Running down the rosters: Cleveland Indians

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Even after giving up their top two pitching prospects for Ubaldo Jimenez, the Indians couldn’t maintain their hot start last year and lost their last four games to finish under .500 at 80-82. The offseason saw them shopping from the scrap heap, which isn’t unusual, but even as they were forced to pick from largely unwanted players, they did well with what they had. Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t answer when the team that finished 15 games ahead of them last year added Prince Fielder.

Rotation
Ubaldo Jimenez – R
Justin Masterson – R
Derek Lowe – R
Josh Tomlin – R
Kevin Slowey – R

Bullpen
Chris Perez – R
Vinnie Pestano – R
Tony Sipp – L
Joe Smith – R
Rafael Perez – L
Dan Wheeler – R
Frank Herrmann – R

Disabled list: Carlos Carrasco (R)
Restricted list: ex-Fausto Carmona (R)
SP next in line: David Huff (L), Jeanmar Gomez (R), Zach McAllister (R)
RP next in line: Nick Hagadone (L), Chris Ray (R), Jeremy Accardo (R), Robinson Tejeda (R)

The addition of Lowe from Atlanta was supposed to give the Indians the most groundball-focused rotation the league has seen in years. The Fausto Carmona situation, however, has taken some of the wind out of those sails, especially since it looks like he’ll be replaced by Slowey, one of the league’s top flyball pitchers. I don’t necessarily think that’s a downgrade, though. In fact, I’m not sure the Indians’ original strategy was such a good idea; they play in a pitcher’s park and their outfield defense figures to be quite a bit better than their infield defense.

The bullpen has two openings, with Herrmann and Hagadone competing against a host of veterans on minor league deals. I’m nervous about Perez in the closer’s role — his velocity is down a bit and his strikeout rate took a big tumble last year — but Pestano rates as maybe the game’s best reliever no one knows about. He can step in if Perez struggles.

Lineup
CF Grady Sizemore – L
SS Asdrubal Cabrera – S
RF Shin-Soo Choo – L
C Carlos Santana – S
DH Travis Hafner – L
2B Jason Kipnis – L
1B Casey Kotchman – L
3B Jack Hannahan – L
LF Michael Brantley – L

Bench
C Lou Marson – R
INF Jason Donald – R
1B/OF Shelley Duncan – R
OF Ryan Spilborghs – R

Next in line: C Matt Pagnozzi (R), 1B Matt LaPorta (R), 1B-3B Russ Canzler (R), 2B Cord Phelps (S), 2B-3B Jose Lopez (R), 3B Lonnie Chisenhall (L), 3B Andy LaRoche (L),
OF Aaron Cunningham (R), OF Ezequiel Carrera (L), OF Felix Pie (L), OF Fred Lewis (L), OF Trevor Crowe (S)

And then there’s the lineup. After re-signing Sizemore and bringing in Kotchman to start over LaPorta, the Indians will be able to go with nine left-handed hitters against right-handed pitching. Of course, things will get dicey against lefties. I think Cleveland might have been better off moving Brantley to center and adding a right-handed bat in Sizemore’s place.

That said, the Indians do deserve a ton of credit for bringing in the winter’s greatest haul in minor league free agency. That “next in line” group is probably the strongest any team can boast, and it gives the Indians plenty of bench options.

My controversial call above is sticking Chisenhall back in the minors. I didn’t want to do it, but the bench works much better that way. A right-handed-hitting backup infielder is a must, whether it’s Donald or Lopez. Hannahan, as a lefty, would be pretty useless as a reserve, but the Indians appear unlikely to cut him after re-upping him for $1.35 million last month. My preference would be for a Hannahan trade, leaving Chisenhall as the starter at third.

The Indians’ chances in 2012 figure to hinge on return to forms from Sizemore, Choo and Jimenez. If two of the three former All-Stars contend for a return to this year’s Midsummer Classic, then the Indians should be capable of winning 90 games and hanging in the playoff race.

Nationals’ starting pitching carrying them into World Series

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In my postseason preview at the end of September, I listed the Nationals’ starting rotation as a strength and their bullpen as a weakness. Anyone who had followed the club this season could have told you that. Even the Nats are aware of it as manager Dave Martinez has leaned on his rotation to hide his sometimes unreliable ‘pen.

In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, Martinez was burned by his bullpen as Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland combined to allow six base runners and four runs. Martinez used ace Max Scherzer in relief in Game 2, sandwiched by Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Starter Patrick Corbin pitched in relief in Game 3 and it backfired, but the bullpen after Corbin continued to allow more runs — three officially, but Wander Suero allowed two inherited runners to score on a three-run homer by Max Muncy. Martinez only had to rely on Doolittle and Hudson in Game 4 and he again went to Corbin in relief in Game 5.

The strategy was clear: use the actual bullpen as little as possible. If Martinez absolutely has to, Doolittle and Hudson get top priory by a country mile, followed by a starter, then the rest of the bullpen.

Thankfully for Martinez and the Nationals, the starting pitching has done yeoman’s work in the NLCS, jumping out to a three games to none series lead over the Cardinals. Aníbal Sánchez famously brought a no-hit bid into the eighth inning of Game 1, finally relenting a two-out single to José Martínez before his night was over. Doolittle got the final four outs in the 2-0 win. Max Scherzer flirted with a no-hitter in his Game 2 start as well, losing it when Paul Goldschmidt led off the seventh with a single. He was erased on an inning-ending double play. Doolittle, Corbin, and Hudson got the final six outs in the 3-1 victory.

It was more of the same in Game 3. While Stephen Strasburg didn’t flirt with a no-hitter, he was dominant over seven innings, yielding one unearned run on seven hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts. The Nats’ offense woke up, amassing eight runs through seven innings which allowed Martinez to give his main relief guys a night off. Rodney and Rainey each pitched a perfect inning of relief with two strikeouts in low-leverage situations, their first appearances in the NLCS.

The Nationals starting pitching has been outstanding by itself, but it has also had the secondary effect of allowing Martinez to hide his team’s biggest weakness. Now Martinez just has to hope for more of the same for one more game, then at least four more in the World Series.