2011 Record: 80-82, 2nd AL Central
2011 Prediction:
65-97, 4th AL Central

Impact Player: C/1B Carlos Santana
Impact Pitcher:
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez
Best Reliever:
RHP Vinnie Pestano
Top Prospect:
SS Francisco Lindor

Last Year

The Clevelands were the story of the season for the first half of 2011. On May 23rd, they were seven games up in the AL Central with a 30-15 record. Pundits around baseball were already crowning them the unexpected champs of the division. Then, predictably, the wheels fell off.  From that point on, the Clevelands won 50 more games while losing 67, fifth-from-the-bottom in the AL in that span.

Although Cleveland finished with their best record since 2008, it was clear that they were a totally different team in the first half than they were in the second. Their Pythagorean record (a number that takes into account only runs scored and runs against, attempting to remove luck) was 75-87 and given that more of their games came against the weak AL Central than any other division, even that might be overshooting their overall talent level.

Pitching

Cleveland has a unique way of building a pitching staff. Despite playing in a relatively neutral ballpark, they stockpile extreme groundball pitchers. It’s a strategy that has the potential to pay off in spades if they don’t ignore all other peripheral information on the pitchers they acquire. Unfortunately, the group of pitchers Cleveland sent out in 2011 was short on overall talent as they finished 10th in the AL in runs allowed.

In an attempt to catch the red hot Tigers, Cleveland acquired Ubaldo Jimenez from the Colorado Rockies at the trade deadline in a deal that sent the team’s top two pitching prospects (among others) in Drew Pomeranz and Alex White the other way. Jimenez has not looked the same since dominating the National League in early 2010 although he pitched much better than his 4.68 ERA would suggest. With him at the top of the rotation will be Justin Masterson, who might actually be the team’s best pitcher. Masterson pitched to a 3.21 ERA and an equally solid 3.64 xFIP. He’s the prototypical Cleveland pitcher with a groundball percentage of 55.1% and a decent, albeit not great, strikeout rate. His 4.9 fWAR tied him with James Shields (he of the third place Cy Young Award finish) for eighth in the AL.

Sliding into the middle of the Cleveland rotation is veteran Derek Lowe who was acquired via trade with Atlanta in one of the more under-the-radar moves this offseason. Lowe’s traditional stats weren’t impressive in 2011, but he had a 3.65 xFIP and a groundball percentage at almost 60%. Even at 39, Lowe should provide between 170 and 200 innings and his traditional stats should improve barring a sudden physical decline.

The final two spots will probably go to Josh Tomlin and Kevin Slowey. Tomlin led the AL in walk-rate last season posting an impressive 1.14 BB/9 mark, but unlike his Cleveland brethren, doesn’t have particularly impressive groundball numbers. He also gave up way too many homeruns in 2011 and his strike out rate was among the lowest in the AL (only five pitchers were lower). Tomlin’s walk rate will keep him in the back end of rotations for a long time, but don’t ever expect him to be more than that.

Slowey, meanwhile, was traded twice this offseason: First from Minnesota to Colorado where his flyball tendencies seemed like a bad fit; and then from Colorado to Cleveland. Slowey is nothing special, but he’s much better than the 6.67 ERA he posted last season in Minny. He actually profiles as a very similar pitcher to Tomlin which could be why the Indians were interested in him. Jeanmar Gomez could push Slowey if he struggles again.

Roberto Hernandez (Fausto Carmona) is currently on the restricted list due to his identity troubles in the Dominican Republic, but he should also find his way into the rotation at some point this season.

Cleveland’s bullpen was fifth in the AL in ERA and was third behind only the Red Sox and Yankees in WPA/LI* and they have returned most of the same unit for 2012. Closer Chris Perez managed to put up very good traditional stats in 2011, but saw his strike out rate fall from 8.71 to 5.88 which could be a cause for major concern.

The best reliever on the team last year was Vinnie Pestano who struck out more than 12 batters per nine innings while keeping a respectable walk rate. He’ll be joined in setup by lefty Tony Sipp who outpitched his peripherals but should see his 1.44 HR/9 rate normalize.

Rounding out the ‘pen will be Joe Smith, Dan Wheeler and lefty Rafael Perez along with one of Frank Herrmann, Gomez, Zach McAllister and a host of others who could fit in as the team’s long-man. Smith was the best of this tier last season pitching to a 3.57 xFIP. He also didn’t give up a single home run to a right-handed batter all season.

Lineup

On May 23rd, the Clevelands were second in the AL to only the Yankees in runs scored, but by the end of the year they were languishing in ninth. Several players who started off the year very well regressed back to expected levels or got hurt and stopped contributing. This season, Cleveland’s offense should be better.

Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera struggled down the stretch but still finished with 25 home runs and enters the year as the likely number three hitter. His high HR/FB ratio should normalize slightly so expecting him to repeat his home run total is a tad optimistic. Even so, Cabrera is an above average hitter at short stop which is very hard to find. Defensively, the perception is that Cabrera is one of the better short stops around; however, the advanced metrics tend to disagree. Cabrera certainly makes his fair share of difficult looking plays, but he doesn’t get to balls that even the average short stop would. Cleveland may need to move him off the position at some point if a better option comes along.

Carlos Santana struggled to hit for a high average in 2011, but his patient approach led to a very solid on-base percentage and he managed to hit 27 home runs. He split time defensively between catcher and first base, but if Cleveland keeps him at catcher his value goes through the roof.

Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall both graduated from prospect status last season and will man second and third base respectively. Kipnis enjoyed a fantastic run after his call up, posting a .371 wOBA and a .507 slugging percentage. He might be better than Seattle phenom Dustin Ackley this season and has the potential to be a first-division starter at second base. Chisenhall, meanwhile, struggled in his Major League debut but has an equally high ceiling with more power potential than Kipnis.

If Cleveland is going to build on the modest success they enjoyed in 2011, they’ll need a bounce back season from rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo. Choo was one of the best and most undervalued outfielders in the game heading into last year, but struggled with injuries and was merely a league-average hitter over just 85 games. Choo is historically a BABIP monster with a career mark of .353, but that fell to .317 last season. If he can regain some of that batted-ball prowess, he’ll regain his value.

Joining him in the outfield will be Grady Sizemore and Michael Brantley in center and left field respectively. Sizemore was brought back despite not having played more than 106 games in a season since 2008 and is scheduled to miss opening day with back problems. When healthy, he’s one of the very best players in the game, but it’s been so long since that was the case that expecting it is probably foolish at this point. Brantley is a speedy player with some ability, but has also struggled to stay healthy.

Cleveland also signed Casey Kotchman to play first base this season after his career year in Tampa last year. His 125 wRC+ was impressive but also buoyed by batted-ball average much higher than his career norm; expecting less from the 29-year-old is probably wise.

Finally, the DH will be Travis Hafner, so long as he’s healthy. His rather lofty contract finally ends after this season and I doubt the Cleveland front office or fan base could be happier about that. He’s still a useful hitter who gets on base and has power, but he can’t play defense and hasn’t played a full season since 2007.

Bench

Lou Marson is slated to be the backup catcher while Jack Hannahan and Jason Donald will likely handle backing up the infield (or platooning given the lefty-heavy nature of Cleveland’s lineup). If either Kipnis or Chisenhall falter, they could be pushed into more prominent roles. Hannahan is one of the best defensive corner infielders around. Cleveland also acquired Aaron Cunningham from San Diego who is out of options. It’s likely that he’ll start in left field while Brantley shifts over to play center with Sizemore out. Shelley Duncan, Ezequiel Carrera and Nick Weglarz are also potential fill-ins in the outfield.

For a statistically detailed look at Cleveland’s depth chart, click here

Outlook

Give Cleveland some credit; they didn’t stand pat and hope to get better after a moderately successful season. Acquiring Lowe and Kotchman does help them in 2012 and continued progression from players like Kipnis, Chisenhall and Santana will also make them better. The problem is their 80-win season was a bit on the lucky side; they probably should have been somewhere in the low 70s.

2012 Prediction: 77-85, 4th AL Central

*WPA/LI is a metric that attempts to measure the probability a player or group of players add(s) to a team’s chances of winning, divided by type of leverage they face; a good measure for how well relievers fared in helping their teams win.