Sunday, March 25, 2012

Queasy about Cleveland's pitching

The Cleveland Indians made a nice early run in 2011. After flying out of the gate with an 18-8 record in April, the team sat on a 32-20 record by the end of May. The team was in first place until June 10 and stayed among the division leaders and even grabbed it by a game as late as July 22. Their big play at the trade deadline for Ubaldo Jimenez did not pan out as they hoped and the team played sub-.500 baseball from June through the end of the season. The Tigers zoomed past them and never looked back. Given Ubaldo's track record, you could perhaps think that his 2011 season was a blip. But a poor spring and rumors of his attitude and diminished radar gun readings make you wonder. And he isn't the only pitcher suspect this spring. Of course, spring baseball doesn't count and we can't read too much into it. Plus, the team plays its spring games in Arizona where the balls fly without much hindrance. How much concern should there be?

The Indians' best pitcher this spring has been newcomer, Derek Lowe. Lowe is trying himself to overcome one of his worst seasons ever last season with the Braves. So his spring success is encouraging. But every other projected starter has struggled this spring. Well, check that. Jeanmar Gomez has had a terrific spring. But is he really their fifth starter? Perhaps. Gomez has only started once this spring in his four appearances while guys like Josh Tomlin, Kevin Slowey, Jimenez and David Huff have started four or five games each. Lowe has had success in his career and Jimenez is still considered a great arm. But do the rest of those rotation options give us any kind of optimism. Not really.

After looking at the Baseball Prospectus depth chart for the team, the projections are not appetizing. Justin Masterson should be better than the 3.99 ERA BP projects for him and better than the 1.7 WARP that sight predicts. Take the upside there. But BP's projection for Ubaldo Jimenez comes in with an ERA of 3.47 and a WARP of 2.8. Judging on the last year, you'd have to take those numbers with a grain of salt. The Indians would be thrilled with that Ubaldo. Don't count on them.

Derek Lowe is projected poorly, most likely based on last season and moving from the National League to the American League. His projection of a 4.62 ERA and a measly 0.2 WARP are very pessimistic. Lowe should have a decent season left in him and beat those numbers.

Josh Tomlin is projected for a 4.17 ERA with a WARP of 1.1. The former seems optimistic and the latter perhaps a bit pessimistic. His sinker is a good one but it all depends on his balls in play. The expectation here is an ERA closer to the 4.50 mark. He'll have his fair share of good outings though. 

BP's projections for Jeanmar Gomez and David Huff are gruesome to look at. Both are projected with negative WARPs. It's hard to argue with either projection. BP rates Kevin Slowey higher, but that's hard to justify after seeing what happened to him last season.

What we are seeing here is an experiment. The Indians are going almost entirely with extreme ground ball pitchers. Such pitchers can get "hot" depending on where their ground balls are hit. But this rotation's success will likely revolve around the type of season Ubaldo Jimenez has. If the 2010 version shows up, then some of the other weaker links are less exposed. But if the 2011 version is what they get, then this rotation blows up.

Baseball Prospectus predicts the Indians will win 80 games just like last season. But this rotation leaves much of a feeling of queasiness. If Lowe bounces back and Masterson continues to grow and Jimenez can get his stuff together, this team could win 85 games pretty easily. But if two of the three of those scenarios do not develop, this team could struggle to win 75 games in 2012.

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