MLB Spring Training: 10 Predictions for the Cleveland Indians in 2012

Max ForstagContributor IIIMarch 6, 2012

MLB Spring Training: 10 Predictions for the Cleveland Indians in 2012

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    We’re talkin' baseball, Indians baseball, talkin’ Tribe! It’s March 6 and Opening Day is still a month away, but baseball is alive and well in the hearts and minds of the Tribe faithful.

    By now, everyone knows last season’s course of events by heart and there’s no point in dwelling on what could have been. The 2011 Cleveland Indians were an overachieving team loaded with potential and they put the baseball world on notice that they’re ready to compete.

    Unfortunately for the upstart Tribe, the cards of baseball economics are still stacked in their disfavor. As the Cleveland front office remained passive and indecisive on serious trade talks and were incapable of signing a major league free agent, the Detroit Tigers kept busy improving an already superior ball club. After Albert Pujols signed in Los Angeles, Detroit all but cleared the pool in one giant splash by signing Prince Fielder to a nine year/$214 million contract.

    The rival Tigers will be a formidable foe to overcome in 2012, but it will be the only way the Indians make the postseason. Two wild-card teams, one playoff game or not (what a terrible format!), the Tribe isn’t getting either of those two spots. Not with the Rangers, Angels, Yankees, Red Sox and Rays all potentially fighting it out until season’s end.

    Objectively, Cleveland might be the sixth best team in the American League talent-wise, and that’s giving them a slight nod over the Rays. It’s okay, I won’t expect much backlash from the non-existent Tampa/St. Petersburg fanbase.

    Here are 10 chest-thumping predictions that could lead to Cleveland “pickling the beast” by overtaking Detroit for the AL Central title in 2012.

1. Shin-Soo Choo Will Be an All-Star

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    For all the flack former Tribe GM Mark Shapiro has taken from disgruntled fans, he very quietly made two of the greatest trades in recent baseball history to form the core of the current Tribe roster.

    In the course of one month during the 2006 season, Shapiro dealt the team’s aging first base platoon (a sinful obsession of former manager Eric Wedge) to Seattle for two minor leaguers. Neither deal was heralded nor hotly discussed at the time, but the Indians somehow traded 36-year-old Eduardo Perez for 20-year-old Asdrubal Cabrera and guitar-totting Ben Broussard for Shin-Soo Choo.

    By the time the bemused sports world had figured out how to properly pronounce his name, Choo had already established himself as one of the game’s most promising outfielders. With a smooth swing, stocky frame and cannon of an arm, Choo emerged as a perennial 20-20/.300/.400 threat after becoming the Indians everyday right-fielder in 2008.

    Averaged over the number of games he played, his 2008-10 seasons were some of the most solid across-the-board statistical achievements in recent Tribe history. As Grady Sizemore began to see the decline of his career, Choo quickly assumed his role as the Indians’ best player.

    Despite an injury and shame-ridden 2011 campaign, Choo will return with a vengeance in 2012. We are not seeing another Travis Hafner/Grady Sizemore in front of our eyes. Choo is not a four-season phenomenon like the aforementioned former stars who both still find themselves in an Indians uniform.

    Choo lacks the one-dimensional pull-happiness of Hafner and the overly aggressive defensive style of Sizemore. A pure hitter and a smart baseball player, Choo’s regrettable DUI incident and injury-mired 2011 is now squarely behind him and he’s ready to return to being a force as the Cleveland Indians’ no. 3 hitter.

    Choo could and rightfully should win the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2012, although his return to stardom won’t be upon a prolonged absence. Opposing pitchers still respect Choo’s bat, and one down season hasn’t made them forget his offensive capabilities. As long as Choo doesn’t try to hit everything out of the yard, he’ll be just fine in 2012. Apart from all the other distractions in 2011, he just looked to be pressing every time in the box.

    After enduring international shame and ridicule for his performance on and off the field, Choo has a lot to prove to both himself and his fans. As a professional athlete, he’s going to want to raise his value in free agency as Asdrubal Cabrera did last season. His military training with the South Korean Army only strengthened his focus.

    2012 stat line prediction: 24 HR, 97 RBI, .288/.385/.510, 23 SB


2. Asdrubal Cabrera’s Power Numbers Will Decrease…

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    …but his batting average and on-base percentage will improve. When Choo struggled and missed time in 2011, Cabrera was moved from his traditional No. 2 spot in the lineup to third. This naturally produced an increase in his run production (I'll leave the credibility of Orlando Cabrera’s infamous batting practice tips out of the debate as to why Asdrubal’s power numbers increased as much as they did.)

    Like Choo, Asdrubal has a naturally short, contact stroke that makes him an ideal two hitter in any lineup. Last season’s home run total was a pleasant surprise, but Cabrera’s newfound power definitely put a dent in his batting average as the season progressed.

    In spite of this, manager Manny Acta praised Cabera's newfound approach in 2011 following the onslaught of injuries to the team's traditional run producers Choo, Sizemore and Hafner.

    With Acta having already re-slot him to second in the order after announcing his 2012 lineup, I expect the versatile Cabrera to make the necessary adjustments to his swing to fit the team's needs.

    2012 stat line prediction: 15 HR, 69 RBI, .286/.350/.435, 20 SB

3. Carlos Santana’s Power Numbers Will Stay Put…

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    …but his batting average, on-base percentage and run production will increase. Like Cabrera in 2011, Carlos became a little homer-happy as the season wore on. For a player to hit 27 HR and 79 RBI in his first full season is very respectable, but not unexpected in Santana’s case.

    This is a guy who the Indians brought in to literally replace former fan-favorite Victor Martinez. The two share the same number, batting stance, position and both are switch-hitters. Like V-Mart, the Tribe has also split Santana’s time between catcher and first base.

    Another rightful Martinez comparison is Santana’s natural hitting ability. While I don’t anticipate his home run total to ever crack the league leaders, Carlos could very well hit 30+ home runs this season.

    While chicks dig the long-ball, I believe management and fans would prefer to see his batting average and RBI totals increase in 2012. Carlos will improve on an already respectable .351 OBP from 2011 if he is able to focus more on making solid contact than crushing moonshots like this one.

    Santana has a good eye at the plate and tends to be very selective. While 97 walks is an impressive feat for a rookie catcher, I think that number will increase in 2012. Like many Indians, Carlos would do well to cut down on his strikeouts. A solid first-half will likely land Santana his first All-Star nod this season.

    2012 stat line prediction: 26 HR, 88 RBI, .270/.365/.464, 4 SB

4. Jason Kipnis Will Emerge as the Tribe’s Next Star

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    'Kip' will emerge alongside the Choo-Cabrera-Santana trio in 2012 to become a formidable component of the Indians offense. The rookie had an impressive showing In only 36 games last season, and while I don’t anticipate him becoming a 25+ HR slugger, he could very well develop into an electrifying offensive talent.

    As the new preacher of the Cleveland-sports choir, Kipnis endeared himself to Tribe fans in 2011 and won’t do anything but improve his standing in 2012. A nice package of speed, power and athleticism, I anticipate Kipnis replacing Grady Sizemore in 2012 as the next 20/20 star for Cleveland.

    I’m not going to make Roberto Alomar comparisons, because after all, Kipnis is a converted outfielder, but his ceiling is definitely high. There’s something about Kipnis, that, like Jason Donald, just makes him look like a ballplayer.

    I would have been interested to see Kipnis hit out of the leadoff spot as Grady was asked to do in his first full season, until Manny Acta revealed that he’ll be sticking with Michael Brantley. Kipnis will bat seventh for the Tribe on Opening Day, but will inevitably move up as the season progresses.

    2012 stat line prediction: 21 HR, 72 RBI, .276/.335/.450

5. The Offense Will Be Better as a Whole

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    My first three predictions reveal a shocking belief on my part: the Cleveland Indians might show some offensive aptitude in 2012!

    Apart from the respectable contributions of Cabrera and Santana, the rest of the Tribe offense looked hapless throughout 2011. While certain players had some nice hot streaks (Travis Hafner in April, Jack Hannahan in August, Shelley Duncan in September), most struggled to maintain any relative offensive consistency. Cold streaks are to be expected over the course of a 162 game season, but Cleveland´s offense looked downright incompetent at times.

    Manny Acta got his team off to a 30-15 start in 2011 by doing the little things: bunting, stealing bases, moving runners and even trying the intrepid suicide squeeze. The Tribe got themselves in trouble by becoming less and less patient at the plate, and it became painful to watch the team’s unwholesome strikeout total mount as the season wore on.

    The mantra of this season’s offensive attack has got to be on making contact, not trying to hit home runs. The Indians have finished in the top three in the AL in team strikeouts every season since 2005. This is a trend that must be bucked for a team that doesn’t have an overwhelming power arsenal.

    With or without the sporadic contributions of Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, the Tribe offense is in good position to be more consistent in 2012. Unless Justin Masterson starts every game, I wouldn’t expect the Tribe to experience extended team-wide offensive droughts like they did last season.

6. Justin Masterson Will Push Verlander for the Cy Young

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    The first article I ever wrote for Bleacher Report detailed my faith in Justin Masterson. The guy is a workhorse and a bona fide ace in bloom. Had he gotten any run support in 2011, his record would’ve likely been much closer to 17-8 than 12-10. Granted, a pitcher´s win-loss record might be a bloated stat, but wins tend to grab people's attention.

    Although he began to wear down towards season’s end, it’s important to remember that 2011 was only Masterson’s second year as a full-time starter, which is impressive for a guy who logged 216 innings. With great size, and a nasty sinking fastball consistently in the 94-97 MPH range, Masterson has all the intangibles to be a great starting pitcher for years to come. 

    Acta’s decision to tab him the Opening Day starter over the seemingly beleaguered Ubaldo Jimenez will prove a wise choice. If the Indians unimaginably make the one-game Wild Card playoff in 2012,Tribe fans should feel blessed to have the big Jamaican toe the rubber.

    2012 stat line prediction: 17-9, 2.94 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 177 Ks, 225 IP

7. Ubaldo Jimenez Will Continue to Struggle Early…

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    …but begin to pick it up as the season wears on. Everyone knows Jimenez’s story by now. An effective starter for 2-plus seasons in Colorado became a legit ace for the Rockies in 2010 when he got off to one of the most dominating starts in baseball history.

    While the Cleveland Indians likely weren’t anticipating getting 15-1, 2.20 ERA Ubaldo at the trade deadline last season, they definitely expected more in return from their costly investment. Jimenez went just 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 11 underwhelming starts for the Tribe in 2011.

    Jimenez is likely feeling the heat to makes amends for his poor 2011 showing. Like fellow star Shin-Soo Choo, the Tribe is hoping his prolonged slump was an aberration, not a sign of things to come.

    I am confident it was a mere down year for Ubaldo.

    Despite a decline in velocity, shaky mechanics, and a tendency to surrender a lot of baserunners, Jimenez still has great raw stuff. It’s extremely rare to find a hurler who throws six different pitches and throw as hard as Jimenez still can. All Tribe fans would undoubtedly prefer to see the U harness his control and smooth out his mechanics instead of bouncing forkballs to home plate and leaving fastballs up in the strike zone.

    One must remain optimistic that he´s worked to make the necessary adjustments during the offseason. It just doesn’t seem likely that a pitcher who had four years of success pitching in Colorado would turn out to be a complete bust in a pitcher-friendly park like The Jake.

    2012 stat line prediction: 16-11, 3.83 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 206 Ks, 217 IP

8. Derek Lowe Won’t Work out in Cleveland

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    When the Tribe traded low-level prospect Chris Jones for veteran Derek Lowe, it seemed like a typical move of the Cleveland front office: economical, but not game-changing. That the Braves were willing to eat two-thirds of Lowe’s 2012 salary made the deal a low-risk potentially high-reward acquisition.

    The sad truth, however, is that this is 2012, not 2002. The Derek Lowe the Indians got is a far cry from the 21-game winner of a decade ago. After four solid seasons with the Dodgers, Lowe´s three-year stint with the Braves didn’t produce promising results. The 38-year-old sinkerballer may have put together a respectable career, but it’s a career that is clearly on its last legs.

    Lowe hasn't pitched in the American League since 2004. Judging from his late season collapse to an already mediocre season in 2011, it doesn't appear as if he'll find his old form in Cleveland this season. The offensively-superior AL doesn't bode well for an aging finesse pitcher who sported a 5.05 ERA, 1.51 WHIP and 17 losses a season ago.

    Right now, the upper half of the Tribe rotation looks solid (although I do believe Josh Tomlin will regress slightly this season), while the bottom will likely once again serve as a revolving door for at least one of the two spots. Even if the expectation is for Lowe to be the Tribe’s fourth or fifth starter, I still don’t anticipate him remaining in the rotation past June.

    If management is serious about competing in their proclaimed two year window, they will need to take a look at whatever young starting pitching options that remain after last season’s gutting of the farm system. The likely candidates to receive auditions in 2012 include Kevin Slowey, David Huff, Jeanmar Gomez, Zach McAllister and hopefully, Scott Barnes. Roberto Hernandez might also figure into the equation at some point, although I’d assume he’s pitched his last game in Cleveland.

    2012 stat line prediction: 4-8, 5.67 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 70 K, 96.0 IP (17 starts)

9. The Bullpen Will Be Even Better

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    Cleveland’s relief corps has been one of the team’s strengths the past couple seasons, and it looks to be even better in 2012.

    All of the key ‘Bullpen Mafia’ members–Chris and Rafael Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith and Tony Sipp–will be back again this season. Garbage time relievers Chad Durbin and Frank Hermann will not. In their place, the Tribe has a strong of list of new candidates ready to join ‘the family.’ Hard-throwing lefty Nick Hagadone, veteran Dan Wheeler and fast-rising Chen Lee should each get a look filling the final two spots in a solid Tribe ‘pen.

    Many are concerned with closer Chris Perez’s subpar 2011 season and recent oblique injury right out of the gate in spring training. The injury is likely the result of being out-of-shape following the offseason. While not encouraging, it’s certainly not out of the question that Perez could be back for Opening Day.

    As for Perez's elevated ERA and declining strikeout total in 2011, the both were a result of Perez trying to be a bit too fine with his pitches. He seemed to be nibbling too much last season instead of going right at hitters with his fastball. It seemed that Perez threw a lot more sliders and two-seamers last year than he did the previous season when he dominated hitters.

    If Perez's can regain trust in his fastball and attack hitters aggressively, we should see the return of 2010 “Pure Rage” Perez who can rack up strikeouts and maintain a low ERA in addition to saving ball games.

    In the event that Perez goes Kenny Powers, the Indians have a very solid backup option in Vinnie Pestano. Pestano is coming off a very respectable rookie campaign where he surrendered just a .184 AVG and 1.05 WHIP, with a 2.32 ERA and 84 strikeouts in only 62 innings pitched. A closer in college, Pestano did a fine job setting up Perez in the eighth inning, as he finished the season with 23 holds, one less than teammate Tony Sipp, and good for eighth in the AL.

    Sipp shared set-up duties with Pestano in 2011 and was usually very reliable despite having an affliction with the long-ball at times. He’s been in the AL top 10 in games pitched the past two seasons, so it’s evident that Manny Acta has a good deal of confidence in him. Sipp should be pushed to get even better by the emergence of lefty Nick Hagadone, as it's not likely the Tribe will want or need to carry three lefties out of the pen.

    In front of the late inning relievers, the regular duo of Joe Smith and Raffy Perez are both dependable sixth-seventh inning options. Smith’s sidearm delivery makes him tough to get on top of and Perez continues to get hitters out with his sweeping slider.

    If the starters can routinely give five or six good innings, Tribe will be in a position to win more games than they lose. With the myriad of talent in the Tribe bullpen, you could say that in most tight games, Manny Acta will make fans an offer they can’t refuse.”

10. The Indians Will Stay (Relatively) Healthy

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    Youth, inexperience, inconsistency, all these things contributed to the Indians’ gradual decline in 2011. There’s no denying, however, that the principle detriment to the Tribe’s early success was the constant, almost incomprehensible slew of injuries suffered throughout the season.

    Shin-Soo Choo, Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Jack Hannahan, Jason Donald, Josh Tomlin, Carlos Carrasco and Roberto Hernandez all missed extended time due to injury last season. It’s not easy to compete consistently when your projected starting outfield misses a combined 216 games.

    Injuries will undoubtedly rear their ugly head once again this season, as they usually do for most ball clubs throughout the course of a season. The early injuries to both Sizemore and Perez are a tough blow, but neither is an insurmountable impediment.

    Although the Tribe didn’t lure a game-changing free agent in the offseason, their depth acquisitions could certainly prove to pay dividends in the coming weeks. With Grady out and Brantley once again shifting to center field, it will be interesting to see if either Shelley Duncan, Russ Canzler or Aaron Cunningham can seize the opportunity and hold down the left field spot. Surely, none of the three could be worse than Austin Kearns was last season.

    Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of the Tribe’s injury-riddled 2011 season wasn’t the amount, but the timing of the injuries. It seemed as if each player who succumbed to season-jeopardizing injury did so at the peak of effective play.

    Grady Sizemore initially came back strong, only to re-injure his knee and suffer a sports hernia. Carlos Carrasco started to string together a series of good starts until he needed Tommy John surgery to fix an elbow ligament. Shin-Soo Choo finally emerged from his season-long slump in late August, only to fall victim to “trunk soreness.”

    The amount, timing, and variety of injuries sustained by the Tribe in 2011 was a lethal combination that ultimately doomed their season. I can’t imagine the same happening again this year.