Monday, March 05, 2007

Preseason Preview: Indians

After endeavoring valiantly not to get a cold, I did not get one. Then I woke up on Sunday feeling like absolute crap and got another cold anyway. What dramatic irony. However, minor things such as coughing, snuffling, having a terribly sore throat, a headache, and general lack of vital force shall not stop me from bringing you the fourth installment in the AL Central preview series. You can applaud my dedication or condemn my idiocy; either one is fine.

As for a brief update on the land of spring training games, Adam went four shutout innings today against the Astros, while Josh Kinney flailed around for a second straight outing and again yielded 3 runs in an inning. It's looking more and more as if Adam's name is written into the rotation with permanent ink, which makes me very happy. I would be even more thrilled if Looper wasn't in there. I just know he's going to go nuclear at some highly inconvenient junction and then it's going to take too long to get another arm stretched out for starting.

The Rox won 14-7 last night, after Denny Bautista actually tried to blow what was a 13-2 lead by giving up five runs in an inning. The A's also won, staging a late-inning rally to pull off a 4-3 victory, but the most heartening news was that young ace Rich Harden went two innings, yielded one hit, and racked up a staggering 5 Ks - in other words, he got six outs and only one of them was by a ball hit into play. Wrap the boy in bubble wrap and save him for Opening Day so he doesn't break, and he'll be great.

In slightly worse news, Kotsay's balky back is barking again, Duchscherer may have a slight case of tendonitis, and Crosby has been held back from swinging at 100%. Oh, those injury demons...

Yes. Anyway. The Indians.

The Cleveland Indians

1. C.C. Sabathia, LHP
2. Jake Westbrook, RHP
3. Cliff Lee, LHP
4. Paul Byrd, RHP
5. Jeremy Sowers, LHP

1. Rafael Betancourt, RHP
2. Joe Borowski, RHP
3. Aaron Fultz, LHP
4. Fausto Carmona, RHP
5. Matt Miller, RHP
6. Rafael Perez, LHP
7. Juan Lara, LHP

1B Casey Blake
2B Hector Luna
SS Jhonny Peralta
3B Andy Marte
RF Trot Nixon
CF Grady Sizemore
LF Jason Michaels
C Victor Martinez
DH Travis Hafner

The 500 Word Rundown
The Indians became miracle contenders in 2005, finishing at a sparkling 93-69 and ten games ahead of the Twins, albeit six behind the White Sox. Following this, they were the consensus sleeper pick for the Central in 2006. It didn't exactly happen, as they authored a 78-84 turkey of a season and dropped with a clunk to fourth place in an admittedly very strong division. The going won't get easier for the Chief Wahoo Crew this season, but they've assembled a nucleus of some good-to-great young talent and I expect them to do a bit better in 2007. Of course, if they soar back to their previous heights, it could really be a logjam in the Central, but that, of course, remains to be seen.

The Indians have the one thing that every team desires, which is three lefties vs. two righties in the rotation and even an equally balanced bullpen. The starting five are led by big man C.C. Sabathia, who posted only a 12-11 record, but with a strong 3.22 ERA and 172 K. Jake Westbrook, a sinkerballer, went 15-10 with a 4.17 ERA, which was an improvement from 2005 (15-15/4.49) but didn't help the team out, or so it seems. Cliff Lee was quietly one of the best and most underrated pitchers in the game in 2005, when he went 18-5/3.79, but he was another one who suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in oh-six, as those numbers dropped to 14-11/4.40. Journeyman reclamation project Paul Byrd went 10-9/4.88, and there's really no telling what he'll come up with in any given year - he can be mercurial even from start to start.

The bullpen is nothing to write home about, as the Indians lack an automatic ninth-inning man and tend to experiment, alternating between young arms and veteran commodities. They also compiled a major-league low 24 saves, letting one too many games slip out of reach for a talented team that should have done better. But perhaps they will, bullpen or not. The one thing the Indians have, like many of their AL Central compatriots, is a fairly strong offense. Travis "Pronk" Hafner (he got the nickname after he disdained of his teammates' choice - "Shrek") is an absolute beast and one of the top ten hitters in the American League, but underexposed simply because of the fact that he plays for the Indians and not glamour moguls New York or Boston. Consider these numbers: .308/42/117/.439/.659/1.098. That's batting average, homers, RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS, and by any yardstick you use, Hafner's close to the top of the heap. He became even more beastlike in scoring situations, hitting .324 with runners on, .571 with the bases loaded, .442 in late-inning pressure situations, and .409 in late-inning pressure with runners on.

Hafner's companions in hitting are catcher Victor Martinez (.316/16/93) and fangirl object of adoration Grady Sizemore, whose movie-star good looks earned him a fan club of his very own (Grady's Ladies) packed female fans into the Jake to purchase "Mrs. Sizemore" T-shirts, and didn't even distract him too much from his play, as he compiled a .290/28/76 line in only his second full big-league season. They don't have the slot-by-slot lineup lethality of the White Sox, or the pitching of the Tigers, but the Indians will probably once again be a dark-horse pick for an upset in the Central. They may not get that far, but they should be improved from their performance last year. If it'll be enough is quite another question.

Projected Finish: 86-76, fourth place, AL Central (yes... the division is THAT deep).

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