There is no question that for the Cleveland Indians- this is Next Year!
Last year’s ALCS defeat lingers like a stench in the air. Players will say the right thing. Coaches will say last year was last year and this team has moved on. Make no mistake, the memory of coming so close and losing is quite fresh in the mind of the team and its fans.
The off season offered little relief. Mark Shapiro entertained various trade proposals and offers, watching perhaps helplessly as the Detroit Tigers grabbed the power hitting third baseman the Indians have been needing for some time. He put offers on the table for the Tribe’s first Cy Young winner since Niekro, only to be told no thanks. So, unlike the Twins who decided they didn’t have the cards needed to make a winning hand, the Indians will hold on to their aces, at least for one more year, and one more shot at the prize.
The Indians pitching staff remains in the top 5 in the league. Sabathia and Carmona are coming off monster years, and a mountain of innings pitched. Much ado has been made about that this spring. Many are saying that the Cleveland duo are bound to break down this year. There may be some logic in that, and there certainly is no guarantee that young Fausto Carmona will come close to repeating his success. But given the choice, all of these experts would take the Sabathia/Carmona combination for their team in a heartbeat. The rest of the rotation isn’t too shabby either. Jake Westbrook has been nothing short of spectacular this spring. He did not allow a run in his 4 games worth of work. He pitched in 14 innings, and struck out 16, while allowing only 5 hits. Last year was a disappointment for Jake, but let’s remember that in the three previous seasons he won 44 games for the Indians. Westbrook is poised for a good season.
Paul Byrd has managed to find a way to win 25 games for the Indians over the past two seasons. It isn’t out of the question to think that Byrd has another 10 win season in the tank, nor is it unreasonable to think that this may be the year that hitters finally have their way with him. Cliff Lee ‘won’ the fifth starter job in part because Sowers and Laffey didn’t have terrific spring outings, and in part because he could not have been sent to Buffalo. (That was a trend with this year’s final roster.) So Lee gets the first opportunity to win, and don’t be surprised if the Indians don’t have a quick hook with the veteran lefty. With Laffey and Sowers and even possibly Adam Miller and Brian Slocum waiting in the minors, Lee will be monitored closely. That depth is also nice injury insurance.
In the bullpen Rafael Betancourt is the star but not the closer. Odds on Betancourt repeating his gaudy numbers from last year- not great, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on a collapse either. Bullpens are funny, one season they are lights-out, and the next you wish you could knock them out. The Indians have plenty of arms and experience to believe that the pen won’t be a problem. Rafael Perez, Jensen Lewis, Betancourt and Joe Borowski are the returning relievers from last season. They are joined by lefty Craig Breslow and righties Jorge Julio and Masa Kobayashi. Breslow was plucked off waivers from Boston, and Julio pitched for the Diamondbacks last year. Kobayashi comes from Japan where he was a closer. How Wedge will use each of these pitchers is still to be seen, but you can count on Betancourt in the 8th, and Borowski in the 9th. Is this the year that Borowski melts down? Of all the ‘disastrous’ scenarios that could play out during the season, this one seems most likely. Fortunately, the Indians appear to have several pieces in place to try in case that happens.
The position players are essentially the same as when we last saw the Indians. One notable exception is the departure of Kenny Lofton. Starting in the infield will be Garko, Cabrera, Peralta and Blake (though Marte will see some time at third). Victor Martinez will be spelled by Kelly Shoppach once again. Grady Sizemore and Franklin Gutierrez will be in center and right fields respectively, while the left field job will again be a platoon. Jason Michaels will play against left-handers while David Dellucci will start against righties. Jamey Carroll is your new utility player. He occupied that role for the Rockies last year. Carroll can play pretty much any position on the field, including the outfield. Of course the DH is Travis Hafner. For this line-up to be successful, Hafner must find his stroke again.
Starting the year at Buffalo is Josh Barfield. This is a surprise to some, but Marte makes the roster over Barfield because Andy is out of minor league options. The shame of the 25 man roster is that Ben Francisco was sent back to Buffalo, even though his play this spring warranted a spot with the big league club. Even this move proves that the Indians feel that the window to win it all is open, and every game is important.
Even if the Tribe loses Sabathia to free agency after this season, they will still have a nucleus that you can build and win with. But Tribe fans remember what it was like not having that staff ace. Every game in the playoffs it seemed like you were the underdog. Now, if you don’t have a pair of aces you are behind the curve it seems. If Sabathia goes, the Indians will either have to replace him through free agency (not likely) or they will wait until one of their young pitchers matures. That could mean 2 or 3 more years.
There is a chance that we will see the Indians make a move in season. They have certainly done so in the past for role players, or Kenny Lofton types. This year I believe, (maybe hope is the better word) that the Indians would be more likely to bring in a bigger fish. Only time will tell who might be available, but early names are Atlanta’s Mark Teixeira and Oakland’s Huston Street.
Mark Shapiro is usually one to try and keep his options open, and usually doesn’t like uncertainty. Going into the season without a long-term deal for Sabathia has to be driving him crazy. He has put his chips on the table. Win or lose, he’s playing the hand. Now let’s see the flop…