Is Cleveland Going to be 2013’s Stealth Contender?

swisher“I’m really excited,” Francona said on the air as an ESPN analyst, his job for the past season. “People who don’t know me may have thought I was looking for something different.” – Terry Francona, on accepting the job to be the manager of the Cleveland Indians

“We have better talent than our record shows.”– Indians GM Chris Antonetti, a couple of days before hiring Terry Francona

Optimism is abuzz in Cleveland as we approach the reporting of pitchers and catchers, thanks to a flurry of offseason activity that brought new manager Terry Francona, who should be a perfect fit. GM Chris Antonetti was a busy bee this offseason, bringing in Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, Trevor Bauer, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Jason Giambi among others to beef up the roster to make a potential playoff push. And you know what? I think they have quite a few reasons to be optimistic:

1.  Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds should be a huge upgrade on the right side

A season ago the Indians gave Casey Kotchman 500 at-bats and the 1st baseman threw about 375 of those in the garbage can. He was terrible, posting a 73 OPS+, which means Kotchman was about 27% worse than the average baseball player. Kotchman’s performance is actually worse when you consider the fact that he plays 1st base, a premium offensive position. He also struggled to get the ball out of Progressive Field, popping a measly 12 home runs. Kotchman is a very solid defensive 1st baseman, but no amount of glove work can make up for that terrible, no-good, awful batting line, and his consistent out-making ability constantly dragged down the Indians’ offense.

Enter Mark Reynolds, a player who blossomed after he moved from 3rd to 1st a year ago. Reynolds has always struggled mightily with his defense at the hot corner. If he wasn’t bobbling easy grounders he was drilling the ball 10 rows deep in the bleachers, keeping fans behind 1st awake at all times. Orioles’ manager Buck Showalter moved Reynolds across the diamond a year ago, where he was surprisingly sufficient with the glove, which allowed him to focus on his bat. Reynolds has a 109 OPS+ for his career, thanks to an ability to work a pitcher for a walk and his prodigious power, which makes up for the high strikeout totals he’s posted in his career. I’ve never been his biggest fan but if Reynolds can play adequate defense, draw 75 walks, and hit 25 homers, the Tribe will be a couple wins better for it.

The Shin Soo-Choo for Nick Swisher swap in right field won’t be as big of an upgrade, but it should provide a much-needed increase in power. Swisher is a lock to hit somewhere around 25 long balls in 2013, and he’s a safe bet to post an OPS somewhere around .830 as well. Similar to an electric car, Cleveland was power-starved a year ago, ranking 25th in baseball in homers, which meant opposing pitchers had no fear against the Indian offense. They could attack away with little fear that a mistake would actually be punished, since so many turned into routine fly ball outs. With Swisher and Reynolds at the middle of the attack in 2013, pitchers will have to be a little more careful and Cleveland should score more runs.

2.  The franchise’s young core, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, and Carlos Santana, are ready to blossom

A year ago the Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles rode their steadily improving group of young core players to out-of-left-field playoff births. Cleveland has a similar young core to build around in Kipnis, Santana, and Cabrera all of whom are between 26-28 years of age. These guys also play 3 of the most crucial positions on the field in 2nd base, catcher, and shortstop, and all 3 have the potential to be offensive forces at their positions.

Asdrubal Cabrera is the most accomplished of the three, making the All-Star team in each of the past couple of seasons. He’s got 20 home run power, which is especially rare for a good defensive shortstop and his ability to get on base is solid. He turns a slick double play with partner Jason Kipnis, who’s primed for a breakout year in 2013. Kipnis had a huge 1st half a year ago, hitting .277 with 11 homers and 20 steals before the All-Star break. He tailed off badly in the 2nd half of the season, perhaps due to playing his 1st full Major League season, which is normal for a young player. If he can navigate a more steady course in 2013, he’s got an outside shot at a 20 homer/40 steal season, which would put him in the MVP race.

The final member of the trio is Carlos Santana, an on-base machine from the Dominican Republic. Santana will be entering his 4th season in the Major Leagues and he has already displayed one of the best batting eyes around. The Indians’ catcher ranked 3rd in the AL in walks drawn in 2011 and 2012, and those numbers should continue to go up as his power develops. Santana already has a 27 homer season under his belt, and the potential is there for more.

3. The managerial upgrade cannot be ignored.

Manny Acta spend 6 years managing the Washington Nationals and the Cleveland Indians. In his 6 seasons his teams never once managed a winning seasons and they ran up a total win percentage of .418. Now there is an argument that says that Acta never really had enough talent to really make a run at the playoffs, but he did have 6 seasons, and in just about every one his teams badly tailed off in the 2nd half. If you would like to argue that Acta is a great manager, I’m not going to stop you, but it’s not an argument I really believe and it’s not one I’m going to make.

Instead, I think that the upgrade to Terry Francona, the former Boston Red Sox manager, is inspired. Francona is friendly with the front office from way back to his days as the manager in Philadelphia, and his pedigree should speak for itself. He’s got two World Series rings, he’s credited by association with ending the Curse of the Bambino, and he’s got a career .529 winning percentage. Even when he managed those struggling Phillies teams in the late 90’s, he was still able to put up a .440 winning percentage in his 4 year. Francona was very popular with his players in Boston and we all saw how badly the exact same team fell apart when he left.  I also believe him to be a better strategist than Acta as well, and those attributes could be worth a couple of wins to the Indians. At the very least the team on the field should look a lot more comfortable in 2013.

4.  The pitching staff is deeper

Indians’ GM Chris Antonetti spent a good majority of his offseason trying to get better on the mound, and for good reason. The fundamental flaw of Cleveland baseball during the Manny Acta era was the complete inability to put together a competitive pitching staff. The Tribe ranked no better than 24th in baseball in runs allowed under Acta and they bottomed out in 2012, allowing the most runs in the American League. Things should be a little different in 2013. Antonetti has brought in reinforcements in spades, hoping that quantity may improve the overall quality of the staff.

The top of the rotation is set with Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez returning. Neither pitcher had much to write home about a year ago, as both pitchers were battered around a year ago. Ubaldo, in particular, has been painful to watch as a member of the Indians, going 13-21 with a 5.32 ERA in 42 career starts with the team. His velocity, once as good as any pitcher in baseball, has plummeted a couple of ticks in the last two seasons and his control has gone with it. Jimenez probably won’t ever be truly dominant again, but he’s better than he’s pitched the last couple of years. If he doesn’t show it in 2013 the Indians will have to move on.

Luckily, Chris Antonetti may have found his ace of the future in Trevor Bauer, and it may have cost him little more than a disgruntled Shin-Soo Choo. Bauer, the 3rd pick of the 2011 draft, has absolutely blown away hitters at every stop in his minor league career, striking out more than a batter per inning at 3 different levels. Bauer has shown a nasty curveball and an electric fastball, one that has the ability to cut and dive at the right-hander’s command. He’s just 22 and struggled a bit in his MLB cameo a year ago so he may start the year in the minors. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the future ace in Cleveland by mid-May however, where he should be much more comfortable the 2nd time around

Antonetti has also made a couple of nice low-risk/high-reward signings to supplement his staff. He was able to sign Brett Myers (1 year/$7 million and Daisuke Matsuzaka (Spring Training invite) at relative bargains, and both could pay off in a big way. Myers is going to be asked to eat up about 200 innings in the middle of the rotation while posting an ERA around 4.00. While that may not sound like a big improvement, it is. Cleveland only had two pitchers make more than 10 starts and post an ERA under 5.00 a year ago. The bar isn’t set very high and Myers, who still possesses a mid-to-low 90’s fastball, should be able to clear it.

Matsuzaka comes with more of a lottery ticket stigma. He’s thrown about 80 total innings in the past 2 seasons combined thanks to a variety of injuries and he hasn’t been better than average since 2008. It’s a long shot that he can help the team, but on a league minimum deal, it’s a safe bet that has the potential to have a big payout. These kind of cheap minor league deals are safe risks that smart GMs take, even if it’s a long shot that the move pays off.

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This franchise may not make the playoffs, but they have good reason to be optimistic again. The Indian offense should be able to score at least 40-50 more runs than they did a year ago, and there is just no way the pitching can be as bad as it was a year ago under the old regime. The AL Central should be the weakest division in baseball once again, which could provide an opportunity for success as well. Somebody out of the Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Minnesota grouping is going to have to take 2nd place, why can’t it be the Tribe? And hey, if you’re a little more optimistic like reliever Joe Smith or Terry Francona, the sky’s the limit.

UPDATE: Shortly after writing this the Indians announced they signed outfielder Michael Bourn to a 4 year deal. Bourn is one of the rangiest centerfielders in the league and he should only help a rotation that could use the extra outs. This also gives the offense a nice mix of speed and power, one that could add up to a lot of runs on the scoreboard. I’m feeling more and more confident that the Indians will be playing meaningful baseball in September this year.

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