Tribe's Kipnis, Chisenhall learning on the job
The Indians will attempt to do something in 2012 that is not impossible but also is not very easy. They hope to be a contender with two of their starting infielders in their first full season in the major leagues.
Second baseman Jason Kipnis and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall were called up from the minor leagues in the middle of the 2011 season, and at times both showed why they were considered two of the top prospects in the team's organization.
However, Kipnis and Chisenhall also had their moments in which they looked and performed like rookies. Nevertheless, Indians officials saw enough out of both players to go into the offseason with the feeling that Kipnis and Chisenhall can be counted on as starters in 2012.
Kipnis, 24, was recalled from Class AAA Columbus on July 21 and, except for a three-week stay on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, was the club's starting second baseman for the rest of the season. In 136 at-bats, he hit .272 with seven home runs and 19 RBI. Four of his home runs came in four consecutive games, tying a club record set by Al Rosen in 1950.
A converted outfielder, Kipnis is still learning the second base position, but he appears to be athletic enough to handle it, especially if he can produce offensively the way Indians officials think he will over a full season. Certainly Kipnis' defense is not as much of a concern as Chisenhall's.
Chisenhall, 23, also underwent a position switch in the minor leagues. He was drafted as a shortstop but was moved to third base. He has experienced some growing pains at his new position, and the Indians had to endure some on-the-job training for him last season. Although he played in just 66 games, Chisenhall was third on the team with 10 errors.
Chisenhall's shaky glove at third is one reason why the Indians have kept defensive specialist Jack Hannahan on the roster. Hannahan was the Indians' starting third baseman for the first half of the 2011 season, but Chisenhall's superior bat eventually forced the Indians to make the switch.
Until Chisenhall becomes a more polished defender, Hannahan will continue to be an option for manager Manny Acta as a late-inning defensive replacement.
Kipnis and Chisenhall both made it to the big leagues on the strength of their hitting. With the Indians thus far in the offseason unable to add an impact hitter, it will be even more important for the two youngsters to make major contributions offensively in 2012 in order to help bolster what in 2011 was a well below average offense.
--INF Andy LaRoche signed a minor league contract and was invited to Cleveland's major league training camp. LaRoche, who gives the Indians added depth at all four infield positions, was the Pirates' regular third baseman in 2009 and hit .258 with 12 home runs and 64 RBI. LaRoche spent most of 2011 with Oakland's Class AAA Sacramento affiliate, hitting .254 with four home runs and 27 RBI in 224 at-bats.
--RHP Josh Judy, one of a handful of Indians minor league relievers knocking on the big-league door, was claimed on waivers by the Reds on Dec. 23. Judy was 6-2 with a 3.12 ERA and 28 saves in 50 appearances at Class AAA Columbus in 2011. He was designated for assignment on Dec. 16 when OF Aaron Cunningham was added to Cleveland's roster.
--RHP Fausto Carmona, coming off another disappointing season, was scheduled to make a few starts in the Dominican winter league as he tries to tinker with his mechanics in hopes of bouncing back from his dismal 2011 season. Carmona, the Indians' Opening Day starter, was 7-15 with a 5.25 ERA in 32 starts. Manager Manny Acta said Carmona's numbers were a little deceiving, pointing out that Carmona had the third-lowest run support of any starter in the league.
--OF Shin-Soo Choo will be one of the keys to the Indians' 2012 season. After consecutive outstanding seasons in 2009 and 2010 when he hit exactly .300 with 20-plus homers and 20-plus stolen bases both years, Choo slumped in 2011. He was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving early in the season, and he battled injuries, including a broken thumb, for most of the rest of the year. In 313 at-bats, he hit just .259 with eight home runs and 36 RBI. "He struggled to get off to a good start and was playing his best when he broke his thumb," GM Chris Antonetti said.
--RHP Josh Tomlin will bear watching early in the 2012 season. Tomlin was one of the Indians' most dependable starters in 2011, going 12-7 with a 4.25 ERA in 26 starts. He also led all major league pitchers by averaging just 1.1 walks per nine innings. However, Tomlin missed the last month of the season with right elbow inflammation. He did not have surgery, and Indians officials are hopeful that the elbow won't be an issue in 2012.
BY THE NUMBERS: 37 -- Consecutive starts made by RHP Josh Tomlin from the start of his career in which he pitched at least five innings. That's the longest streak by any major league pitcher since 1919.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's safe to say we've explored everything." -- GM Chris Antonetti, on the Indians' inability thus far in the offseason to acquire a much-needed hitter.
The Indians finished the season with a rotation that is much less of a question mark than it was at the start, but they began to address it by acquiring RHP Derek Lowe from the Braves. RHPs Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin both won 12 games, and the midseason acquisition of RHP Ubaldo Jimenez gives the Indians a solid top three to their rotation. The bullpen was playoff-caliber all year. Offensively, Cleveland has question marks in the outfield and at first base. The team also must decide on whether Carlos Santana, who played both catcher and first base in 2011, is better suited to play one position or the other full-time, or if he should continue to split time between the two spots.
ARRIVALS: OF Aaron Cunningham (trade with Padres), INF Jose Lopez (minor league free agent from Marlins), OF Felix Pie (minor league free agent from Orioles), RHP Derek Lowe (trade with Braves).
DEPARTURES: INF/OF Luis Valbuena (traded to Blue Jays), DH Jim Thome (free agent, signed with Phillies).
FREE AGENTS: OF Kosuke Fukudome, RHP Chad Durbin.
Fukudome was a useful player after being a acquired in a trade with the Cubs, but there is no way the budget-conscious Indians will offer him anything close to the $13 million salary he made this year. Durbin will not be re-signed because the Indians have multiple, and more economically priced minor league prospects who can fill Durbin's role.
ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: RHP Chris Perez, LHP Rafael Perez, RHP Joe Smith, OF Shin-Soo Choo, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, 3B Jack Hannahan, RHP Justin Masterson.
The Indians may try to sign Cabrera, their MVP this year, to a multiyear deal, which would buy Cabrera out of his last arbitration year and beyond, although the club has of late shied away from such long-term deals. Choo and the Indians had preliminary discussions on a multiyear deal in spring training this year, but those talks went nowhere.
--RHP Justin Masterson (arthroscopic left shoulder surgery in October 2011) should be ready for spring training.
--RHP Carlos Carrasco (Tommy John surgery in September 2011) will spend the offseason rehabbing. He is expected to miss the entire 2012 season.
--LF Michael Brantley (right hand surgery in August 2011) will spend the offseason rehabbing after having the hamate bone removed. He should be ready for spring training.