How The Cleveland Indians Can Compete In 2012

By Mark Hock

The Cleveland Indians finished 80-82 last season, a full 15 games behind the Detroit Tigers. Most pundits have written off the Indians for this season, pointing out that while they have some intriguing prospects with upside, they won’t be able to compete with the Tigers. However, the AL Central is pretty wide open this season, with the “rebuilding one minute competing the next” Chicago White Sox, the dysfunctional Minnesota Twins and the “Yuniesky Betancourt signing says it all” Kansas City Royals. While the Indians as presently constructed may not have what it takes to beat the Tigers, here are a couple of moves that I feel would benefit the Indians, giving them an edge, and a chance of competing for a playoff spot.

Heading into the 2012 season, the Indians currently boast a payroll of approximately $38 million. Arbitration raises will push that up to $62 million, leaving the Indians with very little spending money.Cleveland spent nearly $50 million last season, but as recently as 2009 they were spending $80 million. So for the purposes of this, I’m going to assume that they are capable of spending to that limit. While that may be a risk for the Indians, the potential for playoff revenues and increased attendance for next year should make the risk a worthwhile one.

The first move the Indians need to do is to sign free agent first basemen Carlos Pena. He’s coming off a strong season with the Cubs, hitting 225/357/462 with 28 homers and 80 runs driven in. While he’s another lefty bat in a lineup dominated with left handed hitters, he’s been a dominant force against right handed pitchers for several season. Last year he posted a 900 OPS against right handed pitchers, and he’s been at or above that level for five of the past 6 seasons. He’s a quality defender at first, which isn’t insignificant given that last season the Indians ranked 28th in the majors with a -47 team UZR.

Some would argue that Matt LaPorta should remain the first basemen, but the centerpiece of the CC Sabathia trade has been nothing but a disaster since his debut in the majors. LaPorta has been worth less than replacement level in each of the past 2 seasons, posting a 712 OPS last year with 11 home runs and a -0.8 WAR. Unacceptable numbers for any team that is trying to compete. And despite playing in only 107 games, LaPorta managed a -5.7 UZR. Last year Pena earned 2.6 WAR, so an upgrade to Pena could be worth 3-4 wins to the 2012 Indians.

Pena made $10 million last season on a one year deal, but given that Fielder is still out and the market for a first basemen isn’t that strong, in this situation he would be signed for a 1 year deal worth $8M (with incentives that could push it to $10M).

The second addition to this team would be from the division rival Tigers – Wilson Betemit. Yes, Lonnie Chisenhall is one of Cleveland’s best prospects, and many expect him to be handed the starting position at the hot corner. However Chisenhall clearly wasn’t ready last season, and didn’t even dominate AAA in his brief time there. Letting him start the year in AAA will be better for Chisenhall’s development, and if he forces his way up the Indians would be in a position to trade one of their veterans.

Betemit has his flaws – he’s a below average defensive infielder, one that would make an already weak infield defense worse everytime he’s on the field. This is no small problem given the number of groundball starters the Indians currently employ. However, he is a significant offensive upgrade over Jack Hannahan and Chisenhall, and the difference between the two could be worth a win or two to the Indians.

Wilson Betemit hit 303/365/500 last season vs right handed pitchers, and the switch hitter has always been much more effective against right handers. Using him in a platoon role with Jack Hannahan (who has never shown a platoon split) or Jason Donald would allow the Indians to maximize Betemit’s offence while keeping him out of a fulltime role. With the gold glove calibre Hannahan on the roster, Betemit can mercifully be taken out of a late game situation to upgrade the defence. Given that he made $1 million last season, a modest raise to a 1 year $3 million contract would have to interest Betemit.

Cleveland’s bullpen was slightly above average last season, ranking 12th in the majors by FIP (3.90). However, given the unpredictability in relievers performance from year to year, I would suggest the Indians look into acquiring the services of Ryan Madson. Earlier in the offseason, this would have been a crazy suggestion. There’s no way the Indians could pay for multiple seasons of a high priced closer like Madson. However, with most teams finished their search for a closer, it’s unlikely that Madson will sign the deal he was hoping for when he entered free agency. It’s possible Boras and Madson would settle for a one year deal, allowing Madson to re-emerge next offseason for a larger deal.

The Indians could offer Madson a $6-8 million dollar deal, allowing Boras to save face and claim he got a quality one year deal, and give them an opportunity to sign a big contract next season. Over the past 3 years, Madson has a 9.6K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and a 2.78 ERA. These are elite numbers for a reliever, making him a bargain on a one year contract. If the Indians season doesn’t go as well as I’d expect, they could always trade Madson to a contender.

The final addition to this squad would be Ryan Spilborghs. He’s coming off a brutal season with the Rockies, which should allow the Indians to sign him to a one year deal worth $1 million. He’s a solid defender who has posted a 799 OPS in his career against southpaws, giving the Indians a strong right handed bat capable of platooning with some of the left handed hitting outfielders.

Cleveland may have struggled last season, but the AL Central is wide open and it’s time for them to take advantage of their weak competition. This may be pushing their budget to the limit, but it gives the Indians a chance to compete a year earlier than expected.

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