Dave Cameron laid out the methodology behind the rankings last Friday. Remember that the grading scale for each category is 20-80, with 50 representing league average.
2012 Organizational Rankings
Cleveland’s 2011 Ranking: #26
2012 Outlook: 47 (18th)
Once upon a time, in the mid-2000s, the Indians were brimming with young talent and very valuable major league pieces in C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner. They peaked in 2007, with a 96-66 record, and an AL Central crown. Since then, a combination of untimely injuries, poor drafting, and a lack of acquired talent — especially through trading Sabathia and Lee — has kept the Indians below the .500 mark.
While the Indians may win more than 81 games in 2012, the oddly constructed roster is unlikely to contend for a playoff berth. Scoring a 47 on the 20-80 scale is appropriate, as they are a middle of the pack team that would need a lot to break right to challenge for one of the Wild Card spots. Crazier things have happened, but when Shelley Duncan projects to log 400+ PAs for your team, the odds aren’t ever in your favor.
Of the aforementioned quintet, only Hafner can be counted on to contribute in 2012, and he’ll be helped in the lineup by Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo. Those three players ranked highly at their respective positions in our Positional Rankings, while the Indians were below average at every other spot on the diamond.
The rest of the lineup is suspect, with league average performers lacking upside in Casey Kotchman and Jack Hannahan, and a revolving door of mediocre outfield talent in Aaron Cunningham, Michael Brantley, Fred Lewis and Duncan.
Assigning Lonnie Chisenhall and Matt LaPorta to Triple A also means more playing time for Jason Donald, which doesn’t really stand to benefit the team. It also leaves Jason Kipnis as the only highly touted prospect in the starting lineup.
The pitching staff is certainly a bright spot, as the rotation may lack superstars like the Phillies and Angels, but makes up for it with depth and overall good pitchers. Led by Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson, the rotation also features Derek Lowe and Kevin Slowey – acquired through offseason trades – and Fausto Carmona (Roberto Hernandez). Former Yankees prospect Zach McAllister is expected to contribute as well. They might not be the fifth best rotation in baseball – as ZiPS identified them in our positional rankings – but the rotation is very good and very deep.
The Indians certainly have some very solid pieces on the big league roster this year, but opting to re-sign Sizemore and bring in Kotchman – injury prone and/or lacking upside – instead of pursuing Carlos Beltran and Carlos Pena for the respective positions hurts their chances of taking another step forward. Opting to go with Kotchman and Sizemore made sense since both deals represented minimal commitments, but there were better players out there for similar deals.
2013+ Outlook: 45 (23rd)
Through a combination of poor drafting, acquiring Jimenez, and not bringing back close to commensurate value for Sabathia and Lee, the Indians have one of the worst farm systems in baseball. Marc Hulet remarked that he had some difficulty in ranking the system, as there was a ton of turnover from last year to this season. In fact, Nick Hagadone is the only prospect on last year’s rankings that remained on his 2012 rankings.
Overall, the farm system ranked 28th out of the 30 teams, but fared a bit better in the overall 2013+ view since players like Santana, Chisenhall and Kipnis are considered to have “graduated” from the farm. The Indians have several young players under control – or under affordable contracts – for the next few years, but there doesn’t seem to be much impact talent knocking on the door.
The strength of their system is pitching depth, but the system lacks true front-line potential, and is short on everything else. Catching might qualify as a strength, as Chun Chen is an offensive-minded catcher with an underrated bat, who should play decent enough defense to stick behind the plate. The problem is that Santana occupies the position and adds much more value there than at first base.
Along those lines, the Indians have a number of players who could play several different positions, and it becomes tough to evaluate the team’s future without knowing who plays where. Otherwise, it’s impossible to determine if the team will extract the most value out of its players. Where certain guys end up will obviously also shape their free agent and trade efforts.
Given their typical payroll figures over the last few years and contractual commitments moving forward, the Indians should have some money to spend in free agency. And they will have to, as those anywhere near being considered impact prospects are a ways away from contributing at the major league level.
Of their top ten prospects, over half have less than three years of professional experience, and another half of those players are pitchers, which is really their only area without a need. The Indians might be able to flirt with a winning record this and next year, but without upgrades in drafting and developing, it’s going to be tough to succeed moving forward with their general operating style.
Financial Resources: 38 (26th)
Drafting and developing are key ingredients for the Indians’ success, as they tend to spend below the league average in payroll and don’t bring in a great deal of revenue. Forbes has them as the 26th most valuable franchise – or in other words, the fifth least valuable franchise – at $410 million. While their value has increased by 16 percent from a year ago, the end result is more like improving from a D+ to a C-, which isn’t particularly significant.
The Indians haven’t been very popular in terms of attendance, which has obviously led to the lower revenue figure. People tend to care less when the on-field product is mediocre. The Indians finished 24th in average attendance per game last season, and dead last in 2010. There’s also the matter that there are less people living in Cleveland these days to even attend the games. According to the most recent U.S. Census, Cleveland is the 28th largest metropolitan area in the United States, but one of only three in the top thirty that saw a population decrease between 2000 and 2010.
They have some room to spend, especially moving forward, as money is freed up when Hafner, Lowe and Sizemore come off the books. However, given their lower revenue stream, they would be severely hampered if free agent acquisitions or those signed to lucrative deals spent ample time on the disabled list (cough, Sizemore and Hafner, cough). The Indians brought in approximately $178 million in revenue and spent right around $50 million on payroll last year. With a projected payroll in the $50-$56 million range this year, they figure to sport the same ratio of payroll-to-revenue this year.
How they reallocate the “freed up” money next year remains to be seen, but it will likely be the first real test of fiscal responsibility for Chris Antonetti and his front office. They will be able to invest money without regard for Mark Shapiro’s signings and will have the flexibility to build their team. Speaking of Antonetti and his crew…
Baseball Operations: 55 (7th)
The Indians fared very well in the baseball operations department, but the lack of recent results once again raises the question of how exactly to evaluate front offices. Are the recent drafting struggles indicative of a flawed system in Antonetti’s front office? Or have they simply had a string of poor luck with players not panning out? On the other hand, can we even really gauge how well Antonetti has done if he hasn’t had the chance to build his team?
Realistically, Antonetti inherited a mediocre squad– albeit one with some decent building blocks — with a poor farm system and limited financial flexibility given the moves of his predecessor. However, the Indians are a very progressive team, and are considered pioneers in the realm of software development fusing scouting and analytic information. Antonetti was also considered the Strasburg of GM prospects before he took over the reins and is widely regarded as a brilliant baseball mind.
Ranking the Indians seventh in this area has more to do with what the front office is expected to do moving forward than how the team will perform this year, and that is perfectly acceptable. However, one might think that the top ten spots are reserved for those with solid track records. Antonetti’s front office doesn’t have much of a track record yet, and while he return the Indians to relevance, it’s simply too early to get a firm grasp on the effectiveness of this front baseball operations department.
Overall: 45 (21st)
The Indians are a 76-82 win team this season with a better chance at falling below that range than above. They have a very good starting rotation and a solid bullpen to boot, but the major and minor league teams have too many question marks to have confidence in their ability to contend now and into the future. An upper echelon front office can help turn that around, but the Indians have a lot of work to do before seriously competing for another division title anytime soon.