Five Questions: Cleveland Indians

After a successful building year last season, the Indians spent a bit of money to bring in a few veteran players to push the club gently towards contention. The greatest impact should come in the form of Kevin Millwood, a solid veteran starter who will slot in behind staff ace C.C. Sabathia. Lefty Arthur Rhodes was acquired to add depth to the weakest part of the team last season. Aaron Boone is the new third baseman, forcing the shift of Casey Blake to the outfield. And finally, Juan Gonzalez had returned to take a bit of the offensive pressure off the young outfielders.

Will this be the year the Indians make the difficult transition from promising young team to serious contender?

1. If the Indians are to contend this year, who are the key players to watch?

Last season, in a preview written for Batter’s Box, I identified five key players in the Indians franchise. One of them is no longer in the organization, that being Milton Bradley. Bradley’s troubles — his untimely exodus from Cleveland just before the start of the 2004 season and his blowup near its conclusion — are well-known.

Cliff Lee is a lefthanded strikeout pitcher who relies more on guile than pure stuff. Lee was counted on to solidify the 2004 rotation, but struggled with gopherballitis. The good news was that his K/BB numbers remained impressive. He’s been pushed to the back of the rotation due to the acquisition of Millwood and the emergence of groundball pitcher Jake Westbrook.

Doomsayers were predicting injuries for Sabathia because of his workload coupled with his youth. Aside from the decline in strikeout rate from his rookie year, attributable to a lack of familiarity on the part of AL batters, Sabathia has been one the most consistent pitchers in baseball the last four years. His career numbers in seasonal notation:

31.5 starts, 194.0 IP, 178 hits, 19 HR, 80 BB, 150 K, 13.5 W/8.8 L, 4.12 ERA

Some, in light of his obvious talent, might view that as a disappointment. He is still only 24 and has plenty of time to make the adjustments necessary to take it to the next level. However, he’s only two years away from free-agency and GM Mark Shapiro will have to make the difficult decision of whether to offer Sabathia a long-term contract.

Grady Sizemore was one of the top outfield prospects in baseball entering last season. The athletic Sizemore did well in Triple-A and handled defensive responsibilities in centerfield comfortably after his call-up. With Gonzalez’s injury problems, Sizemore should get plenty of at-bats to work on his remaining weaknesses.

Victor Martinez. In 2002, Martinez had a huge year in Double-A (121 games/.336/.417/.576) with a sold K/BB of 62/58. Last season Martinez took over as first string catcher and fulfilled all expectations (141 games/.283/.359/.492). The Tribe have just signed Martinez to a long-term deal worth 15.5 million over five seasons and, crucially, a club option for 2010 theoretically Martinez’ first year on the open market. Notwithstanding the requisite caveats about catchers, locking in a talented player through his prime years has to please Indians fans.

2. Should anyone be added to the list?

Yes. Travis Hafner was once a relatively unknown Texas Rangers farmhand. But a breakout Triple-A season in 2002 (110 games/.342/.463/.559) and a trade to the Indians took care of that. In his second major league season, he emerged as one of the top power hitters (140 games/.311/.410/583) in the American League.

I expect some regression towards the mean, but Hafner has the plate discipline and power to remain an elite class hitter.

3. How Deep is the Farm System?

The Indians farm system has been highly regarded in recent years. Not coincidentally, it was highly regarded at the start of the 1990s, before the Indians assembled an impressive bevy of talented young players that led them to a string of division titles and two league championships. Can the current Indians build a great team using the same blueprint?

   Winning Percentage for Indians and 
       Their Minor League Teams
Year  Indians  Farm   Year  Indians  Farm
1990   .475    .541   2002   .457    .577
1991   .352    .525   2003   .420    .576
1992   .469    .543   2004   .494    .540
1993   .469    .579   2005      ?       ?
1994   .584    .521

In the ‘90s version, the farm system was just getting going – it would peak in 1993, the year before the Indians broke through. The current Tribe has probably already seen its’ best farm year, so things are playing out a little differently this time around.

While the best prospects now in the minors can’t match the greats produced in the 90s (Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle) nor the “first wave” now with the big club, there are a number of interesting players who are on their way to the Jake.

Ryan Garko can hit, but a position shift is being contemplated because Martinez has dibs on the catching job in Cleveland for the next half-decade. Michael Aubrey was one of the better college hitting prospects of recent years and this year will be tested at Triple-A at some point this season. Brad Snyder has speed and power but will need to cut down on his strikeouts to make it. Youngish Brandon Phillips was once regarded as the crown jewel of the system; he’ll return to Triple-A and work on his command of the strike zone. Toolsy Franklyn Gutierrez was acquired from the Dodgers as part of the Bradley deal and could see time in the big leagues in September.

There’s not as much depth in the pitching department, but there is one gem. Adam Miller was one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, but he’s experienced elbow tendonitis this spring and the Indians have decided to take thing slow with the 20 year old.

Francisco Cruceta and Kaz Tadano will likely start the year in Triple-A but will be ready to contribute if injuries.

4. How bad was the bullpen in 2004; will we see improvement this year?

The Indians might have pushed the Twins down to the wire for the division title last season if not for a poor performance from the bullpen. The bullpen ERA (4.90) was significantly worse than the league average (4.25). The major problem was the homerun ball: Tribe relievers allowed 77, over 20 more than the average AL pen, for a rate of 1.28 per 9 IP (average= 1.02/9IP). One can make the case that the Cleveland bullpen was the worst in the league, given the pitcher-friendly nature of Jacobs Field.

Things went sour when David Riske, counted on to repeat his breakout 2003. Instead Riske’s walk rate doubled and he lost the closer’s job. Bob Wickman returned mid-season, but provided only 26 so-so innings. Wickman will be counted on for saves, but will be supported by Riske, Rafael Betancourt and new arrival veteran Rhodes.

For the Tribe to contend, they must get at least league average performance from their bullpen. While that is certainly achievable, it’s not all that likely considering the current relief corps. If the Indians are hanging in the race by July, look for Shapiro to get one or two veteran arms to bolster the pen.

5. Are they ready to contend this year?

The natural inclination for observers, excited by a young team that has improved by 10 games, is to anoint them the next big thing.

I don’t think this is the year of the Tribe. Thought of the 2003 Blue Jays come to mind. That team’s success was built on three star performers (Roy Halladay, Vernon Wells and Carlos Delgado). When none of the three could come close to matching their output of 2003 last season, the team slumped badly and the lack of depth became painfully visible.

Similarly, Cleveland’s 2004 offense was built on breakout years from Hafner, Martinez, Coco Crisp and Ben Broussard, as well as an impressive comeback season from the now departed Omar Vizquel. There will be some regression towards the mean, and the additions of Gonzalez and Boone are not going to offset the likely decline from the returnees.

The bullpen, as noted, is an area the club needs to improve upon, but the arms aren’t there yet. The starting rotation was thin last season and it definitely deeper with the arrival of Millwood. If either Jason Davis or Cliff Lee has a breakout season, the rotation will be a strength.

The White Sox rotation also looks better on paper, and their bullpen depth is impressive. The offense has lost slugger Carlos Lee, but there’s enough there to repeat last year’s performance. Overall, the White Sox talent looks a little better and it looks to me like the Tribe will face a tougher battle for 3rd from the strengthened Tigers than they will give the White Sox for 2nd place.

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