2008 MLB Preview: Cleveland Indians

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2008 MLB Preview: Cleveland Indians

Manager: Eric Wedge
Arrivals: IF Jamey Carroll, RP Brendan Donnelly, RP Masahide Kobayashi
Departures: SS Chris Gomez, OF Trot Nixon, OF Kenny Lofton*

Offseason grade: B

 

Starting rotation

The Indians have a devastating 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation in 19-game winners CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. 

Sabathia won the AL Cy Young last year after going 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 241 innings.

Why some people question his durability is beyond me. Okay, so he's fat. He's started 30 or more games in six of his seven MLB seasons and in the one that he didn't start 30 games in (2006, 28 games started), he had six complete games.

Don't be surprised if Sabathia finally wins 20 games in his walk year. After seeing what Johan Santana got, Sabathia knows that if he stays healthy and pitches well in 2008 he could easily command around $18-20 million per year on the market.

Carmona went from being one of the worst relievers in the game in 2006 to one of the best starters in 2007. There was a stretch in the middle of 2006 when it was just cruel for Eric Wedge to put Carmona into a game because you knew he was going to blow it. He went a dismal 1-10 with a 5.76 ERA for Cleveland that year, enough to shake the confidence of a whole lot of pitchers.

However, Carmona turned himself around last year and was one of the biggest reasons why Cleveland made the playoffs. Carmona threw 215 innings over 32 starts, went 19-8, and had a 3.06 ERA.

At just age 24, Carmona may not even have peaked yet. Another big season from him should be in store for the Indians in 2008.

The rest of Cleveland's rotation should be able to hold their own after Sabathia and Carmona. 

Paul Byrd did win 15 games last year, but his ERA was 4.59. It'll be interesting to see how he rebounds after he was accused of HGH use at the end of 2007. If he can put that out of his mind, another season of 13-15 wins and an ERA in the mid-fours is about what the Indians can expect out of Byrd.

2007 was an overall down year for Jake Westbrook, who went just 6-9 in 25 starts. Before going on the disabled list in early May, he was 1-2 with a 7.90 ERA. He struggled after returning in June, only regaining his form and pitching to his three-year, $33 million contract in August.

Expect Westbrook to be back and settle around his average of about 15 wins and an ERA in the low-mid fours this year.

The final spot in Cleveland's rotation may turn out to be a weak link. The spring training competition between Cliff Lee, Aaron Laffey, and Jeremy Sowers has yielded poor results by all three–Lee's spring ERA is 8.31 and both Laffey and Sowers have spring ERAs of 11.25 as of March 17.

My bet is that Lee gets the final spot out of spring training despite his horrendous performance in 2007. However, don't be surprised to see Laffey or Sowers making a few starts in Lee's place over the course of the season.

1-4, this rotation will be solid, especially with Westbook returning to form like he should. The final spot may be an issue, but it won't be a killer for the Indians.

Starting rotation grade: B+

 

Bullpen

The AL Central is an odd division. The two consensus top teams–Detroit and Cleveland–have the two worst closers in the division (I rate Bobby Jenks, Joe Nathan, and, hell, maybe even Joakim Soria above Todd Jones and Joe Borowski).

Borowski blew eight saves and had an ERA of 5.07 last year–hardly the numbers you'd expect from the closer of the American League runner-up.

Granted, Borowski did save 45 games last year. But is he to be counted on this year? I know I'd be a little weak in the knees if I was Wedge and was brining in Borowski to hold a one-run lead against the Tigers.

The good news for Cleveland is that they have a number of very good arms in the bullpen who probably could close if needed.  

Rafael Betancourt has developed into one of baseball's premier right-handed setup men, throwing 79.1 innings with a minuscule 1.47 ERA last year. He's relatively untested as a closer, though, but probably would be a better option than Borowski. For now, he has tremendous value as a dominant setup man.

Jensen Lewis was called up in mid-July and was very impressive in the 29.1 innings he threw at the MLB level. The hard-throwing righty appeared in 26 games and posted an ERA of 2.14 over about two and a half months. Look for him to be a key piece in this bullpen in 2008.

Masahide Kobayashi was Cleveland's only major offseason signing (sorry, Jamey Carroll) and has a lot of experience in Japan as a closer, with 227 career saves in nine seasons for the Chiba Lotte Mariners. 

He should slot in nicely in the middle of Cleveland's bullpen and likely wouldn't be a horrible closing option if Borowski can't cut it.

The Indians have a very good pair of left-handed relievers in Aaron Fultz and Rafael Perez, both of whom posted ERAs below 3.00 last year.

Fultz is more of a lefty specialist, holding left-handed hitters to a .191 batting average last year. When paired with the excellent righties of Cleveland's bullpen, Fultz has great value as a LOOGY (Left-Handed One Out Guy). 

Perez was used in more multi-inning situations last year, appearing in 44 games but throwing 60.2 innings. His 2007 ERA of 1.78 suggests that he could be used more and more in the late innings if needed, but Cleveland's bullpen is so deep that they wouldn't lose a whole lot if Perez didn't pitch in the seventh and eighth innings very often.

Tom Mastny should round out the Cleveland bullpen nicely as a decent middle reliever.

After Borowski, this is an incredibly deep bullpen. They shouldn't miss a beat if one of them needs to take the closer's role from Borowski, so despite the fact that Borowski is underwhelming, this bullpen will still be very good.

Bullpen grade: A-

 

Lineup

Cleveland will return a solid lineup that should have no problem supporting its pitching staff, led by Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, and Travis Hafner.

Martinez has developed into the best offensive catcher in the game, hitting .301 with 25 home runs and 114 RBI last year. He's never hit below .280 in his career and is a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the Cleveland lineup.

Sizemore is one of the premier leadoff hitters in the game, sporting an on-base percentage of .390 while scoring 118 runs last year. He also hit 24 home runs, drove in 78 runs, and stole 33 bases.

He'll be 26 in August and is well on his way to having an excellent career.

Travis Hafner had somewhat of a down year last year, only hitting 24 home runs with 100 RBI. Compare that to 2006, when Hafner smacked 42 home runs with 117 RBI in about 100 less at-bats.

I think Hafner will return to his 2004-06 numbers and make this Cleveland that much more dangerous.

This lineup has plenty of good hitters not named Victor, Grady, or Travis, too.

Ryan Garko could be due for a breakout year after getting 484 at-bats last year for the Tribe, hitting 21 home runs with 61 RBI and a .289 batting average.

I've always been impressed with Garko, 27, and wouldn't be surprised to see him hit .300/30/100 and be another excellent piece in this Cleveland lineup.

Johnny Peralta is a solid offensive shortstop who should hit around .270 with 20-25 home runs and around 80 RBI this year. While he may never fulfill the immense offensive potential he once was thought to have, he's still another solid cog in Cleveland's orger.

Franklin Gutierrez has always been billed as a top offensive prospect since his days in the Dodgers' farm system. Gutierrez got 271 at-bats last year with Cleveland, hitting .266 with 13 home runs.

He's only 25 and should get every opportunity to justify his top-prospect status as Cleveland's primary right fielder this year.

While David Dellucci may be listed as Cleveland's starting left fielder, it's only a matter of time before Ben Fransisco takes over that spot.

Fransisco, 26, is another good offensive prospect who hit .318 with 12 home runs in 377 at-bats for AAA Buffalo in 2007. It'll be interesting to see if he gets the starting job and how he develops over the course of 2008.

Asdrubal Cabrera put his name on the map last year after hitting .310 between AA Akron and Buffalo, 61 points above his batting average for 2006. Cabrera then turned heads as Cleveland's starting second baseman down the stretch, hitting .283 over 159 at-bats.

Cabrera is only 22 and still has a lot of room to grow. Barring a sophomore slump, he should be a very good number two hitter for the Indians this year.

Finally, Casey Blake is yet another solid hitter in this Cleveland lineup. Blake hit .270 with 18 home runs and 78 RBI for Cleveland last year, and expect more of the same out of him this year as Cleveland's starting third baseman. 

This is a very good lineup that has a perfect mix of veterans and younger players who shouldn't be under as much pressure to produce because the veterans are such good hitters. If Hafner returns to form and Cabrera, Gutierrez, and Fransisco progress, this will be a very, very good lineup.

Lineup grade: A-

 

Bench

Jason Michaels is an excellent backup outfielder who can always be counted on to stick it to division rivals–namely, the White Sox. To editorialize a bit, Michaels has crushed my hopes and dreams more than a few times over his tenure with the Indians.

The addition of Carroll gives Cleveland a very good backup infielder and Kelly Shoppach is one of the best backup catchers in the game today.

Bench grade: A-

 

While Cleveland didn't do a whole lot in the offseason, they didn't really have to. They didn't lose any key players and added a solid reliever and reserve infielder to compliment what they have going for them already. 

The closer spot is this team's biggest issue, but again, they have more than enough quality arms to fill in for Borowski if he can't get it done.

While Detroit made the biggest splash in the offseason, Cleveland effectively could gain completely different (and much better) players if Westbrook and Hafner return to form.  

In short, don't just hand that division title over to Detroit just yet. 

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