One of the main reasons for the Indians' turnaround from 68 wins in 2012 to 92 victories last season was ownership giving general manager Chris Antonetti the financial resources to improve the roster. Cleveland showed its ambition to challenge the Tigers in the AL Central by signing free agents like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Yet that same drive was missing during this most recent offseason. The Tribe didn't pursue any top free agents and let key contributors like Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir go.
Another factor in Cleveland's resurgence was their improved pitching. The Indians' team ERA went from 4.78 in 2012 (finishing second-to-last in MLB) to 3.82 last year (climbing to 15th). That improvement took place despite a less than impressive defense playing behind the Tribe's pitchers. With a weakened starting rotation due to Jimenez and Kazmir leaving, it's even more important for the Indians to provide quality infield and outfield defense for their pitching to aid in run prevention.
Let's begin with that defense. According to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), the Indians ranked 25th out of 30 MLB clubs in team defense last season. The Tribe surrendered 42 more runs than the average major league team (which, in this case, is the Brewers). Only the Twins, Astros and Mariners were worse among AL defenses.
For the most part, the Indians' starting pitching was able to overcome those defensive shortcomings. For example, Kazmir had a 4.04 ERA, but a 3.51 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). Justin Masterson finished with a 3.35 FIP compared to a 3.45 ERA. Some pitchers were affected, however. Corey Kluber compiled a 3.85 ERA, but a 3.30 FIP. The pitcher who may have been hurt the most by Cleveland's defense was Carlos Carrasco, who could be the team's fifth starter. Carrasco only threw 46.2 innings for the Indians, but had a 6.70 ERA. Compare that to his 4.10 FIP, and you see a pitcher who may not have pitched as badly as his traditional numbers might indicate.
Who were some of the primary culprits in giving the Indians a poor defense? Surprisingly, one of them was center fielder Michael Bourn, viewed as one of the best gloves in MLB. In 2012 with the Braves, Bourn was an elite defender, credited with 24 Defensive Runs Saved. He was easily the best defensive center fielder in baseball.
However, UZR didn't view Bourn as favorably last season, ranking him as below-average at his position. He earned only three Defensive Runs Saved. The numbers on UZR can vary significantly from season to season, and are better judged over a longer span of time. But Bourn's game is based largely on his defense and speed. As he ages (and struggles with injuries like a left hamstring that required offseason surgery), his defensive range will likely decrease. If he can't provide strong defense in center field, his value to the Indians is greatly diminished.
A far worse offender was shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Defense has never been the strongest part of Cabrera's game. What makes him stand out is the offense he provides at a position typically prized for its defense. But last season was a particularly bad one for Cabrera in the field. He allowed 13 more runs than an average shortstop, according to UZR. Among the MLB shortstops who played enough innings to qualify for consideration, Cabrera was the worst defender. No other shortstop cost his team more runs. Only Oakland's Jed Lowrie had a higher negative number than Cabrera's -16 Defensive Runs Saved.
The Indians might be better off playing Mike Aviles at shortstop. Top prospect Francisco Lindor would be a vast defensive improvement when he's ready for the majors.
Could the Indians have overtaken the Tigers in the AL Central or played a home game in the one-game wild-card playoff if the team had made any impact additions at the trade deadline last season? The only player of any note that Cleveland acquired was left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski. While he pitched well after joining the Indians — posting an 0.89 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 20.1 innings— Rzepczynski wasn't exactly a game-changing reinforcement.
To be fair, the Indians made their significant additions during the offseason. And had those moves not been made, the Indians likely wouldn't have been in a position where a trade deadline acquisition could have been the difference in winning the AL Central or top wild-card spot. But what if Cleveland had added another starting pitcher — Matt Garza, Jake Peavy or Bud Norris — to bolster the rotation? What if Antonetti had been able to make a deal for a closer to replace Perez? Could another outfield bat have made an impact?
Maybe it wasn't an inability or refusal to add payroll, but rather an organizational decision not to surrender top prospects for short-term help, that handcuffed the Indians at the trade deadline. But Cleveland's inactivity during this past offseason indicates otherwise. The team had no interest in re-signing Jimenez or Kazmir to a multiyear contract. And though the Indians seemed to overpay for David Murphy, he still came cheaper than someone like Nelson Cruz.
(Had Cleveland known Cruz would be available so late into the offseason and could be had for a one-year, $8 million contract, would the team have been so eager to sign Murphy? We'll never know, and of course, the Indians never could've guessed the market would work out the way it did.)
But what happens if the Tribe needs help at this season's trade deadline? Will ownership allow Antonetti to add payroll to improve the roster? What if the Indians need another starting pitcher? What if a power-hitting outfielder or third baseman becomes available? Bullpens on playoff contenders can always add another reliever. At this point, it looks doubtful that Cleveland could make such a move, if needed.