Cleveland Indians 2011 MLB Preview: 10 Things That Must Go Right To Rock the AL

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IMarch 15, 2011

Cleveland Indians 2011 MLB Preview: 10 Things That Must Go Right To Rock the AL

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    Carlos Santana was only eight years old when the Cleveland Indians opened the doors to Jacobs Field in 1994. That team already featured Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and others, and they would add and subtract All-Stars throughout the next decade as fans poured through the turnstiles in record fashion.

    A decade and a half later, the park goes by Progressive Field, but little progress seems to be occurring. Cleveland fans led the league in staying home in 2010. Meanwhile, the team itself had no breakout stars, saw its only big-name prospect arrive and get hurt and won only 69 games.

    The Tribe are no great shakes going into 2011, either, though perhaps they will at least keep more fans entertained. It is the time for optimism, to be sure, but the Indians will have a long uphill climb toward the sort of glory to which their fans grew accustomed during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Here are 10 things that have to go right for this team to reach the World Series.

    This is the eighth in a series of pieces listing 10 things that would have to go right for each MLB team to win a pennant this season. To find out when your favorite team's article comes out, follow me on the twitter @MattTrueblood, or sign up for your team's Bleacher Report newsletter.

1. Carlos Santana Hits Big

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    Santana showed the baseball world his best stuff in an abbreviated rookie season. He came up on June 11 and went down—with a knee injury, not any want of talent—on Aug. 2. In the meantime, he batted .260/.401/.467 with 37 walks, 29 strikeouts and six home runs in 192 big-league plate appearances. He also played above-average defense. A switch-hitting monster, Santana profiles as a superstar.

    Unfortunately, it's impossible to know whether or not Santana will bounce back from reconstructive knee surgery until he does it, or until he doesn't. He appears to be at full strength already, so unless something suggests otherwise, expect Santana to play up to his potential at age 25 this year. This guy has a world of potential, and if he puts it together (i.e., a .900-plus OPS with his good defense along for the ride), the Indians have a top-three catcher and some five wins or so above replacement.

2. Lonnie Chisenhall Is Ready, and He Proves It

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    Lonnie Chisenhall, the Indians' top prospect, has a good shot at winning the Opening Day third base job if Jason Donald does not prove healthy, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. At worst, it seems now as if Chisenhall will arrive in the big leagues by late June.

    Chisenhall is not a game-changing young player. He will be a solid but not elite contributor at third base, hitting for good-not-great power and drawing enough walks to boost his OBP without striking out to excess. He will probably be a .280/.350/.450 guy with a good glove at the hot corner.

    Compare that, though, to the Indians' recent returns at third base: 

    Player OPS WAR
    Jhonny Peralta .737 5.9
    Jamey Carroll .698 2.8
    Casey Blake .830 1.5

    Both Peralta and Carroll needed multiple seasons to compile those statistics, so Chisenhall's upside puts him far ahead of each in terms of value. Still, he needs to step up and make a significant and immediate contribution if the Indians want to get better soon.

3. Carlos Carrasco Becomes the Ace

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    Carlos Carrasco should have some novelty t-shirts printed: "My team traded Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco and all they got was me and Jason bleepin' Donald!"

    Yet, Carrasco is a real talent and looked better than ever in 2010. He totaled 195 innings between Triple-A and the parent club, with sub-4.00 ERA numbers at each level. He projects as a slightly above-average strikeout guy but a far above-average control pitcher. His fastball is not special but he keeps it low in the zone, and his curve and changeup can be very tough when he has them. Carrasco is a solid pitcher already but he is young and has a live arm, so the upside is huge here. If Carrasco reaches or even approaches his potential, the Indians' run prevention gets a huge boost from added depth in their rotation.

4. Grady Sizemore Gets and Stays Healthy

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    If you don't know what Grady Sizemore is capable of, you did not follow baseball closely enough from 2005-08. That Sizemore was an utter joy to watch, an antelope in center field and a true triple-threat on offense: he drew walks, hit for power and ran like the wind.

    That Sizemore may or may not ever be back, even for a short spurt. This Sizemore, the Sizemore pictured at left, is 28 with the legs of a 38-year-old. He lost the massive majority of last season to knee microfractures, and still is not ready to play in games as of Tuesday. He probably will not be ready for Opening Day.

    Say he gets healthy, though. Say he returns, not all the way, but some of the way to the form that made him by far the best center fielder by WAR from 2005-08. Say Sizemore, just 28 remember, still has some pop and some speed and some defensive instincts left. Why is any of that impossible?

    It isn't. Sizemore could be a 20/20 guy again with good center-field defense and patience at the plate. If it comes to fruition, the Indians have one heck of an outfield with Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo holding down two spots.

5. Michael Brantley Keeps His Momentum

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    If Sizemore is healthy enough to play most of the season in center field, the Indians essentially have one remaining outfield spot. It will go, at least for now, to Michael Brantley.

    Brantley will turn just 24 in May, so his struggles in two partial seasons of big-league experience need not turn Indians fans off permanently. He battled injuries and demotions last season, but his numbers after Aug. 6 (.292/.332/.390 with eight stolen bases) may portend well for 2011. This kid has real speed and the potential to provide good depth near the bottom of the Indians lineup, and the team needs him to provide that sort of production in order to have a balanced lineup rather than a collection of base-clogging plodders from the sixth spot on down.

6. Last-Chance Grab Baggers Come Through

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    Whereas their neighbors to the north were among the most aggressive teams early in the winter, the Indians waited until very late in the offseason to make some key additions.

    • On Feb. 16, they signed Orlando Cabrera to shore up their middle infield.
    • On Mar. 1, they added Chad Durbin to their bullpen.
    • On Mar. 7, they signed Nick Johnson as a DH and first baseman.

    Along with guys (Adam Everett, Austin Kearns) collected early in the offseason after being cast off, those three represent what the Indians do in free agency almost every winter: They embrace the notion of clubhouse chemistry and so add veterans whom no one else much wants for bargain prices.

    This year, though, they need more than good attitudes from some of those players. Durbin has the potential to solidify their bullpen. Cabrera adds depth to their middle infield and allows them not to rely on Luis Valbuena. Everett insures the team against further injury to Asdrubal Cabrera and is an exceptional defender of a premium position. Johnson and Kearns both offer the potential to take pressure off young players and hit well with the platoon advantage.

    That is the pretty side of the coin. But these are sturdy players who, when healthy, have generally produced good results and have even experienced winning in October. Cleveland will not lean on them heavily, but they need good numbers in small samples from the veterans when their numbers are called.

7. Defense Wins Championships for This Squad

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    The Indians' home park inexplicably but consistently encourages ground balls rather than flies or line drives. That works out well for them since their three most important pitchers—Justin Masterson, Fausto Carmona and Carrasco—are groundball guys. This year, it could also work out well because the team's infield defense is as deep as that of any squad in baseball.

    Everett and Orlando Cabrera are former Gold Glove winners at shortstop, and deserved those awards. Even so, Orlando Cabrera will play primarily at second base. Meanwhile, Chisenhall and Donald are solid defensive third basemen. Valbuena has the potential to be the best defensive second baseman on the squad. Asdrubal Cabrera is very slick at shortstop, too, when he is at 100 percent. The Indians should be able to prevent runs by getting a lot more outs on ground balls than most clubs, and the pitching will only benefit.

8. Justin Masterson Develops His Changeup

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    Masterson is an underrated pitcher as it is. He throws a four-seam and two-seam fastball, the latter much more often and with the result of tons and tons of grounders against him. Masterson's slider also works well, as he keeps it down and gets right-handed hitters out consistently with it. It shows up in the numbers: Masterson's FIP against right-handed batters was 2.96 in 2010.

    Against left-handed hitters, though, Masterson's FIP last year was 4.78. The reason is his changeup, which is a subpar pitch right now but still his chief weapon against lefties. He has fine arm action on the pitch, but he seems to leave the changeup in the zone much too often. As a result, he threw it very rarely in 2010, relying instead on his fastball combo more heavily than any other starting hurler in baseball last year.

    If Masterson wants to improve against the left-handed batters who so harried him last season, he must take a step forward with the changeup in 2011. If he does, he becomes a sub-4.00 ERA guy with good strikeout upside.

9. Fausto Carmona Misses Some Bats

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    Never a strikeout guy, Carmona prefers to follow Masterson's formula of ground balls and get outs with few pitches. Unfortunately, unlike Masterson, Carmona lacks the raw stuff to miss bats even by happenstance. He has never fanned even six batters per nine innings over a full season with the Indians, and his swinging strike percentage is well below average.

    Carmona tried to change that somewhat by throwing his slider more frequently in 2010, but to little effect. In order for him to become a solid number two starter, Carmona must favor that slider (and his changeup) even more and try to avert some contact.

10;. Chris Perez Hones His Slider

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    Chris Perez, longtime future closer, became present closer at the end of 2010. He has the stuff for it, frequently topping 95 miles per hour with his fastball and pairing it with a power slider. Perez is intimidating and should strike out a lot of batters.

    Unfortunately, his strikeout rate actually fell off precipitously in 2010. What went wrong? Perez threw his slider up in the zone too much. More specifically, he elevated the pitch too often against left-handed hitters. Against righties, that high slider often led to whiffs or buckled knees after the ball appeared to be coming right at them. For left-handers, though, those high sliders do not look dangerous: They look like batting-practice fastballs. Perez went to the slider in the strike zone much more often in 2010 than in 2009, and it left him with fewer whiffs and more susceptibility to the home run.