Five Questions: Cleveland Indians

After a return to relevance in 2005, the Indians spent the offseason shoring up their pitching staff, largely ignoring their offense, and making a blockbuster deal with the Boston Red Sox. Will that translate into another 90-plus-win season?

1. How did the Indians win 93 games in 2005?

I’d say the biggest reason was health. Everyone in the rotation made 30 starts, and the projected starting lineup remained largely intact throughout the season. Part of that may have to do with the overall youth of the team, but to stay that healthy over the course of a year was very fortunate nevertheless.

Another important reason was team defense. The Indians finished third in Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER) in 2005, which helped their ball-in-play pitchers immensely. Cliff Lee and Scott Elarton, flyball pitchers, were helped by the ranges of Grady Sizemore and Coco Crisp in left and center, respectively, as well as the surprisingly good performance of Casey Blake in right. Jake Westbrook and Bob Wickman, both groundball dependent, were helped by good defensive performances from Ronnie Belliard and Jhonny Peralta. While the pitching performances were good in and of themselves, the defense made them look very good.

A third reason was the emergence of Sizemore and Peralta. Both were promising young players, but I don’t think many anticipated this kind of production this early in their careers. The Indians brought in Juan Gonzalez and Alex Cora to help ease the two young players into a full-time job, but their services weren’t needed. Peralta had the highest Equivalent Average (EqA) of AL shortstops (.310), and Sizemore was first among AL center fielders (.295). That injection of young talent made a pretty good offense even better.

Finally, the bullpen was incredible. Wickman got a lot of the credit, but the setup men did most of the heavy lifting. Bob Howry and Arthur Rhodes were outstanding sharing the eighth-inning duties, Matt Miller and Scott Sauerbeck formed an effective ROOGY-LOOGY platoon, and Rafael Betancourt was extremely good in a hybrid setup-middle relief role.

2. Why trade Coco Crisp?

The short answer: Andy Marte.

The long answer: Boston, after losing Johnny Damon to New York, had a gigantic hole in center field to fill and no one left in free agency to fill it. The Indians took advantage of this need by trading a player less valuable to them and more valuable to Boston for a player that would not normally be available to them. Moreover, Marte fills an organizational hole: Matt Whitney and Corey Smith, two high draft picks, had faltered in the past couple years, leaving Kevin Kouzmanoff as the best the system had to offer.

But, in order for the deal to work, a decent patch in left field had to be obtained. At first, the Indians tried to woo Brian Giles and Nomar Garciaparra via free agency, and when the two signed elsewhere, they explored the trade market. There were some rumors floated about Ryan Langerhans, but eventually the replacement was Jason Michaels, a fourth outfielder who hadn’t really gotten a chance in Philadelphia.

From a philosophical standpoint, the trade highlights what Mark Shapiro is trying to do in Cleveland: contend every season but also build for the future.

3. So who exactly will make up the 2006 bullpen?

Four of the 2005 regulars (Wickman, Miller, Sauerbeck, and Betancourt) will return in 2006. Guillermo Mota is projected to take over for Arthur Rhodes as the team’s primary setup man, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Fernando Cabrera gets some high leverage experience before the year is over. Cabrera is the logical choice to take over for Wickman as closer in 2007, and he is one of baseball’s most promising relief prospects. Andrew Brown, the PTBNL in the Milton Bradley trade, is in the running for the last bullpen spot, as are reanimation projects Steve Karsay and Danny Graves, and Jason Davis, last year’s sixth starter.

Bullpens are by nature volatile creatures, and when the top two relievers in your bullpen are injury risks, the chances of flameout increase all the more. But the Indians still have enough depth where total collapse seems unlikely. The great bullpen numbers last year were an ensemble achievement, not the handiwork of two or three relievers.

4. Why can’t the Indians find any productive corner bats?

It is amusing that the Indians’ best offensive players (save Travis Hafner) are up the middle on the diamond, and their biggest liabilities are at traditional power positions. Marte should fill one hole, and once Ryan Garko learns how to play first base he should evict Ben Broussard from the lineup. But that’s probably a couple months away from happening. To illustrative the massive difference in production, here’s PECOTA’s 2006 VORP projections:

Up the Middle
Victor Martinez: 30.6
Jhonny Peralta: 34.1
Ronnie Belliard: 14.8
Grady Sizemore: 36.5

Corners
Ben Broussard/Eduardo Perez: 25.1
Aaron Boone: 7.4
Casey Blake: 8.3
Jason Michaels: 17.3

Marte and Garko are just about ready to play at the major league level, but if the Indians need to upgrade in right field this season, they’ll probably have to look outside the organization. Franklin Gutierrez and Brad Snyder are both promising outfield prospects, but they aren’t really ready. If Aaron Boone is pulling his weight, the Indians might entertain moving Marte to the outfield on a short-term basis.

5. How will the revamped pitching staff fare?

The Indians brought in Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson to replace Kevin Millwood and Elarton in the rotation. Byrd and Johnson came cheaper than the pitchers they replaced, but will they be as productive?

Because the offense didn’t take advantage of Millwood’s outstanding pitching performance, the Indians were a below-.500 team (14-16) on days when Kevin started. Which is mind-boggling considering the Indians finished fourth in the AL in runs scored. So while it’ll be difficult to replace Millwood’s 2005 production (52.3 VORP), replacing Millwood’s wins will be fairly easy to do, assuming the offense treats Byrd better than it did Millwood.

You can say the exact opposite of Lee, who went 18-5 despite posting inferior numbers to Millwood; he got tremendous run support in 2005, and he will probably win fewer games even if he’s better production-wise.

Now let’s look at production.

2005 VORP
Kevin Millwood: 52.3
Cliff Lee: 39.8
CC Sabathia: 35.3
Jake Westbrook: 15.4
Scott Elarton: 17.6
Total: 160.4

2006 VORP (projected)
CC Sabathia: 33.0
Cliff Lee: 21.4
Paul Byrd: 19.1
Jake Westbrook: 28.2
Jason Johnson: 15.5
Total: 117.2

The biggest difference is between Millwood v. 2005 and Byrd v. 2006. For what it’s worth, Millwood’s projected VORP with Texas is 25.0, so Byrd looks like a better bang for the buck. Westbrook has the highest projected improvement, and Cliff Lee the largest projected regression.

This is a rotation of inning-eaters: each pitcher threw at least 195 innings in 2005. If someone gets hurt or becomes ineffective, Fausto Carmona and Jeremy Sowers are next in line. Beyond those two, the Indians can call on Stanford, Davis, Jeremy Guthrie, and Kazuhito Tadano if need be; the organization is blessed with a lot of young pitching depth.

In Conclusion …

The Indians have the pieces to contend again this season, but they might need to upgrade the offense at some point during the season. The starting staff needs a breakout season from Sabathia to counter the loss of Millwood. The team needs better production from Boone: if not, Marte is a phone call away. The back end of the bullpen needs to stay healthy. All those issues aside, the Indians should be a strong team in a very competitive AL Central.

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