Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tribe Offense Much Better, But The Starting Pitching Is Still Thin

Cleveland Indians fans have enjoyed a nice offseason, and we have every reason to look forward to the 2013 baseball season.

From signing Terry Francona as manager to the acquisitions of Nick Swisher, Brett Myers, Trevor Bauer and Michael Bourn, the Cleveland front office did a terrific job of overhauling the roster and vastly improving the ballclub. The team that opens the 2013 season could be a good 12-15 games better than the one that ended 2012.

That said, no one should look to the upcoming season and think that anyone other than the Detroit Tigers will be the favorites in the American League Central. The Indians lost 94 games a year ago, so an improvement of 15 games means an 83-79 record. That's not gonna get it done. So before you start ordering World Series tickets, remember that while the everyday lineup is greatly improved, the starting pitching, an utter catastrophe last year, remains a weakness.

The addition of Myers will help. A proven innings-eater, Myers should give the Tribe a chance to win most every time he takes the ball. In addition, Justin Masterson should be better than a year ago, for two reasons: 1.) He's better than what he showed in 2012, and 2.) he has a very positive relationship with Francona, dating back to his days in Boston. Francona argued hard for the Red Sox not to send Masterson to Cleveland in the 2009 deal that brought Victor Martinez to Boston, but lost that argument. Reunited with Francona, Masterson should be better in 2013.

The rest of the rotation is another story. Calling Ubaldo Jiminez's first season-plus in Cleveland a train wreck is an insult to train wrecks. Using a delivery that seems to have a dozen stops and starts before approaching his release point, Jiminez has played hard-to-get with the strike zone throughout his time in Cleveland. As a result, he was one of the worst starting pitchers in the big leagues last year, losing 17 games.

The list of candidates for the other two spots in the rotation is underwhelming. Carlos Carrasco was an intriguing prospect when acquired from Philadelphia in the Cliff Lee swindle, but he’s coming off Tommy John surgery and is a question mark at best. Zach McAllister had several decent starts in his brief time in Cleveland a year ago, but was only a marginal prospect when acquired from the Yankees in 2010 for Austin Kearns. Bauer is one of the top prospects in the game and may have the best arm in the organization, but he’s likely to start the year at Triple-A Columbus. The other names in the mix are pretty much all misfits and 4-F's: Corey Kluber, David Huff, Scott Barnes. Non-roster invitees Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka (also reunited with Francona this spring) look pretty good by comparison.

And so the scuttlebutt is that the Indians may be looking to trade for pitching, and the bait for such a deal would come from their outfield depth. In particular, MLB reporters and bloggers keep saying that Drew Stubbs, acquired from Cincinnati in the three-team deal that brought Bauer to the Indians from Arizona and sent Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds, would be the ideal candidate to dangle for pitching help. With the signing of Bourn, Stubbs has been displaced from center field to right, with Swisher shifted from right field to first base, and Mark Reynolds from first base to designated hitter, and that supposedly makes Stubbs a good candidate to trade.

The logic in all this is flawed on many fronts. First of all, the aforementioned defensive changes improved the Indians at every position mentioned. Bourn is probably the best defensive center fielder in the game. Stubbs, an excellent center fielder himself, is better in right than Swisher, who in turn is better at first than Reynolds. That gives the Indians above-major-league-average defense in center field, right field and first base, meaning all those moves made sense. If the pitching is suspect — and it is — then improving the defense is imperative. Trading Stubbs will hurt the defense, not help it.

The other reason the "trade Stubbs for pitching" argument makes no sense is that Stubbs has no real trade value. A former first-round draft pick, Stubbs is a superior defensive center fielder with great speed and occasional power. He steals bases at a high percentage and has 59 career homers. On the other hand, from day one in the big leagues, he's had an awful time getting on base, with a career on-base percentage of .312. His OBP with the Reds in 2012 was a dreadful .277. Forget getting on base, however. Stubbs has an awful time just making contact. With 588 career strikeouts in less than four full big league seasons, Stubbs fans an average of about once every third plate appearance.

If the Indians do trade for pitching, it will have to be for young, major league-ready pitching, meaning a pitcher or pitchers who can help the team win now, who don’t make much money, and who have years remaining before arbitration. Teams nowadays rarely trade that kind of pitching, especially not for a collection of red flags like Drew Stubbs.
For Carlos Santana? Sure. For Asdrubal Cabrera? Absolutely. For Drew Stubbs? Not a prayer, at least not now.

No, the Indians are stuck with Stubbs, at least for the time being, and that's not a bad thing. If the change of scenery from Cincinnati to Cleveland helps him re-establish his career, then he can definitely help the Tribe win in 2013. Or, if he has a big year but the team's pitching is as bad as it looks and the Indians fall out of the race by late July, then they could deal him for some long-term pitching help. And if he continues to flail away at the plate and shows no sign of improvement, they'll non-tender him next winter and be done with him.

For those of you who were all hot to trade Stubbs for the 2018 Cy Young Award winner, whoever that may be, don't hold your breath. What you see in Indians camp right now is what you're likely to see on opening day. The everyday lineup will be exciting. The starting pitching, not so much. And that's still a massive improvement over last year, so don't complain. Enjoy it.

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