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2006 Team Preview: Cleveland Indians, Pitchers

The Indians have an interesting arrangement in the rotation. I wouldn't call any of these guys a bona fida top flight starter, but they're pretty solid from 1-4.

  1. MLB.com lists the ace of the staff as one Cliff Lee, which is at least partially based on his 18-5 record. But we know better than that, right? Lee wasn't nearly as good last year as his 18-5 record indicates. His strikeout rate was a little above average for the AL (at 17.1%), but he was not particularly great in any one aspect of his game. Also, his strikeout rate in 2004 was much better than in 2005 (20.15%). Indeed, his biggest strides from 2004 were in control, and in also not completely collapsing in the second half. He doesn't have any particularly stellar pitches, and he relies on his cutter. Look, Lee's no ace, but he's no worse than a #3 starter. He's a solid pitcher with some good support from a good hitting team and a great bullpen. I'd expect more of the same from Lee in 2006, although mild regression is a possibility.
  2. C.C. Sabathia, all 250 pounds of him, posted the best season of his career in 2005, considering all things. It does feel like C.C. has been around forever, but it's only been 5 years, and he's only 25. Five years of good health and consistently above-average pitching. His career ERA+ is 107, and, while last year saw his lowest ERA+ of his career, his peripherals were solid. His control improvement and his strikeout rate jumped up to 19.6%. He is consistent in limiting homers, and he's been one of the more consistent pitchers in the league. He hasn't topped 200 innings since 2002, and his work really hasn't been too strenuous since then. They've kept him healthy, so that's a positive. He's a power pitcher, getting the fastball into the upper-90s on occassion, but usually hanging around the mid-90s, and he throws an assortment of breaking pitches to go along with it. His PECOTA projects him at 3.89, and that sounds good, but the big guy might have an ace-like year in him. This would be as good as any to bring it out.
  3. As Kevin Millwood exited for hotter, more frustrating confines, Paul Byrd rode in from Los Angeles to take his spot in the rotation. Yeah, Millwood led the league in ERA last year, but that wasn't going to happen again. Byrd's not going to do that, either, but he won't be a tremendous downgrade. With an elite defense behind him, he should do a fine job keeping runners off base. The park isn't kind to power hitters, so the longball, which has troubled him in the past, shouldn't be a problem for him. So, for a pitcher with great control but weaknesses in other peripheral areas, he is in the perfect situation: great defense, tough park. His numbers should flourish. Astute pickup from Shapiro, and he should be OK for the two guaranteed years. They won't miss Millwood very much at all.
  4. Jake Westbrook: I'm pretty sure I'm not the first person to mention this, but the difference between Jake Westbrook's 2004 and Jake Westbrook's 2005 was very minimal.
            K/PA    BB/9    HR/9    BABIP   FIP     ERC     ERA
    
    2004    .130    2.75    0.79    .278    4.11    3.47    3.38
    2005    .133    2.69    0.81    .291    4.04    3.80    4.49
    
    

    Peripherals were almost identical, as were the FIPs. Component-ERA tells a little bit of the story; Westbrook did not do as well as expected with runners on base. The difference in BABIP was a fairly big deal, though, especially for a pitcher with below-average strikeout rates. Westbrook is one of the game's most dramatic groundball pitchers. He should also thrive in Cleveland with that defense, but things didn't quite work out last year.

    The ERAs are the misleading stat in all of that: the 2004 number is too good, and the 2005 number is too poor to actually represent what kind of pitcher Westbrook is. I lean towards 2004 as an expectation, but I'd be surprised if he were quite as good.

  5. Jason Johnson: Johnson is kind of the opposite of Sabathia: to me, it doesn't seem like he's been around for very long, but he's accumulated 1200+ innings in the majors and has been kicking around since 1997. What you see is what you get with Johnson: abysmal strikeout rates, above average control. This is a recurring theme of this rotation, but Johnson's the extreme example and the least impressive of the bunch. Last year was probably his career year... and he posted a 4.54 ERA. He's never posted an ERA below 4, and his career ERA+ is 91. He's making $3.5 million in 2006 with a $500K buyout, so Shapiro must really believe in the team's defense. With that said, I would be somewhat surprised if Johnson were in the fold come August. Jeremy Sowers looms.
It's not a great rotation, but it's pretty solid and can rely on a strong defense. Upper half of the league, certainly. But it's a notch or two below a few in the AL.

The 'pen was the league's best last year, and they did make a few changes in the offseason. So....

Bob Wickman has managed to put together a nice career, mainly with the Brewers and Indians. He posted his career best in saves last year with 45, but his other stats were stunningly mediocre. Wickman's not getting any younger, and he's an injury risk at this point. It's certainly possible that he's not closing come the stretch drive, replaced by... Fernando Cabrera, one of my favorite relievers out there. The early returns are good, and he's demolished AAA for two years. He's a flyball pitcher who strikes out a lot of guys (Think 11.5 K/9 dominance). His control was much improved in 2005, and he's ready to make a big impact now. They won't miss Howry... Guillermo Mota peaked a couple of years back in LA, and was traded in the move that really defined DePodesta's all-too-brief general managerial tenure. Mota was OK last year, but he struggled with his control again (which he didn't in his best years in LA). He claims to be fine this year after struggling with tendinitis last year. Relievers like Mota aren't rare, and neither are big seasons from them. But they are incredibly volatile and unpredictable, kinda like the eight years of Nikita Khrushchev behind the reins of the Soviet Union. Some good things, some bad things... Scott Sauerbeck's the lefty out there, and he has exhibited a pretty hefty platoon split over the course of his career. No one hits for too much power against him, but righties have on-based over .400 against him throughout his career. Last year, it was quite pronounced (in limited action): lefties hit .162/.284/.324, and righties hit .377/.441/.508. Batting average varies, sure, but not THAT much... Yay for minor league relievers! Rafael Betancourt was a latecomer, but he was certainly worth the wait. In 172.3 big league innings, he's fanned 185, walked just 48, and given up 17 homers. He's unlikely to get very much better than this, but that's OK. He's solid and should be for at least another year... Another major league latecomer, Matt Miller has also done a good job in limited big league work. Miller actually got more innings that mattered than I would have guessed (his "leverage" was 1.16, which ranked fourth on the team). He's no "spring chicken," as they say (he's 34, and, more importantly, we need the etymology of that expression), but he's a heavy groundball guy, and that's intriguing... Another live arm in the minors with a shot at a spot, Andrew Brown posted a K/BB of 81/19 in AAA last year. He deserves a shot, of course, and it looks like he's going to get one. This is how you build a bullpen: a proven guy or two, a guy who gets lefties out, and a couple of minor leaguers with live arms... Danny Graves and Steve Karsay have been invited to go for some spots in the 'pen, too. It's my impression that they're pretty much washed up, but, again, guys come out of nowhere all the time in bullpens.

Shapiro talks a good game about his concerns with this bullpen, but it's a solid one. It might not be the best in the league, again; that's very difficult to predict. But it shouldn't be a crippling weakness.

The pitching doesn't carry this team; the position players do, offensively and defensively. A lot of people think this is the best team in the bigs right now all around. Just from looking at the pitching, that's a bit of a stretch. But on the whole? I'm not sure who is better.