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

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


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.

Mariners interested in free agent outfielder Nori Aoki

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New Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has kept pretty busy in his short time on the job and Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune reports that free agent outfielder Nori Aoki could be his next target. The club recently pursued a trade for Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna, but the asking price has them looking at alternatives.

Aoki, who turns 34 in January, has hit .287 with a .353 on-base percentage over four seasons since coming over from Japan. He was having a fine season with the Giants this year prior to being shut down in September with lingering concussion symptoms.

The Giants decided against picking up Aoki’s $5.5 million club option for 2016 earlier this month, but he should still do pretty well for himself this winter assuming he’s feeling good.

Report: Johnny Cueto is believed to be looking for a $140-160 million deal

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It was reported Sunday that free agent right-hander Johnny Cueto had turned down a six-year, $120 million contract from the Diamondbacks. He’s hoping to land a bigger deal this winter and ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick has heard some chatter about what he’s looking for.

Jordan Zimmermann finalized a five-year, $110 million contract with the Tigers today, which works out to $22 million per season. Arizona’s offer to Cueto checked in at $20 million per season. A six-year offer to Cueto at the same AAV (average annual value) as Zimmermann would put him at $132 million, which is still a little shy of the figure stated by Crasnick. Of course, Cueto owns a 2.71 ERA (145 ERA+) over the last five seasons compared to a 3.14 ERA (123 ERA+) by Zimmermann during that same timespan, so there’s a case to be made that he should get more. Still, he’s the clear No. 3 starter on the market behind David Price and Zack Greinke.

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reports that the Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, and Cubs are among the other teams who have interest in Cueto. One variable in his favor is that he is not attached to draft pick compensation, as he was traded from the Reds to the Royals during the 2015 season.

Report: Around 20 teams have contacted the Braves about Shelby Miller

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The rebuilding Braves have already been active on the trade market and they might not be done, as CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reports that right-hander Shelby Miller has been a very popular name. In fact, around 20 teams have checked in.

Nothing is considered close and the Braves have set a very high asking price, mostly centered around offense. They asked for right-hander Luis Severino in talks with the Yankees and would expect outfielder Marcell Ozuna among other pieces from the Marlins. The Diamondbacks and Giants are among the other interested clubs.

Miller is under team control through 2018, so there’s not necessarily a sense of urgency to move him, but anything is possible with the way the Braves are doing things right now. The 25-year-old is coming off a year where he went 6-17, but that was about really rotten luck more than anything else, as he had a fine 3.02 ERA and 171/73 K/BB ratio over 205 1/3 innings. The Braves gave him the worst run support of any starter in the majors.

Mets expected to tender a contract to Jenrry Mejia

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 12:  Jenrry Mejia #58 of the New York Mets reacts as he walks off the field after getting the final out of the seventh inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Citi Field on July 12, 2015 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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Jenrry Mejia appeared in just seven games this past season due to a pair of suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs, but Adam Rubin of ESPN New York reports that the Mets are expected to tender him a contract for 2016.

While the Mets were vocal about their disappointment in Mejia’s actions, it makes sense to keep him around as an option. Had he played a full season in 2015, he would have earned $2.595 million. He’s arbitration-eligible for the second time this winter and figures to receive a contract similar to his 2015 figure, but he’ll only be paid for the games he plays. He still has 100 games to serve on his second PED suspension, which means that he’ll only be paid for 62 games in 2016. This likely puts his salary closer to $1 million, which is a small price to pay for someone who could prove useful during the second half and beyond. He also won’t count toward the team’s 40-man roster until he’s active.

Mejia, who turned 26 in October, owns a 3.68 ERA in the majors and saved 28 games for the Mets in 2014. He’s currently pitching as a starter in the Dominican Winter League.