Sunday, April 01, 2007

Team On A Quest

With the Mets and Cardinals starting the season off tonight, the Indians’ opener in Chicago is only a day away (good Lord, how I’ve longed to see those words together) and it’s time to take a look at the Indians entering the 2007 season and where the season may go.

Calling to mind the brilliance of A Tribe Called Quest, let’s examine the possibilities of a 2007 Team On A Quest – Can I Kick It?

Starting Pitching
The obvious strength of the 2007 Tribe is clearly the starting pitching, particularly the quality at the top end of the rotation and the depth of the quality into the 7th and 8th starters (in Buffalo). The Indians have, arguably, the best one-through-five rotation in the AL to start the season with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers all inserting lesser pitchers due to injury or bullpen issues.

The rotation starts with C.C. Sabathia, who established himself as an elite pitcher in the 2nd half of 2006 and should continue his maturation as the complete ace that the Indians have always lacked (1/2 of the 2004 season doesn’t count for Bartolo Colon). Jake Westbrook, Jeremy Sowers, and Cliff Lee form a solid middle of the rotation led by Westbrook, who has earned his reputation as an innings-eater who always keeps the Tribe in games, regardless of the amount of hits he gives up. Sowers established himself as a thinking man’s lefty, in the vein of Jaime Moyer and Tom Glavine – a pitcher who doesn’t blow away anybody, but always gets out of tough innings and through games despite not possessing overpowering stuff. Lee, when he returns from an oblique strain, needs to re-establish his spot in the rotation as a solid LHP, capable of getting past the 5th inning while reducing the amount of HR allowed. If Lee is able to replicate the modicum of success that he had in 2005 and 2006, it will go a long way for the Indians to have 4 solid-to-excellent starters, a boast few teams can make.

The back end of the rotation consists of a veteran trying to prove he belongs and two youngsters trying to do the same. Paul Byrd’s 2006 was nothing short of disastrous. If not for crime on humanity that was Jason Johnson, Byrd would have taken much more heat for his struggles. If Byrd starts off slowly in 2007, the Indians may not be as reticent to let him work out his troubles in the rotation and let him slot into a spot in the bullpen. That luxury is due to the Indians having a couple of thoroughbreds in the stable, ready to join the race in Fausto Carmona and Adam Miller. Carmona will begin the season in the rotation and it’s feasible that, when Lee returns, he stays there if he finds early success. He clearly has the repertoire to succeed in MLB; the question of his mental readiness is what will determine if he logs some miles between Cleveland and Buffalo this year or stays on the parent club for good. Miller, the crown jewel of the farm, will start the year in Buffalo to refine his pitches and also for him to polish his changeup to add to his repertoire. By all accounts, though, he is not far away from pitching at the Jake at some point this year.

Down on the farm, the Indians have Brian Slocum (the 2nd round pick the same year that Jeremy Guthrie was the 1st rounder) in Buffalo as the 8th starter and the only other real option to pitch in Cleveland this year. Further down, the boys at Akron this year (led by Chuck Lofgren, followed by Scott Lewis, Jensen Lewis, and JD Martin) will begin to slot themselves as the next “wave” of arms to be ready for Cleveland by 2009 or 2010.

After the historically disastrous 2006 bullpen, Shapiro blew it apart and rebuilt the 2007 pen with Joe Borowski, Keith Foulke, Roberto Hernandez, and Aaron Fultz. The newcomers joined holdovers Rafael Betancourt, Fernando Cabrera, and Jason Davis. After the untimely retirement of Foulke, the door was opened for Matt Miller to make the team; Miller promptly did what Matt Miller does – pitched well then got hurt. Miller’s injury, in turn, opened the door for Tom Mastny to finish the construction of what still looks to be a very shaky pillar of the 2007 team.

The Foulke retirement affected the bullpen in that it threw the 8th inning role up for grabs, something that was the overwhelming problem in 2006. Unless Betancourt or Hernandez can step up immediately, the Indians may be running open auditions for the set-up role, with the hopes that Cabrera or Davis can harness their stuff to translate into some 8th inning success. Just as likely is that Mastny continues his success of last year and this Spring to pitch his way into the late innings.

Unfortunately, that’s the crapshoot of the bullpen from year to year. The possibilities are seemingly endless – Fultz could struggle and be replaced by Juan Lara, injuries could mount and Edward Mujica or Tony Sipp could play a integral role in the evolving bullpen, or the bullpen in its current incarnation could thrive and provide stability throughout the season.

Reports that Shapiro has continued to try to fortify the bullpen up to the beginning of the season lends credence to the idea that he’s not comfortable with the current back end of the bullpen, so a move could still be forthcoming. After all of the talk that the bullpen was rectified in the off-season, the truth is that the answer as to whether anything was fixed won’t come to light until probably the end of April. The hope is that the bullpen, if the problems persist, hasn’t done irreparable damage to the season.

The hope that the Indians will eventually be able to produce effective relievers from the minors, as the Twins seem to have perfected to complement Joe Nathan from year to year, still exists with youngsters Mastny, Cabrera, Mujica, Sipp, Lara, and even Rafael Perez. Until they are able to do so, they will be forced to cobble together a bullpen out of unknown quantities and inconsistent performers that litter the reliever environment.

Position Players

With the core of Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, and Victor Martinez, the Indians have different types of players as they try to complement those three – the veteran role players (Casey Blake, Trot Nixon, David Dellucci, and Jason Michaels), the core player looking to recapture his past success (Jhonny Peralta), and the talented youngsters they hope will develop into core players (Josh Barfield, Andy Marte, and to a lesser degree Ryan Garko).

The production of Sizemore, Hafner, and Martinez will have to remain the constant while the Indians sort out the best combination of complements to continue the success of the 2nd most productive offense of 2006. All are elite players at their respective positions who are likely to contribute numbers close to, or higher, than that of their phenomenal 2006 seasons. The three present the least question marks, though Martinez needs to improve his defense (with the help of his pitchers keeping some runners on, notably Byrd) to stay behind the dish. As a catcher, Martinez’s numbers are of the elite variety; at 1B, they are merely average.

Whether the Blake/Garko/Nixon becomes effective at 1B/RF will depend on the health of Nixon’s back and the effectiveness of Garko’s glove. If Nixon proves to be unprepared to help the team, Shin-Soo Choo waits in Buffalo to take his role in the convoluted platoon. If Garko proves to be a huge detriment to team defense in the field, Blake may be handed the full-time 1B job and one of the young RH OF (Ben Francisco or Franklin Gutierrez) will take his spot in the platoon.

Dellucci and Michaels have to prove that they can handle the difficulty of playing every other day, while Michaels has to hold off the likes of Francisco and Gutierrez (and soon, Trevor Crowe) as he needs to prove that his pre-2006 numbers vs. LHP provide more of the norm than his 2006 performance (.799 .OPS vs. LHP).

Peralta’s Spring performance has provided hope that he is closer to his 2005 form and has put his nightmarish 2006 in the rearview mirror. Watching a few preseason games on STO, Peralta appears slimmer and more agile in the field, diving for balls and developing a solid rapport with his DP partner Josh Barfield. If Peralta is, in fact, ready to contribute anything close to his 2005 stat line, it will go a long way towards the Indians establishing themselves as an offensive juggernaut.

Peralta’s DP partner, Barfield, will have to show that he can adjust to a new league and can continue the success of his rookie season with a year of videotape for pitchers to dissect, something Peralta was ill-prepared for. Barfield’s defensive prowess, speed, and youth should endear him quickly to Indians’ fans that still miss Roberto Alomar as he establishes himself as another core player for 2007 and beyond.

The hope for such maturation for Andy Marte may be a little early as he still only has 126 total days in MLB. While the talent is there, Marte’s impact may be most felt in the field in 2007 as he helps Peralta’s right side better than Aaron Boone ever did in 2006. Marte is likely to show flashes of an impact bat with power and tape-measure shots, but he needs to lay off low-and-away breaking pitches and improve his OBP and pitch selection to develop as a legitimate RH power bat that many thought he would become as recently as this time last year.

On the bench, Kelly Shoppach provides a defensive specialist at catcher who strikes out too much, but provides some depth to give Victor and his balky knees/ankles/hips/everything south of the equator a break. Mike Rouse figures to be strictly a defensive replacement in the infield, capable of giving the regular IF a break in late innings or on back-to-backs.

In Buffalo, the Indians have stocked a lineup of players ready to come up and contribute (with varying degrees of expected success) in the aforementioned Francisco and Gutierrez, Joe Inglett, Hector Luna, IF Keith Ginter, and C Mike Rose. Further down, Akron boasts organizational jewel Crowe, OF Brian Barton, C Wyatt Toregas, and SS Asdrubal Cabrera – some of whom could factor into the 2007 plans.

While the Indians are not without questions (bullpen, platoon effectiveness, Peralta’s bounceback), they are no different than any other team in the AL, all of whom have obvious warts. Among the credible contenders, whether it’s pitching health and depth (Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers, Twins), bullpen issues (Red Sox), or offensive firepower (Angels, A’s) – no team in the AL is head and shoulders above the rest.

So, the Indians, with their strong rotation and productive lineup have as much of a chance to represent the AL in the Fall Classic as any other club. Obviously, unforeseen injuries and unexpected emergences and drop-offs by certain players will play a role in how the 2007 season shakes out. But, this is how one man sees it all breaking:

AL East – Boston
AL Central – Cleveland
AL West – Oakland
AL Wild Card – Chicago

NL East – Philadelphia
NL Central – Milwaukee
NL West – Los Angeles
NL Wild Card – New York

ALDS – Cleveland over Oakland, Boston over Chicago
NLDS – Philadelphia over Milwaukee, New York over Los Angeles

ALCS – Cleveland over Boston
NLCS – New York over Philadelphia

World Series – Cleveland over New York

If it all breaks like that, sometime in late October or early November, Indians fans will rejoice worldwide and all will be right with the world.

One day away from the Season Opener, hope springs eternal.


Baltimoran said...

nice to see some optimism, not a single PD writer predicted the Tribe to make the playoffs. The same core players won 93 games 2 seasons ago, and last year's model scored the most runs in the wouldn't be going that far out on a limb to see the tribe putting it together this year.

Thanks again PC for pointing me to Terry Pluto to actually read some positive articles about Grady and the tribe.

Go Buckeyes

Krems said...

I'm back in C-Town for the week. Does anybody know what channel STO is on Time Warner???

Paul Cousineau said...

There's nothing wrong with optimism going into the season. While the Tribe is certainly not without flaws, no team is perfect. The Cleveland media simply chooses to dwell on the negatives about the Indians.

I didn't do a Lazy Sunday because all today's articles proved were that Pluto is head and shoulders above the other writers in town and that Dennis Manoloff may be the best writer at the PD.

STO is 17 on Time Warner or 179 on Time Warner Digital. How long are you in town for?

Krems said...

I'm here throught the weekend. What games are you going to this weekend. I think we're going to try and get to at least one.

Mevs said...

Wow the Tribe to win it all? I suppose Sizemore would be MVP as well!?!?!? I sure hope you're right man.

Baltimoran said...

forgot that i'm stuck with home announcers with the whitesox have to be some of the worst. they called the score as "11-3 Bad Guys" and sounded like their puppy got ran over anytime the tribe scored. they were however in love with barfield, they praised shapiro and openly questioned the padres.

peralta's first hit looked like the low and away pitch that he struck out on about 600 times last year...must have been the laser surgery