MLB Preview: Cleveland Indians

With baseball season fast approaching, it is time for TheWaiverWire’s inaugural Baseball Preview package. We will look at every division in baseball, starting in the American League and moving from East to West by division. Also, we each team by who will finish last to first. So, the first team you read about from each division is in the basement, and the last is who we determine to win the division.

American League Central

Second Place – Cleveland Indians

Third Place – Minnesota Twins (read preview here)

Fourth Place – Chicago White Sox (read preview here)

Fifth Place – Kansas City Royals (read preview here)

Starting Line-Up –

Catcher: Carlos Santana (25) – 155 games, .239/.351/.457 27HR 79RBI

First Base: Casey Kotchman (29) – 146 games, .306/.378/.422 10HR 48RBI (with Tampa Bay Rays)

Second Base: Jason Kipnis (25) – 36 games, .272/.333/.507 7HR 19RBI

Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera (26) – 151 games, .273/.332/.460 25HR 92RBI – 2011 All-Star, Silver Slugger Winner, 20th in AL MVP Voting

Third Base: Lonnie Chisenhall (23) – 66 games, .255/.284/.415 7HR 22RBI

Left Field: Michael Brantley (24) – 114 games, .266/.318/.384 7HR 46RBI

Center Field: Grady Sizemore (29) – 71 games, .224/.285/.422 10HR 32RBI

Right Field: Shin-Soo Choo (29) – 85 games, .259/.344/.390 8HR 36RBI

Designated Hitter: Travis Hafner (34) – 94 games, .280/.361/.449 13HR 57RBI

The Good News…

I don’t know if this is good news or bad news, so I’ll just mention it here. Going into this season, the Indians will open with two switch-hitters (Santana and Cabrera) and seven left-handed batters. I can honestly say I don’t remember ever seeing a line-up this lefty heavy. Someone let me know when the last time something like this happened, I’m dying to know.

Ok, anyway. There is plenty of reason to be excited about this young Indians line-up. I’ll start with the veterans. With a fully healthy Shin-Soo Choo in the middle of the line-up, Cleveland will be much better than the 80-win team that took the field last year. The two years before last, Choo had hit 20+ homers and hit over-.300. There is no reason to believe he won’t return to those averages next season. I’d buy stock in the Soo-Choo train if given the opportunity.

Asdrubul Cabrera is an emerging star in Cleveland

Anyone thinking Asdrubal Cabrera’s numbers from last season aren’t real need to better understand the player that Cabrera is. Sure, the home run numbers jumped out at people, having hit 19 career home runs before bashing 25 last year, but the gap-to-gap power has always been there. In 2009, Cabrera hit 42 doubles while slugging .438. Last year, on top of the 25 home runs, Cabrera added 32 doubles and slugged .460. The jump in slugging percentage isn’t so high where you should look back and say “oh, that was a fluke”. He may find a median and hit around 15 home runs a season, but the gap power is there, which will allow him to drive in runs near the top of the line-up. He has good plate discipline, 15+ stolen base potential and a Gold Glove-caliber defense at short. He’s a good building block for any Major league team. That, and FOX once memorably said that he was the first player in post-season history to be named “Asdrubal”. So there’s that!

Would I like to see Carlos Santana raise his batting average from .239? Absolutely. And I think it’ll happen this year. Even if he can get raise it to .250, his value would double. He has real power as evident by his 27 home runs last year and has a real patient approach that suits well from any spot in the line-up. The down side to Santana is he may be best served moved out of a catching role for the Indians. He’s already suffered a season-ending knee injury two years ago in a collision at home plate, and the team has started using him more at first and designated hitter. Like Victor Martinez before him, it seems his days are numbered as an everyday catcher.

Whatever the Indians can get out of Travis Hafner at this point in his career is a positive. He has been injury prone for the better part of the last four seasons. But, when he is in the line-up, he mashes. He won’t hit the 40+ home runs like he did in his prime, but he will put 25-30 out of the park over a full, healthy season. Of course, the odds of him playing a full, healthy season seem to be slim. Either way, when he is penciled into the line-up, opposing pitchers need to take warning: Cronk can take you deep.

Its time for Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall to play at the Major League level. Both former top prospects, these two infielders have veterans around them in Casey Kotchman and Cabrera that can show them the ropes, but their bats are needed in this line-up if they want to catch the Detroit Tigers. Kipnis profiles as a second baseman that can fit the mold of a Chase Utley-type player. He will hit for surprisingly strong power numbers from the position and play a decent defense. As for Chisenhall, he didn’t impress nearly as much as Kipnis did in his first taste of the bigs, but the tools are there. If these two players can come through and start living up to their potential, the depth in this Indians line-up becomes staggering.

The Bad News…

Grady's Ladies are most certainly not pleased with his rash of injuries

I’m starting to think Grady Sizemore will never be healthy again. In an outfield drill before the first full, official workout at Indians Spring Training, Sizemore came up lame with a strained back. Reports are the Indians former center fielder of the future will likely miss Opening Day, if not more. I mean, here we are, three years removed from Sizemore’s last relevant season, and he’s already injured before an official workout has even taken place. The Indians had declined the contract option on Sizemore after last season and re-signed him to a much more manageable one year deal laced with incentives. It’s looking more and more like a smart move on the Indians part, and luckily, this time around, the team isn’t relying on his production for their success.

And while I mentioned Chisenhall and Kipnis as part of the good news, they, along with Michael Brantley, certainly need to step up in order to take this team to the next level. That’s a lot of pressure for young bats. While I do believe they can come through and have above average Major League careers, this is the season they need to prove all the doubters wrong and establish themselves as contributors. 

Also, while Carlos Santana’s bat is a positive, his growing lack of a defensive position needs to be of some concern. Casey Kotchman, while a nice bat, is no sure thing to play first base every day. He provides better defense than Santana ever will near the bag, but first might be the home for the young hitting star for the prolonged future. I’m sure the Indians will give Santana another year to improve his defense behind the plate, but the injuries have to be a concern for this organization. Especially considering what they are still going through with Grady Sizemore.

Starting Rotation -

Ace: Ubaldo Jiminez, RHP (28) – 32 starts, 10-13, 4.68ERA, 188.1 IP, 180 Ks, 78 walks, 1.40 WHIP (split with Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians)

#2: Fausto Carmona Roberto Hernandez Heredia, RHP (30…ish) – 32 starts, 7-15, 5.25ERA, 188.2 IP, 109 Ks, 60 walks, 1.41 WHIP

#3: Justin Masterson, RHP (27) – 33 starts, 12-10, 3.21ERA, 216.0 IP, 158 Ks, 65 walks, 1.28 WHIP

#4: Josh Tomlin, RHP (27) – 26 starts, 12-7, 4.25ERA, 165.1 IP, 89 Ks, 21 walks, 1.08 WHIP

#5: Derek Lowe, RHP (38) – 34 starts, 9-17, 5.05ERA, 187.o IP, 137 Ks, 70 walks, 1.51 WHIP (with Atlanta Braves)

The Good News…

Masterson is turning the corner in his promising career

The Indians have been waiting for Justin Masterson to make the jump in his career since acquiring him from the Boston Red Sox as part of the Victor Martinez trade. In 2011, it appears Masterson has turned the corner. He proved to be a capable middle-of-the-rotation arm, with the potential to be more. If Masterson could improve his command just slightly and lower his WHIP, he could improve on his strong showing from last year.

Josh Tomlin came out of the gates very strong for the Indians before fading down the stretch in his first full season of Major League action. Though he may never have high strikeout totals, his control is his bread and butter. He can keep hitters off-balance enough by mixing in his secondary pitches, and he will continue to pound the strike zone. I’d expect Tomlin, with a full season under his belt now, to improve on his encouraging 2011 season and further establish himself as a pitcher.

The Bad News…

I may be one of the few, but I really am not a fan of Ubaldo Jiminez. For me, there are serious red flags for a team like the Colorado Rockies, historically pitching starved in the high altitudes of Coors Field, to be willing to trade a young, powerful arm like Jiminez. And the Rockies aren’t your traditional “small market” team. They’ve always spent money, most recently with franchise shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. So, if it wasn’t about money, nor the team going into fire sale mode, why would someone trade an arm like Jiminez?

I know I'm in the minority, but I'm not a fan of Ubaldo Jiminez

In 2010, Jiminez busted the gates open, surged to a 15-0 mark, had an ERA under 1 for half the season, and it seemed plausible that he could win 25+ games. Then, after the All-Star break, the wheels fell off. In fact, since starting 15-0 in ’10, Jiminez has gone 14-21. In his 11 starts with the Indians last season, his ERA bloated to 5.10. His walk and strike out rates have remained constant throughout his career, so what is it? For me, I think it was a great play by the Rockies to sell Jiminez high. They maximized the potential in trade for him the best they could. For the Indians, I think they’re going to be left disappointed. I think the shine is fading fast from Jiminez’s star, and they’re not going to be pleased with this trade down the road.

Who is Fausto Carmona? I don’t mean what kind of pitcher is he. We know what kind of pitcher he is and what he could mean near the top of this Indians rotation. I literally mean, who the hell is this guy? Is he even going to be able to pitch in a Cleveland uniform this year? In the off-season, we learned that Carmona is actually Roberto Hernandez Heredia, and he is at least two years older than the Indians initially thought he was. He hasn’t been cleared to continue his Major League career, though indications are the Indians front office is optimistic he will be able to pitch this season. Either way, this changes a lot. I mean, yes, he needs to rebound from a rough 2011 season and return to form. But, how much of a distraction will this situation become? Will he be mentally able to continue to pitch? There are so many variables into whether this guy will be able to be a piece moving forward. That, and how old is he really? So many questions left unanswered right now.

The Indians tried to upgrade the back end of their rotation by taking on the last year of Derek Lowe’s contract from the Braves. Unfortunately for them, I think Lowe’s career is, for lack of a better word, done. He lost a Major League-high 17 games last season, and much of that wasn’t due to poor run support. His sinker doesn’t have the same gas anymore, and nor would you expect it to at age 38. A lot of innings have been thrown with that right arm, and there is nothing wrong with that. He was a solid Major League pitch and had a prosperous career. But, he’s working off borrowed time. He probably should’ve retired before the 2011 season. Instead, he’ll continue to play. I’m not sure what the expectations are for him this season. Maybe the front office brought him in to be a fifth-starter/innings eater/veteran pitching coach. I just don’t see how he’s going to enjoy any success this season, especially moving back to the American League, which is much more taxing on a pitcher’s ERA.

Bench – 

C Lou Marson (25) – 79 games, .230/.300/.296 1HR 19RBI

IF Jason Donald (27) – 39 games, .318/.364/.402 1HR 8RBI

IF/DH Matt LaPorta (27) – 107 games, .247/.299/.412 11HR 53RBI

OF Shelly Duncan (32) – 76 games, .260/.324/.484 11HR 47RBI

OF Ezequiel Carrera (24) – 68 games, .243/.301/.312 0HR 14RBI

The Skinny…

Carerra provides a dynamic that no other player can for this team

With Grady Sizemore expected to miss time yet again this season, Ezequiel Carrera will likely get the call to replace him. At this point in his career, Carrera profiles as a young Endy Chavez. He plays a superior outfield defense, which will keep him in the Major Leagues for a long time. The key to Carrera’s offensive success will come down to how consistently he will make contact. He can fly once on the base paths, and while he will never hit many, if any, home runs, he can certainly put the ball in the gap and run for days. The Indians will miss the power Sizemore can provide in the middle of the line-up, but Carrera offers a new dynamic you can plug in either at the top or bottom of the order.

As for the rest of the bench, the main focus will be on two former top prospects that organization acquired in trade. Matt LaPorta was the prize of the C.C. Sabathia trade to Milwaukee. However, he has not been able to make enough contact to stay in the everyday line-up. He doesn’t walk nearly enough or play a strong enough first base to make up for his lack of plate discipline. He still has raw power, enabling him to get into a pitch here and there, but he hasn’t been able to put the whole package together, which was mostly the reason for the Indians signing Casey Kotchman in the off-season to provide reliability at first base. 

Jason Donald was the top middle infield prospect the Indians got from the Philadelphia Phillies in the Cliff Lee trade. Unlike LaPorta, Donald has been able to preform reasonably well at the Major League level. However, unfortunately for him, he’s been lapped by Kipnis at second base and Chisenhall at third base. I’m sure there is a Major League team that could use Donald as their everyday second baseman, and I’m sure the Indians would be willing to move Donald for the right price. For now, the Indians love the versatility Donald provides off the bench. That, and Donald hits right-handed. One of the few righties available to Manny Acta. I’m sure he’d prefer the team to hold onto him.

Bullpen – 

Closer: Chris Perez, RHP (26) – 64 games, 59.2 IP, 3.32 ERA, 36 saves, 5.9 K/9, 26 walks, 1.21 WHIP – 2011 All-Star

8th Inning Reliever: Rafael Perez, LHP (29) – 71 games, 63.0 IP, 3.00ERA, 4.7 K/9, 19 walks, 1.24 WHIP

Middle Reliever: Joe Smith, RHP (28) – 71 games, 67.0 IP, 2.01ERA, 6.0 K/9, 21 walks, 1.09 WHIP

Middle Reliever: Tony Sipp, LHP (28) – 69 games, 62.1 IP, 3.03ERA, 8.2 K/9, 24 walks, 1.11 WHIP

Middle Reliever: Vinnie Pestano, RHP (27) – 67 games, 62.0 IP, 2.32ERA, 12.2 K/9, 24 walks, 1.05 WHIP

The Skinny…

Closer Chris Perez followed up his breakout 2010 campaign with an All-Star selection and 36 saves. He won’t blow anybody away, but, unlike someone like Matt Capps, he does have the ability to mix up his pitches well enough to induce weak contact and keep hitters off base. If you aren’t going to post high strikeout totals, then you need to keep hitters out on their front foot. That’s what Perez does with ease, and should continue to prove he’s a legitimate end of the game option.

With that being said, Chris Perez has sustained an injury early in the Spring Training process, and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks while he heals. Though he hasn’t been completely ruled out for Opening Day just yet, there is growing doubt that he will be ready. With Perez out, the Indians are going to have to turn elsewhere at the end of games.

I won't lie, that just looks painful.

As a huge Mets fan, I can say without hesitation that I miss Joe Smith. He’s a fun guy to watch on the mound, and he posted a very strong season last year. Smith was in danger of falling into the no-man’s-land of middle relievers, shuttling back and forth from AAA to the Majors for the rest of his career. However, he went back to what worked in New York when he burst onto the scene out of the draft in 2007. He has a funky, side-arm delivery that will always keep hitters guessing, and he looks as though he’s going to be a piece of successful bullpens for the rest of his career.The Mets should’ve never traded him.

The rest of the Indians bullpen is promising. They have two lefties that can get hitters out and a hard-throwing righty with gaudy strikeout numbers. What more could you possibly want in the late innings? They have strong options and they’re deep. When you don’t have to worry about your bullpen heading into a season, a lot of your resources and focus can go to the other areas that need improvement. Not many teams can cross bullpen help off their checklists before the off-season even begins.

Top 10 Prospects (courtesy of MLB.com)…

#1: SS Francisco Lindor (18) – Expected 2012 Level – A-

The 8th overall pick in last year’s draft, Lindor didn’t sign until late in the process, resulting in a very limited number of games he was able to appear in last season. Either way, the reason Lindor was taken in the Top 10 of last year’s draft is because he can do everything you want a shortstop to do. He runs very well, plays a premium defense and has the ability to hit for a high average. At only 18, he will certainly be young for full season ball next year. Regardless, talent evaluators expect him to move through the lower level of the minors quickly, possibly earning a promotion to A+ ball by August.

#2: RHP Dillon Howard (19) – Expected 2012 Level – Short-Season Rookie Ball

Signability issues slid Howard from the first round to the second in the 2011 draft. Many people thought he was destined to go to college ball because of his high asking price. Regardless, the Indians took a chance on him and were able to lock down a commitment. But, the lengthy contract process held Howard out of seeing any Minor League action in 2011. Like most high school arms, he will have to start in a short-season league to keep his innings limited. However, Howard has the potential to blossom into a strong starter further down the road. 

#3: LHP Nick Hagadone (26) – Expected 2012 Level – MLB

A part of the Victor Martinez package the Indians received from the Boston Red Sox, Hagadone’s control issues have forced his development to continue out of the bullpen. However, once he was moved to the role, he began to blossom, making his Major League debut last season in a short audition at the end of the season. He provides Cleveland with yet another power arm out of the ‘pen and from the left side. He will compete for the final spot in the Major League bullpen, and may get it with a strong showing this spring.

#4: SS Tony Wolters (19) – Expected 2012 Level – A-

Wolters profiles as a strong number-2 type hitter. He can drive the ball to the gaps, but won’t ever put very many over the wall. He has a very patient approach at the plate and, while not possessing plus speed, he knows what to do once he gets on the paths. A broken bone in his hand limited him to short-season ball last year, but with a healthy season this year, he should advance alongside top prospect Lindor.

#5: LHP Scott Barnes (24) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA

Perhaps a late-season injury to his ACL was all that kept Barnes from making his Major League debut last season and preventing the Indians from trading for Derek Lowe. As of now, Lowe is all that stands between Barnes and a Major League call-up. Barnes strikes out better than a batter an inning and doesn’t walk many. His control has been his money maker in the Minors. Should there be an injury at the Major League level at any point this season, odds are it’ll be Barnes who gets the first call. And, with some success, he may never see the Minors again after that.

#6: SS Ronny Rodriguez (19) – Expected 2012 Level – A+

Rodriguez is a year ahead of both Lindor and Wolters in his development. He also provides more pop than either of the two, and plays a much better defensive shortstop than at least Wolters. He still has work to do on his offensive game, as he hit a rough .246 in his first season of full-season action, and drew only 13 walks. There is work to be done, but people think he has power potential and the glove to stick on a Major League roster at some point in his future.

#7: RHP Chen Lee (25) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA

The battle for that final spot in the Cleveland bullpen may come down to Lee and Hagadone. Whoever wins will likely spend the entire season in the Majors. Whoever loses will be the first call-up should someone struggle or get injured. Lee struck out 99 batters in only 71.1 IP between AA and AAA last year. Its only a matter of time until he breaks the big leagues and sticks for a long time as a successful middle reliever.

#8: RHP Austin Adams (25) – Expected 2012 Level – AAA

A converted middle infielder, 2011 was only Adams second season as a pitcher. He has a few things to work on, mainly his change-up, before he’s Major League ready. But, after performing well in AA last year, Adams will be given time in AAA this year to refine his game. Best case scenario, Adams can be a middle-to-back end of the rotation starter. Worst case, he can be another useful arm the Indians use at the end of games. Either way, the future for Adams looks rather bright.

#9: C Alex Monsalve (19) – Expected 2012 Level – A+

Monsalve made his full-season debut last season and performed well, but not spectacular. He has a lot of refining to do behind the plate, but profiles as a solid, above-average defensive catcher that can hit 10-15 home runs and around the .275-.280 mark. There will always be a spot on an Opening Day roster for a player with those tools. However, he’s a long way away, so for now, development is priority number one.

#10: RHP Felix Sterling (19) – Expected 2012 Level – A-

Right now, Sterling is all tools. As promising as he seems for the long run, there is so much he needs to refine in order to make it to the next level that its a little hard to get real excited about him right now. After only starting 9 games in low-A last year, he’ll likely get another half season at the level before being promoted.

Give it to me straight, Greg…

With so many things wrong in this division, the Indians actually enter 2012 feeling pretty good. The team certainly outperformed their expectations entering 2011, so now the pressure will be on to improve from last year. There is plenty to like in their everyday line-up, with Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera and the rookies give fans something to look forward to.

The starting rotation will determine how well this team plays. If Ubaldo Jiminez rights the ship, the team has a strong pitcher at the top of the rotation leading the way for Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin. If Ubaldo falters, then I think it becomes a little harder for the Indians to compete with the big dogs in Detroit. 

For now, considering the massive question marks in Minnesota, Chicago and Kansas City, I remain optimistic that Cleveland can finish second in this division. However, they are not ready yet to compete with Wild Card favorites like the Rays, Red Sox and Angels. They surprised everyone last year, and this year, they’ll need more surprises and more wins to show that last year was no fluke.

2012 Season Projection – 85-77, second place in American League Central, misses playoffs

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