When you are the fan of a team coming off a 69-win season, and especially when that team's 2nd biggest offseason acquisition can't be identified without a thorough B-Ref search, it is reasonable to wonder where your hope will come from. And in baseball, hope means wins. Last year's Indians squad put up a miserly 18.7 WAR (I've used fangraphs WAR calculations throughout). Given that a replacement level team is defined as a 52-win team, that number is pretty much right in line with what the Indians accomplished, sad as that may be. As the figure below makes clear, last year's few successes were built heavily on just a few people. Choo alone, accounted for about 30% of the Indians team total. Carmona and Masterson combined for another 29%. Although he only played in 46 games, Santana was the 4th most valuable individual on the team. The 0.1 WAR from the "rest of the team", it should be pointed out, includes some significant negatives, most notably Trevor Crowe (-1 WAR) and Luis Valbuena (-1.5). Valbuena was one of the handful of players in the league who cost their team the most value.
There are not many differences when you look at the 3-year average WAR of the returning Indians. The 21.0 average WAR from returning players is again pretty much right in line with a team that has averaged about 72 wins over that span...so hope is not likely coming from some mystery off-season correction from underperforming players. The biggest change to notice is presence of Grady Sizemore. Sizemore's 2.9 average is almost entirely the residual left from his amazing 2008 (7.1 WAR) season. So how do expect to go from a ~70 win team to one capable of even reaching .500 again?
The "plan" is for an emerging group of young contributors, even a few stars, to produce alongside more established veterans like Choo and Carmona. I've been reviewing the 2010 performances of Santana, LaPorta, Brantley, Carrasco and Masterson because they seem like the currently arriving wave of talent whose performances in 2011 will dictate what expectations we might have for the team going forward. So consider the following a thought experiment on what it would take to make the Indians pie a little bigger in 2011. I don't consider this any sort of rigorous projection for 2011, so please don't treat it as such, but rather as a starting off point for thinking about positive and negative outlooks for next season.
The young guys...
Carlos Santana: As my earlier piece made clear, there was not much to dislike about Santana's performance on the field in 2010. He is well represented on the above pie-charts despite only playing in 44 games. And there was not really anything flukey about his line in 2010. The early projections I have seen for Santana for 2011 see him performing at the level he did in 2010, but across double or even triple the number of plate appearances. The makes him something like a 4-6 WAR player.
Justin Masterson: As pointed out in the piece on Masterson, there is some disagreement about how to evaluate Masterson's value in 2010. While fangraphs suggests he was quite valuable (+2.7), B-Ref sees him far more pessimistically (-0.8). The difference, as I understand it, has largely to do with how your adjust for Masterson's GB-tendencies (60%, one of the highest values in the league for a starter), and the disparity between his saber-stars (FIP and xFIP <4) and his more traditional performance metrics (ERA, 4.70). I tend to think fangraphs has a better handle on the value of a groundball, though it is possible Masterson's struggles with lefties undermines this. Let's say he was really something like a 1-1.5 win player in 2010. I see a negative scenario for Masterson being one where he performs slightly worse and for far fewer innings, making him a replacement level guy. On the positive side I could envision him doing slightly better against lefties, pitching 30 more innings than in 2010, and being a 4 win guy.
Carlos Carrasco: Not quite as impressive as Santana, but Carrasco did well in limited time in Cleveland. Take his 7-start performance and make it a 30-start season and he is a 2.5 win starter. Put some plus/minus on that, and lets say that Carrasco looks like a 1-4 win pitcher in 2010.
Michael Brantley: Brantley is hard to evaluate because a lot of his value is going to come from the things that are not easily measured - runs produced on the basepaths and runs saved in the field. Brantley, if he is going to be a regular outfielder, has to become better. If he doesn't, I assume his playing time will be doled out to someone else. According to these numbers, Brantley's already a good base-runner, something that will help his value if he is able to play across a full season. And then there is the challenge of figuring out what Brantley's bat will develop into. Brantley's low-end seems to be a guy who does poorly for 1/3 of a season before being sent down to the minors. His upside is a guy who makes incremental improvements to his OBP and SLG, while providing some additional value through his defense and baserunning. I could envision a reasonable range of expectations spanning from a little below replacement level to a high end of about a 3-win player.
Matt LaPorta: LaPorta is just as difficult to project as Brantley given what he has done at both the big league and minor league level. LaPorta will likely be given more of a change to ride out an extended slump than Brantley, but his bigger bat should mitigate the potential downside. On the other side, even if he just returned to his 2009 line with Cleveland, he is something like a 1.5 win player across a full season. Should he actually show improvement, I could see that bumping up to a +3 win player.
So the low-end projection for these guys as a group is something like +3 wins, while the high-end puts them at +19. Last year this group collectively contributed +4 wins. So the net change here is something like -1 to +15. Obviously my back of the envelope high-end projection for each one of these guys individually is unlikely, so to think all of them might hit their expectation is nearly inconceivable...but let's pretend each one produced an average net +1 contribution, making the overall effect +5 wins. That still leaves us as something like a mid-70 wins team.
Grady Sizemore and Asdrubal Cabrera combined to contribute roughly 0 wins to the 2010 squad. Grady's poor, and limited, play made him slightly below replacement level, and Asdrubal's injury plagued time made him just slightly above replacement level. But over the past 3-seasons, Grady has been about a +3 win player (with a +7 high in 2008) and Asdrubal a +1.5 win player (with a +3 high in 2009). The advantage of getting Grady back on the field is that even if he is a below-average Grady, he is likely better than the alternative (Trevor Crowe was a -1 WAR player in Grady's absence). The extent to which these two are able to regain their pre-injury form will play a huge role in what level the 2011 Indians are able to reach. Further regression from Cabrera and a failure of Grady to come back and contribue in 2011 would not have much of a negative impact relative to 2010 (-1 win), but would severely curtail the likelihood of the team getting anywhere near .500. Even a return to their "average" levels (+4.5) would push a mid-70 win team expectation up near .500. A slightly more optimistic projection (+6.5) makes 81 wins a more reasonable expectation.
The rest of the team...
Shin-Soo Choo has become the rock of the ill-fated 2008-2010 Indians. I hope he is able to stick around long enough to see an actual team consolidate around him. He has averaged 4.5 WAR over the past 3 seasons, reaching a high of 5.6 this past season. It is worth remembering that while Choo was considered a prospect, he was never particularly highly rated (never a BA top 100 prospect, for example). Kevin Goldstein, during the 2006 season in which he ended up coming to Cleveland, had this to say about him:
Shin-Soo Choo (.300/.378/.449) is a nice little player who lacks that one tool to project him as a starting corner outfielder
Remember when he was only going to be a platoon option? Now he is the safest bet on the team for a 4+ WAR season in 2011. I think the most likely case is something right in line with his 2010, but we'll say +4 on the low end and +6 on the high end of reasonable guesses.
Travis Hafner is the most significant "other" contributor from the 2010 team. Hafner's +1.9 wins was his highest total in 3-years, though a far cry from the +5.4 wins he averaged from 2005-2007. Those days are long-behind us (and Hafner), but at least in 2011 I envision something of a balance between age-related regression and the postive effect of continuing to distance himself from his 2008-2009 shoulder surgeries. I think something along the lines of a +1 - +2.5 player, with a relatively minimal net effect on the team, being reasonable.
Last year's bullpen was just slightly above replacement level (~+1), but three of its worst members (Wood -0.2, Germano -0.2, and Ambriz -0.4) are gone. Tony Sipp, who technically was the least valuable member of the pen (-0.8), but performed dramatically better once he got past June (2.81 ERA), than before (5.52 ERA). The talent level in the young relievers likely entering the pen in 2011 is also better than in recent years. Bullpen volatility is a reality we all know too well, but I think it is reasonable to think the bullpen could, by itself, give us an extra 1-2 wins next season.
The Indians make a significant jump in 2011 just by not playing Luis Valbuena v.2010 (-1.5 WAR). Jason Donald and Jayson Nix were just above replacement level in 2010, despite the former getting his first ever reps at the position and the latter's value being driven down by time foolishly spent at 3B. I would be happy to see either installed as the everyday 2B in 2011, and would expect a net positive effect from the change. The more troubling infield position is 3B. For all his faults, Jhonny Peralta is vastly superior to the Indians current 3B options. It is hard to see us not losing value on that position in 2011. Whatever gains we make at second, I expect to lose at third. Our inability to find a better option at 3B seems to be this off-season's biggest failing to date.
Fausto Carmona is still the enigmatic lynch-pin for the Indians 2011 rotation. He pitched the most innings (210) and was the most valuable member (+2.7) of the Indians staff. While he fell off a bit the last month and a half of the season, to many of us it seemed as if Carmona had a better sense of what he was doing on the mound in 2010 and exerted more control over the games he was in than at any point since 2007. I would like to think a complete collapse is not likely for Fausto at this point, but I think regression back to something closer to his 2008-2009 level is possible. But so too is a slight advancement. All in all, I think the best bet is something not unlike what he put up in 2010, a pitcher worth something between +2 and +3 wins.
The rest of the Indians staff benefited in 2010 from unexpectedly strong performances by Mitch Talbot, and the late-season additions of Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez. We have a lot of pitching talent in the minors, but I don't expect to see the impact starters until late in 2011 at the earliest, and I don't expect the luck of Tomlin and Gomez to carry into 2011. Talbot seems the best bet to prove me wrong, but until we start seeing Alex White or a healthy Hector Rondon in the conversation, I see more room for decline in the 4th and 5th starter roles than improvement.
So for the rest of the team, I see largely neutral, or self-canceling changes from 2010 to 2011. The biggest area of uncertainty is in the starting rotation, with more room for decline than gain, but my optimism on the bullpen front partially negates this. One additional X-factor for the starting pitching is our infield defense. Our pitching performances can be seen in an even most positive light lat season if you recognize their extreme GB-tendencies and accept that our infield defense was terrible. An improvement in our defense, most likely at 2B and SS, could produce a substantial performance kick out of starter.
The bad scenario
The reasonable bad scenario involves our young players floundering, for the most part failing to make strides on what they did in 2010. Under this scenario they aren't worth much less than they were last season, they just don't move forward at all. A reasonable bad scenario also sees Cabrera continuing to struggle, Sizemore failing to come back from injury, and some form of pitching regression. Under this scenario, which although it is reasonable, is bleak, the Indians are terrible. Even worse than 2010, with even larger problems going forward. A mid-60s win total would presumably mean a new coach, and trades of whatever tradeable big league assets we have at mid-season (i.e Choo, Carmona).
The good scenario
There are two areas where potentially large gains are reasonable to think about, if not probable to all occur. A rebound for Cabrera and Sizemore, where the really optimistic high-end turnaround would be something like +6 wins, and significant strides forward from the young players outlined above. Santana, simply by playing a whole season is the safest bet, but LaPorta, Brantley and Carrasco have the greatest potential to make significant gains based on the minimal impact they had in 2010. For Masterson the issue is maintaining his value as much as increasing it. The potential upside on these five players is huge. PECOTA kind of blew up last season, but the 70th percentile forecast for LaPorta entering last year was .283/.370/.528....that would make him something like a 4 or 4.5 win player. For Brantley, the same projection was .292/.368/.402, which, depending on his defense and running probably make him something like a 3-4 win player. The same forecast for Carrasco sees him as about a 3 win player. These five guys, by themselves, could produce as much value as the entire 2010 squad. Not a likely scenario, but not impossible (and maybe not as improbable as you might imagine).
There are at least three other areas that could show improvement, but I think are less likely to show dramatic adjustments. The 4th and 5th starters could surprise. Mitch Talbot could keep his arm strength up for the entire season and consolidate some of the lessons he learned in 2010, getting more value out of his fastballs and change, becoming a decent middle of the rotation starter. A surprise pitching reclamation project could emerge as a successful 5th starter (remember that is basically what Cliff Lee was when he went 22-3 in 2008). I think the bullpen will be better in 2011, but I just don't see it making that much of a difference. Then there is the defense. I'd like to say the defense will be better, but it is hard to be too positive when the same set of guys are coming back. The Indians constant shuffling of infielders doesn't seem to be fixing any problems, either.
A reasonable high-end scenario for 2011, where some, but not all things work out for the Tribe, has them close to an 81 win team, with a few breaks taking them to the mid-80s. This scenario would put Cleveland into a strong position heading into next off-season, with internal prospects likely in place to fill in the gaps and good incentive to add payroll via a key free agent signing heading into 2012. Here's to hope (and wins)...