How does a team feature the AL Cy Young winner two straight years, yet find itself in rebuilding mode? The Cleveland Indians know. In 2007, when the team made it all the way to Game 7 of the ALCS, CC Sabathia won the Cy. The next year, however, Cleveland stumbled out of the gate and found themselves in last place, 10.5 games out of first, on June 30. They didn’t waste much time in trading Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers for Matt LaPorta and others (including, eventually, Michael Brantley). Yet Cleveland still had something brewing in the rotation.
On July 1, Cliff Lee tossed eight innings of one-run ball against the White Sox. That pushed him up to 111.2 innings, in which he allowed just 28 runs, a 2.26 ERA to go with a 2.57 FIP. That was his halfway point. He pitched 111.2 innings after July 1 and saw slightly worse, but still elite, results: a 2.82 ERA and 3.09 FIP. The Indians improved, too, They entered play on Jul 7, the day they traded Sabathia, with a 37-51 record, a .420 win percentage. They finished the season 81-81, having gone 44-30, a .595 win percentage, after the trade. Things, then, didn’t look so gloomy. That’s why 2009 came as something of a surprise.
After trading Lee to the Phillies and receiving a handful of prospects in return, the Indians head into 2010 with a relatively thin pitching staff. Jake Westbrook, who hasn’t thrown a major league pitch since May 28, 2008, will likely start Opening Day. He was a solid option when healthy in the mid-00s, pitching 770.2 innings to a 4.06 ERA and a nearly identical FIP from 2003 through 2006. In the final year of a three-year, $33 million contract, and if the Indians again find themselves out of the race in July, he could prove a viable trade chip if healthy.
Justin Masterson and Fausto Carmona figure to follow Westbrook in the rotation. Carmona’s story is well known by now. After a standout performance in 2007 he’s struggled over the past two years, walking three more batters than he has struck out. He has pitched well this spring and will get another shot. With $18 million guaranteed to him over the next three years, it might not be his last, either. Masterson, acquired from the Red Sox in the Victor Martinez trade, will get a chance to prove his worth in the rotation. Lefties have killed him during his career, posting a .374 wOBA against him in 479 plate appearances.
The final two rotation spots appear a battle among three competitors: Aaron Laffey, David Huff, and Mitch Talbot. Laffey, a lefty who will turn 25 in April, has posted a near-league average performance in parts of three seasons with the Indians. Last season he started in 19 of his 25 appearances, logging 121.2 innings. He walked nearly as many as he struck out, though. He’s never been a strikeout guy, so he’ll have to bring down his walk totals if he’s to succeed. Huff, also a 25-year-old lefty, fared a bit worse in terms of results in 2009, a 5.61 ERA in 128.1 innings. They had comparable FIPs, though, Laffey at 4.54 and Huff at 4.69.
Talbot, acquired from the Rays in exchange for Kelly Shoppach this off-season, presents an interesting case because he is out of options and has pitched only 9.2 innings at the major league level. Over his minor league career he has struck out 7.4 batters per nine to 2.6 walks, a good ratio and a good walk rate. If he doesn’t win a rotation spot he’ll likely end up in the bullpen. Carlos Carrasco, acquired from the Phillies in the Lee trade, has performed well this spring, though he is likely ticketed for AAA to begin the season. Considering the state of the Indians rotation, he could force his way into the majors in a few months.
On the offensive side the Indians look relatively strong, but have a few question marks in terms of health. Grady Sizemore could again be the team’s best hitter. He posted the worst wOBA of his five-year career in 2009, .343, though an elbow injury certainly affected his play. A recovery to the ~.380 wOBA figures he posted in the previous three years would be a huge boost. He won’t be batting leadoff this year, but instead second. This leaves room for Asdrubal Cabrera to bat first. He greatly increased his production last year, raising his OBP to .361 while hitting for a bit more power. If he can maintain that OBP he should score plenty of runs.
After Cabrera and Sizemore, the Indians could have three lefties in a row. Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, and Russell Branyan figure to hit 3-4-5 in some order. Choo began his breakout in 2008, though he played in only 94 games. In 2009 he again displayed middle of the order skills, posting a .389 wOBA in 685 PA. Hafner remains an injury concern, having just 617 PA over the past two years, though 383 came last year. He hit decently enough, a .355 wOBA. It’s unlikely that he returns to the .420+ wOBAs he posted from 2004 through 2006, but he could still provide power if healthy. Branyan presents a similar situation in that he can hit for power and he’s an injury risk.
After that portion of the lineup, the only Indians hitter long on experience is Jhonny Peralta. He experienced a down year in 2009, though he could certainly rebound to his prior production levels. He slides over to third, too, where his defensive deficiencies shouldn’t hurt the team as much. The remaining three, Luis Valbuena, Lou Marson, and LaPorta, have just 726 career PA among them. That’s fine, though, for a team like the Indians. With only an outside chance of contending, they should get a very good look at their up and coming players.
What would it take for the Indians to make a run in 2010? A complete recovery to 2007 form for Carmona, for starters. They’ll also need an effective return from Westbrook and progress from Masterson. They’ll also need a few more things to go wrong for the Twins, the AL Central favorites. Perhaps then they could sneak into the picture. More likely, though, the Indians will perform well, but not playoffs well. They have a good crop of talent. It just seems like they underachieve most years.