Significant Acquisitions: 1B/RF Nick Swisher, CF Michael Bourn, RHP Brett Myers, RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka, DH/1B Mark Reynolds, OF Drew Stubbs, RHP Matt Capps, RHP Bryan Shaw, RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Matt Albers, IF Mike Aviles
Cleveland had, by all accounts, an excellent 2012-13 offseason. They started it off by acquiring potential future ace Trevor Bauer in a three-team trade that saw the exodus of longtime rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo. Then, they swooped in and signed two of the best free agents on the market in Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn—both at deals which could be considered below market value.
They made incremental improvements to their team overall by acquiring Daisuke Matsuzaka and noted awful human Brett Myers to bolster their rotation while also adding some intriguing bullpen pieces in Bryan Shaw (also in the Bauer-Choo trade), Matt Albers and Matt Capps.
This is all very good for fans of Cleveland considering how awful the team was in 2012. Their 68-94 record was better than only the Twins in the American League and they had the worst run differential in baseball—the Astros notwithstanding.
There’s little question that Cleveland should be better in 2013 than they were in 2012, but whether or not they made enough of an improvement to contend with the Tigers is yet to be seen.
No one would argue that the starting rotation is the weakest part of the 2013 Clevelands. At the top of the rotation will be incumbents Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson who both struggled mightily in 2012. Jimenez, who very briefly looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball, was barely above replacement level last season posting an ERA well into the fives and some ugly peripherals. Neither prospect that Cleveland gave up in that trade with Colorado looks all that great, but I’m sure they would reconsider that deal if they could.
Masterson, meanwhile, was coming off a terrific 2011, but stumbled as his struggles against lefties came shining through. Teams figured out that stacking their lineup with left-handed hitters—even bad ones—was a viable strategy to beat Masterson. As a result, he actually faced quite a bit more left-handed hitters in 2012 than right-handed ones. His opponents’ split slash lines tell the whole story:
Vs. RHB: .229/.308/.304, .277 wOBA
Vs. LHB : .288/.376/.450, .360 wOBA
If I were an opposing manager, I don’t think I’d allow a single righthander to hit against Masterson. Hell, I might even tell my better righties to switch hit.
The acquisitions of Matsuzaka and Myers could turn out well for Cleveland, but they could also both produce very little value. Myers is the better bet, but is coming off a year where he pitched entirely out of the bullpen and although he was decent, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to make the switch back to starting without some problems. Matsuzaka, on the other hand, is coming off another injury-plagued campaign where he gave up almost a run per inning in 11 starts with Boston.
The final rotation spot will likely go to Zach McAllister to start the year after a decent showing in 22 big league starts a year ago. Bauer should also see time at the Major League level this year too, but it’s unknown what exactly he’ll contribute. If he delivers on some of his promise, it’ll go a long way to helping Cleveland win half their games.
The bullpen was good again in 2012 with closer Chris Perez remembering how to strike batters out and Vinnie Pestano continuing to be excellent—although his splits against lefties have started to alarm some. Right-hander Joe Smith has become one of the more consistent relievers in baseball who you’ve barely heard of and the acquisition of Albers, Capps and Shaw were all under-the-radar, but savvy pickups.
Nick Hagadone—who wasn’t very good in 27 appearances last season—could end up being the only left-hander coming north with the team, but both Smith and Capps have a proven track record of reverse splits which should soften that. David Huff and comeback candidate Scott Kazmir are also on the radar.
The trading of Choo to start the offseason had the optics of a team ready to start the rebuilding project with a head of steam, but then Cleveland waited out the market and signed two of the top outfielders on said market to deals that have to be considered cheap when compared to the likes of Josh Hamilton and B.J. Upton.
The addition of Bourn and Swisher should give the Clevelands at least an average offense, if not a little bit better. Bourn will play centerfield where he is considered one of the best defenders in the game and is about average with the bat. His superior baserunning skills make him one of the best all around outfielders in the game. Even with a skill set that doesn’t typically age well, the four-year $48-million deal he signed looks great for Cleveland.
Swisher, meanwhile, has been about as durable as any player in the league over the past several seasons and is routinely excellent. He hits for power, draws walks and isn’t a terrible outfielder. With the signing of Bourn, Swisher will likely see quite a bit of time at first base for Cleveland, but with Drew Stubbs slated as the everyday rightfielder, he’ll still see some time in right. When he’s not playing first, expect new DH Mark Reynolds—he of all the strike outs—to play there.
The rest of the infield looks pretty solid as well with Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall at short, second and third respectively. Cabrera is a good offensive player who will eventually have to move off of short. He regressed in 2012 after a fantastic 2011, but was still solid. Kipnis was underwhelming in some respects last year, but was still an average hitter who finished with a 3.1 WAR according to FanGraphs. He’s also a very good baserunner who stole 31 bases last season despite average speed. Chisenhall was solid in 43 games and is expected to be the everyday third baseman.
The best player on the team is catcher Carlos Santana who has established himself as one of the best offensive catchers in baseball after another excellent season with the bat. Only Joe Mauer had a higher wRC+ among American League catchers.
Cleveland was not regarded as a good defensive ballclub by the metrics or by the eyes in 2012. They finished third-from-the-bottom in defensive efficiency in the AL. This year should be much different—at least in the outfield. The projected starters—Michael Brantley in left, Bourn in center and Stubbs in right—could all play centerfield at a high level and should cover a lot of ground.
The infield defense and catching, however, may not be all that great. Cabrera makes it look good, but is shoddy at short, while Kipnis has been below-average at best at second base. Chisenhall is said to be solid, but hasn’t played enough to know for certain. Behind the plate, the combination of Santana and Lou Marson might rival the worst defensive catchers in the league.
The Clevelands should score enough runs in 2013, but their pitching rotation is very thin from top to bottom and although a newly revamped defense-first outfield will help with run prevention, a complete lack of impact starters is going to hurt. The additions of Bourn and Swisher put them in the conversation for second place and they will certainly be better than they were last year, but contention seem highly unlikely unless a lot goes their way.
2013 Prediction: 76-86, 4th AL Central