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Tribe Happenings: Can Cleveland catch up to Detroit?

Tribe Happenings: Can Cleveland catch up to Detroit?
Photo: Cleveland.com
February 24, 2013
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With Tony on his way back from warm, sunny Hawaii, he has entrusted me to take the big boy chair and run Tribe Happenings this week. So if you find the Happenings substandard today, make sure you blame Tony. I had nothing to do with it...

With that out of the way, let's get on to the news, notes, and thoughts from my Cleveland notebook:

Is Detroit Within Striking Distance?

Over the past week, Jake Dungan and Jim Pete have both taken good looks at where Cleveland sits amongst the competition in the AL Central. Both of them came up with favorable analyses, but for me, everything comes back to one sole question:

Can Cleveland catch Detroit?

Say what you want about Kansas City's young talent and Chicago's savvy core, but I honestly do not buy much into their chances. I think that both teams have some pretty significant flaws and are not who Cleveland fans should be concerned with.

In my opinion, Cleveland needs to prepare to take their best shot at the king. The Detroit Tigers, the team that won the American League pennant last season, is the only team worth focusing on and trying to catch.

So how far back is Cleveland? I'm glad you asked.

To keep this simple, I'm going to rely on MLB Depth Charts' projected startersDan Szymborski's ZiPS projectionsand WAR. But please don't go running away at that; I promise plenty of non-nerdy talk as well. I swear.

From here, let's look at each team's starters, sorted by best projection to worst projection. I'll also put the player with the higher WAR projection in there, just for fun:

Rank

Cleveland

Rank

Detroit

1.)

Carlos Santana, C (4.4)

1.)

Miguel Cabrera, 3B (7.0)

2.)

Michael Bourn, CF (4.0)

2.)

Prince Fielder, 1B (4.3)

3.)

Asdrubal Cabrera, SS (3.7)

3.)

Austin Jackson, CF (3.5)

4.)

Jason Kipnis, 2B (3.0)

4.)

Alex Avila, C (2.7)

5.)

Nick Swisher, 1B (2.5)

5.)

Torii Hunter, RF (2.4)

6.)

Michael Brantley, LF (2.5)

6.)

Jhonny Peralta, SS (2.4)

7.)

Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B (2.0)

7.)

Omar Infante, 2B (1.9)

8.)

Drew Stubbs, RF (1.6)

8.)

Andy Dirks, LF (1.5)

9.)

Mark Reynolds, DH (1.1)

9.)

Victor Martinez, DH (1.2)

 

Now that's just what our computer overlords say; we don't have to take them at face value. Go ahead and debate these results amongst yourself: would I rather have Swisher or Hunter?; Brantley or Peralta?; Stubbs or Dirks?

The choice on those questions is yours. The projections show them basically in a dead-heat and leaves plenty of room for us to argue.

But the interesting thing this exercise shows us is that these two lineups are close. Detroit's is projected to be slightly better -- buoyed by Mr. Triple Crown Miguel Cabrera -- but Cleveland's is deeper.

On some level, this comes down to a decision between a stars-and-scrubs lineup or a balanced one. There are benefits to both and one can build a team either way. Detroit has the best player, but Cleveland has the depth.

This should in no way belittle the abilities of Detroit hitters not named Cabrera or Fielder, but it merely points out how far Cleveland has come in one offseason. Per ZiPS -- again, blame Szymborski, not me -- Cleveland wins six of the nine head-to-head matchups if we compare the two lineups one-through-nine.

Most of those wins for Cleveland are as tight as they come, but it is something. Plus, unlike Detroit, it would not be a shock if players like Santana, Kipnis, and Brantley exceed their projections, as they are younger players entering their prime.

Overall, when it comes to position players, the Rock and Roll Capital of the World and Detroit Rock City are neck-and-neck.

Which, of course, leads us to the pitching.

I'm going to skip straight to the bullpens for now, in order to build some suspense. ZiPS is fairly conservative on the Bullpen Mafia, negating some of that advantage that is usually given to Cleveland. It is also lukewarm on Detroit's bullpen, as you will see below.

Since it's tables day here at the Happenings, let's see the projections for the Bullpen Mafia (which will consist of: Chris PerezVinnie PestanoJoe SmithMatt AlbersNick HagadoneMatt Capps, and Rich Hill) and Detroit's generic, no-nickname bullpen (which will consist of: Bruce RondonJoaquin BenoitPhil CokeAl AlburquerqueOctavio DotelBrayan Villarreal, and Duane Below).

*I did change MLB Depth Chart's projection for David Huff in the bullpen, since ZiPS projects him for a -1.8 WAR as a starter. Which would destroy all usefulness for this comparison.

Name

IP

SO/9

BB/9

ERA

WAR

Bullpen Mafia

374.1

8.08

3.39

4.02

2.0

Detroit's Lame, No-Name Bullpen

400.1

8.52

3.93

4.43

2.7

 

Basically dead-even, in that Detroit's ERA is higher, but so is its projected WAR. Which I am fine with, as in the grand scheme of things, bullpens are only worth a tiny bit in terms of overall wins to a club. When they fail -- as in blown saves -- it seems like the bullpen has cost the team the entire game. This isn't really true, however, so a conservative, even bullpen projection leaves Cleveland and Detroit still very close.

Again, feel free to argue one way or another on these exact projections; they are, after all, just educated guesses. Feel free to give the Bullpen Mafia the advantage if you want. Or the disadvantage. Just know it's close.

Now, we have Cleveland and Detroit projecting in very similar ways in their starting lineups and bullpens. Which would be great if we didn't have the starting rotations left to analyze.

I won't bother with a chart for this one, since it is just too ugly. Justin Verlander alone is projected to be better than the entire Cleveland rotation, and that's without taking Doug FisterMax ScherzerAnibal Sanchez, and even Rick Porcello into account.

All told, ZiPS projects the Cleveland starting rotation for 5.5 WAR and Detroit for 17.5. Otherwise known as a 12-win gap.

Yet despite this pessimistic prediction, I would actually say this is a positive for Cleveland.

See, pitchers tend to forget how to pitch more often than hitters forget how to hit. Like Ubaldo Jimenez. Or even Justin Masterson last season.

I wouldn't bet on Verlander falling back to an average pitcher. But it could happen. Same for Fister, Scherzer, Sanchez, and Porcello.

Plus, it's not like the starting pitching could really get much worse for Cleveland; that rotation already hit rock bottom in 2012. It is very possible for them to overachieve their meager projections, whereas it will be difficult for the entirety of Detroit's rotation to pitch that well again.

It is impossible to predict the future, especially in baseball. Nevertheless, I think that Cleveland is decently close to the reigning American League champs with real potential to pass them.

Baseball Returns

It may not be real baseball. It may not involving pitchers going more than two innings. It may not have hitters going more than one or two at bats.

But it is great to have any type of baseball back after a long winter.

Cleveland has only played two games of pseudo-baseball, so it would be terribly rash to make any kinds of judgments. Plus, Spring Training stats are notoriously useless.

But let's not let that stop us from jumping to some irrational conclusions.

First off, Lonnie Chisenhall's home run in the first game of Spring Training was a great sight. Clearly, if Cleveland intends to be successful this year, the 2008 first round pick will need to establish himself as the everyday third baseman.

Mike Aviles is waiting in the wings and capable of playing third base, but that would put a real tax on the limited depth in the organization. Unless you're ready to have Juan Diaz as the primary infield backup, Chisenhall needs to hold down third base and allow Aviles to be the super-sub for the team.

As will be the case with all of these observations, we must be sure not to make too much of one Chisenhall home run. With that said, this is the kind of start the team must have been looking for out of the third baseman.

A second observation is that Ryan Raburn certainly seems to want one of the open bench jobs. Through two games, the former Tiger has launched three home runs and has really made his name known here in the early going.

Raburn had an absolutely atrocious batting line last year of .171/.226/.254 in 66 games and was worth -1.5 WAR, tied for the lowest in all of baseball. The other names Raburn tied with? Cubs outfield Joe Mather, Red Sox outfielder Ryan Kalish, and our old buddy Casey Kotchman.

This power surge from Raburn will likely not last long, as he has never prolonged this kind of output before. He only hit 54 home runs in 566 career games -- around 15 in a full season of playing time -- so we shouldn't expect this to continue.

However, if Raburn finds a way to fix his offensive issues from 2012, he could be a very useful bench player. Raburn's career offensive line is roughly average (.256/.311/.430). He is also capable of playing almost every position, though defensive metrics suggest his infield play is less-than-stellar.

Still, this kind of offensive performance is encouraging. It's certainly somewhere to start.

Third, Michael Brantley has come out firing on all cylinders this spring, going 4-for-4 in the first two games. This winter could not have been necessarily pleasant for Brantley, as he got bumped out of center field and is likely the third option for the team there now behind Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs.

But as long as Brantley hits and plays above-average defense in left field, he will do wonders for the team. His defense fits better in the corner and combined with Bourn and Stubbs, fly balls will go to die all summer in Progressive Field.

Plus, with Brantley hitting his age-26 season, it would not be a shock to see him take another step forward as he enters what should be his prime.

Despite the "demotion" this offseason, Brantley will be one of the key indicators of success (or failure) in 2013. Luckily for Cleveland, he seems to be off to a hot start.

Fourth, and finally, having new acquisition Mike McDade give Cleveland their first victory of 2013 was a nice touch. McDade was not one of the high profiles moves Chris Antonetti made this offseason, but it is one that could pay dividends.

The switch-hitting first baseman is only 23 years old and had an impressive showing between Double-A and Triple-A (a .285/.360/.445 line). His numbers spiked upon being called up to Triple-A (.338/.392/.493), though it was a small sample size of only 18 games and in the hitter paradise known as Las Vegas.

Despite his lack of experience in Triple-A, McDade is still interesting. He should start off in Columbus, and while a path to the big leagues is not easily clear, an injury or two combined with strong play from McDade could create an opportunity for the switch-hitter.

Soto's Debut

The identity of the first starting pitcher in Spring Training is not actually significant, but I'm going to take this opportunity to talk about Giovanni Soto anyway.

Soto won't turn 22 until May, but the left-hander already spent an entire season at Double-A. He only threw 121.1 innings last season, as he continues to be stretched out after elbow trouble in 2011. The results weren't the best on the surface, with a 6-9 W-L record and 3.93 ERA, but going beyond those surface stats reveals a more interesting story.

For one, Soto was well below the average age of a Double-A pitcher. Even getting to average results at that age is impressive on its own.

Second, Soto was supposed to spend the year working on his secondary offerings since his cutter is already major league ready. Assuming he spent the time honing in pitches other than his bread and butter, then the results should be at least a little bit worse than his true talent level.

At worst, Soto profiles as a solid left-handed option out of a major league bullpen. But there is so much more than that if Soto reaches his potential. He is not a starting pitching option for the team out of Spring Training -- and with him likely slated for around 160 innings and no experience above Double-A, he may not reach the majors at all in 2013 as a starter.

But if he keeps improving, debuting as a starter in the major leagues in 2014 is a possibility. Soto is still young enough that a bullpen move can wait, and with a little luck, he can become a mid-to-back-of-the-rotation.

Rankings are Useful, but not Gospel

When Baseball America released their Top 100 rankings this week, I found myself curious to see where Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer ranked. After reading through the list, I found myself frustrated with their results.

After fully handling Single-A as an 18-year-old, I expected Lindor to be ranked much higher than 28th. Additionally, four shortstops -- Jurickson ProfarXander BogaertsCarlos Correa, and Javier Baez -- were all ranked ahead of Lindor. I'm sure that I am operating with at least some level of bias, but I still found Lindor's ranking far too low.

On the other hand, I found Bauer's ranking surprisingly high. After being ranked ninth before 2012, a slight drop to 14th is not all that shocking. Still, ranking Bauer 14 places above Lindor seemed a little off. Ranking Bauer ahead of Lindor at all seemed off, in fact.

After some time passed, however, I really didn't care about the rankings anymore. It's easy to get caught up in specific ranks, but in all actuality, the difference between each place is minimal.

Prospecting is far from an exact science. Keith Law, another national prospect writer, ranked Lindor much higher than Baseball America (seventh, in fact) while being much lower on Bauer (25th).

The bigger takeaway from all of these Top 100 rankings is that being ranked at all is a good sign for a player, and being ranked consistently in the Top 30 is an even better sign. Cleveland has been blessed with two of the better prospects in all of baseball right now; that is good enough.

Parting Shots

In the first live batting practice sessions earlier this week, Justin Masterson and Vinnie Pestano took comebackers off of their legs. Both were fine and didn't miss any time. ... Terry Francona released his first official lineup of the year, placing Brantley in the fifth spot, Santana in the sixth spot, and Reynolds in the seventh spot. This would have been an interesting fact to break down, but Francona specifically said not to read anything into it. ... Wednesday was a good day for '90s stalwarts Carlos Baerga and John Hart, as the two were elected to the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame. They will be inducted on June 22 at Progressive Field.

If you want to follow Jim on Twitter, he’s @JimPiascik. If you want to e-mail him, you can do so at jpiasci1@kent.edu

User Comments

Seth
February 24, 2013 - 7:16 PM EST
To Jim's point about pitcher projections, and how it could break either way, ZiPS projected the Indians' starting rotation last year as the 5th best in MLB. And we saw how that worked out. So while Detroit on paper is far superior, what's great about baseball is you never know ... especially when it comes to pitching, and probably even more especially when it comes to Indians' pitching.

For the Indians' ZiPS projections, the only ones I don't get are the bullpen. ZiPS seems to be of the opinion that after Perez and Pestano, the rest of the guys are replacement level, which is odd. On the other hand, ZiPS is probably more optimistic than I am on the position player side.
Rich
February 24, 2013 - 5:15 PM EST
This kind of analysis isn't good for much. There is no way this Szymborski guy can accurately predict what kind of a year most of these players will have.

The Indians are loaded with wild cards. If Masterson gets back to his 2011 form and both Carrasco and Bauer break out, this could be a very good rotation. Will Myers be able to start effectively after a year in the bullpen? Is Kazmir ready to pitch well in the majors again? Can Ubaldo find his fastball in a contract year, or find a way to get hitters out throwing only 92 mph?

Is Giambi going to be a factor or is he this year's Johnny Damon? Will Stubbs get his BA up to the .250 area by eliminating his leg kick and striving for more consistent contact? Will Asdrubal have a good first AND second half after losing 15 pounds in the off-season?

Will Brantley bust out offensively now that he won't be leading off at all? Will Santana's production improve without the pressure of hitting cleanup?

How many runs will be saved by all that speed in the outfield?

So many unknowns. I'm not buying Jim's contention that the Tribe's everyday lineup has more balance, either. Compare the last five players on the chart. They're all within one-tenth of a point of each other. The way I see it the Tigers have a huge advantage with Miggy vs. Bourn, and the next eight guys are almost dead even if you add up the WAR's.

The Tigers have better hitting and pitching and the Tribe has better defense. I know who's going to win that one.
Andy
February 24, 2013 - 3:22 PM EST
I don't know if the starting pitchers will be positively affected by the improved D and more powerful lineup, but I have a lot more confidence that the Indians will contend in the AL Central than I did at the end of last season. I would imagine it was a lot of pressure to pitch with the feeling that giving up more than 3 runs was a deal-breaker for the team to win.
anonymous
February 24, 2013 - 3:17 PM EST
Jim, any concern with lindor's avg. last year? I know he's very young.
Tony
February 24, 2013 - 2:14 PM EST
Jim, nice job! I liked the breakdown of the Indians-Tigers, and I agree, it will really come down to the starting pitching. The Tigers have a much more proven staff while the Indians staff is filled with wildcards. I do think that some of that 12 WAR gap will be made up by the Indians starters pitching better this year and Detroit's not as well, but how much remains to be seen. It may come down to Detroit having all kinds of pen issues to negate some of that good starting pitching they have.
Jim Piascik
February 24, 2013 - 12:57 PM EST
Oh, the ZiPS projections put Cleveland right at 76.5 wins. But I do think that there is a good chance for the young players to outdo those projections as they begin to hit their primes.
Common Cents
February 24, 2013 - 12:49 PM EST
Excuse me for adding some more objective analysis, but Vegas odds are always dead on.

2012 Over/Under for top teams:

Phillies 6:1
Tigers 6:1
Angels 7:1
Yankees 7:1
Rangers 8:1
Red Sox 10:1
Jim Piascik
February 24, 2013 - 12:45 PM EST
Thanks for the kind words. I agree on the starting pitching; it is the key now. But with how poorly they are being projected for in 2013, being average would be an improvement.

I think it got buried in the text, but Cleveland's rotation is projected for 5.5 WAR. Average would be 10.0. Detroit's at 17.5. So the hope for Cleveland is that their pitching exceeds expectations while Detroit's falls off a bit from 2012.
Common Cents
February 24, 2013 - 12:34 PM EST
I liked reading the article, but if you're going to do a legitimate comparison, you've got to include the starting pitching as you did with the line-up and pen, even if it's too ugly. Otherwise, it's just misleading analysis.

Excuse me for adding in some objective analysis, but the Tigers aren't the only problem for the Indians -- the odds-makers have both the White Sox (80.5 games) and Royals (78.5 games) ahead of the Indians, whom are projected for 76.5 wins in 2013.

Vegas Over/Under on 2013 wins
Tigers 92.5 wins
White Sox 80.5
Royals 78.5
Indians 76.5
Twins 68.5

I think the Indians will exceed 76.5 games, but lets be honest with ourselves -- the Indians really need almost everyone in the rotation to have better than average seasons to compete.

No need to apologize for the article. It is fine and on par with Tony's work.
shy
February 24, 2013 - 12:24 PM EST
Well I think Detroit may be slow out of the gate- even worse than last year when they ended April in the toilet. There is a bit of a diva mentality that creeps in first half when you've just been to the World Series. Leyland is great, but old; he can't control the team now like he could when he was younger, honestly I think last year may have been the Tigers best shot. The Indians look like they could start fast. New players, new manager, new energy- it has the look and feel of a movement. I think they will score some runs and the bullpen will be good. The key for me is the starting pitching. It's not at all clear to me. I think they need Masterson and Jimenez who both can be unhittable at times to go there and stay there for 7-8 starts in a row. They need McCallister to continue his progress from last year- he's a horse. I think they need Trevor Bauer to make the team and energize the fan base and the national media and all the rest of the team will feed into it. It would sure be nice to have a lefty starter. Maybe David Huff will channel Barry Zito. The other thing I would want to see for the Indians to contend is a couple of young position players really step up and contribute. Right now I'm thinking one of them is Lonnie Chisenhall. Would the other one be Mike McDade? He is turning some heads in Goodyear not only with the bat but with his smooth fielding ability. He really looks like a natural at 1B.

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