It’s pretty clear that the AL central is the Detroit Tigers' division to lose. But don’t discount the Cleveland Indians. Despite their lack of offseason moves, this team looks every bit like a sleeper—especially when you consider how the Angels, Rangers, Red Sox, Tigers and Yankees have already been etched into the five playoff spots.
What makes the Indians postseason chances not all that far-fetched is that they were hit harder by the injury bug last season than any competitive team in baseball. The key word in that last sentence is competitive. Not even the Red Sox or Braves could blame their disastrous collapse on injuries.
The Tigers, meanwhile, weren’t just one of the more healthy teams in baseball—they were one of the more overachieving clubs. While the Indians had their fair share of overachieving players, they had an equal amount of underachievers.
There will be a time and place to pick apart the Tigers' chances at a division crown (tomorrow), but for now I’ll just focus on the Indians.
A Motivated Derek Lowe
Derek Lowe began last season 0-5 and never recovered. Atlanta actually may have overreacted in eating up the majority of his remaining salary when they traded him to Cleveland. Everyone is going into 2012 viewing Derek Lowe as a write-off. I wouldn’t be too sure about that. If there’s one Indian I could see surprising critics in 2012, Derek Lowe is my bet.
Couldn’t you see the low-spending, bargain-hunting Cleveland Indians luck out with Lowe? That seems to be the way it’s worked of late for the Tribe. You’d have to assume the fact that Atlanta was willing to eat up so much of his salary when they traded him will motivate the 38-year-old Lowe. When you’re this far into your career with nothing much left to gain, that’s just about the only thing that can motivate you.
Last season Lowe had a bad year going 9-17. Because he is 38, all we really remember is what we’ve seen lately. But keep in mind that Lowe went 16-12 in 2010 and 15-10 in 2009. He may be past the days of his prime, but that doesn’t mean we should automatically disregard the laws of averages and assume he won’t return to his career norm this season. For all we know this guy is the next Jamie Moyer.
Shin-Soo Choo’s Return
Choo was actually one of the best hitters in the American League in 2009 and 2010 (.300/.397/.486). But not many outside of Cleveland know this because the Indians were unwatchable those years.
Last season Choo struggled greatly. He spent time on the DL as well as in the back of a cop car. Choo may not regain his old form in 2012, but it’s a safe bet to assume he doesn’t have a repeat performance of last year. And any improvement from last year will help this team; that’s just how horrible he was.
Also, it would appear Choo is on good terms with his country after spending two months of the offseason serving the Korean military. He’s also sporting a wicked tattoo on his forearm.
Asdrubal Cabrera’s New Look
It’s almost a given that Cabrera won’t put up the type of numbers he did last season, (post All-Star break Cabrera is what we’re likely to see); however, I’ve recently changed my 2012 outlook on Cabrera.
The guy looks like he gained 300 pounds in the offseason. This is never a good thing. Or is it? I like the fact that Cabrera put on weight. He’s already a below average fielder (as far as the statistics show), so is it such a bad thing he’s taking the Miguel Cabrera route and realizing the physics of baseball in that more mass equals more power? I guess we’ll see.
Just know that, in the post-steroid era of baseball, pound packing has proven to be a nice alternative. I mean, the Tigers are supposed to win the AL Central for a reason, and that reason is that they have Cabrera and Fielder. Notice any physical similarities between the two? Notice how the Tribe’s best power hitter, Carlos Santana, is a little saggy in the mid section?
Last season Kipnis led the league in at-bats to home runs ratio. (19.4). He didn’t have many at bats (136) but when you compare his power with that of Orlando Cabrera last season, Kipnis is a giant offensive upgrade.
Brantley looked great in the early part of last season but trailed off as the year wore on. From month to month Brantley was an inconsistent hitter. But he’s only 24. He’s younger than Jason Kipnis. So there’s a lot more upside than downside.
Casey Kotchman’s Bat (and Glove)
We know all about what he brings defensively and we’re quick to discount his bat. He’s a career .267 hitter, but last season he batted .306, good for eighth best in the AL. That average is uncharacteristic to the point that it’s interesting. Laporta had some good moments last season but nothing spectacular. Kotchman will produce better than you think on the offensive end.
Finally, I don’t have to use terms like "expected regression," "hopeful-expected improvement," "underachiever," or "overachiever" for Santana. That’s because he’s is the only true star player. It’s a given he will continue to improve. Remember he’ll be 26 in April and has only played seven months of big league ball. In a recent column, ESPN’s Tristan Cockcroft pointed out that Santana has improved his OPS in every single month, with the exception of June 2011, when his OPS dropped two points, from .787 in May to .785. What makes Santana’s upside so great is that his measurable power (ISO) is among the tops in the game. He’s also a walk machine.
The lack of attention that Hafner is receiving this spring is surprising because last season it was evident that he found his old stroke (13 home runs in 325 at bats). Like Choo, Hafner spent a ton of time on the DL last year. If he can remain healthy for the majority of the season he could provide a big dose of run production. Remember that he’ll be hitting behind Santana who was among the league leaders in walks and OBP. I’m not going to count on Hafner staying healthy, but the fact that he’s gone unscathed thus far through spring training is a positive sign.