Miracles happen, especially in sports.
After a decade of futility the Tampa Bay Rays stunned the baseball world by winning the AL pennant in 2008, the organization’s first ever winning season.
The following year the Mariners, a preseason footnote in the AL West, won 85 games under GM Jack Zduriencik’s inaugural season.
This season fans hopped on the San Diego Padres’ bandwagon and watched the team battle, albeit successfully, for the NL West Division crown.
Every year, as if on cue, a team marches towards contention following a remarkably quick and unsuspected turnaround. As baseball nears the season’s climatic end, one is left to wonder which team is prepared to go unnoticed and quietly slip on the proverbially glass slipper come next April?
The Cleveland Indians.
The Indians 2010 season was a disaster. The team struggled from the start and frustrations began to mount as the team quickly faded out of contention.
Underperforming players struggled to right the ship, young players failed to adjust to the rigors of big league life, injuries forced role players into every day jobs and veteran players were traded to make room for promising prospects.
However, there are reasons for hope at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, despite a dismal 69-93 record.
Trevor Crowe was thrust into one of those aforementioned everyday roles after Grady Sizemore succumbed to injury.
Crowe, a former first round pick out of the University of Arizona, displayed grit and hustle, but provided little help. In 479 plate appearances he hit .251/.302/.333, and cost the team 12 runs according UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating).
Using WAR (Wins Above Replacement), Crowe essentially cost the team one win over the course of the season.
A healthy Grady Sizemore is expected for the 2011 season, but a productive Grady Sizemore is another question.
Sizemore, the team’s regular centerfielder, was one of baseball’s eminent budding young stars prior to the 2009. He looked like he was on the edge of superstardom after ranking among the sport’s elite from 2006 to 2008.
Then the wheels fell off.
A disappointing 2009 was plagued by injuries, and the internet release of compromising photos in the offseason seemed to set the tone for this year.
He often looked uncomfortable, and at times lost, in the batter’s box. After hitting .211/.271/.289 in 33 games Sizemore eventually called it a lost season.
It’s hard to predict which Sizemore will be patrolling centerfield in 2011, but remember only two seasons ago he posted a 7.1 WAR—essentially an eight game improvement over Trevor Crowe.
Injury also wrecked the season of Carlos Santana, one baseball’s top rookies.
Santana made his debut on June 11, and instantly became a much needed force in the middle of the Indians’ lineup. The team nearly played .500 (22-25) before a nasty collision at home plate ended his season. He hit .260/.401/.467 while the rest of the Tribe catchers hit .203/.279/.309 combined.
Santana’s offense and Lou Marson’s late inning defensive ability should quietly rank among the league’s best catching tandems in 2011.
The team’s next biggest disappointments, outside of injury, were Matt LaPorta and Luis Valbuena.
LaPorta, considered the key piece in the Sabathia deal, hit .221/.306/.362, and earned a midseason demotion to Triple-A.
It is still too early to toss him by the wayside with the likes of Jeremy Sowers and Michael Aubrey, but the front office’s patience has to be running thin.
The former University of Florida alum has proven he can hit minor league pitching, and it wouldn’t be hard for him to take a step forward next year—considering how low he has set the bar.
LaPorta may not be the impact bat the team thought he was, but any player who posts a career minor league line of .296/.390/.563 will have SOME positive major league value.
Luis Valbuena, like LaPorta, earned an in-season demotion to the minor leagues. Valbuena often looked like a black hole in the lineup and on the field. He hit .193/.273/.258 and cost the team almost seven runs on defense, according to UZR. His WAR total of -1.5 was among baseball’s worst.
The emergence of Cord Phelps, Jared Goedert, Josh Rodriguez and Jason Kipnis will provide plenty of options, and upgrades, for Manny Acta to use next season at second and third bases.
There is reason to believe in Cleveland baseball, again. The young pitching staff took a step forward after the All-Star break.
Fausto Carmona had his most productive season since the team’s magical run in 2007. Justin Masterson was lights out for the final 5-7 weeks of the year, Carlos Carrasco started to capitalize on his vast potential and the farm system has some of the best bullpen arms in all of baseball.
Hope runs eternal during spring training. Perhaps next spring the Indians will slip on the glass slipper and run all the way towards late season contention.