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

Report: The Yankee Stadium charity is a secretive, self-dealing boondoggle

Getty Images
1 Comment

The New York Times has a blistering report on the New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits Fund. The Fund is the charity the Yankees created in 2006 as a means of making up for the negative impact the construction New Yankee Stadium had on the surrounding community, primarily via its taking over 25 acres of parkland.

The idea of the Fund was a good one: to distribute $40 million in cash grants and sports equipment, and 600,000 free baseball tickets to community organizations in the Bronx over four decades. And it has been distributing funds and tickets. As the Times reports, however, the manner in which it has done so raises some red flags. Such as:

  • Charitable donations have, in an amazing coincidence, often gone to other charities which share common board members with the New Yankee Stadium Fund;
  • Funds have gone to many wealthy groups in affluent parts of the Bronx far away from the Stadium while the area around the stadium remains one of the most impoverished in the nation. For example, a private school in a wealthy part of the borough and a rec center in a gated community have gotten a lot money that, one would think anyway, could be and should be devoted to organizations closer to the ballpark that are in greater need; and
  • There has been almost no transparency or oversight of the Fund. Reports which were supposed to have been submitted have not been. And no one, apart from the Times anyway, seems to care. The Yankees certainly don’t seem to. Indeed, as the article notes, the team has worked hard to keep the Fund’s operations out of its hands. They just got their new ballpark and write the checks and hand out the tickets. Everything else is someone else’s problem.

Cronyism in private philanthropy is not uncommon. As is a lack of oversight. Often it’s the best connected people who receive the benefit of such funds, not the people most in need. This is especially true in charities whose creation was not born of a philanthropic impulse as much as it was born of a need to put a good face on some not-so-good business dealings.

If the Times’ report is correct — and the lack of anyone coming forward to dispute it on the record despite the Times’ requests that they do suggests it is — it appears as if the New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits Fund is one of those sorts of charities.

Who is the fastest sprinter in baseball?

Getty Images
5 Comments

We’re not talking the 100 meters here. We’re talking practical baseball sprinting. That’s defined by the StatCast folks at MLB as “feet per second in a player’s fastest one-second window,” while sprinting for the purposes of, you know, winning a baseball game.

StatCast ranked all players who have at least 10 “max effort” runs this year. I won’t give away who is at the top of this list, but given that baseball’s speedsters tend to get a lot of press you will not be at all surprised. As for the bottom of the list, well, the Angels don’t pay Albert Pujols to run even when he’s not suffering from late career chronic foot problems, so they’ll probably let that one go. I will say, however, that I am amused that the third slowest dude in baseball is named “Jett,” however.

Lately people have noticed some odd things about home run distances on StatCast, suggesting that maybe their metrics are wacko. And, of course, their means of gauging this stuff is proprietary and opaque, so we have no way of knowing if their numbers are off the reservation or not. As such, take all of the StatCast stuff you see with a grain of salt.

That said, even if the feet-per-second stuff is wrong here, knowing that Smith is faster than Jones by a factor of X is still interesting.