Everyone is in first place. Every team (well, not everyone, but most of them) thinks that this is their year to make some noise. Last season, our beloved Cleveland Indians shocked the baseball world when they ripped their way out to a 30-15 record and threatened to run away with the AL Central.
Reality then set in and the Tribe came back down to earth, finishing 80-82, but the 2011 season was certainly enjoyable for the fans in our fair city.
Now a new season is upon us and the Indians are hoping to build off of what you would have to deem was a successful 2011 campaign.
There were a ton of question marks entering the offseason, most notably what were the Indians going to do in terms of adding offense, preferably a right-handed bat who could play some first base and the outfield. They flirted with the likes of Josh Willingham, Carlos Beltran, and Carlos Pena, before eventually settling on Casey Kotchman, a left-handed hitting, high on-base percentage, slick fielding first baseman.
Prior to trolling the free agent and trade markets for that big bat, the took a huge gamble by bringing back oft-injured center fielder Grady Sizemore on a one year, $5 million deal. The Indians brass felt as though they knew Grady’s body better than anyone else and that he had the best upside for the price of anyone on the market. That gamble failed even before the first spring training game was even played as Sizemore would require back surgery, forcing him to be out until at least June.
This decision (a huge mistake by the way) has set back the Indians in several ways. They were left extremely thin in the outfield to the point that Shelley Duncan has been named the starting left fielder and his backup, Aaron Cunningham, only made the team because he was out of options after barely hitting this spring. Cunningham beat out a cast of minor league deal veterans in what turned out to be the “Hottest Omega Moo” contest*.
*If you don’t get that reference, you are doing yourself a disservice. Go rent “Revenge of the Nerds right away on iTunes or Netflix.
Things in the outfield are so bleak without Sizemore that the Indians had a deal in place with the Angels last week for 38-year old Bobby Abreu, only to see it fall apart in the end. Word this week is that Indians have had internal discussions about signing free agent Johnny Damon, who is on the market and still looking for work. Damon can still hit, but he is a DH at this point in his career and had been one of the poorest defensive outfielders in the game over the last three years. You all tank Grady has a poor arm? My 94-year old grandmother tagged up on Damon last year and she died in 2009.
But there are still plenty of concerns with the rest of the lineup. Are they too left-handed heavy? Will Duncan be able to handle the rigors of being an everyday outfielder for the first time in his career? Will he hit enough? Jack Hannahan beat out top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall for the third base job this spring as The Chiz just didn’t hit enough or show the patience the Indians were looking for (14 K’s, one Walk), so they went with Jackie’s golden glove. But how long will that last?
Of course there’s always the Travis Hafner durability question. Asdrubal Cabrera should be happier now that he has his contract extension signed, but will we see a continuation of his all-star 2011 campaign? He showed up in Goodyear clearly over-weight, it according to Manny Acta is now just fine. Will Michael Brantley be this year’s breakout player? It seems like its his time. He’s fully healthy after battling wrist problems most of last season. Will Shin-Soo Choo regain his budding star form after a horrific 2011 season where he struggled with injuries and his DUI arrest? Will Jason Kipnis become the Indians Dustin Pedroia? Will Carlos Santana continue on his ascension to the top of the list of Major League catchers?
As for the pitching staff, the rotation added veteran innings eater and sinker-ball machine Derek Lowe as a back of the rotation stabilizer. The need for a fifth starter arose with the Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez situation that seemed to come out of nowhere. They quickly added veteran Kevin Slowey via trade to battle it out with internal candidates Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, Zach McAllister, and Scott Barnes. Gomez was by far the bets pitcher in camp and was awarded with the job. Slowey will be the first call up in the case of injury or poor performance by Gomez.
They are set with Justin Masterson at the top, Josh Tomlin and Lowe in the middle, and Gomez at the back end, but the biggest concern is easily the psyche of #2 starter Ubaldo Jimenez. It’s not an understatement to say that he’s literally the most important player on the team. They traded their top two pitching prospects to get him last year and it’s time he showed he is worthy. But there are major, major concerns with Jimenez.
First and foremost, he has had command issues since the day he came over from Colorado that haven’t been fixed. He keeps telling the media he is fine, but other than one start this spring, he’s been wildly inconsistent. Even in his final tune-up start Sunday, Ubaldo walked four batters and was involved in a beaning controversy with his former teammate Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies and found himself suspended for five games (he’s appealing).
if Ubaldo doesn’t find his 2010 form and is just an average or up and down pitcher the way he was last season, the Indians will be dead in the water. they have to win with pitching and defense. Last year’s second half offensive struggles weren’t properly addressed this offseason (can I just say again what a gigantic mistake the Sizemore signing was?) and it carried over into spring training. So the pitching must be very good.
The bullpen looks solid with the top five returning to lead The Mafia once again. Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez from the left, Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith from the right, and closer Chris Perez will be looking to continue last year’s success. In the roles of “pitching when the game isn’t close” will be veteran Dan Wheeler (this year’s Chad Durbin) and the newly acquired Jairo Asencio. You will for sure see lefty Nick Hagadone at some point this season, who will start in AAA.
I won’t lie, I am very concerned about what I see as the Indians arrive to start their season. They continue to tell us that spring records and numbers don’t mean anything, but the vibe coming out of Goodyear isn’t good. To play off of their marketing campaign, the are just so many “What if’s” surrounding this team. They will most likely struggle to score runs yet again, which is a real concern. The fact that in the last week the Indians have been seriously considering Abreu and Damon should be a cause for alarm. Other than Chisenhall, who didn’t hit this spring either, there is nothing in the ugh levels of the minor leagues the Indians can point to in terms of an impact bat they could turn to. The top tier hitting prospects, Francisco Lindor and Levon Washington are still two-to-three years away from seeing Cleveland.
Hey, I’ve been wrong plenty of times in my day and will be again. Let’s hope I’m wrong about this too.
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)