Sunday’s game was barely in the books when the Indians gave Dan Wheeler the old heave-ho this afternoon, designating the 34-year-old right-hander for assignment.
Of course, the team did have some time to think about it down 12-1 to the Red Sox in the eighth and ninth innings today. Wheeler took over with the Indians trailing 6-1 in the seventh and gave up six runs in his inning of work, leaving him with an 8.76 ERA and a 1.95 WHIP in 12 appearances this season.
Wheeler was one of the game’s most underrated setup men in Tampa Bay, but his assortment of slop just hasn’t gotten him very far since he left to sign with Boston prior to last season. A league switch may do him some good. Wheeler has always been homer-prone, but put him in a big ballpark in the NL with the Marlins, Padres or Giants and he might yet prove useful in the middle innings.
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.
I mentioned earlier that I’m in an impossibly good mood today. The park has a lot to do with it. Great weather of course. Just woke up on the right side of the bed somehow.
And when I’m in a good mood I like to walk around and take pictures of stuff. Yes, I realize that my job is very hard. Sorry to keep reminding you all of that.
Stuff like this scene to the right. Robin Yount instructing Mat Gamel on the finer points of infield defense. It must have worked, because Gamel put on a defensive clinic at first in the third inning of today’s game. He saved Brooks Conrad’s bacon with a nifty jump-tag when Conrad threw wide of first on a grounder. The next batter hit a hot shot to first which Gamel gobbled up and most guys wouldn’t have. Now all he needs to do is to find Yount a hat that fits him and his day will have been perfection.
Other stuff I saw while bopping around Maryvale before today’s game:
I wrote this morning about how close I came to getting a baseball. If I thought about it — and didn’t mind getting my butt kicked out of the park — I could have gotten a lot of baseballs here.
This guy was fun. Wearing a Prince Fielder Tigers jersey at the Brewers ballpark. And you all say I’m a troll. This guy is the troll king. I should look into hiring him.
“Dudes, wait … listen … what if the universe is just, like, a particle of some larger atom.”
“I know, Frankie De La Cruz … I blew your mind just now. I’m sorry. Here, we can hug the confusion away.”
Four parks so far this week, four pics of equipment bags on grass. I have two more to go this weekend for the perfecto. I like my chances.
This was pretty neat. The entire team — and manager Ron Roenicke — was there and watching attentively as others did base running drills. You don’t see that very often. Usually teams break up into a bunch of different groups when those kinds of drills are going down. No idea if this is a usual thing or if it was just random happenstance.
I’m watching the game now. Best things besides those Gamel plays so far: (1) Dan Wheeler retiring Zelous Wheeler on a 6-3 grounder; and (2) Ryan Braun walking.
AGAIN. God, that guy.