Is the Cleveland Indians' pitching staff vastly underrated?
If you take a quick look at the results of ESPN drafts, you'll see very few Cleveland Indians in the top 200 in terms of average draft position. They have no players ranked in the top 50 and only three in the top 100 (Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo). Given that the team made few offseason additions to a lineup that finished ninth in the American League in batting average, runs scored and home runs, this lack of excitement is far from surprising.
With so little confidence in the lineup, it's also not surprising to discover that only a pair of starting pitchers manages to appear on the list at all, and even then it seems a bit of an afterthought.
Ubaldo Jimenez, the staff ace, is barely registering as a No. 3 fantasy pitcher, with an ADP of 109.1, 29th among all starters. Justin Masterson, with his ADP of 170, is on average the 48th starting pitcher being selected. In a 10-team ESPN standard league, that's almost waiver-wire territory.
If there's a reason for optimism in the Tribe's staff this season, though, it might come down to a word that rarely gets used in fantasy circles: defense.
The recent demotions of third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall and first baseman Matt LaPorta may well have been influenced somewhat by the pair's offensive struggles this spring. Chisenhall hit .205 with 16 strikeouts in 39 at-bats, while LaPorta fanned 11 times in 30 tries, with a .167 batting average to show for his efforts. However, it was likely their defensive woes that ultimately decided their fate.
Third base was handed to Jack Hannahan, a much better fielder than Chisenhall, who had committed 10 errors in only 168 chances last season. LaPorta was part of the revolving door at first base that made 12 errors combined in 2011. New arrival Casey Kotchman has made only 11 errors in his eight seasons in the majors. Clearly, Cleveland is attempting to show love to the glove.
Even Jason Kipnis, a converted outfielder who has made the switch to second base, has earned the confidence of manager Manny Acta this spring. Acta told reporters that he has been pleased with Kipnis' improvement in the field. That's probably a big reason Acta is willing to overlook Kipnis' struggles at the plate (.234, 14 strikeouts in 47 at-bats this spring) while he wasn't willing to do so with others.
So why does any of this emphasis on defense matter? It's because you're not likely to find a rotation with as much of a reliance on getting groundouts as that of the Cleveland Indians. Take a look at the following chart:
Obviously, we can't be sure if or when Roberto Hernandez, a.k.a. Fausto Carmona, will be available to pitch this season. Still, with Jeanmar Gomez (2.13 GB/FB rate in 2011) as a possible fill-in, the point remains the same. This is a staff that will live and die by its infield defense, and the Indians appear to understand this truism. As such, they have made every effort to put their pitchers in the best possible position to succeed in that regard.
Clearly, Jimenez and Masterson are already on the fantasy radar. But what about Lowe and Tomlin? Why aren't they getting at least a little bit more love?
In Lowe, we're talking about a pitcher who averaged 15 wins and a 3.90 ERA from 2002 through 2010. Last season, a disastrous September when he went 0-5 with an 8.75 ERA in the midst of the Atlanta Braves collapse certainly left a lasting impression and may explain some of the hesitation by fantasy owners. But it shouldn't be the final word on the matter.
Lowe strayed from his sinker last season, throwing it only around 50 percent of the time, down from his usual two-thirds-of-the-time philosophy. Rest assured he won't be making that mistake again. As Acta put it on the team's official website, "We feel he can bounce back and he feels the same way. We're going to make every effort possible to put him in that situation."
As for Tomlin, it is true that he's the most likely of any Indians starter to be victimized by the long ball. After all, he led the team in home runs allowed last season with 24. But 15 of those were solo shots, and that trend should continue, since Tomlin is one of the stingiest pitchers in all of baseball in terms of allowing runners to reach base. He finished seventh in the AL in WHIP (1.08) and was first in BB/9 rate with a 1.14.
In fact, since 1990 only 13 pitchers have had a season with 10 or more wins, 100 or more innings pitched and a BB/9 of less than 1.15. Josh Tomlin is one of them. No Cleveland pitcher had been able to pull off a season like that since Addie Joss way back in 1909. There's definitely a chance for something special here.
Last season, Cleveland allowed 760 total runs, but only 683 of those were earned. The 77-run gap between those numbers was tied for the fourth greatest such difference in all of baseball. If a better defense leads to even half of those "extra runs" coming off of the scoreboard, it's not so hard to believe that this team could be an 84-win team. Remember, this current lineup isn't going to look all that different from the one that started last year 20-8 before the injuries started to mount.
If that is indeed the case, then why shouldn't we expect close to 16 wins from Jimenez and Masterson and at least 12 from Lowe and Tomlin? If that comes to fruition, then it certainly elevates Jimenez to top-15 consideration, Masterson to the top 30, and the latter duo into the same general neighborhood as Edwin Jackson, Jhoulys Chacin and Derek Holland.
It certainly seems to be something that fantasy owners should consider when making those late-round reaches on draft day. Why reach for pitchers on a certain cellar-dweller, when you have an improved staff on a team coming off a second-place finish to pull from? The answer seems pretty clear to me.