings by another two pitches (let’s say it was in the second inning), so now instead of allowing 29 pitches in the third, I’d move it to 27.  If it were 25 pitches thrown in the inning, knock another two off, and if 30, knock two more off…  It’s a rule of thumb, mind you, and something that could be modified based on experience with different pitchers.

The idea was that over time, the number of pitches someone could reasonably expect to throw would be less with each inning, but if he was still effective, you could keep the starter out there.  Theoretically, then, a pitcher could throw 140 pitches in a game over eight or nine innings, but if few or no innings were higher than 20 or so, it probably wouldn’t be very taxing at all.

And, you could do other things – if you notice that someone seems to struggle, change the counts.  Still, it’s a system that doesn’t say “you’re done” after 100 pitches, and even encourages pitches to do things like build endurance.  To help this process out, I’d also speed up the game so that pitchers weren’t waiting too long between pitches, trying to end games in 2:40 rather than 3:10.  Finally, it would reduce the number of pitchers needed on a roster from 12 or 13 back to 10 or 11, which would prevent guys like Cody Ross getting too much time on the mound.

Well, it’s nice when other professionals agree with me.  Joe Posnanski and Bill James discuss it on SI’s site.  In short, they discuss how Nolan Ryan is encouraging Texas pitchers to build leg strength, get in better shape, and plan on throwing more complete games.  I like it.

On to other news…

Yorvit Torrealba told of the fear he and his family faced when dealing with his son’s kidnapping.  The kid is doing better, but he lives in Miami now.  Amazing story, really.  Give it a read.

If you are looking for injury updates, here’s some good news and some bad news…

Good News:  Grady Sizemore is only about a week away from playing again.  The bad news is that Jake Westbrook is not.

Good News:  Damaso Marte is ready to begin throwing again.  The bad news is that Jason Isringhausen’s injury is bad enough to end his season.

Mets outfielder Gary Sheffield is hitting despite a sore knee, which will require an MRI.  Not sure if it’s good or bad news.

On the Mend?  Welcome back to the Rays, Jason Bartlett.  Also, Toronto catcher Michael Barrett heads to rehab; Ryan Freel does the same for the Cubs.