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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #16: The Cleveland Indians

The Indians are one of the most enjoyable franchises to follow and one of the most challenging to evaluate. Mark Shapiro is among the more creative and unpredictable GMs in baseball and the teams he puts together often possess the same characteristics, which isn't always a good thing. During the Noughties, Cleveland won 90+ games four times, and lost 90+ twice. They spent over $90 Million (in 2001) and under $35 Million (in 2004), and pretty much everything between. Players like Cliff Lee, Fausto Carmona, Victor Martinez, and Travis Hafner experienced both ends of the performance spectrum, as candidates (and even winners) of MVPs and Cy Youngs, but also falling dramatically short of expectations in intervening years.

As recently as 2007 the Indians made it as far as Game 7 of the ALCS. They looked like a franchise poised to compete for years to come. However, their winning percentage dropped by nearly 100 points in each of the next two seasons and now, having dealt C. C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Casey Blake, Franklin Gutierrez, Mark DeRosa, Carl Pavano, Rafael Betancourt, Kelly Shoppach, Ryan Garko, and Ben Francisco in the span of fourteen months, they appear to be franchise firmly in a rebuilding mode. Only ten players from the 2007 ALCS roster remain in the Cleveland organization.

This isn't unfamiliar territory. In 2005, when they had one of the lowest payrolls in all of baseball, the Indians surprised everybody by winning 93 games and making a serious run on the AL Wild Card, going 38-16 (.704) in the seasons final two months. The next year, with a team of much the same composition, seemingly poised for contention, they again fell beneath .500. When it comes to Shapiro's Indians, looks can be deceiving.

Free Agents:

Jamey Carroll (36) IF [Signed w/ Dodgers]
Masa Kobayashi (36) RHRP [Signed w/ Yomiuri Giants]
Tomo Ohka (34) RHP
Jose Veras (29) RHRP

Arbitration Eligible:

Rafael Perez (28) LHRP

ETA 2010?:

Michael Brantley (23) OF
Jordan Brown (26) OF
Carlos Carrasco (23) RHSP
Jeanmar Gomez (22) RHSP
Matt LaPorta (25) 1B/OF
Lou Marson (24) C
Vinnie Pestano (25) RHRP
Johan Pino (26) RHSP
Carlos Santana (24) C
Jess Todd (24) RHRP
Nick Weglarz (22) LF

The Indians organization has been for the last two decades one of the best in baseball at drafting and developing talent. Although financial restraints prevent them from retaining all of that talent, they firmly believe in replenishing the system via trades. Their success this season will be based mainly upon the production of those players who were acquired when Cleveland traded the veterans listed above.

Matt LaPorta was the centerpiece of the Sabathia deal with Milwaukee in 2008. The Indians weren't sure going into the year whether LaPorta was a left-fielder or a first-baseman. During his first promotion, playing primarily left field, LaPorta struggled, managing only a 571 OPS over the course of an eleven-game stretch in May. The Indians sent him back to AAA, and when he returned, he posted an admirable 805 OPS through forty games in August and September. After trading Ryan Garko and Michael Aubrey, it appears that Cleveland will enter 2010 withe LaPorta as their everyday first-baseman. LaPorta's minor-league stats (941 OPS, for instance) suggest he has the power to hold down that position. If he can provide protection for Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner, Cleveland could produce runs in bunches. It is a balanced attack, with
power and speed from both sides of the plate, as well as solid defense up the middle.

The Indians rotation, on the other hand, is filled with once-promising prospects for whom this is probably the last chance. Fausto Carmona epitomizes the group. After being among the best pitchers in all of baseball in 2007, winning 19 games and posting a 3.06 ERA, Carmona has taken huge steps backward in each of the past two seasons. In 2009 he went 5-12 with an abyssmal 6.32 ERA. However, Carmona is still only 26 years old, perfectly capable of becoming a quality starter, if not the Ace he looked like a couple years ago.

Similarly, Anthony Reyes was once considered among the top pitching prospects. He threw eight strong innings in the first game of the 2006 World Series, at the age of 24. However, it has been mostly downhill from there. He went just 2-14 for the Cardinals in '07. He was traded to the Tribe midway through '08 and looked great down the stretch, posting a 1.80 ERA in his first six starts with his new team. But in '09 he was plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness. At the age of 28, he doesn't have many chances left.

The same can be said of Jeremy Sowers, the promising Vanderbilt Ace who's now made 71 major-league starts, but won only 17 of them. Aaron Laffey, another left-hander who breezed through the minor leagues, has also struggled to perform at the major-league level, posting a 4.42 ERA in 44 starts.

All of these pitchers are young enough that Cleveland is willing to give them at least another year of opportunities, but if Shapiro doesn't see significant maturation, 2011 may mark the end of his patience. The Indians next crop of hurlers is coming up the pipeline, buoyed by the additions of Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, and Johan Pino via Shapiro's flurry of trades last summer. Nobody in the Opening Day rotation will have a particularly long leash.

The Indians have a lot to work out going into Spring Training. Not only is the rotation pretty much a free-for-all, the Tribe will be looking at multiple candidates for left field, second base, catcher, and in the bullpen, where Kerry Wood, Tony Sipp, and Joe Smith are probably the only pitchers who have locked up spots in advance.

The battle for backstop is particularly interesting as it features two 24-year-olds who are both among the top prospects at their position. Lou Marson, who came to Cleveland in the Cliff Lee deal, got a couple cups of coffee in 2009 and posted a 708 OPS between Cleveland and Philadelphia. Marson doesn't possess much power, but he is a quality defender who gets on base at a very high rate (.433 OBP at AA in '08, .382 at AAA prior to the trade in '09). Carlos Santana hasn't advanced past AA yet, but he is one of the top hitting prospects around. In 132 AA games, he's hit 24 HR, driven in 99 runs, and posted a 939 OPS. If he can prove himself defensively, he is probably the Indians catcher of the future. If not, he is probably their DH of the future.

There are currently only three men on the Indians 40-man roster over the age of thirty: Kerry Wood, Jake Westbrook, and Travis Hafner. Each of them possesses an ungainly contract, so they probably won't be featured on next season's trading block unless they have an unexpected renaissance. Rather, they will be asked, along with Cleveland's new manager, Manny Acta, to guide a clubhouse full of exciting young talents. Although it is probably a truly long shot for Cleveland to surge to the front of their division (which is, to be fair, a division without an obvious powerhouse), by August of 2010, I expect none of the contenders will be looking forward to playing meaningful games against the Indians and in 2011 they may be favorites in the AL Central. Which, based on the contrarian perspective outlined above, may not be a position of strength.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF Grady Sizemore (L)
SS Asdrubel Cabrera (S)
RF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
DH Travis Hafner (L)
1B Matt LaPorta (R)
3B Jhonny Peralta (R)
C Carlos Santana (S)
LF Michael Brantley (L)
2B Luis Valbuena (L)

SP Jake Westbrook (R)
SP Fausto Carmona (R)
SP Aaron Laffey (L)
SP Anthony Reyes (R)
SP Jeremy Sowers (L)

CL Kerry Wood (R)
SU Joe Smith (R)
SU Tony Sipp (L)
MR Jensen Lewis (R)
MR Chris Perez (R)
LOOGY Rafael Perez (L)
SWING Justin Masterson (R)

C Lou Marson (R)
1B/3B Andy Marte (R)
2B/SS Jason Donald (R)
OF Trevor Crowe (S)

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