Who plays first?
Matt LaPorta continues to disappoint at first base. While his defense is acceptable, the right-hander contributes little offensively. Carlos Santana’s value, at this stage in his career, is as a catcher. Rotating him with LaPorta is not a viable option in 2012.
The Indians’ frustration with LaPorta shows, as Casey Kotchman was signed and Russ Canzler was traded for. LaPorta probably starts down in Triple-A Columbus while Canzler and Shelley Duncan compete for a utility spot. Kotchman, despite being a seventh left-hander in the projected lineup, handles first base. Santana will still get time at first, but only for a limited number of games. Defensively, Kotchman is going to be an upgrade at first.
Will the Indians’ infield be able to handle the pitching staff?
The Indians’ infield, aside from Kotchman, is projected to be Lonnie Chisenhall at third base, Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop, and Jason Kipnis at second base. Cabrera’s range decreased some in 2011 and Chisenall and Kipnis were converted to their current positions.
These three infielders’ main contributions will be offensive. This could hurt starting pitchers Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin and Derek Lowe. All three pitchers have low strikeout rates, relying on their defense to turn batted balls into outs.
The Indians are relying on their infield providing enough offensive support to overcome the defensive lapses. Jason Donald and Jack Hannahan can provide defensive support in close games. Of course, if Hannahan can improve his bat, he could take the starting job at third.
Who replaces Carmona, I mean Hernandez, in the rotation?
Injury has hampered the Indians’ depth in starting pitching, with Hector Rondon and Carlos Carrasco injuring their elbows in 2011 and out for the 2012 season. Tomlin was also shut down at the end of last year due to elbow issues. The loss of Hernandez hurts, but the addition of Derek Lowe and Kevin Slowey gives the Indians some opportunities.
The former Fausto Carmona, who turns out to be Roberto Hernandez Heredia, is dealing with false-identity legal problems in the Dominican Republic. His performance has been that of a back-of-the-rotation innings-eater. His loss is simply a depth issue.
Tomlin looks to recover and take a rotation spot with Ubaldo Jimenez, Masterson and Lowe. This leaves Slowey, Jeanmar Gomez David Huff Scott Barnes and Zach McAllister fighting for the fifth spot. Slowey would be the front runner out of the gate, but the Indians have enough arms to fill in the sport.
Will the Bullpen Mafia be Danny Greene’d* this year?
Bullpens tend to have the same level of stability as Francium but for the past season and a half the Indians Bullpen Mafia has been pretty good. Chad Durbin is gone and Dan Wheeler looks to replace him as the veteran in the bullpen. Lefty Nick Hagadone could push Frank Herrman out of the bullpen, as the Indians infield suggests losing relievers who can’t miss bats.
If the Indians look to trade for a right-handed bat, they may use bits of the bullpen to make the trade. Hagadone makes lefties Sipp and Perez expandable. Perez, although an All-Star last year, has seen his strikeout rate drop every year he has been in Cleveland. Pestano could easily move into the closer role if Perez is injured or the Indians can find a team that looks more at save numbers than his other numbers.
Can the Tribe be offensive?
Last year, the Indians used the disabled list for the following:
Four starting pitchers (Carrasco, Tomlin, Talbot, Carmona)
Their entire starting outfield (Mike Brantledy, Sin-Soo Choo, Grady Sizemore)
DH (Travis Hafner)
First, second and third basemen (LaPorta, Kinipis, Hannahan)
In all, they used the disabled list 22 times.
Sizemore is already hurt and will miss Opening Day 2012. Hafner has difficulty playing an entire season, but when healthy does perform. Both players will continue to be question marks throughout the year and would consider any decent performance a plus.
If the Indians can keep the core of Brantley, Choo, Kipnis and Santana healthy, the team should be able to improve on the ninth best offense in the American League. Backups Donald, Lou Marson, Duncan, and Hannahan are not long-term offensive options but can contribute in short bursts if needed.
Head trainer Lonnie Soloff and his staff are going to be the most import cog in the Indians’ offense.
BONUS: Clubhouse brotherhood
I think one thing that is not a question this year is that the Indians, with little change from last year, will not have to worry about in-fighting. I think the question of how the team gets along is answered. While it may not help statistically, I think the clubhouse does have enough trust among the players to allow Manny Acta to try different things without much push back from his players. Like, say, look at the Tigers’ infield and bunt on almost every at-bat?