If the Indians are going to contend in the AL Central this season, they’ll need to make another double-digit leap in victories. They went from 69 to 80 wins last year for an 11-game improvement and a second-place finish. How hard will it be to jump from 80 to 90-plus victories this year? Remember Evel Knievel’s attempt to clear the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle? Not to say that it can’t be done, but the Indians will need to make significant improvements on offense this season. Cleveland re-signed Grady Sizemore and sprinkled him with magic dust to keep him healthy after five surgeries in the last three years. The magic dust must have been an off-brand because Sizemore didn’t make it out of spring training before succumbing to back surgery. He’ll mist the first half at least. The Indians, one of MLB’s youngest teams, believe improvement by young position players such as Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall will help. They also need their starting outfield of Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo and a committee in left field not only to return to full health, but also produce.
Pitching drives the Indians. It carried them into September in a gutsy but futile chase of Detroit last year, and it will make or break them this year. While Justin Masterson established himself as a No.1 starter in 2011, all eyes will be on Ubaldo Jimenez, a July deadline acquisition from Colorado. Is he the ace he looked like with the Rockies in 2010 when he started the All-Star Game, or the enigma the Indians acquired? Masterson, Jimenez, Josh Tomlin, Derek Lowe and hopefully Roberto Hernandez Heredia — a.k.a. Fausto Carmona — will open the year as manager Manny Acta’s all-right-handed starting five. Heredia, who is three years older (31) than previously thought, was arrested in January for using a false identity to secure a U.S. visa and will most certainly not be with the team with the Tribe breaks camp. Lowe was acquired from Atlanta right after the World Series because the team’s deep well of starters ran dry. Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, former No. 1 picks, were traded for Jimenez, and Carlos Carrasco will miss this season because of right elbow surgery. Masterson and Tomlin are in position to build on their 12-victory seasons in 2011. New pitching coach Scott Radinsky needs some big market corrections from Jimenez, Lowe and Heredia. Jimenez is a mechanical mess, and Lowe and Heredia combined to lose 32 games last year. Kevin Slowey, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber and Scott Barnes provide depth. Slowey and Gomez will get the first trials.
The bullpen, led by closer Chris Perez, has been excellent for the last one-and-a-half seasons and should continue to prosper. Well, once Perez recovers from an oblique injury. He should be back by May, but it’s always difficult to know with injuries of this kind. A fan nicknamed the relievers the “Bullpen Mafia.” This is a talented group that forms the core of the team. Perez converted 90 percent (36-for-40) of his saves last season, but he is a high-wire act who can induce panic among fans. Perez is surrounded by setup men who provide various looks, from lefties Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp to side-arming righties Joe Smith and Vinnie Pestano to hard-throwing righthander Frank Herrmann. Pestano will be the first option to fill in as closer, but Rafael Perez, Sipp and Smith may all get save opportunities. Veteran righthander Robinson Tejeda, if healthy, along with lefty Nick Hagadone will compete for the last spot.
Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is the Indians’ best all-around player, but they need a full season from him. He hit .293 in the first half of the season but only .244 (60-for-246) in the second half. Cabrera doesn’t have to hit 25 homers as he did last year, but he must be more consistent both offensively and defensively from Opening Day to the end of the season. Kipnis, who has had a strong spring, will start at second base. He showed power and production in his brief big league debut last year but had a hard time staying healthy. The converted center fielder is still raw defensively, which could mean trouble with a starting rotation dominated by ground-ball pitchers. Jason Donald can back up at both positions.
Cleveland signed Casey Kotchman to play first base after Matt LaPorta has failed to take control of the job. LaPorta was the key player in the 2008 deal that sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee, but the former first-round pick out of Florida has not shown consistent production. Kotchman is clearly an improvement defensively and hit .306 for Tampa Bay last season. Santana, a switch-hitting catcher, made 63 starts at first last year and could make even more this year. Chisenhall will get every chance to be the Opening Day third baseman. He’s raw defensively but showed flashes of power. He was protected against lefties, but still hit .260 in 50 at-bats vs. southpaws. If Chisenhall isn’t ready, Jack Hannahan would be in line for significant playing time. He displayed Gold Glove defense last year.
Last year Brantley led the Indians’ starting outfielders in games played with 114. Choo, on the disabled list twice, played 85. Sizemore, on the disabled list three times, played 71. Brantley missed all of September with a broken hamate bone in his right hand. If healthy, Choo has demonstrated in the past that he can produce offensively. Brantley is still trying to establish himself offensively, but he appears to be more of a top-of-the-order hitter. A DUI and a broken left thumb wrecked Choo’s 2011 season, but in 2009 and 2010 he hit .300 and was a 20-20 man. Sizemore, a member of the 30-30 club in 2008, underwent back surgery this spring after rebounding from microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2010 and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee at the end of the 2011 season. Ezequiel Carerra and Shelley Duncan will compete for an extra outfield spot after seeing plenty of playing time last year. Aaron Cunningham, out of options, was acquired in a trade with San Diego, and Felix Pie was signed to a minor league deal for depth.
The Indians want Santana to get most of his playing time at catcher. They believe his offense (27 HRs, 79 RBIs, 97 walks, .457 slugging percentage) helps the team more at a premium defensive position rather than having him play exclusively at first base. The problem is that when they do move Santana to first, usually against a lefthander, the offense suffers, because backup Lou Marson hit just .230 with 19 RBIs in 79 games last season. The Indians did sign veteran Matt Pagnozzi to a minor league deal to push Marson for playing time.
This is the final year of Travis Hafner’s four-year $57 million deal, and the Indians probably started counting it down on Jan. 1, 2012. It’s not only the biggest contract in team history, but it’s also probably the worst, given Hafner’s lack of production over the last four years because of a damaged right shoulder that required surgery in 2008. Hafner hasn’t played more than 118 games or driven in more than 57 runs in any of the last four seasons, appearing in 94 games in 2011. The leading candidates for bench jobs include Marson at catcher, Duncan at first and the outfield, Donald, Hannahan and Jose Lopez as utility infielders and Carrera, Cunningham and Pie in the outfield.
The front office was impressed enough with Acta following the 2011 season to exercise his 2013 option. The Indians were 30–15 on May 23, saw a significant uptick at the turnstiles and still owned a piece of first place in the AL Central on July 20 before fading. GM Chris Antonetti was aggressive in his second year. He mortgaged the future in the Jimenez trade by trading former No.1 picks Pomeranz and White. In the offseason he struck early by trading for Lowe and re-signing Sizemore, two moves that may not pan out. The Kotchman signing could be one of the shrewdest in baseball.
The Indians have the talent to be a factor in the AL Central. They will need another solid season from their starters, and their key offensive players must perform at a high level. If Choo and Hafner spend more time on the disabled list than on the active roster, this team is going to have a tough time making another significant leap in the win column.
CF Michael Brantley (L)
He hit .289 (90-for-311) against righties, but just .214 (30-for-140) against lefties.
SS Asdrubal Cabrera (S)
Won the Silver Slugger last year, but lost the Gold Glove because he ran out of gas in second half.
RF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
Must hit better than .205 (17-for-83) with runners in scoring position to stay in No. 3 spot.
C Carlos Santana (S)
He hit just .239, but slugged .457 because of 64 extra base hits; also had 97 walks.
DH Travis Hafner (L)
Is there a big season bubbling inside Hafner in his walk year, or will it be more of the same?
2B Jason Kipnis (L)
He hit six homers last year in his first 16 big league games.
1B Casey Kotchman (L)
The Indians believe they have the 2011 version (.306 avg.) rather than the 2012 model (.217).
3B Lonnie Chisenhall (L)
He hit five of his seven big-league homers last year against lefties.
LF Aaron Cunningham (R)
Journeyman is with fifth organization in six years, but has a chance to play every day with injury to Grady Sizemore.
C Lou Marson (R)
Threw out 38.5 percent (30-of-78) of the basestealers he faced.
INF Jack Hannahan (L)
Provides stellar defense at third and first and hit .296 (32-for-108) against lefties.
UT Jason Donald (R)
Hit .377 (23-for-61) against lefties and can play second, short, third and the outfield.
UT Shelley Duncan (R)
Ranked third in the American League with 23 RBIs in September.
OF Grady Sizemore (L)
Indians re-signed him for $5 million, but back surgery is latest medical issue. He’ll miss at least half the season.
RH Justin Masterson
Allowed the second-fewest homers per nine innings (11 in 216) in the American League.
RH Ubaldo Jimenez
Averaged 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings last year, but AL batters slugged .448 against him.
RH Josh Tomlin
Finished first in the AL in fewest batters walked per nine innings with an average of 1.143 walks.
RH Derek Lowe
He’s durable, but can he bounce back from 17-loss season with the Braves against AL lineups?
RH Kevin Slowey
Winless in eight decisions with Minnesota last season with a 6.67 ERA. Heredia’s legal troubles open the door for Slowey to resurrect career.
RH Roberto Hernandez Heredia
Pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona is 33–48 since going 19–8 in ’07 — and he’s 31 years old, not 28. Still trying to sort through legal issues to join team.
RH Chris Perez (Closer)
Strikeouts dropped from 61 in 2010 to 39 last year, but finished fourth in AL with 36 saves. An oblique injury will likely land him on the DL for the first month.
RH Vinnie Pestano
Righthanders hit just .115 (15-for-130) against him with four extra base hits. Will share closing duties with Sipp, Rafael Perez and Smith until Chris Perez returns.
LH Tony Sipp
Allowed 10 homers in 62.1 innings, but overall the opposition hit just .201 (45-for-224) against him.
LH Rafael Perez
His ERA was 1.91 in the first half of the season compared to 4.62 in the second half.
RH Joe Smith
Lefties hit .342 (13-for-38) against him in 2010, but .152 (12-for-79) in 2011.
RH Frank Herrmann
Long-relief man who does well against righties, not so well against lefties.
LH Nick Hagadone
He has a big arm, but he also has control issues that could be a concern.
RH Dan Wheeler
Cagey veteran could earn a spot on the roster this spring.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals