Posted September 19, 2012

Wait ’til next year: Cleveland Indians

Cleveland Indians, Wait 'Til Next Year
Ubaldo Jimenez

Ubaldo Jimenez has not been the ace the Indians were hoping for when they acquired hin at midseason in 2011. (AP)

While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait Till Next year series.

Current record: 61-87 (.412, tied for 4th in the AL Central)

Mathematically eliminated: September 15

What worked in 2012: Almost nothing. Coming off an 80-82 2011 season that saw them hold first place into late July before fading over the final two months, the 2012 club looked as though it might be a threat to contend via the combination of the maturation of a young core (Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley, Justin Masterson) and rebounds from Travis Hafner, Shin-Soo Choo, Grady Sizemore and Ubaldo Jimenez. Though the Indians jumped out to a 27-21 start and held first place in the AL Central as of May 28, it was all a mirage — just as the team’s −15 run differential to that point had suggested.

While Brantley (.281/.339/.399), Cabrera (.268/.338/.414), Choo (.277/.369/.437), Kipnis (.253/.326/.378) and Santana (.255/.358/.425) have been solid, none has been anything close to exceptional. Twenty-four-year-old righty Zack McAllister has made a decent breakthrough in the rotation (4.15 ERA, 8.1 K/9), and closer Chris Perez has been ever-quotable while boosting his strikeout rate from 5.9 per nine to 10.1, with his walk rate plummeting from 3.9 to 2.1 in the same space.

What didn’t work in 2012: The Indians came into the season with a critical design flaw, pairing a low-strikeout pitching staff with a lousy infield defense. The team is tied for dead last in the league in run prevention (5.21 per game) while ranking 13th in strikeout rate (6.8 per nine) and 12th in defensive efficiency (.684); ranking 13th in walk rate (3.4 per nine) hasn’t helped either. No Indians starter besides McAllister has managed an ERA below Masterson’s swollen 4.93 mark, with Jimenez (5.43 ERA, 4.8 BB/9) and the since-released Derek Lowe (5.52 ERA, .335 BABIP), Jeanmar Gomez (5.61 ERA) and Josh Tomlin (6.36 ERA) all several shades of brutal.

Meanwhile, Sizemore hasn’t played at all after undergoing a microdiscectomy during the spring, and with Brantley covering centerfield, the team’s leftfielders (primarily Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon, both since released) have combined to “hit” .212/.275/.320. Hafner has been limited to 60 games due to injuries, marking the fifth straight year he’s done time on the disabled list; during his four-year, $57 million contract, he has averaged just 13 homers and 92 games per year, topping 100 in the latter category just once. Chisenhall began the year in the minors; between that, a calf strain and a broken arm, he has gotten just 102 big league plate appearances thus far. Casey Kotchman, who was signed to help offset the shaky infield defense, has crashed to .227/.281/.336 after a career year with the Rays in 2011. Cabrera, who was outstanding in 2011, looks less like a franchise cornerstone.

Overall outlook: Where the awful records of the Astros and Cub can be excused by their embarking upon much-needed rebuilding plans, there’s less explanation for the Indians’ poor showing — except to say that even with a good collection of young talent, rebuilding efforts don’t always work the way they’re supposed to. Critical roster miscalculations are part of the problem here, but given the across-the-board struggles of so many players — not to mention an 11-34 freefall since the beginning of August — one has to wonder whether manager Manny Acta’s tenure has run its course. Well regarded among statheads, he has yet to finish above .500 once in five full seasons at the helm of the Nationals and Indians, and is in danger of finishing with his worst record in three years at the latter stop.

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