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2012 Preview: Cleveland Indians


Cleveland Indians 

 What They Did:      80-82, 2nd Place AL Central

        Actual Runs:      Scored 704 runs, Allowed 760.

                                 Expected wins based on RS and RA:  75.3 (4.7 below actual)

            Restated:      Scored 671 runs, Allowed 726.

                                 Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  75.2 (4.8 below actual)


“I could tell the Sidd Finch story was a fake.  Any player with that kind of talent would have to have been acquired through a trade with the Cleveland Indians.”  

Cleveland Indians Fan to Sports Illustrated,

In response to The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, April, 1985


For the 27th year running, that’s my all-time favorite letter to the editor.

Beginning with the 2007 playoffs, when Cleveland blew a three games-to-one lead to Boston in the ALCS, the post-season has been very difficult for Indians’ fans to watch.  The Indians may not have made another playoff appearance since 2007, but in every year since their fans have had to watch at least one, and sometimes two of their homegrown talents and former Cy Young Award winners lead the staff of a different playoff team.  CC Sabathia single-handedly took the Brewers to the playoffs in 2008, and then anchored the last three Yankee playoff teams.  Meanwhile Cliff Lee has led two different pennant winners during the last three post-seasons.  All in all, Lee and Sabathia have combined to go 12-5 with a 3.25 ERA and three World Series appearances in the post-season since they were traded by Cleveland.

Looking at those post-seasons might lead a casual fan to suspect Cleveland gave away their future   However, Cleveland stocked their farm system with talent via those two trades and a number of other lower profile deals.  By now, Cleveland should be in position to reap the benefits of those trades in the form of an inexpensive, young lineup under team control for the foreseeable future.  If you were to have bought 2012 AL Central futures in 2010, there would have been considerable demand for the Indians. 

A look at this season’s projected starting nine for Cleveland reveals a lot of young talent but with the very notable exception of Carlos Santana (acquired from the Dodgers for Casey Blake) little production is expected to come from the high profile trades.  Only LF Michael Brantley, acquired from Milwaukee for Sabathia, is expected to start the year in the lineup as a result of the other trades.  Brantley’s hitting over three partial seasons (.265/.316/.359 – Batting Average/On Base Percentage/Slugging Percentage) makes him a just below league-average left fielder (.264/.329/422 over the same time period).  On the pitching staff, similar to hitting a single oil gusher with Santana despite a lot of other dry holes, Justin Masterson (from the Red Sox for Victor Martinez) has the stuff to anchor a playoff rotation.  Cleveland fans, naturally, suspect it will be for the 2014 edition of the Atlanta Braves.

Despite some disappointing returns from the trades of their two Cy Young Award winners, the Indians field a mostly young and exciting starting nine, all of which spent time in Cleveland’s farm system.  That youth plus an expected bounce-back year from Shin-Soo Choo, who suffered through an injury-shortened 2011 – his worst year since taking over RF for the Indians in 2008 – accounts for a projected increase in run production in 2012.

The pitching staff should show improvement too.  Masterson has ace stuff and, in a striking reversal of roles, at last year’s trading deadline the Indians acquired someone else’s ace, Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez in exchange for prospects.  The problem for Cleveland was that Jimenez was as bad for the Indians in the last-third of the 2011 season as he had been during the first two-thirds for Colorado.  Jimenez was probably never as good as his 15-1 start during the first half of 2010 suggested and as a result of some skill erosion since that time (lower strikeout rate, higher fly ball rate), he’s not projected to pitch at ace-level, but, in conjunction with the addition of Derek Lowe to the staff, the Indians’ rotation is much deeper this year and as a result they should improve materially on their 4th-worst AL ranking in runs allowed in 2011.

Using last year as a starting point for a 2012 projection presents a problem for the Indians, however.  That’s because, despite being outscored by 56 runs – a differential that ranked 23rd in baseball – the Indians had a chance to finish at .500 on the last day of the season.  Since it’s unrealistic for any team to expect to finish above .500 without scoring more runs than they allow, the Indians have considerable ground to make up performance-wise just to get to .500 this year.  Fortunately, Cleveland is one of only six teams that projects to get improved run scoring from their offense and improved run prevention from their starting pitchers.

While improvement on both sides of the runs scored/runs allowed ledger should occur, it’s only looks to be just enough to create a positive run differential and result, therefore, in a record something close to 81-81.  Just like the White Sox, the Indians need to find additional upside somewhere if they want to have any chance of getting into a late-season pennant chance with the Tigers.  Based on yet another injury that has already put an Opening Day appearance in jeopardy, Grady Sizemore will probably not provide a return to the All-Star level he played at, circa 2006-2008.  A one-time 30/30 producer, Sizemore hasn’t hit a home run and stolen a base in the same game since August, 2009 which was also the last time he hit a home run and recorded a stolen base in the same season!

As discussed in the White Sox preview, thanks to higher ceiling arms and more depth in the starting rotation plus a chance to materially improve their defensive efficiency, the White Sox appear to have the better chance of challenging the Tigers than the Indians.  Neither team can be considered a true threat to Detroit but they each have at least a credible scenario under which they could challenge the Tigers.


Oddsmakers’ expectations:  Like the White Sox, the Indians are generally listed with implied odds of less than 10% to win the AL Central. Their over/under for total wins stands at 75 ½.  While I agree with those markets relative to the White Sox, I reiterate my call that there is value in backing either the White Sox or the Indians, due to an overvaluation of the Tigers.  Detroit may be the strongest team in the division, but in a twist on the classic Damon Runyon quote, that’s not the way to bet it.  If you prefer a more recent analogy, look no further than Warren Buffet’s annual letter to investors.  Released this past weekend, Buffet reminds investors that “the first law of capital allocation – (regardless of the investment) – is that what is smart at one price is dumb at another.”  Due to their relative prices, I think the smart investment is long the White Sox and/or Indians and short the Tigers.  There should be plenty of daily opportunities to put on that trade once the season begins. 

2012 Outlook: 

81-81 – Third in AL Central

700 Runs Scored       698 Runs Allowed



Mop Up Duty:


Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.


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