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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Series Preview: Cleveland Indians Cross-Ohio Series - Lindor, Santana, and Salazar

Francisco Lindor.  Photo by Keith Allison
Having bid adieu to the Phillies for 2016, the Reds begin a strange cross-Ohio four-game series on Monday.  They will play the first two games in Cleveland, and then drive down I-71 to conclude the series with a pair of games in Cincinnati.  It's an interesting format that makes the series seem like its own little event.  I'm a fan.

The Indians have underperformed for the last several years.  Their last playoff appearance was 2013, despite perennially receiving rave reviews in the preseasons.  This year is no different, with many projection systems picking the Indians to win, or at least be within spitting distance of the AL Central crown.  In large part, these ratings are driven by their outstanding pitching staff, which is anchored by Corey Kluber, who is backed by Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, along with a solid cast of supporting actors.  While Carrasco is currently on the shelf with a hamstring injury, their rotation, as a whole, has performed as expected so far.  The thing you'll also hear about them is how much better their fielding got in the second half last year.  Their UZR, at least, confirms this: they've been outstanding across the diamond.  In contrast, their offense has struggled a bit without Michael Brantley, and their bullpen hasn't been catching the world afire.  Nevertheless, despite the .500 record, they are still given a 62% chance at making the playoffs this year.  They're currently 5 games behind the White Sox, which, to me, look like an inferior team.

Position Players

This squad isn't quite up to full strength.  The superb Michael Brantley returned sooner than expected from injury, but compiled only 39 AB's before going back on the DL with shoulder inflammation.  They are also minus Lonnie Chisenhall, at least for the moment, who is on bereavement leave.  For the time being, however, they are running out former Red Marlon Byrd and Rajai Davis, a guy that I'm honestly surprised has not yet been a Redleg given the front office's attraction to speedy outfielders.  Jose Ramirez was previously a shortstop, but has been hitting remarkably well while roaming about the outfield.  His power is entirely doubles-based, but he makes excellent contact and, for now at least, is getting plenty of hits to fall in.

This will be my first time watching Francisco Lindor.  While he might not have the power of Carlos Correa, Lindor is already in the conversation for best shortstop in the American League.  That's driven by a good, contact-based approached, and excellent fielding.  I'm a big fan of several of the Indians' other players.  Carlos Santana isn't catching much these days, but he is one of those rare players who walks as often as he strikes out--and yet still has good power that makes him a fit in the heart of the order.  The Indians often hit him leadoff, which I love.  Yan Gomes is also a favorite; he's had a miserable season at the plate so far, but in the past has shown that he can hit, and usually is rated as excellent via the framing metrics.  Mike Napoli is looking like a good pick-up.  He offers a nice dose of right-handed power in the middle of the order, and didn't cost a ton to sign.

I'm kind of surprised to see Tucker Barnhart's fielding rated as negative at this point in the season.  Baseball Prospectus's framing metric, which is the best I know of, rates him as 6th-worst in the major leagues right now at -3 runs.  He's with some good catchers on that list, though; Salvador Perez is just one spot ahead of him.  Things can change.  Nevertheless, I have noticed that Tucker's arm hasn't seemed to have a lot of zip on it at times, and he's not always as mobile as I'd hoped when blocking pitches.  Of course, his pitchers might have something to do with the number of wild pitches he's allowed.  I'm probably just expecting too much of him, but I'd really like him to be a brilliant defensive catcher.  He's in line for a lot of playing time, but hopefully he won't get over-used.  I'd like to see him get a rest in day games, for example, and that hasn't always been happening.

Joey Votto didn't have a great series against Philadelphia, but he has himself almost back up to a league-average wRC+.  His BABIP is still low, and he still looks awkward at times, but he's hitting with a lot more power now than he did earlier in the season.  I don't know what to say about Jay Bruce's ever-declining UZR, but I reject it.  He might have missed a ball or two early on, and whiffed on that double today, but he still looks at least very solid to me in right field.

Probable Starters


The Reds will face an interesting set of pitchers in this series.  Danny Salazar has been pretty awesome.  He walks a lot of batters, but he's been inducing a ton of ground balls while striking just about everyone else out.  Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin have yielded the exact same peripherals thus far, but with wildly different outcomes.  Anderson throws 94 mph, while Tomlin is a classic soft-tosser...who relies on his fastball more than any other starter in this series.  And finally, to cap off the series, we have the excellent Corey Kluber, who does everything right.

Bullpens

Cody Allen was superb last year.  This year, he's declined in velocity, and with that decline has come a drop in strikeouts and a huge increase in his walk rate.  He's been pretty shaky thus far, but is still being placed in high-leverage situations.  Bryan Shaw has also struggled.  Fortunately, the Indians have gotten decent outcomes out of the rest of their pen.  Probably the most dominant has been Joba Chamberlain, who has been superb in his first year with Cleveland.