Back at the start of Spring Training '08 expectations were off the chart for the Tribe. After a meltdown in the ALCS the year before, anything short of the World Series would be a disappointment. Then the season started and everything seemed to come apart. Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez went on the DL, CC Sabathia and Asdrubal Cabrera struggled, and the bullpen was a mess. This prompted reigning Cy Young Award winner Sabathia, fellow starter Paul Byrd, and 3B Casey Blake to be traded for some young prospects. Usually when a small market team makes trades like these during a season it signals the start of a rebuilding process. However, that won't be the case for the Cleveland Indians.
The Indians are entering what some have a called a "retooling" stage, rather than the dreaded rebuilding stage. The 2009 Indians are shaping up to be just as good, if not better than, the 2007 AL Central Champion Indians. The reason? They have top players returning at almost every position.
Take the starting pitchers. Cliff Lee, who currently is the Cy Young front runner in the AL with a 22-2 record, will be back and will be the ace of what should be a great rotation. Fausto Carmona, Anthony Reyes, Jeremy Sowers, and Aaron Laffey all will back next year and have all had great moments this season. But, they're going to be pushed hard by some young pitchers to even make the rotation, just like Cliff Lee was at the start of the season. Scott Lewis and Adam Miller will fight to get some starts next season. The bullpen is looking better as well. Jensen Lewis has been solid as the closer and the "Big Three" (Betancourt, Perez, and Kobayashi) have looked better as well.
The catching situations also looks great as well. With Victor Martinez on the DL for most of the season, Kelly Shoppach has been given the chance to prove he can be an everyday starter. His emergence may prompt the Indians to move Martinez to 1B so they can keep both of them in the lineup everyday. This would mean the underachieving Ryan Garko would be out of a job next season.
The rest of the infield is shaping up nicely as well. Jhonny Peralta has emerged this season as a viable option to be a cleanup hitter and his defense at SS has also improved. This means that they'll have to keep Asdrubal Cabrera at 2B which isn't a bad thing. AC has hit much better in the second half than he did at the beginning of the season. The only position left to fill is 3B, which may have to be addressed through free agency. Andy Marte has been given the chance to prove he could play there next season but he has played too inconsistently to lock up the spot. Top prospect Wes Hodges may not be ready to play at the big league level next season. This could mean that Casey Blake, a free agent at the end of the season, may be back with the Tribe next season.
The outfield may be the best part of the Indians going into next season. Grady Sizemore will be back as the center fielder for sure, but the corner spots could be filled by a large pool of players. Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo appear to be the front runners because of their performances this season. However, you can't count out Franklin Gutierrez, Trevor Crowe, and Olympian Matt LaPorta.
LaPorta may also figure into the DH talk. Travis Hafner has not recovered well from his shoulder injury and it remains to be seen if he can return to his old form at the Big League level. If he falters, LaPorta would probably be the first guy to step up and take his spot.
All in all, next season should be much better for the Indians than the injury plagued 2008. The rest of the AL Central better be ready for the return of the Tribe.