Chris Antonetti, Terry Francona

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

The deeper implications of the A.J. Ellis trade

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 17:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers heads to the dugout at the end of the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Dodger Stadium on May 17, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Getty Images
10 Comments

The trade of a light-hitting backup catcher is normally about as inconsequential as it gets. The trade of A.J. Ellis by the Dodgers to the Phillies, however, is anything but that. Indeed, it may be the public manifestation of long-simmering, well, maybe “feud” is too strong a word, but a definite butting of heads between the team’s front office and its best player.

While almost all of the clubhouse drama in Los Angeles has surrounded a talented but aggravating corner outfielder currently toiling in the minors, Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times wrote last night that the Ellis trade could very well be seen as the front office’s shot across Clayton Kershaw‘s bow:

Kershaw’s preference of Ellis was the subject of a longstanding tug-of-war between Kershaw and the front office, which wanted Yasmani Grandal behind the plate as much as possible . . . Some players interpreted the trade as a message from the front office.

This isn’t Kershaw’s team. It’s not Corey Seager’s team or Adrian Gonzalez’s, either.

It’s Friedman’s.

The notion that Kershaw likes to pitch to Ellis is pretty well-known, but the idea that it was so strong a preference that it created a dispute as to whether he has final say over a roster spot is news, at least to people who aren’t around the Dodgers all the time. Hernandez is a good columnist and is particularly well-plugged in to the Dodgers after many years of being their beat writer for the Times. He wouldn’t throw the notion of there being something of a power struggle in this regard out there all willy-nilly in order to stir the pot or something. I don’t doubt for a second that something bigger than most of us have seen is going on here.

As for the trade itself: yeah, it’s pretty debatable as to whether it makes any kind of sense. Carlos Ruiz is likely an upgrade over Ellis, but it’s a pretty marginal upgrade when you consider how few plate appearances the Dodgers backup catcher will make for the rest of the year. It’s especially marginal if you assume, as Hernandez and others assume, likely with reason, that the loss of Ellis is going to harm morale. At least in the short term before they get to know Ruiz well (worth noting, though, that he comes pretty highly recommended from Kershaw-caliber aces for all the same reasons Ellis does). I can see a lot of reasons not to make that deal even for an extra hit or two a week that Ruiz may give you over Ellis.

All of which speaks to what we don’t know. What we don’t know about the mind of Andrew Friedman and whether or not there is something more going on here than is immediately apparent. About the relationship between him and Kershaw and, for that matter, him and the rest of the team that would cause him to make a deal that plays as poorly with his own players as this one does. It could be something about Ellis. It could be something about Friedman’s relationship with Kershaw. It could be something totally unrelated to any of that, such as offseason plans and the roster in 2017 (Ruiz has a team option for next year, Ellis is a pending free agent). Unless or until Friedman speaks or a reporter gets someone to shed more light on this, there will continue to be questions.

In the meantime, I’ll grant that there are certainly different rules which apply to superstars than mere mortals, but veto power over a trade and/or playing time for other players isn’t typically one of them. If, as Hernandez suggests, there was a sense that Kershaw and Friedman didn’t see eye-to-eye on that and it wasn’t otherwise being resolved, it makes Friedman’s move somewhat more understandable.

World Baseball Classic pools, venues announced

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - MARCH 10:  Miguel Cabrera #24 of Venezuela gets a hit and drives in a run against Spain during the first round of the World Baseball Classic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium on March 10, 2013 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Getty Images
15 Comments

Yesterday the folks who run the World Baseball Classic (i.e. the Rand Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people, under the supervision of the reverse vampires, the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission) announced the groupings and venues for next springs’s tournament. It breaks down thusly:

  • Pool A will play in Tokyo, featuring Australia, China, Cuba, and Japan;
  • Pool B will play in Seoul, featuring Chinese Taipei, Korea, the Netherlands, and either Brazil, Israel, Great Britain, or Pakistan (final participant to be determined at a qualifying tournament in New York next month);
  • Pool C will play in Miami, featuring Canada, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and the United States;
  • Pool D will play in Guadalajara, featuring Italy, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela.

A winner and a runner-up will advance from each pool following a round-robin competition. That will result in a second round robin made up of Pool A and B — which will be called Pool E, because it HAS to be complicated — and which will be played in Tokyo. Meanwhile, Pool C and D’s representatives will make up Pool F, who will play in San Diego at Petco Park.

The winner of Pool F will then take on the runner-up of Pool E in a semifinal at Dodger Stadium, while the winner of Pool E will face Pool F’s runner-up there as well. The winners of those matches will play in the WBC final, also at Dodger Stadium.

Got it? Good.

Now we wait. And listen to people tell us how much we should care about the World Baseball Classic between now and March.