Keys to 2013: Cleveland Indians

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Starting Pitching Key: Ubaldo Jimenez

Usually when there’s a big trade of youth for an established veteran the trade can be judged within a year-and-a-half. Sometimes that judgment is floating and interchangeable. The problem with most deals is that there’s an immediate reaction of a “winner” and a “loser” before any of the players even get their uniforms on.

For the Rockies and Indians, who completed a big trade in the summer of 2011 with Jimenez going to the Indians for a package of youngsters including Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Matt McBride and Joe Gardner, there has yet to be a payoff for either side.

For the Rockies, if Pomeranz doesn’t develop, the trade will be a disaster. I think he will, but he hasn’t yet. White was traded to the Astros; McBride is about to turn 28 and has the looks of a 4-A player. Gardner’s mechanics make him an arm injury waiting to happen; if he doesn’t get hurt, he’s a reliever.

It can be seen as the Indians didn’t give up much of anything for a former All-Star and third place finisher in the Cy Young Award voting, but now that they’re looking to contend, they need the Jimenez from 2010 or, at worst, 2009. He’s been awful from 2011 onward with an attitude to match and his ERA has risen by over 3 ½  runs since the end of June 2010 while his velocity has declined by 4-5 mph. Nobody’s expecting him to keep up an ERA under two, but over five? 92-94 is plenty enough fastball to be effective. He has a club option for 2014 at $8 million that he can void himself since he was traded mid-contract. If he’s as bad as he was over the past two seasons, the Indians will trade him at mid-season or sever ties after the season.

Relief Pitching Key: Chris Perez

Perez’s complaints about the Indians fans not caring and the front office not spending any money were assuaged this past winter, but he has to hold his end of the bargain up by getting the job done in the ninth inning. The Indians are better than they were, but they’re not good enough to afford blowing games in the late innings. To make matters more precarious, Perez’s status for opening day is in question because of a shoulder strain. He could also be traded if the Indians are underperforming and Vinnie Pestano indicates he can handle the job.

Offensive Key: Carlos Santana

For all the talk of Santana being an offensive force and the Dodgers making a huge mistake by trading him to get Casey Blake, he’s been something of a disappointment. Santana’s productive, but not the unstoppable masher he was supposed to be. If he’s able to be a competent defensive catcher then his current offensive numbers are fine; if he has to be shifted to first base, he’s a guy you can find on the market.

Defensive Key: Santana

Whether or not the Indians have the depth to contend is not known yet. I don’t think they do. Regardless with the new manager and the money they’ve spent, they have to be competent and that hinges on the pitching. The starting rotation behind Justin Masterson and Brett Myers are temperamental (Jimenez); young, difficult and have already yapped their way out of one venue (Trevor Bauer); and are scrapheap reclamation projects (Daisuke Matsuzaka and Scott Kazmir). Manager Terry Francona might look at Santana’s defense and realize he can’t win with him behind the plate. Santana at first base would make everyone else move to a different position and force a far weaker offensive catcher into the lineup in Santana’s place.

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Indians Get Ubaldo Jimenez And Go For The Deep Strike

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In trading star pitchers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee at the trading deadlines of 2008 and 2009, the Indians acquired 1st round draft picks Zach Jackson and Matt LaPorta; they also acquired Michael Brantley (7th round pick), Jason Knapp (2nd round), Carlos Carrasco (a touted amateur free agent), Jason Donald (3rd round) and Lou Marson (3rd round).

In retrospect, they would’ve been better off keeping both Lee and Sabathia and taking the compensatory draft picks when they left as free agents.

But they didn’t know that then.

It’s short-sighted to let a few deals that didn’t work out in a club’s favor influence future moves so heavily, but it gives some background to the Indians thinking—given that experience—when they acquired Ubaldo Jimenez (pending a physical) from the Rockies for Alex White, Joe Gardner, Matt McBride and Drew Pomeranz.

White and Pomeranz were 1st round picks; McBride a 2nd round pick; Gardner a 3rd round pick.

The Indians gave up a lot, but they’ve seen first hand what can happen with “blue chip” prospects and building for a “future” that may never come. They have a right to be hesitant. A natural response would be that all players are different; all deals are different; and that experience shouldn’t factor so heavily into trading for a young pitcher in Jimenez who hasn’t pitched particularly well since a brilliant start to his 2010 season and whose availability should give some pause to the pursuing teams.

But the questioning glances stem from paranoid rumor-mongering (contingent on that physical). Apart from unattributed speculation, there haven’t been any concrete statements about Jimenez being in poor health or whining about his contract.

Sometimes there’s no smoking gun. Sometimes players are traded because they’re traded and both sides feel it’s the right thing to do.

The Indians are in a terrible division and in a pennant race; they needed a starter and got one in Jimenez days after bolstering their lineup with the underrated Kosuke Fukudome.

Jimenez is not a rental as Sabathia was; he’s not going to be able to demand over $100 million in a year-and-a-half as Lee was; he’s going to be with the Indians through 2013. The players they gave up weren’t going to help them now, if at all; the Indians are supposedly still trying to improve via trade.

The Rockies are fading in the NL West race, shed some salary and brought back a few cheap, young players.

The Indians are going for the deep strike—something I’m an advocate of when the opportunity presents itself.

Go for it.

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