Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: Indians are set to win in '13
What will it really take for the Cleveland Indians to win in 2013?
While the smart among us never ask that question if we can help it, it inevitably pops up after the season is over.
Why not? This is Cleveland Indians’ baseball we’re talking about. That’s what we do. We wait until the season is over, shake our heads and thank the baseball gods that another painful season is over. We linger a couple of weeks until the dust settles right around World Series time, then start looking forward to next season.
Tribe fans born prior to 1980 tend to accept a losing season with the proper dignity of having done this ‘bringing up the rear’ thing before. Sure, we had the 1990’s, but in the grand scheme of things, that was the aberration. It was a tantalizing taste of what the big market teams have over long stretches of time thanks to bulging wallets and marketability. The Indians actually were marketable back then, which is really hard to believe these days, and something the Corner of Carnegie will tackle in the coming weeks
With that said, us pre-1980’s fans look forward, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, and while 2007 wasn’t necessarily that (I believe the teams from 2005-2007 were very good), by May of 2008, it sure felt like it. This season is far from 2008, as the Indians appear to be broken, with no chance to recover.
Tribe fans born after 1980 tend to have a different approach overall, but ultimately, have the same outcome at the end. The expectations are different, thanks to that 1990’s run in which the Indians in many ways dominated the American League. Losing wasn’t an option, as the Indians had one of the best minor league systems, were players at the trade deadline, were never afraid to make a deal (Baerga and Lofton, a part of the core), and were just a part of the baseball discussion. In other words, the Tribe was relevant.
With that said, the post-1990’s fans look forward, hoping to recover some of that 90’s mojo and create a team that can win longer than a year…well…longer than a couple of months anyways. 2007 should have been a bookend of three or four runs at the Fall Classic, instead of the beginning of the end that it turned out to be. This season is even further away from that, than it is for the pre-1980’s fans.
I know there are fans that fall in the middle, and I’m equally aware of the DOOMSDAY element that’s out there running amuck. It wouldn’t be a day-in-the-life of following this team without running into someone on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario ready to firebomb the front office and send the team on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket straight into a blackhole somewhere south of the planet Uranus.
End of the world as we know it…or not…everyone will take a look at what this team will need to contend in 2013, whether it be something that’s realistic, or straight out of Mystery Science theater.
While my plan is never to roll out my normal weekly diatribe, it ultimately ends up happening, so this week’s Corner of Carnegie and Ontario is going to get split up into a two-parter, looking at what the Indians likely need to do to have even a minor shot at contending in the A.L. Central and beyond.
I’m also going to ignore, for a moment, the Mark Shapiro interview that’s been floating around for the past 24 hours. In the article, Shapiro discusses WAR at length, and gave some insight into the Indians’ front office look at free agency. He correctly assesses that a well spent $9 million dollars generally gets you one win in the won/loss column. Of course, there is a case to be made with regards to how true that ultimately is, but most teams in the Indians’ boat utilize sabermetrics, whether we like it or not.
While I’d love to utilize my vast array of SABER knowledge (I have none), I’m going to pass on it for the time being. In a vacuum, the Indians would need to spend $168 million on free agent signings to pick up the 21 necessary wins to get them into the 2012 playoffs.
Thank goodness I don’t live in a vacuum.
With that said, I’m going look in every nook and cranny at the current team, and the holes that the current team now has. I’m going to take money out of the equation in the sense that I’m not going to worry about a loss or gain of payroll with regards to free agency, arbitration and potential trades. Instead, I’m going to look at the current team as is, assume that the team’s payroll is going to drop a bit based on the simple fact that they’ll be losing free agent cash (Hafner, Sizemore, Kotchman, etc) and gaining some arbitration numbers (Perez, etc).
I don’t have the numbers yet (but will attack it in a future piece), and am not nearly at the place to look at them. Once we get past the World Series, hire a coaching staff, and head into hot stove season, IPI will dive into that with our snowsuits on.
You see, I know heading into this that the math isn’t going to work…but c’mon…math will take away from the fun.
I’m not going to pick the top free agents, and will instead look at some moderate payroll hits and risky players, and maybe throw a top ten or twenty guy in there, just for fun.
In other words, I know going into this that the full gambit of players I’m going to go after as a GM isn’t attainable. I don’t have the going rate for these guys I’m thinking of to fill in the gaps for the Indians, but I already have a rudimentary idea that they are going to cost a lot more than the Indians have to offer…especially considering the WAR standard.
So perhaps when this is all said and done, one or two of the guys that I mention will make it to the Indians roster, while the rest of the holes are filled by the typical Indians’ moves that involve players that will never play, minor league signings of players that are related to Carmine from Laverne & Shirley and trades for the worst players in the league. We dare to dream.
I’m not blind. I get that it would take a miracle and some …but ask the A’s…
Miracles can happen.
In part 1, I’m going to take a look at what this current team needs to do going forward to have any shot. While the Indians certainly need to add an influx of serviceable players, the current crop will have to step up and perform much more consistently. A marked improvement from the players already coming back will immediately give this team a chance to win.
In part 2, on Friday, I’m going to take a look at the pitching staff in both the bullpen and the starting rotation, then try and tackle some of the holes that this team has at first, DH and left field.
Again, you have to keep in mind that this is under the working notion that we’re trying to get the 2013 team into the playoffs. It’s nothing more, and nothing less. Is it realistic? You got me, so let’s quit wasting time and dive into the weekly Carnegie opus.
The first few steps…
Step #1: Get a fantastic coaching staff in place
Terry Francona is a big deal, but as I speculated a week ago in this spot, he’s not the only big hire this team has to make. The team has to go out and get the right tone-setters in the major coaching positions. While the focus is on the pitching coach, the batting coach will play an equally pivotal role going forward.
The hitting coach has to bring in the right approach to continue to get this team right. The Indians can’t seem to find that balance that Boston had in 2007. That team was a majestic conglomeration of patience and aggressiveness. They were willing to take pitches, but would foul off 20 balls rather than take a walk. The Tribe seems to be bouncing from the over-aggressive to the bat-on-my-shoulder approach on a game-to-game basis.
With Dave Magadan off the list, it’s a giant unknown at who might be behind him. There is a ton of speculation as to who might make an appearance next to Francona. Could it be Brad Mills, his former bench coach? Could it be a guy like Mike Lowell, who many thought was in line to take over the Miami Marlins? Could it be an unknown? Who knows, but whomever it is, they’ll have an interesting job ahead of them.
Sandy Alomar Jr. really is the key to this job, and in some fashion, so is Manny Acta. The Blue Jays apparently have Acta on their short list, and while Alomar Jr. appeared to be the favorite, he has yet to be approached. Boy, what irony would that be that Alomar loses a job he had every right to be at the front of the line for because Manny Acta gets the job. Should Alomar Jr. stay as bench coach, it will be interesting to see what happens with Mills. My belief remains that he'll be the third base coach, with Sarbaugh taking the other side. For those that don't know, Sarbaugh is the second official Francona hire after Alomar, taking over the first base coaching job.
I could see a scenario where Mills becomes the hitting coach, but I just don't see that as his forte. Francona has never used him there before, and I don't see that starting now. Lowell really could be a guy that's at the front of the line. He told CBS a few weeks ago that managing wasn't in the cards right now because of the time constraints of "being a manager." While the coaching staff is just as busy, it's not the same. I think if Francona called, he'd be listening. I'm just not sure he'd be the right choice, but he could be in a similar boat as a guy like John Farrell was. Many feel that Lowell has manager written all over him, and I think, like Brad Ausmus, he'd be an amazing candidate.
Imagine the talent on the staff with Francona (current manager), Alomar (a future manager), Mills (a former manager), Lowell (a potential future manager) and Sarbaugh. While I'm not ready to put Sarbaugh in that future manager role just yet, when you take into account that he'd be the last guy on the totem pole, you know you've got a good staff brewing.
Of course, the most important is the coach that hasn't been named yet.
The pitching coach is equally interesting, with several intriguing candidates out there that I talked about in last week’s edition. There are broken pitchers at the big league level, and whoever takes this job will have a target on his back from day one. I have to believe the Indians will need to get a voice to get a rockhead like Ubaldo Jimenez to listen when he’s on the mound, so I tend to think this could be either a guy that’s done it for a long time, or a guy that just turns heads when he talks. I love newbies in jobs like this, but not for this team. The Indians need a voice that the starters will listen to, because someone has to get through to the front end of the system.
As Mark Shapiro mentioned in his interview, it’s hard to gauge how much a coaching staff actually does help a team, but it certainly helps create a team culture. We shall see if that happens during the Francona era.
The coaching staff hunt is a mess right now, with managers dropping like flies, and all of them hunting for the same coaches, and dealing with the same names. This could take awhile.
The staff is important, but that’s only the first step.
Step 2: Fill in the holes that this team has had for the past few years.
(I’ll get into that in tomorrow’s piece, but filling the holes is imperative, and in my opinion, should be the immediate journey this front office staff takes this offseason. While WAR is important, Shapiro and company may have to disregard the bottom line a bit and actually “feed the monster.” No, I’m not saying waste money, but I am saying there has to be some sort of trust rebuilt with the fan base. You never make a deal to satisfy the fans, but you sure as hell have to show the supporters that there is going to be an actual attempt to win baseball games.)
Step 3: Fix the pieces that are struggling right now, or were struggling at one point or another during the 2012 season. Okay, what I’m really saying is, get Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana playing at an above average offensive level.
The Indians need to make sure that Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana are absolutely focused and ready to play in 2013. These two guys can be the cornerstones of the franchise going forward, and if they play an entire season at their capabilities, our offensive issues get immediately better.
I’m not going to talk many numbers with regards to Kipnis, because his style of play is a different sort than most. He does bring that on-the-field, Pete Rose sorta mentality to everything he does. He goes all-out, all the time, and when he’s on, he carries the team. It’s never a numbers thing, and rarely a saber thing. Instead, it’s all about the heart of the matter. When Kipnis is feeling it, Big MO seems to follow the rest of the team. It’s not strange that the team really took a turn when his play began to taper off. He’s the heart of this team.
Kipnis needs to gain form. You know, I’ve heard folks say they don’t think Kipnis is a .300 hitter, but I don’t agree. If he gets any sort of continual support, and he can just play his game without feeling he has to carry the team, Kipnis will showcase the type of game that I think will surprise some folks outside of Cleveland.
What do I expect next season? Honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Kipnis hit .290 or better, push 20 homers, and steal 20 bases. Depending on where he is in the line-up, and I think he’ll ultimately be the #3 hitter on this team, I think 90-100 RBI aren’t out of the conversation. He really is that good.
Carlos Santana really struggled to find his way through much of the early season, and really dropped off the map when he was concussed in late May. He rebounded in August and September, and really started to look like the player that was about to blossom as we entered the 2012 season. For this team to succeed, that’s the Carlos Santana that we need. He absolutely has to be a 30-homer, 110 RBI guy. He has to be exceptional. He’s the offensive muscle to this team.
I know a lot of people actually gave up on this kid last year, which is laughable considering his real struggles started when he got hurt. It’s the unfortunate nature of the best these days, when video game numbers have become the norm, and slumps aren’t forgivable.
Santana is going to break out in a big way…and he has to, or Cleveland just won’t be very good.
Step 4: Watch Michael Brantley continue to progress
I was high on Brantley entering the season in 2012, and I’m even higher on the kid now. I really, REALLY believe that there’s a lot more to this kid than even this past season would suggest. No, I don’t think we’re talking about a .330 sorta player, but I do think he can be a legit centerfielder for years and years to come. I even think he can be the on-base machine that can lead-off for a team in a non-typical fashion.
I know his OBP was in the mid-.300’s this year, but I could see a scenario where he progresses into a .380 OBP freak (.388 career in the minors) that a guy like Kevin Youkilis was when he was a lead-off candidate for the Red Sox. Youk only hit 20+ homers twice in his career, so I could even see a ten-to-twelve homer season from Brantly. That would be a bit of a stretch, but not a big one.
Optimally, you’d have Brantley somewhere in the two range at some point in his career, or at the 7-through-9 range, getting on base and making life miserable for opposing pitchers. Personally, I would love to see him batting ninth on this team, if they could get some bats to fill in the holes ahead of him.
Step 5: Asdrubal Cabrera needs to come into camp in shape
I don’t really need to say anything more about it than that. Cabrera is a fantastic shortstop when he’s at the top of his game. When he’s not, he’s just average. He needs to be better than average for this team to contend. When he does that, he’s got that feel of a clubhouse leader. While he’s not old by any stretch, he’s one of the tenured guys now. He leads by example, and coming into camp looking like the Pillsbury doughboy wasn’t a great way to start the year, and clearly hurt him down the stretch.
I do want to say that Cabrera rebounded in September and October, hitting a much more respectable .274/.357/.422 slash-line, with a couple of homers and 15 RBI. Project that over a season, and you get 12 homers and 90 RBI, which is really what he ended up doing this season, but with a massive dip in production in the middle of the year.
My point is, you have to think that a fit and focused Cabrera could better those numbers if all things were considered. He’s about to turn 27, which is his prime, and you’d have to think that his next contract will be at play.
Let’s hope he responds.
Step 6: Lonnie Chisenhall needs to be the kid everyone thought he could be last year, and stay healthy
This is all gut here, but I really, REALLY believe that Chisenhall can be something special. I don’t think we’re talking Jim Thome here in the long run, but like I mentioned in several other pieces over the past couple of months, I do think he can be a 25-homer, 90 RBI presence in this line-up. No, he’s not going to be perfect. He hit .184 against lefties this year, so there’s always going to be that, but I do think he can overcome it to a certain degree.
That’s where the importance of that hitting coach comes into play here. Think about this, as I mention our former third/first baseman extraordinaire after saying not to compare the two. Jim Thome hit .167 in 1994 against left-handed hitters in the season before he officially became the full-season starter at third base, and that was only in 98 games (Chiz has played in 109). In his first full season in 1995, he improved that to .275. There’s something to getting everyday reps that can’t be counted on, and while I don’t think Chiz and Thome are the same types of hitters, I do think they have a similar baseball IQ.
I’m NOT saying the Chiz is Thome. He’s not. But, I could see Chiz follow that same path with regards to being a heavy hitting third baseman that ultimately moves to first base. Oh hell, I am comparing the two, why lie.
Tomorrow, join me at the Corner of Carnegie for some fantasy, as we look at the next few steps this team will need to win in 2013, and I’ll be flat out honest here. Most of it is 100% fantasy land.
Ahhh, to be a Tribe fan in the offseason. Life is grand indeed.
Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get a good quality pitching coach. Determine if Santana at C contributed to the pitching woes and if so (which I suspect - game calling/framing pitches) then move him to one of the open positions and put a def first catcher (could be Marson...that's Francona's job to determine) - this may dramatically improve the pitching.
I'd love to see them snag Angel Pagan too.
I do see your additions as realistic, but unless they are acquiring some stars of the future in some deals...those moves don't do a thing for this club going forward. If they risk, they have to risk bigger than that.
I'll throw some things out there...and they won't do them all...but if they did one or two or three...I'd be ecstatic...
Of course the Tribe could try to add a C like Miguel Olivo to platoon w/ Marson and move Santana to LF or 1b full time too.
then the Indians should move outta town...
I actually agree with the folks that say our pieces are a bit overvalued by fans...but I could see them package something together and get one big name, and than pick up a free agent. I would love to see it!
Of course, I think the Indians could win without all of the above, but this is an all of the above...if the Indians had a bit more money...and if everyone stepped up...
Call it fantasy land...;)
I am on board with blowing it up - I have a feeling they are going to fall flat on their face if they try and win now a la 2012 2011 2008...
Thanks...I actually agree with that. While we have Francona, I'm going to enjoy the positive vibes for now...
I have convinced myself that the Indians are going to do something to try and win next year...not as much as I'm about to predict...but something...
Thanks...if you liked today's, check out tomorrow's. I dive into some potential players...and while it started off on the slight side, I went all in...
So check out tomorrow's part two...
I agree 100%. I was going to address that, then figured on two things...
They are young, and I don't think a trend has set for injuries for them just yet.
Brantley played injured last year, but played in 149 ballgames. I'm hoping that's a trend in the right direction. Chiz hasn't played a full season yet, or been healthy a full season yet. We'll see next year, when he starts out with the club...