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Springtime Storylines: Will the Cleveland Indians build on last season or take a step backward?

Apr 2, 2012, 5:17 PM EDT

Cleveland Indians' catcher Carlos Santana waits for his turn at bat during their MLB spring training baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Scottsdale Reuters

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: Cleveland Indians.

The Big Question: Will the Cleveland Indians build on last season or take a step backward?

Cleveland got off to an unexpectedly tremendous start last season only to fade badly down the stretch, finishing below .500 and 15 games behind a Detroit team they actually led as late as mid-July. Despite going 33-40 after the All-Star break the Indians still improved by 11 games compared to 2010 and 15 games compared to 2009, which seemingly makes them a strong candidate for another step forward this season.

However, there’s reason to be skeptical. For one thing Asdrubal Cabrera is an even stronger candidate to come back down to earth, at least a little bit, following an out of nowhere power breakout, and midseason blockbuster pickup Ubaldo Jimenez hasn’t looked like himself since early 2010. Beyond that the Indians’ runs scored and runs allowed totals suggest they were more like a 75-win team last season instead of their actual 80-82 record.

Toss in the now-annual hope that Grady Sizemore can return to his previous stardom having already been dashed by knee surgery and Fausto Carmona‘s status being totally up in the air thanks to the revelation that he’s not actually Fausto Carmona and … well, the Indians have some big question marks. Fortunately they also have several players capable of much bigger things than last season, chief among them star-in-the-making Carlos Santana, star-who-was-injured Shin-Soo Choo, and promising second baseman Jason Kipnis.

What else is going on?

  • Kipnis has secured the starting second base gig, but the Indians opted not to hand third base to Lonnie Chisenhall and instead gave the job to veteran Jack Hannahan. He’s an excellent defender at third base, but Hannahan is a 32-year-old career .231 hitter with just 24 homers and a measly .358 slugging percentage in 400 games. Presumably he’s just keeping the position warm for Chisenhall, but if Hannahan playing everyday is combined with Cabrera and Casey Kotchman regressing the Indians may struggle to score runs.
  • Chris Perez was brilliant while emerging as the Indians’ closer in 2010 and at first glance he was excellent last season as well, converting 36-of-40 save opportunities with a 3.32 ERA. However, his strikeouts per nine innings plummeted from 8.7 to 5.9 and his average fastball velocity dipped 1.2 miles per hour, which is a worrisome combination. If he gets back to missing more bats the Indians’ bullpen has the potential to be very strong with Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Dan Wheeler, Joe Smith, and Tony Sipp in setup roles, but Perez is trending in the wrong direction.
  • Sizemore and Travis Hafner returning to their former glory is wishful thinking at this point, but Choo should be able to bounce back after missing 77 games and performing poorly in a season filled with multiple injuries and a DUI arrest. Prior to last season Choo was one of the best, most underrated all-around outfielders in baseball, hitting .302 with a .397 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage from 2008-2010.
  • Cleveland gave up top prospect Drew Pomeranz and solid prospect Alex White to get Jimenez from the Rockies at midseason, only to see him struggle down the stretch while showing significantly diminished velocity. Between his contract and the cost to acquire him the Indians paid for Jimenez to be an ace, but since going 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA in the first half of 2010 he’s 14-20 with a 4.39 ERA in 283 innings spread over 47 starts and his fastball was missing 2-3 miles per hour last year.

How are they gonna do?

Based on the progression from 65-97 to 69-93 to 80-82 the Indians look ready to make another big jump this season, but instead their question mark-filled roster makes me think another season around .500 seems more likely. That should be enough to make another run at second place and perhaps even remain in contention for the division title into the second half, but it’s tough to see the Indians hanging with the Tigers all year long unless just about everything breaks right.

  1. Lukehart80 - Apr 2, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    The Indians were playing way above theirs heads when they were 30-15, their run differential was also that of a 75 win team, not 80. I think they’ll be a better team this year, but that improvement won’t necessarily lead to more wins, if that makes sense.

  2. gcbball3 - Apr 2, 2012 at 10:50 PM

    i dont understand why everyone wants to hate on the indians. their starting 5 should be very good, with masterson, jimenez, derek lowe, talbot and gomez until carmona/hernandez returns and we dont even rely on him to be a top 3 anymore ever since his payday he hasnt done shit. hopefully his suspension will make him hungry again and he can be a solid number 4 and 5, to top it up the triple a clippers numbers 1 and 2s david huff and kevin slowley are more than ready to step in to the rotation when needed. 8 quality starters. not many teams can say that. as this reporter already said the bullpen is also very strong maybe the 2nd best in the al. our lineup with out sizemore shouldnt be that bad even if adrubel cabreras power was a fluke, choo and santana had very down years and i dont expect that again. and the indians should be adding another outfielder any day now i hope its damon or abreu or vladdy.

    put for now without any additions and without sizemore a line up of

    1. brantley-cf (sizemore once hes healthy, brantlety to left and 9th)
    2. cabrera-ss
    3. choo-rf
    4. santana-c
    5. hafner-dh
    7.duncan/cunningham-lf (damon,vlad,abreu, laporta, or brantley once sizmore returns)
    9.hannahan/donald-3b (i prefer chisenhall but hes in columbus, but donald over captain jack)

    thats not that bad of a lineup, and theyve given every indication they will bring in another outfielder i hope its damon bc he could step into the top of the order or 2 hole and everyone slides down one or brantley to the bottom of the order, and if you know anything about baseball choo hafner and santana should combine for roughly 70- 75 home runs. if cabrera hits 20 thats a plus, kipnis is a rising star with good pop, duncan is swinging as hard as he can at everything so if he ends up playing reguraly that could maybe be another 25 bombs. kotchman wont hit more than 10 neither will brantley or whoever sticks at third. if sizemore comes back and stays healthy for the majority of the season hes good for another 20 dingers, the tribe could have 7 guys who hit over 20 bombs this year and their pitching is the strong point dont be so fast to count the cheif wahoos out. usually when we are supposed to win we do not and visa versa. as a longtime suffering cleveland fan i hope we can take down the tigers. verlander will probably win 30 games and fister is tought but after that we can hang and the tigers defense will be badddddddd!. the division will be solid this year i dont see the twins or the white sox playing as bad as they did last year and the royals are on the up and up. cant wait for april 5th

    • ptho16 - Apr 3, 2012 at 8:10 AM

      So many things wrong with this comment..I’m an Indians fan and they’re depending on a bunch of “has been” (Sizemore, Hafner) and never was (Kotchman, Duncan, Hannahan) players to score runs. Cabrera, Choo, Santana, Kipnis are the only guys that a reasonable person can expect solid production from this season. Oh and Mitch Talbot was cut early last year, I think you mean Josh Tomlin.

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