Sunday, April 03, 2016

Ready for Baseball on a Lazy Sunday

Back again for the second week in a row here on a Lazy Sunday! I wanted to take a moment and thank everyone for reading and for the (universally positive) feedback I received after finally posting an article last week. You guys and gals are the reason I’m writing again this week. Knowing I’m doing a small part to fill what appears to be a void in otherwise excellent Indians coverage feels good, and the fact that people are reading and appreciating it makes it all worthwhile. Well, that and the fact that opening day is tomorrow(!) This offseason has somehow managed to both drag on and fly by. It feels like last week that I was watching the Mets fall to the Royals, and yet it feels like 10 years ago that the Indians last took the field in a meaningful contest. A lot has happened since then, both on and off the field, and I cannot wait for real, actual baseball at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario again. Through an unfortunate quirk in scheduling, I’ll actually be in Cincy on a work trip for Opening Day tomorrow, but I’ll also be in Cleveland for game two on Wednesday. If you think I’m not going to be at the stadium for that game, well, you really don’t know me very well. If anyone wants to meet up for a cold one at the Corner, I’ll be around Wednesday night. First round is on me. I should mention that I’ll be there with local television celebrity Jeff Nomina (among others), so if that makes you want to stay away, I don’t blame you. Let’s just hope it’s not raining (or snowing).

I’m eschewing the traditional “season preview” article because, well, you can find that pretty much anywhere. But I wanted to take a look at what I believe will be some of the keys to this season, a few things that will help determine whether the Indians are on the baseball diamond in October or setting up their tee times. Symmetrical lists are lazy and unoriginal, but I think it’s instructive to break down these keys into potential strengths and weaknesses. Since symmetry is bad, I’m going to look at four things that I’m excited about, and three that give me pause heading into 2016.

The first key to the season that I’m downright giddy about is Francisco Lindor. When Lindor was called up to the Indians last season, it stabilized both the infield defense (expected) and the top of the lineup (didn’t see that coming). Lindor debuted as a pinch hitter on June 14 in an 8-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers. He collected his first major league hit, tripped over 1B, and the Indians fell to 29-33. They went 52-47 the rest of the season to finish at 81-80, and Lindor is a huge reason for that improvement. If you want to play the “completely arbitrary endpoints game” (it’s fun! play along!), the Indians were a full 10 games over .500 at 36-26 from July 29 through the end of the season, a stretch during which the defensive wizard Lindor hit a robust .350/.391/.554 with 8 HR and 36 RBI. When you combine that with Gold Glove-level defense, it’s easy to see why people are so excited about Francisco Lindor’s sophomore campaign. He’s also already a leader in the clubhouse by virtue of his makeup and incredible work ethic.  His smile could power a small country. I could go on, but I’ve waxed poetic about Lindor for many years in this space, and will likely continue to do so for many years to come. Suffice to say, the 22-year old shortstop is one of the primary reasons I’m excited about this team’s chances for contention in 2016 and beyond.

I’m also really excited that we get a healthy and (hopefully) productive Yan Gomes back. Gomes was the 2nd most valuable position player on the 2014 Indians if you go by WAR (not a perfect statistic, but a nice consistent measuring stick for our purposes here). Gomes was worth 4.2 wins, behind only Michael Brantley’s 6.8. Brantley, you’ll recall, finished 3rd in the AL MVP race in 2014. Gomes was injured in April last year and missed 38 games rehabbing his knee. Knees, as you’d imagine, are somewhat important to a catcher. Gomes jumped right back into the lineup on May 24 but was never quite able to get untracked at the plate. He finished with just a .659 OPS (down from .785 in 2014) and popping a dozen HR (down from 21 in 2014).

Gomes struggled behind the dish last year as well. After assisting Indians pitching to the tune of 9.8 runs with his framing and 2.4 runs with his throwing in 2014, Gomes actually cost his staff 2.6 runs by his poor framing and 0.2 runs with his throwing last year. Again, knees are important to catchers, as is the relationship with his pitching staff. Both of those suffered with the April injury, and both Gomes and the Indians scuffled as a result. Gomes finished 2015 with just 0.8 WAR, a full 3.4 wins fewer than in 2014. If you’ll permit me to round that figure up to 4 (it’s my site now, I do what I want) and look at the final standings, adding those 4 wins that Gomes could’ve delivered to the Indians final total shows they would’ve finished with an 85-76 record. The mathematicians out there are no doubt wondering why that number adds up to 161, and the answer is because of the unfinished game against the Tigers that was never made up because it didn’t affect the final standings. That game would now need to be made up, because the AL Wild Card winning Houston Astros finished with a record of 86-76. In my fantasy world, the Indians beat the Tigers in that game, take down the Astros in the 1-game playoff for the 2nd Wild Card, beat the Yankees in a dramatic 1-game Wild Card showdown in the Bronx and go on to…well, you get the idea. Is it possible that a healthy Yan Gomes is all the Indians need to push themselves over the hump and back into the playoffs for the first time since way back in…2013 (editor’s note; that’s not that long ago)? Maybe. Either way, I sure hope we get to find out. As we were reminded last week with his sub-1.9 pop times throwing to 2nd, Yan is an awful lot of fun to watch behind the dish.

Sometimes sports fans take expected excellence for granted. The Indians 2016 rotation might be an example of that excellence turning into complacency. The rotation is led by two players who are AL Cy Young Candidates in Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. The #3 starter, Danny Salazar, is a 26-year old who has more career strikeouts (380) than innings pitched (347). Sliding into the #4 slot in the rotation is a 25-year old righty who exceeded all expectations in his debut last season, going 7-3 with a 3.05 ERA in 15 starts and winning AL Pitcher of the Month in September. Anderson is also…seriously…in “the best shape of his life” and is a groundball machine on the mound. Being a groundball inducing SP at the beginning of 2015 would be a red flag in front of an Indians defense that was…well, really bad, but 2016 will open with defensive improvements at 3 of the 4 INF positions, so that’s now a positive rather than a concern with Anderson. The #5 starter is a bit of a surprise, but Josh Tomlin is what he is; an athletic strike-thrower who is prone to the longball, but they’re usually solo shots because he rarely walks anyone. He struck out 19 hitters in 17 1/3 spring IP, including 10 in his final tune-up against Seattle. That leaves Trevor Bauer headed to the bullpen to open the season. Bauer had a better spring than either Anderson or Tomlin, lowering his walk rate and picking up a tick on his already plus fastball. Personally, I’d have put Bauer in the rotation and moved Tomlin to the bullpen, but that option can always be exercised later in the season if it becomes necessary. Add to that group guys like Mike Clevinger and T.J. House, and the Indians go 8-deep when it comes to legitimate SP options. It’s a talented group that is arguably the best starting corps in the American League, and could rival the Mets group of flamethrowers for best in baseball before the 2016 season is over. The Mets made the World Series on the strength of their starting pitching last season (with help from an insane hot streak by Yoenis Cespedes and Daniel Murphy doing a Reggie Jackson impression in October), and it’s not a stretch to think that the Indians could do the same this year.

The last thing I’m going to cover in this section is something I’ve alluded to a few times above already; the vast improvement in the club’s defense from 2015 to 2016. Jonah Keri wrote a fantastic article last year chronicling the Indians rise from the worst defensive team in baseball last April/May to one of the best by the end of the season. Not coincidentally, that defensive rise coincided with the promotions of Francisco Lindor and Gio Urshela from AAA. Lindor will be around for a full season this year (God willing) and while Urshela is ticketed to begin the season in Columbus, he’s just a phone call away. Juan Uribe will start at the hot corner, and he should be at least a league-average defender this year. Lonnie Chisenhall went from a negative at 3B to an almost unbelievably effective defender in RF (although he’ll begin 2016 on the DL). Mike Napoli has saved 20 runs as a 1B, a pretty big step up from Carlos Santana’s -9. How a 1B can give away that many runs is beyond me, and speaks to Santana’s utter indifference as a defender. Tyler Naquin is going to start in CF; he’s fast and has an absolute cannon for an arm, despite lacking major league experience. Michael Bourn was a former Gold Glover with experience for days last year, but was neither fast nor had the ability to throw a baseball through a glass window. By the end of the season, I think that the Indians will be improved defensively at no fewer than 6 positions this year (CF, RF, 3B, SS, 1B and C). If they managed merely league-average defense for the entirety of 2015, the Indians may have made the playoffs. League-average is the floor for this year’s defense, and that bodes well for the prospect of playoff baseball on the North Shore.

Now that we have the sunshine and roses out of the way, let’s look at three things that concern me heading into 2016. The first, ironically, is Francisco Lindor. I’ll forgive your confusion, as you’ve seen me wax poetic about Lindor for the past several years now, including in this very article a few paragraphs above. What concerns me about Lindor are the sky-high expectations surrounding his hitting in 2016. I fully believe that no matter what happens, he’ll be a valuable member of the team by virtue of his glove alone. But Lindor hit better last year than at any stop along the way in his minor league career. He never hit more than 11 HR in any minor league season, then popped 12 in 99 MLB games. He never hit higher than .303 in the minors, but wound up with a .313 AVG in The Show. His highest MiLB OPS over a full season was .787, and he far outpaced that with an .835 mark in Cleveland. You get the idea. It’s possible that this is the new normal for Lindor; after all he’s only 22 and has added strength and size as he’s made his way up the organizational ladder. But this is Cleveland, so we’re generally expecting something to go wrong at any moment. Lindor’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was a robust .348 last year, a mark that’s higher than league average but not an insane outlier. That number will probably come down as luck evens out. He did strike out 69 times against just 27 walks, showing some (expected and totally understandable) struggles against major league breaking balls.

All this isn’t to say that I expect Lindor to be a weakness on the 2016 team; far from it. I just wouldn’t be shocked if his 2015 batting line didn’t carry over into 2016. If the 2015 Lindor we saw at the plate is for real, he’s going to be a legitimate MVP candidate down the road. Voters are predisposed to offense and tend to ignore defensive value when voting for awards (even the Gold Glove awards to a degree), which is probably why Carlos Correa and his 22 HR won the AL Rookie of the Year Award over Lindor despite Lindor’s higher WAR (4.6 to 4.1). So even if Lindor’s bat does regress in 2016, he’s still going to be a very important and valuable player to the Indians. I just think we should be prepared for that possibility, that the 22 year old defensive wizard isn’t ready to carry a major league lineup at this point in his career.

My second concern heading into 2016 also focuses on the offense, particularly the offense supplied by left fielder Michael Brantley. Brantley was one of the best players in the AL in 2014, posting an .890 OPS, compiling 6.8 WAR and finishing 3rd in the AL MVP voting. He was well on his way to another excellent season in 2015 before suffering a shoulder injury, and still managed to lead the league in doubles despite playing in just 137 games. He’s been their most consistent and valuable position player over the past two seasons, and when he’s in the 3-hole in the lineup, the Indians are a solid offensive team. Unfortunately, Brantley isn’t going to start the season in the lineup as he’s dealing with the lingering effects from offseason shoulder surgery. Brantley was injured diving for a ball on September 22, and after initially trying to strengthen the shoulder through rest and rehab, went under the knife in early November. Prior to the shoulder injury, Brantley had been battling back soreness throughout the season, so it’s almost remarkable he was able to put up the numbers that he did.

Brantley had a tear in the labrum of his right shoulder. As someone who has had surgery to repair a torn labrum, I can tell you firsthand that the surgery and recovery are no joke. Shoulder injuries have sapped the power and effectiveness from Indians hitters in the past. Travis Hafner’s torn labrum accelerated his decline, and Jason Kipnis dealt with a shoulder injury that derailed his 2014 season before it could even get untracked. While it was understood at the time of the surgery that Brantley was not expected back in the lineup for opening day, he teased Tribe fans earlier this month by playing (and homering!) in a Cactus League game. That had fans and teammates understandably excited, but Brantley felt discomfort in the shoulder after playing, so the Indians shut him down for the remainder of the spring. It’s tempting to call that a setback for Brantley and many did, but when you remember back in November that Brantley wasn’t expected to resume baseball activities for 4-5 months, you realize that he’s not so much behind schedule now as he was ahead of schedule when he appeared in a big league game last week. I was always afraid that Brantley would rush back too quickly and either re-injure himself or be ineffective in the lineup the way Kipnis was in 2014. Hopefully that little “setback” that he endured last week was more of a reality check than anything, and Brantley will continue to strengthen his shoulder and come back when he’s ready to perform at a high level again. Even if that’s not until mid-April or even May, I’d much rather have 130 games of 2014 Brantley than 155 games of 2014 Kipnis-type performance. If the Indians are going to contend for a championship in 2016, they’re going to need a healthy and productive Michael Brantley in LF.

The third and final area of the team I’m concerned with heading into 2016 is the bullpen. Cody Allen is more than solid in the back of the pen, coming off of a season where he saved 34 games, struck out 99 and posting a 2.99 ERA in 69 1/3 IP. Before that though, there’s a significant amount of uncertainty. Jeff Manship was otherworldly last year, allowing a miniscule 0.92 ERA in 39 1/3 IP (469 ERA+!!!), but prior to last year he was nothing short of awful as a major league reliever. His ERA in 139 1/3 IP prior to last season was a robust 6.46. I sure hope he’s the guy we saw last year, but to count on that seems silly. Bryan Shaw was solid last year with a 2.95 ERA in 64 IP, but he’s made 224 appearances over the last three seasons and the 28-year old’s right arm might actually fall off this year if he is called on to make another 70+. No one really knows what to expect out of Joba Chamberlain, but he finished last year with a 4.88 ERA (and a 5.37 FIP) in 27 IP last year. Zach McAllister has the potential to be a weapon in the back end of the bullpen, and was solid there last season with 84 K and a 3.00 ERA in 69 IP. The only lefty in the bullpen is Ross Detwiler, and he has a 5.56 ERA in the last two seasons since becoming a reliever. As much as Tito Francona loves pulling his RP levers in the late innings of games, I’m a little surprised that the Indians are breaking camp with just a single southpaw. I fully expect to see Kyle Crockett in Cleveland at some point in 2016, especially if Detwiler struggles early on.

Manship, Shaw, Detwiler, McAllister, Chamberlain and Dan Otero might pitch effectively in 2016. But that’s not something I’m comfortable counting on. I like McAllister a lot in the bullpen and think his stuff plays up there, and it sure seems like Shaw is able to bounce back year after year despite his heavy workload. But the rest of the bullpen has me a little worried, and the fact that there’s only one lefty out there can’t leave Terry Francona feeling too comfortable. The wildcard in all this is Trevor Bauer, who’s slated to start the season in the bullpen after losing out to Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin for a slot in the rotation. There’s been some speculation that Bauer or another starter could be flipped for a bullpen arm but that seems silly as starters are much more valuable than relievers by virtue of their work rates if nothing else. Can Bauer, with his complicated and intricate warmup routine and control issues, pitch effectively out of the bullpen? How long of a leash will Tomlin (who’s pitched out of the bullpen in the past) and Anderson have with Bauer waiting in the wings? It’ll be interesting to see, and something to keep tabs on early on this season.

This is the final Lazy Sunday of the offseason, and depending on what time you’re reading this, there could be less than 24 hours until Corey Kluber toes the rubber at The Jake and takes on David Price and the Boston Red Sox. Opening Day is always full of excitement and wonder about the season to come, but the season will quickly settle into the day in and day out routine of the Indians doing what they can to win as many baseball games as possible. If they can stay healthy (always a big IF), I think they can make the playoffs in what should be a competitive AL Central. And if they can get into the playoffs, their rotation gives them a chance to compete against anyone. I’ll take Kluber/Carrasco/Salazar against any top 3 in baseball, even the Mets 3-headed monster of Harvey/Thor/DeGrom. Getting to the playoffs is going to be hard enough as it is, so hopefully the Indians can avoid another slow April start like the ones that have plagued them for years now. The 2012 Indians were 11-9, the last time the club finished over .500 in the seasons’ first month. There’s an old saying that you can’t clinch a playoff spot in April, but you can lose one, and while that’s not exactly true it sure doesn’t help to dig a hole that you spend the rest of the season trying to dig out of. So while you shouldn’t get too wrapped around the axle about one game, and try not to let the small sample sizes early in the season convince you that a player is a bum/all-star, these games do count in the standings. Here’s hoping the Indians get off on the right foot with a few wins, the fans come out to support the team, and there’s sunshine and warm weather on the North Coast this April.