2013 Preview: Cleveland Indians

11 Comments

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 2013 season. Today: the Cleveland Indians.

The Big Question: Can the Indians be a quick fix?

After following up an 80-82 season in 2011 by falling all the way back to 68-94 last year the Indians made a ton of changes. Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, and Shin-Soo Choo are gone after combing for 25 seasons and 2,655 games in Cleveland. Manny Acta was fired after three seasons as manager and replaced by Terry Francona. And the front office opened up the wallet for free agent signings Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds, and Brett Myers.

You don’t bring in a 53-year-old manager with Francona’s experience to have him go through growing pains with a bunch of young players and you don’t sign Swisher or Bourn for anything but an immediate impact, so clearly the Indians believe they can win right now. But coming off a 94-loss season and without a winning record since 2007 that’s a pretty large leap for a team that in recent years has repeatedly seemed on the verge of contending again before stumbling.

The good news is that Francona seems rejuvenated after the nightmarish ending to his time with the Red Sox, losing Hafner and Sizemore unfortunately doesn’t sting much considering how little they’ve played of late, and in the perpetually underwhelming American League Central it hardly takes an elite team to take advantage of an unbalanced schedule and climb above .500. The bad news is that the Indians ranked dead last in runs allowed and second-to-last in runs scored among AL teams last season and … well, that’s just an awfully big hole out of which to climb.

Right now Las Vegas pegs the Indians’ over/under win total for this season at 77.5, which seems about right to me. This is clearly a much stronger roster and I’ll be shocked if they aren’t much improved compared to the mess that went 24-53 in the second half last season, but 2013 may prove to be a stabilizing season before a legitimate jump into contention for 2014. I liked the Indians’ offseason quite a bit, but I just wonder if it’ll be enough to get beyond the fringes of contention.

What else is going on?

• Essentially swapping one season of an impending free agent in Choo for a 22-year-old pitcher with mid-90s velocity who was the No. 3 overall pick in the draft a year earlier was an excellent move. Trevor Bauer’s control problems and various issues that caused the Diamondbacks to quickly sour on him shouldn’t be totally brushed aside, but he’s one of the top dozen pitching prospects in baseball, with true No. 1 starter potential, and if you have to take on some risk to get that upside you do it. Bauer, like the Indians as a whole, seems like a better bet for 2014, but could certainly prove me wrong.

• When the market for impact hitters dried up the Indians decided to see if they could squeeze a bigger improvement out of the defense. Bourn is a standout center fielder, but even more than that his presence shifts Drew Stubbs into a corner spot and along with Michael Brantley basically gives the Indians three center fielders. That also moves Nick Swisher to first base, which in turn sends Reynolds to designated hitter. It won’t be as easy to notice as the extra runs from another slugger would have been, but if the Indians’ pitching staff exceeds expectations this season don’t forget to credit the defense.

• The flip side to sliding everyone one rung down on the defensive spectrum is that the lineup could be a little light. There’s a lot of potential for going wild on the bases with Bourn, Stubbs, Brantley, and Kipnis, but Francona’s teams in Boston finished among the AL’s top five in steals just once from 2004-2011. Of course, the Red Sox were rarely equipped to do much running. It’ll be interesting to see if the manager adapts to the skill sets he has on hand.

• Assuming closer Chris Perez doesn’t miss much time with a shoulder injury the bullpen should be a strength, with Vinnie Pestano flying under the radar as one of the league’s best relievers. The rotation is another story. I liked the Myers signing, but Justin Masterson took a step backward last year, giving him a 4.28 ERA in 121 career starts, and Ubaldo Jimenez has been a mess since the Indians acquired him in mid-2011. They’re also counting an awful lot on Zach McAllister and, unless Bauer proves ready, hoping for help from guys like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Scott Kazmir.

Prediction: Third place, American League Central

Yadier Molina says Adam Jones “has to apologize to the Puerto Rican people”

Getty Images
8 Comments

After the U.S. won the World Baseball Classic on Wednesday night, Adam Jones told a reporter that he and his teammates were motivated in part by the fact that Puerto Rico already had championship t-shirts printed up and plans for a parade/celebration in Puerto Rico in place beforehand.

Which, OK, whatever you need to motivate you, Adam, but all of that seems complicated by the fact that (a) ALL teams playing for a championship have pre-printed gear, thus enabling them to be put on moments after the final out; and (b) Puerto Rico’s celebration plans were not contingent on winning or losing. In fact, they went ahead and had a parade/celebration even though they lost. The WBC was a big deal to them in ways it simply wasn’t to the U.S., so it makes sense.

Yadier Molina of Team Puerto Rico did not take kindly to Jones’ comments. He tells ESPN Deportes this:

“Adam Jones … is talking about things he doesn’t know about,” Molina told ESPN. “He really has to get informed because he shouldn’t have said those comments, let alone in public and mocking the way [preparations] were made . . . He has to apologize to the Puerto Rican people,” Molina said. “Obviously, you wanted to win; he didn’t know what this means to [our] people.”

Kind of a messy little controversy, eh?

My feeling about it is that Jones probably didn’t know the whole story about Puerto Rico’s plans and misinterpreted celebration for arrogance. I also suspect that most players motivate themselves in all manner of irrational ways like this, but we just don’t hear about it all that much. Jones can do whatever he wants to psych himself up, but it changes the equation a bit when you talk about it to the press. Perceived slights that an athlete uses internally can seem petty once exposed to the light of day.

Either way: Jones does not have a reputation for being insulting or disrespectful, so I seriously doubt that was his intent here. I also think that, while Molina has a right to be miffed, the “he must apologize to the Puerto Rican people” thing is laying it on a bit thick. Maybe Jones can just text Molina and some P.R. players and say he was sorry, followed by a “we’re all good, man” and this can end? That makes the most sense.

If not, well, the Orioles do play the Cardinals in an interleague series this summer, so maybe we’ll see some fireworks.

Angel Hernandez ejects Asdrubal Cabrera from a spring training game

Getty Images
12 Comments

You don’t see many ejections in spring training games. The stakes are virtually non-existent, so it’s not like a player is likely to blow up at a bad call or something. That’s especially true now, as we enter spring training’s final week. Everyone wants to get through it uninjured and without fuss. And it’s getting hot in Florida in Arizona too. No one’s got time for that.

Yesterday Asdrubal Cabrera and Angel Hernandez did, though. Cabrera was batting in a road game against the Nats. He asked for time to step out of the box. Hernandez didn’t give it to him. This annoyed Cabrera who, after hitting a single, jawed at Hernandez as he ran out of the box and then pointed at him once he reached first base. Hernandez ran him.

Cabrera didn’t quickly leave the field. He took a slow, slow walk to the outfield and left via the gate in right, which is where visiting players tend to enter and leave spring parks. Watch:

 

Here’s what Cabrera told reporters after the game:

“‘C’mon, man, you’re better than that,’ ” Cabrera said, recalling what he yelled at Hernandez. “And he threw me out.”

Eh. I have no love for Angel Hernandez, but “you’re better than that” is a weak sauce insult. For one thing, maybe the person isn’t better than that? For another, it’s functionally equivalent to “you know better,” which is a thing a parent says to a kid. It’s fine when your dad says it, but Cabrera isn’t Hernandez’s dad and thus saying so carries with it an implicit belittling intent. It’s an ad hominem, which violates the usual ump-player understanding in which you can say a call was b.s. but don’t say the ump is a jerk personally.

More generally, it’s just cowardly. It’s designed not to deal with the substance of the beef. “You are a fine person all of the time, kind sir, but in this instance you are not up to par.” Well, why? Say so or shut up and quit being passive-aggressive.

Again: Hernandez is generally horrible. He’s not better than that, actually. But Cabrera deserved to get run, if for no other reason, than his insult was lame.