A Start to Cleveland's 2009 Season, Albeit a Late One

Ryan LewisCorrespondent IApril 10, 2009

I can't help but feel this is utterly trivial.

Why do we try? After 2008 and all that went into it, where is the motivation to keep going?

The Rays went to the World Series. Justin Hamilton put on one of the greatest shows in Derby history in July, then hit 130 RBI. Cliff Lee, who made the Indians 25 man roster out of Spring Training by a hair, won 22 games and the Cy Young. A 5'6 man, playing in one of the games' biggest stages, won the AL MVP.

But, we drudge on, because that's why we love baseball (although if the Pirates make the World Series in 2009, I quit).

As for the Indians, here's where they stand today:

Cleveland had one of baseball's best records the second half of the season, despite playing it without Travis Hafner or Jake Westbrook, and with depleted performances from second ace Fausto Carmona and catcher Victor Martinez. Some masterfully architected trades by GM Mark Shapiro has closer Kerry Wood, reliever Joe Smith, starting pitcher Carl Pavano and third baseman Mark DeRosa all joining in 2009.

Cleveland has had two strong years in the past four—2005 and 2007—in each of the seasons, the Tribe went in with lowered expectations. And, in each of those seasons, Cleveland won 93 games or more.

With every news outlet in America (it seems) picking Minnesota to take the division, the heat is off—for now.

So even though there's basically no credibility in this article due to the unexplained fortune in Tampa Bay, and the probability that something like that will happen again, here we go: the notes (to keep it brief) of Cleveland in 2009. 

— Travis Hafner, might be finished as a feared hitter in baseball. He's never been the same since his MVP caliber season in 2006 (42 homers, six grand slams, 117 RBI) was cut short with a broken wrist, and really hasn't been the same since needing shoulder surgery almost a year ago. What made him such a solid addition to the middle of Cleveland's line-up—his mental approach and pitch selection—is severely depleted. The shoulder doesn't have the strength nor flexibility it once had, robbing Pronk of bat speed.

Throughout the spring, Hafner has been behind nearly every single pitch he's seen. With a couple games left, he had as many strike outs as hits (13) and just two extra base hits, both doubles, to the left side of the infield off of sliders he barely caught up with. With decreased bat speed, he can ill afford to be as selective as he once was. If he can't turn on that 95 mph fastball as a DH and with the Indians depth of hitters, Pronk's 13 million dollar salary will be used for an occasional pinch hitter.

However, with Kelly Shoppach's breakout 2008 (21 home runs in half a season), the fix becomes oddly simple. Shoppach moves Victor to first base, which moves Garko to DH.  Kelly will already catch for Lee and Pavano, so the at-bats will be plentiful for both either way.

To take it one step further—when Matt LaPorta gets called up—anytime between June and September—he will play.

And he will hit.

Watching him in spring training, he has the right mental approach and natural ability to hit that almost makes scouts giddy. He'll be with Cleveland in 2009.

Whether he takes over for LF Ben Francisco or Hafner/Garko, time will tell. LaPorta can play either LF or 1B, so unless Pronk, Garko and Francisco all hit very well in the first half of the season and stay healthy, Matt will be in the Cleveland lineup sometime in 09.

— This team will go as far as it's starting pitching takes it. Cliff Lee will not have the same year he did last year, but 14-16 wins will certainly suffice.

The surprise will come with Carmona. Pitching coach and Carl Willis identified Fausto's delivery issues as over-throwing.

It's almost too simple—when his back leg is relaxed and his wind-up is more fluid than powerful, he has more control and movement on that deadly sinker of his (bad news for opposing right handed hitters. Many think it's already the best pitch in baseball for how much he throws it. The thought of it improving is scary).

As long as Fausto can "take it easy," ala the Eagles, Carmona will challenge for the Cy Young. If he was more of a strikeout pitcher, he'd be a real contender.

— Behind those two, however, there are more questions in the rotation than answers.

Anthony Reyes looked simply fantastic in spring training, and Scott Lewis won the fifth spot in the rotation over Jeremy Sowers. It's their job to lose, but Carl Pavano has some serious doubters to prove wrong. Luckily for Cleveland, Jeremy Sowers, stellar lefty prospect David Huff and Aaron Laffey are all waiting in the wings if one of those three can't come through.

Also, Jake Westbrook is ahead of schedule while rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery, and should rejoin the staff after the all-star break.

Cleveland's biggest question may be it's biggest security as well. Cleveland has nine pitchers who could all contribute this season.

Many might think that's overkill, but the last time the Indians went to the World Series, 1997, they used 12 pitchers.

— Indians fans will remember (and shudder while doing it) the the likes of Wickman and Borowski deciding to put runners on the corners with one out and a one run lead.

Those days are over, finally.

Kerry Wood, who quietly managed to stay healthy and make the all-star team in 2008, gives Cleveland that power-arm closer, the likes of which hasn't been seen here since Mike Jackson of the late 1990's. Adding reliever Joe Smith, Rafeal Perez and a hopeful rebound season from Betancourt, and the teams biggest weakness in 2008 becomes a possible strength in 2009.

Also a side note, the two years of 90+ wins mentioned before, the bullpen excelled. In 2006 and 2008, it was one of baseball's worst.

Finally, a quick look at the AL Central:

The Twins are still the Twins, with nearly the same roster as 2008. However, depth at OF and a possible coming-out party for Liriano make them one of the games' best.

The Tigers are headed for another train-wreck of a season. The bullpen looks even worse than 2008 (if that's possible) and Zumaya is out on the DL. The defense will be improved, but the loss of Sheffield hampers the offense. Sorry Detroit, it's going to be a long year.

The White Sox are a bit of a wild card. If the young arms of Danks and co. can continue their strong push for recognition, they might be able to contend with Cleveland and Minnesota. The middle of that order is quietly getting older and older every year.

The Royals—here we go, I need some prep time before this one comes out. The Royals of Kansas City are going to finish third in the AL Central, ahead of Chicago and Detroit. Meche, Grienke and Davies makes one of the best 1-2-3 punches in the American League, and finally an order is in place with the addition of Coco Crisp and Mike Jacobs. With the coming out party of Alex Gordon looming around the corner, all of the pieces of the puzzle fell into place at the right time.

If Kansas City can get off to a good start against Chicago and instill some confidence, watch out.

Let's bring it home:

AL East

1. Tampa Bay — Longoria is still for real, and they have one of baseball's deepest rotations.

2. Red Sox — even with Manny, that lineup is filthy.

3. Yankees — possibly the most overrated team coming out of spring training, ever. CC Sabathia has never—never—won a big game, and has an ERA of over eight in Yankee stadium.

He's a fantastic pitcher, but never responds well to pressure. New York with a 200 million dollar payroll with A-Rod and in a new stadium? Not ideal. Burnett's arm has never held up the year after throwing 200 innings, Din 2008, he threw his career high of 221.

4. Baltimore — finally some excitement with Weiters. Everyone roots for the underdog, but it's irrelevant. At least in 2009.

5. Toronto — see Baltimore, less excitement.

AL Central

1. Cleveland — one of the best records in baseball the second half basically without the middle of the rotation and order? Scary.

Adding DeRosa to hit behind Sizemore? Scary.

Adding Kerry Wood as a power arm in the closers spot? Scary.

With Martinez finally healthy—he could never drive through the ball with his numerous injuries—Sizemore at the top of the line-up and Peralta (who is going to have a huge year. He'll hit fifth to start the season, but could move up with Hafner's struggles), Choo, Shoppach and Garko behind them—the lineup is talented 1-8.

2. Minnesota — Liriano could have a big year. As long as Morneau and Mauer are healthy, the'll contend. The race with Cleveland is going to deep into late September.

3. Kansas City — the lovable losers of the American League are making a serious push. Gordon, Jacobs and Crisp to go along with Soria and a great 1-2-3 punch in the rotation? Believe it, the Royals are here.

4. Chicago —still a young team, but too many holes to fill.

5. Detroit — no pitching, no bullpen, no chance.

AL West

1. Angels — They're called the Angels in this because who knows what they're called, Los Angeles, Anaheim — I can't keep up with them.

They lost K-Rod, Anderson and Teixera, but add Abreau and Fuentes. They'll win the division—by one or two games.

2. Oakland — the A's somehow snuck under the radar in December. Billy Beane simply wins with a lineup that shouldn't win, and young pitching. The additions of Holliday, Giambi, Nomar and Cabrera won't go unnoticed. They'll make September real interesting.

3. Texas — the lineup is absolutly lethal, but if you can't pitch you can't win.

4. Seattle — nice story with Griffey Jr, but contention is no where in sight.

Indians over Red Sox in ALCS, Mets over Indians in the World Series. Sorry Cleveland.

If we look back at this in October, I'm sure there will be no credibility issue. Tampa Bay rendered every prediction attempt by anyone on Earth utterly useless in 2008. 2009 is going to be a fun ride.


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