This is the third in a series about AL Central division rivals and the race to be the tallest midget.
Offseason Comings and Goings
In contrast to the Twins, the Indians had an active offseason – and, if you include the midseason deals such as those involving CC Sabathia and Casey Blake, an even more sizeable makeover from the 2008 opening day Indians has occurred. The biggest splash was the 2/$20.5M deal to install Kerry Wood as closer. Coupled with the addition of sidearming groundball machine Joe Smith in the massive three-team deal with the Mariners and Mets, GM Mark Shapiro hopes to convert the bullpen from a weakness to a strength.
Their other major move was to trade for the versatile Mark DeRosa to (apparently) start at 3B, though he can play all over the diamond. The
oft always injured Carl Pavano was brought in to help fill out the rotation.
On the departures list are a slew of players who made up the atrocious 2008 bullpen – Scott Elarton, Brendan Donnelly, Juan Rincon, and Matt Ginter – along with OF defensive maven Franklin Gutierrez.
All things considered, this was a successful offseason for Shapiro. He added the necessary corner infielder and addressed the bullpen. While the rotation still looks to be very much a work in progress, there’s probably only so much you can do in one year if you aren’t the Yankees and he's got enough to throw up on the wall for some of it to perhaps stick.
A projected lineup: Grady Sizemore CF, Mark DeRosa 3B, Travis Hafner DH, Victor Martinez C, Jhonny Peralta SS, Shin-Soo Choo RF, Ryan Garko 1B, Ben Francisco LF, Asdrubal Cabrera 2B
Bench and Spare Parts: Kelly Shoppach C, Jamey Carroll (INF), David Dellucci (OF), Josh Barfield (INF/OF), Trevor Crowe (OF), Tony Graffanino (INF)
While the Indians have been madeover, the core offense isn’t much different. It is the best offense in the division but it’s not without question marks. The Tribe will be banking on a return to full health and productivity from Martinez and Hafner. Martinez is the likelier of the two to rebound as he has age on his side and a capable catching caddy in Shoppach to spell him. Expect to see Martinez play a significant number of games at 1B in place of Garko. Hafner, on the other hand, is on the wrong side of 30 for a player with his skill set and has had two consecutive seasons of injury-hampered poor productivity.
The Indians will also look to Cabrera and Choo to live up to the projections. Sizemore is going to be Sizemore and another MVP caliber season is on tap. Garko is a rather poor use of 1B but, as noted above, he won’t be playing full-time and is likely keeping a spot warm for their top prospect. Francisco is another weak use of a corner position but is also keeping a spot warm for that same guy. Peralta is a below average defender at SS but his stick makes him more than acceptable.
Rotation: Cliff Lee, Fausto Carmona, Anthony Reyes, Carl Pavano, Aaron Laffey
Bullpen and Spare Parts: Kerry Wood, Jensen Lewis, Rafael Perez, Rafael Betancourt, Masahide Kobayashi, Joe Smith, Vinnie Chulk, Matt Herges, John Meloan, Zach Jackson, Jeremy Sowers, Scott Lewis, Jake Westbrook, Kirk Saarloos, Juan Salas
That stab at a rotation is a best guess. If those five - or any five - make it through five turns intact, it will be a shock. While Lee is not going to repeat last season’s Cy Young Award campaign, he shouldn’t regress too much. And then the questions begin. Carmona is coming off an injury ravaged, ineffective campaign. His walks ballooned and his strikeouts disappeared. A return to something closer to 2007 form will be required for contention. One-time top prospect Reyes was impressive for the Indians in six late season starts after being acquired from St. Louis. But based on his past record, banking on him is specious at best - though he has pitched well this spring. And Pavano? He’s penned in as something other than their #5 starter. Meaning they’re relying on a guy who has pitched about 45 innings in the past two seasons more than someone else. And that someone else appears to be lefty Aaron Laffey, who has been the favorite for the #5 spot - though Scott Lewis has had a much better spring and may force his way into the rotation. The Indians sent out 13 different starters last season and this season, while not matching it, is likely to approach double digits. Westbrook is targeting a midseason return from Tommy John surgery and may provide some necessary stability for the run-in. Sowers and Jackson are also in the wings to fill-in. Shapiro appears to be hoping that from all this quantity, sufficient quality will emerge.
With that mess of a rotation, the bullpen will need to be a strength. Wood’s health is always going to be a question but his installation as closer pushes Jensen Lewis back down the depth chart into a set-up role - and everyone else down a spot, too. As Assistant GM Mark Antonetti points out, the difference between Wood and the seventh guy is massive. Lefty Rafael Perez will again be a primary set-up man. Smith’s groundballing ways should provide added seventh inning stability against righties and the return of Betancourt to pre-2008 form could make this an extremely formidable and deep bullpen and take some pressure off the starters, whoever they are.
Finally I get to talk about a legit prospect.
Matt LaPorta came over as the centerpiece of the Sabathia trade. The 24 year old is a legit 30+ home run talent with plus plate discipline to boot. While initially dismissed as only a 1B, he’s made strides in the outfield and looks like he could adequately perform in LF. He’s likely to start the season at AAA but fans of the Indians’ new affiliate in Columbus shouldn’t get too attached. Both Garko and Francisco will be looking over their shoulders and he provides excellent insurance – or simply a production boost – to an already potent offense.
At some point in this preview I expected to discuss righty Adam Miller. He was projected to make the bullpen – which would have made it downright filthy – but the oft-injured top prospect recently got bitten again. His troublesome middle finger on his throwing hand now requires a complicated surgery which will force him to miss the entire season and may be career threatening. So, instead, I’ll focus on yet another potential starter.
David Huff is a 24 year old lefty who is described as a bit better than the average finesse southpaw. The Indians’ top pick in 2006 has a fastball that reaches the low 90s, a plus change, and a decent slider – and he has excellent command and control of all of them. He had very good numbers across two levels last season. He’s essentially a finished product now but the plethora of backend candidates means that the Indians will send him back to AAA to start the season. He’ll be a top option when Cleveland inevitably needs a starter.
This midget is the experts’ favorite but the rotation is sketchy. The offense can carry the club – but only if the pitching isn’t weighing it down too much. With Mauer’s availability questionable, the Indians would be the slight favorite.
Up Next: Detroit Tigers