I’ve spent quite a few words over the off-season warning us all that it might be wise to temper expectations this season, and I think all those caveats still stand. But not today, right? Let’s put together nine quick reasons to feel particularly optimistic about the 2012 Indians.
- Our Opening Day Starter Deserves to be an Opening Day Starter. In 2010, the Indians’ opening day starter was (….wait for it….) Jake Westbrook. In 2011, it was the Artist Formerly Known as Fausto. No offense to either guy, but both of them were back-end arms that just happened to be our best option. Not this year. Justin Masterson is an ace, whether you know it yet or not. In 2011, only one other AL Central pitcher was more valuable according to WAR (the MVP, Justin Verlander). No AL pitcher allowed HR at a lower rate than Masterson, and he had the second best groundball rate in baseball. With an infield defense that was below average for much of the season, he posted 3.22 ERA. That was with a high BABiP, and abnormally low K-rate and Matt LaPorta playing first. In other words, there’s room for improvement. To think that we spent most of 2010 wondering whether we needed to move him to the bullpen.
- Shin-Soo Choo is more likely to return to form than not. I know we are conditioned to believe that good things cannot happen to us as Cleveland fans, but I’m here to remind you that “regression” does not always mean that a player will eventually “come back to earth”. Yes, I’ve spent some time warning us all not to get too excited about Asdrubal Cabrera in 2012, but the flip side of that coin is Shin-Soo Choo. We have every reason to believe that his true talent level is much closer to his 2008-2010 seasons (.302/.397(!)/.500 over 1,701 plate appearances) than his 2011 (.259/.344/.390 over 358 plate appearances). If Choo can just regress to his own true talent level, he’ll again be one of the better corner outfielders in baseball. And slotting a healthy and productive Choo into the middle of the lineup will likely add about 5 wins to the version we had last year.
- Michael Brantley is due to break out. A variation on the same theme. I think we have been altogether too eager to dismiss Michael Brantley as just another of the failed prospects we got in return for CC Sabathia. As I wrote a few weeks back, Brantley is still only 23 years old, an while Spring stats are to be treated with the same disdain reserved for talk radio and light beer, we would be remiss if we didn’t notice that Brantley’s .939 OPS this spring, buoyed by a 14% walk-rate and XBH in more than half of his hits.
- Carlos Santana is probably the best offensive catcher in AL. Remember when the Twins gave Joe Mauer that silly contract, even though everyone knew that his knees were made of that pink slime stuff they serve to grade school students? Now he’s probably the fourth best catcher in the division? And unless you believe that Alex Avila is the real deal (and judging by the fantasy drafts I’ve seen, you don’t), then it’s pretty clear that Carlos Santana is the best hitting catcher in the American League these days. Last season he was about as unlucky as a hitter can get, and he still managed to lead the team in HR, BB-rate, and come in second in OBP at .351 (which is almost impossible with a .239 average). This is the point in the conversation where I remind you that we got six years of Carlos Santana for a month and a half of Casey Blake.
- Vinnie Pestano is better than you think. You know he had the 3rd highest strikeout rate in the AL last year among pitchers with more than 50 innings, right? You also know that no pitcher in MLB had a higher K-rate against right handed batters? He was 8th among AL relievers in WHIP and sixth in batting average against. Those numbers put him ahead of guys like Mariano Rivera, Neftali Feliz, and Jonathan Papelbon, among others. And I sponsor his Baseball-Reference page. So there’s that…
- Jason Kipnis > Orlando Cabrera. QED.
- Our opening day left fielder did this once (see right).
- The biggest impediment to winning the Division is (top) heavy. How long will the Miguel-Cabrera-at-third-base experiment work? What happens when Prince Fielder—never seriously injured in his career—starts to show the wear and tear associated with carrying 300 pounds on a 5’10” frame? What happens if Justin Verlander experiences some shoulder fatigue—or just comes back to earth after an unsustainable 2011? Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not wishing injury on anyone. But the high concentration of talent among Detroit’s three best players tends to mask the somewhat pedestrian talent that fills out the rest of the roster. We have a better 2-5 in the rotation. We have the better middle infield. We have the better right fielder, the better bullpen, and probably the better catcher. I know we can’t just ignore the huge talent gap at the top of the roster, but, well, lots of things can happen to obese sluggers…
- It’s Opening Day. Do I really need to give you reasons to believe in your baseball team? Do you know what the Mets are thinking today? If RA Dickey can just pitch like an ace and Ike Davis lead the league in HR and if Bernie Madoff can get out of jail and bankroll a mid-season acquisition, we JUST MIGHT HAVE A SHOT AT THIS THING!! Which is just to say, we’re supposed to have high expectations in April—it’s what makes baseball fun. If you’re already finding reasons to hate on this team, I’m not going to change your mind with a silly post like this. But remember, if you can’t believe in your baseball team on Opening Day, you’re missing out on something worthwhile. Today we put away the spreadsheets and valuations. We think about what could go right. And we head down to the ballpark, remembering that anything can happen…