Saturday, April 02, 2005

2005 Preview - Positional Analysis Part IV

Starting Pitching
The addition of Kevin Millwood should be the main determining factor in the role of the starting pitching in the AL Central race. Millwood's health as the season progresses will determine whether the Indians stay with Minnesota for the Central or have to depend on young arms to carry the burden. Oblique muscle notwithstanding, C.C. Sabathia remains the "ace" of the rotation, if only because he has the highest cieling and seems to embrace the thought of being a true No. 1. If reports are to be believed, C.C. is in the best shape of his life and is ready to tackle the opponents' ace every 5. There is no questioning C.C.'s stuff, but he must become mentally tougher to establish himself as an elite pitcher. Though he is still young, Sabathia often lapses into mental mistakes and lets his emotions get the best of him, affecting his performance negatively. This year should decide whether the Indians approach Sabathia with a long-term deal (a la Johan Santana) or let C.C. ride out his current contract. Here's hoping that Sabathia enters that elite status and carries the Tribe during his starts as he is capable of doing.
Jake Westbrook parlayed a few tremendous middle relief outings into an exceptional 2004 season. When his sinker is working, Westbrook gets ground ball outs while working quickly and efficiently. If Westbrook is cruising, expect a game under 2 1/2 hours at the park. The loss of Omar may affect Jake the most as Jhonny Peralta is an unproven commodity as SS. Boone, Belliard, and Broussard are all solid defenders, but Westbrook is so dependent upon good fielding that the loss of Omar's ability to get to the hole may affect Westbrook's performance in 2005. Kevin Millwood steps into the 3 spot with less expectations than a Matt Clement or Jon Lieber, but also less certainty about his health. If Millwood is healthy, his signing is a major coup for the Tribe as he is a veteran innings-eater who learned at the knees of the Big 3 in Atlanta. His tutelage could be vital to the development of some of the Indians' young arms. However, if Millwood is not healthy, he pushes everyone behind him in the rotation up and puts more pressure on Cliff Lee, Scott Elarton, and Jason Davis/Brian Tallett/Billy Traber/whoever. And that "whoever" is big because Millwood's presence stabilizes the rotation and allows everyone to settle into their "spot", just as Bob Wickman does in the bullpen.
Cliff Lee lived through 2 seasons last year that saw him cruise through the All-Star break, only to completely break down for the stretch run. The experience that the lefty must build upon is a strong finish to last year, which will hopefully lead to a strong start and increased confidence. The innings and experience under his belt from last year can only help as he makes his push to be a solid 2 or 3 in the rotation of the future.
Scott Elarton, who was pulled off of the scrap heap last year to perform adequately for the Tribe, is a potential solid 5. His delivery scares some as he has experienced mechanics problems in the past, but as long as he can keep the Indians in the games that he pitches against the other number 5's, he is a bargain.
Waiting in the immediate wings are Jason Davis, who will get his shot with Sabathia's oblique injury, Brian Tallet, who impressed in Spring Training, Billy Traber, who is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Kyle Denney, still trying to shake off the go-go boot incident (just kidding), Jason Stanford, another Tommy John victim, Jeremy Guthrie, who after being derailed last year is still trying to justify his signing bonus, and Francisco Cruceta, whose temperment may keep him in Buffalo or make him part of a package. Some of those pitchers, notably Davis and Tallet, may translate to the pen as time progresses.
On the horizon are Fausto Carmona, who may also eventually end up in the pen, Adam Miller, the shelved Golden Boy of the organization, Brian Slocum, J.D. Martin, Jake Dittler, and Jeremy Sowers, last year's first-round pick.
After last year, it couldn't get worse...could it? Not with this year's revamped bullpen, of course assuming that Bob Wickman can stay healthy. The bullpen begins with Wickman, who is out to prove that he can stay healthy for a whole season. His saves aren't pretty, but he is effective and his presence allows the rest of the bullpen to sort itself out into defined roles. Setting up for Wick will be Bob Howry, who was impressive last year after coming off an injury. Howry will step in for Wickman if need be, though let's hope he doesn't have to. The presence of Scott Sauerbeck and Arthur Rhodes give the Indians something they were sorely lacking last year, a veteran lefty who can come in to get one guy out, Paul Assenmacher style. After suffering through Scott Stewart, then Cliff Bartosh, one of the two of Sauerbeck and Rhodes has to step up to take some pressure off of the rest of the bullpen. The guess here is that Rhodes will return to his Seattle form, now that the lofty expectations of Billy Beane are far away. Rhodes' salary should be enough to make sure he sticks around. The rest of the bullpen is what remains from the disaster of last year. David Riske, who proved that he can't close, will be back doing what he does best: working the 7th inning effectively. Matt Miller and Rafael Betancourt won the final two spots in the pen this Spring, after a spirited run by Brian Tallet. Miller, the bespeckled sidearmer, is particularly effective against righties while lefties seem to crush him. Betancourt lives his life throwing strikes, for better or worse. Both should do well in their new roles, to which they are better suited than setting up and closing (which they did last year).
Should injuries or ineffectiveness get to the pen, help is not far away. Brian Tallet's strong Spring should tranlate into his name being the first called in a pinch. Sabathia's return could mean the return of Davis to the pen, where his stuff and his tempermant are better suited. Davis, with some seasoning, could turn into another Joe Nathan, capable of closing games very effectively. Another potential closer in the organization is Fernando Cabrera, whose lights-out stuff hasn't translated in the bigs yet. Also just a phone call away are Kaz Tadano, who seems to be the only Japanese reliever not instantly successful in America, and Andrew Brown, a big righty acquired in the Milton Bradley deal who needs to learn how to relieve in the minors for a while.

Whew, with that out of the way, next up is predictions and random thoughts, which will be more in line with the flavor of the blog.

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