The Cleveland Indians looked like they were going to come out of nowhere to claim the American League Central in 2011.
Alas, it was not to be. The Indians couldn't keep up their hot start and their midseason acquisition of Colorado Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez didn't pan out at all. Their once-promising season unraveled in a hurry.
But whatever you do, don't count this Indians team out this season. They're young, they're hungry and they have unfinished business.
Here's a look at how they're shaping up heading into the 2012 season.
2011 Record: 80-82
Key Arrivals (courtesy of Baseball Prospectus.com): 1B Russ Canzler (from Tampa Bay), C Michel Hernandez (FA), C Matt Pagnozzi (FA), OF Aaron Cunningham (from San Diego), OF Felix Pie (FA), 3B Jose Lopez (FA), 3B Andy LaRoche (FA), RHP Robinson Tejeda (FA), SS Chin-Lung Hu (FA), LHP Chris Seddon (FA), RHP Chris Ray (FA), RHP Willy Lebron (FA), RHP Jeremy Accardo (FA), OF Fred Lewis (FA), OF Ryan Spilborghs (FA), SS Gregorio Petit (FA), RHP Kevin Slowey (from Colorado), RHP Dan Wheeler (FA), RHP Jose De La Torre (FA), 3B Ryan Rohlinger (FA), 1B Casey Kotchman (FA), RHP Derek Lowe (from Atlanta).
Key Departures: 2B Luis Valbuena (to Toronto), RHP Zach Putnam (to Colorado), 1B Jim Thome (FA), OF Kosuke Fukudome (FA).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Justin Masterson (12-10, 3.21, 1.28)
- Ubaldo Jimenez (10-13, 4.68 ERA, 1.40 WHIP)
- Fausto Carmona (7-15, 5.25, 1.40)*
- Josh Tomlin (12-7, 4.25, 1.08)
- Kevin Slowey (0-8, 6.67, 1.40)
- Derek Lowe (9-17, 5.05, 1.51)
- David Huff (2-6, 4.09, 1.42)
- Jeanmar Gomez (5-3, 4.47, 1.51)
*On restricted list.
Update: March 12
According to MLB.com, prosecutors in the Dominican Republic have dropped false identity charges against Roberto Hernandez (aka Fausto Carmona) in exchange for his completion of a work program. It is still not clear when he will be able to return to the Indians.
C: Carlos Santana (.239/.351/.457)
2B: Jason Kipnis (.272/.333/.507)
3B: Jack Hannahan (.250/.331/.388), Lonnie Chisenhall (.255/.284/.415)
SS: Asdrubal Cabrera (.273/.332/.460)
LF: Michael Brantley (.266/.318/.384)
CF: Grady Sizemore (.224/.285/.422)*
RF: Shin-Soo Choo (.259/.344/.390)
DH: Travis Hafner (.280/.361/.449)
*Will miss Opening Day.
UPDATE: March 3
According to Indians beat reporter Nick Camino, Michael Brantley will serve as the Tribe's center fielder while Grady Sizemore recovers from lower back surgery. Jordan Bastian of MLB.com reported that Sizemore will be out 8-12 weeks.
Closer: Chris Perez (R) (4-7, 36 SV, 4 BLSV, 3.32 ERA, 1.21 WHIP)
Tony Sipp (L) (6-3, 24 HLD, 1 BLSV, 3.03, 1.11)
Vinnie Pestano (R) (1-2, 2 SV, 23 HLD, 4 BLSV, 2.32, 1.05)
Joe Smith (R) (3-3, 16 HLD, 3 BLSV, 2.01, 1.09)
Frank Herrmann (R) (4-0, 5.11, 1.54)
Nick Hagadone (L) (1-0, 4.09, 0.91)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
Starting pitching was not a big strength for the Indians last season. They got just 85 quality starts all season long and Indians starters put together a 4.51 ERA. That was 10th in the American League.
Things could be better in 2012, but there are a lot of unknowns in Cleveland's starting rotation.
The biggest unknown is Ubaldo Jimenez. The Indians gave up a lot to get him and he just didn't pitch well after coming over from the Rockies. He was a bust, plain and simple.
Oddly enough, Jimenez's strikeout and walks numbers in 2011 were right on par with the numbers he put up in those categories in 2010, when he had a 19-8 record and a 2.88 ERA. The big problem was a drop in fastball velocity, which played a big part in the huge increase in Jimenez's batting average against and opponents' slugging percentage.
The Indians would also be looking for a bounce-back season from Roberto Hernandez (aka Fausto Carmona), but he's on the restricted list and it's not a lock that he'll even be able to return to the team this season. The Associated Press reported recently that Hernandez/Carmona needs a judicial pardon in the Dominican Republic before he can return to the Indians.
Things don't get much better when you look at guys like Kevin Slowey and Derek Lowe. If all goes well, they'll provide innings and keep games from getting away. They've done so in the past and they could do so again. If all doesn't go well, both of them will be as awful in 2012 as they were in 2011.
Things get much better when you look at Josh Tomlin and Justin Masterson. Tomlin had the lowest BB/9 of any pitcher in the American League last season and he was one of the best pitchers in the majors in April and May last season. If he can keep it up for a full season, he'll be an ace.
As for Masterson, well, he already is an ace. I'll have more to say about him in just a minute.
So there is some good in this rotation, but there are more question marks than the Indians would like. The good news is that they have plenty of depth to work with should this rotation be torn apart by injuries and/or ineffectiveness.
Scouting the Bullpen
Cleveland's bullpen did a good job of cleaning up after its rotation in 2011. The Indians had one of the top bullpens in the American League, posting a 3.71 ERA and blowing only 16 saves all season. A lot of things ended up going wrong for the Indians last season, but the bullpen did its job very well.
But there is some concern as the Indians speed towards Opening Day. According to The Plain Dealer, closer Chris Perez is going to have to miss a few weeks with a strained left oblique muscle. He's iffy for Opening Day.
On the bright side, this bullpen is very deep beyond Perez. Manny Acta has two great lefties in Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp to call on and righty Joe Smith was one of the top relievers in the American League last season.
The guy to keep an eye on is Nick Hagadone. In nine appearances last season, he was basically unhittable. Opponents hit just .118 off him, and he struck out 11 hitters in 11 innings.
So despite the fact Perez is a little iffy, the bridge to the ninth inning is as strong as can be.
Scouting the Hitting
The Indians weren't the worst hitting team last season, but they were far from the best. They finished ninth in the AL with 704 runs scored, and they were in the lower half of the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
The Indians' biggest problem on offense last season was that they were a little too aggressive. Their collective K% was 20.7, second-highest in the American League. That's not overly surprising given the number of young hitters they had in their lineup.
Also not surprisingly, Grady Sizemore is already hurt. He has a lower back strain, and the word from the team's official website is that there's no timetable for his return. The Indians may be without him for a while, which is nothing out of the ordinary.
As long as Sizemore is out, the Indians are going to have a hole at the top of their lineup. The bright side is that the middle of their lineup looks pretty strong.
I'll have more to say about Asdrubal Cabrera in just a moment, but he's easily Cleveland's best hitter. He really tailed off after the All-Star break in 2011, but he still had by far his best season as a pro. Indians fans should be very excited about his progression.
Shin Soo-Choo was on his way to having a good season last year, but it was derailed by injuries. If he stays healthy, a reasonable expectation is an OPS somewhere between .800 and .900. That would do just fine, but Choo's ceiling is even higher.
There's no telling what the Indians are going to get out of Travis Hafner. He hasn't been a true impact hitter in years and that's due in large part to the fact that he just can't stay healthy. When he is healthy, though, the Indians can rest comfortably knowing Hafner's OPS is going to be in the .800s.
Elsewhere in this lineup, the focus will be on the youngsters. Jason Kipnis had an outstanding month of August after he was called up in July, so it will be interesting to see what he can do over a full season. Lonnie Chisenhall is also in the mix, but he's another guy I want to discuss in further detail in just a moment.
Overall, this lineup is not one of the strongest orders in the American League. There is some upside to be found, however, not to mention a couple of potential All-Stars.
Though not a great lineup, but it's not a lineup that should be underestimated either.
We've known ever since he was first called up by the Boston Red Sox that Masterson has great stuff, but he really figured out how to pitch throughout the course of the 2011 season. He established good control, dropping his BB/9 from 3.65 to 2.71 and he pitched to contact very effectively. He induced a ton of ground balls and hitters generally had a very hard time making solid contact against him.
The proof is in the numbers. Hitters hit .257 off Masterson, which is not an elite opponents' average, but they only slugged .349 off of him. That was the seventh-lowest mark in the American League.
When it comes to pitchers who pitch to contact, you always have to ask just how lucky they got. In most cases, these pitchers tend to get very lucky.
This was not the case with Masterson. He finished with an ERA of 3.21 along with a FIP of 3.28. That's a tell-tale sign that everything Masterson accomplished in 2011 was totally legit.
The Indians are hoping that Ubaldo Jimenez will go back to being an ace. But they can rest easy knowing that they can count on Masterson.
I have to admit, I didn't have Cabrera pegged as anything special in his first couple seasons. I knew he was a good hitter, but I didn't think he had an ounce of power in his bat.
It turns out Cabrera does. He hit 25 homers last season and slugged a career-best .460.
The bulk of Cabrera's work was done before the All-Star Game, as he hit .293/.347/.489 in the first half of the season. By the time the break rolled around, Cabrera was one of the top hitting middle infielders in baseball.
The Indians need to see this kind of production from Cabrera throughout an entire season. His production dropped off in a big way after the break and that certainly played a part in Cleveland's overall decline. They couldn't count on Cabrera to be the rock in their lineup.
But if nothing else, what we learned is that Cabrera certainly has the ability to be the rock in this lineup.
Chisenhall did not live up to the hype right away. He hit .217 in his first full month in the majors in July, and then he hit .249 in August. He had his moments, but for the most part Chisenhall just wasn't having a whole lot of fun.
Chisenhall must have felt comfortable in September, because he went off. He hit .279 with four homers and 14 RBI, showing a glimpse of what he could be in the future.
More than anything, Chisenhall needs to be more patient at the plate. He struck out way too much and his OBP was under .300 in July, August and September. That's not going to cut it.
If Chisenhall doesn't hit, he's not going to start. The Indians have Jack Hannahan to fall back on and he brings experience and above-average defense to the table.
If Chisenhall does hit, this lineup is going to be that much deeper.
Prospect to Watch
If there's one guy worth keeping an eye on, though, it's Francisco Lindor.
Lindor is an 18-year-old shortstop who the Indians drafted eighth overall in the 2011 draft. He hasn't gotten much of a chance to strut his stuff in the minors, but it is widely agreed that he's one of the top prospects in baseball.
For example, ESPN's Keith Law has Lindor ranked as the No. 35 overall prospect in his countdown of the Top 100 prospects in baseball. Lindor doesn't have a whole lot of pop in his bat, but he's a solid hitter with good speed and top-notch defensive skills.
This year will be Lindor's first full season in the minor leagues, so he's likely several years away from breaking into the majors. Until then, his progress is definitely worth monitoring.
What the Indians Will Do Well
Health permitting, this lineup should score more runs than it did last year. The middle of the Indians' batting order is solid and they have a couple of high-ceiling guys in the mix in Kipnis and Chisenhall.
Even if the Indians don't stay healthy, they have more depth than most people realize. This team has clearly been constructed with the knowledge that some of the starters are on the fragile side.
You also have to love Cleveland's bullpen. While Chris Perez's status is concerning, there's more than enough depth in this bullpen to account for any and all adversity.
So despite the fact this team is far from perfect, another collapse is not likely. They have strengths in the right places.
What the Indians Won’t Do Well
I worry about this starting rotation. I like Masterson and Tomlin, but you need more than two stud starting pitchers to compete.
The good news is that Jimenez can only be better this season. The trouble is that this does not mean he's a lock to be the ace that he was in 2010. A lot depends on his velocity.
If Jimenez rediscovers it, he'll be great. If he doesn't, he'll have adjustments to make.
There should also be concerns about Cleveland's team defense. The Indians had a collective UZR of minus 47 last season, which was second-worst in the American League. Even Cabrera, who can make spectacular plays with the best of them, is not an elite fielder.
Where will the Indians finish in the AL Central in 2012?
Nevertheless, the Indians showed early on in 2011 that they're a classic case of a team that's better than the sum of its parts. They got some mojo going early in the season and they were able to keep it up for several months before it all came apart.
The Indians are not going to beat out the Tigers to win the Central; make no mistake about that. The Tigers are too good.
But can this team have a winning record? You better believe it.
Projected Record: 86-76, second in AL Central.
American League Central
National League West
American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge mancrush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter: