Cleveland Indians' Biggest Winners and Losers of the Offseason so Far
The Indians have quite a few more losers than winners this offseason.
This is largely the result of the front office's apparent readiness to sit idly by as teams in the American League—and more importantly the AL Central—get better.
The Indians have made one move that will actually help the team, and that's the signing of David Murphy.
Signing John Axford looks to be a wash given his recent track record in comparison to former Indians' closer Chris Perez, and the rest of the signings help only to improve minor-league depth.
Because the offseason is drawing closer and closer to its end, we can assess the team and find who won and lost the offseason—at least to this point anyway—and that's just what we've done here. So sit back and enjoy, or possibly weep, as this offseason's winners and losers are dished out over the next seven slides.
Loser: Terry Francona, the Pitching Staff and Just About Everybody
Last season, Francona was able to take a good group of players with solid chemistry and make them into a playoff team. This year, Francona may not even have the talent present to will the team to a second place finish in the AL Central.
Last year, the pitching staff turned in a great performance, allowing a combined 3.82 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP with per-nine ratios of 8.6 K/9, 3.5 BB/9 and 8.5 H/9.
Going into the 2014 season, though, the Indians' rotation and bullpen will feature quite a few new faces. The team has already allowed for closer Chris Perez, reliever Joe Smith and starter Scott Kazmir to move on to greener pastures, and starter Ubaldo Jimenez could very well move on as well.
To remedy the losses of those four pitchers, the Indians added John Axford, and, well.. that's about it.
The Tribe will certainly benefit from Danny Salazar stepping into the rotation full-time, but there's been nothing done to compensate for the loss of two starters and the team's best reliever in Smith.
In fact, even the Axford signing is downgrade if you look at his previous two seasons of production compared to Perez's over the same span.
All in all, the Indians pitching staff will almost undoubtedly take a step back from the level of success they attained last season.
Offensively, the Indians stood pat, and given their rankings in the AL last season—top-10 in runs, total bases, OBP, AVG, SLG and OPS+ (per-Baseball-Reference.com)—, that may not be such a bad thing.
However, when you see AL Central teams like the Tigers and Royals getting better, as well as those who missed out on the playoffs—e.g. Seattle, Texas and the Yankees—it's hard to see how the Indians could be content with only adding David Murphy.
Francona's a loser this offseason for the simple fact that they're sending him out there with less to work with on the mound, at the plate and in the field.
Fans and the organization will have high expectations, but it'll be tough to replicate the success they experienced last season given their current roster.
Winner: Yan Gomes
If any player on the Indians roster was a winner this offseason, it's Yan Gomes.
Gomes was essentially a throw-in from the trade that brought Mike Aviles to Cleveland, but if his 2013 season was any indication, the 26-year-old seems poised to take over full-time catching duties.
Gomes split time behind the plate last season with Carlos Santana—who also DH'd and played a bit of first base. In that role, Gomes surprised everybody and excelled to the tune of a .294/.345/.481 slash line with 11 home runs, 18 doubles, 38 RBI and 45 runs scored over just 293 at-bats.
This year, though, it looks as though Carlos Santana will transition to third base, at least in a part-time role. The move should open up enough room for Gomes to start somewhere between 130 and 140 games behind the plate this season.
It's hard to argue against Gomes as the better catcher, especially when you consider the way the team pitched when he was behind the plate in comparison to Santana.
Gomes upcoming season as the full-time starter will also serve as an audition for a pay increase when he becomes arbitration eligible after the 2015 season, and that's always a good thing for a young player.
Loser: Nick Swisher
By signing David Murphy, the Cleveland Indians effectively squashed the idea of Nick Swisher returning to the outfield anytime soon.
The team's two other outfield spots were pretty well locked down with Michael Brantley in left and Michael Bourn patrolling center. With one outfield spot up for grabs, the team could have gone in a slightly more desirable direction—at least as far as offense is concerned—and moved Nick Swisher to right field.
Consider Swisher's offensive rankings among American League first basemen (per MLB.com).
|AL Rankings||11th||8th||15th||8th (most)||2nd||12th||10th||16th||7th|
As a first baseman, Swisher's bat becomes very average—borderline below-average.
If the Indians were going to maximize their run-scoring potential, they would have been better suited moving him to right field and signing a middle-of-the-order threat like Kendrys Morales.
The offensive rankings pertain more to the Indians than Swisher, but Swisher himself is a loser in the fact that he'll continue to play first base, a position he does not play particularly well.
Even after accounting for the fact that Swisher has played just over twice as many innings in right field, the numbers still favor him as a right fielder. With 54 percent less chances in right field, Swisher has made nearly four times as many plays outside of his fielding zone.
In addition to better range in right field, Swisher's UZR/150 and TZL rankings are significantly higher in right field than they are at first base, giving further credence to the idea of him being better suited for starting duty in right field.
The Indians dropped the ball on a perfect opportunity to bolster their defense, while also improving their offense by moving Swisher to a position more appropriate for his offensive contributions.
Winner: John Axford
If John Axford isn't a winner this offseason, than nobody is.
After successive seasons of closing efforts that would make any fan wet himself in panic, Axford managed to land the job as the Tribe's closer in 2014.
Consider Axford's stats over the past two seasons—including his stint as a set-up man in St. Louis late last year.
Axford did see his ERA and BB/9 totals decrease between 2012 and 2013, but he failed to convert on a single one of his seven save opportunities, and his WHIP, K/9, K/BB, H/9 and HR/9 figures all regressed as well.
It's hard to see what the Indians value in Axford as a closer at this point, but it's clear that they're banking on him returning to his pre-2012 form when Axford was a shutdown closer for the Brewers.
If he's unable to do so, then the Indians bullpen and the team in general will suffer in 2014 as they'll be forced to scramble in an attempt to fill the void they created by cutting Chris Perez.
Loser: Francisco Lindor
Coming into the offseason, there was an outside shot that Francisco Lindor could break camp as the Indians' Opening Day starter in 2014.
Prior to the 2013 season, trade rumors circulated that Asdrubal Cabrera could be dealt to a number of teams—mostly the Cardinals. The team chose to hold onto Cabrera though—even through trade-deadline rumors—and the move backfired.
Cabrera and the Indians saw his value drop following a season in which he posted a .242/.299/.402 slash line with 14 home runs, 64 RBI and 66 runs scored.
Curiously, although there were several teams who again needed shortstops—the Cardinals come to mind again—the Indians held with Cabrera again and look ready to enter the 2014 season with he and Mike Aviles set to man the position.
Even if the Indians did trade Cabrera, they may have rolled with Mike Aviles as their starting shortstop.
This would stall Lindor's arbitration clock, but he would have had a very real chance at the job. Now, unless Cabrera is dealt late this offseason—unlikely given the recent lack of rumors—then Lindor will likely begin the season in Triple-A.
Lindor is one of baseball's top prospects and will get his chance to win the position soon enough. However, by holding on to Cabrera through the offseason, Lindor loses out on the Opening Day starting gig.
Winner: Michael Brantley
When Drew Stubbs was traded away, Michael Brantley became a winner this offseason.
Brantley had a career year in 2013, but with the early signing of David Murphy, the Indians outfield became rather crowded between Brantley, Stubbs, Murphy, Michael Bourn and Ryan Raburn.
By dealing Stubbs, Brantley is guaranteed to receive starting reps in left field, which is good for both he and the Indians.
Last year, over 151 games—556 at-bats—Brantley posted a .284/.332/.396 slash line with 10 home runs, 26 doubles, 73 RBI, 66 runs scored and 17 stolen bases. Brantley is still just 26, entering the prime of his career and has the potential for 15-20 and even 20-20 seasons down the line.
Brantley isn't the best left fielder as evidenced by his career UZR/150 and TZ ratings of -1.7 and -1.6 respectively, but he is serviceable. The Indians will surely benefit from keeping his bat in the lineup every day over the possible platoon that could have surfaced if Stubbs was kept on board.
Loser: Indians Defense
As mentioned earlier on in the Nick Swisher slide, the Indians' defense is also a loser this offseason.
While the team was able to provide themselves a significant upgrade behind the plate by clearing the way for Yan Gomes to take over full-time catching duties, the rest of the defense will take a step back in 2014.
So far this season, the Indians have seen their defensive alignment shuffle a bit, and the current infield has Gomes behind the plate, Swisher at first, Jason Kipnis at second, Carlos Santana at third and Asdrubal Cabrera at short. The outfield will have Michael Brantley in left, Michael Bourn in center and David Murphy in right with Ryan Raburn working as a bench bat/fourth outfielder.
Last year, as a team, the Indians ranked ninth in the AL in RF/G and their 4.09 mark was also lower than the 4.29 league average. Additionally, their defensive efficiency percentage—the percentage of balls in play converted to outs—clocked in at a paltry .683, good for 12th in the AL.
The Indians were a below-average defensive team in 2013, and it's going to get worse in 2014.
Last year, Cabrera finished with a DRS of -16, and a UZR/150 of -16.8. This year, his range will be tested even more as Santana shifts to third base.
Santana wasn't a very good defensive first baseman, and if his career Rtz rating of -8—taken from his minor league games as a third baseman—is any indication, then he's not going to be a very good third baseman either.
We've already highlighted Swisher's shortcomings as a first baseman, but even Kipnis has some deficiencies in his game. For his career, Kipnis owns DRS and UZR/150 ratings of 0 and -4.2 respectively.
In short, the Indians infield defense is a disaster outside of Gomes. Unfortunately for the coaching and pitching staffs, the outfield defense isn't great either.
We've already examined Brantley as an average left fielder, and Bourn is coming off one of his worst defensive seasons—3 DRS and -0.9 UZR/150. In right field, Murphy is adequate, given his career DRS of 5 and career UZR/150 of 10.3.
Murphy has played left field more throughout his career, but it's likely that he'll shift to right to accommodate the younger player in Brantley. With Murphy in a less familiar position, the Indians outfield defense still looks better than the infield.
Decreased defensive capabilities around the diamond lead to more runs on a pitcher's stat sheet, and higher ERAs could easily translate to more losses for a team that had to play lights out over the final few weeks in order to make the playoffs.