Sunday, April 05, 2015

Off and Running on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: Dale Omori
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the last Lazy Sunday before baseball. Real, actual, regular season baseball. Michael Bourn will dig in the box and The Klubot will toe the rubber Monday night in Texas, and the most anticipated Indians season since…well, since last season…will begin in earnest. Expectations for this year’s Indians club are sky-high, with a series of national outlets and writers picking the Indians to dethrone the Tigers atop the AL Central, and some picking them to go even further than that. Putting the jokes about curses and jinxes aside (they are jokes, right?), it’s great to see the team that the Indians have built getting recognition as a potential AL powerhouse. Especially when you consider they sport the lowest payroll in the division, and that by a healthy margin. The Indians have less money committed to their 2015 roster ($86 million) than the Tigers have committed to their 2018 roster ($92 million). That’s just crazy, especially when you consider that $92 million will pay for just three players to actually play for the Tigers in 2018. Justin Verlander (who will be 35 in 2018), Miguel Cabrera (34) and Victor Martinez (39) all combine to make $82 million, and the Tigers are on the hook for at least a $5 million buyout for Ian Kinsler (35) and Anibal Sanchez (34). Those are talented players, but their best days are likely behind them right now, and they’ll continue to decline over the next 3+ years. Meanwhile, the Indians have an impressive collection of young talent under control through the 2017 season (and beyond, in most cases), including Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana, Trevor Bauer, Cookie Carrasco, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor and more. The Indians are well-positioned to contend this year, and are built to last. Unlike our neighbors to the northwest.

Jumping in our Delorean and flying back to 2015 for a moment; the Tigers are still going to be a really good baseball team this year. As I discussed in this space a couple of weeks ago with Mark Shapiro, the Tigers have actually underperformed relative to their talent level on the way to winning 183 games over the past two seasons. This team still has Miggy Cabrera, Victor Martinez (sigh), David Price, Ian Kinsler and other really, really good baseball players. They also have Joe Nathan, who is a baseball player. Will this collection of experienced talent be able to hold off the young, upstart Indians (and the White Sox, and the Royals) for another year? Grantland’s Michael Baumann takes an in-depth look at an aging Detroit roster, and as a fan of a Phillies team that fell apart under similar circumstances, he seems uniquely qualified to predict when Rome might be collapsing:

Given that the season hasn’t started yet, I feel comfortable saying three things: (1) I agree with the projections insofar as they think the AL Central race is going to be close; (2) if everything goes right for every team, the Tigers are still the best squad in the division; (3) I don’t think everything’s going to go right for the Tigers this year…
…Like individual human beings, baseball teams can temporarily stave off the ravages of time if they try hard enough. So, maybe the Tigers have another run in them. They certainly deserve another shot, considering that unlike those Phillies, Braves, and Yankees teams, they haven’t won a World Series in this stretch of success. But any respite would be temporary, because only time is undefeated.
Things are already starting to go wrong for the Tigers, as Justin Verlander is set to open the season on the DL. This is the first time in his career he’s made a trip to the disabled list, and it’s for a triceps, not an elbow, so it’s entirely possible that Verlander will be back and starting when the Tigers come to Cleveland for the first home stand of the season. But even if healthy, which Verlander are the Tigers going to get moving forward? The 120 ERA+ guy who threw 218 innings in 2013? Or the 88 ERA+ guy who threw 206 innings last year. Verlander churned out an AL-high 1172 regular-season innings from 2009-2013, and was one of the best pitchers in baseball during that time. Will we look back on his subpar 2014 as a blip on the radar similar to his 2008 (92 ERA+)? Or will we see it as the beginning of the end for a now-32 year old warhorse (who is still owed $140 million over the next 5 years)? Time will tell, but the fact that we’re even asking the question shows you that the Tigers aren’t their usual, invincible selves heading into 2015.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Staying in the AL Central for now, Anthony Castrovice took a look around the division in an attempt to identify the keys for each club headed into 2015. There are few (if any) reporters in the baseball universe that know the division better than Castro, so if you haven’t read the entire piece, that’s something you should remedy as soon as possible. Unsurprisingly, Castro singles out defensive improvement as the Indians key to success in 2015, particularly from infielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis. Kipnis’ health is a huge story going into 2015, as the Indians are a completely different team with 2013 Kip in the #2 slot in the lineup and in the field than they are with 2014 Kip. 

Don’t believe me? Well, 2013 Kipnis was an all-star, 11th in MVP voting and was worth 5.9 WAR per Baseball Reference. Meanwhile, 2014 Kipnis missed 33 games, played injured in many of the rest of those games, and was worth 0.9 WAR. It’s entirely reasonable to look at that and say if Kipnis were healthy and effective last year, the Indians would’ve made the playoffs (they finished just 3 games out of the 2nd Wild Card). He’s as important as any player on the roster right now, and is hopefully healthy out of spring training this year.

As you no doubt know by now, I missed out on a trip to spring training this year for the first time since 2009. The absence of that trip really made the offseason drag on, and more importantly it prevented me from getting looks at any of the youngsters the way I usually do. Missing out on my first look at the 2014 draftees is bad enough, but not getting a chance to see the improvements and mechanical tweaks made by some of the more established players might be even more disappointing. Fortunately, we have access to the next best thing, as the Baseball Prospectus prospect team made a group trip to AZ and wrote up their thoughts on several Indians prospects. Tucker Blair spent a day in Goodyear, and came away particularly impressed with RHP Dylan Baker (video in the link):

He has a sturdy frame with a power bottom, which he uses for heavy drive towards home. In this outing, Baker was pumping his fastball 95-98 mph, steamrolling through the Reds’ lineup. The fastball was a tick higher than in the past, displaying explosion and coming off a good plane. The curveball was also improved since my last viewing, displaying hard bite and depth at 81-84 mph.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Blair also wrote up his thoughts on 2014 1st round pick Bradley Zimmer (good!) and power 1B prospect Nellie Rodriguez (not as good!) in that article, so it’s more than worth your time. In addition to Tucker’s fine work, BP fantasy/prospect experts Ben Carsley and Craig Goldstein had a back-and-forth regarding Indians catching prospect Francisco Mejia. Goldstein has long loved Mejia, and this was Carsley’s first look at the diminutive young backstop. Carsley came away underwhelmed (SSS alert!) and that caused a bit of a visceral reaction from Craig (who does visceral reactions better than most). Carsley listed Mejia as the player that he came away from spring training liking less than he did before, resulting in Goldstein listing Carsley in that same “disappointment” category. Carsley did caveat his write-up by saying that Mejia is a better real-life prospect than he is a fantasy prospect (mainly because of the defense), so no need to attack him in the twitterverse for being a hack of a talent evaluator and an unabashed Red Sox homer. However, if you did want to do that, here’s his twitter page.

More bad rotation news for the Indians this week, as it was revealed that Josh Tomlin will be on the shelf for at least 3-4 months after surgery on the AC joint in his shoulder. Tomlin’s shoulder was apparently bothering him early in camp, but he was able to get back on the mound after a cortisone shot in March. The injury kept bothering him though, and it eventually became too much to overcome. The Indians vaunted SP depth takes another hit, as the number of contenders for the rotation dips down to 8, and that includes Shawn Marcum and Bruce Chen. Danny Salazar is the clear #6 guy now, and will be the first called to Cleveland if injury or ineffectiveness strikes a member of the Indians rotation. I still feel like Zach McAllister will eventually end up in the bullpen with Salazar taking his slot in the rotation, as Salazar just has too much upside not to work his way up to the North Coast at some point in 2015.

Stepping outside our Indians-centric focus for a moment, Craig Goldstein of Vice Sports and 
Baseball Prospectus took an insightful look at the Kris Bryant-Cubs disagreement this week. Goldstein looks at Bryant, the Cubs, and the system in general, and comes to the conclusion that the Cubs are keeping Bryant in the minors to open the 2015 season to exercise an additional year of control over him and thus save ownership some money. He also says (rightly) that this is the correct decision and one that pretty much every team in baseball should/would make. From Goldstein’s article:

It's important to note that when people talk about control, what they're really talking about is money. The Cubs have the opportunity to retain Bryant for a seventh year without keeping him in the minors—it's simply a more expensive option. So keep in mind that when your favorite team doesn't promote a top prospect, it's because somewhere along the line, someone decided that saving money was the priority. Also keep in mind that the way the system is set up, the team is almost certainly making the smart decision. And that's the whole damn problem.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
This applies to the Indians as well, in the context of top prospect Francisco Lindor. Like the Cubs, the Indians have a player in place with MLB experience (Mike Olt for the Cubs, Jose  Ramirez for the Indians) and no real reason to start the clock on their player on opening day. If (when) Olt or Ramirez falter, the club can bring up their uber-prospect to take the place of the MLB guy, and not lose a year of team control. Superagent Scott Boras argues that this is the wrong thing to do from a moral perspective (conveniently, Bryant is a client of his), but that’s not what we’re here to argue. It’s the best business decision for the Cubs, a team that has money coming out of their ears. For a small market club like the Indians, it’s an absolute no-brainer. Lindor is pretty much ready to contribute at the major league level, especially with the glove. That’ll almost certainly happen at some point in 2015. But it’d be silly for that to happen on April 6, or really anytime before May 1 unless someone gets hurt.

The Indians put out the opening day rosters for all of their full-season affiliates on Friday, which is always one of the most anticipated events of the spring (for me at least). There weren’t too many surprises, and all four of the clubs will have some intriguing talent. Lindor, Urshela, Danny Salazar and James Ramsey are all in AAA Columbus, an injury away from Cleveland. Erik Gonzalez replaces Lindor at SS for Akron, and will be joined by two of my personal favorites in Tony Wolters and Justin Toole. High-A Lynchburg is probably the most loaded affiliate, as their outfield of Clint Frazier, Bradley Zimmer and Mike Papi will bring scouts from miles around, and their starting rotation of Dylan Baker, Mitch Brown, Luis Lugo and Adam Plutko will be fun to watch as well. Low-A Lake County has Francisco Mejia, which is more than enough for me. Joining Mejia will be Justus Sheffield, Bobby Bradley, Sean Brady, Dace Kime and Yu-Cheng Chang. No matter which minor league affiliate you go out and watch, you’re going to get to look at players who are going to be a big part of the Indians future. I get to see Lynchburg next week on minor league opening day when they come to Potomac, and watching Zimmer and Frazier dig into the batter’s box against Lucas Giolito is going to be a LOT of fun.

As I alluded to in the introduction, lots of people outside the friendly confines of NE Ohio are picking the Indians to do well this year. Some are predicting a wild card, some have them winning the division, and a few are even going out on a limb and calling for a World Series championship, which would of course be the first since 1948. Predictions, plus $3, can usually get you a medium cup of black coffee at Starbucks, but they’re fun to look at nonetheless. To save time and space, we’re going to go lighting round with many of these predictions in an effort to knock out as many as possible.

Grantland’s Jonah Keri picks the Indians to dethrone the Tigers, predicting them to win more than 84 games on the strength of their young pitching and a bounce back season from Jason Kipnis.

Fangraphs’ prediction model has the Indians beating out the Tigers for the Central by one game.  I’m not sure my heart can handle a do-or-die game 162, so hopefully they clinch before the last day of the season. They give the Indians a 43% change at the division, 14% chance for the wild card, and a 7% chance to win the World Series. By my (usually bad) math, that means they have a better than even (57%) shot at the playoffs. They do caveat their prediction with a warning though; “But despite the old proverb, the road to hell is actually paved with teams who built their rosters around young pitching; this could also go really, really wrong.”

In addition to Fangraphs computer projections picking the Indians, their writers seem to be big fans as well. Of their 38 writers, 24 pick the Indians to claim the AL Central crown. Another 11 peg them as a Wild Card, making that 35 out of 38 possible votes for the Indians in the playoffs in one form or another. That puts them at the top of the American League, one ahead of Boston’s 34.

Mike Ferrin from Sirius/XM’s MLB Network Radio is calling an Indians-Nationals World Series. Living as I do in the Washington DC metro area, this would be a dream come true for mean and a nightmare for my bank account, as I’d have to find a way to attend not only the games in Cleveland but the matchups in DC as well. If it does come to fruition though, you’re all welcome to crash at my place during the series.

All 45 members of the Baseball Prospectus staff made their predictions on Friday, with 22 of those 45 picking the Indians to win the Central Division. Two of them, sandwich guru Craig Goldstein and pitching guru Doug Thorburn, are picking the Tribe to win it all. That doesn’t sound like many, but consider that the Indians are one of only 3 teams to get more than one vote to take home the hardware at the end of the season. A whopping 24 of 45 writers picked the Nationals, and 14 are taking the Dodgers. The cumulative voting from BP has Corey Kluber 4th in the AL Cy Young race (3 1st place votes) and Michael Brantley tied for 9th in MVP voting (1 1st place vote). Shadev Sharma, a man after my own heart, gives Yan Gomes his 3rd place AL MVP vote.

ESPN’s David Schoenfield is calling the Indians the top team in the AL, and the #4 overall team in baseball. This despite predicting some regression from 2014 AL MVP candidate Michael Brantley. Schoenfield sees a bounce back year for Kipnis and better defense in 2015, and thinks you should go down to the stadium and see for yourself.

Fourteen staff members at Beyond the Box Score made their predictions, with 100% of responded picking the Indians to make the playoffs in some fashion. Six writers have the Tribe taking the division, and the other eight are slotting them in as Wild Cards. That’s pretty good.

The crew over at’s “Big League Stew” make their predictions, and noted White Sox fan Chris Cwik has the Indians at the top of the division. So does Mark Townsend. Mike Oz tries to temper our expectations by picking them third, but I’m way beyond tempering at this point. They also look at the Lindor question and examine whether Cookie Carrasco’s newfound slider will translate to success in 2015.

Jason Lukehart did an extremely in-depth preview of this year’s club over at Let’s Go Tribe, and it is predictably outstanding. Lukehart admits that he’s more of a glass half-empty type of guy when it comes to pre-season predictions, jaded as only a longtime Cleveland fan can be. But even he sees this team in contention throughout 2015, and sees them fighting the Tigers down to the wire for the division.

Saving the best(?) for last; none other than Sports Illustrated picked the Indians to win not only the division, but the World Series this year. They were nice enough to put CyKluber and Michael Brantley on the cover of their fine publication, which naturally caused the population of NE Ohio to have a collective minor meltdown. SI themselves found this amusing enough to post an article, complete with some of the more colorful tweets on the subject (including one from yours truly). Let me briefly clarify my stance on the subject; there’s no such thing as curses. There’s no Cleveland Curse. There’s no Curse of Rocky Colavito. There is no SI Cover Jinx. I think it’s funny that SI picked the Indians as the best team in baseball the same year they lost 101 games, and I still love Corey Snyder. That pretty much sums it up. The Indians have a young, talented, exciting roster that’s built to contend in 2015 and beyond. If they don’t win it all, it’ll be because another team was better, not because of some jinx (or even jixes). Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to tweak those last-min fantasy lineups, double-check to make sure my MLBTV account is up and running, and sit and stare at the clock, willing it to speed up and get to 7pm on Monday already…