Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Baseball predictions for 2011 (Cleveland Indians)

(This post is pretty rough and I've had no time to go through and take a look at it's formatting or layout, so bear with me, I'll be cleaning it up in a couple days or so, but I wanted to get the content out there prior to the start of the season and then get working on the NL preview, so my apologies for the sloppiness of it, but at least I wanted to let you know I had a reason for doing it this way.)

My home town (well previously) team, the Cleveland Indians. I've followed them throughout my life and experienced the awful years between 1978 and 1990. It was truly bad then. Thankfully there have been a lot of good years since 1990, a lot of excitement and a lot of talent that has made it's way through the city.

I'll get to the team, but let me start with the front office. Hank Peters came in during the early 90's and changed the face of the organization. He focused on implementing the "Oriole" way (which Peter Angelos has ruined during his ownership, but that's another discussion). The "Oriole" way was meant to build an organization, develop it's own coaches, managers, front office people, and to apply a philosophy to the minor league development of players. John Hart was Peter's hand picked successor to his spot and Hart continued to build on that philosophy and did some amazing things that many small market teams utilize today to stay competitive. They built a strong organization as evidenced by the success during the 90's and 00's and by the number of players and organizational people that have passed through the Cleveland and branched out to other Major League teams. (Dan O'Dowd, Neal Hunnington, Bud Black, John Farrel, Josh Byrnes, Eric Wedge, Buck Showalter, Paul DePodesta, etc.) Now some like Showalter were not developed by the organization or given their chance by the team, but they came through and were advisers, scouts, coaches, or front office people and were used to contribute their knowledge to the organization. Here's a 2007 article on the disciples of John Hart.

When John Hart left, he appointed Mark Shapiro as his successor. Shapiro's teams have had some limited success on the field and he has continued developing front office people for other organizations. Shapiro moved up to Vice President last season and looking at the organization right now it's readily apparent that the success of this team was due to a couple of very successful trades and mostly the strength of the minor league organization during Hart's tenure. The minor league organization under Shapiro has been a complete disaster, the pipeline for talent to the majors is as bad as it was during the 80's and while there is some hope that it's improving, it's no where near where it was during the 90's. Add in the fact, that the biggest trade where Shapiro was successful involved Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, and Cliff Lee acquired for Bartolo Colon and the fact that the Indians completely fumbled the development of Phillips and lost him for nothing and almost screwed up the development of Lee and did the same and you have to seriously question the ability of Shapiro to run a team.

Right now, we are seeing a new wave of prospects in the organization, I have some reservations on whether they are high ceiling prospects or merely average major league ball players. (average players would be a step up) This is supposedly do to some changes Shapiro made with his president of Minor League Development a couple years ago. If they can start developing some players it will help, but I do believe they are still focusing on the wrong type of player.

In my opinion the organization seems to shy away from what I consider "power players" my definition of a power player is a hitter with potential for major league power or a pitcher that has the physical tools to throw with power. The team seems to focus on drafting players that have other talents (left handed pitchers, who typically throw slower, but are a commodity since they throw left handed, contact hitters with some speed and average power, and right handed pitchers that have success in college, but don't necessarily have good major league 'stuff')

If they draft power players, they do so in low numbers and hold out hope that those players will make the major leagues (Adam Miller). Never mind the development issues they have with those types of players (Adam Miller). The fact is most minor prospects do not make the majors, many get injured during their minor league career, some wash out, and some don't develop as they are supposed to. The way you get around this is to draft greater numbers, and if you draft greater numbers of players with high upside in the power categories, you have a better chance of seeing those players get to the majors. The reason I suggest they focus on the power players is the fact that those traits are a commodity at the major league level and if you wind up with too many prospects at one spot, then you can trade those prospects for greater returns then you can for a soft tossing right hander or a slap hitting contact hitter.

It will take a couple years to see whether the current changes to the drafting philosophy makes a difference, I'm not optimistic at the moment though. Players like Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, and Hector Rondon seem like possibilities, but in looking over their minor league progression so far, there is nothing that jumps out at me that says future star. Chisenhall especially is getting a lot of press, but as I look at him, I see a slightly above average hitter with a little bit of pop and bad defense. He's Shin Soo Choo without as much power. And that power makes a difference when you are playing a corner infield spot and if you don't have it you need to be spectacularly defensively. There are some bright spots, after 10 years of failing on 1st round picks, it appears that Alex White and Drew Pomeranz have the type of talent you expect to have from 1st round picks, now it's a matter of the Indians developing them and keeping them healthy. For some more thoughts on the Indian's prospects, here's an interesting list fromm Baseball America, note that only 3 of the top 10 Indian's prospects were drafted or signed by the team. On top of that, on other lists I respect, those top 10 outside of Carlos Santana aren't making a the Top 50 or 100 lists of prospects in baseball. I will also note that the Baseball America article lists the last 10 1st round picks of the Indians, it's a fairly disgusting list. They've hit on 0 of those 10.

My last rant on the front office, there isn't a lot of discussion about how bad things have been it seems like most reporters view the current front office as good. I'm encouraged that at least one writer isn't drinking the Cleveland Kool Aid. The current power rankings by Sportsline take a shot at the front office and although a little late to the party Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has come around to understanding that there have been severe draft problems by the team. (I do wonder why Terry Pluto's 3/27 article though isn't listed in his most recent columns though, see that detail here)

Enough of a rant on the organization, let's talk about the current season. I have little optimism for the current season, in order to be a decent team the Indians are going to need to have a number of players develop into major league quality players, in order to contend for anything they are going to need a minor miracle.

The Outfield: Shin Soo Choo is the only proven piece right now that is healthy and established. Grady Sizemore is attempting to comeback from micro-fracture surgery and Michael Brantley has yet to translate his talent into a quality major league season. The reserves are garbage, filled with the likes of Travis Buck, Austin Kearns, and Shelly Duncan. The front office continues to talk up Travis Buck, like there is something for the fans to be interested in, he's a former prospect that finally had a mediocre year last year for the Oakland A's and in reality has very little upside. Kearns and Duncan are the definition of journeyman and wouldn't be on the roster for a contending team. There is little to no imminent help in the minor leagues. If Grady Sizemore isn't able to fully come back, this might be the worst outfield in baseball (Oakland gives them a strong run for that distinction).

The Infield: I have nothing positive to say about the infield. Matt LaPorta has been bounced around like a yo yo by this organization and needs to play a full season to see if he can turn his minor league success into big league success. Outside of him the infield is filled with light hitting, average fielding (that's a generous statement) players. Asdrubal Cabrera could potentially start for other teams in the league, but after being billed as a solid contact hitter and potentially spectacular defensive player, we've come to find out he's a fairly average defensive shortstop. Second Base and Third Base are filled with more journeyman, Orlando Cabrera and Jack Hannahan. The Front Office in the preseason talked up their plethora of options at third base with players such as Jason Donald, Jason Nix, and possibly Lonnie Chisenhall. Donald and Nix wouldn't make the roster of most bad teams in the league and Chisenhall while considered a prospect by the Indians and publications has a lot to prove still and appears to me to be a decent contact hitter, with light power, and poor defense. Kipnis appears to be another prospect, again with decent contact numbers, little power, and average defense. That's not a prospect it's a utility player.

Catcher: I separated catcher from infield only because I don't want to lump Carlos Santana in with the rest. He's potentially a special player. I don't necessarily believe he should be a clean up hitter, but like Eric Wedge before him, Manny Acta is intent on putting the potentially best hitter on the team in the number four spot, rather then in the traditional number 3 spot in the order. I'm less disappointed in this move since Choo or Sizemore will likely bat third, I'll get to my thoughts on the batting order in a bit. Santana could potentially be one of the top three offensive catchers in the league. The issue I have and one that has plagued this front office, is that Santana as a catcher is a spectacular hitter, in other positions he might only be above average and if your other positions are average or below average, having a spectacular hitting catcher is sort of like having a sports car with no gas in it, it doesn't do you a lot of good.

Pitching Rotation: There is some potential here, which is more then I can say about other parts of the team. Fausto Carmona has shown at times that he can be dominant and if he can continue to improve, he has Cy Young ability. This is absolutely required for a small market team such as the Indians, having a true ace takes tremendous pressure off of your staff. The other members of the staff are all projects. Justin Masterson is at the point where he needs to establish himself as a starter, he started his major league career as a reliever and the book on him said he didn't have enough pitches to be an effective starter, he had a decent year last year as a first year full time starter, and I believe he has enough talent to be a solid #2 or #3 starter over his career. If he continues to progress as he did last year, this is a very good thing. Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, and Mitch Talbot round out the rotation. Carrasco has the highest ceiling of the players and it's time he's given a full chance to succeed or fail in the major leagues. There is no reason that if healthy he should not be allowed to pitch 150 innings this year as a starter. He needs the work to figure out how to pitch in the big leagues and develop and this team isn't going anywhere anyway. Carrasco has a lot of talent that hasn't translated at the big league level yet, but he's very close to being permanently categorized as a reliever or bouncing between organizations as a potential salvage job. The Indians need to let him mature this year. Tomlin and Talbot are innings eaters, for those fans of the Indians in the 1980's I've dubbed them Scott Bailes and Rich Yett. Players that are on a major league roster, but really only on the roster as the talent in the system stinks.

The Indians pitching prospects in the minors is a mixed bag, the two they are relying on most from trades Nick Hagadone and Jason Knapp have had some injury issues and still need a ton of seasoning before they make it to the majors. Players such as Alex White and Drew Pomeranz have potential but are still big question marks. There is a lot of buzz on Drew Pomeranz and as a large hard throwing lefty he has tools to succeed, but he's also never pitched an inning of pro baseball.

The Lineup and Manager: The lineup like the minor leagues lacks power hitters. The Indians consider La Porta, Santana, Choo, Sizemore, and Hafner their power hitters. Hafner hasn't been a power hitter in 4 years, Sizemore's game isn't based on power, La Porta has had little success in the majors and Choo and Santana project to about 25 homers in a career year. This stinks and will not put a lot of fear into opposing teams plans. Power in a lineup is about forcing teams to make adjustments and make mistakes. Even one bona fide power hitter would make a huge difference in this lineup. A bunch of contact hitters with doubles power is nice, but even the Twins as an organization (who Shapiro clearly thinks his organization is like from previous comments) have always had a tent pole style power hitter in the lineup. (Morneau, Hrbek, and they wanted David Ortiz as the bridge between those but he never developed there). Matt La Porta absolutely has to develop into that power hitter and dangerous bat. If he can, a lot of the offensive woes go away, because he can slot into the 4 spot. Here's potentially what this lineup should look like, and I've added commentary of traditional baseball thoughts as well.

1. Michael Brantley: Potentially a prototypical leadoff hitter. He needs to learn to get on base more, but his speed and contact ability are what you look for in a number one.

2. Asdrubal Cabrera: perfect spot for him, he's an above average contact hitter, that allows you to start runners and advance runners by hitting the other way. He also doesn't strike out a lot and has the skills necessary (bunting, taking pitches) to thrive in this spot.

3. Grady Sizemore or Carlos Santana, Sizemore is the preference here, he's an established hitter, good on base percentage and has decent power, he could up the average a bit, but if he's put here and allowed to adjust to the role, he should fill it nicely. This is the spot you want the best hitter on the team. Santana still has to develop, but based on his minor league numbers (great average, decent power) it's a good spot for him especially if Sizemore has to go back to leading off if Brantley fails.

4. La Porta or Hafner. Hafner's done, but outside of La Porta he's the prototype here (at least what he was). La Porta's power makes a difference here with three of your high on base % players in front of him. It sets up to put people on the bases and gives him more fastballs to hit over the fence. This is baseball 101. La Porta needs time to grow though, so I'll forgive the team for batting others here for the time being. Hafner is only mentioned in the outside chance he returns with the ability to hit 30 home runs and .280. (Unless Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds trainer is available, I doubt that's going to happen)

5. Shin Soo Choo, he's perfect for the number 5 spot. A dangerous enough hitter that can hurt a team that decides not to pitch to the #4 batter. He's a perfect fit here.

6-9 this is for players developing or playing because they are defensive players, put them in any order you like.

Manny Acta did ok in his first year, he doesn't have a lot to work with but the consistent year by Carmona along with the development of players like Choo and Santana is a positive sign. If he can get players like La Porta, Brantley, Carrasco, and Masterson to further develop he's done his job. I stand by my statement last year that he's keeping the seat warm for Sandy Alomar. I do hope the Indians understand how important it is to their fan base to retain a candidate like Alomar and what he could do for the perception of the team. In addition to possibly being a very good manager for many, many years. (Something rarely seen in this town for any sports team).

My prediction for this team is that they finish in 5th place this year, there are just way to many question marks on the team. The Front Office needs to allow Manny Acta to play the players he needs to and allow them to develop. Even if the team stinks, the front office and ownership need to remember that the fans have no interest in seeing journeyman lose, we'd much rather see players get their licks in and start to come around. There is a strong disconnect between the team and the fans and it's partially due to the fact that we haven't developed any players for the fans to follow and the ones that were here were traded away before they became too expensive. A baseball team and it's players is something fans associate with and that relationship develops over time, continuing to bring in players by trade or free agency means there is no bond developed and it's even worse if you are losing, as you lose the fans interest. All fans in Cleveland want is something to get excited about. 1994, the year before Jacob's field opened, fans saw talent coming and they wanted to be a part of it. Take a lesson from that, that minor leagues and drafting matter for reasons other then it's how you get good.

No comments: