Before the 2007 season began, it wasn’t all that difficult to see that the Indians would be a team that needed to be reckoned with. Despite an unimpressive 78-win season the year before, this was the team whose run differential was a plus 88. They were better than their record had shown. And they went on to win 96 games without any major additions in 2007.
Flash forward to November 2008. The Indians had once again underplayed their run differential to the tune of a .500 record despite scoring 805 runs against 761 runs given up. But things are different. C.C. Sabathia is gone. Travis Hafner looks like a shell of his former self and Victor Martinez’ power disappeared overnight. On the positive end of the spectrum, Grady Sizemore cemented himself as a topflight player and Kelly Shoppach emerged as an offensive threat that made Victor Martinez’s sudden decline easier to swallow. Shin-Soo Choo was no longer just a fun name to recite, but a solid big leaguer who still had notable upside. Not to mention the fact that Cliff Lee surprised everyone and got himself a Cy Young award. With these players, the talent gap between the old guard and the new in Cleveland is not vast at all.
However, they do have areas that require help. For one, it’s actually rather amazing that the Indians scored as many runs as they did with so little production coming from the conventional power positions. The Indians had Ryan Garko and Casey Blake (before he went to LA) at first and third, with Ben Francisco and Franklin Gutierrez in left and right, plus Hafner DHing. Upgrading these positions offensively would not be that difficult under ordinary circumstances. But if you take a look at the first base options on the free agent market, the names do not inspire much confidence aside from Mark Teixeira — and the third basemen are worse. With Pronk and his contract entrenched at the DH spot, signing players not named Teixeira would mean a defensive downgrade that may not be worth the offensive upgrade and the financial commitment that would go with it.
And herein lies the problem with having a DH who struggled as badly as Hafner did in 2008. This year’s free agent market is full of all-bat-no-glove type players whose value would be maximized by only utilizing them for offensive purposes – Carlos Delgado, Jason Giambi, Pat Burrell, Frank Thomas, Adam Dunn, Manny Ramirez, etc. With his contract (guaranteed $51.75MM over the next four years), a team like the Indians, whose payroll hasn’t hit $80MM per year since 2001 (and is often well below that mark) do not have much choice but to keep giving Pronk a shot. Yes, he was injured for much of 2008 and certainly, his poor performance can partly be attributed to it. But his 2007 season wasn’t very good either and players like Hafner age quickly. Long story short, I don’t think we’ll ever see him perform at his previous levels ever again. Only a repeat of his 2007 campaign would be a realistic goal.
Moving on to other topics, there’s been talk of moving Jhonny Peralta to third base which doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. But this would obviously depend on who would replace him at short. And Peralta’s bat profiles as average at the hot corner and doesn’t do anything to improve their lineup power. Unless the Tribe shell out the money to bring in Rafael Furcal, it’s probably best to keep Peralta at short for the time being.
On the pitching side, players who have as big a statistical leap as Cliff Lee had last season tend to come back down to earth – not that his “earth” is all that bad. As long as his low walk total wasn’t a total fluke, Lee should remain a very good player. And to counteract this drop, Fausto Carmona can be expected to be better. No one had foreseen Carmona’s performance in 2007. By the same token, no one foresaw such a poor follow-up year. The real Fausto Carmona should be somewhere in the middle, which still makes him an above-average pitcher. The Tribe can also expect the return of Jake Westbrook from Tommy John surgery sometime in the summer and he should be a positive addition to the rotation. In the meantime, rookie Scott Lewis (who made his debut in September) should get the chance to earn a full time spot along with fellow young arms Aaron Laffey, Anthony Reyes, and Jeremy Sowers.
Their bullpen could use some help as well. Currently, their best relievers are Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis. In addition, top prospect Adam Miller is expected to be on an innings-limit making him a reliever for most if not all of 2009. And while he had a terrible season, Rafael Betancourt is a better pitcher than his 2008 numbers indicate. But Perez is the only lefty of the bunch so they could use one more.
But their primary focus should really be to boost the offensive production coming from their corner positions. Ben Francisco, Ryan Gutierrez and Ryan Garko are probably not going to cut it if the Indians want to overtake the White Sox for the division crown. Giving Choo more at-bats would probably be a cheap and worthwhile option. I would also argue that Kelly Shoppach’s value is never going to be higher than it is right now and ought to be shipped out to one of the many teams who’d love an offensive upgrade at the catcher spot in exchange for a viable third baseman (Red Sox perhaps?).
All in all, I like the Indians’ chances in 2009. But much of it is going to rest upon the bats of Hafner and Victor Martinez. If their 2008 season wasn’t a fluke, then much of what they accomplish this offseason will most likely be moot.