Monday, March 17, 2008

Indian Fever...

In the past, I have written a preview for the Indians, since they are the team I follow most closely. I’m not going to do a full-blown preview this year, but this mini-preview will suffice. This is in the vein of a preview magazine, running down the positions and who is expected to fill them, rather than an introspective look at the organization that you would get from Baseball Prospectus and other such outlets, to be clear upfront. It really will give you no insight into the team if you know anything about them, just some vague predictions from me on which players will have better seasons.

The Indians rotation has the first four set with CC Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook, and Paul Byrd. Behind them, three lefties battled for the fifth spot. As I am writing this, none of them has been particularly effective in the spring, so one assumes that Cliff Lee, with the most experience and the largest contract, will get the job, while Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey will head to Buffalo.

This is an area that actually concerns me as a fan. I guess if you are a supporter of the Orioles or the Cardinals or some other team, this is easy to scoff at, and I understand that…but the Byrd is always walking a tight rope, and he isn’t getting any younger. Westbrook is your standard issue groundball pitcher. Sabathia is a legitimate ace, but he was the best pitcher in the AL last year, and it would be asking a lot for him to repeat that performance. Carmona was almost certainly over his head last year; the question is how far he will drop off. On the plus side, his strikeout rate improved in the second half; on the negative side, he made a big jump in workload last year, especially when you consider the playoffs.

The story in the bullpen is similar, where Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez cannot reasonably be expected to repeat their performance. Jensen Lewis should be serviceable as a middle reliever, and hopefully Masa Kobayashi can pitch in there. Aaron Fultz and Joe Borowski are what they are. It should be a good group, but I hesitate to predict anything beyond that with the unstable nature of bullpens.

If you add all that up, one has to conclude that the Indians will allow more runs this season. The good news is that it is reasonable to expect that they will score as many or more than they did in 2007. Dividing the regulars into categories of likely to do better, worse, and about the same, I would say:

Better: DH Travis Hafner, CF Grady Sizemore
Same: C Victor Martinez, 1B Ryan Garko, SS Jhonny Peralta, LF Platoon, RF Franklin Gutierrez
Worse: 2B Asdrubal Cabrera, 3B Casey Blake

While Cabrera probably played over his head during his major league stint, the Indians overall production from second base (3.25 RG) was poor, and should be improved by Cabrera or previous starter Josh Barfield, who is ticketed for Buffalo.

The bench will consist of Kelly Shoppach as catcher, Jamey Carroll as utility infielder (an acquisition I am befuddled by), Jason Michaels/David Dellucci as the inactive part of the left field platoon, and Andy Marte as the out of options must-carry. Were I in charge, I would try to move Michaels and let Ben Francisco into the platoon, and if Shin-Soo Choo comes back from his elbow issues healthy, I wouldn’t mind seeing him take over the lefty part. Regardless, Francisco deserves to be on the team on merit, and has little to prove at Buffalo, but the Marte situation will preclude that.

I will post my predictions for the major league standings in a couple of weeks, but I tend to think as most observers do that the Indians will be in the mix for the playoffs, fighting for the division and the wildcard. Ultimately, though, I have to give Detroit a slight edge in the division and New York/Boston the edge in the wildcard hunt. It should be another fun season, though, and that’s all you can really ask for.

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