Monday, March 28, 2011

Are the 2011 Indians Improved Over 2010?

There are many components of  a winning baseball team.  The best teams will have a balanced blend between starting pitching, bullpen, and offense.  The 2010 Indians had one of the worst offenses and starting rotations in the AL and although the bullpen was a strong suit for the team in the second half of the season, it was less than average over the first half.  With 2/3 of the components being near the bottom of the league and the lone bright spot only being productive for the second half of the season, it should not be surprising that the team lost 90+ games.  Looking at each area of the team by the numbers:

The Offense
  • Held to 2 runs or less 57 times (4-53)
  • 12th in the AL in Runs Scored with 636
  • 12th in the AL with a batting average of .248
  • 10th in the AL with an OBP at .322
  • 13th in AL with a SLG% at .378
  • 13th in the AL with an OPS at .700
  • 7th in the AL with a net gain of +20 for baserunning (Improving the Indians Offense & Kenny Lofton)
  • 11th in the league in Manufactured Runs with 141
The Starting Rotation
  • 11th in the AL in wins with 51
  • 3rd most losses in the AL with 71
  • 11th in the AL with an ERA of 4.53
  • Lowest K/9 rate in the AL of 5.55
  • Highest BB/9 rater in the AL of 3.43
  • 13th in the AL with a WAR of 8.6
  • Batters had the 2nd highest average against in the AL at .274
For a pitching staff that needed all the help they could get, the Indians defense certainly appeared to be more of a hinderance than a crutch. 

The Defense
  • The Indians defense led the league in allowing manufactured runs with 205
  • The Indians defense had the 2nd worst UZR/150 in the AL at -6.4
    • First baseman ranked 2nd last in the AL with a UZR/150 of -4.2
    • Second baseman ranked 3rd worst in the AL with a UZR/150 of -6.2
    • Shortstops were the worst in the AL with a UZR/150 of -6.7
    • Third baseman ranked 4th worst in the AL with a UZR/150 of -6.7
    • Centerfielders were the worst in the AL with a UZR/150 of -24.3
The Bullpen
The 2010 Indians bullpen was the one area that seemed to get stronger as the year moved on.  During the first half of the year the bullpen posted a record of 7-15 with an ERA of 4.69, a K/9 rate of 6.6, a BB/9 rate of 4.7, and a WHiP of 1.59.  Additionally, the opposition put up a first half slash line against the Tribe bullpen of .276/.367/.436 an OPS of .803.  In the second half of the season, the bullpen posted a record or 11-7 with an ERA of 2.95, a K/9 rate of 7.6, a BB/9 rate of 3.1, and a WHiP of 1.16.  The opposition was limited to a slash line of .224/.297/.350.

So, as the Indians prepare for another season the question has to be asked: Is the 2011 team improved over the 2010 squad, and if so by how much?  In my estimation, the Indians have three levels off success (or failure depending on your view).

Everything that can go right does go right. The starting pitching  keeps the team in every game, the defense makes the right plays, the offense can put up a big inning or tack on an extra run late,  the middle relief hands Chris Perez ample leads to close out.  Additionally, the Indians receive contributions from rookies such as Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Alex White, etc.  

This is based on a few guys doing better than expected, a few doing worse than expected, and the team not having any wholesale turnover during the season.  Grady Sizemore, Carlos Santana, Travis Hafner, Shin-Soo Choo, and Asdrubal Cabrera form the heart of the offense.  Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, and Carlos Carrasco provide the Indians with quality starts, and the bullpen converts leads into wins.

This is based on the team being hit on all sides by injuries, poor performance, and like of support from any of the minor league players.  In addition, the team decides to continue to disperse its talented players to other more fortunate organizations.

Below is a position by position comparison as the Indians head into 2011.  The statistics listed at each position are overall and not separated as performance at each position.

The Indians drew criticism from their fans for sending catcher Carlos Santana to Columbus of the International League rather than break camp with him as the primary catcher.  A move the Indians insisted was not financially motivated (service time) but rather to get him more work on defense.  Instead, the Indians went with the tandem of 39 year old Mike Redmond and rookie Lou Marson.   Santana finally was recalled (after his Super 2 status passed) on June 10th. At the time of the Santana's call up, Marson had put up a slash line of .191/.268/.262 and Redmond had a similarly miserable slash line of .208/.250/.283.  Redmond would appear in only 26 games with the Indians before being released on July 16th.  Santana would provide the Indians with the offense they were looking for as he hit .260/.401/.467 before being injured in a heart stopping home plate collision in Fenway on August 2nd.  The Indians ended up using five  catchers in 2010, and outside of Carlos Santana, none of them put up good offensive numbers.

Needless to say, the Indians are looking for Carlos Santana to do the bulk of the catching in 2011 and to provide additional punch in the middle of the lineup.  Santana still has to work on his swing from the right side of the plate, but his ability to get on base and add power will only help improve the Indians offense.  His health and ability to handle the lions share of the catching will be most important to the Indians as they aren't loaded with catching prospects at their upper levels should Santana be out for a long duration of time.  Lou Marson will begin the year as the backup catcher and will see most of his time against left handed pitchers and if he isn't effective in that role will find himself back in Columbus by mid-May.

The Indians signed Russell Branyan to help ease Matt LaPorta back from off-season hip and toe surgery.  This plan was interrupted by Branyan's own medical issue as he was unable to be ready for opening day and LaPorta had to assume the duties at first base rather than properly rehab his injuries.  LaPorta, whether injury related or not, never got into a rhythm.  Branyan did return and was an adequate bat in the lineup but his bulky back limited his movement at first base.  LaPorta, like Lou Marson struggled early in the season and on June 6th, while hitting .218/.290/.277 was sent to Columbus.  He came back up at the end of June and finished the year slightly better but failed to establish himself as the right handed bat the Indians were seeking.  The 2011 season will be a big year for LaPorta as he will be given a chance to establish himself as the everyday first baseman.

LaPorta has plenty of time to establish himself in 2011 but the Indians have signed oft-injured veteran first baseman Nick Johnson to a contract which does include an out clause.  Johnson, who is 32 years old, has put up a career slash line of  .270/.401/.443 over 9 big league seasons  and the Indians hold a 2012 club option on him. Additionally, Jordan Brown and Jared Goedert will see time at first base in Columbus.

The Indians went into 2010 with a second base combination of Luis Valbuena and Mark Grudzielanek.  Luis Valbuena was coming off a 2009 campaign where he showed surprising power by hitting .250/.298/.416 with  10 HR over 398 PA while Mark Grudzielanek did not play in the majors in 2009 due to injury.  On June 24th, after putting up a slash line of .166/.269/.245, Valbuena was sent to Columbus.  Mark Grudzielanek was released by the Indians on June 16th (.273/.328/.273).  The rest of the 2010 season included a revolving door at second base between Jason Donald, Luis Valbuena (recalled from Columbus), Drew Sutton, and Jayson Nix.
The Indians are turning to veteran shortstop Orlando Cabrera to play second base in 2011.  O.Cabrera was the starting shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds in 2010 and along with Brandon Phillips stabilized their middle infield.  He has certainly lost the range he once had but he still makes the plays that he should make.  The Indians are hoping that Orlando Cabrera will be able to have increased range at a less demanding position and be able to, along with Asdrubal Cabrera, bring consistency  to the middle infield.     Offensively Cabrera will not bring high on-base or slugging but he will be a capable major league hitter who won't be hitting around the Mendoza line after 50 games. In 2010 he put up a slash line of .263/.303/.354 and has a  lifetime slash line of .274/.320/.395.  The Indians do have several options to play 2b at the upper levels of the organization in Cord Phelps and Jason Kipnis in the event that  father time finally catches up to Orlando Cabrera or if the Indians just want to add more punch to the lineup.

Asdrubal came to spring training in 2010 and wasn't in the best shape.  His performance was lagging (.267/.322/.368) even before breaking his arm on May 29th in Tampa.  When he returned to the lineup on July 20th, he didn't look like the same Asdrubal Cabrera for the remainder of the year as he seemed sluggish in the field and impatient while batting.

The Indians are hopeful that Asdrubal Cabrera can have a breakout season.  Cabrera is only 25 years old and has already showed the ability to drive the ball in the gaps and more importantly get on base.  Asdrubal did report to spring training this year in much better shape and the Indians are looking for much better defense and are looking for Cabrera to repeat some of the numbers he displayed in 2009.

The Indians opened 2010 with Johnny Peralta at 3b and he never was able to find his footing at the position, nor did he seem to show any reason to believe that the power that he once displayed was coming back. Peralta played in 91 games for the Tribe in 2010 prior to being traded to Detroit for prospect Giovanni Soto on July 28th.  While with the Indians Peralta put up a slash line of .246/.308/.389 with 7 HR in 373 PA.  The Indians tried a number of other players at 3b over the seasons final 2 months.  Jayson Nix was given most of the time there but his fielding left much to be desired.

Over the offseason, the Indians made a decision not to pursue a 3b via free agency, rather they decided to allow Jason Donald, Jayson Nix, and Jared Goedert compete for the spot.  Nix continued to struggle at 3b while playing in winter ball, Jared Goedert unfortunately strained an oblique and took himself out of the competition, and Jason Donald suffered a fracture in his finger when he got hit by a pitch.  This string of unfortunate events, has the Indians turning to veteran journeyman Jack Hannahan to start the year. The Indians expect Jason Donald back by the end of April and a decision to keep Jack Hannahan or utility infielder Adam Everett will be made at that time.

This move, much like the Carlos Santana move prior to 2010, has irked many fans as future 3b Lonnie Chisenhall came to spring training and hit very well prior to be sent to minor league camp.  Many Indians fans feel Chisenhall should be the opening day 3b while the Indians insist he has more polishing to do both offensively and defensively in the minors.   If Chisenhall is hitting minor league pitching, look for him to settle in at 3b over the second half of the 2011 season.

The 2010 Indians primarily used Austin Kearns, Trevor Crowe, and Shelly Duncan in left field, Micheal Brantley and Trevor Crowe in centerfield, and Shin-Soo Choo in right field. Neither Crowe or Brantley were able to establish themselves defensively in centerfield but Micheal Brantley appeared to be getting more comfortable in the batters box as the year wore on.   Shin-Soo Choo had another solid season finishing with a  slash line of .300/.401/.484 with 20 HR and 22 SB.  The most successful of the trio in left field was Austin Kearns (.272/.310/.582) prior to being traded to the New York Yankees on July 30th.

The 2011 Indians will hope to have Grady Sizemore back in center field early in the season which would allow the them to move Micheal Brantley to LF and will look for Shin-Soo Choo to continue to be an offensive force for them.  Over the winter, the Indians re-signed Kearns to be their fourth outfielder and will look for Travis Buck, who made the team as a non-roster invitee, to also provide help at all three OF positions.

The 2010 Indians began the year with a rotation of Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook, Justin Masterson, David Huff, and Mitch Talbot. Fausto Carmona was coming off a 2009 season which saw him sent to Arizona to condition himself and refine his mechanics.  Jake Westbrook was returning from a 18 month layoff after Tommy John surgery.  Mitch Talbot was coming to the Indians after only being able to pitch 68.1 innings in the minors in 2009 as he battled injuries.  Justin Masteron was just settling into his role as a starter after spending the early part of his career as a bullpen with the Boston Red Sox.  The rotation held up, but only in the physical sense.

David Huff was brutal as he went 2-9 with a 6.45 ERA over his first 13 starts prior to being sent back to Columbus.  Justin Masterson struggled to find his way, especially against left handed hitters.   Mitch Talbot seemed to struggle with consistency early on and seemed fatigued from the innings workload by midsummer.  Jake Westbrook was traded on July 31st to the St.Louis Cardinals.  The Indians turned to Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez take turns in the rotation in the second half.  Only Fausto Carmona seemed to be an effective starting pitcher from opening day until the end of the season.

The 2011 Indians will look to Fausto Carmona to head the rotation followed by Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, Mitch Talbot, and Josh Tomlin.  The Indians will have David Huff and Jeanmar Gomez ready in AAA if one of the starters should falter early and will possibly have Alex White available if needed in the second half of the season.  2011 is a big year for Justin Masterson, who as previously mentioned, struggled to find consistency in 2010.  Masterson did show improvement over the year as he was 3-5 with a 3.84 ERA.  The Indians know that Carlos Carrasco is going to give up his share of home runs but are hopeful that Carrasco can limit the damage by not walking batters ahead of those home runs.   Mitch Talbot seemed to pitch well in spurts last season, but a back strain and fatigue got the best of him by midsummer.  Talbot will be out to show the Indians that he can withstand the rigors of pitching every fifth day and be effective.  The Indians are looking to Josh Tomlin to provide consistency out of the back of their rotation.

The 2010 bullpen was horrible in the first half, traded away Kerry Wood, and suddenly rebounded in the second half to be a bright spot in a bleak season.  The 2011 season will rely on Chad Durbin, Justin Germano, Frank Herrman, Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith (when healthy) Rafael Perez, and Tony Sipp to get the ball to Chris Perez.   One of the keys to the Indians improvement in 2011 will be the frequency at which they can get the ball to Chris Perez with a lead as they were 60-3 when they led after 8 innings.  

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