Five questions: Cleveland Indiansby Jeffrey Gross
March 22, 2011
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...
Jeffrey Gross is an attorney (and die-hard Cubs fan) who currently resides in the suburbs of Chicago. In addition to writing for The Hardball Times, he also writes about craft beer as part of a side project blog titled "saBEERmetrics." He previously worked for The Daily Illini and Northern Star newspapers as a film critic and sportswriter (respectively). You can reach him by email at saBEERmetrics AT gmail DOT com.