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.

Brewers hold off the Dodgers to force Game 7 of the NLCS

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Down 3-2 in the NLCS, the Brewers faced a must-win situation during Game 6 on Friday. Any residual uncertainty they might have felt about their chances of extending the series was all but resolved in the first inning, however, when Jesús Aguilar, Mike Moustakas, and Erik Kratz combined for a four-run spread to take an early lead. Powered by those early-game RBI, as well as masterful performances from Wade Miley, Corey Knebel, and Corbin Burnes, the club surged to a 7-2 win to pull even with the Dodgers and force a Game 7 tiebreaker.

Left-hander Wade Miley trounced the Dodgers in 4 1/3 innings of two-run, four-strikeout ball. He was bested by David Freese in the very first at-bat of the night, which culminated with a 402-footer to right field to put Los Angeles on the board, 1-0. After a few scoreless innings from the Dodgers, Freese returned to torment Miley in the top of the fifth, this time with an RBI double that narrowed the Brewers’ advantage from four runs to three.

Things didn’t go nearly as smoothly for opposing lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu. In the bottom of the first inning, Ryu allowed a leadoff single to Lorenzo Cain, followed by a four-pitch walk to Ryan Braun. Jesús Aguilar came up to bat with two out and two on, then smacked a two-RBI line drive double to right field. Moustakas and Kratz went back-to-back-to-back with Aguilar, putting up another three runs on an RBI double and single, respectively.

The Brewers kept rolling in the second inning. Christian Yelich and Braun each collected a double off of Ryu, bringing Milwaukee’s lead to 5-1 over Los Angeles. Braun advanced to third on a Travis Shaw groundout, but with Aguilar up to bat, Ryu wasn’t going to chance a repeat of the Dodgers’ first-inning debacle. He intentionally walked Aguilar, then whiffed Moustakas on three straight fastballs to cap the inning.

By the time both Miley and Ryu were forced from the mound, the Brewers stood 5-2 above their opponents. Right-hander Corey Knebel worked a scoreless 1 2/3 innings, striking out Manny Machado to eliminate another potential rally from the Dodgers in the fifth inning and retiring all four batters in the sixth (save for Joc Pederson, who reached base after taking a 96.3-MPH fastball to the wrist). The righty received another significant opportunity to do some damage against the Dodgers in the bottom of the fifth, when he came up to bat for the first time in his professional career with the bases loaded and two outs… but saw just four pitches before swinging at a 1-2 pitch to end the inning.

After Ryu’s unexpected departure in the third, Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts cycled through five pitchers — Julio Urías, Alex Wood, Dylan Floro, Caleb Ferguson, and Kenta Maeda — in an attempt to squelch the Brewers’ comeback. The bullpen combined for four consecutive scoreless frames, but was ultimately foiled in the seventh, when, with runners on second and third and two outs, a wild pitch from Maeda ricocheted off the front of home plate and allowed Aguilar to plate yet another insurance run. Still not content with a two-hit, two-RBI performance, Aguilar came back in the bottom of the eighth with an RBI single — only moments after a failed double play that would have ended the inning — to bring the Brewers to a cushy 7-2 advantage as they entered the ninth.

No similar last-minute rallies awaited the Dodgers there. Rookie right-hander Corbin Burnes orchestrated another flawless 1-2-3 inning in the ninth, retiring Pederson and Puig with consecutive strikeouts and inducing a game-inning, series-extending pop-up from Matt Kemp to wrap the win.

Game 7 is set for 8:09 PM EDT on Saturday. The starters for both clubs have yet to be announced.