December 31, 2004

Talking Tribe

The 2004 Cleveland Indians surprised many by remaining in contention late into the season. At one point they found themselves in a virtual dead heat with the Minnesota Twins. At that point, the Indians promptly began an 8 game losing streak, permanently dropping them from contention while handing the Central Division to the small-market Twins. The main culprit in dragging the team from a first place tie down to a losing record (80-82) was the relief pitching. The starters, led by the ever-improving (and ever-expanding) C.C. Sabathia, and the hitters, led by MVP candidate Travis Hafner, more than held there own, as the Tribe scored the fifth most runs in the American League last year, while Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee combined with Sabathia to win 39 games, while losing only 27. The bullpen, on the other hand, managed to blow 28 saves, most in the American League. Of course, the save is a somewhat overrated, but if the Indians has converted half of the blown saves into wins, they would have won 94 games and the Central Division.

Obviously, the focus for 2005 should be pitching. A young lineup will only get better, and the starters will all have another year of seasoning. Adding relief pitching and another starter or two would go a long way toward catching the Twins while fending off the White Sox and Tigers. There's another team in the division, but Kansas City is so far from contending, they almost don't warrant mentioning.

Thankfully, Mark Shapiro has seen his team's deficiencies and focused on improving the pitching without sacrificing too much elsewhere. The big noise coming out of Cleveland the last month has been the announcement that Omar Vizquel had signed a three year contract with San Francisco after spending 11 seasons with the Wahoos. Vizquel was much loved by the fans in Cleveland for his flashy glovework and competent hitting. All that said, a 38 year old shortstop with his only average offensive skills already on the decline is hardly worth the 3yr/$12.25MM contract Brian Sabean gave him to play in San Francisco. While he may have a serviceable or even good season next year, by year three, when he's trying to be a 41 year old backup middle infielder making four million dollars, the only word that could describe that season is likely "craptacular." Don't worry about the Indians, though. They'll be fine without him as they can turn the shortstop reins over to the unfortunately named Jhonny Peralta (that's really how his first name is spelled), the 2004 International League MVP for the AAA Buffalo Bisons. Additionally, Jose Hernandez was signed to play second base, which should be another good signing on the cheap ($1.8MM)

Most recently, the Indians have been close to signing Kevin Millwood to a one year deal to help shore up the rotation after losing out in the David Wells and Brad Radke sweepstakes. He underachieved last year in Philadelphia, and a return to even close to his norm would be a big shot in the arm, at least for the 2005 season. On the bullpen side, outfield Matt Lawton was traded for setup man Arthur Rhodes. While he's not exactly Brad Lidge, he'll do. Also, Bob Wickman returns for 2004 as the closer. He missed three months of 2004, and the Indians hope his surgically reconstructed right elbow can hold up for a full season to help shore up the bullpen deficiencies.

Here is the possible lineup for next year:
C: Victor Martinez, 1B: Ben Broussard, 2B: Jose Hernandez, SS: Jhonny Peralta, 3B: Aaron Boone, DH: Travis Hafner, OF: Grady Sizemore, Jody Gerut, Coco Crisp, SP: C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee, Kevin Millwood, RP: Arthur Rhodes, Bob Wickman

It's not a bad base to work with, and Shapiro deserved his recently signed contract extension. He seems to have realized that the key to operating a small/mid market team is to develop from within while signing short term free agents to fill in the holes while the youngsters develop. This is obvious from the short term veteran contracts like Jose Hernandez, as the team still hopes one-time prospect Brandon Phillips will eventually figure out how to hit Major League pitching as a second baseman. Shapiro has avoided chasing after "proven veterans" and overpaying for such. The Indians should be a force in the Central next year and for years to come, as long as the team avoids overpaying for past-their-prime veterans (see: Giants, Sanf Francisco) and lavishing fat contracts on mediocre players coming off career years (see: Yankees, New York). It's still only December, but I would predict that Indians will win the division next year and keep hold of it for a while.

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