The Cleveland Indians were expected to be cellar dwellers in 2011. Then, BAM. 30-15 to start the season, and Cleveland was flying high. As the season wore on, the team eventually wore down with it, losing its grasp on first place in the AL Central, and by the end of the season, its season-long battle with the .500 mark, finishing at 80-82. The 50-67 finish after the hot start really dampened the spirits of the Tribe, but there were still a lot of things that went right. By the same token, there was a lot that went wrong, since the Indians finished with a -56 run differential on the year.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Let’s start with shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera had 18 career homers coming into 2011, which perfectly explains why he hit 25 during the season. The rest of his offensive stats seemed roughly consistent wtih his overall career numbers, so the power spike looks even more strange. We’ll know more about whether he can keep it up next year, but it was a good boost for the team. Catcher Carlos Santana’s first full season in the majors went well, as he led the team with 3.8 fWAR and an .808 OPS despite just a .239 batting average. In a brief tryout at second base, rookie Jason Kipnis fluorished, OPSing .840 in 150 plate appearances. On the mound, Justin Masterston developed into a bona fide ace, with a 55% ground ball rate and a 3.21 ERA, while his predictors actually kept him at that level.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Injuries screwed over the offense, with top outfielders Shin Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore playing in less than 90 games each. Neither was very productive when healthy, either. Injuries also plagued DH Travis Hafner, who played in just 94 games, his third of the last four seasons under 100. Cleveland sacrificed the farm, including top prospect Drew Pomeranz, at midseason to pick up former All-Star Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez proceeded to pitch 65 1/3 innings of 5.10 ERA ball for the tribe, though his FIP was a more solid 3.85. Carlos Carrasco wasn’t really up to snuff when healthy, and eventually blew his elbow out to require Tommy John surgery. Fausto Carmona couldn’t recapture his past glory yet again, with a 5.20 ERA on the season. Closer Chris Perez saved 36 games, but had strikeout and walk rates that were too out of line to indicate future success.
Cabrera is the big surprise. He had been an all-glove, no-bat player for his entire career, and all of a sudden, he’s winning the silver slugger at shortstop. No one could have projected it, and here we are. Masterson’s emergence as an ace came as a surprise to many who had pegged him as a bullpen arm. The season of reliever Vinnie Pestano, who struck out 84 in 62 innings, was also a welcome surprise for Cleveland.
Carrasco was the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee deal back in 2009, and he just hasn’t performed at the level that the Indians expected him to since the trade. With him missing at least half of next season, it’ll be another lost year for him that has the Tribe faithful infuriated. Carmona’s continued decline from the 19-win pitcher of 2007 remains evident, and his groundball rate has held steady at 55% over the last three years after being over 60% in the two years prior. He’s simply allowing more home runs now, and for a pitcher that doesn’t strike many hitters out, that can spell doom in the long run. A special place has to be reserved for Matt LaPorta, the centerpiece of the CC Sabathia deal in 2008. LaPorta OPSed just .711 this season as the team’s primary first baseman, and has earned the ire of Indians fans for his performance.
Sizemore’s option was declined, and he probably won’t be back in town next year. The team brought in veteran Derek Lowe in a trade with the Braves to eat a rotation spot, and with the Braves funding $10 million of Lowe’s contract, the deal looks pretty good. The only other free agents on the team are Kosuke Fukudome, acquired at midseason from the Cubs, Jim Thome, acquired in August from the Twins, and veteran reliever Chad Durbin. The 2012 Indians will look very similar to the 2011 squad.
There won’t be many. With Sizemore’s departure, center field could come down to a battle between Trevor Crowe and Ezequiel Carrera. Kipnis will take over full-time at second, and top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall looks to be the primary third baseman with incumbent Jack Hannahan coming off the bench. The kids will be getting plenty of playing time in Cleveland, but will they be good enough to contend?