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The Tribe's challenge in closing the gap in AL Central (Part 1)

The Tribe's challenge in closing the gap in AL Central (Part 1)
Salvadore Perez and Victor Martinez (Photo: AP)
October 30, 2014
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With the Kansas City Royals finally realizing their promise after years of being picked as the darlings of prognosticators everywhere, one has to ask the question, “Why are the Royals good?”

And for that matter, what makes the Giants any good, either?

Before setting out to examine the three contenders of the AL Central, what strikes me immediately about the two teams in the Fall Classic is this — they are both managed extremely well and just flat-out do things the right way. So, in that sense, the Cleveland Indians seem to at least possess the right manager in Terry Francona. As for the whole “doing things right” concept, we will have to wait and see.

Looking at the three-headed monster that is the Royals, Tigers and Indians in the AL Central, what the Royals are being touted for this fall are speed and defense.  But are they really that exceptional in these areas? Let’s take a look.

SPEED

The Royals absolutely put a great amount of pressure on opposing defenses with their aggressive running game. Kansas City led the American League with an astounding 153 stolen bases, compared to DET (106/4th) and CLE (104/6th).  While the other two teams ranked well in the league, it is very apparent that KC’s approach to offense is entirely different than the other two, and most teams in the American League. Frankly, the Royals are in the mode of a 1980’s National League squad more than they fit in today’s American League scheme. EDGE: Royals by a mile.

DEFENSE

This is a category that is terrifically difficult to gauge. We have our numbers, defensive ratings and more, but when you examine mere statistics it shows results that are telling, yet not definitive. Detroit actually committed less errors (101) and surrendered less unearned runs (57) than the Royals (104/59), numbers that would place them about 9th & 10th in the league. Whereas the Indians were dead last, committing a whopping 116 errors that cost them 72 unearned runs in the process — a glaring deficiency that needs to be corrected. EDGE: Royals on strength of youth.

So, if the Tribe hopes to overcome these two divisional rivals, can they possibly do it at the plate?

OFFENSE

The Indians hold their own in the power categories, but the Tigers and Royals are exceptional offensive clubs for many reasons.

BATTING AVERAGE (w/AL Rank):  DET .277 (1), KC .263 (2), CLE .253 (8)
SLUGGING % (w/AL Rank):  DET .426 (1), CLE .389 (6), KC .376 (11)
OPS (w/AL Rank):  DET .757 (1), CLE .706 (7), KC .690 (10)
STRIKEOUTS (w/AL Rank):  KC (15), DET (11), CLE (8)

The Tribe comes in being in the middle of the pack in almost all categories, making them at least an adequate offensive club. The Tigers on the other hand, excel in almost every category with a beautiful blend of power and consistency. What the Royals lack in power, they make up for by making contact. KC actually leads the league with the fewest strikeouts, and backs it up with the second-best batting average. This plays right into their blueprint for getting on base and pressuring teams with their running game. The Tigers basically are hard to get out, period, while their raw power forms a lethal combination with having so many runners on base. So what then is the Tribe’s forte? You’ve got me. Basically, it’s being mediocre. And that’s not going to win anything.

What the Indians do have going for them is a core of good talent in their prime. Let’s compare the lineups and see how they stack up (ranked comparatively).

CATCHER

CLE     Yan Gomes (Age 27):  .278 ave./21HR/74 RBI/.313 OBP
KC       Salvador Perez (24): .260/17/70/.289
DET     Alex Avila (27):          .218/11/47/.327

FIRST BASE

DET     Miguel Cabrera (31):  .313/25/109/.371
CLE     Carlos Santana (27): .231/27/85/.365
KC       Eric Hosmer (25):     .270/9/58/.318

SECOND BASE

DET     Ian Kinsler (32):  .275/17/92/.307
KC       Omar Infante (32):    .252/6/66/.295
CLE     Jason Kipnis (27):     .240/6/41/.310

THIRD BASE

CLE     Lonnie Chisenhall (26):  .280/13/59/.343
DET     Nick Castellanos (22):  .259/11/66/.306
KC       Mike Moustakas (26):  .212/15/54/.271

SHORTSTOP

KC       Alcides Escobar (27):  .285/3/50/.317
DET     Jose Iglesias (24):      .274/4/31/.325
CLE     Jose Ramirez (22):    .262/2/17/.300

LEFT FIELD

CLE     Michael Brantley (27):  .327/20/97/.385
DET     JD Martinez (27):      .315/23/76/.358
KC       Alex Gordon (30):     .266/19/74/.351

CENTER FIELD

KC       Lorenzo Cain (28):  .301/5/33/.339
DET     Rajai Davis (34):        .282/8/51/.320
CLE     Michael Bourn (30): .257/3/28/.314

RIGHT FIELD

DET     Torii Hunter (39):  .286/17/83/.319
KC       Norichika Aoki (32): .285/1/43/.349
CLE     David Murphy (33):  .262/8/58/.319

DESIGNATED HITTER

DET     Victor Martinez (35):  .335/32/103/.409
KC       Billy Butler (28):       .271/9/66/.323
CLE     Nick Swisher (33):    .208/8/42/.278

Basically, Kansas City and Detroit are two really good teams. However, looking at these numbers we can see where, although lagging behind collectively, Cleveland has a number of good position guys who stack up well in the divisional lineups.

The stunning fact is that, offensively at least, Lonnie Chisenhall is the best third baseman in the division. And when you look at a team like San Francisco, you begin to realize that the most talented teams don’t always make it to the World Series. It seems to come down to execution and who’s hot, not to mention some stellar pitching in October.

The trick is for the Indians to figure out exactly what those nuances are, find a way to plug some holes and fix it.

In the Tribe’s favor, Detroit is a quickly-aging team which is in line to possibly lose some of their most productive free agents. Victor Martinez will be looking for a new three-year deal at age 35, while Torii Hunter is 39 and may even retire. While the Tigers have other productive hitters, they can ill-afford to lose the kind of output they received from Hunter and Martinez.

On the flip side, while Kansas City’s “youthful” lineup is finally coming into its own, it’s not as young as people perceive. The starting lineups shown reflect that the Royals and Indians both average out at 25.2 years of age, while the Tigers are at 26.8. And while Detroit’s would actually land in the “career prime” range, as Indiana Jones once opined, “It’s not the years, baby, it’s the mileage.” When looking at that list, the Tiger’s names in bold are 39, 32, 32 and 31 years of age. The tread is beginning to wear low. When you throw in the fact that Max Scherzer is a free agent, David Price has only one year left on his deal and Justin Verlander has a long, expensive albatross contract, it’s easy to see the Tiger’s window is about to slam shut. So, expect one last push for glory out of the Motor City Kitties as their run akin to the Tribe of the 90’s comes to an end.

So, what can the Indians do to tilt the division in their direction? We will look at that in part two tomorrow. For now, it is enough to know that with a solid young staff and a core of talent in its prime, the Cleveland Indians need to be in the discussion as one of the teams to challenge for the American League Central in 2015.

User Comments

Rocky55
November 1, 2014 - 10:58 AM EDT
CL, RF has been discussed for Chiz & I think that he'd handle it nicely if they get him some reps in the offseason somewhere. Walter, I played 3B & CF in school. Trust me, 3B is way harder than CF. CF is routes & speed. Playing 3B is reactions, moving either way, coming in on the ball, great hands, awkward throws, DPs & danger. I'm eternally impressed by someone who can handle 3B, which is why I'm so high on Gio Urshela.
Waltet
November 1, 2014 - 9:37 AM EDT
I thought that ss, cf and c are the 3 difficult positions to play. CF is the qb for the outfield, SS the qb for the infield and catcher is qb for the pitching staff.

C L Who
November 1, 2014 - 12:33 AM EDT
Rocky,

We'll have to disagree on this issue. But if you don't think Chis can play 3B at the MLB level, where are you going to put him on this team?
Rocky55
October 31, 2014 - 8:29 PM EDT
Chiz has never, ever been advertised as a power source. His game is hit tool, bat to ball. Despite that he had a .427 SP, which was tied with Santana for 3rd on the team. He Kd 99 times in 142 games, which hardly qualifies as a "strikeout machine".

You're comparing career lines & I was comparing them age year by age year. Why should Chiz be held up to the standard of Brantley's best year after his first full season. As for WAR comps, I find them to be bogus. Brantley has better defensive numbers playing the easiest position on the diamond; well Whoop-De-Do. I'm near 60 & I could play LF. Brantley's best SP prior to this past season was .402. Also, using BB/K numbers is bogus because Brantley doesn't K much but he also doesn't walk much. So what? Also, I wouldn't call a decent year, then a down year, then a quantum leap consistent improvement. I'll take it, I'm happy about it, but don't mischaracterize it in order to smear Chiz.

Chiz had a .770 OPS as a 25 yr. old in his 1st full season while attempting to man the 3rd most difficult defensive position on the diamond. I don't think that he can play 3B at the ML level but that doesn't nullify his bat & I don't know why you expect him to live up to one of the most excellent statistical seasons in team history.
C L Who
October 31, 2014 - 7:14 PM EDT
It's Chis, not Brantley, that is advertised as a power source. In fact, Chis only had 13 HR and a .32 XBH in 2014 vs. Brantley's 20 HR and .335 XBH.

From 246 / 296 and a -1.2 WAR in 2010, Brantley has progressed to 327 / 385 and 7.0 WAR in 2014 and 284 / 332 and 2.4 WAR in a "down" year (down a bit from 2012) in 2013. Brantley also has an overall OF FP of .994 and for LF only its .997. Finally, his K;BB ratio is generally about 1 - 1.2 : 1. Overall, the best description of Brantley are "steady yearly improvement in all aspects of the game."

Even in 2014, Chis's WAR was 1.5.....his highest ever. He shows no consistency. He is a bad fielder. His K:BB runs about 2.5 - 3.0 : 1

Those are the reasons why I prefer Brantley's line to Chisenhall's. Until proven otherwise, Chis is a 250 / 280 strikeout machine who can't field, and who has occasional power.
Rocky55
October 31, 2014 - 5:30 PM EDT
Brantley, in his 22-24 seasons, 214 games, had a total 264 OPS+. His age 25 season he had a .750 OPS and an OPS+ of 112. He then regressed in his age 26 season to a .728 OPS and a 105 OPS+, after which this site had a pretty large number of people advising a trade. His "consistent" OPS by month in 2013 were: .758, .711, .616, .878, .609, .828.

Chiz in his 22-24 seasons, 213 games, had a total 287 OPS+. His age 25 season he had a .770 OPS and an OPS+ of 120, after which he had people complaining that he had a MVP 1st half & a 2nd half that matched that of the 3B on the pennant winning team. His OPS by month were: .901, 1.020, .919, 569, .717, .568.

Why is one line better than the other? I'd take Lonnie's. I hope he gets more consistent but a half season of MVP play isn't too bad. It would be very difficult to match Brantley's numbers for this past season, not only for Lonnie but for Brantley himself.

Adam
October 31, 2014 - 2:08 PM EDT
The difference between Brantley and Chiz is that Brantley steadily improved to where he is now. Chiz had been awful up to the first few months of the year, rode his BABIP to a good first half then reverted to what he'd done prior in his career.
Rocky55
October 31, 2014 - 1:21 PM EDT
I'm sorry but I don't consider what a player does in limited callups relevant to prime year expectations. Are you going to project forward for Brantley based on his first 3 seasons or his last three, or even just this past season. Interestingly, he didn't hit his stride until his age 25 season & Chiz just finished his age 25 season. I expect Chiz to perform near his peak, health permitting, for the next 3-4 seasons.
C L Who
October 31, 2014 - 12:20 PM EDT
No question Chis improved in 2014, but generally he looks like a 250 BA 280 OBP hitter in a typical year with maybe 13 - 17 HR and 30% XBH

17 major league months over 4 seasons now....

10 of those months his OBP was under 300 and 7 over 300

2 months BA under 200
6 months BA 200 to 250
7 months 250 to 300
3 months over 300

IMO, the only way Chis will ever show consistent success with increased BA and OBP is to develop some plate discipline and an eye for pitches and start learning how to work more walks.
cleveland ken
October 31, 2014 - 10:30 AM EDT
seems like bourn needs to improve in BA and steal more bases
Rocky55
October 31, 2014 - 9:50 AM EDT
Really tired of hearing about Chiz supposedly having one hot streak during the season which inflated his numbers beyond expectation. His OPS for the first three months of the season were: .901, 1.020, and 9.19. That's not a hot streak, that's half of a season. For the last three months of the season he basically hit like Moustakas. I know that Tony doesn't believe that his defense can improve but I do. Given enough reps over the off-season it will improve. The main thing is that while a 3 month .900+ OPS is unreasonable to expect every season, I believe that improvement on the latter half season & overall is reasonable. He's just hitting his prime & he's cheap. He probably won't even play 3B for the entire season with Urshela on the way. One last thing of note, his OPS for 16 games as DH was 1.060. His OPS as a PH (1.423) was simply stratospheric. So let him play 3B for 2 or 3 months, bring up Urshela, then stick him in RF. His OPS as a RF would probably improve & be better than the guys listed in this article. Then let him DH some. Just don't get rid of him without getting offense back. This kid can hit, we need hitters, find him a spot. If necessary, take Swisher out back behind the barn and shoot him (just kidding for the sensitive types), then let Chiz DH..
Norm
October 31, 2014 - 7:55 AM EDT
Sounds to me that one or two costly upgrades at the expense of the system is not going to do it. It looks to me like patience is in order even though few posters seem to want that.There is a good chance that both defense and speed will be improved by mid-season next year. Lindor should improve both and Urshela won't do much for the speed but will give the Tribe defense and a decent RH bat. In the event one or two of Tony's OFs in Columbus turn out ML ready, then you have bona fide replacements that would allow the trade or Murphy and Bourn. If those two, along with Kipnis and Chisenhall exceed expectaions offensively and defensively then so much the better. Not sure the Indians don't improve their chances just by waiting. This winter they can improve depth,which is not sexy or exciting but may do a lot for a winning franchise in years to come.
art
October 31, 2014 - 12:43 AM EDT
If we just had a typical Nick Swisher year and gave the at bats Swisher and Dickerson had this year to the "average" Swisher I think we'd have been in the playoffs.

I expect Kipnis to do better next season, at least an additional 20 points on batting, on base and slugging average.

My main concern, like many state, is defense. But having Santana at first all year may help a bit.

Hopefully Tito doesn't burn out the bullpen (again). Need them at the end of the year too.
pathofkindness
October 30, 2014 - 8:28 PM EDT
Thanks John for the nice article. This really does show that we are very close, and with a little luck, a few bounce backs, and some key changes, we should definitely be in contention for the division title next year.

As for your question: "So, if the Tribe hopes to overcome these two divisional rivals, can they possibly do it at the plate?" To me, the answer is no, overtaking the Royals and Tigers won't happen imo with just improvements at the plate. It will take better defense and better pitching than we had last year. That said, I really do think that we need to improve with the stick, and adding a right-handed middle-of-the-order bat will do a lot for this lineup (also, expecting improvements from Kipnis, Santana and Swisher is reasonable). I'm not sure if Van Slyke is the answer in RF, I doubt it, but maybe...but I'm pretty sure that Swish in RF is not the answer (or even a possibility).
C L Who
October 30, 2014 - 6:37 PM EDT
Chisenhall's stats are grossly inflated by his amazing and short-lived streak hitting .400. He's really Castellanos, with a lower BA and slightly lower OBP.

The Tribe is deficient in two IF and two OF spots, and it's unlikely that more than two of those deficiencies (at the most) will be remedied in the next 2 years.

For the Tribe, it's going to have to be all about the pitching until Lindor and Urshela are up, and something is done to power up right field. Assuming Swisher's knees are healed, I would put him out there....historically that 's the position most conducive to his offensive production, and he's probably as "good" a defender as Murphy.
Canadian Joe
October 30, 2014 - 6:07 PM EDT
The Tribe is not that far away from any of these clubs. Throw in Ramirez/ Lindor and SB's increase. Also Kipnis for a full year. Again, add those first two in to the infield, and defense improves. And I will throw our starters up against any of them. Bullpen is good. All we really lack is power from the right side, in right field. Fill that gaping hole and, barring any crippling injuries, we are right there. I really believe we are not that far away. I really like Van Slyke for right field. Decent price as well.
Ryan
October 30, 2014 - 5:11 PM EDT
It is amazing how bad Kipnis was this past year, he gets ranked BELOW Infante! Unfortunately Francona did not see what was obvious to everyone else soon enough. I guess the good thing is that it is "realistic" to expect Kipnis to leapfrog Infante next year and a remote outside shot of being equal to Kinsler. JRam definitely has the potential and age to leapfrog Iglesias and equal Escobar's 2014 numbers. Of course Escobar could improve.

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