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Dreaming big at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario

The Indians need to build upon the foundation they placed in 2013

Dreaming big at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario
January 15, 2014
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While the rationalizations over the firing of Rob Chudzinsky and the Browns’ ensuing head-coach search engross us here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, a relatively quiet hot-stove league is finally set to give way to the sights and sounds of a new and fresh baseball season. In less than a month, 27 days to be exact, pitchers and catchers report to Goodyear, Arizona signaling the start of the 2014 baseball season.

For most readers of my column, the Browns escapades and the Cavaliers year-to-year folly are mere placeholders for the crack-of-the-bat, the pop of the glove and all of the optimism that comes with the start of every year. The Cleveland Indians won 92 games last season and tasted the playoffs for the first time since 2007. With the major pieces seemingly set, it’s time to start figuring out what is to be expected of the 2014 Indians.

Can this club match the blossoming expectations that are now in place, or is the bar set far too high thanks to an unexpected September run? Regardless of what you believe, the 2014 Indians are set to give the North Coast one thing that neither the Browns nor the Cavs can.

Optimism.

Of course, we all know what unexpected optimism can lead to, but before we get there, let’s look at the golden opportunity laid before our Erie Warriors.

The Browns are literally the epitome of the term turnover. When Jimmy Haslam purchased the Browns 18 months ago, there was plenty of optimism to be had for the football fans floating by the Corner. Unfortunately after a dreadful season and what happened thereafter, the newness of the purchase is long over. Haslam has been mired in federal courts almost since the purchase went through, and his hires of President Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi, as well as their hiring and then firing of Head Coach Rob Chudzinsky have once again soured a city sick of hearing about New Beginnings.

The Cavs are still living in the monumental shadow of one LeBron James, who took his talents and seemingly any chance of team winning again right along with it. They hired a “new” coach that looked a lot like the “old” coach because, well, he WAS the old coach. Mike Brown has been dealt a group of mismatched, pouting, high draft picks and supplemental players and was told to mold a winner. There are moments they look good, and there are moments in which they get blown out by 44 to the Sacramento Kings.

Yeah, it’s been a strange season.

That brings us back to your Cleveland Indians, who actually have the longest tenured coach (well, sorta) in manager Terry Francona and is the only team that can boast of a playoff run since LeBron left in 2010.

It gets even better.

The Cavs have been 78-190 since the day LeBron took his talents to South Beach for a .410 winning percentage. The Browns haven’t won more than five games since 2007 and have only won more than five games twice since 2002. They are 56-120 since their last playoff run in that 2002 season, which is a .318 winning percentage.

The Indians, on the other hand, rebuilt their entire team after the 2012 season including their manager, and improved their win total by 24 games. The Tribe actually took advantage of an economic system that usually has them behind an eight-ball, and turned lemons into lemonade, and while I don’t want to delve too far into the economics of all this, that’s certainly not a norm here in the Forest City.

The Indians roster is fairly set for the future, and while we all ponder whether or not the foundation is enough to improve, I have begun to wonder if those economics that I want to avoid are now going to teeter to the other side of the coin. Will it keep the Indians from improving, and regardless, what do the Indians have to do next year to have a successful season after their one-and-done playoff season?

We all know that optimism for the Indians is a double-edged sword. If they don’t perform well out of the gate, the Indians will be treated like the wicked step-child by a fan-base that has continued to support the losing franchises outlined above. If they DO perform well and continue to build a “Tribe Town” through the optimism brought by Terry Francona and Nick Swisher, it could be a fun season.

Where are we at right now?

It’s far too early to talk projections with this current team, and we all know how projections tend to go anyways. If you looked at most projection scales utilizing metrics of any sort last season, it would have had the Indians right around 81 wins. They clearly were better than that, and metrics served well to showcase that as the season progressed thanks to a starting rotation that overachieved and an offense that did many things well, although it was hard to see at times.

With the subtractions of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, and with no discernable starting pitching additions from the outside, it’s not hard to predict that the metrics predictors for the Indians will once again be right in that 81-game wheel house. It’s ironic, since the value gained by Ubaldo and Kazmir allowed their subtractions to keep them exactly the same. That’s baseball though, and it’s still a bit murky with regards to what this team will look like come February 11th.

What scares me though is that we’ve seen this current pattern before with the Indians, and I’ve mapped that out already once before. In 2005, the Cleveland Indians went 93-69, and barely missed the playoffs. Big things were expected in 2006, but economics kept them from acting and they went 78-84 in 2006. The youth rebounded in 2007 and went 96-66 and nearly made it to the World Series, but economics kept them from acting and they missed the playoffs with an 81-81 record, beginning a team garage sale that had them gut the team.

The Indians have thusfar followed that pattern again this offseason, and while I value players like David Murphy and John Axford and Shaun Marcum, they aren’t massive improvements (if at all) to players that were here last year. They could be, but likely won’t be.

So the question has to be asked: Can this team improve on the field, without really improving on the field?

The Indians long-term plan is fairly clear for those that haven’t been paying attention. Last season, they build the foundation for a team that should be competitive going forward, and they hired a coaching staff that could motivate the veterans, and teach and build-up the youngsters. Utilizing those economic advantages of having money to spend and not having to worry about the money hit that losing a first round draft pick entailed, the Indians were able to several free agents long-term and short-term, thus taking care of arbitration bumps in 2014.

It was a fairly brilliant foundation year that surprisingly enough, saw a playoff run.

The future has several young minor leaguers beginning to blossom into potential major leaguers, such as Jose Ramirez, Cody Allen, Francisco Lindor and Danny Salazar. We saw three of those guys last year, and Lindor will lead a charge in 2014 to add cost-effective value adds as the season progresses.

If you combine the youth that should enter the equation in 2014 and beyond, and combine that with money coming off the books and arbitration bumps as well, the Indians should be able to continue to either tread water or improve if they stay in house and add David Murphy-like pieces. Of course, we can’t account for the Tigers and the Royals and the White Sox and the Twins and the Big Markets in other divisions that will continue to add year-to-year by leaps and bounds, thanks to that economic system that “helped” us once, but immediately tipped away from us once we began to win. What it does do though is give the Indians a chance, should things fall into place.

I utilized fangraphs in my hunt for a projections system, and after an exhausting search, I came across their overall projection page. It includes the well-known projections such as Oliver and Bill James and ZiPS, as well as some others that I hadn’t utilized before. From this page, I found that the CAIRO system led me to an enemy page called “Replacement Level Yankees Weblog,” and through that page, I was able to find a useful set of predictions. Before I get into those predictions, I want to say that while I’m not a Yankees fan, that site was absolutely phenomenal. While I will always hawk the wares of Indians Baseball Insider, as well as Cleveland Sports Insiders as the best Cleveland coverage, I can safely say that in my initial perusal of that Yankees sight, that they do things quite well, and no, they didn’t pay me to say that.

I also want to preface this by saying that the guys over at RLYW utilize park effect, which Michael Hattery has just fallen in love with. They take the Marcels projections, incorporate minor league stats (which I love), park and league effects, adds the aging curve and uses age to alter regression, and uses a baseline of four years. There’s more to it than that, but that’s for another day and time. I just need to give a baseline, so we can go forward from there.

I’m not a huge fan of utilizing projections like these, because they are rarely right, but they do give you a good baseline of what should happen should the paper version of the team react in a predictable manner. I don’t buy into them often, and only use them to give a baseline as to what could or should happen. That’s what I’m trying to do here. I also want to predicate THESE predictions by stating that they were last done on December 10th, and the Indians have added some pieces since then. I’ll make sure to keep the IBI and CSI readers up to date on how they change as the offseason progresses.

Here are the 2014 predictions from RLYW:

Team

W

L

RS

RA

Div

WC

WC2

PS%

W+/-

Tigers

91

71

739

657

79.3%

4.0%

3.5%

86.9%

81-101

Indians

81

81

704

687

12.1%

7.0%

7.9%

27.0%

71-91

Royals

79

83

678

733

6.2%

3.4%

4.9%

14.5%

69-88

Twins

75

87

693

744

2.2%

1.6%

2.3%

6.1%

65-85

White Sox

68

94

688

793

0.1%

0.0%

0.1%

0.3%

58-78

Just to give you some perspective, here are the projections for 2013:

TM

W

L

RS

RA

Div

WC

WC2

PS%

W+/-

Tigers

88

74

794

717

43.7%

6.6%

6.8%

57.2%

76-99

Indians

81

81

743

735

21.1%

5.3%

6.1%

32.5%

69-92

Royals

80

82

719

731

18.9%

4.7%

5.7%

29.2%

68-91

White Sox

76

86

725

779

13.1%

3.4%

4.9%

21.5%

65-88

Twins

67

95

697

832

3.3%

0.9%

1.5%

5.7%

55-78

Compared to the actual 2013 standings:

Team

W

L

RS

RA

x-Detroit

93

69

796

624

y-Cleveland

92

70

745

662

Kansas City

86

76

648

601

Minnesota

66

96

614

788

Chicago

63

99

598

723

Just some immediate conversation pieces with regards to the 2013 numbers is that the runs scored for both the Indians and the Tigers are nearly identical. What’s also interesting is that they predicted an offense that would score a bit, and also seemed to predict a pitching staff that would keep runners from scoring more. You can see then how the actual standings showcase just how different that staff turned out to be.

Likely because of that run differential, the Indians were able to win 11 more games than CAIRO predicted, although I’m sure there were some other factors involved there as well. They actually fell into the top-end of the +/-, which was from 69 wins to 92. It suggests that Terry Francona got everything out of his club that he could, and while I dispute that, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that.

The Indians, without their post December 10th additions, are currently at the 81-win mark here, with a  +/- of 71-91 wins.

Taking that into account, what would be considered a good season for the Indians this year? Do they have to improve on their 92 wins? Do they have to go further into the playoffs? Do they just have to win a series? Do they have to win a World Series?

Those are all tricky questions, especially dependent on who you are talking to. The Indians could win more than 92 games and not even make the playoffs, dependent on what the Tigers do, and what the rest of the American League does. That’s not likely, but it’s happened in the past. The Indians could win less games and win the division. I’d say that’s more likely than the other scenario, as it appears as though the Tigers regressed from last season, although the CAIRO predictors has them winning three more games.

Again, I don’t want to take these predictions too seriously, but I do want to use them to talk about the basic metrics of all of this. Can the Indians score as many or more runs than they did in 2013, and can their rotation stop opposing runners from scoring.

That’s the big question.

My simple answers to both, if you were to put it to me right now? I do believe the Indians will score more runs in 2014 than they did in 2013. I’ll explain why in a second. I also believe that the Indians rotation will give up more runs than they did in 2013, since the losses of Kazmir and Ubaldo will hurt more than people think, even with Salazar in the rotation.

Remember, that’s as it stands now.

Offensively, I don’t see any regression. I’m bullish on Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, Nick Swisher, Yan Gomes and David Murphy. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we’ll see similar or better seasons in 2014. Bourn gets hit like a 48-year-old heavyweight, but I don’t buy it yet. I don’t think he’ll get worse. Brantley is scratching the surface, and should see improvement. Swisher is Swisher, and unless he gets hurt, will produce. I think we’ve seen the floor of Gomes, and while we’ll likely see some struggle, I think he’s got star potential. Murphy is going to rebound.

I think we’re going to see star-like seasons from Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis. They are going to be special this year. Santana isn’t a prototypical 90’s slugger, but without the burden of the catcher position, I think he’ll resemble that, and still see his other metrics grow. Kipnis will lift the floor a little higher, and shut-up the unreasonable expectations of some fans that don’t see his true ability, and his true value.

I even like Lonnie Chisenhall, if he stays healthy, and he can find some bench time when needed.

The only guy on this lineup that I need to see gone is Asdrubal Cabrera. I’m equally sick of listening to apologists crank out how last season was nearly as good as 2012. Sorry. You just needed eyes to see that the statement there is utter garbage. I haven’t liked Cabrera’s game since he got hurt in 2010, and while his 25-home 2011 was in some ways his best season, it turned him from a pesky .800 OPS top-of-the-order hitter to a swing-for-the-fences strikeout machine. Now, as to his value being equal to his 2012 numbers, just go and look at his average with runners in scoring position (.285 in 2012, to .197 in 2013). Go and look at his average with runners on third (.545 in 2012, .097 in 2013). Go and look at his average with runners on first and second (.447 in 2012, to .175 in 2013). Go and look at his average with runners on first and third (.429 in 2012 to .077 in 2013). Go and scroll through his clutch stats.

He wasn’t the same player…period.

As far as the rotation goes, I think Masterson will continue his 2011 and 2013 success with another similar season. I think Salazar will more than compensate for one of the two missing pitchers. I am coming along on Corey Kluber, and believe he’s a solid #3 option. I’m also higher on Zach McAllister than most.

Past that, I just don’t buy any optimism in any of the other starters. It’s tiring hearing about how dominant Carlos Carrasco’s stuff is, and has been. People live on a five-game sample size in June of 2011, and some decent performances in prior years. The facts are simple. He hasn’t been a prospect in five years, and the Phillies GLADLY gave him up in that deal. Can he be a serviceable #5 starter? Maybe, but I’m not there yet. Those that project him to be just aren’t being realistic, and are basing it off of a mirage. Trevor Bauer is pitching better in Arizona, so says the reports. I believe them, but the reality is that we don’t know how those will take into effect until he pitches against live Major League batters. I’m intrigued with Bauer, who took to twitter the other day asking for mechanics suggestions, but also scared outta my mind that he won’t reach his massive potential. Shaun Marcum had a really scary surgery, and while a guy like Ian Kennedy won 20 games after his similar surgery, there are several failures as well. I’m not a buyer on Josh Tomlin as a starter. He has to be Tom Glavine like to be effective. Tom Glavine just made the hall.

I love our top four, but every one of those guys spent time on the DL last year, and while we have depth on paper, I just don’t think we can afford missing as much time in 2014 as we did in 2013. I’m not saying it will happen, but it could.

If one or two things go wrong in that rotation, there is trouble in paradise, which is my point. I know that there are LESS questions on paper than last year’s rotation, but there were TONS of questions last year, and they were all answered. Sometimes when there aren’t questions visible, they find a way to make themselves seen.

This is the Indians we are talking about.

It’s too early for me to make predictions on an outcome for the Indians, although I’ll be revisiting the CAIRO predictions throughout the rest of the offseason, and hopefully can even bring over the guys from RLYW to talk a bit about them in the future. The Indians SHOULD win 85 or so games. The Indians SHOULD compete for the playoffs. The Indians SHOULD be the talk of the town over the next year or so.

That’s often the way it SHOULD be, especially with the Black Hole of sports that we are currently mired in. The Indians are the only positive projection in town.

I think back to the end of that 2013 season, with a packed house at Jacobs…er…Progressive Field in October. There is nothing like October baseball. NOTHING. There isn’t a memory of January football that can touch it. There isn’t a memory of May or June basketball that can come close. Baseball truly resonates in Cleveland when all the years and years of carnage are wiped clean, and October baseball is left standing.

If they can build upon the foundation that they set forth last year, and build a playoff house that can stand the test of time, instead of faltering after a solid season, this team will explode in April, or at least throw up a few fireworks.

Besides, it’s not like the Browns and Cavaliers are going to be filling the void any time soon.

Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as  the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at jpete@indiansprospectinsider.com.

User Comments

Walter
January 16, 2014 - 6:56 PM EST
It all about pitching. It would be nice to see Swisher, Bourn and Cabrera have rebound year, but it just important for Masterson to have same year as in 11 & 13. Salazar moving into top rotation guy. More improvement from Kluber and Mc Allister. Important year for Carrasco, Bauer and Hagadone. Rebound year from Pestano and Axford pitching like he did in St Louis.

Expectations are high and it would be nice for Indians give the fans something to cheer about and provide another year to the post season.

Willie
January 16, 2014 - 9:26 AM EST
I agree with Tony, this team could be as good or better than last yr. This said, I am concerned about the SP, I think they still need to add another arm, whether that be Paul Maholm, Bronson Arroyo, Ubaldo Jimenez or Matt Garza. I think they could compete for the AL Central with what they have, but if they add another arm like Jimenez or Garza, I think they could make a serious playoff run if they can stay healthy. Obviously Paul Maholm wouldn't have the impact as the others, but he would slide into the 4/5th spot and add depth to the rotation.

I'm a Trevor Bauer fan, but I think our expectations have been unrealistic for him. He's only entering his age 23 season - when a lot of guys are emerging as legit prospects - and has been written off by so many fans and so called experts. Btw, Salazar emerged as a potential FOR arm in his age 23 season. Bauer has the same (FOR) potential IMHO. But reality is he may never develop into anything more than a MOR / BOR arm.

Norm
January 16, 2014 - 1:07 AM EST
I really like the article but question what you are saying when you assert Cleveland crowds are excited about the Indians. The stadium sold out for the first game and the last game. In between there were 80 games about 17,000. Many of these were heavily promoted with incentives. You seem to suggest that the ballpark will start rocking but that does not jive with my view of recent history. Cleveland supports the pathetic Browns and Cavs but not the Indians who have outperformed both for some time. If the Indians were even to be an average team in attendance revenues, they might be able to compete for the services of better players or keep their own longer. As it goes along like this for attendance year after year, I wonder haw long MLB will continue to subsidize the Cleveland franchise especially when another city in the same state practically doubles the Indians attendance. While I question the use of "apologist" to define anyone who disagrees that your limited use of statistics on AsCab defines his performance. it may be appropriate for those who excuse Cleveland's performance when it comes to the Indians.

Tony, I think your comment is well taken and agree with you. Let's hope we are right.
Tony
January 15, 2014 - 10:14 PM EST
I think if the rotation remains solid like it was the second half of last year, I see no reason why this team can't win as many games if not more this season. I see more depth, consistency and upside with this bullpen.

Remember, for a large part of the season the Indians had two struggling relievers Pestano and Perez in the backend of the pen and Rich Hill as the primary lefty.....now they have more depth and versatility as well as several left-handed options. The lineup will now see Gomes on a much more regular basis and so long as he doesn't have a Charboneau -like sophomore slump, he will help the offense and defense all year. Murphy is an upgrade over the at bats Stubbs had, and I am bullish on at least two of the three of Cabrera, Bourn or Swisher rebounding nicely.

But it all comes down to that rotation. Need health!
Drew
January 15, 2014 - 2:22 PM EST
Good Read!

A couple points of contention though

I think your overly optimistic on Gomes. I like him, but think he will regress quite a bit. Have you taken a look at his BABIP last year? Guys that breakout without much of a pedigree seem to regress in their followup campaign. Kelly Shoppach, Alex Avila and Gio Soto are some catchers that come to mind. Hope Im wrong though.

Why does no one cut Carrasco any slack for returning from TJ surgery last year? Dont most guys struggle with control that first year back? I know he rubs people the wrong way but Im not averse to seeing what he can do with Callaway and being another season removed from surgery.

Also, I wouldnt be surprised to see Droobs bounce back. Maybe not 2011 1st half form but he can easily more productive than last year.
Joe Chengery
January 15, 2014 - 12:21 PM EST
Jim, great article, but need to correct the 2007 description. They DID make the playoffs in 2007 - they should have made the World Series, and quite possibly could have won against a Rockies team that hadn't played in nearly two weeks.

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