It is worth mentioning that this is the 2nd part of what is essentially a 5-part series of previewing teams in the AL Central. The team previews are in ascending order of where I expect them to finish. The Royals were first, now it's the Indians, then come the Tigers, the Twins, and yes, the White Sox are last, but their preview will multi-faceted (read: many, many posts).
Holy crap, have you seen Cleveland's roster? Do you realize that in alternate universe where the Indians don't get injury-marred seasons from Asdrubal Cabrera (1 of them!), Grady Sizemore (2 of them!!) and Travis Hafner (3 of them!!!), Matt LaPorta doesn't make it his personal mission to make the C.C. Sabathia trade look dreadful, Mark Shapiro uses the treasure chest he found at the end of a rainbow to re-sign Sabathia and Cliff Lee and not on autographed DVD copies of Major League II...
...Do you realize that with all those elements in working order, and if catching prodigy Carlos Santana hadn't injured his knee after 46 games, that they could be a legit contender?
Don't believe it? Well neither does their fanbase (last in home attendance for 2010). All these guys listed above remain question-marks, and a fair amount will probably will fail to shake off the cobwebs this year, which is why the Indians seemed doomed to wrap-up the 2011 season on schedule. Still, of the two teams without much of a chance, the Indians have the most potential to do damage in the here-and-now.
As I discussed with the Royals the other day, the Indians are a team that could be a lot stronger around the end of the year than the beginning, as they wait for some young players to progress/get promoted and Grady Sizemore's bones to grow back; or whatever the hell microfracture surgery actually entails. Which is why it's crap that the Sox have the same split where the play the Tribe only 5 times in the 1st half and 13 times in the 2nd. So maybe the division schedule won't be easy street, but that's what interleague play is for, after all.
Due to familiarity, I seem to be higher on every team in the AL Central than I should be, but the Indians really have some offensive talent...although most of it needs to rise from the dead.
First off, they have two studs in RF Shin Soo-Choo and C Carlos Santana. Choo has been playing at a superbly high level for the last two and a half years now, and better yet, it appears he's not being conscripted into the Korean army and wasting the rest of his prime after all; which is aces. Not-even-25-yet catching phenom Carlos Santana got the call-up last season after Lou Marson gave a "Here, just take it already" level performance at the catcher position. Before a knee injury ended his season after just 46 games, Santana posted an absurd 19.3% walk rate and accumulated 2 WAR. One has to imagine he settles into an OBP a little lower than .401 in his first full MLB season because if not, oooohhhhhhh crap.
Then, things get dicey. Yes, after two players, things get dicey. In 2008, Grady Sizemore popped 33 HRs, stole 38 bases, posted a .378 OBP, and won a Gold Glove (and actually deserved it!). He was a problem, to say the least. Two years of injuries, a microfracture surgery, and not even equaling 2008's workload later, he's only now being allowed to run bases in Spring Training. He's young enough to recover fully from the operation and be an approximation of himself, but loses a lot of his defensive value if he doesn't.
Also lying near dormant are DH Travis Hafner and 1B Matt LaPorta. Hafner nearly won the MVP in 2005, and played even better in 2006, but shoulder injuries have kept him from the same workload, and much farther away from the same production. The past two seasons have seen him settle into the .350 wOBA range, which is nice, certainly useful, but not befitting someone named 'Pronk'. He still scares the bejeesus out of me, so I always think he's one shoulder rubdown from being right. LaPorta is a man who has conquered every level of pitching except the one that matters, having never found a power stroke at the big league level. He projects to man 1st for the Indians this year, as if the organization is telling him "One last chance to prove yourself", or perhaps just saying "Go to hell" to their remaining fans in attendance. Oh, and the Indians hired the ghost of LF Austin Kearns to draw walks, and in return the team will help Austin find out who killed his power, and his formerly superb defense.
It's the infield where things really fall apart for this team. SS Asdrubal Cabrera hit well enough when he was healthy in 2009, but he's paired with LaPorta, the uninspiring 3rd base battle between Jason Donald and Jayson Nix, and Orlando Cabrera; who Father Time didn't just catch up to in 2010, he caught up, tackled, and administering noogies to OC all season-long. A .303 OBP with no power is bad look, especially at age 36. Unfortunately, OC represents the only above-average defender in the diamond, which makes a damn waste of their top two starters, Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson, who both excel at inducing groundballs.
I suppose if bad infield defense unnaturally balloons these talented starters' ERAs into the 4.00 range, it'll just lower their value come impromptu fire-sale time, and that's good news for the Sox, especially if similar fates befall pitch-to-contact types Mike Tomlin, and curiously-dominant- vs.-the-Sox Mitch Talbot (4 starts, 3-0, 2.89 ERA). Carlos Carrasco has promise, but is also only 23 years old, which means lights-out some nights, and out by the 3rd inning in others.
Chris Perez anchors the bullpen as the closer, and he's failed to impress me with his control since he nailed Alexei Ramirez in the head his first night in a Cleveland uniform. He posted a 1.71 ERA last season, but his 3.54 FIP and 4 walks per 9 innings suggest no repeat is coming. Perez along with fellow relievers Joe Smith, Tony Sipp, Vinnie Pestano, and Jensen Lewis all posted walk rates over 4 per 9 innings last season. Perhaps "Don't swing after the 6th inning" emerges as a legit strategy over the Inidans next season in response. Rafael Perez doesn't strike batters out enough to be a great set-up guy, and Chad Durbin is just a man...just a man.
The Indians' middle infield and pitching are probably too bad even if they didn't have question marks hanging over some of their main run-producers. But for the first two teams in our series, the point is not so much to analyze if they can with the division (they can't), but if they can be a nuisance (they can). They might even lose less than 90 games.
Confused? Annoyed? Read my stat primer. It's a fun read...at least as far as stat primers go.