The Indians haven’t gotten a whole lot of love from baseball analysts over the last few months. Before the season started, the general consensus around the league seemed to be that Cleveland was mediocre at best and the Tribe would be spared from total humiliation only because of the weakness of the AL Central—there were enough other bad teams that someone else would finish in the basement.
Three weeks into the season, that’s not how things have played out. The Indians return home this week as conquering heroes after going 7-2 on their first road trip of the season, spoiling the Royals’ home opener and upsetting both Seattle and Oakland’s aces. At 8-6 the Tribe has a better record than the Red Sox, Angels, and Phillies, and Cleveland is just one game behind Detroit in the AL Central.
Fourteen games is not a proper sample from which to draw any major conclusions—that Josh Willingham is currently third in the league in OPS should tell you something about how little baseball has been played—and the Indians have benefited from a fairly easy schedule so far—they have yet to face a team that played .500 ball in 2011.
But despite the general skepticism about Cleveland, that the Indians are playing well isn’t a fluke. This team is much better than people think.
A good place to start for assessing a team’s chances in 2012 is to look at 2011. Last year, the Indians surprised the league with a hot start and ended up finishing 80-82. Most around the game remember the late-season fade and the overall losing record, but not all losing seasons are created equal. That Cleveland won 80 games instead of 69 (as in 2010) or 65 (2009) was of little consolation when Progressive Field sat vacant in October, but the difference is significant. There’s a big difference between an almost-.500 team and the near-cellar dwellers (the Royals did us the favor of playing even worse) of the recent past.
Last year’s losing season did not signal the start of a rebuilding process. Rather, it was supposed to represent the transition from the losing years into a new era of contention. This is a young team full of players who are improving with time and look poised to take the next steps. With a roster full of youth, it’s simply logical to assume that the team will improve now that the players have another year of experience under their belts.
In addition to the added experience, the Indians should get a big boost just from improved health. Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Jason Kipnis, and Josh Tomlin all missed significant time with injuries last year. At the risk of oversimplifying the complicated process of player development, a young ballclub that won 80 games last year despite being absolutely hosed by injuries should be projected to win more than 80 games this year. That doesn’t seem like a particularly controversial statement.
Even beyond that, Cleveland’s roster looks substantially better than it did a year ago. Yes, the Indians failed to add a true impact bat (though it was not for lack of trying), but even without importing a marquee name Chris Antonetti & Co. managed to make some real improvements.
To start with, the right side of the infield has undergone a complete overhaul. Gone are the days when Matt LaPorta had a lock on the starting job at first base despite failing to be an effective player on either side of the ball. The Indians brought in Casey Kotchman, a veritable defensive wizard who has already proven himself to be a marked improvement with the glove. LaPorta was significantly below replacement level in 2011, meaning Cleveland can expect a roughly two-win swing even if Kotchman turns out to be a below-average player.
Second base, too, is in far more capable hands than it was a year ago. Rather than handing the starting job to Orlando Cabrera for half the season, the Indians gave it to Jason Kipnis right out of the gate. Kipnis was considered one of the Tribe’s best prospects before his promotion last year, and after he hit .272/.333/.507 in his debut it’s clear he has a substantial amount of upside. But again, even if he slogs through a significant sophomore slump Cleveland benefits simply from plugging him in instead of Cabrera.
The Indians’ rotation got a significant boost from the acquisition of Derek Lowe, who should give Cleveland close to 200 innings of roughly league-average run prevention. The Tribe also gets the bonus of a full season from Ubaldo Jimenez—regardless of how that trade now looks, there’s no question that the pitching staff is better with Jimenez in it.
So why all the pessimism surrounding the Tribe? The two notable faces are missing from Cleveland’s current roster: Grady Sizemore, who is recovering from back surgery, and Fausto Carmona, who is in immigration limbo after being caught using a false identity. As two of the team’s biggest names, their absences are generally presumed to be significant. But Sizemore has not been an effective player in three years (and even then he was but a shell of his former self) and Carmona (real name Roberto Hernandez) went 7-15 with a 5.25 ERA last year. Clearly the Indians do not need them to be a good team.
The Indians’ reputation is also hampered by old prejudices against now-effective players. Many thought the idea idea of Shelley Duncan as the starting left fielder sounded like a joke (the team’s front office hasn’t seemed too keen on it), but Duncan has actually made some significant strides since his infamous early-career Tuffy Rhodes impression. Duncan has hit .261/.343/.477 (123 wRC+) since 2011, and on a WAR/PA basis he’s been an above-average player since 2010. An All-Star he’s not, but in no way is he a weakness in the Tribe’s lineup.
Jack Hannahan is also far better than most give him credit for. Hannahan is without question one of the best defensive infielders in the game, and while the offensive improvements he’s shown—per wRC+, he’s been an above-average hitter since last year—seem to be dismissed as flukes, a real study of the numbers suggests that his solid bat could have some staying power. He may not be the team’s long-term answer at third base, but he’s a tremendous asset to the team.
The Indians were basically a .500 team last year despite all their problems. The youngsters are now more experienced, the key injuries have (hopefully) healed, and the frankly not very good players have been replaced. So why is it such a stretch to think that they’ll be a good team in 2012?
This isn’t to say there are no valid reasons to be concerned about the Tribe. This is a team full of unproven players, and as Cleveland fans know all too well future faces of the franchises don’t always realize their potential. The roster looks much deeper this year than it did a year ago, but another rash of injuries could still be debilitating. And while there are no real holes in the Indians’ lineup, the lack of any real star power all but precludes this team from reaching true greatness from the get-go.
The Indians aren’t likely to make the playoffs in 2012, and it’s true that they are buoyed by the weakness of their division—they’d be lucky to finish fourth in the AL East. But even if the lights will again be dark at Progressive Field come October, Cleveland is no longer the “Mistake on the Lake.” Whether the national media sees it or not the Indians are for real, and teams who underestimate them do so at their own peril.