Winter report card: Cleveland Indians
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
2012 Results: 68-94, 4th place in AL Central (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: OF Shin-Soo Choo, IF Jason Donald, RHP Jeanmar Gomez, DH Travis Hafner, 3B Jack Hannahan, RHP Roberto Hernandez (Fausto Carmona), 1B Casey Kotchman, LHP Rafael Perez, RHP Esmil Rogers, LHP Tony Sipp, OF Grady Sizemore
On the heels of their third 90-loss season out of their last four, the Indians have been one of the majors' most active teams this winter, starting with the surprising hiring of former Red Sox manager Terry Francona to replace Manny Acta. They've made big trades and small ones, signed expensive free agents and cheap ones, brought in promising youngsters and grizzled veterans, and bid adieu to the last vestiges of their 2007 ALCS team in the oft-injured Hafner and Sizemore as well as the erratic Perez. The collective effect isn't likely to turn the team into a contender in 2013, but it would be hard for Cleveland not to take a step toward respectability given the work it's done.
The biggest move is the signing of Swisher to a four-year, $56 million deal, a relative bargain given that he was said to be seeking a deal in excess of $100 million, but still a considerable outlay for a noncontender. The 32-year-old rightfielder is coming off a fairly typical season in which he hit .272/.364/.473 with 24 homers in 624 plate appearances, numbers that should offset the departure of Choo, who was traded to the Reds in a three-way blockbuster. That deal also sent away Donald, Sipp and minor league first baseman Lars Anderson, and brought back Stubbs, Bauer, Albers and Shaw. Stubbs, 28, was terrible in 2012, hitting .213/.277/.333 with 14 homers for the Reds; he's an outstanding defender in centerfield as well as an excellent baserunner, but his strikeout rate — above 30 percent in each of the past two years — is untenable. He'll get first crack at center, with Michael Brantley sliding over to leftfield, where his bat's a little light for the position; the pair of moves should help the outfield defense, at least.
The addition of Bauer, a 22-year-old who was the third pick of the 2011 draft, is the most interesting move. Though he struck out 11.5 per nine — 30 percent of all hitters faced — in his three minor league stops since signing with the Diamondbacks, he struggled in his first taste of big league action, a stint which consisted of four starts totaling 16 1/3 innings, with a 6.06 ERA. More than his control problems (13 walks and two wild pitches), it appears that the Diamondbacks soured on his personality. Bauer's unconventional throwing program and long-toss regimen made him difficult to rein in, but the team had even bigger problems with failure to click with teammates including catcher Miguel Montero, who didn't like being shaken off. Bauer will get a fresh start in Cleveland, where his upside and his ability to miss bats mark a break in the Indians' recent history. Their staff as a whole ranked second-to-last in the league in strikeouts per nine (6.8), and their starters ranked second-to-last in ERA (5.25) and strikeout rate (6.1 per nine); while he may endure growing pains at the big league level, the end product is better than watching Gomez or Carmona/Hernandez pitch to contact in front of a shaky defense.
Meanwhile, Brett Myers, moves back to the rotation after spending 2012 in the bullpen with the Astros and White Sox. The 32-year-old righty, who signed a one-year, $7 million deal that includes a club option for 2014, was hit for a 4.46 ERA and 1.3 homers per nine in 2011. He did make 33 starts and threw 216 innings for the Astros that year, with a respectable 6.7 strikeouts per nine. He'll eat innings behind Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Bauer and Zach McAllister. As for the relievers, neither Albers nor Shaw offer high strikeout rates suitable to late-game relief; both figure to work the middle innings ahead of Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith and closer Chris Perez.
In the infield, Aviles helps to offset the departures of Hannahan and Donald, while Reynolds replaces the disappointing Kotchman. The 29-year-old, who was nontendered by the Orioles, signed a one-year, $6 million deal after hitting just .221/.335/.429 with 23 homers in 2012, numbers well off his 2008-2011 average of .231/.329/.481 with 35 homers. As with Stubbs, strikeouts are a perpetual problem for Reynolds; his 30 percent strikeout rate last year was a career low, and he has topped 200 strikeouts in a season three times.
Unfinished business: Designated hitter Cleveland is ahead of most teams at this stage of the winter, but they still have something of a hole at DH. Penciled in for the moment is McGuiness, a 24-year-old Rule 5 pick who was originally drafted by the Red Sox in 2009, and who hit .268/.366/.474 with 23 homers for the Rangers' Double-A affiliate in 2012. McGuinness gets high marks for his approach at the plate, but his power is just average for a first base/DH type, and he doesn't profile as more than a stopgap.
With Reynolds probably taking up some time at the spot on days where Carlos Santana plays first base (as he did 20 times in 2012), one can't fault the Indians for going the budget route, but given how little they got from their offense-first positions — DH (.226/.317/.385), first base (.240/.297/.379) and leftfield (.215 /.277/.321) — they could use some additional bats. Longtime Indian Jim Thome is still a free agent and a fan favorite, as is the 35-year-old Hafner, who hit .228/.346/.438 with 14 homers in 263 PA, and would probably return for cheap. Likewise for 34-year-old Luke Scott, who struggled due to injuries in 2011-2012; though not exactly Mr. Popularity, he rates as a decent bounceback candidate given his career line of .260/.341/.487. All three of those players are lefties, as is McGuiness, so a platoon partner would probably be necessary, but that's a secondary issue to solve Preliminary grade: B+. The Indians may not contend in 2013, but they've definitely improved, and they've cleared out some of the roster's deadwood in the process.