Next year is definitely here, according to both the Cleveland Indians'
management and fans.
When the Indians began a rebuilding plan in 2002, general manager Mark Shapiro
laid out what he called his "blueprint for success," which forecast
2005 as the time he expected the Indians to again be a serious player in the
AL's Central Division. After getting within one game of first place last August
and eventually finishing with a 12-game improvement in the standings in 2004,
the Indians believe they are right on target to achieve their stated goal of
returning to postseason play.
Manager Eric Wedge believes it is a realistic goal, and so does the team's top
offseason acquisition, right-hander Kevin Millwood.
"We do have reason for optimism," said Wedge as he enters his third
season as Cleveland manager. "Our expectations are much higher this year
than last year. We've made strides in several areas."
Millwood, signed to a one-year, $7 million contract, said he left Philadelphia
for Cleveland because he believes in the Indians' chances to win, too.
"Put it this way," he said. "I don't come here if I don't think
this team was ready to win and they don't come after me if they didn't think
they have a shot."
Shapiro wanted to maintain the nucleus of the club and believes he did so by
re-signing closer Bob Wickman, second baseman Ronnie Belliard and right-hander
Scott Elarton. He added to it with some shrewd signings, including an
incentive-laced contract with oft-injured outfielder Juan Gonzalez.
RHP Kevin Millwood (free agent from Philadelphia); LHP Arthur Rhodes (trade from
Pittsburgh); SS-2B Alex Cora (free agent from Los Angeles); INF-OF Jose Hernandez (free agent from Los Angeles); OF Juan Gonzalez (free agent from
SS Omar Vizquel (free agent to San Francisco); OF Matt Lawton (traded to
Pittsburgh); INF John McDonald (traded to Toronto); 1B-DH Josh Phelps (free
agent to Tampa Bay); INF Lou Merloni (free agent to Anaheim); C Tim Laker (free
agent to Tampa Bay); RHP Rick White (free agent to Pittsburgh).
1: 2B Ronnie Belliard
2: CF Coco Crisp
3: DH Travis Hafner
4: C Victor Martinez
5: RF Juan Gonzalez
6: 1B Ben Broussard
7: 3B Aaron Boone
8: LF Casey Blake
9: SS Jhonny Peralta
Gonzalez, if his aching back does not flare up, Boone, if fully recovered from
knee surgery, and rookie Peralta, if ready to play at this level, have been
added to a well-balanced offense.
Of course, those are three big questions. Gonzalez has not played anything near
to a full season since 2001 -- when he hit 35 homers with 140 RBI and a .325
average. Boone had two operations on his knee last year and has not played since
becoming a postseason hero in New York with the Yankees in 2003. Peralta put up
impressive numbers in Triple-A last year, hitting .323 with 15 homers, 86 RBI
and 110 runs and was named MVP of the International League -- but he's only 21
and will feel the pressure of replacing a Cleveland legend in the departed Omar
Peralta, 22, will battle Brandon Phillips, 23, for the starting job. Phillips, a
natural shortstop who flopped in a 2003 trial with the Indians at second base,
put his career back on track last year with a solid season at Triple-A Buffalo,
hitting .296 with eight homers, 50 RBI and 88 runs.
"All nine spots in the order were productive last season and that one
through nine approach is something the coaching staff and I have been
preaching," Wedge said. "The offense will continue to evolve around
the middle of the order. Victor (Martinez) flourished in the cleanup spot and
Travis Hafner led the team in RBI. Ben Broussard was among our most productive
hitters in the second half. We feel confident we can score runs."
INF-OF Jose Hernandez
INF Alex Cora
OF Ryan Ludwick
C Josh Bard
Adding Hernandez and Cora gives Wedge more flexibility in making moves. Ludwick
is yet another player trying to come back from knee surgery, while Bard missed
much of 2004 after having hernia surgery in spring training.
Outfielder Jody Gerut, the team's top rookie in 2003, is expected back from knee
surgery in June and young Grady Sizemore, the club's top position prospect, will
challenge for a roster spot, too. But Sizemore, along with either Phillips or
Peralta, will likely go back to Buffalo and play on an everyday basis if they
don't win a starting job in Cleveland.
LH C.C. Sabathia
RH Jake Westbrook
RH Kevin Millwood
LH Cliff Lee
RH Scott Elarton
Sabathia and Westbrook were on the AL All-Star Team last year and the addition
of Millwood, if he shows no sign of the strained elbow that sidelined him the
last six weeks of 2004, makes this unit solid.
Lee was 10-1 last July before enduring a prolonged slump, while Elarton came to
Cleveland after a disastrous stint in Colorado and got his career back on track.
"We look at C.C. as our number one," Wedge said. "Then there's
Millwood and Westbrook with one being (number) two and one being (number) three
depending on what is best for our team. With all five, there's some experience
there, but also pitchers who hopefully will continue to develop and
Closer Bob Wickman
LH setup Arthur Rhodes
RH setup Bob Howry
RH setup/middle relief David Riske, Matt Miller, Rafael Betancourt
LH setup/middle relief Scott Sauerbeck
LR Jason Davis
With Wickman sidelined the first half of 2004 by a sore elbow, the bullpen's
disastrous first three months pretty much kept Cleveland from seriously
Now, Wedge believes his relief corps is a strong point.
"The key was bringing back Wickman, making sure we had a veteran,
experienced closer," he said. "We now have two veteran lefties in
Rhodes and Sauerbeck. Then Howry and Riske are important parts, veteran guys
back with us who have done it in the past. Miller and Betancourt in particular
did a very good job for us last year.
"Jason Davis is a strong security blanket in our sixth spot in regards to
the rotation. If we don't need him to start then he will be in our bullpen. I
feel good about J.D. in either role."
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK:
Make that marks, plural. Millwood, Wickman, Gonzalez, Boone, Gerut, Ludwick and
Bard all missed significant portions of the 2004 season with various ailments.
Millwood and Wickman, in particular, must stay healthy. Without either, the club
cannot contend. Getting potent production from any of the five position players
will be considered somewhat of a bonus added to an offense that did score runs a
year ago -- though many believe it was an over-achieving group that could
struggle to match it in 2005.
A year ago, Martinez, Hafner, Crisp, Westbrook and to a lesser extent Belliard,
Blake and Broussard all had breakout years -- which does support those who
believe the 2004 Indians were over-achievers.
This could be the year Sabathia goes from promise to production. Sure, he went
17-5 as a precocious rookie in 2001 -- but that was largely due to an
overwhelming offense that gave him incredible run support. The big left-hander
has gone 13-11, 13-9 and 11-10 the past three seasons, though he did make the
All-Star Team the last two years. But he wasn't consistently dominant in the
manner of a true No. 1 pitcher.
Sabathia has been touted as a potential star, a big guy with a big fastball. Now
at age 24, he should start living up to expectations of being "the
man" -- as have many former greats at that exact same age. Not to say
Sabathia will match these numbers, but take a look at what some others did at
Dizzy Dean, 30-7, 2.66 ERA in 1934
Denny McLain, 31-6, 1.96 ERA in 1968
Tom Seaver, 25-7, 2.21 ERA in 1969
Jim Palmer, 20-10, 2.71 ERA in 1970
Roger Clemens, 20-9, 2.97 ERA in 1987
Then again, Sabathia is already ahead of these Hall of Famers:
Carl Hubbell, Warren Spahn and Lefty Grove all got their first wins at age 25,
Phil Niekro at age 26.
Sandy Koufax's career record after age 24 was only 36-40; Gaylord Perry was just
4-7 and Bob Gibson 6-11.
Bob Lemon was still a struggling third baseman in the minors before being
switched to pitcher at age 25.
The 2005 Indians, if healthy, will challenge for the division title -- but it
also is likely that one or more players will regress from 2004. It will be tough
for Hafner (28, 109, .311), Martinez (23, 108, .283), Blake (28, 88. .271) and
even Belliard, Broussard and Crisp to ALL replicate what they did in 2004 --
though Hafner and Martinez could continue to improve.
The bullpen appears to be solid and the addition of Millwood makes the starting
Cleveland must get a fortunate break or two in order to win the division,
however. A healthy, motivated and productive Gonzalez would be good for
starters. A breakout year by Sabathia or Lee in the starting rotation would
help. A big year from the developing Crisp or Sizemore could be key.
The AL Central appears to be a three-way race between the defending champion
Minnesota Twins, who took a hit by losing players to free agency, the Chicago White Sox, who signed some key free agents, and the Indians.
The Detroit Tigers could evolve this year the way the Indians did in 2004, while
in Kansas City, the Royals are searching to put back together a club that
appeared promising in 2003, but was a great disappointment last year.