Springtime Storylines: Will the Cleveland Indians build on last season or take a step backward?

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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.

Rob Manfred explains reasoning behind proposal to cut 42 minor league teams

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As we learned earlier this week, Major League Baseball wants to contract 42 minor league teams, mostly in short-season and rookie ball. The proposal earned a lot of backlash, including from some of the teams on the chopping block and from Congress. MLB responded with its own letter to Congress, written by deputy commissioner Dan Halem, explaining the league’s reasoning.

In the letter, Halem complains about the lack of competition between minor league teams and independent teams. Halem wrote, “The lack of competition among operators of teams for an affiliation with a Major League Club has reduced the incentive for some affiliated Minor League teams to improve their facilities and player amenities.” It is an interesting thing to write as someone representing a $10 billion business that has benefited for a century from an antitrust exemption.

Halem also noted that MLB has several goals that are supposedly attained by cutting 26 percent of the minors: ensuring the quality of the facilities for the players, reducing the travel burden, improving the “compensation, accommodations, and amenities” for players, improving the affiliation process between minor league and major league teams.

Commissioner Rob Manfred essentially echoed that sentiment on Thursday, per Newsday’s Laura Albanese. He gave four reasons behind the proposal: inadequate facilities, travel, poor pay, drafting and signing players who don’t have a realistic shot to make it to the majors. The last reason is a new one, but let’s go over those four reasons in context.

It is true that some, perhaps even most, of the facilities of the 42 named teams are inadequate. It’s not all of them. As NECN’s Jack Thurston reports, the owner of the short-season Lowell Spinners, Dave Heller, said that his team’s stadium is “arguably the best facility in the New York-Penn League,” speaking highly of its lighting and field conditions. The Quad Cities River Bandits, the Astros’ Single-A affiliate and also on the chopping block, renovated their stadium a handful of times over the last 12 years. In fact, it earned an award from BallparkDigest.com for “Best Ballpark Improvement” in both 2008 and ’09, and finished third in the 2018 running for “Best View in the Minors.” At any rate, if facility quality is such a big issue, why did the Athletics continue to play in a stadium that repeatedly had its sewage system overflow in 2013?

Travel is certainly a big issue for minor leaguers because they mostly travel by bus, not plane. Having teams located closer to each other would be more beneficial in this regard. Or — and hear me out, here — major league teams could take on the extra expenditure of paying for their minor leaguers’ airfare. Several years ago, the Phillies took on the extra expenditure of making sure their minor leaguers ate healthy food and that has worked out well. The Blue Jays took on the extra expenditure of giving their minor leaguers a pay raise and that has worked out well. The Red Sox took on the extra expenditure of installing a sleep room at Fenway Park to ensure their players were well-rested and that has worked out well. No one is suggesting that Single-A players have to fly first class on every flight, but the travel issue is an easy fix that doesn’t require contracting 42 teams. Teams have individually chosen to improve their players’ quality of life and it has yielded positive results. Imagine it on a league-wide scale for thousands of players in their formative years.

Manfred citing minor league pay as a basis for the proposal is laughable. His own league successfully lobbied Congress to amend language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, classifying minor league players as seasonal workers. That means they are not entitled to a minimum wage or overtime pay, among other worker protections. If the pay of minor league players was so important to Major League Baseball, it wouldn’t have pressured the government to legally ensure they didn’t have to pay them a living wage. Every baseball team is worth at least a billion dollars. The league has set year-over-year revenue records for 16 consecutive years, crossing $10 billion in 2018. Minor leaguers could be compensated well without robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Lastly, it is true that a majority of minor league players will never reach the major leagues. That doesn’t mean that their presence in the minor leagues or their effort to realize their dreams have zero value. Lopping off the bottom 26 percent of minor leaguers might nominally increase the level of skill on each roster, but it eliminates so many jobs — well over 1,000. Furthermore, there are few incentives for athletes to want to slog through several years of the minors as it is, as Kyler Murray recently showed, but there would be even fewer incentives by shrinking the minors (and, consequently, the draft). Shrinking the minors and the draft could lead to more minor league free agents, but if baseball is actually interested in a free market (it’s not) then it should abolish the draft entirely as well as the arbitration system.

These reasons, each uniquely fallacious, hide the real reason behind the proposal: shifting money around so Major League Baseball can say it will award pay raises to minor leaguers, ending a years-long stretch of bad P.R., without actually cutting into profits. MLB could have afforded to pay minor leaguers a living wage years ago and it chose not to. MLB could have chosen not to lobby Congress for the ability to continue underpaying minor leaguers years ago, but it chose to do so. Everything since has been the league trying to avoid lying in the bed it made for itself.