By Eric Gold, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (68-94) - Fourth Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: INF - Ron Belliard, RP - Jose Jimenez, RP - Scott Stewart
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP - Danys Baez, OF - Ellis Burks
PROJECTED LINEUP: Matt Lawton (LF); Omar Vizquel (SS); Jody Gerut (RF); Milton Bradley (CF); Travis Hafner (DH); Ben Broussard (1B); Casey Blake (3B); Victor Martinez (C); Ron Belliard (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: C.C. Sabathia (LHP); Jason Davis (RHP); Cliff Lee (LHP); Jake Westbrook (RHP); Jason Stanford (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: David Riske (RHP)
MANAGER: Eric Wedge
With the majority of last year's team intact, the Cleveland Indians may be more advanced in their rebuilding process than first thought. With just 68 wins in 2003, the Indians were kept out of the playoffs for a second straight year. However, the hopeful fans at Jacobs Field have a reason to believe the Tribe may be able to contend in the weak AL Central for an extended time this season.
Last year, the Indians lost 12 of their final 14 games in April and were never close to going above .500. Right fielder Jody Gerut had an outstanding rookie year and is one of the most promising outfielders in the majors. He led the Indians in homers (22) and RBI (75) last season and will be joined in the outfield by another solid hitter in Milton Bradley, who hit .321 in 101 games.
Cleveland's 4.21 ERA was fifth best in the American League, but the team lost closer Danys Baez, who was signed in the offseason by Tampa Bay. Bob Wickman, who hasn't pitched since 2002 due to Tommy John surgery, was supposed to step in and assume the closing role. However, he suffered a sprained ligament in his right elbow and may not be back until the All-Star break. That leaves the finishing duties up to righthander David Riske.
The club has a good core of young hurlers. Lefthander C.C. Sabathia and righty Jason Davis are both 23, while Cliff Lee is just two years older. The Indians moved Lee quickly up the minor league scale, as he started the year playing Class A ball before ending the season with nine starts at the major league level.
Ben Broussard and Travis Hafner, both lefthanded hitters, are likely to share the first base and designated hitter spots. Broussard will likely see more time at first though because of better defensive skills. The two had similar seasons at the plate with Broussard hitting .249 with 16 homers and 55 RBI in 116 games and Hafner batting .254 with 14 home runs and 40 RBI in 91 contests.
Ron Belliard, who spent the 2003 campaign with the Colorado Rockies, will get the starting nod at second base. He'll take over for Brandon Phillips, who struggled in his rookie season and will begin the year at Triple-A. Belliard batted .277 with eight home runs and 50 RBI in 116 games last year.
Omar Vizquel, who has spent the last 10 seasons playing for the Indians, returns as the starting shortstop. He was nearly traded in the offseason to Seattle, but that move was nixed because Vizquel failed a physical as the Mariners didn't give medical clearance to his surgically repaired right knee. Vizquel was limited to just 64 games this past year because of the knee problems and batted .244 with two homers and 19 RBI. The nine-time Gold Glove winner underwent two arthroscopic procedures to repair ligaments in the knee.
Casey Blake had a decent year in his first full season as Cleveland's third baseman, as he hit .257 with 35 doubles, 17 homers and 67 RBI. He topped the team in hits with 143, but Blake must cut down on his strikeouts (109) for this year. He should be more selective when trying to steal as he was caught nine times in 16 attempts.
Victor Martinez will be behind the plate for his first full major league season. The 25-year-old started 40 games last year and hit .289. Josh Bard, who hit .244, is also expected to see time at catcher but will mostly be in a backup role.
The 26-year-old Gerut, who hit .279 last year, is also strong in the outfield defensively and should be Cleveland's starting right fielder for many years to come. He has good bat and foot speed, as he topped the Tribe in total bases (237) last year.
Bradley, who will be playing one spot over from Gerut, saw his playing time limited last season due to hamstring and back injuries. Bradley, who had 10 homers and 56 RBI last season, ran into some trouble in the offseason after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of leaving the scene of a traffic stop. He also had a couple of temper flare-ups last season had during spring training this year he had a bout with a strained oblique muscle.
The left fielder job will likely go to Matt Lawton, who hit just .249 last year. Lawton has been beset by injuries the last two seasons and in 2003 he played just 99 games, belting 145 homers and driving in 53 runs.
If Lawton falters, Coco Crisp could be inserted into left field. The 24-year- old Crisp also played 99 games last year, hitting .266, but he has more speed than Lawton.
Another reason to put Hafner at DH would be health concerns. He spent time on the DL last season with a broken toe and sprained wrist. Last year, Hafner became the first Indian since 1978 to hit for the cycle, as he accomplished the feat in an August game against Minnesota.
Sabathia is coming off the best season of his young career, as he went 13-9 with a 3.60 ERA. That marked a good turnaround from 2002 when his ERA was 4.37. Sabathia also topped the team in innings pitched (197 2/3) last year.
Even though Davis went 8-11 with a 4.68 ERA in 27 starts, the Indians are counting on the righthander to be the No. 2 man in their rotation. Davis has to cut down on allowing homers, as he surrendered 25 last season.
Lee, who is recovering from hernia surgery, went 3-3 with a 3.61 ERA in his time with the Indians. The organization was quick to move him to the parent club after Lee compiled a 6-1 mark with a 3.27 ERA in 11 games at Triple-A Buffalo.
Righthander Jake Westbrook, who compiled a 7-10 mark with a 4.33 ERA last year, will likely fill the No. 4 spot. Jason Bere and Jason Stanford are challenging for the final slot.
The big test for the Indians will be if Riske can fill the closer's role now that Bob Wickman is likely out until July. Riske averaged more than a strikeout per inning last season and had eight saves and a 2.29 ERA.
Righty Jose Jimenez is now expected to move into a setup role. Jimenez is a former closer from the Colorado Rockies, although he had seven starts in his 63 appearances last year. Jimenez went 4-20 the final two years with the Rockies.
Lefthander Scott Stewart could also be a set-up man, while Jack Cressend and Rafael Betancourt figure to be in the bullpen for long relief duties. Mark Wohlers was expected to contend for a relief spot, but he's recovering from two surgeries on his elbow and will not play this year and may even retire.
Outfielders Alex Escobar and Ryan Ludwick, along with infielder John McDonald and Bard will make up the bench for the Tribe, giving the team plenty of options. However, Ludwick may not be able to play much in April due to tendinitis in his surgically repaired knee. McDonald also had surgery on his right knee in September, but he should be ready for the start of the season.
If the nucleus of this team can remain intact, look for the Indians to contend for the AL Central title in 2005. However, the team may need another year of development from its young players under Wedge, who enters his second full season as manager of the team. The team should be ready to improve though from the 94 defeats last year.