The Cleveland Indians were quiet this past offseason. No sexy free-agent signings, no wheeling and dealing. When I arrived to Indians camp in spring training, I spent considerable time with rookie GM Chris Antonetti and second-year manager Manny Acta. Both were convinced that if everything went as planned the Indians could contend as early as this season -- even though this was a team that hadn’t had a winning record since 2007 and had lost 93 games in 2010 and 97 in 2009. Contending? Really? How?
Antonetti, one of the youngest and brightest GMs in baseball, broke it down this way for me on that hot Arizona March day: "To contend we need the following to happen: (1) We need our key players to get healthy, specifically Grady Sizemore, Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera and Travis Hafner; (2) We need our other young players on the roster to continue their development with meaningful contributions on the field. This list of players includes Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Chris Perez, Michael Brantley, Matt LaPorta and our young bullpen arms; (3) We need our veterans to contribute and provide leadership on the field and in the clubhouse, including Orlando Cabrera, Sizemore and Hafner."
Check, check and check, Mr. Antonetti.
This Indians team is not only contending but has the best record in the American League. Are they for real? Yes, they’re for real. I’m not saying they’re going to win the division, but what I am saying is that if they stay healthy, this team will contend into September and should win more games than they lose. The main reason this team is for real is the pitching and defense. The starting pitching is solid, the bullpen underrated and the infield defense is the best the Indians have seen since Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel and Travis Fryman played together.
The starting rotation is led by Fausto Carmona, who won 13 games last year and is capable of winning 13-16 again this season. Masterson, one of the pitchers acquired in the Victor Martinez trade with Boston, is emerging as a solid No. 2 behind Carmona. Masterson has great size and stuff. His four-seam fastball goes up to 97 mph while the two-seamer sits between 89-94. He mixes in a slider and change from a deceptive lower arm angle and has great downward bite. His command in the lower part of the strike zone has improved due to the fact he solidified his delivery. Most importantly, Masterson continues to develop the understanding of how to best utilize his stuff to attack left-handed hitters, a weakness throughout his career. Masterson has quickly become one of the better pitchers in the league, starting 5-0 with a 2.11 ERA.
Carrasco just spent time on the DL for the first time in his career, but the Indians are not concerned as he is set to return to the rotation this week. In my discussions with Shin-Soo Choo, Santana and Acta, they raved about Carrasco’s potential. They think he’ll develop into a 15-game winner. That brings us to Josh Tomlin, who wins everywhere he goes. His minor league career record is 54-21 and his major league career record is 10-5, including 4-1 this year. Here is Antonetti’s scouting report on Tomlin that he gave me this week: "Great competitor. Won’t beat himself. Pounds the zone. Good four-pitch mix. Understands how to pitch and get hitters out." No argument from me. He might not chalk up a lot of strikeouts each night, but he’ll get the groundballs and get the outs to win games.
That brings us to the infield defense. When you have a rotation that pounds the lower part of the strike zone, but doesn’t always miss bats, then you better catch the ball in the infield with range. This infield catches the ball with range. Jack Hannahan, the journeyman infielder, has done a tremendous job defensively at third base, catching everything with soft hands and an accurate arm. Asdrubal Cabrera is quickly becoming one of the best all-around shortstops in the American league, a very good offensive and defensive shortstop with power, quick hands and feet and a strong arm from the hole. He also has great baseball instincts. He exchanges the ball from glove to release as quickly as anyone. Orlando Cabrera was the one major free-agent signed by Antonetti this offseason and here’s his assessment of Cabrera: "He has made an impact both on the field and in the clubhouse. He has great baseball intelligence and understands what it takes to win." In fact, it seems wherever Cabrera goes his teams win (see: Reds, Twins, Red Sox).
Behind the plate Santana has helped lead the Indians' staff to the third-best ERA in the AL. He has well above-average arm strength and eventually will be able to stop the running game when he gets more experience. He’s off to a slow start with the bat, but he can hit and hit with power from both sides of the plate. He’s a legit future All-Star.
The outfield defense matches the infield defense. Choo is one of the best right fielders in baseball. He gets great jumps, angles on balls and has a strong arm. He can also hit and hit with power. Sizemore is back diving for baseballs and Brantley covers everything in left field like a center fielder. Not a lot of balls are going to be falling in the the gaps at Progressive Field this summer.
The Indians' starting pitchers are pitching deep into games, their offense has put up quality at-bats and has manufactured runs in a variety of ways, thanks to the shrewd managing of Acta, and the bullpen has done a great job of closing games when they get leads as closer Chris Perez has saved 10 of 11 opportunities while Tony Sipp, Vinnie Pestano and Rafael Perez all have ERAs under 2 setting him up.
Remember, this first-place team is doing it without much production from the heart of the order as Choo and Santana have struggled to get past the Mendoza line and top hitting prospect Lonnie Chisenhall is in the minor leagues getting additional seasoning. But we all know that will change, and all three will be productive offensive weapons by season's end.
Hafner and Sizemore are competing for the Comeback Player of the Year Award. Hafner’s shoulder is finally healthy and according to Acta, that allowed him to weight train for the first time in years in the offseason. The result is that Hafner’s bat speed is back, as shown by his .347 average and .932 OPS.
The farm system is also about to add another wave of young talented players as well. Rookie starter Alex White made his debut recently with a win, Nick Hagadone and Drew Pomeranz aren’t far behind ( not to mention Jason Knapp, Zach Putnam and Bryce Stowell) and Chisenhall will probably be taking over third base by the middle of this summer. Chisenhall has a chance to be a .290-to-.300 hitter in the big leagues with 15-20 home runs and 40 doubles. He can really hit and is adequate and improving defensively at third base.
Acta is not only one of the best-dressed managers, but he’s also quickly becoming one of the most respected young skippers in the game. He’s done a phenomenal job in developing the Indians' young arms the last two years and his ability to communicate and motivate are special.
The Indians -- if they stay healthy -- are for real and should produce a summer of winning and continued improved parity in the American League Central.
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