Pressing Questions: The Cleveland Indians

Andy Behrens
January 24, 2012

When the Cleveland Indians acquired Ubaldo Jimenez at the deadline last season, they trailed Detroit by just a game and a half in the American League Central. It was an aggressive move, no doubt, as the Tribe sent four prospects to the Rockies, including highly regarded pitchers Drew Pomeranz and Alex White. But the team was within range of the Tigers, so they played to win the flag. You can't help but admire the attempt.

The problem with the deal, of course, is that Jimenez was lousy when he reached Cleveland — even lousier than he'd been in Colorado. He allowed 43 runs over 65.1 innings for the Indians, posting a brutal 1.45 WHIP. Jimenez gave up at least five runs in three of his first four appearances. By the time he self-corrected in late-August, the Tribe had faded.

If this team has any hope at all of competing in 2012, they'll likely need an ace-like effort from Ubaldo. He's just one season removed from a third-place finish in the N.L. Cy Young race, so we know he's capable of brilliance. The biggest worry, as most of you know, was his loss of velocity from 2010 to 2011. He dropped a few ticks on every pitch in his repertoire last year, and his average fastball dipped from 96.1 miles per hour to 93.5. Perhaps not surprisingly, his swinging-strike percentage slipped as well (9.1 to 7.5).

It may seem ridiculous to fret about a guy "only" reaching 93.5 mph — very few major league starters throw harder — but year-to-year declines always bother us, regardless of the final number on the gun. Jimenez dealt with a medley of early-season injuries in 2011, so perhaps that was the source of his troubles. He'd like us to believe that's the case. Ubaldo is actually under team control through 2013, so he wasn't merely some half-season rental.

In fact, the thing Cleveland fans should appreciate most about the Jimenez trade is this: It signaled that the team's front office believes it has a core that can contend in the Central right now. (Or at least that's what they thought before the Prince Fielder news broke). You might disagree, but they make the roster decisions. There's young talent scattered throughout the Indians' lineup, this squad has a few useful arms in the bullpen, and Ubaldo gives them a sometimes-ace at the top of the rotation. This team may not be a juggernaut, but it isn't hopeless, either.

Oh, c'mon. Isn't this starting rotation kind of awful?

It's not exactly a star-studded list of names, I'll grant you that much. Beyond Jimenez, the Tribe's staff includes the very ownable Justin Masterson (non-fluky 3.21 ERA, improved walk-rate, many grounders), the largely un-ownable Derek Lowe and Josh Tomlin, and ... um ... well, the fifth spot is yet to be determined. We thought Fausto Carmona would be part of this rotation, but then he turned out to be a 31-year-old named Roberto Hernandez Heredia. (Excellent combination of closer names right there. Might consider adding "Mesa" or "Borowski" or "Guardado" or "Alfonseca," too). The Tribe recently acquired Kevin Slowey from Colorado, so he could open the season in Cleveland's rotation. David Huff, Zach McAllister and Jeanmar Gomez will be in the conversation as well. Carlos Carrasco underwent Tommy John surgery in September, you'll recall, and he's expected to miss the 2012 season.

So the Cleveland pitching staff is still taking shape. Jimenez and Masterson will be owned in mixed leagues (ADPs 154.5 and 200.4), but no one else is worth much consideration, unless you're playing a peculiar format or you need a spot-starter.

How about the bullpen? Do we trust Chris Perez to...

Just stop right there. No, we do not trust Chris Perez, despite the fact that he converted his final nine save chances last year. Perez can't be considered a rock-solid closer entering 2012. His strikeout-rate plummeted last season (8.71 K/9 in 2010, 5.88 in 2011), he lost something on the fastball, and his swinging-strike percentage is in a multi-year decline. The guy experienced some good fortune on balls-in-play in 2011 (.234 BABIP), thanks in part to all those in-the-park flyballs (50.3 FB percentage), but he relied heavily on his defense. Perez was out-pitched by pretty much every other member of the Cleveland 'pen last season, including setup men Vinnie Pestano (2.32 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 12.19 K/9) and Joe Smith (2.01 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 6.04 K/9). It shouldn't shock anyone to learn that the Indians have been willing to listen to offers for their closer.

OK, that's probably enough discussion Cleveland pitchers. Let's change gears. Is Grady Sizemore ever going to give us another useful season? Or even a full season?

Sizemore was a question mark heading into last year, and it's basically the same story this season. He had microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2010, then an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee in 2011. The man has only played 104 games over the past two years. In recent mocks, he's the 76th outfielder off the board (ADP 228.4), way down in Lucas Duda-Allen Craig-Ben Revere territory. At that price, there's obviously not much risk associated with the pick. Sizemore is expected to be ready for spring training, as he's already been cleared for baseball activities. Considering the recurring knee issues, you have to assume that base-stealing won't be a big part of his game going forward. He was 0-for-2 on the base-paths last year.

If you're the sort of fantasy owner who likes to chase contract-year players, then you'll want to take note of the incentives attached to Sizemore's one-year deal with the Tribe. He'll earn $5 million for sure, with a shot at another $4 million based almost entirely on plate appearances. This from Paul Hoynes at the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

If Sizemore reaches 450 plate appearances, he'll earn $250,000. Here's how the rest of the incentives work:

475 plate appearances — $250,000;
500 — $500,000;
525 — $500,000;
550 — $500,000;
575 — $500,000;
600 — $500,000;
625 — $500,000; and
650 — $500,000

Nice work if you can get it. Sizemore can earn another $500K for winning the comeback player of the year award. He'll be plenty motivated to take the field as often as possible, and remain a top-of-the-order option. If Grady can remain healthy-ish, and if Shin-Soo Choo bounces back to 20/20 form, then this outfield won't be too shabby. The Tribe has been linked to Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, too.

Who's on first this season? Please don't tell me it's Matt La—

Shhh. Do not speak his name. I will not re-hype that dude.

The Indians have been linked to such luminaries as Derrek Lee and Casey Kotchman this off-season (but they were never seriously tied to Prince, in case you were wondering). Carlos Santana got 63 starts at first base last year, enabling him to reach 155 games played, a crazy number for a catcher. As a fantasy owner and a likely Santana investor, I wouldn't mind seeing another 60-something appearances at first. But realistically, this team will probably pluck a first baseman off the discard pile. Or, if he tears it up in spring training, maybe they'll give another shot to LaPor—

No, let's not go there, not yet.

If there's a future first basemen to be found anywhere in this club's minor league system, it might be 21-year-old Jesus Aguilar. He hit 23 bombs at Single-A last season while batting .284/.359/.506, then posted a 1.069 OPS in the Arizona Fall League. Promising numbers, but Aguilar is likely ticketed for Double-A Akron this spring.

Are there any Cleveland prospects who absolutely need to be owned in dynasty formats?

Well, several of the most interesting players in this organization were either involved in the Jimenez deal last year (Pomeranz, White) or they were promoted to the Tribe's big league roster (Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall). As a result, the prospect cupboard seems bare at the moment. The most intriguing names in the organization are actually a pair of teenagers, 18-year-old shortstop Francisco Lindor and 19-year-old RHP Dillon Howard. Those two were drafted in the first and second round last season.

I'm thinking I'll have a chance to see 'em live in the Midwest League this season, but neither player is going to visit the majors in the near future.