Heading into Tuesday’s games, the White Sox and Indians sit half a game apart atop of the American League Central division, with the expected division-winner Tigers five games back. This morning, Chris Cwik addressed the White Sox’ need to upgrade at third base to stay competitive in the division. The Indians need an upgrade as well–a big, powerful upgrade.
The Indians’ 32-27 record is a bit misleading. Cleveland’s scored only 261 runs and allowed 277, putting the team’s Pythagorean record at 28-31. The Tigers have nearly the same split and sit at 28-32 in the standings. The White Sox, on the other hand, have scored 291 runs and allowed 256, putting their 32-26 pretty much in line with their expected record.
Cleveland’s offense is doing somethings well. The Tribe has the highest walk rate (9.8%) and the lowest strikeout rate (16.2%) in the American League, putting them third in the league in on-base percentage (.329). But the Indians’ wOBA (.314) ranks only ninth. Why? A complete lack of power.
As a team, the Indians are slugging .379, ahead of only the Mariners and A’s. Their ISO is worse, coming in at .179, beating out only the A’s. Jason Kipnis is a breakout star at second base. Asdrubal Cabrera and Travis Hafner are making things happen. And Jack Hannahan–known mostly as a defensive whiz at third–is putting together a nice season at the plate. [Update: Hafner and Hannahan are currently on the disabled list. Hannahan is expected back soon; Hafner at the end of June.]
The Indian’s power problem lies at first base and in the outfield.
Cleveland brought in Casey Kotchman to replace Matt LaPorta at first, and while Kotchman is an improvement, he’s not doing enough at a power position. In 179 plate appearances, Kotchman has just seven doubles and four home runs for a .107 ISO. Michael Brantley leads all Cleveland outfielders with a .396 SLG with Shin-Soo Choo just a shade off at .393. Shelley Duncan comes in with a higher ISO, but only because his batting average is so low. With a slash of .272/.370/.393 and a wOBA of .347, Choo is the only Indians outfielder with a positive wRC+. Adding Johnny Damon hasn’t helped a bit.
Heading into spring training, the Indians were hoping for a 150+ games from a healthy Grady Sizemore in center field. But Sizemore injured his back and needed surgery. The timetable for his return is uncertain, as is his expected production at the plate. The Indians need more out of their outfielders and waiting for Sizemore is fool’s errand.
If the Indians are in it to win it this season, they’ll need to upgrade at first and left field. Easier said than done, however. Cleveland traded two of its top prospects–Alex White and Drew Pomeranz–at least season’s deadline in exchange for Ubaldo Jimenez (and that didn’t work out particularly well). Our own Marc Hulet calls the Indians’ farm system “one of the weakest among the 30 MLB organizations and a lot of the talent is fairly new, having been acquired in the past few seasons. Trades . . . . and poor draft decisions have led to limited depth – especially in the upper levels of the system.” Still, there is talent there, and it should be exploited.
Possible trade targets for first base include the Cubs’ Bryan LaHair and Kila Ka’aihue, who the A’s recently designated for assignment. At 30 years old, LaHair’s finally been given the chance to play every day, and he’s making the most of it, posting a .411 wOBA and 157 wRC+ in 52 games. The Cubs are in sell mode and have uber-prospect Anthony Rizzo waiting in the wings to take over at first. Ka’aihue would cost much less in a trade, but have lower returns. He’s shown greater flashes of power this year than Kotchman, and might be worthy a flyer. Rockies veteran Todd Helton may also be available, but he comes with a steep price tag: a $4.9 million salary this season, $5 million for 2013 and a buyout of $1.31 million in 2014.
The big fish in left field this trading season is the Padres’ Carlos Quentin. He missed the first 6 weeks of the season, but since returning from knee surgery, he’s hitting an absurd .429/.500/971 in 40 plate appearances. With Brett Gardner‘s return uncertain, the Yankees could also pursue Quentin. Same with the Blue Jays. With high demand, the Padres are sure to extract a high price for Quentin, who’s on a one-year deal for $7 million. If the Mets falter and go into sell mode, super utility guy Scott Hairston could become available. He’s no Quentin, but he’d certainly be an upgrade over Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon.
Last season, the Indians led the American League Central well into July. They had started to falter when they traded for Jimenez and went downhill quickly from there. The Tigers ran away with the division. But the dynamics this season are different, with the Tigers struggling at the plate, in the field and on the mound. The White Sox are much improved, thanks to a bounce back performance from Adam Dunn, and better-than-expected seasons from Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski. The Indians are in the mix but need to upgrade their offense to make their early-season success pay off in September.