The Cleveland Indians battled the Detroit Tigers for most of last season atop the division standings. Detroit ultimately pulled away towards the end as the Indians were hit with the injury bug and the young players did not have enough in their tank to compete with the likes of Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and the rest of the Detroit Tigers roster.
So what did the Tribe do to make sure that doesn't happen again? They added depth throughout the roster. A major factor to the Tribe’s demise last season was injuries. With the acquisitions of Aaron Cunningham, Andy LaRoche, Jose Lopez, and Felix Pi, along with a bench that includes Ezequiel Carrera, Shelley Duncan, and Jason Donald and Jack Hannahan, Cleveland is more equipped to sustain success if a starter is injured for an extended period of time.
Outside the brilliant acquisition of Derek Lowe, and the arrest of Fausto Carmona, the Tribe have made little noise this off-season in regards to signing big names. The front office knew going into the off season the budget would increase to make the Tribe a contender.
General manager Chris Antonetti has projected a two or three year plan for the Indians to win a World Series before the GM is forced to blow up the roster and start over. To his credit, the pitching staff is loaded with a mix of veteran leadership along with quality young arms. There have been no power hitters signed to date, but, that does not mean quality moves have not transpired.
One other blatant gap last season was at first base. LaPorta only had 300 at-bats last season, that’s half of what Asdrubal Cabrera saw. Not surprisingly, LaPorta nearly hit half as many home runs and half as many RBIs. Although his average was at .240 for most of the year, the Indians played hitters with far worse averages than that.
LaPorta needs to play better and more consistently if he is going to be the Tribe’s first baseman. This is a position of concern for many Indians fans and front office members. As the focal point in the CC Sabathia trade, the front office would really like to see LaPorta pan out.
With former All-Star Jose Lopez and newly acquired free agent Casey Kotchman battling for the starting role at 1B, we will find out right away if LaPorta is up for the challenge. Kotchman will likely start at first base on opening day. However, LaPorta did hit more homeruns and drive in more RBI’s than Kotchman, his average was severely lower and Kotchman’s defense is much better. LaPorta will be forced to play his best day in and day out and will likely improve. Kotchman is a one year player and the Tribe’s front office hopes he can elevate the team on the field as well as Matt LaPorta’s game.
Although the Detroit Tigers have added Prince Fielder, their win total will likely not increase that significantly. It is yet to be seen if Miguel Cabrera can handle third base as effectively as he did last year at first.
The Tigers had one of the greatest single season pitching performances of all-time in Justin Verlander and career high years from many of its positional starters. Also, with Victor Martinez out for the year, Prince Fielder is merely just taking his place and it is yet to be determined how much of an upgrade he is over Martinez. Victor Martinez not only played 1st base and hit in the middle of the lineup but he is also one of the more clutch players in the league consistently being on contending clubs and not to mention spelling catchers once a week.
And yes, the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins will field teams this season but, it appears that this will be a two team race for the division crown. Here is what the two rosters will most likely look like on opening day.
C Carlos Santana C Alex Avila
1B Casey Kotchman 1B Prince Fielder
2B Jason Kipnis 2B Ryan Raburn
3B Lonnie Chissenhall 3B Miguel Cabrera
SS Asdrubal Cabrera SS Jhonny Peralta
LF Michael Brantley LF Andy Dirks
RF Shin-Soo Choo RF Brandon Boesch
CF Grady Sizemore CF Austin Jackson
DH Travis Hafner DH Delmon Young
Bench (in no particular order) Bench (in no particular order)
1) Jose Lopez 1) Brandon Inge
2) Jason Donald 2) Don Kelly
3) Ezequiel Carrera 3) Ramon Santiago
4) Shelley Duncan 4) Danny Worth
5) Jack Hannahan 5) Gerald Laird
6) Aaron Cunningham
7) Felix Pie
Starting Rotation Starting Rotation
1) Justin Masterson 1) Justin Verlander
2) Ubaldo Jimenez 2) Doug Fister
3) Derek Lowe 3) Max Scherzer
4) Josh Tomlin 4) Rick Porcello
5) Jon Garland/Kevin Slowey/Fausto Carmona 5) Jacob Turner
These two teams look evenly matched to me and the Tribe has more quality on the bench and in the rotation than the Tigers. The Indians took some teams by surprise last season which likely won’t happen again this year but with a year of experience under a lot of these young players' belts, the Tribe will be a much improved ball club come opening day 2012.
The front office has put much of its energy into the pitching staff and bench, and hoping the pitching will carry the load for the majority of the season. However, outside the surprisingly strong performance from the Tigers closer, the Tribe had a very strong bullpen that was among the top in MLB.
All in all, this team has plenty of talent throughout. They are young and hungry. Injuries ruined their chances last season to challenge for the division. With the added help to the depth of both the starting rotation and the batting order, the Indians have solved a glaring problem from a season ago.
The 2012 season opener is only four days away as spring training starts Feb. 20 for pitchers and catchers. The front office feels confident with the team it has assembled, but, rest assured, they are constantly trying to improve the team.
An off season of adding quality depth, Casey Kotchman and Derrek Lowe, to what they already have would put this team in the playoffs and challenging for more. Either way, the 2012 season is coming and the Tribe will be battling for one of two wildcards or even a division title.