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2012 Fantasy Baseball Real Teams Preview: Cleveland Indians

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Our team-by-team preview of the 2012 MLB season from a fantasy perspective continues today with the Cleveland Indians. If you've just jumped on with our series or need a reminder, we are spending a day with each major league team, looking at 9 different fantasy angles for each franchise while also paying homage to the things we watch for as real life fans. The hope is that through this exercise we might all come to a greater understanding of the various environments that contain the players we spend so much time obsessing over. Fantasy baseball would be a lot easier if these guys played in a vacuum, but since they don't, it's a good idea to learn as much as we can about the circumstances that affect their play.

Make sure you check out Kenneth Arthur's spotlight on various Indians players, scheduled to post later today. Our series will return Monday with the Detroit Tigers.

2011 in Review & 2012 Outlook

The Cleveland Indians posted a near-.500 record in 2011, thanks mostly to a hot 20-8 start that saw them leading the division by as many as 7 games in April. Of course, they went just 60-74 afterward and the Detroit Tigers caught fire, passing them in July and eventually winning the division by 15 games. That the Indians finished second tells us a lot about the overall quality of the AL Central. Cleveland was below the league average in almost every hitting and pitching category and they were outscored by a whopping 54 runs over the course of the season (Pythag: 75-87), yet they were almost able to win as many games as they lost, thanks to an unbalanced schedule that allowed them to face the Royals, White Sox, and Twins 18 times each.

It would be easy to write off 2011 as a fluke, but the White Sox (as we have seen) and the Twins (as we will see) haven't really gotten any better, so a third place finish is almost a guarantee, even if they are mediocre again. The Indians will benefit from a full season of Ubaldo Jimenez, and Derek Lowe was a nice acquisition, but seriously, they're going to be middle of the pack again.

Home Ballpark

Progressive Field can play close to neutral or serve as an advantage to pitchers, depending on what the wind coming in from Lake Erie is doing on a given night. The 20-foot wall in left field can eat up home runs, and the extra area in right field has on occasion been a source of frustration for left-handed pull hitters. That's not to say that balls can't leave the yard - they did at a higher than average rate in 2011 - but overall, Progressive is a place where hits and runs go to die.

Manager & Coaching Staff

Manny Acta is reportedly a good manager of young players, so he's the ideal guy to have for a rebuilding team. The problem is, the Indians seem to be acting like they're no longer rebuilding (see: trading away 6 years each of Drew Pomeranz and Alex White for 2 years of Ubaldo Jimenez). He'll need to work a miracle to turn this team into a contender in the short term, but Acta is pretty much a miracle worker anyway.

Expected Position Battles

Candidates for left field include Ryan Spilborghs, Aaron Cunningham, and Shelley Duncan. I saw an interview on MLB Network the other day where Spilborghs claimed his 2011 struggles were due to a foot injury that didn't allow him to load up his swing. Sorry to be so flippant, but if you can't OPS more than .588 in Colorado, how are you going to do in Cleveland, injury or no? Duncan provides the most fantasy value if he wins the job in the form of a mostly empty batting average, but he's nothing more than a guy you should keep your eye on.

At third base, the question is about what kind of player you value more: the once promising prospect who might still figure everything out one day (Lonnie Chisenhall), or the grizzled veteran that's been there before and has plenty of wisdom to dispense (Jack Hannahan)? Either would be a decent fantasy backup (it is third base, after all), but I'm rooting for the potential of Chisenhall.

Kevin Slowey is the presumptive fifth starter, but there are plenty of fringe candidates for the job. David Huff has a chance by virtue of being left-handed (none of the other starters are), but he has fringe fantasy value at best. If it were up to me, I'd let 24 year-old Jeanmar Gomez sink or swim, since he at least has decent minor league numbers.

Projected Lineup & Rotation

Michael Brantley - CF

Jason Kipnis - 2B

Shin-Soo Choo - RF

Carlos Santana - C

Travis Hafner - DH

Casey Kotchman - 1B

Asdrubal Cabrera - SS

Chisenhall/Hannahan - 3B

Cunningham/Duncan/Spilborghs - LF

Carlos Santana should see plenty of time at first base, in which case Lou Marson would be doing the catching. Acta usually hits Marson 9th, so bump everybody up a spot when he's in the lineup.

Justin Masterson | Ubaldo Jimenez | Derek Lowe | Josh Tomlin | Slowey/Huff/Gomez

I wonder if 24 year-old left-hander Scott Barnes, listed in the top 10 on most Indians prospect lists, could land the #5 job with a strong spring. He's not mentioned as a candidate anywhere that I can see, so it seems the organization is committed to continuing his development, but they're going to need to get left-handed at some point.

Bullpen Situation

Vinnie Pestano was a breakout set-up man last season, thanks to a higher delivery that produced more swinging strikes (and a ton of strikeouts). Closer Chris Perez has a strained oblique and it was thought that he could miss Opening Day, but he's already been cleared to throw again and appears to be on track to return by April. Pestano is the obvious candidate to replace him if there are any setbacks. Perez has some of the weakest numbers of any of the current closers anyway, so Pestano has been a popular speculative pick in drafts.

Potential Fantasy Sleepers

My definition of sleeper and yours may vary. I use the term to refer to a player who may be undervalued, no matter his current or expected draft position.

Derek Lowe was a serious problem for the Braves down the stretch in 2011, and it's probably not a good thing that he's switching leagues. However, there is room for optimism. He's got a career 69.4 GB% and he'll be pitching in front of an above-average infield (especially if Chisenhall plays at the hot corner). I'm not trying to sell a career renaissance, but he's not going to kill your strikeouts and should help your rate stats, as crazy as that sounds. Derek Lowe will give you plenty of value for your money (Current ADP: 130 among SPs).

Spring Storylines to Watch

Ubaldo Jimenez attributes his 2011 struggles to injury, which sapped the velocity from his fastball. The radar gun hasn't provided a ton of encouragement so far this spring, but Jimenez claims he feels much better (and he had some choice things to say about Colorado in the process). This is a situation that is worth monitoring further.

Follow the Team

Official: Site | Twitter beat reporter: Jordan Bastian (Blog | Twitter)

Cleveland Plain Dealer beat reporter: Paul Hoynse (Blog | Twitter)

SBN: Let's Go Tribe (Blog | Twitter)

Know of any other sites or Twitter accounts that deserve a mention? Let me know in the comments.