In 2011, the Cleveland Indians raced out to a 35-15 start. They were the talk of baseball and their manager, Manny Acta, was a shoo-in for Manager of the Year. They stayed in the race through the trade deadline that season, when they decided to push their collective chips into the pot and trade away their top two prospects to land Ubaldo Jimenez. It made perfect sense, it seemed at the time; the Indians hadn’t expected to be in this position for at least another year and they wanted to take advantage of the situation they found themselves in.
While the 2012 version of the Tribe didn’t get off to the same kind of start, this club did spend 37 days in first place and were still very much in contention through late July. In fact, the Indians sat at 50-50 through 100 games, but wound up losing 41 of their next 56 before Acta was relieved of his duties.
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine we didn’t see this kind of a season coming.
The Indians’ front office did very little to augment the roster and attempt to take advantage of the surprising 2011 campaign. Instead of making a play for an established bat at first base, the Tribe settled for journeyman Casey Kotchman, who was coming off a career year in Tampa Bay and was bound to regress. Instead of landing an established hitter to play either left or center field, the Indians not only re-signed the oft-injured Grady Sizemore, but made the mistake of proceeding without a legitimate backup plan should Sizemore once again miss time. The big trade of the off-season was in getting right hander Derek Lowe from Atlanta, where he had been a massive disappointment in 2011. The idea was that the Tribe would get a veteran hurler at a fraction of the cost of his salary (of which Atlanta was paying most). Instead of picking up an upgrade at third base, Cleveland opted to sign Jose Lopez to a minor league deal and allow Jack Hannahan to keep his job at the hot corner.
These were all calculated risks taken by a club that wasn’t willing to spend much money. They counted on a bounce-back season from former all-star Shin-Soo Choo (which they got), they counted on former all-stars Travis Hafner and Sizemore to return to their previous forms, and they counted on getting solid starting pitching.
GM Chris Antonetti took far too many gambles with the players he did retain or acquire and did far too little to provide a blanket of support in case his gambles failed to pay off. Simply put, there was too much reliance on the likes of Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana to carry the offense. When those two had good-but-not-great years, there was too little around them in the order to make due.
While the offense, which was far too heavily left handed to ever succeed during the long season, was disappointing, the pitching staff was the major culprit in the Indians’ downfall. Jimenez not only did not return to his 2010 form, but he took significant steps backward in 2012. Jimenez posted career-highs in WHIP (1.613), hits allowed (190), ERA (5.40), wild pitches (16), and walks per nine innings (4.8). He did this while losing 17 games and posting his lowest-ever strikeout rate of just 7.3 per nine innings.
It wasn’t just Jimenez that ultimately cost first-year pitching coach Scott Radinsky his job mid-season, either. Justin Masterson, who turned in a breakout 2011, joined Jimenez in taking steps backward. Lowe started the season very well, though without striking out virtually anyone, before the batted balls began finding holes more frequently. By mid-August, Lowe had been released. The same struggles that plagued Lowe also plagued Josh Tomlin, another control artist with a good sinker. Tomlin was counted upon to be an integral part of the rotation but ended the season in the bullpen and then on the disabled list.
Heading into the off-season, the Indians have far more holes to fill than resources available which which to fill. They made an early splash in the signing of Terry Francona to replace Acta on the bench, which seems to be a better move for Cleveland than it is for Francona, who could have had any job he wanted had he chosen to wait a bit longer.
Sizemore, who didn’t manage to play in a single game in 2012, will almost assuredly be moving on as I can’t foresee Antonetti taking yet another flier on him. Michael Brantleyestablished himself in center field in 2012 and a solid corner outfielder should be easier to add than one who can play in
center. But they do need to add a bat in left.
Lonnie Chisenhall and Matt LaPorta are getting a little long in the tooth to be called prospects at this point and both have been unable to unseat marginal big leaguers like Shelley Duncan and Hannahan for regular at bats. Unfortunately, those two are still the best the upper levels of the minor leagues has to offer. In Antonetti is going to give Francona a better roster than he gave Acta, he’ll have to convince the thrifty Dolan family to spend a lot more money or he’ll have to get creative on the trade market. Probably both.
Closer Chris Perez has been outspoken against the fans and the organization in Cleveland, but he’s also a piece that could draw interest on the trade market. The bullpen looks set to be one of the best in baseball once again if no changes are made there, but even if Perez is dealt, Vinnie Pestano is more than ready to take over the role.
Antonetti is faced with option decisions on Jimenez, Hafner, and Roberto Hernandez. Hernandez, the former Fausto Carmona, seems unlikely to return, as does Hafner, who can’t stay healthy even as a full-time DH. Jimenez, on the other hand, has an affordable club option and a tremendous arm, plus he’s still just 28-years-old. Given what they gave up to get him, Cleveland almost has to ride this one out and see where it takes them. They’ve too much invested in Jimenez to bail out now.
The shopping list is a long one: left field, third base, first base, DH, with most of those needing to be right handed bats. They need at least a couple starting pitchers as well. In an ordinary scenario, the smart move would be to deal away the escalating salaries of guys like Perez, Masterson, and Choo and look to progress through a three-year rebuilding plan. That doesn’t seem to be something Francona would necessarily want to be involved in, however, so you have to wonder what he was told by the front office. If the plan is to build as quickly as possible, the Dolans are going to have to spend and Antonetti is going to have to do a much better job in evaluating the talent on other clubs, because his trade record thus far is less than stellar.
For more on the Indians, visit Wahoo’s on First.