Today is the day Tribe fans. Your 2009 Cleveland Indians embark on their long journey back to the top of the AL Central division in sunny, beautiful, Goodyear, Arizona. The Indians new Spring Training facilities are the envy of all other Cactus League teams. You can call the Dolan’s cheap all you want, but this incredible complex was their baby. Don’t think it isn’t a great recruiting tool for so many free agents, like Kerry Wood, who make their off-season homes in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area.
Pitchers and Catchers report and start their work today and it is quite the interesting group. While the catching position probably has the best depth of any in the organization, the biggest question mark for the 2009 Tribe is the rotation. While the options are plentiful, the potential for disaster is there. The bullpen could be the best the Tribe has had since the 2005 lock-down crew with Bob Howry, Raffy Betancourt, Arthur Rhodes, Scott Sauerbeck, and Bob Wickman. Lets get deeper.
It begins with Victor Martinez. The all-star hit machine is coming off a lost season of injuries to his shoulder and hamstring which robbed him of his power. He tried to fight through it, but in the end, he spent most of the summer on the DL. Victor will spend plenty of time playing first base as well, thanks to the emergence of Kelly Shoppach, who is hands down the best backup catcher in baseball. The Shop-Vac hit 21 HR’s in 352 AB’s last year, best of any AL catcher. With Travis Hafner’s shoulder/confidence a potential problem, Shoppach should have plenty of opportunities for playing time.
If an injury were to occur, you have Wyatt Toregas and Chris Gimenez at Columbus waiting in the wings. Both showed they could hit at Akron last year as well as handle a staff, but Toregas struggled at the plate in Buffalo. They are backed up by the #1 prospect in the organization, Carlos Santana, who will start the season behind the dish in Akron.
Early Spring Prediction: Victor plays a lot more first base than we all thought he would, thanks to Hafner staying in his slump. He will return to his all-star .320/20 HR/100 RBI form and 2008 will be an after-thought. Shoppach will get between 65-70 starts, and make 110-115 appearances. His HR numbers go down, strike out figures go up, and his defense will improve. Next off-season, he is dealt to make room for Santana.
The Starting Pitchers
Cy Young Winner Cliff Lee heads the rotation. It was an absolute pleasure watching him pitch with a chip on his shoulder all year long, winning seemingly every time out. Fausto Carmona is behind him at #2 and presents the biggest single question mark on the entire team. Will we get the 2007 ground-ball machine, dominator or will we see the wildly inconsistent version of 2008? If Fausto can’t find his old form, the Indians have no shot at winning the division. The Indians spent the off-season quietly looking for a veteran starter for the middle of the rotation and eventually settled on Carl Pavano. A boom or bust candidate, Pavano essentially is getting $1.2 million for an 18 start tryout. If he gets to that magic number, it probably means he is resembling his pre-Yankee form and the Indians will gladly pay him his incentive money. If not, one of the bevy of kids will be ready to take his spot.
This is where the rotation gets interesting. Anthony Reyes looks as close to a lock as the #4 guy as possible. The biggest issue is his health. He posted a 1.83 ERA in his six starts after coming over from St. Louis, but he was shut down with a sore elbow. Speaking of sore elbow’s, lefty Aaron Laffey was shut down last year for the same reason. Laffey has shown success at every level, including his successful 2007 stint as the fifth starter down the stretch. GM Mark Shapiro has let out hints that he is the leading candidate for the final spot, but he has plenty of competition. Lefties Scott Lewis, Zach Attack Jackson, David Huff, and Jeremy Sowers all have their own plans to take over the #5 slot. This battle will be the most note-worth and interesting one to watch this Spring.
Early Spring Prediction: Lee can’t possibly repeat his 08 success, but ends up with 18 wins. Carmona regains his form and becomes the 1-2 punch with Lee that he was with CC Sabathia two years ago. Pavano will be a so/so innings eater, who will make 20 starts, winning eight games. Reyes bounces back and forth between the rotation and the DL, while Laffey wins the fifth starter job and takes the next step, making 30 starts and winning 14 games. You won’t see the Zach Attack, Scott Lewis, or Jeremy Sowers with the big club, but you will see David Huff, who will make Pavano expendable. Jake Westbrook will have his comeback attempts stalled, but will be a part of a September six man rotation.
This crew is just about set. Shapiro and Wedge wanted to plug the giant hole at the closer spot and ended up with fire-baller Kerry Wood. For the first time since the days of Joe Table, the Indians have a guy finishing games who can overpower the competition. In front of him will be Rafael Perez, who ESPN’s Peter Gammons has called the “best lefty reliever in the game,” Jensen Lewis, Rafael Betancourt, and newly acquired Joe Smith. Masa Kobayashi will be in the mix as well. The last spot is up for grabs, with top prospect Adam Miller the leader in the clubhouse. If Wedge and Shappy choose to go with two lefties, than matchup guy Rich Rundles is the top option. If a long man is needed, Zach Jackson could make the club. Jon Meloan, Tony Sipp, and Eddie Mujica are considered long shots. For deeper breakdown of these options, click here.
Early Spring Prediction: This will be the most consistent unit on the team. I don’t expect Wood to go the whole season without at least one DL stint. Luckily, the Indians have Lewis (13-13 in saves in August/September last year), Perez, and potentially Miller as fill-in options. Wood will save between 35-38 games and be a stabilizing force. Betancourt will have a big bounce back year, making his up and down (mostly down) 08 a distant memory. Perez and Lewis are solid all year, Smith is decent enough, and Kobayashi offers little. Miller becomes the Indians version of Joba Chamberlain, but also will make at least one DL stint.
All I know is that the run to October starts today! Hallelujah!