BY JUSTIN LADA
Hope springs eternal on February 20th this year for the Cleveland Indians.
That is the first day pitchers and catchers must report to the Indians Spring Training complex in Goodyear, Arizona.
A few players, Grady Sizemore, Jason Kipnis and Shin-Soo Choo to name a few have been at the complex getting prepared for some time now.
Ubaldo Jiminez spent a lot of time working with strength trainer Nelson Perez getting ready for 2012.
Well 2012 is here. Pretty soon position players will be reporting and there will be inter-squad games and Spring Training games.
So first order of business, let’s talk about what questions the Indians face this season.
For the first time in a while the Indians don’t have a ton of positions up for grabs.
The Indians are saying third base is up for grabs, presumably between Jack Hannahan and Lonnie Chisenhall. Jason Donald could be in the mix as well.
As of now, the 5th starter’s spot in the rotation is up for grabs and other than backup catcher, it seems as if all bench spots need to be filled. There are also seemingly two bullpen spots to be competed for as well.
But let’s dive into the issues the Indians face in 2012, as the first day of Spring Training workouts are done.
Will Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner be healthy?
This is going to be the biggest issue for the Indians. They didn’t go out and get a huge bat like GM Chris Antonetti and many fans wanted, so the burden of the Indians offense will be on the two longest tenured position players on the Indians, to stay healthy.
If Sizemore goes down again the Indians might have to move Michael Brantley (who also is recovering from wrist surgery) to centerfield and will have to find another bat in left field. Sizemore is only being guaranteed $5 million this year, and for a player with his career numbers that is a pretty undervalue figure. He will need to be at least a 20/20 player again for the Indians offense to keep up in the AL Central and the Tigers.
Hafner hit 13 home runs and .280 in 94 games and 325 at bats. If he can keep up that kind of pace and reach 400 or more at bats, the Indians offense will get a huge boost. But like Sizemore, Hafner finds himself in what will likely be his last year in Cleveland. He has a $13 million team option for 2013 that is almost virtually guaranteed not to be picked up by the Indians brass. If he wants another contract in Cleveland or as a DH elsewhere, he must produce this year.
The Indians have other good hitters, but these two were the leaders the last time the Indians made the playoffs, and it’s no coincidence that they haven’t reached October since these players have been hurt more than healthy.
Was Derek Lowe’s September an aberration; or is 38 the end of the line for him?
Lowe led the NL in starts at 34, so he is durable and can pitch every fifth day.
He also led the majors in losses with 17 and a career worst 5.05 ERA. So it’s no wonder the Braves are paying $10 million of his $15 million to NOT pitch for them.
In fairness, the entire Braves team collapsed last September. In fact, the planets had to be aligned perfectly for a collapse so historic to happen. Had the Boston Red Sox not done their choke job in the fall last year, the Braves disaster might have grabbed more national attention.
In 18 starts from April-June, Lowe was 4-6 with a 4.60 ERA. He’s likely going to be the Indians fourth starter. With 166 wins and a 3.94 ERA, a World Series ring and a no hitter under his belt, having him as your fourth best starter is not bad.
Of course he was 0-5 in September and got shelled. But everyone on the Braves performed miserably that month.
If Lowe has anything left he can help the Indians. If he is out of gas, the Indians have enough pitching in the system to make up for that. But the Indians are a much better team if Lowe pitches like he did at 36 (16-12 4.00 ERA).
Who will be the 5th starter?
The last spot in the rotation is up for grabs because of Fausto Carmona’s (Robert Hernandez) legal and visa problems due to false identity. He may have a chance to come back and pitch for the Indians at some point, but as of now the Indians are not counting on him.
The day after the Carmona/Hernandez news came out, the Indians acquired Kevin Slowey from the Colorado Rockies. He is in the mix as the last man in the rotation. Slowey has the advantage of his health and familiarity with the division and a history of success. In 2010 he was 13-6 with a 4.45 ERA for the Minnesota Twins in 28 starts. However he was 0-8 in eight starts for the Twins, which is why they shipped him to Colorado in the off-season and the Rockies in turn dealt him to Cleveland.
David Huff, Jeanmar Gomez and Zach McAllister are all internal options for the Indians at that last spot. All of them started a few games for the Indians last season. Huff looked like he had finally turned a corner last season after a few starts but finished the season on a sour note. In three August starts he was 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA. In September he went 0-4 in 5 starts with a 6.20 ERA. A good September might have given him a leg up, but Huff can never seem to maintain his success consistently.
Gomez was 5-3 in 10 starts with a 4.47 ERA. Out of this group he might have the best track record. The last spot could come down to him and Slowey.
McAllister made four starts and ended up with a 6.11 ERA. He was unimpressive; however, he did start the AAA All-Star game last season and had a 12-3 record.
Jon Garland, who agreed to a minor league deal with the Indians last week has a locker with his name on it in camp but has yet to take a physical. This is holding up the deal from getting done, so right now he isn’t in the conversation. If he does finally take his physical and pass he should have a great shot at the job, given his past success and his familiarity with the AL Central, having spent seven seasons with the Chicago White Sox. His 13-6 career record against the Detroit Tigers doesn’t hurt his case either.
Can the bullpen maintain their success?
The most volatile thing in baseball is a team’s bullpen. Overworking pitchers in one year makes them an easy candidate for declined performance or injury. This situation might be the easiest one to work out for the Indians, in a good way anyway.
Vinnie Pestano, the Indians main set up man appeared in 67 games last season. Joe Smith, the Indians best reliever last season, appeared in 71 games. Rafael Perez pitched in 71 games. Tony Sipp pitched in 69 games.
Aside from closer Chris Perez, those were the Indians main arms out of the bullpen. Between last season and the end of 2010 the Indians have had one of the best bullpens in all of baseball with those relievers. Given their heavy workload, the Indians will need to add arms to protect against cases of breakdowns in health or performance.
The Indians are coming to camp prepared in this department. They signed experienced relievers Chris Ray, Robinson Tejada, Jeremy Accardo and Dan Wheeler.
It looks as if Frank Hermann’s job isn’t safe and with Chad Durbin not returning, those are the two spots that need filled.
C.C Lee, Tyler Sturdivent, Nick Hagadone all have shots at those spots as well. Picking two relievers out of this entire group may be a tough decision, but a good problem to have.
I don’t know is on 3rd?
We know it is likely going to be Chisenhall or Hannahan. Chisenhall finished the season on a strong note by hitting .279 with four home runs in September.
Hannahan also finished the year hitting .339 over the final two months. He also hit .296 against left handers for the year. He is a virtual lock to be on the team, the only question is if he will be the starter at third base or a utility infielder.
If Chisenhall’s defense continues to improve, his bat might keep him in the lineup. If Sizemore and Hafner prove to be healthy and productive, the Indians may be able to afford to keep the defensive minded Hannahan in the lineup while Chisenhall receives more polish at Columbus.
Will a left handed heavy lineup work?
Sizemore, Brantley, Choo, Chisenhall/Hannahan, Jason Kipnis, and new first basemen Casey Kotchman are all left handed. Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana are both switch hitters. The good news is that Detroit doesn’t have a left handed starter in their projected rotation.
Many people have made this into a big problem, but if these guys can hit they will hit. Shelly Duncan, Lou Marson and Jason Donald all could be on the bench this year and all three hit left handers very well.
The Indians also have Ryan Spilbourghs, Jose Lopez, and Aaron Cunningham in camp as right handed hitters.
Which Ubaldo Jiminez is going to show up?
Jiminez was the game’s best pitcher in the first half in 2010 and last season he never could regain his form. He had lower body injuries that prevented him from being healthy all season and getting things on track. He has spent a long time this offseason with Nelson Perez to be in the best shape.
If Jiminez comes close to duplicating his 2010 campaign he can almost off-set the Tigers signing of Prince Fielder. With Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin coming off of good season, a Cy Young like year out of Jiminez would do wonders for the Indians chances to contend for a playoff spot.
Can Chris Antonetti make another big trade?
Antonetti proved last summer that he isn’t afraid of pulling the trigger on a big trade if he feels it’s the right deal.
If the Indians need a big bat or anything at the trading deadline, does he have enough assets to pull it off?
Most of the Indians depth (which I will preview later this spring training) is at AA-Akron or below. The AAA talent level is a little bereft at the moment, of course that could change with performances this year.
After shipping Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Joe Gardner, and Matt McBride to the Rockies for Jiminez, their biggest assets in a trade are not major league ready prospects at this point.
He also traded Zach Putnam to acquire Kevin Slowey, another one of the Indians highly regarded relievers.
If the Indians are in the thick of the race in July, Antonetti might have to get creative if he wants to acquire a player.
What is going to happen to Matt LaPorta?
The Indians still would like to have a power right handed bat. With the signing of Kotchman, unless LaPorta sets the Cactus League on fire this spring, he’ll start the season in Columbus. With Hafner in the last year of his contract and Kotchman on a one year deal, the Indians would like LaPorta to show the kind of power that made him the 7th overall pick in the 2007 draft. The Indians have a few options in the minor league option so he could theoretically spend all season at AAA and be given another shot next season. At best right now, he would be backup outfielder/first basemen, which might give him an advantage in camp; being a right handed hitter.
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UPDATED 02/20/2012 20:41