The 2011 Cleveland Indians came out of the gate hot last season, and were first in the AL Central up until July 20th having won 51 games.
Following that day, the Tribe only won 29 more games in 2011, and finished the season a distant second with 15 games separating them and the division leading Detroit Tigers.
Every team suffers injuries but in Cleveland players spent a total of 826 days on the DL in 2011, which certainly was higher than normal.
Now, with a new season just days away can a healthy Tribe finish off what they couldn’t in 2011?
Let’s take a look at the Indians heading into the 2012 season….
The emergence of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera going from good to All-Stat, hitting 25 homers and 92 RBIs in 2011. The 26-year old ranked first in RBIs and hits out of all AL Shortstops and second in home-runs and doubles, and it earned him his first Sliver Slugger Award. This guy has a really bright future in Cleveland and his natural baseball ability leads many to believe that Cabrera will only get better.
The Indians have to take advantage of the April schedule. The Tigers play the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Rangers in the first month so the Indians have to pounce from the start, as the Tigers bats, aka Miguel Cabrera; tend to need a month to warm up before blasting everything out of the park. The Tribe needs to capitalize off every single opportunity if they plan on contending with the Tigers come September. So, another hot start is in order in Cleveland.
Injuries are already pooping up, as closer Chris Perez strained his oblique in Spring Training and his return has yet to be decided. And you have to worry about Shin-Soo Choo staying healthy after a number of ailments sidelined him for the majority of 2011. Choo hit 22 homers and drove in 90 RBIs in 2010, so keeping him on the field is a must. The Indians won’t see Grady Sizemore on Opening Day as he is out till at least June after having lower-back surgery. Sizemore brings a big bat when he is active but considering his injury history and the fact he hasn’t been cleared to start baseball activities yet, Cleveland fans know better than to count on him.
Fausto Carmona is really Roberto Hernandez, as we found out the former 28-year old is actually almost 32 as the pitcher was arrested in the off-season for using a false ID to secure his US Visa. He did finally get things straightened out and is back in the US with the Tribe but it does make the flashes of brilliance Carmona had displayed since winning 19 games back in 2007 a little less exciting knowing that he is older. The added stress had to take a toll on Hernandez personally, and his relationships with teammates might need some time to repair.
The Tribe basically did nothing to improve their club in the off-season; as the best news was acquiring first baseman Casey Kotchman. Kotchman had a decent year for the Rays in 2011 with 10 homers and 48 RBIs, but with the 12 errors the Tribe made at first base last season Kotchman will be at least a defensive improvement. The worry I have about Kotchman is the reason he has been on five teams, in five years. His .378 OBP doesn’t correlate his RBIs, but the inked him for $3 million, which is a bargain, which is another thing I don’t understand. Kotchman has suffered from lower back stiffness already this spring so keep an eye on him.
They also traded for Braves pitcher Derek Lowe who is coming off the worst season of his career. Lowe is 38-years old and the Braves were willing to eat $10 million of the $15 million owed to him in 2012 just to get him out of Atlanta. That is never a good sign, and I sure the DUW Lowe got during the last season didn’t help his cause. Lowe has been durable in his career but the 17-loses, 105 earned runs and 5.05 ERA he posted in 2011 cannot be getting Tribe fans very excited. Lowe has had back soreness this spring too, as he exited his last start after two innings. I think Lowe will falter by mid-season.
So the Tribe is basically entering the 2012 season with the same group that collapsed that couldn’t finish what they started. I did not understand why the Tribe didn’t sign any righty bats, as their line-up is so lefty heavy. That gives other teams an advantage, as it will make beating the Tribe a lot easier to plan.
PLAYER(s)/GAME-CHANGERS TO WATCH:
1) In 2011 trading for pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez mid-season was a last-ditch effort to keep the Tribe from completely falling out of contention in the AL Central, which failed. This was not a shock as Jimenez was clearly not the same All-Star caliber pitcher from 2010. Jimenez finished 4-4; with a 5.10 ERA in the 11 starts he made for the Tribe but that was the risk they took trading for him. The Tribe is banking on Jimenez being the 19-game winner from 2010 in 2012, and they even sent a trainer to the Dominican Republic for the off-season to make sure that happens. While winning 19-games is not going to happen for Jimenez in the AL Central, the reality is he should be capable of putting up better numbers than last season because if he doesn’t the Tribe will be looking up at the Tigers again in 2012.
The Indians have their work cut out for them if they want to contend in 2012 in the AL Central, as they are up against the heavily favored Tigers are tough; and an improved Royals will not be easy to beat either.
Still all hope for October baseball is not lost in Cleveland because the team proved they could win in the first half of 2011.
Does this mean the Tribe can make to the postseason?
If the Indians can fight all season long, and stay healthy it is possible but with the Tigers standing in their way there will have to be some luck involved too.
Since neither AL wild card will be coming out of the Central, I still see the Indians finishing either a close second, or a distant third in the division.