Saturday, April 4, 2009

Tribe Looks to Rebound in '09

The Cleveland Indians stumbled to a disappointing 81-81 record in 2008 after an ALCS appearance in 2007. Injuries on offense decimated the Tribe in the first half of 2008 and forced the trade of veterans CC Sabathia and Casey Blake for prospects. The Indians’ 2008 bullpen rivaled their infamous “Bullpen from Hell” of the 1980’s as they did everything in their power to torture Tribe fans on a nightly basis.

But as the Cleveland Indians’ 2009 campaign gets sets to begin there is cause for optimism along the shores of Lake Erie. Despite those injuries on offense the Indians scored the seventh most runs in MLB with 805 and led all of MLB with 379 runs in the second half.

The offense should be as good, if not better, than last year with a healthy Victor Martinez, the heart and soul of the ball club. Infielders Ryan Garko and Asdrubal Cabrera came into Spring Training in shape and focused. Shortshtop Jhonny Peralta looks to build off of a 40 double, 20 homerun season while Grady Sizemore looks for an encore to a 30 homerun, 30 steal campaign.

The wild card is DH Travis Hafner. Can he return to his 2004 to 2006 form where he averaged 34 homers, 38 doubles, 111 RBI and hit well over .300? A nagging shoulder injury led to a substandard 2007 and a disastrous 2008 that saw Hafner hit .197 with little or no power. If he even returns to 75% of his previous form the Indians’ offense could be one of the elite in 2009.

General Manager Mark Shapiro was aggressive in the off-season in addressing the Tribe’s much maligned bullpen. Shapiro inked bona fide closer Kerry Wood to provide stability to the Indians’ weak link in 2008. Submarine reliever Joe Smith was also acquired via a three team trade to help provide an established hierarchy in the bullpen.

With Wood penciled in for the ninth inning it allows Rafael Perez, Jensen Lewis and Smith settle into their set-up roles in the 7th and 8th innings. Rafael Betancourt could work his way back into the back end of the bullpen after a horrendous 2008. After a dominant 2007 Betancourt was lit up for 11 homeruns and a 5.07 ERA in 2008. The Indians also have a wave of arms waiting in the minor leagues in case of injury or performance issues.

The starting pitching, which has been the stalwart of the Indians during the past few years, is now the main cause for concern. Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee is coming off a 22-3 season with a sterling 2.54 ERA. That may me too much to expect in 2009 but you could put Lee down for 15-16 a year prior to his poor 2007.

But after Lee there are a bunch of question marks. Is the real Fausto Carmona the 19 game winner of 2007 of the wild throwing, emotional wreck of 2008? Having Martinez back behind the plate for his starts may prove to be the calming influence he needs. Carmona responded by having an excellent spring.

Carl Pavano, Scott Lewis and Anthony Reyes round out the Tribe’s starting rotation to start the season. Pavano looks to rebound from four injury riddled years with the New York Yankees. Reyes brings his own injury concerns after arriving in 2008 from the St. Louis Cardinals. Lewis was a late 2008 surprise going 4-0 in four September starts for the Indians but was roughed up in the Arizona spring after winning the job.

The Indians also have depth sitting in AAA Columbus if one of the previous three starters struggles. Aaron Laffey was the Scott Lewis of 2007 and is looking to rebound from an injury filled 2008. Jeremy Sowers was the Laffey of 2006 and has struggled mightily in the majors since the start of 2007. David Huff has torn up each and every level of the minors and looks to be primed and ready if and when the Indians call. Zach Jackson starts the season as the long reliever but odds of him starting a game at some point are good.

Tons of questions for the 2009 Tribe but there are a plethora of options for answers to those questions. Manager Eric Wedge has the versatility in the field to mix and match line-up which always seems to be his MO. The season may hinge on Wedge’s ability to keep his bullpen fresh while dealing with a lot of uncertainty in the rotation.

If Wedge can effectively use the bullpen and not wear out the back end, a la Perez and Betancourt in 2007, the Indians should be able to stay in more games than not with their offense. Wedge will also have to be aggressive in addressing and shortcomings in the shaky starting rotation. If one the starters can not perform Wedge and Shapiro can not hesitate to make a change.

The Indians face a brutal start to 2009 with ten of their first 13 games away from Progressive Field. They also play the powerful Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays 21 times in the first two months of the season. The Indians have been notorious slow starters throughout Wedge’s tenure. The only season they started out well was in 2007… the only season they have made the play-offs under Wedge.

There are a lot of questions and some adversity to face at the start of the 2009 season for the Cleveland Indians. That shouldn’t damper the Indians’ outlook for the new season. They are healthy, hungry and looking for redemption from a bad end to 2007 and a sub par 2008. They just need something to bring in all together…