The Indians started fast again in 2012, going 27-23 in their first 50 games, and were leading the AL Central as late as June 23rd. After that, the wheels came off. The then-first-place Indians finished the season with a 31-61 record, falling a distant 20 games behind the Tigers by season's end. Wholesale changes to both the roster and coaching staff have Indians fans optimistic about their chances in 2013, but do they have the pitching to compete in the AL Central?
Manager: Terry Francona (1st year)
2012 record: 68-94, 4th in AL Central
SB Nation blog: Let's Go Tribe
First series vs. Tigers: May 10-12 @ Comerica Park
Only four of the players projected to be in the Indians starting lineup on Opening Day started last season's first game, while a fifth was still in the minors. One of the other four, Michael Bourn, is the team's new center fielder and leadoff hitter. Bourn strikes out more often than you would like from a typical leadoff hitter, but his .348 on-base percentage and 42 steals from last season are both signs that he's still capable of getting the job done.
I have been critical of Asdrubal Cabrera and his defensive shortcomings in the past, but he's an above average switch-hitter who will slug 15-20 home runs out of the second spot in the lineup, something the Tigers could have used badly in 2012. He is dealing with a back issue right now, and is listed as day-to-day. Second baseman Jason Kipnis, who swapped lineup spots with Cabrera during the second half of last season, will likely bat third to start the year. He struggled a bit last year, hitting .257/.335/.379 in 672 plate appearances, but still hit 14 home runs and stole 31 bases.
The middle of the lineup won't strike fear into the hearts of pitchers like other teams throughout the league, but Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, and Carlos Santana will have their fair share of big innings throughout the season. Swisher has hit at least 21 home runs in every full season of his big league career. Reynolds might strike out 200 times, but he's a good bet to hit over 30 home runs with 85-100 RBI if he gets consistent at-bats. Santana's power numbers regressed a bit after an excellent 2011 season, but at age 26, he is just starting to enter his prime. Lou Marson is a capable backup catcher, but won't wow anyone with his bat.
Both Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs are natural center fielders, but will be relegated to the corner outfield slots on most days with Bourn in center. Stubbs hasn't been particularly impressive at the plate, but Brantley hit .288/.348/.402 in 149 games in 2012. Brantley has good speed, swiping 35 bases over the past three years. Stubbs, on the other hand, can fly. He has 110 career steals in just over three seasons with the Cincinnati Reds. He might get caught more often this season with known gunslingers Alex Avila and Salvador Perez behind the plate, but expect 30+ steals again from Stubbs.
Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall rounds out the infield after an impressive spring. In 21 games, he has hit .426/.484/.722 with four home runs. Last year, Chisenhall played in just 43 games for the Indians, but hit an impressive .268/.311/.430 as a 23 year old. Chisenhall was ranked among Baseball America's top 25 prospects prior to the 2011 season and should improve with a couple of big league stints under his belt.
Justin Masterson is 28 years old this season, and the Indians are running out of chances to see if he can consistently be the pitcher that won 12 games with a 3.21 ERA/3.28 FIP/3.62 xFIP in 2011. Given the drastic drop in walk rate and home run rate that season compared to his career numbers, I'm not betting on it. He has been a bit unlucky in other years, as his 3.92 career FIP suggests, but isn't the front-line starter that the Indians are counting on him to be.
It's rare to see both sides lose in a blockbuster trade such as the one that brought Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland, but that's exactly what is happening at the moment. Drew Pomeranz and Alex White haven't developed into anything more than fringe starters for bad teams -- Pomeranz was optioned by the Colorado Rockies earlier this week while White is battling for a spot with the Houston Astros -- but Jimenez hasn't even come close to the guy that the Indians traded for in 2011. Since moving to the AL, Jimenez is 13-21 with a 5.32 ERA in 42 starts. He lost a league-high 17 games last season, but still somehow beat the Tigers twice with a 3.86 ERA in six starts.
Zach McAllister was Cleveland's most effective starter last season, leading the rotation with a 4.24 ERA and 1.364 WHIP. He probably won't improve much over those numbers throughout the course of his career, but his 40% fly ball rate from 2012 will play very well with arguably the best defensive outfield in baseball behind him. The only problem will be limiting the number of fly balls that soar out of their reach; McAllister allowed 1.36 homers per nine innings last year.
Brett Myers has successfully transitioned from the bullpen to the rotation once already in his career, so why not try it again? Myers had a 3.31 ERA in 65 1/3 innings split between the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox last season, saving 19 games (all for the Astros) in the process. He may not be too impressive -- the last time he went from the bullpen to the rotation, his ERA was 4.55 the following season -- but he will eat plenty of innings, helping save an Indians bullpen that logged 528 1/3 innings last year.
Left-hander Scott Kazmir, on the comeback trail after pitching a grand total of 1 2/3 innings in the past two seasons, has made the Indians' rotation over right-hander Carlos Carrasco. Carrasco will remain with the big league club to serve a six-game suspension he incurred at the end of last season before he is optioned to the minors. Kazmir earned his spot on the back of a 3.46 ERA in 13 innings this spring. I don't think we will see the same Kazmir that won 45 games with a 3.51 ERA in a three-year stretch from 2006 to 2008 with the Tampa Bay Rays on a consistent basis, but he may show flashes of his past brilliance on any given day.
A day at the races
I think it's safe to say that this is the fastest lineup Terry Francona has ever worked with, and he has promised that the team is going to use that speed to their advantage. However, will Tito let them run as much as they should? Of the seven players that have stolen at least 20 bases on a Francona-managed team, only Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Doug Glanville achieved his career-high in stolen bases while playing for Francona. The other four -- Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon, Julio Lugo, and Coco Crisp -- swiped more bags under other managers, and it's not really that close. These Indians -- namely Bourn, Kipnis, Brantley, and Stubbs -- have speed to burn, but will they be able to use it? Only time will tell, but I don't see Bourn coming anywhere close to 60+ steals this year.
Spring Training storylines
A pair of reclamation projects dominated national headlines from Indians camp this season. Both Daisuke Matsuzaka and Scott Kazmir came to Spring Training hoping to win a job in the rotation, but only Kazmir succeeded. Dice-K will begin the season in Triple-A Columbus after allowing four runs in 13 1/3 innings this spring. The key number? One, as in he allowed just one walk all spring after struggling with his command throughout his career in Boston.
Player to watch: Ryan Raburn
Yeah, I went there. Raburn had similar monster numbers during Spring Training last season, then started out the regular season hitting .148/.220/.185 with zero home runs and just one RBI through April. He ended up playing in just 66 games, hitting .171/.226/.254 with one home run. His .224 BABIP indicates that he was unlucky, but sometimes guys have low BABIP statistics from just being bad at hitting. Raburn was closer to the "bad" end of the spectrum in 2012. His career splits speak for themselves. There's no "if he can carry over the spring numbers" at this point.
That said, Raburn could be one of the most underrated signings of the offseason if he can be the same second half offensive force he was during his time in Detroit. He is a career .295/.346/.488 hitter after the All-Star Break, numbers that are comparable to Adrian Beltre's career stats. Even a full season of Raburn's overall numbers from 2009 to 2011 -- .274/.329/.473 with 45 home runs in 1119 plate appearances -- would be a reasonable replacement for Shin-Soo Choo's 2012 production.
If I were to grade the Indians' offseason, their front office would get a solid A-. They made a couple of big moves to solidify the lineup without sacrificing the future -- that protected first-round pick came in big, huh? -- while making a couple of low-key moves that should help the team improve upon last year's dismal finish. However, there were opportunities to improve the rotation, and the Indians couldn't take advantage. The rest of the team might be solid, but there's a reason why they say pitching wins championships. Unless we see major improvements from the current starting staff, the Indians will struggle to compete in 2013.