I find it odd how this worked out. Today we have two teams that were big favorites to not only win their division but contend for the World Series, perhaps against each other.
Cleveland was a big failure due to injuries and mishaps, while Arizona lost out to a Manny Ramirez charged Dodgers.
ALE: 1, Tampa Bay*, 3, Baltimore, Toronto
ALC: 1, Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City
ALW: 1, Oakland, Texas, Seattle
NLE: Florida, 2, New York Mets, 4, 5
NLC: Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, 4, Houston, Pittsburgh
NLW: 1, Los Angeles, 3, Colorado, San Diego
* Wild Card
Cleveland Indians – AL Central
Last Year: Finished Third in AL Central
Notable Additions: IF Luis Valbuena, IF Mark DeRosa, SP Carl Pavano, RP Joe Smith, RP Kerry Wood, RP Vinnie Chulk
Notable Subtractions: C Sal Fasano, OF Franklin Gutierrez, RP Jeff Stevens, RP Tom Mastny, RP Brendan Donnelly
Underrated addition: Joe Smith
He’ll be missed: Franklin Gutierrez
Smith makes the bullpen deeper. Gutierrez was the best defensive outfielder and backup center fielder.
Biggest Key to Success: Good Health
You could probably make an excuse for the Cleveland Indians of 2008 as being bit by the injury bug in more ways than one. But that’s hardly the lone reason they didn’t reach expectations last year.
However, that doesn’t mean staying healthy isn’t important for the 2009 club. If the Indians are going to be successful, they need more than just Travis Hafner to stay healthy. Keeping the other four-fifths of their rotation on the field is something very crucial to the Indians success.
Carl Pavano, Aaron Laffey, Fausto Carmona, and Anthony Reyes all missed time due to injuries at some point last year. While they have depth at that position, it is a bit of an unknown and untested group.
Of course there is Hafner as well. If the Indians offense is going to be one of the best, Hafner has to be in the middle of it all, not necessarily hitting like the Pronk of old, but at least creating opportunities for the rest of the hitters. One of those hitters is Victor Martinez, who suffered his own injury concerns last year.
Martinez had both elbow and hamstring issues take a large chunk of his season away. It resulted in just two home runs and concerns that Martinez may be losing it. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Martinez displayed the hitting and power that the Tribe knows he possess after returning from his injury.
If the Indians can maintain health, not just with their lineup and rotation, but their suddenly deep bullpen as well, many feel there will be no stopping them.
Biggest Concern: Bottom of the Rotation
The most common phrase surrounding this team this preseason has been, we know Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona can pitch, but who’s following them up?
It’s legitimate to be worried about the back-end of a rotation that has Anthony Reyes, Carl Pavano, and an unknown pitcher.
Be it Scott Lewis or Aaron Laffey that fill the final void, the Indians are getting virtually unknown return from the last three spots in their pitching staff.
Carl Pavano could stay healthy, battle the demons, and turn out fine. Anthony Reyes may have found this change of scenario as a rebirth, and the fifth spot might be filled at some point.
But you cannot count on any of that, and when you can’t count on something, you begin to worry.
The beauty is the fact that the Indians have some depth. They’ve got several options if Pavano ends up released or Reyes lands on the DL, or the fifth starter doesn’t pan out. You don’t want to be searching for that all year, but it is good to have depth.
It would be better if that depth panned out though.
Biggest Change: Bullpen Revamp
Like the Mets, the Indians had one dire need that they went out and wanted to attack aggressively.
It’s sort of odd that they were involved in a deal in which the Indians got a Mets bullpen pitcher.
But credit Mark Shapiro for attacking the way he did. He wanted Kerry Wood, made no bones about it and got the deal done.
When he got the opportunity to go and get a pitcher the organization has had their eye on for awhile in Joe Smith, he took advantage of it.
With hopes that Rafael Betancourt bounces back closer to his 2007 form, Rafael Perez continues to be the rubber arm from the left side, and Jensen Lewis thrives in a setup role like he did the closer role, the Indians have to feel good about their new-look bullpen.
Team MVP: Jhonny Peralta, SS
Preface this with two things.
Grady Sizemore is the unquestioned MVP of this team. So consider this more of a “MVP Performance Needed” type of a deal for Peralta.
The second is, they really need a healthy Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez, but Jhonny Peralta is extremely important to this Indians’ lineup.
Sure, they don’t know what they have in Travis Hafner and his healing shoulder, and a healthy Victor Martinez will surely help the lineup, but they need Jhonny Peralta to build on his 2008 year.
Peralta took the cleanup spot while both Hafner and Martinez were sidelined and he maintained that success better than he has in his entire career. He didn’t just perform like you’d expect him to; he went above and beyond, showing things he didn’t show when he was hitting in any other spot of the order.
He was consistent, more disciplined, but not too out of the ordinary, he took more responsibility on knowing he was the guy who had to knock in the runs, and he showed improvement in areas that were deemed a weak spot in his hitting.
If the Indians are going to be a successful offensive team, sure Hafner and Martinez being healthy would help, but more of the same from Jhonny Peralta will go a long way.
On the Rise: Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B
With all the talk surrounding Jhonny Peralta’s position, Travis Hafner’s injury, and the new additions of Kerry Wood and Mark DeRosa, there is a middle infielder who’s gotten lost in the shuffle.
Asdrubal Cabrera was the toast of the town after 2007, coming up to the big league team and doing what many thought, saved the Indians’ season and pushed them into the playoffs. Cabrera hit the learning curve that many second year players hit and he hit it hard.
He went from hitting second in the batting order to playing shortstop and second base for Triple-A Buffalo. Cabrera went to work with not just the bat but his conditioning at the request of Eric Wedge. The feeling was Cabrera didn’t have a great handle on his diet and that he needed the trip down to get that figured out more than anything.
For as bad as Cabrera was in the first half of the year with a .184 average, he was just as good in the second half, hitting .320 with more than double the runs batted in and runs scored.
However, the one thing that’s remained constant with Cabrera has been his glove work, be it at second base or shortstop, he’s saved just as many runs as he’s produced. For that, Wedge doesn’t expect a .320 average, but if he a just contribute with the stick at a consistent rate from the bottom of the lineup, anything more would be a bonus.
I’ve done my best to be objective with the team that I live in and breathe. The tough thing is sometimes you can either take the negatives and make them sound worse or completely ignore them.
The biggest concern is obviously the rotation. I think Aaron Laffey has the inside track at the final rotation spot and he’s probably put in the most work in the offseason as far as the starting pitchers go outside of Fausto Carmona.
Laffey was an AL Rookie of the Month last year at one point and his future looked bright. He’s got the stuff and the attitude, and now he’s gotten himself in shape and in better condition, kind of like the way Cliff Lee did.
Anthony Reyes has looked fine, and more importantly, healthy, in spring this year. So I see things panning out in some way.
The bullpen is new-look and hopefully if all of it comes together, it can be the strongest part of the team. Kerry Wood solidifies everything and with Eric Wedge not having to call on Rafael Betancourt or Rafael Perez in every situation, everyone won’t be as overused.
A healthy Travis Hafner shouldn’t matter as far as them getting by. This offense can still produce without him, it did last year, but now that he is healthy, he should make an impact and if he’s hitting, they’ll be taken to new heights.
It might take some time to get his timing back, but just his mere presence can affect the way other hitters are approached.
Things look good for Cleveland. Baring any injuries, there is talent both on the major league roster and at the Triple-A level for them to do some special things.
Prediction: Win the AL Central
Arizona Diamondbacks – NL West
Last Year: Finished Second in NL West
Notable Additions: IF Felipe Lopez, SP Jon Garland, RP Scott Schoeneweis, RP Tom Gordon
Notable Subtractions: IF David Eckstein, IF Orlando Hudson, OF Adam Dunn, SP Randy Johnson, RP Brandon Lyon, RP Connor Robertson, RP Juan Cruz
Underrated addition: Tom Gordon
He’ll be missed: Juan Cruz
Gordon will make up for the void left by Cruz and Lyon. Cruz was a prime set-up arm for Arizona.
Biggest Key to Success: Line ‘Em Up
This is as simple as one, two, three, four, and five.
Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, Doug Davis, Jon Garland, and Max Scherzer make up this solid one through five rotation for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Underline solid a few times and highlight it as well.
This rotation is good, scary good, and it’s the life of the entire team. Brandon Webb can go the distance on any given night, Dan Haren can take over games, Doug Davis is the solid veteran, Garland is an innings eater, and Scherzer is the young stud that has all the potential in the world.
Every single night, teams do not get an off-day as far as facing a starting pitcher. There is no Matt Chico’s floating around, they must battle a major league caliber pitcher night-in, night-out.
It’s huge because the bullpen lost a few pieces, and Jon Rauch is a bit of an unknown after he came over from Washington at the trade deadline.
If these guys can go six or seven innings just about every night, it shortens the game for a bullpen that has some soul searching to do.
If they pitch well, they don’t need an explosive offense, they’ll get by with what they have.
One-through-five, if they remain healthy, I’m hard pressed to find another rotation in the National League that I’d rather have.
Biggest Concern: Is there Offense?
Now here is there main issue with the Diamondbacks.
They’ve got the pitching, but their offense is a bit of a problem, especially after losing Adam Dunn.
While he was only there for a bit, Dunn was still a big bat that Arizona really doesn’t have, at least not yet.
Here is what you can like about them though.
Chris Young likes to hit home runs, even though he’s a center fielder that doesn’t give you that vibe.
Justin Upton just recently became old enough to drink alcohol, yet he’s been around the major league team for the past two years.
He got off to a good start last year, but now is his time to shine, healthy and having the right field job all to himself.
Conor Jackson and Stephen Drew are probably the heartbeat of the lineup and the most developed as far as the young position players this team has.
And Mark Reynolds likes to hit the home runs as well, only he sets strikeout records that even Ryan Howard can’t beat.
So there is offense and there is stuff to like. But they need to be doing better than tenth in the NL in scoring, especially with a pitching staff that is capable of putting up zeros at any given night.
One could be enough, two would be great, but three is awesome.
Biggest Change: Take It Easy
Arizona kind of took it easy this offseason, not letting too much go and not bringing too much in.
Orlando Hudson wasn’t worth the price he was asking coming off an injury, so the Diamondbacks will settle for Felipe Lopez as a capable replacement.
Jon Garland was brought to replace Randy Johnson in the rotation and perhaps the innings eater can give them someone who isn’t battling injuries at times during the season.
Losing both Brandon Lyon and Juan Cruz and only really bringing in Tom Gordon could hurt, but the Diamondbacks can find ways to make due.
Of course they let Adam Dunn go, but he was pretty much a rental to begin with.
Arizona’s changes are going to have to be in growth, with their young hitters especially. If that changes for the better, they are on the way up.
Team MVP: Brandon Webb, SP
Out of Brandon Webb’s 34 starts last year, only three of them didn’t last at least five innings and one of those was an out away from doing so.
Webb is the anchor, point blank.
He’s the guy that sets the tone for that entire rotation with his consistency.
Forget the 22 wins and all that junk, none of that matters. He won the Cy Young Award with 16 wins and didn’t win it with 22. Webb commands respect as a pitcher because of what he can do.
One of the best sinkerball pitches the entire game, there are days that it can’t be touched.
Dan Haren is good, they’ve got players on offense worthy of a mention, but this is Brandon Webb’s team.
This is Brandon Webb’s rotation.
Without him, the Diamondbacks are not the same team. With him, they are a big-time contender.
On the Rise: Stephen Drew, SS
Stephen Drew really turned a corner in 2008.
Here is what I like about what Drew did in 2008 compared to 2007.
Sure his average went up a little bit and so did his on-base percentage.
But this kid is an extra-base machine.
Drew hit 44 extra base hits in 2007. That’s doubles, triples, and home runs combined. He had 44 doubles in 2008 alone, 76 total extra base hits, that’s top ten in the NL.
The names ahead of him are players like Utley, Pujols, Berkman, Howard, and Wright.
He’s right up there with that company.
That production is only going to go up. Looking at the strides he made between 2007 and 2008, if he takes another healthy jump, there’s a good chance he catapults himself into MVP range.
Some of my division winners are teams that seem like they have some of the biggest questions as a whole.
Arizona is definitely another one of those teams.
So I guess you can just chalk it up to a good feeling.
I like the rotation, very much so. Let’s just skip that entire part and realize that their rotation is good and it isn’t worth repeating.
I think their offense though is something that is going to turn a corner.
This is a young team still; they’ve got a lot of younger pieces in the field and at the plate. Conor Jackson and Stephen Drew are coming into their prime years. Justin Upton is still very young and needs time to grow into the player he is capable of being.
They’ve got just as much talent as anyone else. It’s just a matter of believing if that will kick in to it’s fullest.
I believe a few of those pieces will kick in; guys like Drew are destined for stardom. Justin Upton might not put it all together yet, but he’ll pretty much give you just as much production as some more expensive veteran would.
If Eric Byrnes can stay healthy, push Jackson to first base, then maybe, just maybe, this team has enough offensively to support the dynamite pitching staff.
This team can make a return to the postseason after a one year absence and I’ll go ahead and stand in their corner for it.
Prediction: Win the NL West
On deck for Thursday, Mar. 26: New York Yankees and Washington Nationals