September 22, 2009
Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 86-76, first place
To make matter worse, Charlie Sheen has made himself a bigger star with Two and a Half Men than he ever did with Major League. Can Cleveland catch a break?
Buster Olney of ESPN.com's Take
What went wrong: Start with the reality that for a mid-market or small-market team like the Indians, everything pretty much has to go right-and then realize that everything went very wrong in '09. Fausto Carmona hasn't been able to control his adrenaline, command his fastball, and return to his 2007 form; Travis Hafner has been a bust since signing a four-year, $57 million deal (which runs through 2012); Jake Westbrook missed the season with elbow trouble; Grady Sizemore was hurt even when he did play; and all of this happened at a time when the Ohio economy declined precipitously. Because of the budget projections for 2010, the Indians had to trade off Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez a year ahead of schedule, and now the team has been thrown back into the early stages of a rebuilding cycle.
Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: The Indians desperately need to develop some frontline pitching, which is always the secret formula for small-market success. That's why, in every trade they made this summer, they asked for good arms in return. Justin Masterson might be another version of Westbrook-a steady mid-rotation ground-ball guy-and the Indians have high hopes for Jason Knapp, the centerpiece of the Lee trade with Philadelphia (although Knapp already has come up sore and required surgery). It may be a long time before the Indians will be able build on a several talented young pitchers, as they had with CC Sabathia, Lee, and the '07 version of Carmona. The one lasting reason for hope is that they play in a mediocre division.
The Baseball Prospectus Take
Our projections forecast the Indians to win the AL Central, albeit with a meager 86 wins and a 38 percent chance of making the postseason-the lowest of any division favorite. Despite injuries to Sizemore and Hafner and the departures of Mark DeRosa, Ryan Garko, and Martinez via mid-season trades, the offense has essentially lived up to expectations; projected to rank fourth in the AL in scoring, they actually rank fifth, with an EqA which is fourth in the AL. It's the pitching that has been a brutal disappointment: projected to rank seventh in the league in runs allowed, they're instead second-to-last, with both the rotation and bullpen ranking dead last in their respective win expectancy-based categories, SNLVAR and WXRL. The bullpen's wretched early-season showing drove the team 10 games under .500 by mid-May, a hole the Tribe never escaped.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus
Key Stat: 5.75
That's the ERA of the starting pitchers aside from Lee, who was traded to the Phillies on July 29. The only starter besides Lee with at least 10 starts and an ERA below 4.92 is Aaron Laffey, for whom the team didn't even have space in the rotation until the season was already going down in flames. Laffey's also the only starter this side of Lee with a Support-Neutral Winning Percentage above .500. For all of the bullpen's woes, the starters simply didn't give the Indians a chance to win; aside from Lee, their combined SNWP is just .431.
In retrospect, it's clear that the cast that GM Mark Shapiro assembled behind Lee offered too much risk. Shapiro's plan hinged on rebounds from mostly-lost 2008 seasons by Carl Pavano, Anthony Reyes, and Carmona-with a comeback from Tommy John surgery by Jake Westbrook supposed to provide a mid-season lift. None of those pitchers miss many bats, so it's not terribly surprising that the Tribe staff is last in the league in strikeouts. Pavano was erratic and homer-prone; the team eventually dealt him to the Twins in early August. Reyes made just eight starts before needing TJ surgery. Carmona put up a 7.42 ERA through 12 starts before being sent all the way down to A-ball to iron out the mechanical problems which first took hold last year. Despite an initially promising return, he's been pummeled for a 10.72 ERA over his last five starts. To that unhappy brew, add a parade of lefties (Zach Jackson, Jeremy Sowers, David Huff) each more hittable than the last, and rough introductions for a couple of mid-season acquisitions (Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco), and you've got a rotation whose ERA bests only Baltimore's, but without the high-upside prospects which mitigate the Orioles' showing.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus
Trades: After gutting their roster of All-Star level players, the Indians could walk into next year with a payroll of under $60 million, impressive since it was over $80 million heading into the season. Why not finish the reclamation project and trade Kerry Wood and Grady Sizemore? Well, in the case of Wood, the Tribe is already looking for a taker, according to several sources. As for Sizemore, it just doesn't make sense. The Indians have re-stocked their system with a ton of arms because in Lee, V-Mart, and CC, they traded high. Sizemore's value hasn't been lower in three years. He's hurt, and he hasn't hit. Expect the team to move Wood and send a check with him if they can, but Grady won't move unless a huge offer comes along.
Depth chart: While the last week of the season for most Indians players will be a sleepwalk, Andy Marte's future as a member of the Indians-or as a potential free agent-could be decided then. According to local reports, GM Mark Shapiro will be meeting with players this week regarding their future with the ballclub. Marte is an odd case. Long considered a great prospect-even a potential All-Star-his production at the big-league level hasn't lived up to that billing. He's hitting .227 (27-for-119) with five homers and is mired in a 4-for-36 slump. Expect to see somebody willing to bring him into camp next year with a shot at making the team, but one has to question if the Indians, even in their rebuilding mode, will be that team.
It was interesting to see the Indians acquire Marson from the Phillies in the Lee trade when they already had Santana, the top prospect in the system who won Eastern League MVP honors with a .290/.413/.530 season at Double-A Akron. Marson is an athletic, big league-ready catcher with nice on-base skills, but he's merely a placeholder for Santana, the real catcher of the future for the organization. Still, Marson's a nice asset to have, so don't be shocked if he gets moved to fill a more pressing need by midseason in 2010, if not earlier.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus
The Bottom Line
The Indians have approached the last several seasons with an eye on contending. In three of those four years, though, they've stumbled out of the gate, dooming their chances of playing meaningful games after June. In the process, they've had to make deals, including shipping away the past two AL Cy Young winners. They've brought back some quality prospects, but it's clear that they're in no position to contend in 2010, mainly because they haven't had much success with their high draft picks in recent years. Given their penchant for underachieving on skipper Eric Wedge's watch, they're almost certainly better off with a new manager, too.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .