Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Springing Into Action

With some full team practice workouts completed in Winter Haven and the first game scheduled for this Thursday, the Indians’ brass begins the process of sorting out the roster and determining the roles for said players on that roster.

But is there really that much to sort out? One of the signs of this team maturing and entering a new realm of contention and stability is that, with less than a week completed in Spring Training, very few question marks exist on the roster. Essentially the Opening Day roster can be rattled off fairly easily before the calendar even says, “March”.

LHP - Sabathia
RHP - Westbrook
LHP - Lee
RHP - Byrd
LHP - Sowers
Set in stone since about August of last year, that’s how the Indians figure to run their rotation out. In case of an injury (Byrd reportedly has been battling a stiff back, but should be fine), Fausto Carmona figures in as the first replacement. Despite conjecture that the Indians could return Carmona to the bullpen to fill the void of Keith Foulke (though not as a potential closer…God, no – not as a potential closer) and help out in the 7th or 8th, the Indians have repeatedly stated that they will keep Carmona in the rotation to be that acclaimed “6th starter”. And that’s a good thing. With the potential of Westbrook AND Byrd leaving after this season (Westbrook is a FA, Byrd has a 2008 club option), the Indians need to be sure that Carmona and Miller/Slocum/Perez/etc. are ready to step in to the rotation if need be in 2008.

Thus, the thing to watch in the rotation this Spring will be the health of the Tribe starters and the performance of the likely Buffalo rotation to see if one or more of the youngsters distinguishes himself to figure into the future plans more prominently.

RHP - Borowski
RHP - Betancourt
RHP - Hernandez
LHP - Fultz
RHP - Cabrera
RHP - Davis
RHP - Miller
The retirement of the Foulker pretty much settled that “battle” for the 7th bullpen spot as both Davis and Miller should be making the team. The young relievers (Mastny, Sipp, Mujica, etc.) will be given a look in Winter Haven, but they all figure to start the season in Buffalo. Miller still has an option left, but it’s unlikely to be used as the youngsters will get more regular work in AAA to slot themselves in the line of first to be called up in case of injury or ineffectiveness.

Understanding the limitations of what was available in the off-season, this unit still isn’t one that inspires complete confidence. The unfortunate retirement of Foulke leaves the 8th inning unresolved and leaves the Indians dependent upon a 42-year-old Hernandez or a reliever who has yet to make it through a full season without getting injured in Betancourt and one strike against him in the “not supposed to take horse pills from Mexico” policy.

After watching the team’s 8th inning troubles last year (until the emergence of Carmona), the importance of that role can’t be underestimated. Unless Cabrera recaptures his 2005 form or Davis finally harnesses his stuff, the 8th inning could be a weakness of the team as the relievers struggle to get a lead to Borowski. Even if either of those two young relievers has it figured out, the Indians are likely to give first crack to the experience of Hernandez and even Betancourt and would be more reticent to allow Cabrera and Davis to grow into that 8th inning role, for better or worse.

For some reason, the feeling persists that the evolution of the bullpen will continue throughout the season until the Tribe can find a mix reminiscent of the Cabrera-Howry-Wickman success of 2005 (and how Wedge rode those horses back into the playoff race can’t be forgotten). Whether that new mix includes an arm that emerges from Buffalo (Sipp has a very good chance to contribute in that capacity THIS season) or how it evolves is not the issue. The timeframe and the fact that the roles in the bullpen need to be determined before it gives away games is the true issue.

This Spring Training, watch how the arms slot to start the season (who will pitch the 8th, the 7th, etc.) and how the youngsters perform against big-leaguers to gauge how they figure to contribute this year. With the attrition that is so common throughout a full MLB season, it’s a near certainty that we’ll see 2 to 4 of them. Who they are and how they perform could be foreshadowed under the Winter Haven sun.

C - Martinez
C - Shoppach
1B - Garko
1B/RF - Blake
2B - Barfield
SS - Mr. Magoo…er, Peralta
3B - Marte
RF - Nixon
CF - Sizemore
LF - Dellucci
LF - Michaels
DH - Hafner
Utility IF - Apply at the Front Desk
Outside of the unsettled utility role, these spots are pretty much locked up. While the Indians won’t come out and say that Garko will be on the team, his RH bat’s ability to complement Trot Nixon’s LH bat in the convoluted 1B/RF platoon virtually assures him a spot. The only thing to watch this Spring regarding the majority of the position players is the health of the players (notably Nixon, Hafner, and Martinez who are all coming off of either major of nagging injuries) that have predetermined roles on the team.

The utility role is a whole other story as the Indians have Luna, Inglett, Mike Rouse, Keith Ginter, and Luis Rivas in camp to battle for the spot. Quite a list of names, right?
Realizing fully that this IS the 25th spot on the roster and this is one of the biggest concerns going into camp, the gladiators in this battle couldn’t inspire me less. The criteria for the spot includes the ability to play SS with range (thanks for the effort Mighty Joe), the ability to hit big-league pitching enough to push Peralta in the case that the much-ballyhooed LASIK surgery doesn’t restore his 2005 form (ba-bye Rouse, Ginter, and Rivas) and the ability to stay away from the buffet table (Hector Luna, meet Jenny Craig).

Seriously, multiple media outlets have reported that Luna was told that he had to report to camp in shape (also leaving his frying pan glove at the Orlando airport wouldn’t hurt) and Luna came in looking like he just spent the off-season eating 3 meals a day at Hardees (where the smallest burger has 3 patties, bacon, liquid cheese, and a gift certificate for $50 off of an angioplasty). Although Luna retains options, it’s unlikely that the Indians will send him to Buffalo and he’s the odds-on favorite to take the utility spot, mainly because Inglett can’t play SS.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Indians use some of their excess baggage or players that have been lapped by other players in terms of development (Luna and Gutierrez, I’m looking in your direction) to acquire a more solid utility IF (Jamey Carroll and Aaron Miles come to mind) and possibly add another veteran arm (LHP?) to the bullpen.

Overall, it should be a relatively quiet Spring in Winter Haven (knock on wood) as most of the questions have already been answered. However, as we get closer to Opening Day, don’t be surprised if the Indians make a move to improve the last couple of spots on the roster with players caught up in the numbers game from other teams.

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