It's that time of year again kids, spring! With one week left until pitchers and catchers report to the Indians new spring digs in Goodyear, Arizona and a strange warmth in the air (Dodge City, KS actually reached 82 degrees today, while the rest of us enjoyed beach weather at 45) that means baseball season is just around the corner.
I am practically tingling with excitement. Of course I have good reason, after a second half of the season when the Tribe had the best offense in baseball I have no reason to believe that we cannot win the wide-open AL Central. The key to victory, as usual, lies upon the pitching, the starters in particular.
The newly minted ace of the staff Cliff Lee has been diligently preparing for the season in the same way that he did last year. Do not expect a repeat of his Cy Young award-winning '08 performance, in which he went an astonishing 22-3 with 170 strike-outs and 34 walks. However, as dedicated was Lee to earning his spot on the team last year, he is just as focused on pitching his best this year. Lee wants to lead this team to the playoffs, I'm sure that he still has a bad taste in his mouth from watching the team during the '07 run.
Fausto Carmona will be taking over the role of the number two starter again this year and hoping to improve on his mediocre, injury riddled 2008 performance. Last year Carmona gave the cynics good reason to doubt whether or not '07 was a flash in the pan for the Dominican righty. However, I have no reason to believe that Fausto cannot become the same dominant pitcher that won 19 games.
Much like Lee in '07, last year Carmona was battling injuries that wrecked his consistency and over all took away from his ability to dominate pitchers. During winter play he has gone 2-2 with a 2.76 walk per nine innings ratio (thanks to my buddy Michael Taylor at Tribe Report for those numbers).
In his appearances last year Carmona was not allowing players to take his pitches out of the park, a common problem for low-ball pitchers. Rather, he still induced ground balls, kept the ball on the ground and had a high level of first pitch strikes. A repeat of of '07 may not happen, but a solid year by number two pitcher standards could be a real possibility.
Number three, in the absence of Jake Westbrook, will most likely fall to youngster Anthony Reyes. Before sustaining an injury last season Reyes went 4-2 with a 2.76 ERA between the Cardinals and the Indians. The most impressive part of his state line is Reyes' ERA was a meager 1.83 upon coming to the AL.
It will be interesting to see how Reyes rebounds from his injury; he is a product of the University of Southern California, the same school that produced Mark Prior. It has been noted the delivery of these pitchers has put them at higher risk for injury, however, it can be very effective against hitter. Hopefully Reyes has a bit more ruggedness than his former teammate and can pitch well in the three hole through the first half of the season at last.
New acquisition Carl Pavano looks to fall in to the four slot for the Tribe this year. Another pitcher who has struggled with injury, Pavano has only pitched nine innings for a total of 45 innings the past two years.
The beleaguered righty told the Indians that his problems were more an issue of poor handling by the Yankees organization than his own unwillingness to play. Shapiro seems to think that this was a sound, economic investment as well.
"This is not a guy you're guessing is going to come back. He made seven starts [in August and September] last year, with no problems. He's in great shape right now. He's strong, fit and highly motivated," Shapiro said.
The hope is that Pavano, as a number four starter, can eat innings and win 11 or 12 starts next year. If he can stay healthy and pitch like he has shown he can in the past there is no reason to believe that this is a far-fetched notion.
The position of number five starter remains a mystery to everyone, including the Indians front office. There are a number of candidates (Jeremy Sowers, Aaron Laffey, Scott Lewis, Dave Huff, Zack Jackson) that could fill this position and every Tribe fan and their brother has their own opinion about who it should be. For the sake of brevity I will remove Jackson (a likely bullpen option) and Lewis (too few innings at AAA).
Sowers has a shot to earn this spot out of camp, but unless he proves that he has regained command and can pitch at the major league level. Projected stats do not seem to favor him, and unless he pulls a Cliff Lee type reformation in Spring Training I would not expect him to earn a spot in the rotation.
Another long shot is Dave Huff, but don't count him out completely. His projections look better than Sowers do, but I think that AAA will be his first stop of the 2009 campaign. I do expect to see Huff at some point next year as the first option out of the minors in case of an injury.
That leaves Aaron Laffey to take the number five spot out of camp. Projections for 2009 look best for the young lefty who has made the best impression at the big league level recently. After command problems of his own last season Laffey rebounded nicely in AAA going 6-2 and only allowing 18 walks in 62 innings, approximately 3.5 BB/9 inn.
As long as health problems stay at a minimum this season the Indians looked primed for a run at the playoffs. If Jake Westbrook can return with the same command he had prior to Tommy John surgery (75 percent of pitchers pitch as well or better after recovery) the stretch run will be boosted by the addition of another strong arm. Things look good for the Tribe in '09, cynics be damned.