The Cleveland Indians haven't made the playoffs since 2007 and that was their last winning record as well. It could be a few years before a foundation is in place that can seriously contend. But we'll say this for the Cleveland front office, it's not afraid to go forward with a new plan.
The Indians tried the contact route on offense in 2012 and weren't happy with the results. Despite being the third-hardest team to strike out last summer, Cleveland finished a paltry 22nd in the majors in runs. Only the Mariners had a lower American League slugging percentage. And when you combine a pop-gun offense with probably the worst pitching staff in the AL (4.79 ERA, 4.39 xFIP), you're not going anywhere. Call it a season up in smoke, 68 measly victories and a .420 winning percentage.
This time around, the Indians don't care if their hitters swing and miss regularly. The Hack Attack is in. New additions Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs and Nick Swisher will all do their share of courtesy air conditioning during the hot months, but they'll also clout some balls into the seats. Not satisfied with last year's outcome, the 2013 Indians now focus on the Three True Outcomes.
Alas, there hasn't been much added to the pitching staff, so it's hard to see this group sneaking into the AL Central race. If new manager Terry Francona can pilot this team into the top three in the division, he's probably done a fine job.
Now it's time to mind the Ps and Qs and go under the hood on a few players and situations. Please bang along with your own drum, keep pace with us.
Is the timing finally right for Carlos Santana?
Generally I'm not someone who pays a premium for any catcher in a mixed league, especially if it's a one-backstop format, but I'm starting to frame a Santana argument for 2013. He had a dreadful start into early June last year, carrying a .219/.336/.333 slash through the first third of the season. Maybe an early concussion had lingering effects, or perhaps Santana was pressing to justify his $21 million contract extension from April. Whatever was bothering Santana, he fixed everything nicely from that point forward: .281/.390/.496 slash, 13 homers. Sure, I'm cherry picking the data range, but for what it's worth Santana was fantasy's No. 2 catcher over the final 100 days of the season.
No one predicts future batting titles from Santana, but he offers plenty of upside against his career .247 average – consider he had more walks than strikeouts over his final 323 plate appearances. Santana's confidence is back, he's secure with his role and contract, and he turns 27 in early April. Santana also brings you uncommon volume at the position, as his bat slots at first base or DH when he needs a break from catching. This looks like a perfect year to go get him.
Santana is currently the No. 7 backstop on Mock Draft Central, checking in around the 79th pick. I wish we could lock in that price for the season – I doubt it will be in play in March. But even if Santana becomes a fourth or fifth round pick in the average mixer, there's a lot to like here.
Is there any hope for Ubaldo Jimenez?
You never want to say never with any pitcher who previously showed No. 1 starter returns, but the right dominoes have to fall before I'll let Jimenez anywhere near my ratios. His average fastball clocked at 92.5 last year; he was a 96.1 man during his best Colorado years. And from a mechanical standpoint Jimenez has become an absolute mess; it's like falling snowflakes, no two deliveries are exactly alike. Mickey Callaway, the Tribe's third pitching coach in three years, will try to get the genie out of the bottle in 2013. I'm not afraid to make partially-blind or fully-screened spec plays in the roto racket, but this is one case where I'm going to need some on-field proof first.
Although 2012 was The Year Bullpens Broke, somehow the much-distrusted Chris Perez didn't lose his ninth-inning gig. What happened?
Let's give credit where it's due – Perez needed to step up his game and he came through. Don't be fooled by Perez's ERA nudging up to 3.59; he was a much better pitcher last year than he was in 2011. The strikeout rate took a major jump, to the point that the poor clip in 2011 can now be viewed as the outlier. Perez also spiked his ground ball rate (jumping from 28.3 to 40.6), cut his walks by almost 40 percent, and moved his WHIP down to 1.13. He earned his summer of mostly-successful handshakes (39-of-43), rebounding nicely from a well-observed mess on opening day.
The risk of drafting Perez this spring might not be tied to the success of his pitching. If the Indians aren't in contention in the middle of the year, it's possible they could accept a closer is a luxury wasted on any mediocre club. Perez has also been a combustible and controversial sort of times; privately, the club might be happier if and when Perez is jetting out of town. But we'll cross these bridges when we come to them. Based on the performance Perez just posted, he looks like a solid play as a roto closer on a budget.
Vinnie Pestano returns as the second-in-command, the eighth-inning superintendent, the shut-up-and-hold-me guy (36 of them last year). Pestano's strikeout rate fell a little bit in 2012, but otherwise there isn't much difference between his last two seasons. Right-handed batters in particular have no shot against the deceptive Pestano (check out the .168/.227/.242 slash from last year). If anything pushes Perez out of the ninth, Pestano is your automatic mixed-league add, and the expected quality of Pestano's innings should make him worthwhile in some hybrid formats.
Wait a minute, Mike Aviles might be the team's DH? Tell me that's not true.
Obviously any team's projected lineup from January will have a few TBA areas; in Cleveland, the DH spot is in play. Aviles might not see regular time in that role but I wanted to include him on the grid somewhere, since he might settle into a super-utility gig. He also could get a look at third (as much as his bat doesn't profile there) if Lonnie Chisenhall can't seize the job. Is Roger Dorn still in game shape?
Chris McGuiness is an interesting player to scout in March. The Indians snagged McGuiness from the Rangers in the Rule V draft, and the lefty swinger was named MVP of the Arizona Fall League. But his progress in the minors has been deliberate (he finally got to Double-A as a 24-year-old last year, posting a .268/.366/.474 slash) and the Indians have to return McGuiness to Texas if he doesn't make the opening day roster. For now, he's merely a name to file away; keep the cap on the highlighter. The Indians will also consider a low-cost free agent for the corner and DH slots, depending on how the market plays out.
WKS Leftovers: Trevor Bauer was one of the imports from the three-team Shin-Soo Choo deal, but I'm going to keep the post-hype label off Bauer until 2014. Last year's Triple-A profile was good-not-great (2.85 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, bushels of strikeouts but too many walks), and he didn't look ready for prime time during four Arizona starts. You also have to wonder why the Diamondbacks so quickly and cheaply dispatched a man who was the third overall pick in 2011. Unless the Tribe storms into surprising contention this summer, it can play the waiting game with Bauer, let him develop at his own pace. Maybe I'll change my stance in March, but for the moment I'm not going to select him in any non-keeper formats (and I'm not earmarking him as a keeper-league pick, either; I'd have to like the price before signing up). … The book on Justin Masterson never seems to change: he doesn't have a consistent way of getting left-handers out, and too often his K/BB rate stays south of the desired 2.0 clip. The groovy ground-ball profile pays a lot of bills, but unless Masterson starts missing more bats – or pounding the strike zone a little more – he's probably more teaser than pleaser in a mixed-league setting. … Last year's Jason Kipnis record was the flip side of Santana's song: Kipnis was terrific early and a mess late (his batting average fell 44 points after the break, and his homers dropped from 11 to three). Kipnis did show more patience and contact in the later months, which almost always is a good thing for a hitter. But sometimes there's something to be said for letting it fly when you see a good pitch to hit, not letting pitchers control the pace of the at-bat too easily. Second base is a roto wasteland in 2013, so Kipnis probably will be a Top 60-75 pick in most pools. Season to taste.