Who can the Indians most rely on for a big hit?
The Indians were a very timely team last year and all of the players bought into Terry Francona’s style and unearthed the capacity of their talent. There are a lot of very good hitters on the Indians roster from Nick Swisher to David Murphy, but there needs to be that one guy in the lineup that the team can rely on for the big hit and that will lead the team throughout the season. There are really only two candidates for that spot — Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana. Both are young and play non-premium offensive positions at a premium level. Each have had their issues, but are All-Star performers.
Carlos Santana was a part of a great deal by the Indians in 2008 when the team was out of contention and the Dodgers thought that Casey Blake would be an answer at third base. Blake may have finished his career with the Dodgers and provided a bit of power and some stability at third for a bit, but the Indians have won that trade by a large margin. In nearly 500 games since 2010, only Joe Mauer and Buster Posey have a higher OPS+ than Carlos Santana’s 130. He is also very durable; since he became the starter full-time in 2011, he averages 151 games per year, a very impressive rate for a catcher.
He does not only play catcher also, as he has played first throughout his career and took grounders at third this offseason. The versatility of Santana is a very important thing for the Indians. Yan Gomes exhibited last year that he is a solid catcher and may get even more of an opportunity to catch this year and that might even make the case for Santana to be even better offensively. When you look at Santana’s statistics, that is true; as he has moved away from catcher, his statistics have become more impressive. Last year, he was 7th in the American League in OBP at .377 and has 20+ home run power. A hitter that does hit a lot of fly balls, Santana also has a very solid 13.3% HR/FB rate. Santana has always been a player on the precipice of breaking out and as Santana moves out of the catcher’s position, this may be the season where he moves from being a very good player to a serious MVP candidate. The lineup for the Indians could be very good for the Indians this year and Santana is a main reason.
Jason Kipnis has been a solid producer for the Indians since he was called up in July 2011. It is rare for a second baseman to have a slugging percentage in the .450s but that was what Kipnis acheived last year. When combined with his above average defense and 30 steal per year speed, there is not a question that he is the best player on the Indians. But is he a difference maker at the plate? The assortment of skills is great for the Indians and he gives a lot to the team in many different ways, but is he the player that is a difference maker at the plate. As analyzed with Santana, he is a force at the plate and a potential 30 home run hitter; Kipnis brings a different skill to the team. Kipnis is a more balanced hitter that generates more line drives and is statistically more clutch than Santana. He is a bit streaky though and does not hit for power like Santana; also, Kipnis will probably never be a .300 hitter. He is patient and does not strike out much which makes him very valuable.
Currently the Indians have Kipnis as the three hitter and that is a great spot for him. If Michael Bourn and Francisco Lindor — in the future — are on base in front of him, Kipnis may have an opportunity to be a 100 RBI guy even without the prototypical power. He is the most important hitter in the Indians lineup and may potentially be better than Santana.
When will the Indians get a front line starter?
The biggest question for the Indians is if they can win in the tough American League with a bunch of pretty good starters rather than a few elite starters. The easy answer is no. To look a bit deeper than that simple answer, you have to see if the number one starter for the Indians, Justin Masterson, really is worthy of being an “ace”.
Justin Masterson was a young, sturdy swingman for the Red Sox in the 2008 season and the beginning of the 2009 season before he was a part of the package that lured Victor Martinez to Boston. Since then, Masterson has become a 200 inning a year pitcher with a heavy, ground ball inducing fastball. On a team with a couple solid and stable pitchers, Justin Masterson would be a great innings eater in the middle of the rotation. Unfortunately for the Indians, he is the staff ace. Last year’s team may have had the right idea with having a couple middle rotation type guys added with Masterson in Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez to make a pretty good rotation, but neither of those players will be with the team in 2014.
Instead, he will be joined in the rotation with Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister, and Carlos Carrasco. There is a ton of upside there, but none of those pitchers have exhibited over any long stretch of time that that they are viable options for a playoff team. So the fate of the Indians lays in the hands of Justin Masterson to lead the rotation. Masterson was quite good last year before he got hurt, leading the American League in shutouts and accumulating more than a strikeout an inning. He was on the way to becoming a good pitcher and might still be. The only real glaring issue there is with Masterson is that the strikeout rate of 2013 is more similar to his numbers from when he was in the bullpen than when he was a starter in the past. Especially considering that the Indians just gave him $9.7 million in arbitration, it seems that the Indians were paying for the Masterson that they saw last year.
The better Masterson and the less volitile Masterson is one that has his strikeout rate near 7, works on getting his walks down, and induces ground balls. The infield defense for the Indians is good enough to turn the ground balls that Masterson creates into outs. This is how the Indians could get the most out of Masterson as well. If he presses for strikeouts, his pitch count will go up and he will not be as effective. The Indians may not be a playoff team with a Masterson led rotation, but this is the only option that they have right now.
The Indians had brought in Trevor Bauer in a trade with the Diamondbacks and saw progress from Danny Salazar at the end of the season. Each of those pitchers needs to compliment Masterson for the Indians to have any illusions of returning to the playoffs with the roster as currently constituted. The Indians may be making some moves in the near future, look at the fourth question, but at this point the rotation falls flat a bit.
How will the Indians reorganize their bullpen?
As alluded to in the previous answer, pitching is not a strong suit for the Indians, a problem that is not isolated to the starting rotation. The Indians have had a pretty solid bullpen over the past few years. Even if Chris Perez was inconsistent, he was still a viable option at closer and did get outs when it mattered. Vinnie Pestano was so solid in the eighth inning and was able to eliminate the major situations so there was little pressure when it came to Perez. Now Perez is gone after legal troubles were heaped on top of pitching problems. The Indians reworked their bullpen and it now comes downs to three pitchers to finish up the games- Cody Allen, Vinnie Pestano, and the newly acquired closer John Axford.
Cody Allen was a 23rd round pick out of High Point in 2011 and quickly began his assent through the Indians farm system, making it to Double-A Akron by the end of 2011 and the major league by July 2012. Allen has been the typical power pitcher in the big leagues, a lot of strikeouts combined with a bad walk rate. Allen is young and has been given ample opportunity by the Indians, so he may very well lower the walk rate, but there is a very alarming statistic that should temper expectations for the young fireballer. Over his 104 appearances in the major leagues, he has 24 shutdowns and 18 meltdowns, which, according to the analysis of shutdowns and meltdowns, makes him a below average reliever. That is something that needs fixing before the Indians move Allen into a more advanced role.
Vinnie Pestano is the most reliable arm in the Indians bullpen and probably should have been the Indians closer last year considering the issues that they had with Chris Perez. Over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Pestano was one of the most shutdown relievers in baseball, frequently coming in during the more high leverage situations for the team and making sure that the Indians went into the ninth with the lead. That was not the case in 2013, as the Indians moved away from Pestano in the more pressure packed situations. In short analysis of his 2013 season, his walk rate spiked and ground ball outs turned into line drive hits and fly balls turned into home runs; these are not good trends and if they continue, Pestano may no longer be effective.
On the other hand, looking at the fact that he had every statistic trend in a negative way and lost velocity and command, it is actually pretty good that his ERA was only at 4.04 for the season. Pestano also revealed that he was injured for most of the 2013 season; this is not an excuse for his poor performance, but might be a reason to rationalize the drop off in ability. There is a strong case to be made for his rebound for the 2014 season and proper rehab may get him on the right track.
John Axford basically came out of nowhere to be the Brewers closer by the 2010 season and in 2011 had one of the best seasons for a closer in MLB history. His walk rate may have been a bit high, but other than that, the Brewers felt like they had a truly elite closer for the future. Since that point, Axford has since been traded to the Cardinals and is now trying to latch on to the Indians as the closer. There have been issues with his location of his fastball and that has led to a spike in his home run rate and his walk rate was awful in 2012.
In trying to fix his walk rate last year, Axford overcorrected himself; his pitches became more hittable and his strikeout rate lowered from the double digit rates of the past. For the 2014 season, the Indians need to hope that Axford can balance his velocity with control and work lower in the zone to remove the risk of the home run. Moving from Miller Park to Progressive Field may help, but the Indians must make sure that the erratic closer can right the ship. At the least, he is a pitcher that the Indians did not invest a lot of money in and has experience closing, something that the Indians needed.
In the end, the Indians bullpen is not that bad, but there is a lot of risk in the bullpen. Cody Allen may develop into a bullpen ace and there is every reason to believe that he will continue progress throughout the season. He should be the closer of the future for the Indians and, honestly, should be the closer for the Indians this year. John Axford and Vinnie Pestano are different stories and need to right the ship to be effective. Each has had there own issues and the Indians might have some issues finishing out games if the two cannot fix their respective issues. A particularly bad omen for the Indians is that within their top three bullpen arms, Allen and Axford were top 20 in the league in meltdowns and Pestano had a 8:6 shutdown to meltdown rate.
What are the Indians going to do with Asdrubal Cabrera?
Asdrubal Cabrera has been with the Indians for a while and has been a lynch pin towards a lot of success, but there is a high probability that his time with the Tribe is nearing an end. Since coming up with the Indians in 2007, Cabrera has been steady but never great. He has been an All-Star twice and won a Silver Slugger, but the Indians are not in a place where they need an inconsistent shortstop that makes $10 million a year. This is the classic argument of economics versus talent. Cabrera is just an average player and there have been many teams that have made inquiries, mainly the Cardinals last year, and the Indians would be smart to move him while he still has value. Given all of this, the obvious question is why have the Indians not traded Cabrera?
The most obvious reason that the Indians have not traded Cabrera is that they have not been able to capitalize on his value at the right time. In 2011, Cabrera was a 25 home run/17 steal player and the Indians extended him through the the 2014 season at $16.5 million, essentially paying him to be a very good, yet not great player. In both 2012 and 2013, Cabrera has had very incongruent seasons so the Indians have not really been able to see if they need to get rid of Cabrera or if he will be a key part of a winning tradition in Cleveland.
In fact, the Indians have really never known what they have in Cabrera. In the first three seasons of his career, Cabrera was a well above average fielder that did a very good job of getting on base and was smart on the basepaths. After cratering in 2010, Cabrera reemerged as a power hitting shortstop whose entire approach at the plate refocused to hitting the ball out of the ballpark. This was a good thing in the 2011, but his on base percentage has diminished to the point that it might be a good thing if he changes his approach at the plate. In short, the Indians do not know what they have in Cabrera so they have had a problem moving him. Considering that he is scheduled to be a free agent, they might have their hands tied.
The reason that the Indians should be ready to move on from Cabrera is super prospect Francisco Lindor. Almost nothing else needs to be said about Lindor than that as a 19 year old in High-A and Double-A last year, he had more walks than strikeouts; he also had a better walk to strikeout rate in his 22 games of Double-A than his 83 in High-A. Lindor is every bit of a star in the making for the Indians as an elite defender at an elite defensive position that will hit around .300 and steal upwards of 30 bases.
If the Indians were in the playoff hunt and looking to make a move to become stronger, it might not be a terrible move to put Lindor at shortstop and near the top of the lineup with Michael Bourn and trade away Cabrera. He is not a bad player, but, when combined with the fact that he is going to be a free agent at the end of the year, his value may be minimal. If they are able to trade him to a team in the playoff hunt that desperately needs a shortstop and has depth in pitching, the Indians would be wise to trade Cabrera. If the Indians are hanging around in the race and Lindor looks like he needs some polishing, it would not be wise to rush him to the big leagues; it will be his job in 2015 and there is no reason to rush him.
Why are the Indians going to win 84 games?
In 2013, the Indians were a team that was very good and took advantage of certain opportunities and down years from the Yankees and Rangers, sneaking into the playoffs as one of the wild card teams. Even though they lost to the Rays in the wild card game, there were some nice pieces there. This season, though, there are too many teams that improved while the Indians regressed a bit. The bullpen is reworked and it should be fine, but it is still going to be a question mark and the rotation is a mess right now as compared to the top line teams in the American League.
This team will be tough throughout the year but I see too many similarities to the Orioles, and not in good ways. This would be more of a top 15 team rather than a top 10 team and even though good baseball will be played in Cleveland this year, a repeat appearance in the playoffs might not be in the cards. There is promise for the future in the reworked Trevor Bauer and the slick Francisco Lindor being added to the team but for now, this is the third best team in the AL Central.