2007 Team Preview: Cleveland Indians
By Jeff Sackmann
Posted on Sat Feb 10, 2007 at 09:14:11 AM EST
2006 W-L: 78-84 (4th place)
2006 Pythag: 89-73
2007 Depth Chart
David Dellucci, Josh Barfield, Trot Nixon, Keith Foulke, Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez, Aaron Fultz
Kevin Kouzmanoff, Jeremy Guthrie, Andrew Brown, Brian Sikorski
The Indians In a Nutshell:
I wonder what's more depressing: watching your team underperform their pythagorean record by eleven games, or realizing that even if they had lived up to a solid 89-73 record, they still would've finished in 4th place. Like the Brewers, who I previewed earlier this week, the Indians entered 2006 as a sleeper team but disappointed. Unlike the Brewers, the Indians probably would've been blocked out of the playoffs even if they had performed up to expectations.
In 2007, Cleveland will benefit from starting with a clean slate of luck. They'll continue to reap the benefits of an outstanding young core, and while Mark Shapiro didn't invest in a high-priced bullpen, he replace last year's crew with enough veterans high-upside gambles that one or two ought to pay off. It's not at all far-fetched to see the Indians as a 90-win team; the problem there is that it's not hard to imagine the White Sox, Twins, or Tigers winning 90, either.
If there's one thing that didn't go wrong for the Tribe last year, it was the offense. Cleveland's 870 runs were good for second best in the league, and they did half of that in a park that played slighty in favor of pitchers.
What's frustrating about the Indians offense upon closer analysis is how much better it could've been. While they got tremendous production from Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, and the melange of first basemen, Tribe left fielders collectively "hit" 258/312/394. Compared to league average--I'm speaking technically now--that's bad.
Third base was even worse. A combination of Aaron Boone and Andy Marte, who was too young to be effective, but not too young to outslug Boone, hit 243/310/380. Given how strong the team was at some positions where defense is hard to find, it's disappointing that third base and left field were so lacking.
Another way to look at the problem is a glance at the bottom of the order. While the heart of the lineup was fearsome, the 7-9 slots averaged an OPS of just over .700. It's a testament to Hafner, Sizemore, and Eric Wedge's flexibility at first base that the Indians lineup was as dangerous as it was. Add in two more league-average performances and the Indians may've had the strongest offense in baseball.
While PECOTA thinks Marte is still at least one more year away from being a league-average third baseman, he is projected to improve on last year's aggregate performance at the position. And in the outfield, it will be largely up to Wedge: he's got plenty of options, and he'll have to figure out how best to deploy them.
In fact, the 2007 Indians could have an uber-platoon of historic proportions at the corners. Contending for at-bats at first base, left field, and right field are righties Ryan Garko, Casey Blake, Jason Michaels, and Franklin Gutierrez, along with lefties Shin-Soo Choo, Trot Nixon, and David Dellucci. That doesn't give Wedge a natural L/R combo at first, but it does offer a nice platoon in both outfield corners.
Michaels was much of the problem in left field last year, but still OPS'd 800 against lefties. Blake was better overall, and stronger still against southpaws, slugging 561. If everybody stays healthy (why are you laughing?), the Indians could have above-average production out of both outfield corners, even if MLB won't know who to put on the all-star ballot.
The other major change to the starting lineup this year is the addition of Josh Barfield at second base. He'll be replacing the largely uninspiring presence of Ronnie Belliard, who was almost exactly the average second baseman in his time with the Tribe. PECOTA projects Barfield to perform almost exactly the same: 267/317/423. It's not exciting, but it's league-average production for the minimum, and Cleveland fans ought to be happy about that.
Speaking of cheap young players, I haven't mentioned Jhonny Peralta. Peralta's second full season was a disappointment: after an OPS+ of 139 in '05, he fell to an 85 (!) in '06. However, PECOTA still likes him, projecting a 273/344/448. That's nothing like his breakout season, sure, but it's another couple dozen runs on the Indians balance sheet. If Peralta bounces back and Marte exceeds expectations a little bit, the Indians could have an average or above-average starter at every offensive position.
With the depth that Mark Shapiro has assembled--more outfielders than even the Brewers, Casey Blake to theoretically fill in at third, Hector Luna and Joe Inglett to stanch the bleeding if a middle infielder gets hurt--it's tough to see the Tribe doing much worse than their 2006 run total of 870. Moreover, it's easy to see them exceeding 900 and challenging for the top spot in the league.
Last year's starting rotation was pretty darn good. Even with Jason Johnson, who was pretty darn not good. After Jeremy Sowers took Johnson's spot in the rotation, Paul Byrd was the weakest link, and he was average over the course of the season.
With health looming as the ever-present variable, there's no reason to think the 2006 version will be much different. C.C. Sabathia may not finish 3rd in AL ERA again, and Jeremy Sowers probably won't keep his ERA under 3.6 for a full season, but a rotation of five league-average or better guys is a very valuable commodity.
Offering protection for the inevitable, Fausto Carmona is among the league's better #6s. As a 22-year-old making his first major league appearances, he was well above replacement level in seven starts, and PECOTA likes him to build on that in '07. In fact, the system forecasts him with a 4.19 ERA in a split role between the rotation and the pen. He wouldn't even have to come close to that to be of value to Cleveland this year.
There's always plenty of variability in any rotation, but to the extent you can build a predictable starting five in 21st-century baseball, Mark Shapiro has done it.
Now the fun begins. The Cleveland bullpen was so bad last year that J.P. McIntyre wrote two whole columns about it. Whatever metric you prefer, the bullpen was not the Indians' strong point.
Thankfully, there isn't much in common between the 2006 relief corps and the 2007 version. Shapiro imported Keith Foulke and Joe Borowski as closer candidates, and signed a couple of veterans to replace last year's ineffectual veterans.
Returning relievers likely to play a part include Rafael Betancourt, Fernando Cabrera, and Jason Davis. Davis and Betancourt are good pitchers who had solid years amidst the carnage. Cabrera, on the other hand, is young and somewhat inscrutable. He struck out more than a batter per inning, but walked a guy every other frame and gave up 12 home runs in 60 innings. PECOTA likes him for a mild improvement--it forecasts a 3.77 ERA, but with peripherals only a bit better than the ones that led to his 5.19 figure last year. He's a solid reliever in the making; there shouldn't be too much pressure on him this year as he continues to develop.
I wish I could make a confident prediction about Foulke and/or Borowski, but I can't. I'm going to weasel out of it and say that from those two guys, one will emerge as a solid closer candidate, and he might even stay healthy all year. I would imagine that's Shapiro's thought as well: sign two high-risk, high-upside guys, expect one good reliever.
As for the other new imports, I find myself suddenly appreciating Roberto Hernandez. Did you know that he's posted an ERA+ under 115 only twice in the last twelve seasons? Granted, the other two yaers were '03 and '04, but this guy has been good, and amazingly enough at his age, he's been very good lately. I was hoping to have an opportunity to make Jose Mesa jokes, but I really can't. The only danger is that Hernandez hasn't pitched in the AL since 2002. If his decline is sudden and accompanies a move from PNC and Shea to the AL Central, things could get ugly. The dude is 42, after all.
Aaron Fultz is your standard-issue lefty specialist. He's quite effective against southpaws, especially when it comes to limiting their power. For whatever reason, he averaged more than an inning per outing for the Phillies in the last two years, but I see no reason why he should do so for the Indians this season. He's one of those guys who seems really old to me despite the fact that he didn't reach free agency that long ago (he's 33)...as a LOOGY, he probably hasn't hit his prime yet.
If anything, Mark Shapiro upped the ante on last year's bullpen gamble. At the same time, he brought in more options in order to rely less on youngsters like Cabrera. Of the seven pitchers I've discussed, it's reasonable to expect at least one to be on the disabled list at any given time, but that still leaves plenty of solid options for Eric Wedge to call on in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings.
Because the bullpen is still so variable, it's tough to put a number on their projected improvement. On the other hand, could they really be as bad as they were last year? Odds are they won't, and the potential is there for an above-average crew.
All Together Now
Let's split the difference between Cleveland's actual win total and pythagorean win total and say that their true talent level as a team last year was about 84 wins. (That's totally unscientific and probably wrong, but it's all approximate anyway.)
I'm willing to venture a 2-3 win improvement out of the offense, if only due to the fact that Wedge should be able to deploy a respectable left field platoon. It's possible to come up with a scenario in which the increase would be greater, but given that a 3 win improvement puts them at 900 runs, it seems foolish to project them to go higher.
Let's say the rotation is set: something will probably go wrong and the Indians won't be able to avoid a dozen starts like Jason Johnson's last year. That's still a pretty good performance.
The main question, then, rests in the bullpen. In McIntyre's first article, he pointed out that the Indians pen was eleven or twelve wins below those of the Tigers and Twins. This year's crew isn't going to match Detroit's '06 performance, but let's say it splits the difference and turns out to be decent. That's five wins right there, with the potential for a huge swing in either direction.
Put that all together, I'm going to call the Indians a 92-win team. That's pretty darn good, and it ought to justify the extension Mark Shapiro's about to sign. Will it be enough to put the Indians in the postseason? We'll find out in the next few weeks, when I preview the White Sox, Twins, and Tigers.