Have this Winter’s Moves Made the Indians Better?
Ronnie Tellalian | On 18, Jan 2014
The Cleveland Indians entered the 2013 season with an alarming lack of apparent ability in the starting rotation. With the turnaround of Ubaldo Jimenez, the comeback of Scott Kazmir, and the emergence of Cory Kluber, the starting rotation became a source of strength for the Indians. Kazmir moved on to the Oakland Athletics and Jimenez seems destine to sign with another team as well. With the loss of two key players, the big question is whether or not the Indians can repeat their playoff season.
In order to look at where the Indians could be in 2014, we must look at what they have lost and gained in this current off season. In addition to this, we have to look at the loss and gain of the other teams in the American League Central. Using a statistic known as Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, we can project how many wins each player is, or could be worth. If we add up the cumulative WAR of the players the Indians lost, and the WAR of the new additions to the team, we can project how many wins the Indians lost or gained with through free agency and trades this winter.
WAR is a relatively knew statistic that has gain mainstream credibility through its use by ESPN and other networks. It sumerizes a players total contributions to his team in one single number and expresses that number in terms of wins. Everything a player does at the plate, on the mound, and in the field is taken into consideration. It’s called Wins Above Replacement, where replacement level is considered to be a Triple A player or a fringe major leaguer available through waivers. On the WAR scale, 0-1 is considered a scrub, 1-2 is a role player, 2-3 is a solid starter, 3-4 is a good player, 4-5 is an All-Star, and 6+ is MVP caliber. To put another point of reference on it, Jason Kipnis was worth 4.5 WAR in 2013. American League MVP Miguel Cabrera was worth 7.6 WAR last season.
Another tool I will use to assess the possible wins gained by the new Indians players is the ZiPS projection system. I will use this to gain WAR number for the upcoming season. ZiPS is the creation of Baseball Think Factory’s Dan Szymborsky. It’s a system that uses weighted averages of the past three seasons, then adds age regression and adjusts for league and home ball parks, relatively simple. Where ZiPS has a great advantage is its remarkable ability to project minor league player’s transition into the Majors. ZiPS can predict, with remarkable accuracy, how well a first time or young inexperienced player will perform at the Major League level. This is going to be helpful here in terms of the Indians since several “new” players are coming from within the organization in the form of young, inexperienced players.
The Kansas City Royals were major players last off season, adding James Shields, Ervin Santana, and Jeremy Guthrie. This season they have remained much more quiet, and it looks like they will be a team in the lateral move category this year. I don’t expect the Royals to make a major move and contend for the division in 2014.
The Twins are floundering at the bottom of the division and they seem like a team confused. Are they rebuilding or not? It’s hard to tell what direction they are headed, but it is clear that it’s not up in the standings. The White Sox also have little to show in terms of added wins, and they are aging fast. I don’t expect Chicago to be making any runs at the playoffs this coming season.
The Tigers are a different issue. They have been the juggernauts of the American League Central for some time now, and they made several significant moves. They traded away two prominent players in Prince Fielder and Doug Fister. Both of these guys performed well in 2013. Fister won 14 games, pitched over 200 innings, and was worth 4.6 wins last season. Fielder was shipped off to Texas after a slightly off season that saw his power continue to drop, along with his value at just 2.2 wins last season. Drew Smyly will replace Fister in the rotation, and he is projected by ZiPS to be worth 1.9 wins, so the Tigers lose 2.7 wins in that move. Fielder will be replaced by longtime Ranger second baseman Ian Kinsler. He is an underrated player that has been among the best second baseman in the league for the last six of seven years. He is projected to be worth 3.4 wins, adding 1.2 wins to the Tigers in that transaction.
The last addition for the Tigers is rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos. With Fielder gone, Miguel Cabrera can move back to first base, creating an opening for Castellanos. He has a lot of potential, and may have a bright future in the Majors as a good hitting third baseman. For ZiPS part, he is predicted to be worth 1.1 wins in his rookie year. Adding that all up, the Tigers lost 6.8 win from the departed players, and they gained 6.4 wins from the new faces. This is a net loss of 0.4 wins. Given that the Tigers underperformed in 2014, I wouldn’t expect much less than a 93 win season once again.
The Cleveland Indians finished the 2013 campaign just one win shy of the Tigers and the winners of the Wild Card spot. They made several big splashes last off season with the signings of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, but they have been relatively quiet this season. Even with the quiet off season, several players have come and gone that will play a role in the Indians season in 2014. The question is, did the Indians gain or lose wins from last season’s total of 92?
On the offensive side of things the Indians are losing quite a few players, albeit most of them played very little. Of the players they lost, only five of them played enough to receive a number other than zero in the WAR column. Those players were Drew Stubbs, Jason Kubel, John McDonald, Cord Phelps, and Mark Reynolds. These five combined for a -0.2 WAR, so the Indians actually lost nothing by the departure of these players. From an offensive standpoint, the players lost via trade and free agency hurt them not at all, even helped it a little by adding 0.2 wins to its total.
The other side of the ball is where these numbers get a little tougher. The Indians lost two prominent starting pitchers from their rotation in Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. These two pitchers were worth a combined total of 5.7 wins, 3.2 for Jimenez and 2.5 for Kazmir. Add to that the loss of Joe Smith and Matt Albers and that number inflates to 6.4 wins, a crippling total. That would put the Indians at about 86 wins, not enough to make the playoffs. One good loss was Chris Perez, his -0.9 WAR brings the win loss back to 5.5 wins, still not an easy number to replace. Add the -0.2 wins from the offense, and the Indians have 5.3 wins to replace in 2014. Fortunately for the Indians, they didn’t just lose players; they gained players, and their wins, via free agency and trades.
One of these players is Danny Salazar. In 2013, Salazar hit the ground running with the Indians and put up stellar numbers. He pitched 52 innings with the Tribe, striking out 65 and allowing a 3.12 ERA for a total of 1.2 WAR. ZiPS slates him as the Indians number three starters and projects a 2.4 WAR for the hard throwing Salazar in 2014. If he can pitch that well in the upcoming season, he would negate the loss of Kazmir and bring the Indians total WAR loss down to 2.9.
The Indians add two relievers this off season, one via free agency and the other via trade that should play significant roles in 2014. Josh Outman will be another left handed option for the Tribe. He was acquired from the Colorado Rockies in exchange for Drew Stubbs. Outman is projected to produce 0.4 wins. The free agent signee is John Axford. He is slated to be the new Indians closer in the upcoming season. ZiPS projects him as a 0.5 win reliever. That is an additional 0.9 total wins for the Indians, bringing the number to replace down to 2.0 wins.
The final major piece of the Indians off season is right fielder David Murphy. Signed as a free agent, Murphy will be used in a platoon role with Ryan Raburn in right field. He is coming off the worst season of his career, but the year before that he hit .304 and was worth more than three wins. ZiPS predicts a bit of bounce back for Murphy, although nothing close to his 2012 campaign. Murphy is projected to produce 1.5 WAR for the Indians in 2014. That means that the Indians lost a total of 5.3 wins with the players that left town, but gained 4.8 wins with the guys that will be replacing them. If Josh Tomlin can win the fifth rotation spot, he is projected to be worth 0.3 wins, nearly evening out that total. Either way, the Indians lost less than one win from last season, and if any of last season’s Indians can increase their performance, the Tribe should be in the playoff picture again in 2014 with another 90+ win season.
I don’t think much will change from last season, the Tigers are still the team to beat, the Twins still look like basement dwellers, and the White Sox are not likely to spend much time in the mix. The Royals look good, but mid to high eighties should be their win ceiling. That leaves the Tigers and Indians. Cleveland should be in the playoff mix again this season since they didn’t lose any wins from last year and it looks like it’s going to be another fun and exciting ride. If things go the Indians way, 2014 could prove to be a magical season in Cleveland.