Thanks to Lewie Polls from Wahoos On First for answering a few questions about the Indians in preparation for the weekend series. A lot of his answers kinda sound like what I would say about the Orioles, frankly. I answered some questions for Lewie's website, so when they're posted I'll provide a link. Without further ado, here's Lewie!
1) Jason Kipnis, future star? What's his ceiling?
The great Mitch Hedberg once said: "I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to too." In that vein, yes, Kipnis will be a future star, but I (along with most Cleveland fans) would argue that he's a star already. In his first full season he owns a 118 wRC+ and ranks second in the league with 18 steals while playing solid defense at a premium defensive position. You could make a good argument that he's the best second baseman in the league right now not named Robinson Cano.
As for his ceiling: Take this with a grain of salt, but looking at what the current group of elite second basemen achieved in their first 100 or so games Kipnis blows them out of the water. At 25 he's older than a lot of people realize, so there isn't a ton of room for projection. This year he's on pace to be worth somewhere between 4.0 and 5.0 fWAR, and projecting much higher than that gets risky. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to see him finish his career with a Top 10 MVP finish or too, and you can probably pencil him in for the All-Star Game throughout his prime.
2) The Indians don't look like a team that should have a winning record (note, they're now .500 thanks to a sweep by the Yankees), with their roster full of unfamiliar names and a -50 run differential. How have they been so successful?
There are two issues in play here. The first is that a lot of analysts outside Cleveland seem to really underestimate this team. A lot of people don't realize that Travis Hafner isn't completely washed up, that Jack Hannahan isn't a hole in the lineup, and that Casey Kotchman makes up for some of his ineffectiveness at the plate with his reliability in the field. The Indians basically played .500 ball last year when their youngsters were inexperienced and their roster didn't look as good, so why is a surprise that they're contending now?
As for the Indians' outperforming their run differential, yeah, a lot of that is probably luck. But a big part can probably be explained by the bullpen. Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez are lights-out in the back of the bullpen, but the rest of Cleveland's relief corps has really struggled this year so opponents can run up the score once they get the lead. In other words, this team wins close games but loses blowouts. I don't know how sustainable that is (though it's worth pointing out that the Indians outperformed their Pythagorean record last year too), but that's how I explain it.
3) Do you see the Indians being buyers, sellers, or stay-putters at the trade deadline, given their current position in the standings?
Buyers, but only if the right deal comes along. There are a lot of holes on this roster (first base, left field, the back of the rotation), but that's partly because the Indians aren't putting their best team on the field. This is an incredibly deep team, so there's at least a serviceable option everywhere, which makes it harder to find a real upgrade. Further complicating things is that there isn't a whole lot of expendable talent in the upper minors, and even if there were the Indians are hoping to be contenders for several years so they wouldn't want to sell the farm for a playoff push in 2012.
So yes, this team could definitely use some outside help. But it's going to be difficult to finagle a deal that fits with the team's strategy both for competing now and winning in the future.
4) What is the deal with the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona? How about Grady Sizemore?
Roberto Hernandez is currently mired in immigration limbo. The fact of it is, he lied on his visa application when he was pretending to be Fausto Carmona, and that's not something the government takes lightly. Periodically there will be rumblings that there will be a ruling soon (now there's speculation that he might be back in the country by the All-Star Break), but I don't think anyone really has any idea what the timetable is for his return.
There's no clear timetable for Sizemore's return. Even when healthy he hasn't been anything close to the player he once was since 2010, but given how desperate the Indians are for outfield help they'd surely be thrilled to have him back in the lineup.
5) Who will the O's be facing this weekend? Are they good pitchers?
First you'll get Zach McAllister, who's being recalled from Triple-A to take the just-demoted Jeanmar Gomez' spot in the rotation. McAllister has a 3.96 ERA (3.71 SIERA) in four prior MLB starts this year and posted a 2.98 ERA in 11 Triple-A starts. Though the sample size is small, it's worth noting that his 7.9 K/9 rate for the Indians this year would be his best at any level since he was in High-A ball. He's started to develop more swing-and-miss stuff over the last year or so, so hopefully we'll continue to see that now that he has a rotation spot of his own.
Next is Derek Lowe (4.28 ERA, 4.23 SIERA), who is redefining what it means to be a contact pitcher. He experienced some predictable regression to the mean after his torrid April, but he's still a solid innings eater and worm-burner extraordinaire. He doesn't strike anyone out—seriously, his K/9 rate is barely over 3.0—so he lives and dies with his sinker. If he can consistently get the Orioles to beat the ball into the ground, he could throw another shutout. If it's not working for him...well, that'll become apparent pretty quickly.
The next two starters haven't yet been officially announced, but you can bet on seeing Josh Tomlin (5.70 ERA, 4.27 SIERA) in game three. The best way I've thought of to describe Tomlin is that he is inherently inconsistent. He's a pitch-to-contact guy who has good control (he led all of baseball with his 1.1 BB/9 last year) but not overpowering stuff, so there's a lot of room for variation. Combine all that with his flyball tendencies and he's vulnerable to getting shelled, but there are nights where he's able to just outsmart opposing hitters.
Finally, you'll see Justin Masterson (4.09 ERA, 3.98 SIERA). He emerged as our ace last year but got off to a rocky start in 2012. He seems to have turned a corner this month (his last outing notwithstanding). He's rediscovered his strikeout stuff and he hasn't been afraid to just go after hitters. Last week he finished a complete game by striking out the top of the Reds' lineup in order in the ninth—that should tell you something about how dominant he can be when he has his stuff working.
6) What's your prediction for the series?
I'll give you guys game one because Wei-Yin Chen is a lefty (we don't do too well against them). The Indians' offense will finally get its act together against Jake Arrieta on Friday and that will roll over into Saturday (an uncertain probable starter is a promising sign for us). And I have a personal rule that I never bet against Justin Masterson. So Indians take three of four.