SB Nation's 2010 MLB Previews: Cleveland Indians, Least Likely To Win WS

Every day, from March 1st through March 30th, we will be posting a new team preview for the upcoming MLB season, written up by our excellent network of baseball bloggers. Follow this section for daily updates as you prepare yourself for the summer ahead. Team previews will be posted in ascending order of Las Vegas World Series odds.

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Cleveland Indians 2010 Season Preview

By Ryan Richards of Indians blog Let's Go Tribe.

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Introduction

Two years ago, the Cleveland Indians were within a game of the World Series, and now, in a new (but strangely appropriate) low, Las Vegas has given the team essentially no chance to win the World Series. Because the Indians are, according to the pre-season odds, among the most irrelevant teams in baseball, I've been tasked to lead off sbnation.com's Spring Training Preview series. But don't conflate irrelevancy with dullness, for this team has several players worth going out of your way to follow, and if the starting pitching coalesces into an competent Major League rotation, the Indians are going to be a major pain to contenders in the second half of the season. 

So how did this team go from a contender in 2007 to a basket case in 2009 to the team I'm previewing here? Two major things: many of the same core players of that ALCS team either underachieved or were injured, and there wasn't the minor league depth available to help fill the missing production gaps. That, combined with impending free agency of a couple key players and the financial inability to either retain those free agents or bring in replacements led to a horrible record, and the flurry of trades in June and July, culminating with Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee being dealt before the trade deadline. Manager Eric Wedge was fired after the season, and former Nationals manager Manny Acta was brought in to replace him.

The offseason was largely quiet compared to the flurry of activity during the last three months of the season. Kelly Shoppach was dealt to Tampa for starting pitcher Mitch Talbot, and only two major-league free agents were signed: backup catcher Mike Redmond, and first baseman Russell Branyan. Last week, it was announced that GM Mark Shapiro would be promoted to team President after this season, with Assistant GM Chris Antonetti taking his place. So, in the span of one calendar year, the Indians have largely turned over their Major League roster, changed managers, and announced a GM change.

Position Players

Starters: C Lou Marson, 1B Russell Branyan, 2B Luis Valbuena, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, 3B Jhonny Peralta, LF Matt LaPorta, CF Grady Sizemore, RF Shin-Soo Choo, DH Travis Hafner

Backups: C Mike Redmond, IF Mark Grudzielanek, OF Austin Kearns, IF Andy Marte

Should Contribute: OF Michael Brantley, C Carlos Santana, 2B Jason Donald

Adding Russell Branyan and a healthy Grady Sizemore to an offense that managed a 103 OPS+ last season should give the Indians one of the better hitting attacks in the league. Lost in last year's chaos were fantastic seasons from Asdrubal Cabrera (.308/.361/.438) and Shin-Soo Choo (.300/.394/.489), both of whom have excellent all-around games. Travis Hafner, if healthy, is still a productive hitter, though I doubt he'll ever go back being the Scary Monster that terrorized AL pitching from 2004-2006.

With the addition of Branyan, Matt LaPorta will probably move to left field, which will mean Michael Brantley starts the season in AAA Columbus. Both LaPorta and Brantley were part of the CC Sabathia trade in 2008, and both should see considerable plate appearances this season.  Brantley has a unique combination of skills and tools; he's an very good base stealer, but also has an excellent eye at the plate. He hasn't hit for any power in the minors or the majors though, and that could be a hindrance on an otherwise promising career.

This is an important season for Jhonny Peralta, who was finally moved to third base in 2009. His power dropped off considerably, and while a .375 slugging percentage isn't going to kill you at short, it's a major liability at third. Peralta will make $4.6M this season, and the Indians have a $7.0M club option on him for 2011, salaries that won't bother a large-market team but will concern the Indians. If he plays as poorly this season as he did last, the Indians won't pick up his option. But if he plays better, then the Indians could either trade him at the deadline (similar to the way they dealt Martinez and Lee with 1.5 seasons of team control left before free agency), or simply pick up his option. How third base prospect Lonnie Chisenhall does in the minors will also have a major effect on their decision.

The other position worth watching is catcher. Despite trading both Victor Martinez and Kelly Shoppach in the last six months, the Indians have some depth at the position. Lou Marson, acquired in the Cliff Lee trade, is the starter, but he's only keeping the position warm for top prospect Carlos Santana, who will start the season in Columbus to finish off some receiving skills. 

Rotation

Projected Rotation: RHP Jake Westbrook, RHP Justin Masterson, RHP Fausto Carmona, LHP Aaron Laffey, RHP Mitch Talbot

Others: LHP David Huff, RHP Carlos Carrasco, RHP Hector Rondon, LHP Jeremy Sowers

There's some talent here, but the rotation on paper looks ugly; none of the projected rotation managed an average ERA as a starter in the Majors last season. Jake Westbrook is scheduled to start Opening Day despite not having thrown a pitch in a Major League game in almost two seasons. Fausto Carmona has outstanding stuff but in recent seasons hasn't thrown it in the strike zone, culminating in a disastrous 2009 campaign. Justin Masterson was outstanding in his last start of 2009, but prior to that struggled in his transition from reliever to starter. Aaron Laffey fell apart last September after pitching very well in the second half. And Mitch Talbot, who will most likely make the rotation because he's out of options, has only thrown 9.2 Major League innings, and spent the entire 2009 season in the minors.

One interesting thing about this projected rotation is that all five of the projected starters have a career ground-ball percentage of more than 50% (in Talbot's case, I used his minor-league splits). So they will depend on the infielders behind them to track down grounders in order to keep their pitch counts down, but perhaps other than Asdrubal Cabrera, I don't see a starting infielder on this team with better than average range.

Beyond the five projected starters are three prospects (Huff, Carrasco, Rondon) who should get time in the rotation before the season's over with.  Though Huff and Carrasco have already made their major-league debuts, I don't see much of a gap between them and Rondon, who is a polished pitched at age 22. Jeremy Sowers is most likely going to be either waived or placed on the Disabled List before the season begins, as he's currently bothered by a shoulder injury.

Bullpen

Projected Bullpen: CL Kerry Wood, RHP Chris Perez, LHP Tony Sipp, RHP Joe Smith, LHP Rafael Perez, RHP Jensen Lewis, RHP Jason Grilli

In the Mix: RHP Jess Todd, RHP Saul Rivera, RHP Hector Ambriz

The Indians have had a dreadful track record with bullpens in recent years, but I think this one is going to be pretty good. Wood and Chris Perez are a good 8th/9th inning combination, with Sipp and Smith excellent matchup relievers. Rafael Perez was horrible in 2009, and will be on a short leash this season. With such a weak rotation, I'm guessing two innings eaters (Lewis and Grilli) will be at the back of the bullpen, but the Indians might instead swap one of those guys out with a starter instead.

Jess Todd, who came over from St. Louis in the Mark DeRosa deal, would be the first reliever up from the minors. Hector Ambriz, the Indians' Rule 5 pick from Arizona, must make the roster or be offered back to the Diamondbacks, so he'll have a leg up on the pitchers with options, but I don't think he'll make the club. Saul Rivera, who pitched for Manny Acta in Washington, should be an insurance policy in Columbus.

In The System

2010 Starters: C Lou Marson, LF Matt LaPorta, RHP Mitch Talbot

A Phone Call Away: C Carlos Santana, OF Michael Brantley, RHP Carlos Carrasco, RHP Hector Rondon, RHP Jess Todd, 2B Jason Donald

A Year Away: 3B Lonnie Chisenhall, 1B Nick Weglarz, RHP Jeanmar Gomez, RHP Alex White

The Indians have a deep system, as they should considering all the veteran-for-prospect trades they've made in the past year. Carlos Santana and Lonnie Chisenhall seem to me to be on a level higher than the rest of the system, though there are now quite a few very good prospects behind them. Nick Hagadone (Victor Martinez trade) and Jason Knapp (Cliff Lee trade) are high-ceiling pitchers but are quite a ways away. Starting pitchers Hector Rondon and Carlos Carrasco will both see action in Cleveland this season, and Jeanmar Gomez could get a cup of coffee. 22-year-old first baseman Nick Weglarz could have a breakout season in his second year in Akron.

For a more detailed look at the Indians' system, I very much recommend taking a look at my co-author Adam Van Arsdale's series at Let's Go Tribe.

Miscellaneous

Trade Bait: RHP Jake Westbrook, CL Kerry Wood, 3B Jhonny Peralta

There won't be the marquee names available as in the past two seasons, but if the Indians are out it, they'll be shopping some players that could help a contender. Jake Westbrook will be a free agent at the end this season, so he's a prime trade candidate if he has a decent or better season. It will be more difficult to trade Kerry Wood because his $11.0M 2011 option will trigger automatically if he finishes 55 games this season. Peralta is probably tradeable only if he has a good season, and even then the Indians might keep him around another year.

Conclusion

Seven years ago, the Indians were at a similar position, having the year before unloaded Bartolo Colon and let Jim Thome walk via free agency. This team, though, has much better established Major League talent, especially in the field. The Indians aren't competing for anything this season, but if they can develop some starting pitching as the season progresses, they'll be in position to challenge for the AL Central a year from now.

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