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

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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.

Report: Qualifying offer to be in the $18 million range

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According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, teams have been told that the qualifying offer to free agents this offseason will be in the $18 million range, likely $18.1 million. The value is derived by taking the average of the top 125 player salaries.

At $18.1 million, that would be $900,000 more than the previous QO, which was $17.2 million. This will impact soon-to-be free agents like Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Yu Darvish, among others. That also assumes that the aforementioned players aren’t traded, which would make them ineligible to receive qualifying offers. We’ve seen, increasingly, that teams aren’t willing to make a QO to an impending free agent and that trend is likely to continue this offseason.

The QO system was modified by the newest collective bargaining agreement. The compensatory pick for a team losing a player who declined a QO used to be a first-round pick. That was a penalty to both teams and players, which is why it was changed. Via MLB’s website pertaining to the QO:

A team that exceeded the luxury tax in the preceding season will lose its second- and fifth-highest selections after the first round in the following year’s Draft as well $1 million from its international bonus pool. If such a team signs multiple qualifying offer free agents, it will forfeit its third- and sixth-highest remaining picks as well.

A team that receives revenue sharing will lose its third-highest selection after the first round in the following year’s Draft. If it signs two such players, it will also forfeit its fourth-highest remaining pick.

A team that neither exceeded the luxury tax in the preceding season nor receives revenue sharing will lose its second-highest selection after the first round in the following year’s Draft as well as $500,000 from its international bonus pool. If it signs two such players, it will also forfeit its third-highest remaining pick.

Additionally, if a player who rejected a QO signs a guaranteed contract worth at least $50 million and came from a team that receives revenue sharing, that previous team will receive a compensatory pick immediately following the first round in the ensuing draft. If the contract is less than $50 million, that team will get a compensatory pick after Competitive Balance Round B. If the player’s team is over the luxury tax threshold, that team will receive a compensation pick following the fourth round. If that team neither exceeded the luxury tax nor receives revenue sharing, the compensation pick will come after Competitive Balance Round B.

Yeah, it’s a bit convoluted, but you do the best you can with a flawed system.

The Astros’ pursuit of Sonny Gray is “heating up”

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Jon Morosi of MLB Networks reports that talks are “heating up” between the Astros and Athletics on a Sonny Gray trade. Gray, obviously, would represent a big upgrade for the Astros’ rotation. He has a 3.66 ERA and has struck out 85 batters while walking 28 in 91 innings.

Morosi adds that Gray is not the only option for the Astros, as they are also talking to the Tigers about a potential acquisition of Justin Verlander and Justin Wilson. That would obviously be a much tougher deal to negotiate given Verlander’s 10/5 rights giving him veto power over any trade, not to mention the massive amount of money he’s still owed on his contract.

Also: I’m pretty sure that it’s in the MLB rules that any trade between the Tigers and the Astros has to involve Brad Ausmus, C.J. Nitkowski and Jose Lima, and that’s not possible given their current occupations and/or their deaths in 2010.