In 2007, the Cleveland Indians made the American League Championship Series. In 2008, they finished .500. In 2009, they lost 97 games. They didn't decide to rebuild as much as they had rebuilding thrust upon them.
Right in the middle is when they decided to trade CC Sabathia. Not too long after that, they traded Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez. And as you'd expect, the teams without Sabathia, Lee, and Martinez lost a lot of games. The idea was that they'd use the prospects from the trades and the high draft picks to rebuild the franchise. They'd been through this cycle before.
It's still early-ish. Players like Jason Donald and Carlos Carrasco might still pan out. But there's a decent chance that Justin Masterson is the only above-average player the Indians will get out of the Sabathia, Lee, and Martinez trades. That's like buying an alpaca farm and three years later realizing that all you have to show for it is a single alpaca sausage. It's a delicious alpaca sausage, don't get me wrong. There's, like, fennel and mango and whatever in the hell people are putting in gourmet sausages these days. But it probably wasn't you were thinking when you first had the thriving alpaca farm.
Masterson pitched fantastically in April, with the Indians winning his first six starts. Masterson pitched well last season in general, but his hot start was a big reason the Indians got out to the start they did -- 31-19 at the end of May, six games up in the AL Central. And that fast start is going to define the Indians for a while.
If the Indians started 49-63 and finished on a 31-19 run, no one would have blinked. The rebuilding would have been on schedule, and there might have been a little hope entering the 2012 season.
Instead, the Indians started hot and slowly slipped before the trade deadline. But they didn't slip enough. They were caught in between, hovering between a state of consciousness and unconsciousness that is referred to as ubåldō in some Sanskrit texts. Well, it should be. The Indians traded those 178 losses in 2008 and 2009 -- personified in Drew Pomeranz and Alex White -- for Ubaldo Jimenez. That shifted everything up for the Indians.
It still could be a good move. Despite the velocity scares, I'd still peg Ubaldo to be the best starter this season out of the three pitchers involved in last July's trade. And the Tigers are a good-but-imperfect team, and weird things can happen to those over 162-game seasons. Having the better pitcher in 2012 could lead to a playoff appearance. The 2012 Indians wouldn't be the most surprising division winner of the past few years, not even close.
So it's not that the Ubaldo deal is going to be the tale of the next few years because it was such a bad deal -- it could still work out. But because it was a shift in how the Indians decided to build their roster in the short-term.
With the team committed to a win-kind-of-now strategy after the Ubaldo deal, it made sense for the Indians to get players like Derek Lowe and Casey Kotchman -- players who were probably better (and a little more expensive) than the internal options. The Grady Sizemore deal has all sorts of PR components to it too, so I wouldn't quite lump that deal in with the others, but it sort of fits. The Indians weren't ever going to go out and spend for Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes, but without the Ubaldo trade, they might have been a little more comfortable sitting this season out.
Instead they have an imperfect lineup that might be good enough to win. They have an imperfect rotation that might be good enough to win. It all might be something of a disaster. I've been putting a section with a "Wild Card" heading at the end of these previews, highlighting the players who are something of an unknown. That applies to just about the whole Indians team, though.
Veteran Wild Cards
Is there any reason that Shin-Soo Choo can't shake off the various injuries and be one of the best players in baseball again? Did Casey Kotchman have a true renaissance, or was his good year with the Rays a BABiP-fueled mirage? Can Travis Hafner stay healthy for more than 120 games this year? Does Derek Lowe's sinker have anything left? Is Ubaldo's diminished velocity a portent of doom or a bump in the road?
Young Wild Cards
Is Jason Kipnis better than his okay-not-great minor-league numbers, as he hinted at with his late-season performance last year? Can Lonnie Chisenhall crack the starting lineup at some point? What is Carlos Santana's ceiling, and can he get close to it this season?
That's just a selection. I read those two selections in the voice of the old Superfriends narrator, and I'd suggest you do it too. There is so much that can go right for the Indians this year. There is so much that can go wrong. The odds are that the fates will split the difference, and that means something close to or just above a .500 finish.
But the lineup is an interesting one -- a lot of the hitters you trust are playing up the middle, which means that it isn't going to take too much from the corners to score runs. And the rotation is probably underrated if you think Ubaldo will be back at something approaching full strength. ZiPS doesn't factor velocity dips into its projections, and that's one of the reasons that FanGraphs had the Indians as the fifth-best rotation in baseball, ahead of the Rangers, Yankees, and Giants. They were just as skeptical as you are, but the point still stands: There's latent talent in that rotation, even without the player formerly known as Fausto Carmona.
The Indians have a lot of chainsaws in the air. This isn't some amateur juggling act. But it's not a bad year to be a team with a lot of questions in the AL Central. If they had to do something like the Ubaldo Gambit, they picked a good window for it in the AL Central. The White Sox are clearly rebuilding, the Twins are ailing, and the Royals. That leaves the Tigers, and while the Indians shouldn't be favored, it wouldn't take all sorts of mind-unexpected things for them to make the playoffs. And if they get there, Jimenez gets to be the face of the franchise's direction once again, but this time in a short series. No pressure, Ubaldo.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
The Indians addressed the rotation and first base with sensible (and unexciting) options that fit their budget, so it's hard to complain too much about that. But considering that all three of their outfielders spent time on the DL last year, and that we've known that Grady Sizemore has been Bruce Willis's arch-nemesis for a while now, some sort of super-sub third/fourth-outfielder would have made sense. Cody Ross would have worked, as (still) would Johnny Damon. I wouldn't expect Shelley Duncan to repeat last season's numbers.
The whole danged team. But let's not forget that Asdrubal Cabrera hit 25 home runs last year, which is just two fewer than he hit in his seven-year minor-league career. He doesn't have to hit that many to be extremely valuable -- see his 2009, for example -- but it was strange how different of a hitter he was last year. Not sure what to expect from him this year.
The only one I'll make is that I don't think that the Indians will lament the Ubaldo trade just yet. Whether that's because Pomeranz and White do young pitcher things over in Colorado, or the Indians have a great season, or if Ubaldo reclaims his top-of-the-rotation stuff and looks fantastic. But I don't think the verdict will come down this season.