A Treatise on the Indians, or the 2004 Preview
Everyone seems to know everything before the 1st of April. Prognosticators come out of the woodwork in February, we buy their magazines, and they go away for another year. "This is finally the year for [insert team here]!" they shout.
Well, I'm not about to make any bold predictions about the Indians, or any other team for that matter. I'm just going to give you my impression about the Cleveland Indians, and you, the reader, can draw your own conclusions. This may be one way of covering my behind if something bad happens, but I really feel that making concrete predictions without backing it up with some coherent argument is irresponsible; I plan to give you my arguments and leave the predictions to someone else. So here goes:
On a lot of teams in the American League, you pretty much know what you're going to get. The Yankees will score runs. The Red Sox and Athletics will have good pitching staffs. Why do we know this? These teams have players that have proven track records, a concrete history of successes and failures that any halfway intelligent fan can study and come up with a decent projection for. For the most part, the Indians have precious few of those players; in fact, I only see four: Matt Lawton, CC Sabathia, Ron Belliard, and Omar Vizquel. And two of them are both coming off injury-plagued seasons.
So that makes projecting the Indians a complete mystery to me. So I've pegged 10 players that will play a huge part in determing whether the Tribe loses 90 games again or finishes around .500:
1. Jason Davis
2. Cliff Lee
3. David Riske
4. Jody Gerut
5. Travis Hafner
6. Ben Broussard
7. Victor Martinez
8. Alex Escobar
9. Milton Bradley
10. Brandon Phillips
9 out of the 10 players listed here are in all likelihood going to make the team; I included Phillips in the list because I think there's going to come a time this season where he will play a considerable stretch of games, whether that be through injury or trade. And a successful rebound can allow the Indians to spend their money elsewhere after the season.
Hafner, Esobar, Broussard, and Gerut need to hit for power, because they play positions where it's almost mandatory to hit 20+ HR. Escobar is completely recovered from his 2002 knee injury, and the sky is the limit for him if he continues to exercise discipline at the plate. Jody Gerut's main priority is to stay healthy, but to also prove that his outstanding freshman season wasn't a fluke. Travis Hafner and Ben Broussard need to continue to build on their 2003 successes and prove that they can hit left-handed pitching.
Probably the most important names on the list are second-year picthers Cliff Lee and Jason Davis. If either flops, the year will probably be a disaster, because starting pitching is the one area in which the Indians are extremely thin in. Jake Westbrook, Jason Stanford, and Chad Durbin will have to be strong Band-Aids in the back of the rotation, but if Davis and Lee can't produce, it won't matter what they do.
David Riske (for now, anyways) will have to be what Danys Baez couldn't be the year before, an effective closer. Jose Jimenez and Scott Stewart were brought in for depth in the bullpen, and those moves seem prescient now with Wickman's season-ending elbow injury. Rafael Betancourt and Jack Cressend should only be seen in the 6th and 7th innings if all goes well.
Victor Martinez can make a big difference in the offense if he's healthy; a catcher who can hit is gravy in any lineup, and especially in one that needs offensive production. The addition of Ron Belliard and the "new and improved" Matt Lawton should also help as well, but Martinez in my mind is a bigger key.
All of the players on this list are talented, have been on a lot of top prospect lists, and have had success throughout their minor league careers or their short major-league careers. But they have yet to prove that they can consistently be a solid or better starter in the majors. Bradley, Gerut, and Riske have to at least maintain their 2003 levels this season, and the rest has to improve on last year's efforts. Write this list down, and refer to it throughout the season. If you see more than half on this list playing to their potential, then the Indians are going to be a pain to the AL Central. If not, then it's going to be a long season.
The Indians' initial priority after the Colon trade was to bring in as much talent as possible. Mission accomplished; the Tribe has the best young core of talent in the majors right now, and the talent in the minors has garnered Cleveland's organization a top-5 finish again in Baseball America's rankings. Now Shapiro's task is to hone this talent into major-league contributors this season, supplement it after the season with free agents, and win with it in 2005. That's his plan, and if it fails, I will be the first to criticize him and owner Paul Dolan.
The division is ripe for the taking right now, but unfortunately, it's a year too early to seriously consider contention. The Royals made smart moves over the winter, picking up low-cost pieces and parts, but their pitching rotation is very weak. Chicago made less moves than the Indians, and lost Bartolo Colon and Carl Everett, among others. The Twins lost the two main cogs (Guardado, Hawkins) in the strongest part of their team, their bullpen. Cleveland's major weakness is going to be their pitching depth, and to a lesser extent their offense; unless some of the players in the list above have breakout years, the Indians' offense will be one of the worst in the league.
The future as it stands now looks extremely bright for the Indians organization as a whole. Mark Shapiro, after commiting several high-cost blunders in his first winter as GM, has made the tough decisions, and more importantly, have stayed the course. John Mirabelli has put together one solid (2003) and one outstanding (2002) draft in the past couple of years, giving the Indians' farm system almost unprecedented depth. And owner Larry Dolan has spent his money in the right places for a rebuilding team: into the farm system. If the Indians on the field can improve, these three people have put the Indians in the catbird seat; they'll have a lot of financial flexibility to go get free agents, and the talent in the minors to not only continue the talent influx from within, but to use that depth to go get major-league talent via trades.
These are the circumstances we as fans face right now, which makes this year an extremely important season. Because of all the unproven talent on the team, there's really no ceiling or floor for the Indians right now. And that should make for an interesting ride, one way or the other.