Ranking the 2014 Cleveland Indians opening day roster: Part two
While lacking stars, Cleveland has plenty of good players around the diamond and on the mound
With a new season upon us, it is once again time for me to rank Cleveland's roster from bottom to top. Many of the names are familiar from last year's 92-win playoff season, but there is new blood at positions (and a noticeable lack of Chris Perez).
Today includes players ranked #12 to #1, which means a lot of players projected to receive most of the playing time (see: position players and starting pitchers). Cleveland may not have a player on the level of Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw, but what the team does have is quite a few very good players at the top. Teams do not need a star to win (though it always helps) and this Cleveland squad has some pretty good depth in its starters.
In-text photos from ESPN
#12 David Murphy, OF
This ranking of Murphy is putting faith in seeing the outfielder's BABIP bounce back to something approaching a normal level. With a .227 BABIP in 2013, Murphy will almost certainly see some more balls in play fall in, which should go a long way toward raising his pedestrian .220/.282/.374 line. For his career, Murphy has a normal BABIP and has essentially been the definition of average. If Cleveland gets that Murphy in 2014, it will be an upgrade and a good investment. Plus, if Terry Francona spells him against left-handed pitching (.657 OPS, 71 wRC+ in his career) and lets him feast on right-handers (.816 OPS, 113 wRC+), then Murphy could be even better, especially when paired with a platoon partner like Ryan Raburn.
#11 Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B
Most of the focus on Chisenhall's career to date seems to be on what he has not done; the flip side is much more interesting, however. As he is right now, Chisenhall is a 24-year-old slightly below-average third baseman with above-average power, bad luck on balls in play, and issues against left-handed pitching. But while Chisenhall has his issues, he is still pretty young. That youth could see him take a few more strides forward, putting him comfortably average to above-average. We can all see Chisenhall is not going to be a star, but there is still a good chance he will be useful. Carlos Santana may have the starting third base job, but as the team uses a rotation designated hitter spot, he should still play pretty regularly (like Mike Aviles last year).
#10 Zach McAllister, RHP
McAllister is not the kind of pitcher to build a rotation around, but slotting him in the fourth spot is pretty perfect (and yes, I know he is "technically" the #3; we all know Danny Salazar is really ahead of him). We are still waiting to see a full season of McAllister at the major league level, as the right-hander spent part of 2012 in the minors and part of 2013 injured, and what happens when McAllister hauls a full 200 innings could be pretty good. The right-handed should be around league-average -- which is what you want out of a #4 starter -- and has the body type to hold up for a full season. Assuming his finger injury is left in the past (his results post-injury seem to indicate they are), McAllister is set to take the ball every fifth day and get the job.
#9 Nick Swisher, 1B
Overall, Swisher remained essentially the same player he always was in 2013. His walk rate, strikeout rate, BABIP, and defense all sat within his normal career ranges, but the real issue for Swisher was seeing his power output go down slightly. That dip -- a .177 ISO compared to a career mark of .207 -- especially hurt as Swisher spent most of the year at first base, a position with a higher demand on the bat. Despite this, Swisher still posted a 2.4 fWAR and was generally a reliable contributor throughout the season. Whether Swisher's power downturn was simply related to his shoulder injury or the start of a decline for the 33-year-old we do not know, but what we do know is Swisher remains a solid player. Maybe he does not produce quite at the level of the $45 million left on his contract, but he is still good.
#8 Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
There is a chance that 2013 was just the year that everything went wrong for Cabrera. He struck out more, walked less, hit for less power, his approach from the left side had issues (i.e., chasing everything low and away), his ability to hit pitches in the zone from the right side dropped; all of which added up to an ugly .242/.299/.402 line. Though that is still decent for a shortstop (shortstops averaged a .254/.308/.367 line in 2013), Cabrera's below-average defense dragged his overall value down. Of course, when everything goes wrong for a player, some positive regression seems likely, thus Cabrera being ranked eighth. We could easily see Cabrera's approach improve, his power surge again, and his value peak as he hits free agency. It is possible, though it is also possible Cabrera just hit a wall. Until the real games start, Cabrera will remain a mystery.
#7 Michael Brantley, OF
Maybe there is a little bit more coming from Brantley as the 26-year-old starts to hit the traditional peak years for a player. To date, the outfielder has been the model of consistency, always producing around league-average offense and (assuming the eye test is right and the defensive metrics are wrong) league-average defense. His lack of real power or elite defense keeps Brantley from being anything more than average to above-average, but that has value. He does what he does, can hit anywhere in the lineup effectively, and rarely makes huge mistakes in the field (measuring outfield defense by errors is pointless to me -- it only captures when people mess up badly, not range or anything like that -- but Brantley's errorless streak does showcase his consistency). While he may not be an All-Star, Brantley is someone whose contributions help build a contender.
#6 Corey Kluber, RHP
Sometimes players just take longer than others to put it all together. Assuming Kluber continues on the same path he blazed last year, that will be the case with the soon-to-be 28-year-old right-hander. Going by his FIP-based WAR, Kluber's 2.7 fWAR in 147.1 innings has him looking like a real middle-of-the-rotation option going forward. Of course, Kluber's ERA was much higher than his FIP -- 3.85 to 3.30 -- which has been something of an issue for Kluber in the past. Both his major league results (4.32 ERA, 3.61 FIP in 214.2 innings) and minor league results (4.42 ERA, 3.71 FIP in 777.0 innings) indicate Kluber tends to underperform his peripherals, which drags down his value. Kluber was a different pitcher in 2013, though until he gets his ERA under control, he will not be as good as his peripherals say he can be.
#5 Danny Salazar, RHP
If anything, this ranking feels low. Each projection system (ZiPS, Steamer, and Oliver) projects Salazar as at least an average pitcher, with WAR totals of 2.9, 3.3, and 1.8 respectively. The thing about those projections, however, is they only project Salazar for an average of 137.0 innings. Sure, Salazar does not have the size traditionally associated with durable pitchers, but all pitchers are injury risks. Salazar's lack of innings in recent years has been a calculated plan from the organization, and though there should be some level of concern regarding Salazar's health, there is not anything right now that indicates the right-hander will not make it through the season. If Salazar does throw 200 innings -- which is absolutely possible -- the projections say he will post 3.9 WAR in his first full major league season, better than both Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir in 2013.
#4 Justin Masterson, RHP
Though Salazar has the most exciting upside of the current starting rotation, Masterson is the one who has reached an exceptional level over a full season already. Whether or not Masterson remains as one of the better pitchers in baseball will come down to his strikeouts, which spiked last year. If Masterson, who is already one of the best at getting groundballs, maintains the ability to mow hitters down as well, he will be one of the most valuable pitchers in the game. Sure, he walks a few too many batters and is not an ace in the mold of Kershaw, but the 2013 version of Masterson can pitch at the front of a playoff rotation. At worst, Masterson remains a solid #2 or #3, but that #1 upside is there.
#3 Yan Gomes, C
The scary thing about Gomes is that if you project his 3.7 fWAR out over a whole season (he only played in 88 games), the catcher would have finished among the top-10 among all position players. Of course, expecting an MVP season out of Gomes is extreme, but there seems to be a good chance Gomes will still be great in 2014. His defense is well-above-average -- which is what you want to see out of your catcher -- and his pitch framing has gotten great reviews. With that as a base, even average offense would set Gomes as a top-10 catcher. Gomes does not walk much, which will likely lead to his on-base percentage sinking in 2014 (his .345 mark in 2013 was aided by a .342 BABIP). But the plus power Gomes has shown so far in his career (.182 ISO) will probably leave Gomes' offensive profile at least average, which when combined with that great defense, is a very valuable package.
#2 Carlos Santana, 3B/C/1B/DH
Time will tell if Santana can turn himself into an adequate major league defender at third base, but the early results have been encouraging enough to get him the nod to start the season. Though the move was mostly made to make room for Gomes in the everyday lineup, there is some potential that moving off of catcher will help Santana's bat take another leap forward. Catching takes a lot out of players -- both physically and mentally -- which sometimes can lead to diminished focus and performance at the plate. Maybe learning a new, challenging position will cancel out that benefit, but either way, Santana is already one of the top hitters in baseball (his 133 wRC+ tied him for 25th last year). Whether he takes another step forward or remains where he is at, Santana's bat makes him special.
#1 Jason Kipnis, 2B
Last season, Kipnis finished first on the team in steals, second in on-base percentage, third in home runs and walk rate, and fourth in wRC+ and slugging percentage. That all-around skillset combined with his solid defense led to a 4.5 fWAR, good for first on the team and tied for 29th overall among position players. It may not be the kind of combination that leads to MVP awards and $200 million contracts, but Kipnis' abilities firmly establish him as the best player Cleveland has heading into the season. Sure, Kipnis could work on his consistency (his OPS per month last year: .555, .880, 1.216, .736, .681, .761), but while he has his ups and downs, the overall package is superb. Entering his age-27 season, Kipnis is firmly in his prime and should continue leading Cleveland (and placing near the top of these rankings) in the years ahead.
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Chis at 11? Can't hit his weight, barely, and below avg 3d baseman. What has he proven to date?
And I'm all in on the Asdrubal bounce back. Whether it's regression to the mean, playing for a new contract, etc., I think last year was the abberation. Thus putting him higher.
So when Asdrubal sucks this year, I'll just delete this article and comment. :)
Pulling names out of a hat much?