Cleveland Indians' Three Burning Questions

Chris KreitzerSenior Analyst IFebruary 3, 2009

In celebration of the various lists, previews, and breakdowns circulating around the Internet concerning the 2009 MLB season, Tribe Times has decided to jump into the fray.

With the equipment trucks on their way to Arizona (yawn), and the most recent news of the Indians signing Vinnie Chulk (bigger yawn), let's get the prognostications flowing...

1. Can "Hot" Carl Pavano become the teams' third starter?
At first I thought this signing had the makings of a Kevin Milwood-type reclamation project. By further examination, it looks as more likely to turn into a Jason Johnson-type disaster.
Pavano has been horrible since 2004, basically suffering through injury after injury. He didn't take to well to the New York media, dated this girl, and was called out by his teammate Mike Mussina (who rarely ever says anything) questioning his intestinal fortitude.
Here is an excerpt from spring training 2007.
"When one guy is out there playing the game despite whatever is going on and somebody else is not, that's how teammates get bad tastes in their mouths," Mussina said. "As another starting pitcher, who hasn't been 100 percent for all of the last two years, I know what it takes to be able to go out there and pitch, and I know when you can't go out there and pitch. And sometimes it's a fine line, but I think after 15 years I kind of know where the line is."
Pavano says that one injury led to another and that he finally feels well after working out with a new trainer in Arizona during the offseason. Some of his teammates kept pointing out that each time it appeared he was close to being ready to pitch in the major leagues, another injury occurred.
"I'm looking at from a perspective of just the way each thing happened and the timing of it and just piecing all those things together," Mussina said. "You get to form your own evaluation. It didn't look good. From a player's and a teammate's standpoint, it didn't look good. Was everything just coincidence over and over again? I don't know."

Never a good sign that a guy you may slot in as your No. 3 man in your rotation has confidence and toughness issues. The front office has stated that of all of the guys considered as low risk/high reward alternatives (Pavano signed a one-year, $1.5 million incentive laden contract), he was in the best shape and possessed the most confidence.
The Tribe brass may be kicking themselves at signing Pavano so early, as guys like Ben Sheets and Pedro Martinez, among others, are still currently free agents and will likely have to take contracts in the $4-7 million range on one-year deals.
Granted, the payroll is pretty well maxed out, but if they would have waited and scrounged up another couple million, the team and the fans may have a bit more to feel confident about when you look at the starting rotation. If Pavano has any injury in Spring Training lasting more that a week, I would hope the team cuts bait quickly.

Best Case Scenario
Pavano regains some Marlin magic and wins 15 games with an era under four, helping to solidify the middle of the rotation.

Worst Case Scenario
Carl hurts his arm, shoulder, or whatever and lights the Progressive Field mound on fire after every start, resulting in his ultimate release at the end of May.

Carl muddles through most starts until the All-Star break, eventually getting DL'd for a third time and being replaced by Jake Westbrook by August.

2. Will Travis Hafner rePronk his career?
I have been a huge Hafner fan ever since he was dealt from the Rangers for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese and hope he can return to his former glory, but the 2009 season may be a make or break for No. 48.
Red Flags surround the DH, as besides the lost season of 2008, pundits have questioned his sharp statistical decline of 2007 in relation to 2006 when he hit 18 less homers in 23 more games. Terry Pluto recently wrote that he felt for Hafner to be somewhat effective this season, he would need to rest at least once or a twice a week.
That is a worrisome proposition in that a guy whose sole responsibility to the team is swinging a bat needs a regular break from doing what he does best can't be a good thing.
The lineup can recover from Pronk sitting a few out as they showed at the end of last year (Kelly Shoppach, take your bow), but Travis seems to be his own harshest critic. A repeat of 2008 would sure to render him frustrated and nothing better than a guy off the bench. The bigger problem would be the $49+ million left on his four-year deal that would severely hinder the front offices' payroll flexibility if Hafner is rendered useless.
The team and player seem confident that all problems in the shoulder have been fixed and we should see the Travis of old in 2009, sans his significant weight loss.

Best Case Scenario
Hafner his fully healed, plays in 140 games, slugs 35 home runs, has a OBP soaring over .400 and becomes the feared hitter he was back in 2006. Pronkville Rejoices!!!

Worst Case Scenario
Elbow flares up, can't get into a rhythm, and we are stuck with a .220, $50 million DH for four more years

Pronk is tough, and his part project part donkey side takes over. Travis belts 25-30 home runs, spends one or two short stints on the DL, hits around .270, and hears more cheers than boos at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

3. Does Mark DeRosa have what it takes to bat second and be a difference maker?
Everything out of Chicago has been extremely positive about the Tribe's new third baseman. I have heard words like "gamer" and phrases like "great clubhouse guy" when describing DeRosa, but will he produce in the AL?
He primarily batted in the second half of the Cubs order, generally being protected from being heavily counted on to spark innings (which DeRosa did on his own to his credit). The Indians haven't had a solid No. 2 hitter sans two months of Asdrubal Cabrera in 2007, or more notably since Coco Crisp in 2005.
DeRosa seems a pretty solid player to plug in to the two hole with his .376 OBP. His 106 K's need to be cut down as he will be more heavily counted on to move runners along by putting the ball in play. The conversion over to the American League shouldn't be an issue as he played for Texas in 2006, having some success.
In the past three years (two in Chicago, one in Texas, 500 AB's in each season), DeRosa has only manned the hot corner a mere 99 times while committing nine errors. The team has stated that third Base is his best position, which is up for debate.
His fielding percentage at third over the sample size above is .960, while his career FP there is .949, which rank him pretty much average and a slight upgrade over Casey Blake.
The real question will be if Asdrubal struggles a la 2008, or Peralta's lack of range gets worse, will the D-Man be back at second? DeRosa's ultra flexibility to be able to play pretty much anywhere (notably the corner outfield positions) seems to be what really attracted the Indians to the former Wrigleyviller, so don't be surprised to see him all around the diamond.
His club friendly $5 million, one-year contract may also provide this 2010 free agent some incentive to put together another productive season.

Best Case Scenario
DeRosa further strengthens the top of the order, gets on base, helps set the table for the 3-4-5 hitters, flashes an above average gloves, and helps lead the Wigwamers to another division title.

Worst Case Scenario
Struggles in April and May with his league transition, forgets how to play third, becomes Casey Blake lite or worse, an overpaid utility infielder and we see Wes Hodges sooner than we would like up in Cleveland.

DeRosa delivers, provides leadership and above average production, and helps the Indians battle deep into September for a very winnable AL Central Division crown.

There are obviously a lot more questions then answers floating around the 2009 Indians. More on those in the coming days, including a Central Division preview that spell out the road for baseball possibly (hopefully) being played in Cleveland in October.
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