Five questions: Cleveland Indians

The Cleveland Indians started the 2008 season a pennant contender, finished the first half a basket case, dealt CC Sabathia and anyone else approaching free agency, and ended the season as one of the hottest teams in baseball. Their 81-81 record, seen through the prism of pre-season expectations, was disappointing, but given the injuries and turmoil that occurred in the season’s first half, a .500 record was a remarkable salvage job.

Young hitters like Shin-Soo Choo and Kelly Shoppach fueled the second half surge; Victor Martinez wasn’t healthy until September, and Travis Hafner, even when he played, was hampered by a painful shoulder that he eventually had off-season surgery on.

After the season, the Indians signed closer Kerry Wood, traded for Joe Smith to try to stabilize what was an awful bullpen, and acquired Mark DeRosa to replace Casey Blake at third base. In addition, they bolstered their farm system through trades during and after the season, adding (among others) outfielders Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley (Sabathia), catcher Carlos Santana (Blake), and second baseman Luis Valbuena (Franklin Gutierrez).

How are the Indians going to fill out their rotation?

I think the starting rotation is the key to the Indians’ season. By the end of last season, the Indians’ top four starters to start the 2008 season were either not with the team (Sabathia, Paul Byrd) or missing due to injury (Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook). The fifth starter was Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, so things aren’t looking that bad for this years’ rotation, but there’s a lot of innings that need to be picked up. The 2007 rotation that lead the Indians to the ALCS in 2007 was made up of pitchers both young and old that went deep into games; this rotation is mostly just young.

After Lee and Carmona, there’s no lock in the rotation. Although the Indians can choose from six credible starters to fill those last three spots, only one of those six threw more than 100 major-league innings in 2008, so there’s probably going to be a revolving door at the back end of the rotation. Carl Pavano and Anthony Reyes have already won two of the spots, Scott Lewis and Aaron Laffey are currently in a battle for the fifth spot, and David Huff and Jeremy Sowers (along with the loser of the Lewis/Laffey competition) will be lurking in Columbus waiting for an opportunity.

Pavano, last seen not pitching with the New York Yankees, was brought in to fill one of the remaining three spots. Although Pavano’s contract isn’t much of a financial risk, he also hasn’t made a full season’s worth of starts since 2004, his last season with the Florida Marlins. The Indians are hoping that a change of scenery and lots of motivation can overcome not pitching much over the last four seasons. I’m not expecting much.

Reyes, acquired from St. Louis last summer after a falling out with Cardinals’ coaching staff, pitched well in 34.1 innings with the Indians, but is out of options, meaning the Indians will have to live with a bad stretch in order to keep him in the organization.

Jake Westbrook, recovering from Tommy John surgery, is slated to return to the rotation in June or July, so if the Indians can find two dependable starters by then to go with Lee and Carmona, the rotation could end up being a strength down the stretch, or at least not a weakness.

Will the old Travis Hafner ever return?

From 2004-2006, Travis Hafner was as good a hitter as anyone in baseball; he averaged a 170 OPS+ during this period, combining a great eye at the plate with outstanding ball-striking ability. His 2006 season, cut short a month due to a hand injury, was his best campaign; he hit .308/.439/.659, and slugged a career-high 42 home runs. The next season (2007), his production fell off considerably (118 OPS+), but he was still by league standards a valuable hitter. That summer, the Indians signed him to a $57 million extension through the 2012 campaign.

That new contract now looks like a major liability. Hafner spent several months on the disabled list last season thanks to a shoulder injury, and when he was in the lineup his bat speed seemed slow and his plate discipline wasn’t the same. The weakness in his shoulder continued throughout the season, and he eventually had arthroscopic surgery in the off-season. The surgery was a success, and he’s regained the strength in his shoulder, but it’s an open question whether he’ll regain his hitting stroke. He’s struggled this spring against live pitching, although perhaps he just needs to get his timing back. I think a return to his 2007 production is about as good as you can expect, and even that may not be seen until later in the season, after he’s gotten some additional at-bats under his belt.

Can the Indians finally get some offense from their corner outfielders?

Although the Indians get exceptional offensive production from their up-the-middle position players, they’ve recently had trouble getting contributions from their corner positions, most particularly, their corner outfielders. Getting just average production from their non-Sizemore outfielders should place the Indians’ offensive attack in the top quarter of the league.

Neither Ben Francisco nor Shin-Soo Choo were starters for the Indians at the beginning of last season. Francisco got his opportunity after the Indians punted on Jason Michaels, and was for a time the best hitter in the lineup. He cooled off as pitchers adjusted to him; he loves inside fastballs, and he was instead getting a diet of off-speed pitches after the All-Star Break. Choo replaced Franklin Gutierrez as everyday right fielder, and hit .312/.399/.544 in the second half. Francisco needs to make some adjustments of his own at the plate to remain in the starting lineup, while Choo seems to have turned a corner in his development, and should give the Indians at least one solid corner outfielder.

What can the Indians expect for an encore from Cliff Lee?

The Indians held Lee back for the first couple weeks of spring training, trying to limit his workload, since he threw a career-high total in innings last season. Given how iffy the rest of the rotation looks, the Indians are going to need Lee this year to recapture at least a good part of his pitching prowess from last season.

Lee’s breakthrough last season was fairly simple: he was able to spot his fastball with incredible accuracy. He was able to stay down in the zone, almost flipping his career groundball/flyball ratio. Being able to get ahead in the count with a fastball on the corner turned his curve and slider into out pitches, and as his walks dropped, his strikeout rates soared. Lee will probably never again approach his 2008 season, but he’s not going back to the pitcher he was in 2007.
Now that Kerry Wood is in the fold, the bullpen will be fine…right?

In the recent past, the Indians have alternated between stellar and brutal bullpens. Their most recent good bullpen, in 2007, featured a closer with mediocre stuff backed up by several top-quality setup men. This bullpen seems the inverse of the one two years ago: a closer with great stuff backed up by several setup men with mediocre stuff, at least if we go by their 2008 performances. Rafael Betancourt, who was a constant for years, finally had a poor season a year ago, and Masa Kobayashi, who had a successful career as closer in Japan, faded badly down the stretch, and hasn’t looked good this spring. Jensen Lewis has supplanted both Betancourt and Rafael Perez as the primary setup man by virtue of being the lone consistent reliever down the stretch. The bullpen would have looked a whole lot better if Adam Miller had been healthy; instead, Miller will probably undergo season-ending surgery on his pitching middle finger.

Conclusion/2009 prediction

I like what the Indians have done to reinvent themselves over the past six months, and they should get better over the next couple seasons as the prospects they received in last July’s trades begin to contribute. But I think there are too many unknown quantities on this year’s club, especially in the rotation, for them to win the AL Central.

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