Yesterday, in all of his communicative glory, Indians’ head honcho Paul Dolan reminded the fans of what they’ve come to expect: the Indians won’t be spending in the free agent market this off season. According to Dolan:
“It’s not the right time to spend. No question about that. It’s not the right time to spend in the cycle of this franchise.The spending is deficit spending. When New York and Boston spend, they’re spending from their profits. It’s a riskier proposition for clubs like us to spend. We’re taking a far greater financial risk than whatever it is a large-market club spends on a large free agent. It’s the unfortunate nature of our game.”
Whatevs. We’ve heard this before. And it’s hard to argue with the logic there, but it’s hardly the pep rally speech to get a tired and tortured fanbase excited. Or buying tickets.
But I’m guessing most of you have already come to terms with this fact anyway. Sure, we’ll probably go after a few minor league free agents like we did last year, hoping for one or two to contribute. The Shelley Duncans and Austin Kearnses of the World can use Cleveland to showcase their skills to the rest of the league, while the Indians get some production out of them at league-minimum prices. Part of this strategy is dictated by the financial reality of the Cleveland Indians that Dolan laid out: teams that rank last in attendance don’t, as a rule, spend wildly in free agency. But there’s also some reason to think that avoiding the free agency route is wise in general (as FAs are simply too expensive for what they provide—a poor investment strategy), and specifically for a club like the Indians (who have so many players they need answers on going forward).
But whether the motivation is dollars or development, the point remains: the Indians aren’t likely to add a free agent who they’ll actually have to “bid on.” So the 2011 season will hinge on the development of the talent we already have in-house. Will Grady Sizemore ever get healthy? Is Matt LaPorta an MLB hitter? Can Carlos Santana pick up where he gruesomely left off? Is Carlos Carrasco a young ace or just another guy? Can Justin Masterson develop any consistency, or is he destined for great starts sporadically dropped in among a bunch of stinkers? And on and on. 2011 will likely be about answering these questions, and hopefully answering in the affirmative.
So if this is the team we have, the question, obviously, is what we can expect from them going forward. I’m going to divide the team roughly between pitchers and position players to check it out, and spend today being as optimistic as possible.
First, the position players. Assuming we don’t make any additions—or that the additions we do make are complementary in nature—the lineup will probably look something like this next season:
I think it’s safe to say that, barring injury, there’s only one sure thing in that lineup: Shin-Soo Choo. Outside of him, I could make an argument that each guy could develop into an impact player or be below replacement level.
So, because it’s getting cold and because we’re Clevelanders and because we need hope, let’s look at a best-case scenario, using Wins Above Replacement. Here are the numbers this lineup could put up next season if everything goes right:
Now, let me say again: this is wild November optimism of the most cockeyed sort. This is assuming that Carlos Santana contributes (both offensively and defensively) at the same level as Choo—one of the most productive players in baseball. This is assuming Travis Hafner’s shoulder is actually healed AND that he can PLAY more than three times a week AND that his 2004 through 2006 seasons were indicative of an ability that has not since departed. This is assuming that Grady Sizemore can resemble the player he was in 2006, when he led the AL in WAR at 7.3*. This is assuming Matt LaPorta doesn’t stink and Michael Brantley can get on base more than 35% of the time while playing stellar defense. This is assuming A LOT.
*Justin Morneau won the AL MVP in 2006 for reasons that continue to elude me. If you weren’t going to give it to Sizemore, whose candidacy admittedly depended on the incorporation of defense, then you could have voted for David Ortiz or Joe Mauer or Carlos Guillen or Derek Jeter or (yes, it’s true) Travis Hafner. Morneau ranked 17th in WAR in 2006, behind such stalwarts as Reed Johnson and Ramon Hernandez. But he was second in the league in RBI, so I guess there’s that. He also has nice eyes, I suppose, which should count as much as RBI totals. Regardless, v2006 Grady will always be my favorite baseball player. Perhaps that skews my judgment a wee bit.
So if all goes as well as possible, we’d be getting over 30 wins out of this group. That’s on top of the 45 or so wins that you get for being “replacement level”. Basically, if the position players can produce like I’m talking about, we could have AAA pitching and still win 75 games next season.
And that’s a good thing. Because I’m a bit worried about the pitching. Sound familiar? Here are the guys I see making the opening day rotation (we can talk about Alex White another day, but I do have some thoughts on his eventual impact).
That is, to me, a strikingly uninspiring group. If you’ve read my work, you know I’m high on Carlos Carrasco, but that’s about it. Fausto is an obvious question mark, and sorely miscast as a #1 starter. Justin Masterson is absolutely one of my favorite players, but even I have my days when I wonder if he should be in a starting rotation, much less in the #2 slot. Talbot and Gomez (and the rest of the fodder—Tomlin/Laffey/Huff) are, at best, fringe major leaguers.
So here is my most optimistic assessment of this motley crüe’s performance in 2011, again, using Wins Above Replacement:
In Fausto’s best season—that magical 2007 when Tori Hunter said that batting against Fausto was like trying to hit with a hangover—he amassed 4.2 WAR. Last season, it was 2.7. It’s hard for me to think he’s going to recapture his old ways, considering his change in approach, so I’m calling 3.0 wins a ceiling for him. Justin Masterson, believe it or not, posted a 2.2 WAR in 2010. I suppose he could get much better, but do we have reason to believe he will? Carlos Carrasco has upside aplenty, but projecting him beyond 2.5 WAR seems more foolish than even I’m prepared to sound. Mitch Talbot and Jeanmar Gomez are, as Steve Buffum might say, two of the pitchers we’ve ever had on this team. Or as I would say: they’re guys. They’re just guys.
So again, I’m being as optimistic as I can be about this club right now, and I’m coming up with the following:
45 wins (replacement level) + 30 wins (position players) + 9.0 wins (starting pitching) = 84 wins.
You think Pure Rage and his merry men have six extra wins lying around the bullpen? After all, we’re being optimistic. Might as well shoot for 90, right?
Next time I’m going to flip the coin and look at what might happen if all goes wrong in 2011. You should be used to that feeling, right? What if they all get hurt? What if they all stink? Where and how might we fill holes? And why might that be a good thing?
But until then, let’s enjoy a few days of warm-fuzzies. Mkay?