Even though Major League Baseball has tried to increase the excitement and hope of franchises by adding another playoff team to each league, the surest way for teams to make the post season is to win their divisions. Winning their division should be the foremost goal for each and every team each season. Kansas City Royals‘ fans should always have at least a bit of knowledge about each of the Royals’ division rivals in the American League Central. This is the third of four parts that will take a small look into how each of the other AL Central teams shape up for the 2013 season. The first installment, covering the Minnesota Twins is here, and the second on the Chicago White Sox is here.
The Cleveland Indians were the most active team during the Hot Stove season in the division. They made trades and signed free agents, adding to both their offensive line-up and their pitching. They added speed and power. Offensively, they should be only behind the the Detroit Tigers within the AL Central. There aren’t any super stars in this line up but every position in the batting order can offer something positive. If their pitching can produce positive results, the Indians could end up the primary challenger to the Tigers.
Catcher: Carlos Santana is a prime breakout candidate in 2013. Some would argue that he already had his breakout season in 2011. He produced some impressive power numbers, especially in 2011 but he just hasn’t quite put everything together. In 2012, his batting average jumped from .239 in 2011 to .252 in 2012 but his SLG dropped from .457 to .420. His home runs dropped but so did his strikeouts. What is cursing Santana’s averages, and it not a “Black Magic Woman”, is his awful career Batting Average on Ball in Play. His career BABIP of .271 is a well below league average, which can be directly traced to a poor career Line Drive Percentage of 17%. His Base on Balls Percentage is elite, and his contact rate is improving. Santana turns 27 this spring and with his experience and there are plenty of signs this could be the year he puts it all together to become a top level hitter. He is primarily a catcher but look for him to play some first and to get plenty of games at DH to save some wear and tear on his body. Veteran Lou Marson serves as back-up.
First Base: The Indians will probably use a variety of players at first. Santana will certainly get some time there. Mark Reynolds, a big power, no average guy, will play plenty, and veteran Nick Swisher will get his share of games there, as well. These three players will most likely be the designated hitters in addition to their other positions. Swisher is a very solid hitter who has more than 20 home runs in each of the last 8 years, and in those years, has never driven in fewer than 69 runs. In fact he has 80 or more RBI in 5 of those years. He strikes out quite a bit but he also draws plenty of walks. Reynolds has prodigious power but struggles to make contact. He averaged 38 home runs from 2009-2011 but only hit 23 in 2012. He hasn’t seen the north side of .222 since 2009 and his strikeout numbers are historic, averaging 199 whiffs a season over the last five. The Indians are willing to live with his strikeouts if he can produce power when he does make contact.
Second Base: Jason Kipnis‘ 2012 season was a bit disappointing when compared to the small sample size his produced in 2011. In comparison with his career minor league statistics though, 2012 was probably a better example of his true skills than that small sample in 2011. The Indians could expect a little more power from Kipnis this season but not a big uptick. He is just turning 26 so it is not unreasonable to think his power could increase over the next few years. Even without it, Kipnis should be a top half AL second baseman.
Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera has developed into one of the most reliable and productive shortstops in the majors over the last two seasons. His power dropped just a little last year but not significantly. This slick fielder has to be considered one of the top AL shortstops and he just turned 27. He is another Indian hitter who could be on the brink of stardom. If anything, the Indians would probably like to see him walk a little more and make a little more contact but there was improvements in both of those areas in 2012, at the cost of some power. If Cabrera can regain some of that lost power and retain some of the small gains he made in other areas – watch out! This guy could the heir apparent to Derek Jeter as the best all around short stop in the league. He may be already.
Third Base: It appears the Indians are finally ready to make Lonnie Chisenhall their everyday third base man. He has battled injuries and uneven performances over the past two seasons and has not established himself as the starter. He displayed more power, although inconsistently, and a good batting eye in the minors that has not yet translated in the majors. Chisenhall is only 24 and doesn’t have the skill set to be a star but he does look to have the ability to be an above average major league third baseman for years to come. He needs to take the next step in 2013. If Chisenhall falters, the Indians signed former Royal Mike Aviles as his back up. The Indians would like to keep Aviles free to serve as the primary utility player.
Left Field: Despite a laceration on his forearm that required 15 stitches and will cause him to miss 10 days of Spring Training action, Michael Brantley is still slated to start in left field on Opening Day. Brantley is yet another young player (turns 26 in May) still with room and time to develop. He has been steadily improving over the last couple of years, earning a 4.5 WAR in 2011 and 2012. His slash line from 2012 was a solid .288/.348/.402/.750. He also improved his K/BB ratio to an excellent 53K/56BB. He has displayed good doubles power , pounding out 37 in 2012 but his home run power isn’t yet fully realized. His speed is decent but not more than average.
Center Field: In a key move, the Indians signed Michael Bourn in February. The signing did for Cleveland what it could have done for the Royals, and that is to solidify the team defensively and lengthen and strengthen the batting order. Bourn makes things happen and helps produce runs by getting on base and pressuring pitchers on the base paths. His signing may have the piece that push the Indians past the Royals as the key challengers to the Tigers and would have done the same for the Royals if they would have inked him.
Right Field: Nick Swisher will share time in right with Drew Stubbs, who came to Cleveland from the Reds in the Shin-Soo Choo deal. Stubbs has terrific speed but fancies himself a power hitter. He strike outs entirely too much, averaging 180 whiffs year over the past three years. His speed won’t be much of an asset if can’t get on base more regularly. Swisher won’t cover as much ground defensively but is solid with the glove and much more dependable at the plate. Stubbs will get plenty of time in right with Swisher playing first and DH but if he struggles, the Indians have a viable replacement for him.
Bench: Marson and Aviles more than likely have two of these spots wrapped up. Cleveland has a plethora of flexibility among their front line players so they have options for their bench. Ryan Raburn has to be a favorite to earn a spot and he fits in nicely with his versatility as he can play some infield and outfield. The Indians could go with outfielder Ezequiel Carrera or veteran Jason Giambi for the final bench spot. As loaded as Cleveland is at the DH/1B positions, it will be difficult for Giambi to continue his long career with the Indians this season and Carrera is out of options, and may have a leg up on that last roster spot. Former prospect Matt LaPorta is also a possibility.
Starting Rotation: If Cleveland fails to make noise in the AL Central, it will be because of their starting rotation. Justin Masterson may be the default ace and that could go very wrong for the Indians. Lefties clobber him to the tune of a .292 average over his career. He will need to return to his 2011 form to be the leader of this staff. Ubaldo Jimenez is a shell of his former self and it doesn’t appear he can ever recover enough repeat his fine 2010 season. Veteran Brett Myers pitched out of the pen in 2012 for Houston and the White Sox but will be as starter for Cleveland. He will most likely be their most dependable starter and may get the nod for Opening Day. He is a steady performer who won’t dominate over any length of time. The last two spots are up for grabs and there are several candidates. Carlos Carrasco is returning from Tommy John surgery, and once showed promise. Young Zach McAllister produced a nice 2012 campaign. The Indians signed walk machine Daisuke Matsuzaka and traded for phenom Trevor Bauer. Based on last year’s performance, McAllister probably has the fourth spot but the fifth spot could go to any of these other pitchers.
Bullpen: The Indians have a terrific one-two punch at the back end of their pen in Vinnie Pestano as the set up man, and locally vilified (in Kansas City) Chris Perez as closer. Joe Smith, Matt Capps, Rich Hill, and Matt Albers can all offer positive contributions in relief. This could shape up as a really solid bullpen but they need the starters to carry their share of the work load.
Summary: The Indians offense is deep, versatile, young, and still developing. There is a lot of talent here and much of it is entering the prime years for production. This offense could be a major headache for opposing pitching staffs as it offers a great mix of speed and power. Many of the Indians tend to strike out at a high rate so this could kill a lot of rallies over the course of a season. The starting pitchers are the biggest question marks. The Indians may be forced to rely too heavily on their young offense if these starters falter. The bullpen looks solid if the Indians can get to it with a lead. If Cleveland’s pitching can suppress opponents, the offense if good enough to win plenty of ball games. If the pitching holds up, the Indians may very well be the the biggest threat to the Detroit Tigers.