Though the Indians finished with a sub-.500 record for the third straight season in 2011, they were in contention right up until September, taking a big step forward for an organization thought to be in rebuilding mode.
Of course, that's kind of the problem. The Indians' out-of-nowhere breakthrough relied on so many unlikely performances from so many unlikely sources that the actual extent of the team's progress is difficult to gauge.
Justin Masterson emerged as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Josh Tomlin continued to get by on some of the league's most hittable stuff. Asdrubal Cabrera somehow became a power hitter. And a collection of no-name relievers came together to produce the AL's fifth-best bullpen ERA.
Then again, for all that went right, about as much went wrong. Grady Sizemore's return from knee surgery ended in disappointment. Shin-Soo Choo was hardly a factor, battling physical and mental demons all year. Matt LaPorta continued to wallow in mediocrity. And the king of the bullpen, closer Chris Perez, wasn't nearly as dominant as he has shown he can be.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of all, though, came in the form of midseason acquisition Ubaldo Jimenez, who continued his career-worst performance even with his exodus from Colorado in exchange for top pitching prospects Drew Pomeranz and Alex White. Those two represented about all the farm system had left, which means the Indians mortgaged their future for a division title that never came.
So now they're handcuffed, lacking the resources to improve on a roster full of question marks. They did add Derek Lowe and Kevin Slowey to the starting rotation this offseason, but mostly to counteract the loss of Fausto Carmona -- or Robert Hernandez Heredia, rather -- whose availability is in question until he resolves his identity issue. They also signed veteran Casey Kotchman as competition for LaPorta, but he isn't exactly a thumper at first base.
Apart from such patch-up jobs and cosmetic changes that are sure to come up during the season, you shouldn't expect to see much turnover on the Indians roster in 2012. They decided on their nucleus last year. Now, let's see where it takes them.
Bounce-back player ... Shin-Soo Choo, OF
After back-to-back .300-20-80-80-20 seasons, Choo's 2011 was clearly a step in the wrong direction. But it was also unusually contentious. His DUI arrest on May 2 led to a backlash in his native South Korea that he admitted became a distraction, and the numbers back it up. He hit .241 with one home run from that point until June 24, when he broke his thumb. The two months he missed with the injury gave him a chance to regroup, and when he returned on Aug. 12, he was a different player, hitting .348 with three homers in 46 at-bats before going down with another injury -- this time a strained oblique -- that effectively ended his season. Clearly, Choo's 2011 was marred by bad decisions and even worse timing, but his performance in August was encouraging enough that he deserves a free pass. He's only 29, after all. A swift decline wouldn't make sense, given his track record. You should feel confident drafting Choo as your second outfielder, as usual.
Bust ... Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
OK, so Cabrera was the surprise of 2011, emerging off the waiver wire to contribute 25 homers and 94 RBI at the weakest position in Fantasy. It was fun, sure. But the danger for Fantasy owners is when that once-in-a-lifetime season becomes the new expectation. Not only were Cabrera's 25 homers a complete departure from his established track record, but they came with an elevated fly ball rate that began to wreak havoc on his batting average in the second half, when he presumably became homer-conscious. He hit only .244 after the All-Star break, and his .411 slugging percentage during that stretch was actually lower than the one he put together during a six-homer 2009. If he continues to force the issue, he could turn out like Aaron Hill. Then again, if he reverts to being more of a line-drive hitter, he'll have to settle for fewer homers. Either way would cause Cabrera to take a step back in Fantasy, perhaps to the Erick Aybar-Derek Jeter class of shortstops, so proceed with caution.
Sleeper ... Jason Kipnis, 2B
Granted, Kipnis' first couple weeks on the job were a little too good to be true. He hit six homers in the span of 11 days before his deal with the devil ran out, landing him on the 15-day DL with a hamstring injury. But just because he's not really a 40-homer threat doesn't mean the whole thing was a sham. He also had five steals during his time in the majors, demonstrating a combination of power and speed normally associated with the best of the best second basemen, such as Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler. And the attributes he was most known for in the minors -- his .300-plus batting average and high walk rate -- weren't even on display during his 136 at-bat trial. Kipnis is as well-rounded of an offensive contributor as you'll find among middle infielders, and even with his stellar debut, he has managed to remain under the radar in Fantasy. Don't be surprised if he's a top-10 second baseman by season's end.
|Projected Lineup||Pos.||Projected Rotation|
|1||Michael Brantley||LF||1||Ubaldo Jimenez||RH|
|2||Asdrubal Cabrera||SS||2||Justin Masterson||RH|
|3||Shin-Soo Choo||RF||3||Derek Lowe||RH|
|4||Carlos Santana||C||4||Josh Tomlin||RH|
|5||Travis Hafner||DH||5||Kevin Slowey||RH|
|6||Grady Sizemore||CF||Alt||Fausto Carmona||RH|
|7||Jason Kipnis||2B|| |
|8||Casey Kotchman||1B||CL||Chris Perez||RH|
|9||Lonnie Chisenhall||3B||SU||Vinnie Pestano||RH|
|Top bench options||RP||Tony Sipp||LH|
|R||Jack Hannahan||3B||RP||Joe Smith||RH|
|R||Matt LaPorta||1B||RP||Rafael Perez||LH|
|1||Francisco Lindor||18||SS||Class A||Class A|
|Lindor isn't close to the majors, but he might be the only impact player in the Indians' minor-league system. He's worth a long-term look if you're aiming for a Starlin Castro type.|
|Phelps had solid minor-league numbers last year, but he's clearly an inferior hitter to Kipnis. He'll need a break just to get a look as a utility man in 2012.|
|The former Yankees farmhand had an up-and-down major-league showing last year. He has a low ceiling, but he could factor in the rotation if Lowe or Slowey doesn't pan out.|
|Of the Indians' many reliever prospects, Hagadone stands out as one with closer-type stuff. But even if he makes the roster, he has a few players ahead of him for that role.|
|5||Dillon Howard||19||SP||DNP -- signed late||Class A|
|Howard stands out as the Indians' top pitching prospect and a potential frontline starter, but at age 19, a lot could go wrong for him still. He's a long-term option only.|
|Best of the rest: Thomas Neal, OF; Chen-Chang Lee, RP; Austin Adams, SP; Scott Barnes, SP; Chun Chen, C; Giovanni Soto, SP; Corey Kluber, SP; Danny Salazar, SP; and Bryce Stowell, RP.|