No one team represents the current logjam of middling teams in the American League quite as well as Cleveland. There are only a few teams that can be considered out of contention, and not a one that looms over the rest of the junior circuit. Who will win the East? How good will the Mariners and A’s be? What crime will the Yankees attempt to frame A-Rod for in a desperate attempt to void his contract? (my pick: ARSON) There is no consensus, especially about Cleveland. PECOTA has Cleveland finishing at .500, Steamer has them just barely winning the Central, and ESPN’s David Schoenfield thinks they’re the best team in the AL. That volatility is demonstrative not just of their league and division, but the way Cleveland won last year. The 2014 Clevelanders got superstar level performances from eventual Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and outfielder Michael Brantley, both players outperforming their previous seasons by a wide margin. Both are young enough to make genuine breakouts somewhat likely, but old enough to keep such a thing from being a slam dunk. There is plenty of talent on this roster, but it is quite easy to imagine that Cleveland in 2015 will go the way those two players go.
How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?
Theoretically, there should be depth on the offense, with Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana, and Brantley all under 30 and playing every day. Last year, however, was a down year for Kipnis, and Santana did not start raking until June. The two most expensive players on the team, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, should continue their decline into 2015, though with good healthy Swisher could be a league average DH. The newly acquired Brandon Moss should take away most of David Murphy’s at-bats, and we can all be grateful for that. Francisco Lindor should hold down shortstop for most of the year, but he’s not a top prospect because of his bat. Last year the team was ranked 14th in home runs, and 12th in slugging percentage, which is exactly the slightly above average result you’d expect from a slightly above-average team.
Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?
Of the nine projected starters on this team, only one is unable to bat from the left side (it’s the catcher, duh). This gives the team a great advantage over most of the pitchers in baseball. Against lefties however, they might have a problem. Lindor, Santana, and Swisher can all switch hit, but only one of those three is expected to be an above-average hitter. They have established right handed depth in Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles, but unfortunately, they are Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles. Francona was fairly aggressive last year when it came to platooning, but there is only so much he can do.
What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much? Are they more than usually given to fouling pitches off?
Cleveland was around the 12th to 16th range in most offensive categories, but made the top ten in walks and Baserunning Runs. This is a good combination! They had the 11th best OBP in baseball, and once they got guys on, those guys run the bases well. The team was also in the bottom third of the league in G/F Ratio. That is also good! The team was in the bottom third in terms of strikeouts. The fundamentals of the offense were strong, even in what was a disappointing year for many players. Look for the offense to improve in 2015.
Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?
As mentioned, Cleveland was a good base running team last year. They were 6th in stolen base percentage, and grabbed the ninth most bags in the league. Despite his struggles at the plate, Kipnis continued to be a threat on the bases, stealing 22 bags and only getting caught three times. Bourn is no longer a top-flight threat to steal, so the team may be without a superlative base-stealer. They committed a high amount of sacrifice flies, but it’s a flyball offense so that may be expected to a certain degree.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?
The primary pressure point is going to be Brantley. Last year he hit with power that he had never shown before. If that power can prove permanent, he should be a great player again in 2015. A bounce back from Kipnis would be encouraging, as his power seemed to disappear. He hit a home run once every 33 at-bats in 2013, that became 83 last year. Francona has apparently fallen in love with Bourn as his leadoff hitter despite increasingly poor results (he lead off in all but two of his starts last year), which complicates the lineup, since there is no real leadoff type on the roster except for him. So the ideal and realistic lineups are very different things. Lets just go with the realistic:
V RHP V LHP
Michael Bourn-CF Michael Bourn-CF
Jason Kipnis-2B Michael Brantley-LF
Michael Brantley-LF Yan Gomes-C
Carlos Santana-1B Carlos Santana-1B
Yan Gomes-C Jason Kipnis-2B
Brandon Moss-RF Nick Swisher-DH
David Murphy-DH Brandon Moss-RF
Lonnie Chisenhall-3B Francisco Lindor/Jose Ramirez-SS
Francisco Lindor/Jose Ramirez-SS Lonnie Chisenhall-3B
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness? Will the schedule or overall level of competition they face vary widely from the league average?
The important park factor with The Former Jake is that it suppresses home runs somewhat, although the numbers say it’s worse for righties than lefties. And hey! Look at all those power hitting lefties Cleveland has! What a not-at-all coincidence!
The Central could end up being the toughest division in the American league, because the Tigers, Royals, White Sox, and Indians could all very well be grouped around the top towards the end of the year. Alternatively, however, it will probably not take 90 wins to end up in first place. What Cleveland and those other three teams end up doing at the trade deadline will likely decide the strength of schedule. Playing the Twins sure will be fun though.
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?
Cleveland was not a very good defensive team last season, they ranked 25th in Defensive Efficiency according to Baseball Prospectus. Shifting from Asrubal Cabrera to the slick Lindor should help, though the outfield may be in trouble with Bourn getting older in center and the Murphy/Moss duo likely not blowing anyone away in right. The responsibility, then, squarely lies with the pitching. As if sensing the defensive liabilities behind them, Cleveland pitchers led the league in strikeouts last season. Cleveland scored sixteen more runs than they allowed last season, which is a little too close for comfort.
Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
Kluber certainly looked like an ace last year, though if he cannot keep that up, the team’s rotation may be defined by unrealized promise. Danny Salazar had an up-and-down year, but he finished strong and he seems to be hyped coming into a season for the second year in a row. Trevor Bauer is a former top prospect whose stock is low right now, but he threw more than 50 innings for the first time last year, and his strikeout and walk rates seem like fairly positive indicators for the 24 year old. Those are three young, promising starting pitchers and we have not even mentioned Carlos Carrasco yet. His overall numbers last year look pedestrian due to a terrible start of the season, but he had sub-2.00 ERAs from June on. Francona’s bullpen use last season can be described as hyperactive. Only Kluber and Carrasco averaged more than 6.0 innings pitched per start. Cleveland led the league in strikeouts, and those four guys all had K/9s over eight. It would be no surprise if the organization emphasized strikeout guys knowing what the team’s defense would be like for awhile. The fifth spot should be filled with league average work from Josh Tomlin, TJ House and Gavin Floyd.
When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matchups? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?
As mentioned, Francona used the heck out of his bullpen last year. Their 573 appearances were by far the most in the American League. Francona’s regard for their abilities were well founded, as the three relievers who pitched the most innings all had 1.0- WHIPs. Francona has lefty options in Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle Crockett, but his three workhorses are righties. I imagine Cleveland fans may be upset with the team for not bringing in a free agent reliever, as there is a lot of youth here, and one 38 year-old Scott Atchison. It’s fair to assume that that may be where the team upgrades at the deadline. Closer Cody Allen has posted a 2.99 FIP in two straight years, however, and appears to be for real.
Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?
Cleveland is a very shifty team, as can be expected from a SABR savvy front office and a receptive manager like Francona. One shudders to think what their defensive statistics may have looked like without shifts. Now that Santana is at first base, there are no egregious positional problems in Cleveland. Eventually, however, they may need to get Bourn out of center field. Once Lindor comes up, Ramirez should be able to spell Kipnis or Chisenhall in the late innings. And Tyler Holt may see some time in right field if Murphy and Moss act like Murphy and Moss.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
Gomes is regarded as a good framer, and the statistics seem to bare that out. He threw out 32% of runners last season, which was a bit above league average. Roberto Perez will be the primary backup, and he does enough offensively and defensively to look good across 150-ish plate appearances. Additionally, Santana could show up occasionally behind the plate, but that would probably mean something unfortunate has happened.
Is the farm system well-stocked? Have any recent performances or additions changed the perceived standing of that system? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
The farm system will take a hit when Lindor comes up this season, but their 2014 draft class was highly successful in the eyes of Keith Law. After Lindor, most of the their high-impact prospects are a few years away. Tyler Naquin may be ready to help in the outfield if need be, Giovanny Urshela could replace Aviles as Chisenhall’s caddy at 3rd, and automatically give Cleveland impressive name-depth at that position. Cleveland has reinforcements coming in a few years, but the team may look at all their regulars entering their prime and instead try to leverage some of those prospects in trades. Keep an eye on Francisco Mejia, a well regarded 19 year old catcher. Gomes is signed long term, so he may become redundant for Cleveland.
Speaking of injury, who is particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?
Bourn and Swisher both missed significant time last year, and one of them will likely go through something similar in 2015. Moss is coming to the team after offseason hip surgery, so do not be shocked if his power takes a hit in the early months. Cleveland signed a lot of cheap starting pitching depth this offseason, which will probably end up as very helpful. It is better to have Shaun Marcum and not need him than to need Shaun Marcum and not have him.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign?
It looks as if Cleveland synced things up perfectly to have their core in their primes just as Detroit starts to seriously decay. The team did not go all in, however, as they likely did not want to presume Lindor would hit right out of the gate. They likely have enough flexibility to sign remaining free agents, because it is March, but Cleveland does not have particularly deep pockets.
What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)? Make a recommendation.
Signing Rafael Soriano would be an interesting move that would help the roster’s biggest question mark. Cleveland may have the talent necessary to make the Phillies eat most of Pabelbon’s contract in a trade, and the win-now impetus to want to do it, which would likely give Cleveland the best bullpen in the division. Most of the compelling offensive talent on this team is already extended for the next few seasons, and Kluber and Carrasco are not eligible for free agency until 2019 and 2018, respectively. The time may be right, then to sign a second-tier starting pitcher next offseason, like Doug Fister. Likelier, however, is that any large splash will have to wait until Swisher and Bourn come off the books in 2016 at the earliest.
What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.
This core is good enough to compete, and should! They are a younger and deeper team than Detroit, and have a higher ceiling than the White Sox. I think they are the likeliest winner of the Central, or failing that, would certainly be in the Wild Card conversation. They could even win a danged playoff series. My prediction: 88-74, first place in the Central, lose in the ALCS, understand they are cursed by the Gods of Common Sense, finally change their awful name/logo.
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