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American League Two-a-Days: Cleveland Indians

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Cleveland Indians

2013 record: 92-70
2013 runs scored: 745
2013 runs against: 662
2013 pythag. record: 90-72

The Cleveland Indians were a pretty good team in 2013, and made the postseason for the first time since 2007.  It’s hard to argue, however, that they were one of the five best teams in the American League a year ago.  By Pythagorean record, they were actually better than the Rays, and thus were one of the five best teams in the AL, but the Indians had a huge split last year between performance against good teams and bad teams.  They won their final ten games of the regular season against the Astros, White Sox, and Twins, and made the playoffs by a single game.

The schedule is not so unbalanced that you can call the Indians’ run a fluke — it wasn’t fluky.  But against playoff caliber opponents, the Indians went 14-32 (.291) last season.  Against the White Sox, Astros, and Twins, the Indians went 36-8 (.818) including 17-2 and a streak that included the final 14 games against the Sox.  If the White Sox had been a little less putrid last year, the Rangers are in the postseason instead of the Indians.  Given the splits above, it’s hard to imagine one of the true best teams in the AL looking that inept against playoff competition.  They were closer to average than great last year.

But the real question those splits suggest is whether the Indians are any good going forward?

Who is having a good spring?

The Indians have a great offensive infield, and Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, and Mike Aviles are all raking in spring training.  Ryan Raburn, who has the spirit of an infielder, but the glove of a DH, has popped two spring homers.  Mike Brantley got a contract extension in the offseason, he’s hitting .600 this month — a thing that can happen in spring training.  Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco are leading the pitching staff.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Indians

The offensive depth that the Indians have is better than any team in baseball, with two possible exception in the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays.  At many positions, the Indians go with a straight platoon, and always gain the handedness advantage.  This turns guys like Ryan Raburn, David Murphy, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Mike Aviles into useful offensive players.

If you didn’t follow the Indians last year, you may not be aware that Yan Gomes is one of the best catchers in the American League.  He is.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Indians

The Indians pitching staff was excellent last season, and a great surprise, but this is in many was a bunch of misfit parts that have been glued together to form a staff.  You have a singular top-rotation talent in Danny Salazar, who hasn’t pitched a full 6-month season at any level yet.  You have a nominal staff ace in Justin Masterson, who has one of the largest platoon splits in baseball.  You have Zach McAllister and Cory Kluber, who are both nice pitchers, but profile best as mid-rotation guys.  All of the last three names spent time on the DL last season.  You have Carrasco, who was dreadful as a starter last year but useful in the bullpen.  They have Trevor Bauer, the 3rd pick in the MLB draft two years ago, who sits 95-97 on his fastball but can’t find the strike zone.  And Tyler Cloyd, a non-roster invite  acquired from the Phillies organization.

Pitching coach Mickey Callaway is tasked with turning Salazar and a lot of loose fitting parts into something that can replace a rotation that was at the top of the AL in strikeouts a year ago and featured Ubaldo Jimenez (now Baltimore’s ace), and Scott Kazmir (now Oakland’s ace).  It’s hard to see this team staying competitive without acquiring a pitcher at some point.

Cleveland is one of baseball’s worst defensive teams, especially in the infield, where they are below average across the board.  The outfield defense is at least adequate, and Gomes is really good behind the dish.  But Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jason Kipnis are all well below average defenders at their positions.  You can pencil Cleveland in to give up 700-750 runs this season, up from last year’s 662.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Indians is 36.9, 10th in the American League.  Their 22.7 Batters WAR projection is 8th in the AL. Their 14.1 Pitchers WAR projection is 10th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Indians to win 83 games, a 9 win decline over last season.  Carlos Santana is the Indian with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 3.5.  Danny Salazar and Justin Masterson are pitchers with the best average projection at 3.2 WAR.

The Indians vs the rest of the AL Central

The AL Central is an above average division this year.  The Tigers enter the season with one of the best statistical profiles of any team.  The Royals and Indians are above average opponents with some downside potential.  The Twins should be improved, and have the consensus best farm system, which should help avoid a repeat of the end of last year when they were running a sub-MLB lineup out.  The White Sox are more volatile this year than last, and will have some upside to go with the worst downside in MLB.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Cleveland Indians

In mid-September, it wasn’t that clear that the Indians were going to pay off their good season with a playoff run.  But a 10 game winning streak put them over the top and got them to host the wild card playoff.  They lost to the Rays, and the playoff run was short lived.  The real problem is that the construction of last years Indians team was to overpay free agents who are now in their 30’s like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.  With Swisher/Bourn/Cabrera on the decline and the farm talent like Francisco Lindor a half-year away, that fairly conservative offensive projection of 10th in the AL in WAR could crater.

With the rotation not quite ready to pick up the slack, the Indians could be in for a 2012-type season.  A season like that wouldn’t really change the level of talent in the organization, but when you look at their performance against the best teams, the Indians are going to need a lot of improvement that just isn’t coming.  This is a 74-88 team.

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