Five Questions: Cleveland Indians

1. Was doing (essentially) nothing this offseason a smart move for the Indians?

Here’s a summary of the offseason transactions affecting the Indians’ 2008 major-league roster (don’t worry, it won’t take long):

To understand the Indians’ free agent philosophy is to understand why the Indians stood pat this offseason. Cleveland signed Jake Westbrook and Travis Hafner to contract extensions earlier in the season; Westbrook would have been a free agent, and Hafner would have been eligible for free agency after the 2008 season. So there was no need for the Indians, who have been very reluctant bidders on the free agent market, to pursue any free agent of significance. And even when the team has a hole to fill, they’ll generally skip the top tier of free agents in favor of the underrated free agent or a trade. Combine this reluctance with a very poor free agent class and it’s not surprising why the Indians made little noise in this area. The one free agent signing they did make was a good value: Kobayashi’s contract in both length and dollars was very reasonable when compared with contracts signed by MLB free agent relievers.

But the trade market held some intriguing possibilities for the Indians. Even if we limit the possibilities to trades that actually took place, two acquisitions would have been perfect fits. Dan Haren would not only have made the Indians’ rotation the deepest in the league this season, but would have cushioned the blow of losing C.C. Sabathia to free agency this winter. And Nick Swisher would have been a big improvement over the David Dellucci/Jason Michaels left field platoon. Both players were several years away from free agency, and most importantly, their salaries were locked in during those years of control.

So yes, the Indians were justified in largely staying away from free agency, but also missed some golden opportunities on the trade market.

2. Who was impersonating Travis Hafner last season?

In his three seasons before 2007, Travis Hafner averaged a 170 OPS+. Last season, despite staying off the disabled list, he only managed a 118 OPS+. The problem for Hafner wasn’t plate coverage, but contact: his groundball percentage spiked to 47.8 percent, which was a huge departure for a guy who was a line-drive slugger. Because the Indians now have almost $60 million dollars invested in Hafner, the franchise’s success is tied to him; this isn’t a team that can afford a bad big contract.

If an established player has a season way beyond anything he’s done before, we always say he’ll regress toward his career averages the next year. In this situation, regression toward the mean isn’t a bad thing. I’m more inclined to believe Hafner will have a vintage 2004-2006 campaign of mayhem than a kinder, gentler repeat of 2007.

3. Did the Indians make a Faustian bargain by pushing Carmona last season?

To clarify the question: the concern is not that Carmona threw 215 innings per se; it’s that those 215 innings followed a season in which Carmona threw 102.1 professional innings. And most of his 2006 major-league innings came in relief. Even though Carmona’s 2007 outings were rarely taxing, that jump in innings for a young hurler is a huge concern. Heck, just throwing that many innings at his age is a red flag.

I’d expect the Indians to be as careful as they dare with Carmona. They have enough starting depth (the losers of the Cliff Lee-Aaron Laffey-Jeremy Sowers battle royale) to handle a skipped Carmona start early in the season. But all that caution will go away if the Indians find themselves in a race late in the summer.

4. Is Andy Marte the answer at third?

Marte will make the team as a reserve infielder, but obviously the Indians are hoping that he becomes much more than that. They acquired him in 2006 hoping he’d be their long-term third baseman, and targeted 2007 as his first full season. But those plans went awry; they had to move Casey Blake back to third after Marte got hurt and never got on track. Blake filled in admirably, but he probably won’t be viable at third too much longer.

The Indians need to give Marte an appreciable major-league stint to make a decision on him, so Eric Wedge has to get Andy at-bats while at the same time winning games. Perhaps the two goals aren’t mutually exclusive, and the transition from Blake to Marte takes place gradually. I think the more likely outcome is that neither will be the Indians’ 2009 Opening Day third baseman.

5. Who will be the fifth starter? And who should be?

Lee will probably start the season in the rotation, with Laffey and Sowers going to Buffalo. All three pitchers have options remaining, but it would take a complete implosion from Lee for the Indians to send him down again. In fact, it took a meltdown (giving up 21 runs in three starts) last July for the Indians to swap Lee out for Laffey, who was very adequate in nine starts down the stretch. The major advantage Lee has over his competition is past success and a guaranteed contract, neither of which makes him a better pitcher this season.

If it were my decision, I’d trade Lee and give the job to Laffey. Lee’s reputation rests largely on his 18-win* season in 2005. Since then, his strikeout rates have consistently dropped and his walk rates and SLG% have both risen. Even though it’s always difficult to give up healthy starting pitching, this is an instance where the Indians should sell high.

*Lee’s ERA+ in 2005 was 111

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