Happy Opening Day Eve to you, and welcome back to Tribe Talk, where Bleacher Report's Cleveland Indians fans weigh in on the ups and downs of the club each week throughout the season.
We at Tribe Talk are excited to be back in the swing of things with our weekly Indians roundtable for the 2011 season. This season Tribe Talk will have some new panelists and some new twists, but for those who have been readers since 2010, don't worry: We promise to continue to bicker about Justin Masterson, keep a weather eye on Chris Perez's hair, make fun of Jhonny Peralta every time Detroit is in town (as well as when they aren't) and blame stuff on Trevor Crowe.
This week, we share our observations on how the Tribe looked during Spring Training, size up how current injuries will impact them in the early part of the season, make our best predictions for team award winners at the end of 2011 and discuss which players we love and which ones we love to hate.
I would like to thank this week's participants, Lewie Pollis, Dale Thomas and Jim Piascik for their contributions. This discussion is open to all, so please feel free to comment below and pitch in your thoughts on the questions we're addressing this week.
1. After a disappointing 2010 season, the Tribe entered 2011 Spring Training in a fog of uncertainty. That the team is still rebuilding is clear, but what we've seen this Spring may indicate that the team is farther along than many of us thought they would be.
Based on what you've seen this Spring, do you agree that the Tribe looks better entering 2011 than you would have expected before camp began? How so?
What areas of the team do you think have improved dramatically from 2010? What areas of the team do you think still need a lot of work?
Lewie Pollis: It's hard to get a real feel for a team in a month's worth of exhibition games against minor leaguers. There have been some good signs, particularly with pitching ("Spring Training: Indians' Pitching Isn't As Bad As You Think"), but overall I'd say this spring hasn't changed much.
I'm not too worried about our offense (especially once Chiz, Weglarz, et al come up), but defense is another story for a team with the worst UZR (-60.8) in the league last year.
I'm hoping Carrasco can help improve the AL-worst 3.6 BB/9 rate and ML-low 6.0 K/9 rate and 1.7 K:BB ratio, but I doubt he'll be able to cancel out Carmona, Talbot and Tomlin.
Samantha Bunten: I had a chance to check out the Tribe in person in Arizona this spring and I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. I thought they looked infinitely better than I expected them to, which unfortunately, is not to say they necessarily looked "great". Still, there were some parts of the team that really looked fantastic, even if other facets of the team clearly have a long way to go.
When comparing what we've seen thus far from the 2011 squad to what we saw throughout 2010, there's good and bad news.
Some of the good news: Key players who were injured last season are back and ready to roll (or nearly ready, in Sizemore's case). The left side of the infield (with Orlando Cabrera at second, Jack Hannahan at third and Adam Everett in the utility role) is infinitely better defensively than it was last season, and the bullpen (already solid in 2010) will likely get even better this year. Oh and Trevor is on the DL, where he can't do any damage to the team for at least 60 days.
And now the bad news: The rotation still looks shaky, Matt LaPorta's bat is still not where it needs to be (he hit below the Mendoza Line this Spring) and we're still paying Travis Hafner to hit about 30 percent as well as a DH at his pay grade should, and that doesn't include the cost of ice, elbow braces and salary paid to the Indians PR person who has to explain to the media why Hafner is making $13 million this season at least once a day.
Dale Thomas: I do agree that the Tribe looks better this spring. Our closer is looking totally crazy...huffing and puffing, fighting our own catcher and promptly throwing up on the mound. I mean, this is something tangible. The rosin bag is dead.
As for the rest of it, all we need is to get is a whole bunch of starters to prep the mound.
Jim Piascik: I agree that the team looks farther along than I would've expected. As long as they take care of business once the regular season starts, then things should be looking up for the Tribe.
I think that any dramatic improvement will have to come from young players like Matt LaPorta, Carlos Carrasco and Michael Brantley. I don't expect any abnormal spring training hot streaks to last, but those three need to take a big step this year.
2. During spring training, we saw a few of the Tribe's top prospects put on a great show while they were in major league camp. Lonnie Chisenhall, Cord Phelps, Jason Kipnis and Drew Pomeranz in particular looked outstanding.
None of the above will make the Opening Day roster, as the Indians feel that all of them need more experience and training in the minors before they are promoted.
Do you think any of the above should have made the team? Which of them do you think we'll see called up at some point during this season? Which one do you think will be the first to get a shot at playing in the majors?
Lewie Pollis: As a fan who wants to be entertained, I was obviously disappointed by their demotions (especially Chiz). But as a fan who wants to win, I have ("Lonnie Chisenhall Demoted: Why the Cleveland Indians Might Not Regret It") no problem playing the service clock game with these guys (even if that's not why they didn't make the cut).
Would you rather have these guys on the Opening Day roster this year or in 2017? I'm happy to sacrifice a few months in a season when we're not going to win anyway to get an extra year of team control when we might actually be competitive.
I think Chiz gets the first call because he's the closest to ready, fits the most urgent need (Hannahan's going to "Mayday, Mayday! Why Jack Hannahan Will Be a Catastrophe for Cleveland Indians" crash and burn) and will inspire the most fan excitement.
After him, I'd guess Phelps, Pomeranz, Kipnis.
Samantha Bunten: I think there is a part of all of us that was hoping to see Chiz on the Opening Day roster. But from a practical perspective, starting Chiz off in Triple-A is absolutely the right thing to do. Provided he isn't called up until mid-season, it preserves the team's rights to him for an additional year, plus while his bat is certainly major-league ready, his defense and baserunning still need a little polishing.
That said, Chiz will likely be the first guy of the four we see called up this season, unless an injury forces the team to call up Phelps for middle infield help. Even if such circumstances don't occur, we'll likely see Phelps before too long anyway (especially because, with Chiz at third and Kipnis at second, he's really without a position in Triple-A).
A call-up for Kipnis is also a possibility, though I expect that barring unforeseen circumstances, we won't see him or Pomeranz much before the rosters are expanded in September.
Dale Thomas: Chisenhall will likely be the first to be called up, as long as he can stay out of the doghouse for running through stop signs at third... but hey! He can hammer the baseball, which gets him on base so he can get thrown out later.
I also expect Pomeranz to get a chance since we're still searching for a starter who can throw a baseball somewhere near home plate.
Jim Piascik:I think that Chisenhall should be the starting third baseman and Kipnis or Phelps should be the starting second baseman. I would've sent the loser of the Kipnis/Phelps battle to Triple-A and started Pomeranz in A-ball no matter what. Pomeranz has had no minor league time yet.
Hopefully, all of them but Pomeranz will make it to Cleveland this year. I think that Phelps will be first based on the fact that he's had the most time at Triple-A of the three.
3. The Indians will start 2011 with a couple of key players on the DL. Grady Sizemore, Jason Donald, Joe Smith and Trevor Crowe will all miss the beginning of the season with injuries.
How much do you think these players' temporary absence will affect the team's success? Aside from Sizemore, which one do you think the Tribe will miss the most while they recover from their respective ailments?
And speaking of Sizemore, do you think he'll make a full recovery and be able to play like the All-Star he once was, or do you think he'll never again be capable of quite the same caliber of play?
Lewie Pollis: It's not going to make much of a difference. Hannahan's luck is going to run out and Kearns' ("Austin Kearns DUI Case: Everything You Need to Know") off-field issues may catch up to him, but this team wasn't going to contend anyway. Having these guys out for a few weeks won't mean the difference between "mediocre" and "train wreck."
I'm not betting on a return to peak levels for Sizemore. It's safe to chalk up his power and speed declines to his health problems, but his decline in fielding and, more importantly, plate discipline can't be blamed on injuries: Last year, his walk rate fell to 6.4 percent and his O-Swing rate ballooned to 33 percent. That's a small sample, but it's not that small, and it's a huge departure from his track record.
Earlier this offseason, I projected here that Sizemore would hit 258/.321/.433 with 25 homers, 17 steals, and 3.2 WAR if he was fully healthy and played 162 games. Obviously the counting stats will take a hit now that we know he's missing time and he'll probably be more conservative on the base paths, but we're still looking at a solid player—just not an All-Star.
Samantha Bunten: First off, a big thanks to Trevor, who did us all a huge favor by putting himself on the DL for the next two months.
The absence of Sizemore and Smith will hurt. Obviously, we need Sizemore's glove, bat and speed back in the mix in order for the team to be successful. Luckily, if he really returns in mid-April as he has said he expects to, the amount of time we're without him will be negligible. I also think the bullpen will miss Smith (he's very underrated), though like Sizemore, he'll hopefully be back before his absence will do much damage.
Initially I liked Donald as the starting third baseman, and I'll be eager to get him back to see what he can do, but I'm not sure he provides all that big an advantage over Jack Hannahan at third. Donald is probably the better hitter of the two, though perhaps not by much, and Hannahan is clearly a better defender, so this one is kind of a wash.
As for whether Sizemore can get back to being the kind of player he once was, I think it's still too early to tell. I'll say this much though: even if he never gets back to the 30/30 caliber play we saw from him in 2008, I am 100 percent confident that once he's healthy, he will again be a tremendous asset and significant contributor to our team.
Dale Thomas: We totally need Sizemore in every aspect of the game. We also need Joe Smith for the anonymity of his name...and maybe for putting some zeros on the board.
Trevor will create success for the team as long as he is on the DL and not playing, and Donald just doesn't matter to me.
If Sizemore is truly recovered, I see no reason why he won't be the same player he used to be at the plate. Fielding and running the bases, however, should be approached with caution.
I can't think of a single diving catch that's worth risking another season and/or another microfracture surgery...unless I bet on the game where he watches one drop...
Jim Piascik: I think that they'll miss Jason Donald the most. He's a scrappy player that would've fit right in as the starting third baseman. The other two are small role players and won't be missed all that much.
I think that Sizemore won't be the same elite player he was, but I think he can be a useful player. Instead of being one of the league's best, I think he can be the third or fourth best player on the Tribe.
4. Let's take a moment to predict a few player awards and the like for the 2011 season. Please make your best guess for each of the following, and we'll review them at the end of the season and see how we did:
A. Team Offensive MVP
Lewie Pollis: Shin-Soo Choo
Samantha Bunten: Shin-Soo Choo
Dale Thomas: Carlos Santana if the knee holds up
Jim Piascik: Shin-Soo Choo
B. Team Defensive MVP
Lewie Pollis: Shin-Soo Choo
Samantha Bunten: Lou Marson. Yes, our best defensive player is a backup.
Dale Thomas: Carlos Santana if the knee holds up
Jim Piascik: Asdrubal Cabrera
C. Starting Pitcher Cy Young
Lewie Pollis: Justin Masterson
Samantha Bunten: Fausto Carmona, by default. Sadly, 14 wins is the number to shoot for to top the highest win total any Indians starter posted in 2010. Aim high.
Dale Thomas: Cy wonders how this question could possibly apply to the Indians.
Jim Piascik: Fausto Carmona
D. Relief Pitcher Cy Young
Lewie Pollis: Chris Perez
Samantha Bunten: Chris Perez. I think it's the hair.
Dale Thomas: Chris Perez, since Andy Marte is gone.
Jim Piascik: Chris Perez
E. Most Improved
Lewie Pollis: Michael Brantley
Samantha Bunten: Michael Brantley
Dale Thomas: Justin Masterson? Okay, maybe not, but he would have to do SO little to get this award...I'm sticking with it.
Jim Piascik: Matt LaPorta
F. Biggest Disappointment
Lewie Pollis: (Jhonny Peralta), Mitch Talbot
Samantha Bunten: Matt Laporta
Dale Thomas: Justin Masterson. You just know it.
Jim Piascik: Orlando Cabrera
G. Breakout Player of the Year
Lewie Pollis: Lonnie Chisenhall
Samantha Bunten: Lonnie Chisenhall. The Tribe will finally have a legitimate third baseman. Believe it.
Dale Thomas: Lonnie Chisenhall. Dude is gonna light up the house
Jim Piascik: Matt LaPorta
H. Indians record, and where they'll finish in the AL Central
Lewie Pollis: 74-88, fourth place.
Samantha Bunten: 82-80. The Tribe will finally post a winning season, but only by the narrowest possible margin, and finish third in the Central.
Jim Piascik: I'll go optimistic. 81-81 and third in the AL Central.
5. Fun Question of the Week: As baseball fans, we all have our favorite players and players we love to hate. Sometimes the reasoning for it is logical and based on what the players can do on the field, and sometimes, well, we just get attached to a guy for no reason at all or dislike a guy for reasons we can't explain.
Who are your two favorite 2011 Indians, and why?
Who are you two least favorite 2011 Indians, and why?
Lewie Pollis: Boy, this is hard. As the Tribe's best player and the most underappreciated player in baseball, Choo has to be on here by default. I'm forced to forsake my man crush on Masterson to take Santana as my second pick. A 25-year-old catcher with solid power and tremendous plate discipline—how can I say no to that?
My least favorite Indian is easy—Austin Kearns. Getting busted for a DUI, trying to use his celebrity (what little there is of it) to get off the hook, not telling the team, blaming his lawyer for his keeping it a secret and showing no concern for the fact that he's facing 120 days jail time. Remember, this is the guy we brought in to provide veteran leadership.
After that, I don't really know. I guess I'd say Mitch Talbot for his sub-5.0 K/9 rate and 1.3 K:BB ratio, but that just means he's a bad player, not a bad person. Is it too late to say Jhonny Peralta?
Samantha Bunten: Sizemore is, was, and always will be at the top of my list. His work ethic, humility and respect for the game make him infinitely likable even when he's not putting up All-Star type numbers.
I'm also a huge Brantley fan and I also have to give a nod to Lou Marson here, bench player or not.
You all already know my least favorite…it's good to be back in season again so we have a good excuse to return to blaming things on Trevor, whether he's on the DL or not. My other least favorites (Nix and Marte) were FINALLY traded away, so that they can torture other teams this season. No telling how Chris Antonetti will do as a GM just yet, but he gets a high-five for his house cleaning skills going into the start of 2011.
Dale Thomas: My favorites are Sizemore and Choo. Grady works hard, plays hard and is about the nicest guy in the world. I will hold Sizemore in the highest regard whether he recovers or not. I like Choo for quietly being an outstanding baseball player.
My least favorites are Masterson and Crowe. Masterson for being part of a horrible trade (I don't care that it's not his fault), and Crowe for playing like he isn't awake...ever.
Jim Piascik: I love Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera the most. I love Choo because he's vastly (and unfairly) underrated. If you rank all major league players by WAR, he finished second (behind only Evan Longoria). Better than Albert Pujols. He's something special.
I love Asdrubal Cabrera mostly because he reminds me of Omar Vizquel. I miss the 1995 and 1997 teams I grew up loving. Also, I played shortstop. Certainly doesn't hurt.
I hate Travis Hafner and Orlando Cabrera. With Hafner, it's simply the fact that his contract is killing the Tribe. He's a decent player, but that chunk of money is a major drag on what the organization can do.
I hate Orlando Cabrera because I hated that signing. I would've much rather seen Kipnis or Phelps get the job. Cabrera's not the player he once was and he's too old to start for a rebuilding Tribe team.