Sunday, December 03, 2006

Looking Ahead: Cleveland Indians

  • The Giants signed Dave Roberts and Rich Aurilia to free-agent deals. Roberts was signed for a 3-year, $18 million deal, and Aurilia to a 2-year, $8 million one.
    These deals are both products of the Giants' desperation to fill the lineup, but with little of the upside associated with the Durham contract. Neither contract is especially deadly, but both contracts serve the purpose of making the team much older (both men will be 35 next year) without getting any significant production in return. Roberts could play left or center field, but his greatest asset (speed) isn't going to improve, especially by his age 38 season. He's not the man to fill a big outfield hole on a team that needs the new Barry Bonds.
    Aurilia would be better served as a backup player, and may yet end up there if the Giants sign someone else. But as it is, Aurilia looks to be the team's starting third baseman, and even if he does hit well enough to stay there (which is debatable), his poor glovework will negate that production.
  • Sources have the Mariners agreeing to a one-year deal with Jose Guillen. It's only for $5 million, so the M's are at least limiting their liability. But Guillen is a tricky person to depend on for big production, especially if he's going to be the starting right fielder (which looks likely). The good news is that his one-year deal won't seriously block the progress of prospect Adam Jones. And at least the Mariners looked for a fix that fit their budget instead of going all Adrian Beltre on us again.
  • The Orioles have re-signed 1B Kevin Millar to a low-end, one-year contract. Millar's not awful, but Orioles fans should be singing the "Status Quo Blues."
  • The Indians took steps to shore up their bullpen by signing free agents Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz. Both men were signed to one-year deals with a club option for 2008. It's not much money at all, and it's good to hear that the Indians are trying to fix their bullpen without committing to multi-year deals.
  • Investigator George Mitchell is saying that his probe into steroid use has stalled due to lack of power. Mitchell does not have the power to subpoena or to order testimony, nor can he guarantee that any "testimony" will remain confidential. So no one is coming forward to admit that they took steroids.
    Imagine my surprise.

The Cleveland Indians:
2006 W-L Record: 78-84
2006 pW-pL Record: 89-73
Runs Scored: 870 (2nd in AL)
Runs Allowed: 782 (7th in AL)
Free Agents: Aaron Boone, Arthur Rhodes

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Ryan Garko?
2B -- Josh Barfield
SS -- Jhonny Peralta
3B -- Andy Marte
LF -- David Dellucci/Jason Michaels
CF -- Grady Sizemore
RF -- Casey Blake
C -- Victor Martinez
DH -- Travis Hafner

2007 Proj. Rotation:
C.C. Sabathia
Cliff Lee
Jeremy Sowers
Paul Byrd
Jeremy Guthrie?

2007 Proj. Closer: Ed Mujica?

Well, there's not a whole lot to complain about here. The Indians finished second in the AL in runs scored last year, and there's no reason to believe that they'll be any worse in 2007. The Indians' great advantage is that all of their key contributors (except for DH Hafner) are playing the skilled defensive positions. There's CF Grady Sizemore, one of the all-around best players in baseball with an MVP in his future. Sizemore, who will be 24 next year, hit 290/375/533 last season, going 22/28 in steals. Comparisons to Carlos Beltran are valid, except that Sizemore isn't quite as good with the glove.
Catcher Victor Martinez is possibly the best-hitting backstop in all of baseball. Martinez is still young (28 next year) and has compiled a career batting line of 301/373/463. He's also been quite durable for the position, getting at least 500 ABs in all three of his full major league seasons. The only bump on the horizon for Martinez might be a move to a different position, since he's not the best defensive catcher, and the Indians would love for him to retain his durability.
The Indians don't have an All-Star middle infield, but they do have two high-quality young (and cheap) players capable of more than holding their own. Jhonny Peralta has shown flashes of very good work on defense, but also suffers from inconsistency. That and his size (he's listed at 6'1", 180, but that's pretty doubtful) could mean a move. The problem is that his hitting is equally inconsistent. Peralta had a brilliant year at the plate in 2005, hitting 292/366/520 with defense good enough to rate him one of the league's 10 best players. Unfortunately, the power and batting average were an illusion, as he fell back to a more typical (for him) season in 2006 (257/323/385). Peralta's young enough to keep growing, and we may see more of that 2005 season in the future, but right now he's just an above-average shortstop, and you can't take that for granted.
At second base, the Indians wisely traded for Josh Barfield. I discussed Barfield in my entry on the Padres, and later when discussing the trade that sent him to Cleveland. He's not wowing anyone on defense and isn't a well-rounded hitter yet (280/318/423 in San Diego), but there's a lot of room for growth. And even if Barfield's development does stall, he's still a perfectly acceptable solution at second making little more than the league minimum.
Third base (the middle of the defensive spectrum) had been a problem for the Indians, and Aaron Boone turned out not to be a very good solution. But the Indians were able to get arguably the best third base prospect in the game, Andy Marte, in a trade with Boston. Marte is still very young, at 23 next year, and hasn't yet taken to the major leagues (226/287/421 in 50 2006 games). But he projects as well as anyone with his well-rounded skill set and should be a bargain of a third baseman in the process.
As I said, the exception to all of this is DH Travis Hafner. Hafner is, simply put, the greatest hitter in the American League. The parallels between Hafner and fellow DH David Ortiz are striking, especially when you consider that Hafner has been demonstrably better. Hafner, who turns 30 next year, is a career 297/402/583 hitter in a slightly pitcher-friendly ballpark. Ortiz, who will be 31 next year, is a career 283/374/550 hitter with the benefit of Fenway Park. The only edge Ortiz holds over Hafner is durability; Ortiz runs like clockwork, whereas Hafner has never reached 500 ABs in a season.
Where the Indians have run into trouble is filling in the hitter-first positions of 1B-LF-RF. Temporary placeholders like Ben Broussard, Jody Gerut, Casey Blake, and Jason Michaels were never a problem, but they also never offered anything significant offensively. Well, Broussard and Gerut are gone, and the Indians are starting to replace them with more productive players.
At first base, the Indians will likely go with young Ryan Garko. As if their infield weren't young and cheap (and good) already, the Indians will almost certainly start Garko there in 2007. Garko is a bit old, turning 26 next year, but his lack of time in the majors isn't really his fault. Garko turned the minors into his own personal playground, hitting 298/386/505 over his minor league career. Garko finally reached the majors to stay in 2006 when the Indians traded Broussard, and he responded well: 292/359/470. Garko is already good enough to hold down the first base job, and he could turn out to be even better than that.
In left field, the Indians will probably combine the incumbent Michaels (267/326/391 in '06) with free agent David Dellucci. The platoon advantage would work out well, with Dellucci facing righties and Michaels starting against the southpaws. The extra man would then be on the bench as a potent pinch-hitting possibility. The Indians should get much better production out of the position either way, even sweeter since the two players combined will be earning about $5-6 million.
The Indians picked up outfielder Casey Blake's option, and they're hoping to get one more year of good work from the 33-year-old, who hit 282/356/479 as the right fielder last year. The Indians have a number of good outfielders making their way through the system, meaning that Blake will likely be replaced after the season, if not during.
With all due respect to the Yankees, I think the Indians will have the best lineup in all of baseball next year. The advantage becomes even more pronounced when you consider defense, one area where Cleveland has the Yankees licked. And not only are the Indians a great-hitting team, but they're a young great-hitting team that should be together for a few years yet.

This was obviously the team's #1 problem in 2006. A lot can be made of the fact that the Tribe had bad luck. But when bad luck runs for two or three years, you start to wonder if maybe there's more to it than that (Cleveland's 11-win deficit in Pythagorean is reminiscent of the team's equally inexplicable bad record in one-run games in 2005). It's not readily apparent what it is that's keeping the Indians from matching their Pythagorean record. But the most likely culprit is pitching.
While the Indians have several good arms advancing through the minors, it's still questionable how much they'll contribute at the big-league level in 2007. The Indians' returning starting pitchers, C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Paul Byrd, aren't too bad, but they're a pretty disappointing 1-2-3 in your starting rotation, especially considering the competition in the AL Central. Word is that the Indians would like to bring in a value-priced free agent to contribute in the short run while the kids develop. But then they tried that last year with Paul Byrd, and it backfired (4.88 ERA).
No, if anything the Indians are going to get help from within. The most likely candidate is Jeremy Sowers. Sowers sailed through the minor leagues and into Cleveland in two seasons, proving absolutely dominant from Kinston all the way to the bigs. The Indians were (and are) desperate for someone to suck up some innings in the starting rotation, so Sowers should have a spot in the rotation set aside for him. He came up at the end of 2005 and performed well in 14 starts, posting a 3.57 ERA. There was a troubling drop in strikeout rate, both in Triple-A and the majors, but the Indians hope that's just growing pains. Either way, Sowers will be the biggest bargain in the entire rotation, and may end up their #1 starter sooner rather than later.
For the #5 spot in the rotation, the Indians will be trying out the young pitchers emerging from the minors with less fanfare than Sowers. One possibility is Jeremy Guthrie. Guthrie has the advantage of already being exposed to big-league hitting. The problem is that he was crushed in late-season callups in 2004, 2005 and 2006. At age 28, it's not very likely that Guthrie is going to be taking any big steps forward. But he'll be one of the options in Spring Training.
He also has the advantage of big-league exposure. The best pitching prospect in the organization, Adam Miller, has only thrown 4.2 innings in Triple-A. The 22-year-old rebounded from a poor 2005 to put together a dynamite season at Double-A Akron. But considering his youth, and with his weak 2005 still in mind, Miller will most likely start the season in Triple-A. There's no reason to jeopardize the organization's prize pitching prospect just to put him in the #5 slot. The Indians will likely fill that hole through free agency.

The Indians' bullpen was terrible in 2006, at least partially explaining how they were able to outscore their opponents over the course of the season, but still lose a lot of close games. The Indians have taken some steps to correct this problem with the addition of free agents Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz. Both men came cheap, but that's partly for a reason; neither one possesses the magic bullet of relief dominance.
The team did get good work from Rafael Betancourt (3.81 ERA, 48 K in 56.2 IP) and former starter Jason Davis (3.74 ERA). But they found it nearly impossible to get anyone to help these guys out. It seemed that everyone they tried didn't just fail, but failed miserably. The most unfortunate example of this would be prospect Fausto Carmona, whose abortive run as closer ended with 9 HR and 31 BB allowed in 74.2 IP. He finished with a 5.42 ERA. But all is not lost for the Indians. A couple pitcher who struggled in 2006 should do better, among them Thomas Mastny and Fernando Cabrera.
Since trading away Bob Wickman, the Indians have struggled to come up with a closer. It's doubtful that they'll want to pay market prices to get a free agent (although I wouldn't rule out a 1-year deal to Eric Gagne, or somesuch). But while the Indians haven't officially named a closer for 2006, it looks to me like they've got a great candidate already in the 'pen, prospect Ed Mujica.
Mujica is another Indian pitcher who tore through the minors, going from Kinston to Cleveland in two years after being converted to relief. He never posted an ERA above 3.00, and his strikeout rate varies from above-average to brilliant. His control is phenomenal; in 112 innings since becoming a reliever, Mujica has issued a mere 23 walks. Over that same period, he allowed just 6 HR.

Offseason Game Plan:
The Indians are pretty well set with all their big pieces except possibly another starting pitcher. GM Mark Shapiro continues to make fabulous decisions, improving his team in the short run without sacrificing the long run.
It must be noted, though, that the Indians for two years now have consistently underperformed. In 2005, it was just in one-run games, leaving the Indians just a couple games out of the postseason. But in 2006, it affected everything, and they dropped to fourth place. It's easy to dismiss this as bad luck, but there could be something more here that we're just not seeing. If it happens again in 2007, it will certainly be the sign of something wrong, and there will likely be repercussions in the clubhouse and possibly the front office.
But there's every reason to believe that the Indians will rebound and come into 2007 as favorites in the very tough AL Central. You'll find statheads everywhere picking the Indians, and most of us were embarassed and disappointed in 2006. But I don't think it will happen again in 2007.

No comments: