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September 26, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Cleveland Indians

by Steven Goldman, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the league division series, league championship series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski, and Kevin Goldstein's farm-system overview.

Today we bid farewell to the Cleveland Indians, who ran out of steam down the stretch after a surprisingly successful first half.

Signs of hope: The Indians finished 2010 with 93 losses, so a season around .500 represents progress. Yet, 2011 was almost so much more. With roughly a quarter of the season in the books, the Tribe had a 30-15 record and led the AL Central by seven games. The great launch was fueled by right-handed starter Justin Masterson, whose grounders, strikeouts, and command made him a bear with the home run—his 0.5 homers allowed per nine innings led the league. Unheralded rookie reliever Vinnie Pestano led an effective bullpen with an impressive 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest rate ever recorded by an Indians pitcher (minimum 50 innings). In addition to Pestano, several position players made their big league debuts with varying degrees of success, and sophomore catcher Carlos Santana established himself as an offensive weapon despite a low batting average. Most surprising was the power shown by shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who had heretofore hit like a quintessential middle infielder.

Signs of disaster: The Indians' early 108-win pace was done with smoke, mirrors, and transient overachievement by middling hurlers like Josh Tomlin. In fact, as the club's negative run differential suggests, the whole season was something of a mirage. When the inevitable slowdown came, management misread the signs and blamed injuries (stalwarts Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, and Travis Hafner were among the afflicted) instead of the club's general lack of talent. The Indians went all-in, calling up prospects Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Cord Phelps. Cleveland also shipped off four players—including top pitching prospects Alex White and Drew Pomeranz—to the Colorado Rockies for Ubaldo Jimenez. Though the Indians held onto at least a share of first place until late July, their seven-game lead evaporated as they went 49-63 (.438) while allowing 4.99 runs per nine innings since. The club enters the offseason facing difficult decisions on contract options for Sizemore and Fausto Carmona, both of which qualify as damned if you do/damned if you don't choices.

Signs you can ignore: Jimenez, in particular, failed to fulfill the role of savior; should he not emerge from a slump dating back to June 2010, the trade of White and Pomeranz could set the Indians' pitching back years. Jimenez worked his way into the 2010 Cy Young conversation by starting that season with an 11-1 record and 0.93 ERA. Since then, he's gone 21-22 with a 4.79 ERA. He hasn't been terrible, maintaining his walk and strikeout rates, but he's been far from a pitcher worth two former first-round picks. With Tomlin finishing with a 5.26 second-half ERA and elbow soreness, Carmona's disappointing season, and Carlos Carrasco's Tommy John surgery, the Indians will go through the offseason with major question marks in their rotation. Steve Goldman, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
The Indians have to start their offseason by making decisions on the club option years for the contracts of Sizemore and Carmona. Sizemore has an $8.5 million option that will be picked up only if they're confident in the medicals, and Carmona's $7 million option likely will be picked up since that is a reasonable price for one year of a good pitcher.

While the Indians have the cash to bring back their arbitration-eligible players, they won't have enough in reserve to be active in the free-agent market. Assuming Santana stays behind the plate, the Tribe's biggest hole is at first base since it does not appear Matt LaPorta (career .699 OPS) is the answer.

Therefore, Cleveland should look to trade for a young non-arbitration-eligible first baseman such as Justin Smoak or Mike Carp from Seattle, Yonder Alonso from Cincinnati, Brandon Belt from the Giants, Brett Wallace from the Astros, or Chris Marrero from Washington. The Tribe could dangle Choo as the centerpiece of a package, although his value is at a low since he's played only 13 games since the All Star break due to injury. If that doesn't work, they might be able to find an inexpensive stopgap such as James Loney of the Dodgers or Casey Kotchman of the Rays, both of whom are above-average defenders and could be non-tendered. Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears
Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 93-69

While Cleveland's early-season success was a bit of a mirage, the team added higher-upside players as the year went on. The Indians lost quality prospects in White and Pomeranz but gained a hurler in Jimenez, who gives them a second potential ace in 2012. Prior to the trade, the only starting pitcher on the team that had ace upside was Masterson. Cleveland did manage to hang on to Kipnis and Chisenhall midseason, and both have more 2012 potential than Jack Hannahan or the departed Orlando Cabrera ever did. A better season from Choo, quietly one of the best right-field hitters in the game before a forgettable 2012, is likely, and if he returns to the Indians in 2012, Sizemore could theoretically be healthy for a whole season.

Worst-case scenario: 74-88
As intriguing an addition as Jimenez is, the losses of White and Pomeranz and—to a much lesser degree—the probable departure of Carmona, leave the team short on starting pitching depth. Zach McAllister remains the most intriguing high-level pitcher left with rail-thin Jeanmar Gomez's strikeout rates in the majors or minors not up to snuff, so it's an area that the Indians may need to address with a veteran innings-eater in the offseason. LaPorta hasn't developed, so the team's lineup, only ninth in the league in scoring, is still making up for lack of offense at a key offensive position, and there's no imminent help on the way. Santana could move to first, as has been rumored for months, but that doesn't so much fix a problem as move a hole, as Lou Marson downgrades the offense. Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
The Indians had a surprising year in 2011, and they let their two best position player prospects play a role, with Kipnis taking over at second base and Chisenhall assuming hot corner duties. Meanwhile, the opposite took place on the mound, as the Indians sent their two top young arms, Pomeranz and White, to Colorado in the Jimenez deal. Jimenez hasn't exactly pitched like a savior, but he at least gives us the chance to finally find out if one in hand is truly worth two in the bush. After going all-in this season, the Indians don't have much left coming through the system, although this year's top draft pick, teenage shortstop Francisco Lindor, is already generating considerable buzz in Arizona. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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