Found June 25, 2012 on Death, Taxes, and Rebuilding:

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By: Eric Grinnell

The Cleveland Indians had an uneven week, starting off great with a sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, but following that up with a disappointing series loss against the Houston Astros. Overall, the Indians were 4-2 on the week, which brought their overall record to 37-34. The Indians are back at 0.5 games behind the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central. Here are some thoughts from the week.

1. The most encouraging thing that came from this past week is that the Indians rotation, lineup, and bullpen are finally taking shape. Some inconsistent performances have really led the Indians to try a bunch of different lineups and rotations, but it’s beginning to look like both are getting settled.

I wrote at length in last week’s MMTT about Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez and how they are finally pitching like #1 and #2 starters. Masterson and Jimenez continued their good pitching this week (on Wednesday against the Reds, Masterson pitched a complete game gem where he went 9.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 K, and on Friday against the Astros, Jimenez went 6.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 8 K), and it looks more and more like they are settling into their expected #1 and #2 roles.

#1 Justin Masterson
#2 Ubaldo Jimenez

2. Derek Lowe has been a little inconsistent lately, but it looks like he is settling in as the #3 pitcher in the rotation. I think everyone knew that Lowe’s early season numbers were not sustainable (2.27 ERA in April despite a .282 BAA), but he’s also not going to get roughed up as badly as he has in a lot of his recent outings. Overall, I think Lowe’s numbers will settle around where they are at right now — a low 4.xx ERA, with some underwhelming batting average against, K/9, and WHIP numbers, but a good ground out: fly out ratio, an innings eater, and a lot of double plays. If he can do that, he will be a solid #3 pitcher.

#1 Justin Masterson
#2 Ubaldo Jimenez
#3 Derek Lowe

3. Josh Tomlin is probably the guy that I am most unsure of. I really struggle with my thoughts on him. Tomlin gets lit up occassionaly (which has been happening more recently it seems like), but then comes back gives a great performance like he did Tuesday against the Reds (6.2 IP, 6H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 K). Tomlin’s overall numbers are pretty bad (3-4, 5.12 ERA, .291 BAA, 1.41 WHIP, 5.40 K/9), but he eats up innings, doesn’t walk many people, and you know you should be in the ball game when he’s on the mound. Overall, I think he’s an okay back-of-the-rotation guy, and although he’s the Indians #4 right now, I’d feel more comfortable if he was the #5.

#1 Justin Masterson
#2 Ubaldo Jimenez
#3 Derek Lowe
#4 Josh Tomlin

4. The Indians #5 right now is Jeanmar Gomez, and I have to think he is on thin ice. Gomez started the season off well with a strong April, but has been awful since. In his last 6 starts, Gomez is 1-5 with a 7.92 ERA (30.2 IP, 27 ER). Gomez’s stats have steadily been going doinghill too, as he had a 2.35 ERA/.179 BAA in April, 5.26 ERA/.273 BAA in May, and a 7.20 ERA/.310 BAA in June. The Indians have some starting pitching depth, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Gomez sent down to Columbus any day now.

Overall, it appears that the Indians rotation is finally taking shape (#5 appears to be the only spot in flux).

#1 Justin Masterson
#2 Ubaldo Jimenez
#3 Derek Lowe
#4 Josh Tomlin
#5 (Jeanmar Gomez)

5. The Indians batting order is finally taking shape too. The top third of the lineup (Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Kipnis, and Asdrubal Cabrera) is really about as good as any top of the order in the AL.

Shin-Soo Choo has been dynamite in the leadoff role. In the leadoff spot, he has a great line of .303/.365/.520/.885 with 5 homers, 12 RBIs, and 4 stolen bases. He’s been one of the better leadoff men in the AL.

Manny Acta has been interchanging Kipnis and Asdrubal in the #2 and #3 spot, but both have been effective in either spot. Kipnis has spent most of his time in the 2-hole, where he has a line of .263/.316/.385/.701 with 4 homers, 20 RBIs, and 8 steals. But Kipnis has better numbers at the #3 spot, as his line there is .321/.354/.500/.854 with 4 homers, 13 RBIs, and 5 steals.

Cabrera has been a bit more even than Kipnis. In the 2-hole, Cabrera has a line of .305/.371/.534/.905 with 6 homers and 15 RBIs. In the 3 spot, Cabrera has a line of .295/.399/.451/.850 with 3 homers and 18 RBIs.

Overall, I think we’ll start to see more of Cabrera in the 2-hole and Kipnis in the 3 spot — Kipnis is batting better 3rd as opposed to 2nd, and it also helps break up the lefties, as the top 3 spots go L,S,L instead of L,L,S.

#1 Shin-Soo Choo
#2 Asdrubal Cabrera
#3 Jason Kipnis

6. The middle of the order is also starting to take shape, although there is less clarity there than at the top of the order. I think Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley are definitely penciled in to two of the 4-6 spots, but it’s not totally clear which of those spots is best for them, and who should fill out the third spot.

Carlos Santana is struggling and has had a pretty disappointing year, no doubt. But I still think he should be batting in the middle of the order. One thing that’s interesting is that he has bat much, much better at the #5 spot as opposed to the cleanup spot. Santana’s line as the cleanup man is .199/.331/.341/.672, whereas his line in the #5 spot is a solid .299/.375/.388/.763. Although the numbers show Santana has been better in the #5 spot, I think ideally Santana will get himself sorted out after the All-Star break and be the cleanup guy. The Indians just don’t have anyone else with a big enough bat to be the cleanup guy besides him.

Michael Brantley got off to a slow start, but he’s been great for the last two months and really has made the case to stay in the middle of the order. Brantley’s been all over the place in the batting order, from leadoff to 2nd, to 3rd, to 5th, to 6th, to 7th. Since being moved from the leadoff spot, he’s seen most of his at-bats in the 5th-7th spot. In 78 at-bats as the number 5 batter, Brantley has a line of .321/.341/.449/.790. In 40 at-bats as the number 6 batter, Brantley’s line is .250/.302/.350/.652, and in 41 at-bats as the number 7 batter, Brantley’s line is .341/.341/.463/.804. I think Brantley should be batting 5th, as the numbers show he’s been better there then at #6, and I think he’s just so much better than the rest of the Indians lineup that he can’t be dropped past 6th.

I think it’s clear that Santana and Brantley need to be hitting somewhere in the 4-6 spots (obviously, I like Santana at 4 and Brantley at 5), but that leaves the question, who should bat 6th? I think there are 2 short-term solutions, and 2 long-term solutions. The long-term solutions are Travis Hafner, or filling the spot with a bat via trade. Hafner won’t be back until sometime after the All-Star Break, and I think it’s a good idea to move him down in the lineup once he comes back. Pronk was really pressing the last month or two, and just didn’t look very good. So if he does come back healthy, I’d bat him #6. But what I really hope for is that the Indians trade for a right-handed bat that can play left-field or first base. This is a topic that warrants a whole discussion in itself, so I will just leave the details on who the player should be, what the Tribe should give up, etc. for another day.

The two short-term solutions are Jose Lopez and Lonnie Chisenhall. Jose Lopez has had a really inconsistent season, and is playing pretty bad right now (.503 OPS for June), but he does provide some power. Chisenhall is still pretty green, but definitely has a better bat than Johnny Damon, Shelley Duncan, Aaron Cunnigham, or Casey Kotchman. Overall, I don’t think either Lopez or Chisenhall really should be batting this high, but I think they are the best options for now. But again, ideally I think the lone spot will be filled post All-Star break by a bat-via-trade, or Travis Hafner.

#1 Shin-Soo Choo
#2 Asdrubal Cabrera
#3 Jason Kipnis
#4 Carlos Santana
#5 Michael Brantley
#6 (Travis Hafner)/(trade), Chisenhall/Lopez for now

7. The bottom third of the order is where it gets flat out ugly. These spots are usually filled out by whoever is playing left-field (Duncan, Damon, or Cunnigham), Casey Kotchman, and whoever is left at third (Hannahan or Chisenhall) or DHing (Lopez/Duncan/Damon, etc.). Overall, it is an ugly group and I really can’t say there is one order that it should go.

To be fair, one spot here is not all that bad, as it should be filled by Jack Hannahan or Lonnie Chisenahll. Both Hannahan and Chisenhall have been respectable (Chisenahll .738 OPS, Hannahan .722 OPS), so I have to like them batting #7.

Casey Kotchman is the one regular here. Kotchman started off just awful in April (.494 OPS), was slightly below average in May (.719 OPS), and has settled somewhere in between for June (.650 OPS). He’s bat everywhere from 5th-9th, and has been similarly productive (or unproductive) in each spot. For now, I think he should bat 8th.

Simply put, left field is a problem. None of Shelley Duncan, Johnny Damon, or Aaron Cunningham should even be in the league right now. Duncan had a few goods weeks to start the year which are keeping his already poor numbers from looking worse than what they really are. For the year, Duncan has a line of .191/.299/.313/.612, but he hit .167 in May (.620 OPS) and .154 in June (.368 OPS). He’s just been really, really bad.

The sad thing is, Johnny Damon has arguably been worse than Duncan. Damon’s line for the year is .202/.290/.318/.608 with 3 homers and 13 RBIs. Damon has been a little better as of late (.255/.340/.426/.766 for June), but a lot of his hits have come off of weakly hit flares and ground balls that are somehow finding holes. So even though his numbers have been a little better in the last few weeks, I don’t think he looks much different than he did a month ago.*
*Damon has also been brutal defensively in left field.

Aaron Cunningham is still on the major league roster because he is the only legit center field backup. He has a .487 OPS and is arguably the worst 4th (or 5th) outfielder in the majors.

Thus, until left field is upgraded, I have to put whoever is playing there for the night at 9th.

#1 Shin-Soo Choo, L
#2 Asdrubal Cabrera, S
#3 Jason Kipnis, L
#4 Carlos Santana, S
#5 Michael Brantley, L
#6 (Travis Hafner), (trade)
#7 Chisenhall/Hannahan, L
#8 Kotchman, L
#9 Left field, L or R

8. Overall, I think the lineup above is what the Indians everyday lineup should (and is starting to) look like. I think the top 1/3 of the order is settled, the middle of the order is partially settled (Santana and Brantley will be in there somewhere), and given the current roster, the bottom third is just a mess no matter how you arrange it. But I think that’s the best lineup the Indians can throw out there right now, and I think it also splits up the lefties pretty well.

9. Lastly, the bullpen. Chris Perez has arguably been the best closer in baseball this year, and Vinnie Pestano arguably the best setup man. Those two have just been electric. Joe Smith has also been a solid as a set-up man. I think these three firmly have their names and roles in ink.

Closer Chris Perez
8th Inning Vinnie Pestano
7th Inning Joe Smith

10. In last week’s MMTT, I wrote that one of the Indians biggest problems is that they have no reliable relievers outside of Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, and Chris Perez. I went into statistical detail about Nick Hagadone, Tony Sipp, Jeremy Accardo, and Esmil Rogers in that article, and won’t repeat it now. But let’s just say that all of them have struggled (and continued to struggle this week).

Seeing as how the Indians already have two set-up man positions locked up, they really just need one other guy to step up. The bullpen is a place where you really only need 3-4 great bullpen arms to have a solid bullpen. But like the bottom of the order, it really isn’t clear if the Indians have anyone that can step up, as all of Hagadone, Sipp, and Accardo have been really inconsistent (it’s still a little early to say anything about Rogers). Hopefully, one of these guys can get sorted out, but like I said in last week’s piece, I think you could argue that all of Hagadone, Sipp, and Accardo should be down in Columbus right now.

Closer Chris Perez
8th Inning Vinnie Pestano
7th Inning Joe Smith
RP (Tony Sipp)
RP (Nick Hagadone)
RP (Jeremy Accardo)
RP (Esmil Rogers)

11. Now that we’ve looked at the Indians rotation, lineup, and bullpen, I wanted to just quickly discuss what the Indians could look to do at the trading deadline (July 31). I’m not going to discuss any potential targets yet, but rather just what the Indians are likely looking to upgrade.

If Masterson and Jimenez continue to pitch well, I don’t think the Indians will try to make a trade for a starting pitcher. Like I said above, Masteron, Jimenez, and Lowe are a pretty good 1-3, and I don’t see the Indians using their limited resources to try and upgrade those three if they are pitching well. The Indians also have some decent depth at Columbus (Zach McCallister, David Huff, Kevin Slowey), that they could turn to for back-of-the rotation guys to replace Gomez or Tomlin. Overall, the only way I see the Indians trading for a starter is if Jimenez and/or Lowe really struggle in July.

As far as the lineup and position players go, right field (Choo), center field (Brantley), shortstop (Asdrubal), 2nd base (Kipnis), catcher (Santana), and 3rd base (Hannahan/Chisenhall) all appear to be locked up. This leaves 1st base, left field, and DH. I really think the Indians will go hard after a right handed bat that can play either 1st or left field. Both of those positions are just begging for an upgrade right now. It really wouldn’t surprise me to see the Indians make one big trade to fill one position, and one smaller trade (think Fukodome last year or Lofton in ’07) to fill the other. If those two positions are upgraded, all of the sudden the bottom third of the lineup doesn’t look to shabby and the Indians would probably have an above average offense.

The bullpen is probably the most interesting situation and I’m not real sure if they will pursue another reliever. Sipp has been good for the Indians in the past, no one doubts Hagadone’s stuff, Rogers also has an electric arm, and the Indians also have Raffy Perez coming back from injury–there is definitely potential to get the last few bullpen spots sorted out internally.

But I think the Indians might make a trade for a bullpen arm for one reason; relief pitchers can come very cheap. Usually, the only bullpen arms that command much of a market are closers are elite set-up men. Decent set-up men don’t usually cost a ton, so maybe the Indians find a guy for cheap that they think can help solidify one of the last bullpen spots and pull the trigger on them. Either wouldn’t surprise me.

Overall, I am really excited for the rest of the season to unfold, as there is finally starting to be some clarity to everything, and the Indians really are just a few players away from being a pretty complete team.

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