Saturday, February 6, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Cleveland Indians

Cleveland Indians:

2009 Record: 65-97

General Manager: Mark Shapiro

Manager: Manny Acta

Organizational Philosophy: since Mark Shapiro took over as GM in 2001, the Indians have utilized the same philosophy practised by previous GM John Hart by focusing on player development and cultivating young talent up the middle.  Due to financial necessity, the team has shipped off some of its high profile stars like CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee but the returns are either still being debated (Matt LaPorta, Nick Hagadone and Jason Knapp's run with the injury bug) or underwhelming as the months go by (Jason Donald, Lou Marson, Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco can be serviceable players but probably not superstars).  In terms of developing pitching, the Indians have struggled to replace their departing aces as Aaron Laffey's progression has stalled and Jeremy Sowers inability to strike out MLB hitters have caused this team to remain in the rebuilding stage.

Cleveland also faces the same economic hurdles that's causing the Detroit Tigers to reasses their current business model.  Playing in a city overwrought with unemployment and financial instability has sunk this organization among the bottom of all small-market teams.  However, unlike Detroit, the Indians have been fluent in the practice of micro-management and operating with a small budget (last season they committed $81 million to payroll which was their highest budget since 2002; this season they have roughly $50 million spent and that number isn't expected to rise too much).

One factor that makes the Indians front office stand above many others is their ability to effectively marry statistical and scouting capabilities into one forward thinking process.  In 2003 it was revealed that the Indians utilized a confidential computer system called Diamondview which measures a players efficiency and measures the statistical impact expected in order to sell high or buy low on any player.  After the 2010 season, the front office will attempt another shift as Mark Shapiro assumes the role of Team President and longtime assistant GM Chris Antonetti moves into full-time General Manager.  Shapiro will focus on the business side of baseball as they look for new ways to stay afloat financially while keeping their streamline operation at maximum power.

2010 Commitments:

Starting Rotation:

Jake Westbrook ($11M)
Fausto Carmona ($5M)
Justin Masterson ($415K)
Aaron Laffey ($408K)
Jeremy Sowers ($420K)

Obviously, a huge question sits at the top of this rotation.  Jake Westbrook is looking to put together his first full season since 2006.  He was sidelined with Tommy John Surgery in '08 and battled through arm stiffness last season.  He did make a few starts in Puerto Rico during winter baseball and was declared pain-free.  The team is hoping he can make between 30-32 starts next season in an effort to pull some value out of his contract.  He is an extreme groundball pitcher and will require an excellent defense behind him in order to be effective in 2010.

After his breakout in 2007, Fausto Carmona has watched his groundballs and control decline in every year since.  Last season he did induce 55% groundballs but if he can harness his BB rate (2.55 in '07; 5.03 in 125 IP last season) he could be a surprise rebound candidate.  He'll be 26 years old next season, so all isn't lost.

Justin Masterson was given up by the Red Sox after failing to improve his control (4.18 BB/9 in 129 IP last season).  He also struggled vs. LHer's (.291/.386/.452) between his stints as a reliever and spot starter.  In 2010 the Indians plan to use him as a starter and they hop his groundball tendencies (53.8%), High K rate (7.73), and 2009 expectedERA (3.77) translates into future top of the rotation regular.

Aaron Laffey is a soft-tossing groundball specialist (notice a pattern?) who struggled with his control last season.  Some of this could be attributed to him being used as a reliever and struggling with a right oblique strain in 2009.  Laffey will be 25 next season and his low K rate does limit him but Indian officials do see him as a regular mid-rotation starter.

Jeremy Sowers has been a disappointment since he was brought up in 2007.  His K rate seemed to have dissappeared last season (3.73 K/9 in 123 MLB IP) and he doesn't project more than a four K per nine innings guy.  Like Laffey, Sowers throws left-handed which gives him some MLB value but his days as an Indian could go bye bye if Carlos Carrasco has a good spring.
Another young pitcher that should get a good look this spring is Hector Rondon.  Last season between AA and AAA, Rondon displayed excellent control but his growing flyball rate has translated into more HR's allowed than expected.

Kerry Wood ($10.5M)
Joe Smith ($400K)
Chris Perez ($400K)
Rafael Perez ($895K)
Tony Sipp ($400K)
Jensen Lewis ($418K)
Jess Todd ($400K)

The depth chart I have displayed above is by no means set.  If Kerry Wood sustains any kind of injury almost any one of these names will be asked to step up as a possible closer.  I say this because Wood did struggle with his command last season (4.58 BB/9 last season compared to 2.44 in '08).  Wood did show better control during the second half (3.9 BB/9 in 24 IP), he also allowed an increase in flyballs hit (45%) which attributed to a spike in HR's allowed last season.  He displayed no loss in velocity in 2009 (his average fastball increased to 95 mph in '09) but his slider usage dropped dramatically (from 22.8% of pitches thrown in 2008 to 3% in '09) but he did increase his other offerings, including a new cutter (17.2% thrown last season) and his curveball saw a spike (at 13.1%; the most since his 2003 season).  It has been argued that the frequent use of a slider can hurt a pitchers arm; and looking at these trends, I'm wondering if Wood was dealing with any arm pain last season?

Joe Smith struggled to stay healthy a good portion of last season (viral infection, shoulder woes, sprained left knee, etc.).  He does post an excellent K rate (8.07), a high percentage of grounders (60.7%), and he did show improvement in command when healthy (3.44 BB/9 last season).  However, expect the Indians to be a bit leery when he's facing LHer's in high pressure situations (.320/.418/.484 career against).

Chris Perez was acquired last season from the Cardinals.  Perez has always been touted as a future closer but his sloppy control tested the patience of Cardinal fans.  He has also struggled in high pressure situations (hitters have a career line of .261/.369/.565 with runners in scoring position; compared to .160/.270/.226 with bases empty).  Perez has an excellent fastball/slider combination and the strides he made in terms of command during last season's second half (3.0 BB/9 compared to 4.26 full season) should give Indian fans some hope.

After coming on strong in 2007 (no wonder the Indians were a popular pick to win the AL Central in '08), Rafael Perez has quickly declined to obligatory left-handed bullpen option.  Looking over the string of bad luck (.371 BABIP, 60% strand, abnormal frequency of HR's despite his high rate of GB's, etc.) I do expect a significant bounceback for R. Perez next season.  Obviously his walks were a concern but relievers in his prior two seasons these rates were excellent (2.23 in '07; 2.71 in '08) and in 48 IP's last season one has to expect a few discrepencies to sometimes come into play in these small samples. 

Last season, Tony Sipp's number looked excellent (compared to the team's other options).  Obviously his high BB rate (5.63 in 40 IP last season) had no business producing such a favorable ERA (2.93) but his low BABIP (.253), high strand (80%) combined with his high frequency of flyballs allowed (50.5%) should point to some tough times next season. 

Jensen Lewis is another closer option that has disappointed since his 2007 breakout season.  Lewis has struggled vs. LHer's in his career (.276/.346/.481) but his age (will be 26 in May) and ability to strike out batters (career 8.24 K/9) along with the shaky bullpen situation in Cleveland should be enough to give him another chance in 2010.

Finally, Jess Todd showed signs last season as being a possible successor to Kerry Wood in a few seasons.  However his struggles in 2009 vs. LHer's (.408/.436/.673 in 49 opposing at bats) may have caused the Indians front office to rethink this strategy.  Of course, small samples and Todd's age (24 in April) shouldn't do much to deter his development and I expect the Indians to be smart in handling him as he further develops his cutter as a possible out pitch vs. lefties.

On the field:

C: Lou Marson ($400K)
C: Mike Redmond ($850K)
1B: Matt LaPorta ($400K)
2B: Luis Valbuena ($400K)
SS: Asdrubal Cabrera ($416K)
3B: Jhonny Peralta ($4.6M)
3B: Andy Marte ($410K)
LF: Michael Brantley ($400K)
CF: Grady Sizemore ($5.7M)
RF: Shin-Soo Choo ($420K)
DH: Travis Hafner ($11.5M)

Until top prospect Carlos Santana is ready to become full-time catcher, I expect the Tribe to utilize Lou Marson in 2010.  Marson has shown excellent BB rates but he must keep his K% to manageable levels next season.  Marson has been long considered to be quite athletic so defense shouldn't be a problem but what holds him back from being elite is his limited power.

Hip problems could spell trouble at 1B as Matt LaPorta isn't a guarantee to ready at the start of 2010.  LaPorta, since his days as a Florida Gator, has always been seen as an offensive minded player prone to the occasional injury.  In a perfect world he would be the Indians full-time DH but the presence (and expensive contract) of Travis Hafner makes this scenario impossible.  Last season in 338 AAA at bats, LaPorta showed excellent plate discipline (10.7% BB; 16.6% K) along with an ISO of .231.  His defense will never be elite and his lack of speed does suggest "old player skills" so the imperative to get him on the field as soon as possible is obvious as he begins his first phase of MLB eligible playing time.

Luis Valbuena does have budding power and the potential to steal 10 or so bags but playing 2B may not be in his future due to his shabby defense.  Next season should tell us a lot more in terms of handling left-handed pitching as well as further develop his ability to get on base (6.5% last season in 368 MLB at bats; compared to his usual rate of 10-11% in the minors).

The other middle infielder, Asdrubal Cabrera, is a little more advanced offensively than Valbuena but last season's high batting average (.308) was a result of his high BABIP (something he may find happening often due to his excellent speed and high groundball rate).  His defense did improve some at SS but it is far from elite. 

Jhonny Peralta's consistent mediocre defense at SS has translated into mediocre defense at 3B in 2009.  Next season does represent his final year under contract and his high groundball rates shouldn't get fans expecting anything near average power next season (look for 12-15 HR's, at best).

In the outfield, Michael Brantley is a future top of the order hitter.  He has good speed and excellent knowledge of the strikezone.  Brantley has little to no power (although he should develop adequate gap power as he matures). 

Grady Sizemore looks to regain form after injuries to his elbow and abdominal area sidelined him last season.  He is expected to return to full health which is good news for the Indians as he reaches his age 27 season.  Sizemore's low contact rates (83%) will always keep his batting average around .260-.270 but he shows excellent plate judgement and his flyball rates (42.9% career) tells us his power won't suddenly drop. 

Shin-Soo Choo is also entering his age 27 season.  Last season his batting average was boosted by his .370 BABIP but the power and speed looks legit.  He should be an excellent option for the next few seasons.

Next Season's Forecast: At the time of this writing the Indians feel like an incomplete team, I do like the upside this starting rotation offers and the bullpen should rebound (although I'm not feeling too confident about Kerry Wood returning to his '08 form). 

The major problems I see in 2010 are: 1.) how this team handles quality left-handed hitting; 2.) middle of their hitting order and 3.) defense.  The bullpen is young but unless they show the ability to get LHer's out consistently good teams will find a way to beat them.  I'm also concerned about the middle of their order due to the uncertainty at 1B and C.  I like Matt LaPorta's bat but his health at the start of next season will leave this team with a huge hole if he doesn't start the year healthy.  Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo should fall somewhere around #2 and #3; Michael Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera could see time in the #1 spot but after that it's a scramble to find a solid cleanup hitter on this team.
The other question mark is their below average defense.  On a team with a lot of groundball and contact pitchers this will pose a problem and keep them from surprising next season.

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