By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (80-82) - Third Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: 2B - Alex Cora; OF - Juan Gonzalez; 2B - Jose Hernandez; SP - Kevin Millwood; RP - Arthur Rhodes; RP - Paul Shuey
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: OF - Matt Lawton; SS - Omar Vizquel; RP - Rick White
PROJECTED LINEUP: Coco Crisp (LF); Aaron Boone (3B); Victor Martinez (C); Travis Hafner (DH); Ben Broussard (1B); Casey Blake (RF); Ronnie Belliard (2B); Grady Sizemore (CF); Jhonny Peralta (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: C.C. Sabathia (LHP); Kevin Millwood (RHP); Jake Westbrook (RHP); Cliff Lee (LHP); Scott Elarton (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Bob Wickman (RHP)
MANAGER: Eric Wedge
The Indians were the team of the '90s in the American League Central, winning the division five straight seasons (1995-99), and they were back on top in 2001, only to revert to 14 games under .500 the following year. Mark Shapiro was elevated to general manager following the 2001 season, and he knew the club was going into a rebuilding phase, but it may be short-lived. Now the Tribe may have enough young talent to dethrone the Minnesota Twins, winners of the division the last three years, from their perch.
The Indians lost 94 games in 2003, but last year they were two games under .500. In fact, following their August 14 win over the Twins, the Indians were one game out of first place. However, Cleveland lost its next nine games, and a weak bullpen and inexperience led the team to wilt.
There weren't high expectations for the Tribe in 2004, and for good reason. Manager Eric Wedge has been provided with a talented bunch of young pitchers in Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia, an All-Star catcher in Victor Martinez, and designated hitter in Travis Hafner.
Cleveland improved defensively last year, and even though perennial Gold Glove Omar Vizquel left via free agency, the Indians are poised to ride their young talent in the field in shortstop Jhonny Peralta and first baseman Ben Broussard to hopefully return to the playoffs. The offseason acquisitions of Juan Gonzalez, whose 35 homers and 140 RBI helped the Indians to the division title in 2001, starting pitcher Kevin Millwood and reliever Arthur Rhodes are gambles, but they could allow the Indians to exceed expectations from 2004.
The return of sharp-fielding Aaron Boone at third base should provide a lift this season. The 32-year-old Boone, an All-Star in 2003, is coming back from a knee injury while playing pickup basketball that forced him to miss the entire 2004 season. He won't hit for power, but with a .254 average two years ago and a steady glove and some speed remaining now, Boone will be a mediocre offensive contributor.
Broussard hit .300 after the All-Star break last year, and at 28-years-old he's considered to be part of the bright future of the Indians. As long as he continues to progress with his power (17 HR, 82 RBI in 2004), he should be able to hold off 22-year-old Michael Aubrey from moving into his spot.
Ronnie Belliard has progressed into a nice hitter the last couple of years. From a career low .211 average in 2002 with the Brewers, Belliard upped that to .277 in 2003 with Colorado, and .282 in his first season with the Indians. His defense is suspect at time, as he's compiled 29 errors over the last two seasons.
Peralta is one of the most highly-touted defensive prospects the Indians have, but this year will be sink or swim for the 22-year-old, as he takes over for Vizquel. Peralta was actually strong offensively at Triple-A Buffalo last season with a .326 average, but he did strike out 126 times.
With just two full years under his belt in the majors, Martinez has developed into a catcher deserved of All-Star recognition. His 23 homers were tied for the most in the league amongst catchers, plus his 108 RBI were more than any other catcher.
Teams have a tendency to look to their outfielders to provide power, but that just isn't the case for the Indians, hence the signing of Gonzalez to an incentive-laden minor league deal. Last year, Matt Lawton, Coco Crisp and Jody Gerut combined for just 46 homers. Casey Blake did have 28 homers, but that was from third base. Blake is being moved to right field because of Boone's return and the 26 errors he committed last year at the hot corner. Coco Crisp is a speed demon, but it's gotten him in trouble, since he's 39-of-62 in his career in steal attempts. Grady Sizemore could provide a steady bat in center, depending on how much playing time Ryan Ludwick takes away from him.
At 35 years old, Gonzalez has been hampered by injuries the last three seasons. On the positive side, he returns to familiar grounds from 2001 and that could be a huge difference in the success of the Indians. Gonzalez has racked up a .328 career batting average in 102 games at Jacobs Field. He can still hit for power, although because of back problems and other injuries, he's clubbed just 94 homers since 2000.
Blake wasn't good with his glove at third base, but with a chance at a different position, his offensive numbers (.271, 28 HR, 88 RBI) will be better than what the Indians had to offer at right field last season when Gerut, Lawton, Alex Escobar and Ludwick split time.
If last year is any indication as to Hafner's abilities, then he should be a 30-HR, 100-RBI guy this season. A 27-year-old with a .311 batting average and .583 slugging percentage, Hafner's future may not be with the Indians, as he'll command plenty of money on the open market. For now though, he's as good as any clean-up or third hitter in an AL lineup.
Sabathia may miss the start of the regular season with a strained right abdominal muscle, but it likely won't set him back enough to prevent a run at 15 wins. Because the Indians have limited his innings (188 last year), the lefthander hasn't been as likely to spend a good portion of his time on the DL. It's rare that at 24-years-old, Sabathia would be considered a No. 1 starter, but he has the tools to be just that. Now if only he can lower his ERA (4.12 last year), he'd be right up there for a third straight All-Star appearance.
Coming off a 4.85 ERA in a hitter's ballpark in Philadelphia, Millwood needs to prove his worth since he's only under a one-year contract. It's a big gamble, as Millwood is a high-fastball pitcher and has been burned by the long ball too many times. It's hard to imagine that just two years ago he threw a no-hitter. Nevertheless, the 30-year-old righthander will surely lower his pitching at Jacobs Field.
Westbrook had the third-best ground ball to fly ball ratio (2.72) in the majors and Lee is coming off 14 wins in his first full season. Westbrook also had the third-best ERA (3.38) in the AL, and to think he's only 27 and just put together his first double-digit victory season, it's scary what he may be able to accomplish. He pushed to 215 2/3 innings last year. Expect similar results in 2005.
Lee got off to a stupendous start last season, going 9-1 with a 3.77 ERA prior to the All-Star break, but he was horrific in the second half with a 5-7 mark and a chunky 7.91 ERA. The 26-year-old southpaw must keep the ball down more to avoid giving up the 30 homers he allowed in 2004.
Like Lee, fifth starter Scott Elarton also has a problem keeping the ball in the park, as he surrendered 25 round-trippers in just 117 1/3 innings pitched after joining the Indians last year. If this continues, his stint with the Tribe will be cut short.
Bob Wickman, a 36-year-old righthander, returns as the closer after recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery early last year. The problem there is if Wickman struggles, the backups of David Riske and Rafael Betancourt are for the most part unproven in the finishing role. Rhodes is a question mark since his ERA has skyrocketed from 2.32 in 2002 to 5.12 last year. The lefthander appeared in only 37 games last season for the A's, but even at the age of 35 can add depth to the set-up roles held by Betancourt and Bobby Howry.
With one of the deeper benches, which includes infielders Brandon Phillips, Jose Hernandez and Alex Cora, there are plenty of late-inning options. Hernandez will be used mostly for his defense since he fanned 177 times in 2003. Josh Bard, who spent all of last season in the minors perfecting his catching skills, will likely serve as the back-up this year to Martinez. However, Bard's career .294 on-base percentage at the major league level is hardly a reason to keep him in the lineup on a regular basis.
This is a team that has the potential to topple the Twins, but over a 162-game schedule there's sure to be breakdowns. The bullpen will be key, only because Wedge doesn't want to give his young guns the responsibility of going past seven innings on a nightly basis. Cleveland's time will come to rock again at the Jake, but the celebration of a division title will likely have to wait at least another season.