I dislike making discrete win-loss predictions, and I try to stay away from predicting division winners, because I don't follow other teams to the degree I follow the Indians. Just think of this as a movie review without an arbitrary star rating.
The Indians are a better team than last season. There are less question marks on the roster, though they all haven't disappeared. When you have one of the lowest payrolls in the league, it's impossible NOT to have question marks. But the good thing about this roster is that there is little dead weight. Gone are John McDonald and Tim Laker, roster filler. Ryan Ludwick is a better fourth outfielder than Alex Escobar. Jose Hernandez is a better 1B platoon option than Lou Merloni. The bullpen (on paper) looks better, although I said the same thing last year. Kevin Millwood should improve the starting rotation, although an expected regression by Jake Westbrook may cancel out any gains brought about by the addition of Millwood.
Conceptually, what the Indians have done since June 2002 has to be considered a success; three years after dismantling an aging, overpriced team, they enter 2005 a young, exciting, and (most importantly) talented club. The real obstacle is still ahead, though. Getting to .500 isn't too difficult; going from a .500 team to the playoffs is. For this team to make the playoffs, some things have to go right. Run prevention has to get better, because I don't see this offense scoring 858 runs again. The bullpen has be an asset, not a liability. And players have to stay healthy, especially guys like CC Sabathia and Victor Martinez. While the farm system once again was ranked among the top 10 in baseball by Baseball America, depth can't patch the size of hole that Martinez or Sabathia would leave if injured. Of course, you could say this about any organization in baseball, so maybe it's redundant. But I think it's at least worth mentioning.
Juan Gonzalez, the Injury Time-Bomb, is less important. Yes, he's a nice guy to have hitting behind Martinez and Hafner, but the team can manage without him thanks to the presence of Ryan Ludwick and/or Grady Sizemore. Alex Cora is a nice insurance policy to have in case either Ronnie Belliard or Jhonny Peralta land on the shelf. This major-league depth probably represents the largest improvement over last year. If all goes well, it should allow players like Belliard and Martinez to stay fresh through the summer months, and gives manager Eric Wedge better late-game options.
Bob Wickman is expected to anchor the Indians' bullpen, and if he stays healthy, should keep it functioning. I'm definitely not saying Wickman is a great closer, but his presence should allow players to succeed in roles they're comfortable in. Relief pitchers are the most volatile of baseball players, so I'd be lying if I expected the seven players who made the club to be on the roster by early October. Players like Jason Davis, Fernando Cabrera, Andrew Brown, Brian Tallet, and Jake Robbins may have to contribute if someone implodes. Again, this is where having a deep roster should help.
Do I believe the Indians are a "championship-caliber team?" No. There's too may weak spots on the roster for me to say that. I do think they're capable of winning the division, and I do believe that they've set themselves up for better things and lofter goals in the coming years. Considering where this team was in 2002, being able to say that represents a massive improvement for the organization, and a lot of optimism for Tribe fans everywhere.