Five questions: Cleveland Indians

Pitching, pitching, pitching?

Since trading back-to-back Cy Young winners (how many teams can say that?) a couple of years ago, the Indians have had a rotation thinner than the new iPad. There’s young prize pitching enigma Justin Masterson, who, though utterly dominant against righties for his career (3.32 FIP, 3.39 xFIP), is nonetheless to lefties what sugary snacks are to Bartolo Colon. Behind him, there’s Fausto Carmona, who Waiver Wire followers know I have an eternal disdain for (groundball pitchers who can’t throw first pitch strikes inspire less confidence in me than Bartolo Colon being in “the best shape of his life”). Even if you, like me, are a sucker for Masterson’s potential, and you, unlike me, think that Fausto Carmona is a serviceable pitcher, the remainder of the Indians’ pitcher rotation has less talent than an American Idol castoff.

Seriously, Craig Ferguson jokes are funnier than this rotation is good, with Aaron Laffey finally out of the picture, the Indians seem set to rely on Mitch Talbot, Carlos Carrasco (actually, he’s pretty good) and Josh Tomlin to start more than half of the Indians’ games. If there was any team out there that should have worried that neither Cliff Lee nor Andy Pettitte signed with it this offseason, it’s the Indians. Cleveland fans are probably praying Jason Knapp develops into a superstar super fast, but for now, minus some stroke of luck, this pitching staff will probably out-stink the 2010 Pirates (Carlos Carrasco and maybe Justin Masteron excepted).

Hence the burning question for the Indians is what to do about the lack of pitching. If they wait until the offseason, assuming they do not resign CC Sabathia (whom we in turn assume opts out), they’ll have their pick of the litter of bottom tier No. 2 and serviceable No. 3 type pitchers to choose from. Not a pretty picture, right? They could trade for a young stud a la Zack Greinke or, if you are Jim Hendry, Matt Garza, but the Twins are unlikely to deal Francisco Liriano, the only top-shelf pitcher allegedly on the market at the moment, to a divisional rival. Even if the Indians were to acquire a pitcher by trade, it’s questionable if they’d have the resources to do it without decimating their team.

Honestly, I do not know what the Indians plan to do to rectify this situation. I hear ex-Tribe closer Charlie Sheen‘s interested. Maybe you give Wild Thing a call.

Almost makes you wonder just why I picked the Indians as the AL Central dark horse contender last season…

Grady Sizemore or less?

Heading into the baseball preseason, I liked Grady Sizemore to bounce back big in 2011. I ranked him pretty high on my fantasy outfielder rankings and thought the 28-year-old center fielder, once one of baseball’s best, would make a strong value pick in later rounds. Alas, as spring training has begun and as Sizemore has started playing games, I have become more worried and doubtful that Sizemore can return to any form, let alone his previous form.

Here is what Sports Illustrated’s Will Carroll, the injury expert, had to say about Sizemore:

Grady needs a huge mug filled with some health and a dash of luck. He’s had neither the past few seasons and will be trying to come back from microfracture surgery on his knee, something no other player has successfully done in MLB. The players who have had it have been older and much less athletic, so Sizemore does have a shot.

Sure, that quote is bookended by some optimism, but the lack of successful return of other baseball players from microfrature surgery gives me a nauseous feeling in my stomach. Further adding to this bad feeling are reports that Sizemore will not be ready for Opening Day.

Though the Indians do have a nice young core of hitters/fielders among Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Santana (also returning injury), Asdrubal Cabrera, Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley, and that, paired with Nick Johnson (always injured) and Jayson Nix (who I think is entirely underrated), could form a solid offensive core, Cleveland needs everything it can get, including Grady Sizemore, to make up for that awful, awful pitching staff. Without Sizemore, the best-case scenario for the Indians is probably 75 wins. With him healthy, maybe the Indians can push breaking even.

Choo’s long-term prospects with the team (or how I learned to stop loving Matt LaPorta).

I’m not the only one with these sentiments, but Choo is one baseball’s most underrated players. Over the past three years, only 15 players have been more valuable than he. He’s ranked third overall (fourth if you count Ben Zobrist as an “outfielder”) among outfielders. That’s more value than Kevin Youkilis, Jayson Werth, Adrian Beltre or Ryan Braun. In fact, Choo’s been more valuable than the past two seasons of Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu combined.

He’s just that good, and he’s only 28! With Choo earning exemption from Korea’s military service requirements for bringing home the gold in the Asian Games, the only thing standing between “franchise player” and “guy on the Yankees” is Scott Boras. Choo’s been a better model of health than Sizemore, and the Indians seriously need to extend this guy long term.

Forget Matt LaPorta, Choo Choo train does everything right. He plays solid defense in right field (career 1.9 UZR/150), he walks (11.9 career bases-on-balls percentage), he hits for power (career .191 ISO), and he steals bases efficiently (76.5 percent success rate). You couldn’t ask for much more in a player, and if Choo repeats his 2009-10 performance in 2011, look for this kid to sign a Troy Tulowitzki-like contract next offseason (or go to the Yankees in 2014).

What about Carlos Santana’s knee injury?

Beyond Choo, the Indians’ saving grace is young catcher Santana. In terms of real life baseball, Santana is probably a better catcher than Buster Posey. He gets on base more often than Kenny Lofton got traded and he hits for power akin to Brian McCann and Geovany Soto. He always is touted as having the defense to stick behind the plate. Santana, despite Rob Neyer’s man crush on Joe Mauer, has the potential to be baseball’s best catcher of the decade.

Hence, Indians fans have to be pretty happy that Santana avoided more serious, career-threatening injury last season. Still, he had surgery on his knee and any time a catcher has knee surgery, you have to be concerned. Now, Santana did not have microfracture surgery and he’s been cleared for baseball activity, but you have to wonder whether he’ll be a full-time catcher this season or split more time with Lou Marson behind the plate.

If he’s not a fulltime catcher, the question is whether Santana will be rested on his off days or whether he’ll steal DH at-bats from Travis Hafner. After hitting 104 dingers from 2004-2006, Hafner hasn’t hit even 20 homers since 2007. Still, he’s an underrated DH at this point in his career (.358 wOBA in 2010, eighth overall among the 30 hitters who logged 90-plus plate appearances at DH last season), so perhaps replacing him isn’t exactly a “win” for the Tribe over extra rest for Santana.

Keep a close eye on how the Indians handle Santana this season. As good as he is, the team needs to ensure he stays healthy and comes back strong from his knee injury. Given Hafner’s presence at DH, the Tribe, unlikely to compete in 2011, should focus more on resting Santana than forcing his thunderous bat into the lineup. It would be a shame to see the team “Russell Martin” him.

How does the team fix its future?

Forget 2011’s issues. What about 2012? 2013? And 2014? At this point, neither the Sabathia nor Cliff Lee trade looks favorable on the Indians’ end. For Victor Martinez, Sabathia and Lee, in fact, all the Tribe has to show is Justin Masterson. LaPorta will get another chance in my book before getting the bust label, and Brantley could be a league average outfielder, but at this point, the front office has to be praying Knapp pans outs.

Of the team’s woes, pitching is clearly the primary problem. As noted above, free agency won’t be the solution. Beyond pitching, the team has issues up the middle, save catcher. Santana’s gold, but, even if you have faith in Cabrera’s health, Cleveland is still a legitimate middle infielder (and third baseman) short of having a real infield. First base is always easy to fill, as the market is saturated with 1B/DH types, but what about second and third? If the Diamondbacks do not extend Kelly Johnson, I would expect the Indians to make a push. Likewise, Aramis Ramirez and Jorge Cantu are poised to be the two best free agent third basemen next year. NOTE: in hindsight, I forgot about Chisenhakl and Kipnis, which was utterly silly of me. Forget everything you read in this Paragraph.

Getting a feel that the free agency class of 2012 is pretty weak? I do. Point here is that the Indians are going to have to get real creative with trades to fix their holes. You need to have something to trade to get something in return and the Indians are thin on things to give away (at least desirable things to give away. Perhaps the Indians will acknowledge that they are not in a position to compete and start loading up prospects, while locking Santana up relative cheaply a la Evan Longoria or Ryan Braun. Trading Carmona might be a start if the Indians start feeling desperate for a starter…

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  1. jim said...

    pretty weak, this. nix isn’t likely to make the team, nor should he, and the indians have 2nd and 3rd covered long-term with kipnis and chisenhall both only super-2 status removed from playing everyday. so there’s ZERO chance they’re looking at kelly johnson, jorge cantu or aramis ramirez. and it’s extremely unlikely they’re able to extend choo, no matter how much they’d like to. nick johnson isn’t likely to be ready for months

  2. jswede said...

    1.  The Tribe had the 2nd best bullpen and 4th best rotation in the AL after the All-Star break.  but nevermind that, Fausto (27yr old) and Masterson (26yr old) have frustrated you, and you don’t know the other names (nevermind they are all incredibly young), so they must all stink.

    2. LOL – “neither the CC of Lee trade looks favorable right now”.  umm, vs losing both players to Free Agency, they both look favorable. Further, CC was traded just over 2 seasons ago, and Lee just over 1 season ago – you seriously expect returns in this amount of time? 

    LaPorta is 26 and Brantley is 23—jury is still out on LaPorta and Brantley already looks like he may man center for the better part of the next decade in Cleveland.

    The Lee trade was for then 18yr old Knapp (highest ceiling in the organization) who is now 20, a 23yr old solid catcher (avg bat, great game manager) in Marson, another then 24yr IF in Donald who figures into the future but with only 325 PA thus far, and a now 24yr old Carlos Carrasco who as you say “is actually pretty good”—compare his cumulative 2010 to Drabek (they are near-identical) who everyone is so excited about.

    Since you seemingly have very little, how’s this for perspective:  “2 ½ years after Colon was dealt – the Indians had “enjoyed” an OPS of .556 from Brandon Phillips in 136 MLB games, a 4.88 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP from Cliff Lee in 44 starts, and had received 159 plate appearances from Grady Sizemore.”

    3. Talking about “how does this team ‘fix’ its future” without mentioning Chisenhall, Kipnis, Pomeranz (all top 60 prospects) and a deep pitching pool is quite puzzling, but in keeping with the rest of the piece.

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    I would quibble about how favorable the Lee trade looks. Jason Knapp is still an extremely high ceiling prospect and as you pointed out, Carlos Carrasco has quietly turned from touted prospect to supposed bust to quality mid-rotation pitcher. Before getting hurt, Jason Donald looked like a decent utility man (it’s not his fault the Indians have 20 of those) and Lou Marson still has some upside as a no power, patient back up catcher.

    I think that looks like a decent haul to me. It’s no AJ for Liriano, Nathan, and Bonser, but after a year and a half it has 3 MLB players and a guy who’s likely to be the Tribe’s #1 prospect by the end of the season.

  4. Brad Johnson said...

    I would however disagree with jswede’s glowing review of Marson. The bat is clearly below average, even for a catcher, and his game management skills are pretty poor. He’s also over-matched behind the plate by major league pitching at times. Early on last season, he looked like a little leaguer when trying to frame major league sinkers.

    He needs to develop quickly to become an entrenched back up catcher, otherwise he’s going to find himself as a career #3 catcher.

  5. JR said...

    ^What that guy said

    One of the things you learn to live with as a small market fan is the preseason drive-by previews where people look at a roster, figure out who they’ve heard of, write that they’re good and the rest of the team stinks, and predicts the same outcome as last season.

    The Indians have some growing to do, but their system is deep, and has a few guys who are just about ready to contribute, and they play in the Central.  They could surprise some people this year.

    Now excuse me while I go to FanGraphs in anticipation of the Tribe being named a bottom 5 organization by more guys basing everything off a roster sheet and last year’s standings.

  6. JR said...

    And that article about Sizemore is almost a month old.  He’s back DHing in ST and doing running drills.  It looks like he’ll be back by May at the latest, and he’s reportedly already hitting at his old level pain free.

    Another thing that you could find out with about 30 seconds of Googling.

  7. Brad Johnson said...

    To be fair to Jeff, this article series requires a lot of planning ahead and prep. In other words, what appears to be month old news was relevant back when this was written.

    The Indians may surprise a few people this year, but they still have a roster composed entirely of role players outside of Choo, Santana, and perhaps (emphasis) Chris Perez. Their up and coming prospects shouldn’t be expected to contribute more than role player type value in 2011, especially because they’re mainly seen as good but not great players (at least that’s the talk about Chisenhall and Kipnis).

  8. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Yeah, but #1 tribe prospect is like saying #3 white sox prospect. The tribe’s farm is pretty thin at this point.

    Note also that players tend to peak around age 24-27. That said, LaPorta at 26, Fausto at 27, to some extent Masterson at 26, all indicate their obviously not OLD, but their upside window is shrinking rapidly.

    I have no qualms with young arms. I do have qualms with young arms with poor prospective ratios. I’m not saying the Tribe could have afforded to extend Lee/CC, but you have to imagine the haul could have been better. Lee always seem to get a less-than-impressive return in trade at this point, at least in my estimation. Lee was traded with what, a year and a half left on his contract? No reason they couldn’t get more, though if Knapp pans out, perhaps it will all have been worth it? Point here being if you’re going to trade 2 superstars with 1.5 years left until FA and another guy, who set the MLB record for FA cash out, you get something more than well maybe Knapp becomes the system’s top prospect and a few other utility guys here and there too. I know for a fact more teams than just the Brewers were interested in CC.

    Now sure, it’s only been 1.5 years since Lee/Vmart were traded, 2.5 since CC was traded, but outside of Knapp, they have not really improved on their game at all and most have taken steps ba

  9. Brad Johnson said...

    At the time, talent evaluators thought very highly of LaPorta and Brantley was considered a can’t miss fourth OF as a floor. I think that too was a pretty solid haul for half a season of CC.

    The V Mart deal is the only one that leaves me extremely underwhelmed, the other two trades looked ok at the time and the Lee trade at least still has a decent chance to pay out.

  10. rbt said...

    People have been picking the Indians as dark horse contenders for the last few years.  And for all of those years I have wondered who in heavens name those people thought was going to PITCH.  And that goes back to before they traded Cliff Lee.  At least everybody now, finally, has come to their senses.

    As for the Tribe fixing it’s future, well, they have the same problem the rest of the AL Central has looming in the not-too-far distance:  The Royals will take your Chisenhall, Kipnis, and Pomeranz and raise you Hosmer, Moustakas, and Montgomery…and throw Myers, Lamb, Duffy, etc. in for good measure.

  11. Mat Kovach said...

    But the Indians have a new GM and although he has worked with Shapiro for a while, seems to have a few different ideas. The farm systems seems to be in a bit of a transition.*

    * I see the Tribe attempting to Giants method. Pitching, Pitching, Pitching. A few good, not great, bats .. and then more pitching.

    The Tribe seems to be moving away from soft throwers and accumulating big arms (and just big pitchers) to fill the rotation and bullpen. On the offensive side, they seem to be going for decent (not great) defense, average offense, and depth.

    So, most of the positional prospects are going to be 2nd/3rd tier while the pitchers are going to be the high ceiling types.

    The Tribe’s drafting has also appeared to improve in the past two attempts but those players are still, mostly, going to be a few years away.

  12. jswede said...

    Lee has been traded twice since the Indians trade:

    July 29, 2009: Traded by the Cleveland Indians with Ben Francisco to the Philadelphia Phillies for Jason Knapp (minors), Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Lou Marson.

    December 16, 2009: Traded by the Philadelphia Phillies to the Seattle Mariners for J.C. Ramirez (minors), Phillippe Aumont (minors) and Tyson Gillies (minors).

    July 9, 2010: Traded by the Seattle Mariners with Mark Lowe and cash to the Texas Rangers for Blake Beavan (minors), Josh Lueke (minors), Matthew Lawson (minors) and Justin Smoak.

    The Indians really did that bad?

  13. JR said...

    Not to belabor things, but Pomeranz isn’t the 2nd baseman, Kipnis is.  I’m not sure what’s unimpressive about Kipnis; he’s played one full year of minor league ball, posted a .900 OPS across A/AA and hit for the cycle in his first game at AAA, then went to the AFL and put up a .950 OPS with more walks than Ks.  All while learning a new position, and becoming a solid second baseman.

    If you meant to say that you weren’t impressed with Pomeranz’s results to date, that’s understandable, since he didn’t pitch last year.

  14. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Also, I have a feeling that “delicious” might not have been the word I initially wrote in for Carlos Santana’s knee injury. Anyone wanna bet I spelled checked it wrong?

  15. Brad Johnson said...

    Kipnis is one of those cases where the scouting reports are considerably less impressive than the results. It sounds like he’ll be a solid, well rounded player, perhaps even good enough to find himself on an all star team or two, but he doesn’t appear to have the tools of an elite player. Who knows, Dustin Pedroia doesn’t have elite player tools and he still pulls it off so maybe Kipnis’ skill set will play up.

  16. Owen said...

    I can’t believe I wasted my time reading this. Please, next time you write about the Tribe, do at least some research…

  17. jim said...

    The tribe’s farm is pretty thin at this point.

    this is just not at all true. thin on upper-level talent, OK. but extremely deep. there are going to be a LOT of major leaguers coming out of the tribe system.

    the martinez is looking worse than the lee deal at this point because hagadone hasn’t shown much.

    but the indians got a MOR starting pitcher, a good backup catcher, a guy who was going to be the starting 3B this season and an extremely high-end young power pitcher for lee.

    what did you expect?

  18. Oscar said...

    Re: Bartolo Colon/sugary snacks analogy, I read it as Masterson:his weakness/Kryptonite(lefties)::Colon:his weakness/Kryptonite(sugary snacks).

    I think it works.

  19. Mike said...

    “Justin Masterson…is nonetheless to lefties what Bartolo Colon is to sugary snacks.”
    I don’t get this analogy…To me, it seems that you are saying he destroys them or he eats them up, when in fact it is the opposite. It should probably read “to lefties what sugary snacks are to Bartolo Colon.” As in they are killing him…
    Just an observation.

  20. JR said...

    But there’s no real sense in filling these holes with bigtime FA’s or through big trades, at least not at the current time.  The 3 positions they haven’t committed to long-term as of today are 3B, 2B, and LF.  As noted, the top 2 prospects in the organization fill the first two holes, probably by the end of 2011, and if Sizemore can return, he or Brantley will fill the last one.  You can argue that some of these spots can be upgraded, but most of the questionable talent is young enough that they still need a good look before moving on.

    As to the recent past, entering 2008, off of a great showing the previous year, the team went out and traded a good prospect (who has only gotten better) in Chris Archer to bring in Mark Derosa to fill one of their holes.  Didn’t work out, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.  With the utter lack of support from local fans, it’s hard to imagine the team will ever be capable of bringing in prime FAs with the years/money they’ll be looking for.  It’s simply more efficient to fill from within whenever possible.

    The rotation is a different story; there are holes there obviously.  But they have young arms that may or may not pan out, and a window of competitiveness that won’t be open this year; I think it’s better to test and filter out the young guys before bringing in outside help.  When it’s time to compete, then you can look for a middle/back of rotation starter in the open market, like they did with Paul Byrd when their previous window was open.

  21. jswede said...

    @JR:  DeRosa worked out splendidly – we got Chris Perez for 1/2 season of DeRosa.

    @Mikey B:  me thinks you need to get a little more familiar with how the Indians must operate in order to not become a Royals/Pirates operation.  it’s a fine line, and as a fan, you need a little patience.  the last rebuild did not workout, but they did rebuild and got to 90 wins—now they are on that cusp again.

  22. Brad Johnson said...

    It strikes me that the Indians have had some misfortune in their investments. Perhaps this time around more luck will befall them.

  23. Joe said...

    No one mentioned it yet, but Santana will not be taking at bats away from Hafner, as he will be playing first base on most of his ‘off’ days. He will probably play a lot of DH as well, but it is because Hafner never played more than 3 consecutive games last year and probably won’t be able to push it much further than that this year. If Hafner can play, he will be the DH.

  24. Jeffrey Gross said...

    This is a good comments thread discussion, keep the info coming.

    Perhaps i was a bit overly critical of the indians’ farm system, but I do not see any stars in their. I just see a few role player types. Now a team like the A’s is going to show what a roster full of “role player types” can do in 2011, but when your top 3 prospects project as 3.5 war players, i’m just underwhelmed.

  25. Brad Johnson said...

    I just realized today there are 3 teams with very good farm systems, two with decent ones, 20 with comparably mediocre ones, and 5 with terrible ones. The Indians are towards the upper portion of the mediocre pile. I tend to think they have a poor man’s version of the Phillies farm system, but the talent evaluation sites seem to see it the other way around.

  26. JR said...

    The farm’s definitely not elite or anything, but it is pretty deep.  Prospects can be so unpredictable; having depth like this is a double-edged sword, you insure yourself against failures at the price of upside.  They’ve gotten more aggressive in the draft lately, but short-term, from a lineup perspective, if they can add a couple 4 WAR players to a core with Choo, Santana, and possibly Sizemore, that’s not too bad.

    Pitching, again, is another story.  But they’ve got about 20 arms in the minor leagues that could potentially reach the bigs.  Of course, a lot will fall short or fail to stick once they arrive, but they only need to hit on a few, and you’ve got a team that can make some noise in the Central.

  27. Hayson Jeyward said...

    “Yeah, but #1 tribe prospect is like saying #3 white sox prospect. The tribe’s farm is pretty thin at this point. “

    This comment matches this article in its sloppiness. The #1 Tribe prospect, according to Baseball Prospectus, is Jason Kipnis at #28. Chisenhall ranked #40, and Pomeranz at #43.

    The White Sox’ best prospects were Sale (#19) and Eduaro Escobar (#91).

    Poorly written snark that belongs on an ESPN message board more than it does a well respected site like this.

  28. Brad Johnson said...

    Replace White Sox with Royals and #3 with #5 and we’ll have a better analogy. I’m not sure why Jeff used Chicago’s piss poor farm system for his comment…

  29. Mikey B. said...


    You keep throwing out big names to fix the Indians in FA or trade. I got a big kick out of that considering the Dolan-era of Indians ownership seems pretty indifferent in terms of improving the roster.

    Hell, it was only recently that they’ve finally realized they need to start putting $ into the draft! Sometimes, I really hate being an Indians fan…

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