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Taking a look at the top 14 Indians in 2012

Part two of The Observer’s Spring Training preview

With pitchers and catchers set to report to Spring Training camp on Feb. 20 for the Cleveland Indians, it’s time to take a look at the pieces going into the 2012 season. This is part two of two that will look at the top 30 players for the Cleveland Indians. This week we will be looking at players ranked 1-14.

#14) Matt LaPorta (1B) – Age: 27, Bats: R, Throws: R
2011 Record: .247 AVG., 11 HRs, 53 RBIs, 34 Runs, .299 OBP

LaPorta was expected to make the leap in 2011; however, the first baseman was treading water. LaPorta struck out more and walked less than he did in ’10, and saw a decline in many offensive areas, including home runs, runs, and OBP. Coming over from the C.C. Sabathia deal in 2008, LaPorta will be 27 this season; if he still fails to live up his expectation, the Indians – who have plenty of young talent on the way – will find someone who can.

#13) Fausto Carmona (SP) – Age: 28, Bats: R, Throws: R
2011 Record: 7W 15L, 188.2 IP, 5.25 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 109 Ks

No matter what his actual name is, Carmona was “decent” enough last year. Last year was the first time in his career that he reached 15 losses. With a spike in hits and ERA, Carmona increased to allowing at least six earned runs on seven different occasions. Ongoing personal issues make it unclear whether Carmona will be on the Indians’ rotation when Spring Training kicks off. If he does return before Opening Day, look for Carmona to be the fourth or fifth pitcher in the rotation.

#12) Derek Lowe (SP) – Age: 38, Bats: R, Throws: R
2011 Record [w/Atlanta]: 9W 17L, 187 IP, 5.05 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 137 Ks

Veteran Lowe arrived in Cleveland during the offseason from Atlanta, and should provide the young Indians staff with some much-needed leadership. The ground-ball specialist continued to show his consistency with 30 starts in 10 straight seasons and double-digit wins in nine of those. While his ERA soared to 5.05 last season, a fresh start in Cleveland can help the 38-year-old rebound to his glory days.

#11) Grady Sizemore (OF) – Age: 29, Bats: L, Throws: L
2011 Record: .224 AVG., 10 HRs, 32 RBIs, 34 Runs, .285 OBP

For the third consecutive season, Sizemore is once again hampered by health issues. Elbow, knee, and groin injuries have limited the three-time All-Star to just 207 games since 2008, and have robbed him of any speed that used to make him a dynamic force. Twenty homers are still reachable for the 29-year-old if he manages to play at least 130 games, but it’s hard to count on him to remain off the disabled list long enough to reach that modest goal.

#10) Lonnie Chisenhall (3B) – Age: 23, Bats: L, Throws: R
2011 Record: .255 AVG.,  7 HRs, 22 RBIs, 27 Runs, .284 OBP

Chisenhall may not have seemed ready when he was promoted in June last season, but he has shown consistent improvement since then, lighting up September by hitting .279 along with 4 homers and 14 RBIs. At just 23, Chisenhall will open up the 2012 campaign as the team’s starting third baseman. With only defensive specialist Jack Hannahan behind him, Chisenhall has plenty of the room to improve, and if the trend continues he should be a fixture for the Tribe in the years to come.

#9) Michael Brantley (OF) – Age: 24, Bats: L, Throws: L
2011 Record: .266 AVG., 7 HRs, 46 RBIs, 63 Runs, .318 OBP

Injuries to Sizemore and Choo helped open the door for Brantley to break through as a Major League starter. While he has only stolen 27 bases in over 200 Major League games, the 24-year-old has shown impressive speed and aggression on the base paths to help him gain a permanent spot near the top of the Cleveland batting order. Look for Brantley to work on his plate disciplines and continue to improve as the speedster on the team.

#8) Josh Tomlin (SP) – Age: 27, Bats: R, Throws: R
2011 Record: 12W, 7L, 165.1 IP, 4.25 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 89 Ks

Tomlin may not have an impressive resume, but his elite control is the key that sets him apart from other Indians pitchers. His ridiculously low 1.14 BB/9 (walks per nine innings) paced the Majors, and his 4.24 K/BB (strikeout per walk) ratio only trail the Tigers’ Justin Verlander and the Angels’ Dan Haren. If Tomlin can continue improving, look for him to start over Carmona and Lowe this coming season.

#7) Jason Kipnis (2B) – Age: 24, Bats: L, Throws: R
2011 Record: .272 AVG., 7 HRs, 19 RBIs, 24 Runs, .333 OBP

Kipnis had a strong rookie campaign last season, hitting .272 with 17 extra-base hits in 136 at-bats. While a hamstring injury sidelined him in August, his overall performance showed that he’s here to stay. After a Spring Training to work on his mechanics and adjust to the position, look for Kipnis to be a fixture at second for years to come.

#6) Chris Perez (CL) – Age: 26, Bats: R, Throws: R
2011 Record: 36 SVs, 4W 7L, 59.2 IP, 3.32 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 39 Ks

Perez entered 2011 as a relatively unproven closer, but he handled the pressure of ninth innings like a veteran. While the rise in ERA and decline in strike rate should be warnings, the closer still racked up 36 saves – ranked fourth in the American League. The problem with Perez is that he needs to stay consistent to be effective. The closer role is his to lose.

#5) Shin-Soo Choo (OF) – Age: 29, Bats: L, Throws: L
2011 Record: .259 AVG., 8 HRs, 36 RBIs, 37 Runs, .344 OBP

The Choo Choo Train stalled in 2011. After establishing himself as one of baseball’s most consistent sluggers in ’09 and ’10, Choo completely fell apart in 2011 due to injuries and off-the-field distractions. Choo’s production fell off in every offensive category, but at only 29, look for the centerfielder to return to the form of a consistent .300, 20-homer, 20-steal powerhouse. If he stays healthy, Choo could have a huge bounce back year this season.

#4) Carlos Santana (C) – Age: 25, Bats: S, Throws: R
2011 Record: .239 AVG., 27 HRs, 79 RBIs, 84 Runs, .351 OBP

I realize that Santana should be higher up, but his batting average was his Achilles heel last season. His 27 homers were second among catchers in 2011, and playing in 155 games showed that his previous knee injuries, which ended his 2010 season prematurely, had been an issue going forward. Santana needs to work on his plate discipline this season – a .275 hitting Santana would be even more dangerous. As an added bonus, the 25-year-old’s time at first base and designated hitter should allow him to rack up better stats than most full-time catchers.

#3) Ubaldo Jimenez (SP) – Age: 28, Bats: R, Throws: R
2011 Record [w/Colorado and Cleveland]: 10W 13L, 188.1 IP, 4.68 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 180 Ks

The biggest piece the Indians acquired last season was Jimenez. Even with the arrival in Cleveland, the righty still struggled to a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts for the Tribes. While he was definitely the victim of poor luck, it is also hard to overlook the drop of three mph in his fastball and slider velocity. Jimenez needs to find the missing links quickly because as of now, it looks like the Indians paid a bit too much for the former ace.

#2) Justin Masterson (SP) – Age: 26, Bats: R, Throws: R
2011 Record: 12W 10L, 216 IP, 3.21 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 158 Ks

Why so high for Masterson? Amidst all the ineffectiveness by the Indians’ rotation, Masterson kept his cool and had his first 200+ IP season. The righty kept the Indians’ infield busy all season by forcing grounders about 55 percent of the time – the second highest percentage in the American League. He was also nearly as good at keeping it in the yard, allowing only 11 homers over 216 innings. The 26-year-old is looking for a breakout year; with the development of some off-speed pitches, look for a Cy Young candidate season from Masterson.

#1) Asdrubal Cabrera (SS) – Age: 26, Bats: S, Throws: R
2011 Record: .273 AVG., 25 HRs, 92 RBIs, 87 Runs, 17 SBs, .332 OBP

Cabrera came out of nowhere to become the cornerstone for the Indians. After rebounding from an injury-plagued 2010 to set a career high 87 runs and 17 steals, the shortstop has become the franchise player for the Tribe. His 25 homers were completely unexpected and his 92 RBIs were two dozen more than his previous best. While it’s going to be difficult for Cabrera to repeat his success in 2012, the 26-year-old showed he can be a five-tool player who hits for over 15 homers, 70 RBIs, and 80+ runs. He is only going to get better with time.

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