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?

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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.

Your 2016 Winter Meetings Wrapup

national-harbor
Gaylord National Resort
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OXON HILL, MD — The 2016 Winter Meetings are over.  As usual, there was still no shortage of excitement this year. More trades than we’ve seen in the past even if there are still a lot of free agents on the market. Whatever the case, it should make the rest of December a bit less sleepy than it normally is.

Let’s look back at what went down here at National Harbor this week:

Well, that certainly was a lot! I hope our coverage was useful for you as baseball buzzed through its most frantic week of the offseason. And I hope you continue coming back here to keep abreast of everything happening in Major League Baseball.

Now, get me to an airport and back home.

Eighteen players selected in the Rule 5 Draft

rule-5
MLB
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OXON HILL, MD — The Rule 5 Draft just went down here at National Harbor. As always, it was the last event of the Winter Meetings. As usual, you likely don’t know most of the players selected in the Draft, even if a couple may make a splash one day in the future.

In all, 18 players were taken in the Major League phase of the Rule 5. Here they are, with the name of the team which selected them:

Round 1
1. Twins:  Miguel Diaz, RHP, Brewers
2. Reds: Luis Torrens, C, Yankees
3. Padres: Allen Cordoba, SS, Cardinals
4. Rays: Kevin Gadea, Mariners
5. Braves: Armando Rivero, RHP, Cubs
6. D-backs: Tyler Jones, RHP, Yankees
7. Brewers: Caleb Smith, LHP, Yankees
8. Angels  Justin Haley,RHP, Red Sox
9. White Sox:  Dylan Covey, RHP, A’s
10. Pirates: Tyler Webb, LHP, Yankees
11. Tigers: Daniel Stumpf, LHP, Royals
12. Orioles: Aneury Tavarez, 2B, Red Sox
13. Blue Jays: Glenn Sparkman, RHP, Royals
14. Red Sox: Josh Rutledge, INF, Rockies
15. Indians: Holby Miller, LHP, Phillies
16. Rangers: Michael Hauschild, RHP, Astros

Round 2
17. Reds:  Stuart Turner, C, Twins
18. Orioles:  Anthony Santander, OF, Indians

For a breakdown of most of these guys and their big league prospects, check this story out at Baseball America. Like I said, you don’t know most of these guys. And, while there have been some notable exceptions in Rule 5 Draft history, most won’t make a splash in the big leagues.

Each player cost their selecting team $100,000. Each player must remain on the 25-man roster of his new club for the entire season or, at the very least, on the disabled list. If he is removed from the 25-man, the team which selected him has to offer him back to his old team for a nominal fee. Sort of like a stocking fee when you return a mattress or something. Many of these guys, of course, will not be returned and, instead, will be stashed on the DL with phantom injuries.

Aren’t transactions grand?