Left Field – I keep wondering: how was this team so ill-equipped to handle the inevitability of an injured Grady Sizemore? Had no one in the front office considered the possibility that Grady would miss part of this season? We’re currently left with no palatable options to fill our third outfield spot. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, I guess—we do have some upside offensive capability at positions that most teams employ glove-only specialists (catcher, second base, short stop). But I can’t help but think that the two easiest positions to find a bat—left field and first base—have been black holes for the team for as long as I can remember. When you pine for the days of Ryan Garko and Javid Delichaels, something is amiss.
The Starting Rotation – Justin Masterson is probably a very good pitcher. Same with Ubaldo. I think we have a good top of the rotation—certainly competitive with Detroit’s. I do wonder about Derek Lowe, but if healthy, he’s certainly a capable #3 starter. His peripherals last season were much better than his final ERA, and if Justin Masterson has taught us anything about paying attention to peripheral numbers over ERA, now’s the time to remember it. Put it this way: is Lowe a better #3 option at this point than Jake Westbrook? Almost certainly. But beyond him I do worry. Josh Tomlin is an enigma wrapped inside a statistical oddity. Last season he had the lowest walk-rate among qualified starters. If that normalizes only to “well above average” he could be in for a long season, given his problems with home runs. He misses no bats and doesn’t have a great groundball rate. Those are two strikes against him. If his excellent control starts to wane even a little, he’ll be exposed. After him, I wonder about that fifth spot. I bet Kevin Slowey wins it over the Gomez-Huff-McCallister incumbency, but I think we’d be lucky to get something approaching replacement level out of that spot no matter who wins it. The rotation will come down to the first three guys: if they perform to their abilities and stay healthy, we’ll be fine. If they don’t, watch out.
Jason Donald – I wanted to trade Jason Donald this off-season. Not because I think he’s useless, but because I thought some team might think of him as an everyday player at an infield spot and give us something of value. That didn’t happen obviously, and I wonder if he’ll be able to make the conversion to a super-utility type that the Indians seem to have in mind. I don’t like him in left field, but I like him on this team, playing more than once a week. The problem is, the only way that happens is if someone better than he gets hurt.
The Middle Infield – To me, this team’s success will be determined largely by the play of its second baseman and short stop. Among players with more than 100 plate appearances (sorry Josh Tomlin), Jason Kipnis had the highest slugging percentage on the Indians last year (.507). Asdrubal Cabrera wasn’t too shabby either, slugging .460 with 25 home runs. While those numbers are probably unsustainable for both guys, it’s not out of the question that these two will continue to provide offensive value that is far above average for the respective positions; they’ll almost certainly need to do just that for this team to compete with Detroit. But it’s not just their bats the team will need: with what will likely be the most groundball-prone starting pitching staff in all of baseball, these two are going to need to hold their own on defense. I have to admit: this worries me. Asdrubal came to camp out of shape. Again. And Jason Kipnis—despite looking adequate defensively last year—has never been any great shakes with the glove. Hannahan and Kotchman are great defensively, but if we’re weak up the middle, we’re going to be giving away a lot of runs and wins.
Lonnie Chisenhall – I like Jack Hannahan, and I probably think he should be given the starting job at third base in 2012. I also like Lonnie Chisenhall, and wouldn’t mind him getting the starting job at third base and sticking with him come hell or high water. What I do not like is the idea of these two splitting time in a platoon. While I understand the motivations behind this scenario, Lonnie should not be groomed as a part-time player: he must learn to hit left handed pitching. If he wins the starting job, then he has to play against LHP. If he loses the starting job, he has to go to Columbus and play against LHP. There is nothing more short-sighted than to take one of your best young players and turn him into a part-time specialist by limiting his exposure to challenging situations. Both Lonnie and the Indians will be done a disservice if the team decides now, when he’s only 23 year old, that he shouldn’t be allowed to do the one thing he needs to get better at.
*I think the reason I struggle so much to write about the Indians this time of year is that—despite my occasional sabermetric bent—my concern with minutiae is only in order to think about big picture issues: “is Masterson really this bad, or might he get better?” But during Spring Training, every little tidbit gets discussed, sliced, and diced ad nauseam—often when (and even especially when) the tidbit doesn’t matter at all to the team’s eventual performance. “A new batting stance!” … “Great clubhouse presence!” (and my favorite) “He’s in the best shape of his life!”
In other words, every story gets imbued with a sense of meaning and importance that just isn’t there: we’ve missed baseball so much that each morsel or crumb must be savored, even though we know they’re almost always empty calories. During the regular season, we at least have games to assuage our appetite; in Spring, we have only our twitter accounts, hope and the inexorable drive to assign meaning to the meaningless.
The old truism is that Spring Training statistics don’t mean much. Let me add to that: Spring Training is a story told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
April is 26 days away…