As excited as we all are about the offseason the Indians have had, it’s important to be realistic. And, realistically, the Detroit Tigers are still the best team in the American League Central. The Tigers would have to have a serious run of injuries or a performance meltdown to win fewer than 90 games, and it is hard to envision the Indians surpassing that total, even if everything goes right.
The real question, then, is whether the Indians can finish second. You can’t really think about a wild card berth unless you finish second, so it is important to look at how the Indians compare to the other three teams in the division.
I am not worried about the Twins. The Indians finished ahead of Minnesota last year, and the Twins haven’t done anything in the offseason that makes me expect them to be better. The Royals should be better, but they will have to convince me that the pitchers they acquired are significantly better than what they had last year before I will consider them a contender. That leaves the White Sox. (Doesn’t it always?) The bottom line is that the White Sox will be the primary barrier standing between the Indians and whatever they hope to accomplish in 2013. Thus it is instructive to compare the two teams directly.
Comparing the two pitching staffs is difficult because the Indians have so many pitchers who underachieved or did not pitch in the majors last year. Indeed, in order for this to be a useful discussion, everyone who ultimately makes the Indians rotation will need to surpass his 2012 performance. Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez were awful last year, Zach McAllister only made 22 starts, Brett Myers was a reliever, and Scott Kazmir and Carlos Carrasco missed the whole year. The Indians should have a better bullpen than the White Sox, but they will need to match Chicago’s rotation in order to have a realistic shot at the playoffs.
Comparing the offenses is easier. One could simply expect the projected starters to duplicate their 2012 stats; if that occurs the Indians have significant advantages at catcher, second base, and shortstop, and a big disadvantage in right field. The other positions are close enough to be considered tossups, although the inconsistency of both designated hitters, Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds, makes that position completely unpredictable. The ZiPS projections for 2013 paint a similar picture.
- Catcher: Carlos Santana, 4.4; Tyler Flowers, 1.4
- First base: Nick Swisher, 2.4; Paul Konerko, 2.4
- Second base: Jason Kipnis, 2.6; Gordon Beckham, 1.8
- Third base: Lonnie Chisenhall, 1.6; Jeff Keppinger, 1.8
- Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera, 3.2; Alexei Ramirez, 2.9
- Left field: Michael Brantley, 2.2; Dayan Viciedo, 1.7
- Center field: Michael Bourn, 3.7; Alejandro De Aza, 2.6
- Right field: Drew Stubbs, 1.2; Alex Rios, 1.8
It may not be completely valid to add the WAR projections to compare the teams, but the Indians total 21.3 to the White Sox’ 16.4. I would say Rios and Konerko are a bit underrated, but Chisenhall may be as well. In any event, it is obvious that ZiPS expects the Indians to have a better lineup than the White Sox in 2013.
Based on recent history, it is realistic to expect the Indians to have a better bullpen as well, as long as Perez and Pestano match their performance of recent years. At this point, assuming Chris Sale and Jake Peavy are healthy all year, one has to expect the White Sox rotation to outperform the Indians’. The only way that wouldn’t happen is if Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez match Sale and Peavy. Talent-wise, that is certainly possible, but it certainly didn’t last year.
I am optimistic that Masterson will perform closer to his 2011 level than last year, and that if Jimenez continues to struggle he won’t be in the rotation all year. Furthermore, with Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Daisuke Matsuzaka waiting in Columbus, it is reasonable to assume that the Indians can call up enough reinforcements to maintain at least a league-average rotation all year long. If that happens, second place is certainly a reasonable goal.