Ah, baseball season. For me, there are few feelings like it. Spring Training represents a new era every year for me; one filled with hopefulness and optimism. The recent purchasing of an undisclosed publication taught me something that put a damper on this anticipation: The Cleveland Indians are the worst team in Major League Baseball.
30th of 30, the bottom-feeders, the lowest of the low. "This simply cannot be true," I thought. Yes, we were no good at all last season, finishing 69-93, but hey, we still finished better than the Kansas City Royals (by two games). Looking at the roster, while relatively weak in some areas, it is a far-cry from the worst in the Majors. The optimist in me would like to give Tribe fans some hope for this season...or maybe just for myself.
This presentation will highlight the many reasons why I believe the Cleveland Indians will not be the worst in the league; and some reasons why we could surprise people.
After two injury-plagued seasons that saw him play in 139 total games, expect a re-emergence from outfielder Grady Sizemore. From 2005-08, he only missed nine games, and this has caught up with him over the last couple of seasons. Sizemore looks to be geared to return to the consistent play we know and love of him.
Sizemore is readying himself to be in the lineup for Opening Day, but is being careful not to rush himself back into the fray which previously exacerbated some of his injuries.
Even if Sizemore is not ready for the first game, the Indians made a savvy move in signing Austin Kearns. Kearns was one of the most reliable Tribe bats for the first half of the season. His performance was good enough to be shipped to the New York Yankees by the All-Star Break. He provides a great insurance policy for the team.
Bottom Line: I am expecting Sizemore to have a strong year, while playing in around 140-145 games, with skipper Manny Acta giving him ample days off to stay at full strength. While the rehabbed knee may take from his stolen base count, I still anticipate a .275/20/80.
In recent history, the bullpen has at times proved to be the achilles heel of the club. With GM Chris Antonetti inking Rafael Perez and closer Chris Perez to one-year deals, it gives the the relief corps some stability for the 2011 season.
After shipping Kerry Wood to the New York Yankees at the midseason mark last year, Chris Perez stepped in and became the bonafide closer the Tribe was seeking. He converted on 23 of his save attempts and had a 1.71 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. Look for him to carry his second-half success over the course of the full 2011 season.
The 'pen also boasts reliable arms in aforementioned Rafael Perez (3.25 ERA) Jenson Lewis (2.97 ERA) and Joe Smith (3.83 ERA) among others. Look out for up-and-comer Josh Judy, who will probably see some time this season with the big-league club.
Bottom Line: The bullpen will become a position of strength for the Indians, rather than a liability. With an uncertain rotation, this bullpen may fly under the radar as some of the best stoppers in Major League Baseball.
Many critical pieces of the "Youth Movement" the Indians are selling to fans, were the results of trades made by former GM Mark Shapiro, now Team President.
I predict that first basemen Matt LaPorta, now with over 500 MLB at-bats, will emerge as a legitimate long-ball threat this season. LaPorta was the linchpin of the C.C. Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers trade. Although hitting just .221 last season, he was able to raise his OBP 85 points to .306 with 46 walks last season. This is a make or break year for LaPorta, one which will see his numbers improve drastically.
Outfielder Michael Brantley was also a piece of the Sabathia trade. He has said publicly that he placed too much pressure on himself during the 2010 campaign (he hit .246). The pressure is off, and its just baseball for him now. His athleticism makes him a great asset to the team and, paired with Shin-Soo Choo and a healthy Grady Sizemore, makes the trio a viable and dangerous outfield.
Before injuring his knee during a collision at home plate, Carlos Santana was putting together a great season at catcher, with a .260/6/22 line over just 46 games, with a OBP of over .400. This prospect gives Indians fans someone to be excited about, particularly after the trading of all-star Victor Martinez. If he can put together a full season this year, he may emerge as one of the best hitting backstops in the game.
Bottom Line: With LaPorta, Brantley, and Santana along with OF Trevor Crowe, SP Carlos Carrasco, and INF Jason Donald among others, this gives the Tribe a solid, young core to the team that could allow them to compete sooner rather than later.
Choo is quickly becoming an elite player in the Major League ranks. A legit five-tool player, Choo can hit for power and average (.300/22/90) can steal bases (43 over the last two seasons) and can play great defense (led AL right fielders with 14 assists last season).
Not much needs to be said of the man, except he can flat-out play the game of baseball. This player alone should put more Tribe fans in the seats at the Jake..er...Progressive Field.
Choo avoided military service in his home country of South Korea by leading his team to a gold medal in the Asian Games...much to the relief of Indians fans.
Bottom Line: Choo is the face of the Indians franchise now, and he stands only to get better. He will be an All-Star in 2011, and more years to come.
I know many Indians fans are not high on the signing of INF Orlando Cabrera. I can certainly see why; his age doesn't fit in with the youth of the team, his hitting and fielding have taken a dive in the last couple years, etc. But I have no doubt the guy will contribute to the 2011 edition of the Cleveland Indians.
A lot has been said about Cabrera being a "winner." He has made the postseason every year since 2005, but with five different teams? This says much about Cabrera as a player. Essential to every team's success is the combination of young talent and a great locker room presence to keep the team rallied when times are tough.
The 15-year veteran, who has a World Series ring and two Gold Gloves will be a fine addition to the fold.
Bottom Line: I love the signing; the Indians do not have a plethora of veterans with meaningful experience in the 'bigs, and Cabrera could provide the proverbial glue for the team to stay the course. This can be done either though his play (and I think his numbers will improve this season) or through his guidance. He could give the Indians a boost in the team chemistry department; a category often overlooked.
Although oft-injured the past couple seasons and nowhere near his torrential numbers of 2004-07, I like Travis Hafner's chances at a comeback for the 2011 season.
While 2010 was still a down year for Hafner, he posted a decent line (.278/13/50 in only 118 games). He was still able to draw a fair amount of walks, and his OBP was .374. Is it close to the return for what he is paid? Absolutely not. A full, healthy season for Pronk will give him a chance to succeed (he has not played more than 118 games in three seasons) and I think he still has enough gas in the tank for at least one great season.
The major question remains, can the "part-project, part-donkey" stay healthy and remain productive?
Bottom Line: Hafner, Sizemore, Santana, and INF Asdrubal Cabrera are being treated like new acquisitions due to the fact they were all hurt for most of last season. With this mindset, the Indians could prove to be a surprise to some.
While I would not lay claim to the Indians as the 2011 AL Central champs, I do believe they are doing many things correctly.
Worst in the league? Not a chance. I am looking for at least a six-win improvement from last season. Even in a touch AL Central, 75-87 would be a step in the right direction. Thinking about the season from a "glass half-full standpoint," I even consider a six-win improvement to be modest. If the youngsters pan out, and the veterans can bounce back, it would not be a surprise they finish even better.
Look for the Tribe to be contenders in the division in the very near-future.