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Know Your Enemy: Cleveland Indians

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Indians fans probably weren’t expecting a very good season in 2010, but injuries quickly turned that campaign into a disaster. The Tribe was without the services of former all-star Grady Sizemore for most of the year and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera also missed a chunk of time.

Cleveland then spent the summer trading away veteran players in hopes of strengthening an already solid minor league system. But even the most talented of those young pieces won’t be able to keep this club in contention in 2011. Cleveland has a serious lack proven performers and must depend on a wave of youth to progress quickly to even make this a respectable club. Much more quickly than many of them showed last year.

Fausto Carmona came back from the depths last season to show off his first effective year since 2007. While his 3.77 ERA was more than respectable last season, Carmona is still walking too many hitters and not striking out near enough. True, there is more than one way to get batters out, and Carmona get a good amount of groundballs, but his 1.72 strikeout to walk ratio is a telling stat and it’s a problem that encompasses the entire Cleveland staff.

In fact, only three pitchers who worked at least 40 innings for Cleveland last year managed to have a ratio of 2.00 or better. Those three were closer Chris Perez, Josh Tomlin, and Frank Herrmann. For Tomlin and Herrmann, their ratios were more a function of control than strikeouts. Tomlin fanned just 5.3 batters per nine innings and Herrmann struckout only 4.8 per nine.

In fact, as a team only the Red Sox walked more batters last year than the Indians staff and no American League club struck out fewer hitters. This is an organizational problem that doesn’t figure to improve soon. The most recent Indians prospects to arrive on the scene tend to fit the same mold of goo-but-not-great stuff coupled with iffy command. We’ve seen this with Tomlin, but also David Huff, Aaron Laffey, and Mitch Talbot.

Carlos Carrasco, who pitched pretty well in seven starts last year, shows promise of being more of a strikeout guy and top prospect Alex White should help once he makes his debut. If Justin Masterson can harness his walk rate, he has perhaps the best pure stuff on the team, so there is hope that the Indians can turn their pitching staff around. They’d be wise to deal Carmona as soon as possible, however, before he has a chance to revert to the form that saw him demoted all the way to rookie ball in 2009.

Offensively, this club has a lot of holes. Despite MLB Network calling Carlos Santana the sixth best catcher in all of baseball RIGHT NOW!, he has just 48 games of big league experience and suffered a horrific knee injury last season. Santana is the real deal and should excite for years to come, but even if he can come back at full strength, he can’t do it alone.

The Tribe gave significant at bats last year to several talented young players. In return they were given a .296 on base percentage by sometimes lead-off man Michael Brantley, a .362 slugging percentage from first baseman Matt LaPorta, and a .193/.273/.258 line from Luis Valbuena – who got 310 plate appearances. To me that says a whole lot more about the lack of major league ready players than it does about the manager who kept running Valbuena out there day after day.

In order to try to rectify that problem, Cleveland signed Orlando Cabrera to compete for at bats at second base. Cabrera’s never been an on base machine and he’s certainly not getting better with age, either. Last year Cabrera wound up losing his shortstop job in Cincinnati to the offensively challenged Paul Janish. Cabrera (and Valbuena and Jason Donald, really) are simply place holders until Jason Kipnis is ready to make an impact on the big league club.

There is reason for optimism in the outfield, however. Shin-Soo Choo is one of the elite outfielder in all of baseball whether or not anyone realizes it. Last season, Choo had the third most WAR of any AL player. He lead the Tribe in every offensive category except triples and was their only batter to eclipse .300 in average. He does all of this while also striking fear into opposing baserunners with his laser-like arm from right field.

Choo will be joined by Austin Kearns, who re-signed with Cleveland after a career re-birth there last year and by a hopefully healthy Grady Sizemore. Sizemore underwent microfracture surgery on his knee last summer and the Indians are hopeful that he’ll be ready by Opening Day. Sizemore has had two straight seasons cut short by injury, but at still just 28 years old, he has time to re-claim his once outstanding potential.

If all goes right for Cleveland this year, Sizemore will be healthy, as will Santana and Asdrubal, and some of the young guys like Brantley, Trevor Crowe, and LaPorta will show that they can handle big league pitching. The Indians have the potential with Choo and the rest of the hitters to be a very dangerous offensive club. But the question marks are big ones and there is little room for error with this team. Another key injury or two and it will be a very long year at Progressive Field. But hey, at least there will be plenty of good seats available.

For more on the Indians, check out Deep Left Field

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