Cleveland sports fans know it’s neither easy nor convenient being a loyal fan of their Cavaliers, Browns and Indians.
With the Cavaliers in the midst of the post-LeBron Era rebuild, and the Browns continuing to get punked by James Harrison and the rival Steelers, can the Tribe salvage a bit of pride for the city?
Will the Indians build on their promising, but ultimately unsatisfying 2011 season, or will they slide back into the obscurity that is second place in the AL Central?
Could Jose Lopez turn back the clock to his 2009 form in 2012?
It seems that whatever "surprising deal" Indians GM Chris Antonetti was hinting at back at the Dallas winter meetings wasn’t quite what Tribe fans had been hoping for.
No Michael Cuddyer. No Josh Willingham. No Yonder Alonso. Instead, the Tribe signed Felix Pie and Jose Lopez to minor league contracts, and traded promising reliever Cory Burns to the Padres for outfielder Aaron Cunningham. 111 career home runs in 1,503 career games played between the three. Not exactly the "pop" many had in mind. I’d be surprised if either Pie or Cunningham make the final 25-man roster out of spring training.
The one possible exception could be Lopez, who averaged 15 HR, 77 RBI, a .269 BA and a .310 OBP during his five seasons as an everyday starter from 2006-2010. Barring further unforeseen moves by Antonetti, Lopez will likely serve as Matt LaPorta’s competition for the starting job at first.
Where Lopez does offer a recent track record of some pop—he hit 25 HR in 2009—he has an atrocious .294 career OBP. The guy simply does not draw walks. The most he’s drawn for a season was in 2009, when he walked 27 times in 644 ABs.
Lopez’s production has skidded following two promising seasons in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, he hit just .239 with a .270 OBP in 150 games for the Mariners. He hit just .216 with a .245 OBP in 82 games last season with the Rockies and Marlins. Maybe a move back to the American League will boost his numbers, but right now, the Tribe is battling two guys for their starting first base job who’ve never been able to battle their way on base.
With the Tribe roster set to look the same in 2012 as it did in 2011, how can an 80-win squad have any hope of overtaking the Tigers, who only strengthened their bullpen after signing Octavio Dotel? Let's start with the offense.
In 2011, Cleveland was led offensively by shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. While A-Cab made his mark in his first three seasons as a defensive star who hit for average, 2011 brought out the untapped power in Cabrera’s arsenal.
He managed to stay relatively consistent throughout the season, although his average dipped a bit in the second half. Overall, he put together an extremely productive season, hitting .273 with 25 HR, 92 RBI, 87 R, 17 SB, and a .332 OBP.
In 2012, I expect Cabrera’s power numbers to decline a bit, but that won’t necessarily be a bad thing. With a return to health of outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, another full season from Carlos Santana, full seasons from Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, and whatever production the Tribe can get from Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, Cleveland won’t have to rely as much on Asdrubal in 2012 to drive in runs.
I would expect his 2012 production to increase in the runs scored and OBP department. Despite Cabrera’s impressive power numbers in 2011, his OBP was the second lowest of his career after his 2010 season. Like all Indians hitters, he’ll need to focus on drawing more walks and striking out less.
Just one year removed from serious knee surgery, Carlos Santana proved he can remain healthy for a full big league season.
Leading the team with 27 HR in 2011, Carlos provided plenty of power and patience, with a very respectable .351 OBP. He was willing to make adjustments to his game, eliminating the "toe-tap" from his swing in June.
Despite his plate discipline and many jaw-dropping home runs, however, Carlos needs to improve his on his .244 career average and drive in more runs with a line-drive swing. With more big league experience, I’m optimistic that he will continue to evolve as a hitter.
I don’t think Carlos will ever hit 35-40 home runs, but I think his average will be closer to .270-.280 in 2012. Ultimately, I think Carlos will amount to the second coming of Victor Martinez and average around 20-25 HR and 90 RBI a year.
Choo had a rough showing in 2011. A return-to-form in 2012 will be crucial for the Tribe's success.
The real key to the Tribe offense in 2012 will be a return to health of Shin-Soo Choo.
After three extremely productive seasons, 2011 was a disappointment for the Korean star, who dealt with a DUI and subsequent hand and oblique injuries.
With free agency looming after the 2013 season, the Scott Boras client will likely improve on his 2011 performance. He has a smooth contact swing and good power to the opposite field. A rock defensively with a canon arm, Choo surely knows his 2011 showing wasn’t up-to-bar with his abilities.
With a big payday around the corner, I’d expect Choo to return to his 20/20/.300/.390 form.
Perhaps the greatest spark to the Tribe’s 2012 offense will come from Jason Kipnis.
Assuming duties at second base following the trade of Orlando Cabrera, Kipnis made an instant impact on the Tribe offense in 2011. In only 36 games, the rookie hit .272 with 7 HR, 19 RBI, 24 R, 5 SB and a .333 OBP.
If you average those numbers out over 150 games, you’re looking at another 29 HR, 79 RBI, 100 R and 21 SB. While I wouldn’t expect Kip to sustain those numbers over an entire season, it’s not unreasonable to expect he’ll be an important part of the Tribe offense.
I could see manager Manny Acta slotting him in the leadoff spot much in the way Eric Wedge batted Grady Sizemore leadoff in his first full big league season in 2005.
Sizemore is still a viable defensive center fielder.
Whether Tribe fans are happy to admit it or not, another key to Cleveland’s offense in 2011 will be none other than Grady Sizemore.
After management decided to give their long-time center fielder one last shot in an Indians uniform, I would expect Grady to reward his club with a productive, if not fully healthy, 2012 campaign.
Next year will undoubtedly be Grady’s last season in Cleveland, and if the three-time All-Star has any hope of raising his value in the free agent market next winter, he’ll have to produce while on the field. While unrealistic to expect Grady to return to his pre-injury form, I would expect Grady to hit 15-20 HR and drive in 60-70 runs in roughly 120 games.
With his knees, don’t expect him to be a threat to steal any bases. Assuming he avoids sliding too often, however, Grady can still cover good ground in centerfield. At the very least, we won’t see any Ezequiel Carrera-type lapses or “losing ground balls in the sun,” a la Luis Valbuena .
Will LaPorta earn the chance to man firstbase for the Indians in 2012?
With Jose Lopez pushing him for the starting job, we could (and I emphasize could) see an improvement in Matt LaPorta’s play.
This will undoubtedly be his final shot in Cleveland, and if the highly-scrutinized player doesn’t want the "bust" label to plague his career, the time is now to prove his worth.
His career .238 BA and .304 OBP don’t inspire much confidence going forward, but it must be noted that LaPorta has never really be given a full-time shot as an every player. In roughly two and a half seasons since his call-up, LaPorta has yet to log 400 ABs in a season.
Despite an embarrassingly obvious inability to hit breaking pitches or demonstrate power to the opposite field, LaPorta’s power numbers in 2011 weren’t as bad on paper as they appeared in person. If you average his 2011 stats out over 150 games, you’re looking at 16 HR, 76 RBI and 33 2B.
Granted, his BA and OBP were quite low, but the power numbers would have been much better than those of first baseman Casey Kotchman, another free agent who the Tribe was rumored to have interest in. In 500 ABs in 2011, Kotchman hit just 10 HR and produced 48 RBI.
With the bulk of the offense coming from Santana, Choo, Cabrera, Kipnis, Sizemore and LaPorta/Lopez, whatever production the Indians can get from DH Travis Hafner, LF Michael Brantley and 3B Lonnie Chisenhall will be an added bonus.
Although a shell of his former self, Hafner has remained a relatively productive hitter for average, and can be counted on for another 15 HR, 60 RBI, .280/.350 season in 2012.
Brantley started off hot in 2011. Can he sustain success over an entire season in 2012?
Brantley looked good for most of 2011 before succumbing to injury. His power numbers won’t likely jump off the stat sheet, but he could project as another 12-15 HR/20 SB guy.
The key to his success will rely on his ability to draw more walks. He possesses good plate discipline and has demonstrated an ability to work opposing pitchers.
This could easily be the season he finally puts it all together. It’s important to remember, he’s still only 24.
The 'Chiz Kid' needs to work on the leather, but his bat showed potential in 2011.
Rounding out the Tribe offense is young third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall.
After taking over the full-time duties in June, Lonnie showed promise in 2011. Like Jason Kipnis, he really needs to focus on improving his defense and drawing more walks.
As long as he doesn’t try to hit everything out of the yard, Lonnie should develop into a very respectable major league hitter.