It has never happened, but it might this year – the Cleveland Indians could face the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Other match-ups are more likely — Nationals vs. Tigers, for instance — but Ohio’s teams may be on a collision course. It is less of a long shot than you might think.
On paper, the Reds are one of the best teams in baseball. They won 97 games last year and if they stay relatively healthy — the loss of Ryan Ludwick is an early blow — they should once again be favored to capture the National League Central title. Few will be surprised if Great American Ballpark is hosting games in late October.
Then there is the team 270 miles to their northeast. The Indians won just 68 games last year. They‘ve made major upgrades, but that‘s mostly on the position-player front. Their starting rotation is a question mark the size of Lake Erie. Justin Masterson, the de facto ace of the staff, again struggled with left-handers and posted a 4.93 ERA. The 4.16 FIP/4.15 xFIP suggest better things are in store in 2013, however.
The Reds won’t be 29 games better than the Indians this year. As a matter of fact, there is a distinct possibility the gap will closer to nine games. It might be three or four. Why? Let’s take a look at the two teams, position by position, keeping in mind that players both outperform and fail to live up to expectations.
Ryan Hanigan is among the most underrated catchers in baseball. He’s an excellent defender who possesses good on-base skills. He also has a lifetime .322 wOBA and isn’t going to suddenly become Lance Parrish with a bat in his hands. Carlos Santana can be Lance Parrish with a bat in his hands. Six years younger than Hanigan and entering his prime, Santana has 45 home runs over the past two seasons and ZIPS projects a .364 OBP and .442 SLG this year. Hanigan is an asset, but he’s not touching those numbers.
The Reds have a clear advantage at first base. Joey Votto is one of the best players in the game. However, this is a position where the Indians are outclassed only because a superstar is in the other uniform. Nick Swisher can be penciled in for 25 to 30 home runs and a solid OBP, because that’s what Nick Swisher does. He will also be a positive influence in the clubhouse.
In the middle of the infield, Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart are better defenders than Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera. To this point in time Phillips has been a better hitter than Kipnis. Conversely, Cabrera is a far superior hitter to Cozart. Kipnis is the wild card. At age 25, he is a breakout candidate capable of surpassing the workmanlike numbers Phillips puts up annually. If you’re a neutral observer, which duo would you rather have? If your decision is based solely on ceiling, the answer probably has to be the Kipnis-Cabrera combo.
The Reds have a clear edge at third base. Maybe. Todd Frazier was a strong rookie-of-the-year candidate last year, but he wasn’t a young rookie. Projection systems see the 27-year-old corner regressing slightly from last year’s .273/.331/.498. As for the Indians’ hot corner, are you a riverboat gambler? Two years ago, Lonnie Chisenhall was Cleveland’s top prospect and was rated the best pure hitter in the system. At age 24 he has a higher upside than Frazier, but he‘s also high-risk.
Outfield production will be a key for both teams. Offensively, the Reds have a distinct advantage in power, although the gap lessens with Ludwick out of the lineup. Jay Bruce is 40 home runs waiting to happen and Shin Soo-Choo can be counted for 20-plus in Great American. Chris Heisey will supply the occasional long ball in Ludwick’s stead. The Indians trio of Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs may not combine to hit as many as Bruce.
The DH position will make up for some of the power differential. Mark Reynolds is a home-run machine [strikeouts be damned] in the Dave Kingman mold As for the Reds DH/power-off-the-bench, applications are being taken at 100 Joe Nuxhall Way. As of the moment they’re a Jay Bruce injury away from being the Shin Soo Mets.
The Cleveland outfield is all about speed. Your grandfather’s grandfather crowed about Braggo Roth and Tris Speaker, and the current mix is equally swift. Bourn, Brantley and Stubbs combined to swipe 84 bags last year, which isn’t Billy Hamilton territory — the sliding Billy’s had 111 steals in 1891, and 155 in 2012, respectively — but they are larcenous enough to wreak havoc. They will also get opportunities to run. You can’t steal first base, but that shouldn’t be an issue for Bourn and Brantley, each of whom had a .348 OBP last year. [Stubbs is another story.] Much as Bruce is 40 home runs waiting to happen, Brantley is a batting-title contender in waiting.
Which brings us to the modern day Billy Hamilton. Ludwick’s expected three-month absence exacerbates the “how long do we have to wait for Billy?” question. Presumably, the name Jackie Bradley, Jr. has come up in internal discussions within the Reds front office? How ready is Hamilton? Could he get on base enough, against big-league pitching, to take advantage of his wheels? Is he likely to get on less often than anyone not named Choo, Hanigan or Votto?
OBP remains Cinci’s biggest problem. All of those RBIs Tony Perez amassed in the 1970s? How many would Joey Votto get — assuming Dusty doesn’t take the bat out of his hands — with Pete Rose and Joe Morgan hitting in front of him?
The Indians have better outfield defense than the Reds. It isn’t even close. Cleveland has three natural centerfielders in the lineup and Cincinnati has none. When it comes to run prevention, this could be a not-so-insignificant equalizer. Cinci’s pitching is far superior — the Tribe has a slight edge offensively — but the number of runs saved by the team’s fly chasers could help bridge that gap. For every time Homer Bailey is backing up third base, Ubaldo Jimenez will be fist pumping a double that wasn’t.
This isn’t to say Cincinnati hurlers are destined for the abyss. Bryan Price is one of the best pitching coaches in baseball, and his staff led the league in road ERA last season. It isn’t the extra fly balls finding terra firma that poses the biggest threat. The likelihood of the entire starting rotation remaining healthy for a second consecutive season simply isn’t good. That’s no slam on Baker’s pitcher usage, Price’s tutelage, or the diligent work put in by the trainers and medical staff. Pitchers get injured and depth is an issue for every staff. For some teams it is an issue as large as… well, Lake Erie.
Yes, Cleveland Indians, we’re looking at you. We’re also going to question the quality of your arms. If you’re in denial, we refer you to last year’s numbers. They weren’t pretty, and if you pitch like you did in 2012, an outfield of three Kenny Loftons and a middle infield of Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel won’t be enough to get you to the post-season.
But what if the starters match their career years? Masterson had a 3.21 ERA in 216 innings two years ago. Jimenez had a 2.88 ERA in 221 innings in 2010. Neither has celebrated his 30th birthday. Brett Myers celebrated his two years ago and put up a 3.14 ERA in 223 innings the same year. If they replicate those performances, or even come close, are they not comparable to Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo? The Reds also have Homer Bailey, who emerged from enigma-land to win 13 games and toss a no-hitter. Can Trevor Bauer — the key to one of the biggest trades in Indians history — do the same? Few pitching prospects have a higher upside.
The bullpens are a plus for each team, especially with Aroldis Chapman remaining in a closer role. [Raise your hand if you thought of Daniel Bard when the Reds discussed making him a starter.] Add in solid set-up men like Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall and the underrated Sam LeCure, and Cincinnati shouldn’t lose too many late-inning leads.
The Indians? Chris Perez has nearly as many bashers as Baker — Dusty bashing is a sport of its own in the Queen City — but the criticism is overwrought. Perez coughs up the occasional home run and isn‘t always politically correct, but his 39 saves and healthy K/9 speak volumes. Along with set-up man supreme Vinnie Pestano, he fronts a self-proclaimed bullpen mafia that is an Indians’ strength.
The consensus? The Reds are a 90- to 92-win team. Playoff bound and World Series worthy? Absolutely, assuming there are no catastrophes. There are concerns, but they are NL Central favorites for a reason.
The Indians? Let’s just say the gap between Ohio’s big-league teams is closing. Fast. What was once a chasm is now akin to an Evel Knievel motorcycle jump — eagerly anticipated, doable, and perilous. They may plummet into a canyon, but if they play to their potential we’re looking at an 88- to 90-win team that could sneak into the playoffs, where anything can happen. You might not want to bet on it, but you can certainly dream on it. The Cleveland Indians could face the Cincinnati Reds in an all-Ohio World Series.