Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Wait 'Til Next Year

As much as I hate those four words, that’s what we have to look forward to after Sunday. And, there is quite a bit to look forward to. This young Indians team took some huge steps this year, finishing the season with 93 games, and narrowly missing the playoffs. So, despite the hanging heads in the picture, there’s a lot of talent and potential here (particularly with the four players pictured).

By the way, the Red Sox just took it on the chin from the AL Central Champion. Feel any better about the weekend? Me neither. But I digress.

The “core” that was talked about for so long has not only taken shape in one season, but the cement has started to harden.

“Core” position players under the Indians control for at least next year include: Vic, Grady, Pronk, Coco, and Jhonny. That happens to be 5 out of the 9 players in the lineup, and also happens to be the top 5 in the batting order. Throw in Boone and Belliard (whose option may not just be picked up, but may be negotiated for a longer deal with the Brandon Phillips situation as it is) as complementary players and you’re looking at a strong team. The weaknesses, as has been mentioned here since about June are 1B and RF, but more on that later. The strength of this team is the youthful talent converging at the right time to create a very competitive offensive team.
“Core” pitchers under the Indians control for at least next year include: C.C., Lee, Westbrook, Betancourt, and Cabrera. Obviously, the holes and needs are bigger and more obvious with the pitching staff, but Shapiro did one whale of a job this past off-season, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t do it again. The rotation needs to be filled in and the back end of the bullpen needs to be finalized, but the maturity and growth that C.C., Lee, and Jake showed as starters this year were above and beyond most expectations.

With all of these positives on the table, it’s time to look at the question marks, in order of importance to the 2006 incarnation of the Indians:
1) Is Kevin Millwood’s health bankable enough to be given a 3 to 4 year deal?
Millwood proved his worth his weight in gold by winning the AL ERA title and, more importantly, teaching the Indians’ young starters how to prepare to pitch, how to handle adversity, and how to be professionals. Shapiro will make a pitch to Woody, but the question is whether the Indians will guarantee a 3rd or 4th year in a contract that will probably be worth $8-$10 million per. The track record shows that the Indians will lean heavily on the advice of their medical and training staff (they thankfully wouldn’t guarantee the latter years of Thome’s deal because of health concerns), but the re-signing of Millwood would be a big boost to the fan base. It’s the age-old question: Do we do what’s popular or what makes sense? Shapiro has shown that he does what he thinks makes the most sense. ESPN.com is reporting that the Tribe is planning on offering a long-term deal, so priority #1 may be resolved, for better or worse, relatively soon.
2) If Millwood is not brought back, what do the Indians do with Scott Elarton?
The FA starting pitching market is dreadfully thin, so if the Tribe misses on Millwood, they may sign Scott Elarton (his agent is Shapiro’s father) and throw a young gun (Carmona, Sowers, Davis, or Guthrie) into the mix as the fifth starter. Regardless of who the Indians sign (Millwood, Elarton, or another FA), I think that their fifth starter will be a rookie, to break him in with the hopes that he would progress along the same path as Lee and Sabathia did. Scott Elarton was a nice pitcher for the Indians this year and would come at a reasonable price, but the preference (obviously) is to sign Millwood, thank Elarton for his performance in 2005, and wish him congratulations on the 2006 payday he earned himself.
3) What About Bob?
The Indians bullpen decisions start with which Bob to sign (Wickman or Howry) as both will command closer money on the open market. We all saw last year how an unsettled back end of the pen can destroy a team early in the season. If Wickman wants to return, and according to MLB.com, he does, Shapiro will probably give him another 1-year deal and slot the rest of the bullpen accordingly. If Sticky wants to go the northern woods of Wisconsin to live the High Life, Howry will be approached with a 2 to 3 year deal with closer money involved. Once the closer role is determined, look for Rhodes, Cabrera, and Betancourt to slot in accordingly in the 6th, 7th, and 8th. Andrew Brown, Riske (if he’s not traded), Matt Miller (if he’s healthy), Jason Davis, and Kaz Tadano will battle to join a left-handed specialist (probably not Sauerbeck) to fill out the pen. But, as we learned in 2004, you start in the back of the bullpen and work your way up.
4) Which of the Filler B’s is Gone?
The lack of offense from 1B (Broussard/Hernandez) and RF (Blake) proved to be magnified in the final week of the season, causing the seemingly apparent to become painfully obvious. With Boone and Belliard in the fold for 2006, one of those positions will be upgraded via FA or trade. Looking at the available FA at both positions and the prospects at those same positions, the Indians can play this a couple of ways. They can platoon Broussard and Ryan Garko (who has just mashed in the minors) at 1B, and acquire a RF via FA or trade, allowing Blake to fill the Jose Hernandez role for 2006. They can package Broussard (with Riske and Brandon Phillips?) for a RF and bring in a veteran 1B (J.T. Snow?) to push Garko in Spring Training. They can sign or acquire a big bat at 1B (Konerko, Overbay) and let Blake play another year, until Brad Snyder or Franklin Gutierrez are ready. They can sign or acquire a big bat at RF (Encarnacion, Floyd, Mench, Trot Nixon, Giles, Jacque Jones) and hand Garko the 1B job. And so on, and so on. There are a lot of possibilities for these two positions. The one certainty is that on Opening Day 2006 you won’t see Broussard at first AND Blake in right.
5) Which Prospects become the Grady and Jhonny of 2006 and which ones are expendable for trades?
Hot Prospects: Andrew Brown, Fausto Carmona, Jeremy Sowers, and Ryan Garko
Expendable: Brandon Phillips, Jeremy Guthrie

Those are the questions off of the top of my head for the off-season. There’s more, but The Office is about to start and, with the Tribe season over, I can finally enjoy Arrested Development, The Office, and Lost when they happen on not via TiVo.

For those of you who thought that The DiaTribe would take an offseason, realize this: There is no offseason - unless your name is Alan Trammell, Jack McKeon, Jim Tracy, or John Hart.

I’ll try to convince one of the most passionate Cavalier fans that I know (he owns a Mark Price old school jersey) to start one of these forums for the Wine and Gold. As soon as he is convinced, I’ll pass along the address, as long as the DiaTribe remains the active and passionate forum that it has become over its inaugural season. Thanks for a great season and let’s enjoy the offseason.

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