This offseason, the Indians closed some major gaps by replacing Casey Blake (Mark DeRosa) and CC Sabathia (Carl Pavano), while adding a closer (Kerry Wood) , but the left field gap is still open. David Dellucci’s and Travis Hafner’s big contracts restrict the Tribe from pursuing a new left fielder even though it is a buyer’s market for A-class LF free agents this year.
Tribe veteran and future Hall-of-Famer Manny Ramirez is available for a mere $100 million over four years. With Manny Ramirez and LeBron James in town, Cleveland should get placed on the media’s center stage.
The Tribe and the Yanks become the odds on favorites to win in 2009.
This team can be one of the top five or six best hitting teams even without Manny Ramirez. The front office deserves extra credit for providing the depth required over 162 game season. The Tribe Think Tank has clearly read books on risk management. They have assembled interchangeable parts that mitigate risk.
Jhonny Peralta, Mark DeRosa, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jamey Carroll are slotted for the three infield roles: third, shortstop, and second. Jamey Carroll’s .277 BA in 346 AB make him a starter for most clubs, but the starting nod will go to Mark DeRosa at third, Jhonny Peralta at shortstop and Asdrubal Cabrera at second. Jamey Carroll should play 40 percent of the games.
Jhonny Peralta, Mark DeRosa, and Asdrubal Cabrera can ride the bench every fifth game. Jhonny Peralta is a big bopper. His .473 SLG led all AL shortstops with more than 500 at bats in 2008. Mark DeRosa (.285 AVG, 87 RBI) is the hidden gem Mark Shapiro stole in the offseason. He is an insurance policy while Josh Barfield gets tested.
Asdrubal Cabrera can be a future star in this league. Watch him closely because this is the year he shows it. He bloomed early and was harvested from the farm system in the autumn of 2007. Last year, his dismal start, .167 AVG in May-June was offset by his big finish, .416 AVG in Sept.-Oct.
Josh Barfield is awarded one of the three new-talent opportunities. The prized prospect out of San Diego (.280 AVG in '06) spent ’07 in Cleveland (.243 AVG) and ’08 in Triple-A Buffalo (.251 AVG). He is a wild card. Unless his bat wakes up, he is likely to be traded before the 2010 season.
With Josh Barfield and Asdrubal Cabrera realizing their potential, the future looks bright in the infield with Josh Barfield at second, Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop, and Jhonny Peralta at third.
Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, Kelly Shoppach, and Ryan Garko are shoehorned into the three slow-footed positions—designated hitter, catcher, and first base, respectively. Travis Hafner has a monster contract and represents a tremendous risk to the organization. Which Hafner? The uninspiring .628 OPS Hafner of '08 or the fearsome presence 1.000+ OPS Hafner of '05 and ’06.
Regardless, Victor Martinez, Kelly Shoppach, and Ryan Garko are capable of carrying the load. In ’08 Garko (.273 AVG, 14 HR, 90 RBI) confirmed he can hit, especially at the end of the season when he was unstoppable.
Victor Martinez is the man, the best hitter on the team. The whole team rallies around him. His injury last year did immeasurable damage.
Kelly Shoppach had his breakout season. His .517 SLG was second among AL catchers.
Victor Martinez's playing time should exceed 90 percent. Travis Hafner shares playing time with Ryan Garko and Kelly Shoppach. The biggest bat gets the most play. Each should have at least 50 percent playing time.
The four outfielders are Grady Sizemore, David Dellucci, Shin-Soo Choo, and Ben Francisco. If these guys don’t get the job done, Mark DeRosa can play in the outfield. The team has two unproven outfielders and one dud.
You can expect David Dellucci to hit below .250 again. Ben Francisco (.266 AVG, 15 HR, 54 RBI) is set for a breakout year, but moderate concerns may realize into a big disappointment. There are whispers that Shin-Soo Choo (.309 AVG, 14 HR, 66 RBI) is an All-Star based on his finish in ‘08 (.400 AVG in Sept.-Oct.). Grady Sizemore (.268 AVG, 33 HR, 90 RBI) is the stalwart in center field. Mark him in your All-Star ballot.
The two remaining new-talent holes most likely will be filled from the ranks unless there is a last-minute left field free agent signing. Andy Marte, Matt LaPorta, Trevor Crowe, et. al., will be vying for them.
If Andy Marte makes the team, Mark DeRosa gets playing time in right field. Expect Andy Marte in Columbus because his star is tarnished enough that he will pass through waivers. Matt LaPorta is projected for stardom, but he is likely to spend another year shining his star in Triple-A. Trevor Crowe is my bet to make it to the Big Show.
Eric Wedge has many different lineup options—he is likely to try them all.
The opening day lineup should shake out like this: Sizemore, DeRosa, Hafner, Martinez, Peralta, Garko, Choo, Francisco, and Cabrera.
As the season progresses, Eric Wedge should move Shin-Soo Choo into the leadoff role and Grady Sizemore drops down into the middle of the lineup. With Choo and DeRosa upfront and Sizemore, Martinez, Hafner, Garko, Peralta, and Shoppach in the middle, it will be raining RBI in Cleveland—even if two or three of them have bad years!
On the backend the upside potential is huge! Cabrera, Francisco, and Barfield are poised for their break out years. If they disappoint, the impact is minimized because proven starters fill the gaps.
The Indians lineup is designed to minimize the downside risk and maximize the upside potential. If the pitching delivers as expected, look for the Tribe to compete for a very tough Central Division Championship.
If Hafner, Choo, Francisco, Cabrera, and Barfield all come through and fulfill their upside potential, you can expect nothing less than a World Series Championship. But, step back into reality because that much upside is unlikely.