August 26, 2014

Cleveland Indians makeover is fun, but will it work?

Nick SwisherDespite all the additional questions surrounding the Cleveland Indians, this has to be one of the most exciting off-seasons in memory. It isn’t just about the higher profile signings that the Indians have made either. This team feels fresh and new, from manager Terry Francona all the way to the guys competing to sit on the bench like Jason Giambi. I have no idea if it is going to work or not, but I’m trying to enjoy the ride. Excitement isn’t always a precursor for good things, but it is almost undeniably beats the alternative, right?

Giambi isn’t the slugger he once was, but nobody’s asking him to be that either. Indians fans don’t even need him to be as good as Eddie Murray was for the Tribe in the 90′s. If he can make the team, be a good citizen and come off the bench and find 10 homers in his bat over the course of 60 to 75 games, that would be good enough, presumably because he also brings something extra to the table in terms of leadership. It just feels funny to say that, because minus the experience and leadership, isn’t that what Shelley Duncan did for the Tribe last year?

Similarly, Mike Aviles isn’t a world beater either, but he is a backup with a career .277 average and an ability to play in the field. He’s replacing guys like Brent Lillibridge, Jose Lopez and Jason Donald. While I don’t dislike those guys, I do expect Mike Aviles to bring a higher level of play and consistency to the plate and the field when he’s out there.

Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher aren’t Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, but they don’t really need to be either. There’s one thing we’ve learned from baseball is that you can’t buy World Series rings. For the most part you can usually buy playoff appearances, (despite the Angels missing last year.) Once any of these teams get into the playoffs, all bets are off. The Indians can’t afford to guarantee themselves a playoff appearance, but this off-season, they’ve given themselves the best chance to play over their heads as a group that any of us have seen in a long time.

Noticeably absent from the rest of this post is the starting pitching. Obviously the Indians couldn’t solve that problem outright via acquisition. There are some guys on this team who are just going to have to play better than they did a year ago. Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez are obvious. Somewhere in the muck and mire of unknown players including Brett Meyers, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and even invitee Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Indians will need to come up with some solutions.

In the end, the biggest problem with the Indians the last few years is that they weren’t anywhere good enough to make the playoffs. Yes, they flirted with contention for extended periods of time where they looked to be somewhat formidable. The collapses were starting to become routine and no matter whose fault it really was, this team desperately needed changes from manager on down into the lineup. The problems they seemed to be experiencing reached further than just the roster. They seemed to lack chemistry, which became especially apparent in their lack of ability to finish seasons or even stop negative streaks.

I don’t know how this feeling gets projected on an entire organization, but didn’t it really feel like nobody wanted to be in Cleveland the last few years? Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore were more like countdown clocks than players for this team. Shin-Soo Choo also just seemed like a guy who was never going to be here. Chris Perez, even if he was speaking truth bombs, seemed to be writing his own ticket out of town too.

Now, the simple fact of importing players, even those whose best games are clearly behind them, who desperately want to make it work in Cleveland is decidedly different. No offense to Johnny Damon, but he came here and just walked right onto the field because the team was so desperate. This year Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jason Giambi among others will be pushing and competing to make the team.

This might all just be off-season bluster that ultimately means very little. Baseball is just unpredictable that way. Even with this makeover the Indians haven’t “bought a playoff appearance” like the Yankees usually can do. They haven’t even made themselves the favorite over the Tigers in the division. Still, it feels like they jack-hammered open the contention window that slammed on our hands the last few years.

It feels so very good today because this team and organization needed such a massive makeover and for once it feels like management and a group of players are all rallying toward doing something in Cleveland as opposed to biding their time until they can leave. Now, how are these words going to look after July fourth has come and gone?

(Photo by @MLBastian on Twitter)

  • MrCleaveland

    At least we have some hope now, and that’s what spring is all about. When the season ended last year, there was no hope at all.

    So let’s just enjoy the traditional rite of spring.

  • nj0

    If Giambi makes the team, his value will be platooning against right handers.

    Aviles’ value cannot be overstated. Lopez, Lillibridge, and Donald posted a combined -1.6 WAR last year. Aviles had a 1.8. He’ll make a huge difference.

    As I alluded to yesterday, the additions we have made this year are even more impressive when looking at all the terrible position players we were burdened with last year. Getting replacement level talent in there would have given us 4 or 5 wins.

  • http://twitter.com/brian_ristau Brian J. Ristau

    2 things: with the Bourn signing, does Giambi even make the team, unless he absolutely kills it in spring training? and Since we haven’t heard much about Carrasco (I know, workouts are just starting) Is Dice-K insurance against him not being ready? Or an indication of how thin/ uncertain the starting pitching really is? (sadly I already know the answer to part 2)

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I was going to say something similar. I am so happy to just have some hope for this season and to be excited about opening day. I thought we were in line for several years of obscurity while the farm system is refreshed… instead I get to watch a team with a real chance to compete for a playoff spot.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    You could be on to something with your second question, but my best guess is that even the Tribe’s front office doesn’t know what Carrasco will look like by the end of spring training (or Bauer either), so they’re hedging their bets. Ditto for the addition of Kazmir… they are hoping that among all of that talent, someone will step forth with some consistency.

    As for your first question, I think there are no guarantees whatsoever about Jason Giambi making the final cuts. He’s going to have to earn his roster spot in Spring Training like everyone else coming in on a minor league deal.

  • nj0

    We still have holes, but the reconstruction job done this off-season by Antonetti is impressive. While I was beating the drum for a complete rebuild, he was busy putting together a team that seems to have a legit (albeit outside) shot at the Central.

  • FearTheRoo

    As far as pitching goes, is Josh Tomlin out for the season? I know he had Tommy John but couldn’t remember when it occurred. Also, Detroit only won the division by 3. We played well until the trade deadline, when you have to think the team gave up.

  • Harv 21

    Needs more definition. Does “it work” as what? “Rallying toward doing something …” – what something are we talking about? Did Pujols “work” for the Angels? My quick more specific questions and answers.

    What the Dolans desperately needed to do in the short term was parlay their sudden cash influx into reversing fan antipathy, rather than pocketing it a la Cincy’s Mike Brown. Short term, show the fans that when you have the ability to attempt to compete you will make the attempt. Did they? Check – look at what you’ve been writing about, check out how you felt yesterday, and we can look forward to hearing about at least a modest increase in advance tix sales, ending the downward spiral.

    Did they solve the ability to compete for a world series appearance or even a wild-card spot with Swisher/Bourn/Bauer? The starting staff is putrid and their outfielder acquisitions are late-prime/past-prime. If I see them use their new resources to try and revive their scouting and development, pouring money in as the Jacobs did with Hank Peters guidance in the late ’80s I’ll have long-term hope that they have seized is rope thrown down the shaft of their death spiral of losing, lower attendance, less spending, more losing, less attendance.

  • mgbode

    I don’t even consider Giambi, Dice-K or Kazmir anything more than March-fodder until they prove otherwise.

  • http://twitter.com/GreatestHurley Jason Hurley

    Or maybe the 2nd wildcard (maybe??). The trick is getting over 90 wins.

  • mgbode

    I haven’t done a full roster analysis yet and they are futile anyway, but I do wonder where we currently stack up in the Central.

    Tigers are the favorites.

    Twins are the least favorites (to be nice).

    Where do the White Sox, Indians, and Royals slot though? I’d think that the Royals should be last, but, again, I haven’t looked in detail. The White Sox have all the pitching but not the hitting, while the Indians beefed up the lineup but are shot on pitching.

    Interesting times.

  • woofersus

    You can’t buy rings, but you HAVE to buy competitiveness. The stars aligned a bit this offseason with the expiring of big contracts and the increase in tv revenue, along with the availability of free agents at some positions of need, and the FO knew they could spend some money. More than they had in quite some time. The “Francona effect” has helped lure some guys, but know that a big reason he came here was that they showed him the numbers ahead of time. They had a decent young roster with big holes, and about 100mil to fill them with. They still got a bit lucky (for once) when Francona said yes, and then when Swisher said yes. Either way, the roster has been upgraded in a pretty big way. They’ll be better without a doubt. How much better depends a little on how you see the rest of the guys who were already here.

    The Indians weren’t completely bereft of talent last year, and I believe more than a few guys underperformed down the stretch, making them look statistically worse than they were, but there were these gaping holes that just didn’t get filled. You can’t give up 2-3 automatic outs in your lineup every night and expect to have good run production, even if the other 6 guys are pretty good. You can’t have bad defense at multiple positions and expect groundball pitchers to have above average years. You can’t go on an epic losing streak and expect young players to keep their heads in the game without solid veteran leadership in the clubhouse. Then of course there were the injuries.

    On paper, the lineup looks to be vastly improved offensively, even with the spector of high KO rates. It’s hard to overestimate how much it hurt the offense to trot out sub .225 guys on a regular basis. The bullpen was pretty good already, and looks to actually be improved, especially in long relief situations and when lefties are needed. That just leaves the starting pitching as the big question. I think an improvement is a given, but I don’t know if it will be improved enough. Myers is a guy who has had good years and should be a competent innings eater, if not a sexy addition. Masterson has to return to form, and I’m optimistic. Jiminez is the biggest wild card, and I have no idea what to expect there, but I do think that between Carrasco, Kluber, McCallister, Kazmir, Bauer, and Huff we will find 2 good starters. In a perfect world Masterson returns to 2011 form, Jiminez and Myers are both competent innings eaters who at least give you a chance, Carrasco picks up where he left off, and one of the other young guys steps up so that Bauer can start the year at AAA. I think that will give him his greatest chance of success later in the year if there are injury or performance issues that result in a call-up.

  • nj0

    Agree. Dice-K had one good season five years ago. Same with Kazmir. Giambi is 42 or 43 now.

  • cmm13

    Meanwhile in the Tribe clubhouse Tito stands in front of a life-size cardboard cut out of Kate Upton…”I figure it’s gonna take 90 wins to get us to the post season….”

  • Steve

    Not even, I’m pretty sure the average 5th best record in the wild card era is like 88 or 89 wins.

  • woofersus

    I’m not even remotely considering Giambi or Matsuzaka to be real additions to the team at this point. Kazmir on the other hand, I find myself somewhat optimistic about. He was REALLY good from 2005-2009 and he’s still only 27. (may be 28 now?) I know he struggled in 2010 with Jiminez-like numbers on a team that expected much more from him, and then it got in his head and 2011 and 2012 were epic bad, but he also had some back problems that probably contributed. If his body is right a change of scenery could be just what the doctor ordered. I know his winter ball stats just look “ok” but it’s a small sample size and two of his starts were exceptional. What’s most important to me is that in 22 innings he had 27 K’s to 8 BB’s. I’m not counting on him for a spot in the rotation or anything, but he certainly has the ability still.

  • Steve

    I’m starting to think that the additions may do more for our pitching staff than we originally thought.

    Caveats about defensive fielding numbers and whatnot, but the Indians outfield defense was 24 runs below average by UZR last year. In 2012, Bourn, by himself, was 22.5 runs above average, Brantley was 7.5 runs above average per 150 when playing LF, and Swisher was 3.5 runs above average per 150 when playing OF. Without even using Stubbs, who was 8.5 runs above average per 150 in CF (and obviously would be even better in a corner) that’s close to 60 runs

  • nj0

    Fangraphs had the same line of thinking, though they were less generous than you.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/indians-improve-starting-rotation-indirectly/

  • nj0

    Considered 29 for the 2013 season.

  • Jaker

    That would probably work, although, I’ve never seen Kate Upton wear anything that can be divided into 90 pieces, maybe 12

  • Garry_Owen

    All winter long I’ve been leaning toward canceling the MLB Extra Innings. Then this week happened – right in time for the first monthly payment to DirecTv. Not to be all egocentric or anything, but you can’t tell me this hasn’t all been a conspiracy just to get me to re-up for the baseball package. Well, it worked. Thank you very much, Major League Baseball and the Cleveland Indians organization.

  • Steve

    The writer said he was being conservative, and he’s right, Bourn is a better bet for a +10, which is merely very good, instead of +20, which is probably the best in the non-Trout division.

  • nj0

    Not sure what the recovery time is on TJ now (seen from 12-18 mo. to 9-12 mo.) but Tomlin is five months from his operation.

  • nj0

    Love random down votes

  • Steve

    Absolutely agree. merely plugging the black holes can add a lot of value to this team. Just getting slightly above replacement level performance out of the bench and rotation can push this team to a respectable record.

  • DCTribeFan

    Yeah, we won’t see Tomlin this season.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Don’t forget about Dice-K! Another starting pitcher wildcard to add to the mix.