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Series Preview: Cleveland Indians

Lewie Pollis of Indians blog Wahoo Blues and I exchanged questions for the Cleveland's four-game set against the Twins over the next three days. He'll have my answers to his questions up on his site later today, but in the meantime here are his answers to my questions. Thanks to Lewie (who I've been inexplicably calling Lewis in our email exchanges) for coming back to us, and thanks to Lewie for his time!

1. Carlos Santana is experiencing some learning curves, but it's good to see him back and having some success and being such an integral part of the season the Indians have had so far. What were your expectations for him coming into 2011, and where do you think he's at right now in terms of his development?

I had Santana pegged as an All-Star for 2011 if he could stay, and while he didn't actually get picked for the Midsummer Classic, I'd say he's actually exceeded my expectations this year. He's a solid defensive catcher, with some very solid pop (.853 Power Factor). And then there's the legendary plate discipline—he's second only to Jose Bautista for the best walk rate (17.3%) in all of Major League Baseball. Yeah, he's only hitting .227, but he's got a .360 OBP.

Not to mention he's been extremely unlucky. Someone with his kind of power and pitch selection should be doing a lot better than a .249 BABIP. The Hardball Times' xBABIP Calculator gives him an expected hit rate of .309. According to my calculations, that gives him an expected slashline of .271/.404/.502 with a 156 xOPS+. Them's MVP numbers for a catcher.

2. Matt LaPorta had such shimmering triple slash lines in the minors. Is he a late-bloomer or a bust, and what do you expect of him in the future?

LaPorta's actually shown some progress this year: with a 102 wRC+, he is, for the first time, an above-average MLB hitter (albeit not by much), and his .709 Power Factor shows that he's at least hitting the ball hard on the rare occasion that he makes solid contact. The problem is that a slightly above-average bat doesn't cut it when you're a first baseman who doesn't really offer anything on defense or the basepaths. As a result, he's been below replacement level this season.

To get back to the question at hand, I think it's pretty clear that he's not going to be a star, but I'm not giving up on him as a useful player yet. A stint in the minors for him to work on his plate discipline (his walk rate has slipped below 7%) and defense could be just what the doctor ordered.

3. Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner are synonymous with the Indians to me. Hafner has experiences something of a revival this season. Sizemore started off hot, hit the disabled list again, came back a little cold but now is hitting a bit better again in July. What kind of roles do you see them playing in Cleveland's stretch run?

I've sounded like Chicken Little about Hafner all season long because his career revival is coming courtesy of an inflated BABIP. It's already started to drop but it's still at .385. Given that he had a .323 hit rate in his best season (2006), I'm pretty confident in saying his current performance is unsustainable. That being said, his luck has lasted this long and it could carry him for a couple months, and even if it doesn't he'd still be an above-average hitter and a useful addition to the Tribe lineup if he can stay healthy (knock on wood).

As for Grady, it looks like he's heading back to the DL after he hurt his knee again (thankfully it's not the one that kept him out last year, but it's the same one he injured in May). There are a lot of concerns about his declining speed, defense, and contact ability, but my bigger concern (aside from his health) is his plate discipline. He's never been an elite batting-average guy, but in the past he made up for it by knowing how to walk. In 2007-9 he walked 13% of the time. Last year, that suddenly fell to 6.4%, and he's at 6.6% now. I understand he's been injured and it's not a full season's worth of data, but it's a huge drop-off in what I think is a significant sample size (93 games over the last two years) and it's his back and knees that have been hurt, not his eyes.

4. Chris Perez, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith and Vinnie Pestano: They all have ERAs under 3.00, except Smith...whose ERA is under 1.00. How are they doing what they're doing?

To each his own. Pestano and Raffy Perez are doing it with strikeouts—Perez is striking out nearly a batter an inning, and Pestano has an insane 13.0 K/9 rate. Smith and Sipp are doing it with groundball rates north of 60% (Smith's .257 BABIP and 90.2% strand rate aren't hurting either). As for Chris Perez, he's K/BB ratio is only 1.4, he's lost nearly 1.4 mph on his fastball, and his xFIP is up to 4.77. So maybe it's the beard.

5. Starting pitching seems to be all over the board for the Indians, with the exception of Justin Masterson. Assuming the Indians are buyers at the deadline, is the rotation one of their points of interest, and where do you see them ungrading for their drive to October?

First, I'd say I disagree with the premise of the question. Josh Tomlin and Carlos Carrasco might not be aces, but Tomlin has immaculate control and Carrasco's got a 3.74 xFIP. Even Fausto Carmona doesn't look so bad if you focus on his 4.00 xFIP instead of his 5.78 ERA (not saying the discrepancy is fully due to luck, but it's something).

As for the trade deadline, I think pitching is probably priority No. 1. With Shin-Soo Choo out for at least another several weeks and Grady Sizemore's health problems resurfacing again, we could definitely use another outfielder. We could fill a spot internally (could be Jerad Head time soon) or with a trade (I'd love to see David DeJesus in Cleveland). There's also been some talk of a middle infielder (Jose Reyes isn't likely, but a guy can dream) to permanently relegate Orlando Cabrera to the bench.

6. I think it's fair to say that nobody, except the most optimistic of Idians fans, expected Cleveland to be in the driver's seat in the AL Central at this stage of the season. What do they need to do to keep in front of their competition, and will they be able to come away with the Central crown this year?

I hate to say it, but I don't see how the Indians can be considered the favorites at this point. Even discounting the Twins and White Sox, the Tigers definitely look better on paper, and now that they're essentially tied for first place it's hard to bet that the Indians will hold on. They certainly have the talent to win the division (especially if they trade for someone like DeJesus or Jason Marquis), but I think it would take the kind of blockbuster mortgage-the-future deal that the front office bigwigs have (wisely) said they don't want to make to make the Indians the frontrunners.

But maybe that's just my attempt to rationalize the fact that I'll be away at college if the Indians make the postseason.