Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Around the division: Cleveland Indians

Terry Francona is the
new manager of the
Cleveland Indians. Doesn't
he look thrilled?
Cleveland has had an interesting winter after a disappointing 2012. The hiring of Terry Francona as manager suggested that, despite their 68-94 record, the Tribe has a sense it can contend. The Indians followed up on that hiring by surrendering two draft picks to land veteran outfielders Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn in free agency, signing high-strikeout slugger Mark Reynolds and by trading for pitching phenom Trevor Bauer.

This flurry of activity -- the Indians this week also picked up Daisuke Matuzaka and Jason Giambi on minor-league deals -- has some ranking the Indians as the second-best team in the AL Central coming into camp. I'm not so sure.

Here's the deal: Cleveland was really bad last season. They won two more games than the lowly Twins, to be sure, but their stats suggested they should have lost more. They gave up more runs than even Minnesota (845 for Cleveland, 832 for Minnesota) and scored fewer than the Twins (701 for Minnesota, 667 for Cleveland) They started the offseason in a deep hole.

Swisher theoretically replaces Shin-Soo Choo in right field, which is at best a wash and more likely a slight downgrade (Swisher might also see time at first base and DH, with Reynolds also at those spots; a lot depends on how much they want Carlos Santana to catch.) Bourn will provide superb defense in center field and acceptable production as a leadoff hitter -- I don't view him as likely to be worth the $12 million a year the Indians have committed to him over the next four seasons, but he should help.

Let's see: Outfield has Swisher, Bourn, Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs; infield has Reynolds, Jason Kipnis at second, Lonnie Chisenhall at third and Asdrubal Cabrera at short; Santana catches about half the time, Lou Marson the other half, with Santana at first or DH most of the other half.

Line 'em up:

Bourn CF
Kipnis 2B
Cabrera SS
Santana C/DH/1B
Swisher RF/1B/DH
Reynolds 1B/DH
Brantley LF
Chisenhall 3B
Marson C or Stubbs RF

That's not bad. That lineup shouldn't finish next-to-last in the AL in runs scored, as the Indians did last year. But it's not great either. The middle of that lineup doesn't match up with the middle of some of  the other orders in the AL Central: M. Cabrera-Fielder-V. Martinez, Mauer-Willingham-Morneau, Konerko-Dunn-Rios.

On the plus side, Bourn shoves Brantley from center to left, which should make the outfield defense better. In fact, the more Stubbs plays, the more they figure to have a three-center-fielder outfield, which can make the pitching look a lot better. On the other hand, the more Stubbs plays, the more Santana catches, which might make the pitching worse.

Ah, yes, the pitching. Cleveland went last year with a rotation of heavy sinkerballers -- Jason Masterson, Derek Lowe, Ubaldo Jiminez -- and had little success. (The Cabrera-Kipnis middle infield is better with the bat than with the glove, even if Cabrera is a fixture on Web Gems.) Lowe's gone, but the rest of them are still around.

Bauer strikes me as the key addition, but his 2013 impact may be limited. Arizona lost patience with him, apparently deciding he was essentially uncoachable; he may be a guy who has to take his lumps before agreeing to change his approach. Masterson and Jiminez need to regain their footing, and that's hardly certain.

Cleveland might be the second best team in the division, but they might not, and even if they are, that's not saying much; there's a big gap between the Tigers and everybody else in the AL Central.

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