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This is one of a series of posts in which we call out all 30 teams for their off-season blunders, and award credit where due for their crafty off-season maneuvers.

At least compared to expectations, the Cleveland Indians had a dismal 2008 season.

The team that a little more than a year ago was knocking on the door of the World Series before being dragged back at the last moment by the Red Sox, and then returned with the entire team intact, stumbled out of the gate and fell to an 81-81 record, and large contract demands forced them to trade away possibly the best starting pitcher in the game today, C.C. Sabathia.

Can Pronk recover his stroke?

Can Pronk recover his stroke?

Among other problems, the heart of the lineup, Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, went down with injuries and generalized suckage, respectively, and the bullpen imploded, vomiting up the second worst ERA in baseball at 5.13, second only to the perennially execrable Texas pen, once again proving the well-known danger of standing pat with any bullpen headlined by Joe Borowski.

The good news for Indians fans is that the team’s outlook has improved dramatically in recent months.  Part of this improvement actually got underway last season, and it was widely understood that the Indians were actually playing the best baseball of any AL central team last September, while the Twins and White Sox were backing their way into a one-game playoff.

Borowski finally pitched his way out of town, earning a richly deserved release, and the struggles of the rest of the pen forced the front office to locate some younger, more talented arms.  Meanwhile, Cliff Lee sold his soul to the Devil for pinpoint control, Shin-Soo Choo woke up one day and realized he was a ferocious slugger, and Kelly Shoppach burst onto the scene with 21 homers, proving himself to be Theo Epstein’s worst mistake so far – a catcher who hits homers and also gets on base.  Rounding it all out, Martinez and Hafner worked their way back into the lineup, and look ready to go for the start of this season.

A second part of the Indians improvement will come from some positional realignments.  Jhonny Peralta and his ballooning belly shift from short to third base for 2009, allowing natural-born shortstop Asdrubal Cabrerra to slide over from second.  This signals the end of the Andy Marte experiment, I suppose, since the once highly-touted mega-prospect is completely out of minor league options and likely to be cut loose by the end of spring training. But oh well, live and learn.

DeRosa can play every infield or outfield position.

DeRosa can play every position.

Meanwhile, the emergence of Shoppach as a viable starting catcher will allow Martinez to spend more time at first base and DH, where he can hopefully avoid injury and keep his potent bat in the lineup for more games.  He’s probably a better defender at first than the iron-gloved Ryan Garko anyway.

Finally, the Indians went out and made some solid moves in the offseason, somehow prying hard-hitting jack-of all-trades Mark DeRosa away from the Cubs via trade to play second base, and addressing their primary woe last season – the bullpen – by bringing in flame-throwing closer Kerry Wood via free agency and under-appreciated middleman Joe Smith via trade from the Mets.  For the first time in recent memory, the Indians will actually have a closer that inspires any kind of fear at all from the enemy, and combined with the new faces in the pen from the end of last season, the unit as a whole should be greatly improved.

All told it was a pretty good off-season for the Tribe. Standing pat after 2007 was probably a mistake, but the team’s main weakness in the bullpen has now been addressed.  Most people agree that the 6-year deal given to Travis Hafner in 2006 was probably too long, but he may have another year or two of decent production left in him yet, now that a weak shoulder was finally addressed with off-season surgery, and even if the suckage continues, the centerpiece of the Sabathia trade, Matt LaPorta, is a Ryan-Braun-like beast at the plate whose only real position is DH anyway.  With the return from injury of Fausto Carmona and Victor Martinez, the additions of Wood and Smith to the pen, and a much improved defense up the middle in De Rosa and Cabrera, and with the White Sox retrenching while the Twins stand pat and the Tigers try to claw out of the division cellar, the Indians should have as good a chance as any team of taking the AL Central title and perhaps more.

Offseason Grade: B+

Additions: Kerry Wood, Mark DeRosa, Joe Smith, Carl Pavano, Tomo Ohka, Kirk Sarloos

Losses: Franklin Gutierrez

Projected Lineup, Rotation, and Closer:

CF Grady Sizemore
2B Mark DeRosa
1B Victor Martinez
DH Travis Hafner
3B Jhonny Peralta
C Kelly Shoppach
RF Shin-Soo Choo
LF Ben Francisco
SS Asdrubal Cabrera

SP1 Cliff Lee
SP2 Fausto Carmona
SP2 Aaron Laffey
SP4 Anthony Reyes
SP5 Jeremy Sowers/Scott Lewis/Zach Jackson/David Huff/Carl Pavano

CL Kerry Wood

- Hot Offseason Action Index -

10 Responses to “Hot Offseason Action: Cleveland Indians”

  1. Nick, I picked the Indians to win the Central last year so you really need to take my opinions on this one with a grain of salt.

    But I still feel like so much rests on Martinez and Hafner. Sizemore is arguably a top-5 player. And I love Choo. But Shoppach’s breakout season was largely due to an unsustainable HR/F rate of 23%. And unless he’s entirely unique, his BABIP has to come down at some point, right? Granted, he’s still an above average option at catcher, but he’s not a star. Plus, DeRosa can’t be expected to reproduce in ’08 numbers either. Plus, Peralta’s offensive value takes a bit of a hit with the move to 3rd and Martinez’ value takes a huge hit at 1st.

    So unless Martinez’ power comes back and Pronk can be a decent DH, I don’t know if they can score enough runs. I’m not writing them off at all because they can win. But I still think they need more pop.

  2. Nick Kapur says:

    Paul, I don’t disagree with you at all, and I’m not necessarily picking the Indians to win the Central.

    But I also think you are evaluating the players as taking a hit when they switch positions in a way that doesn’t really make sense.

    I mean sure, as an individual, Martinez is worth less at first base than at catcher, but isn’t the *team* better off with Martinez and Shoppach than with Shoppach and Garko?

    Likewise, it is true that Peralta’s value as an individual piece is less at third base, but again isn’t the team as a whole better off with Peralta and DeRosa than Peralta and Blake, especially given the brutal left side defense provided by Peralta and Blake?

    Moreover, I do think that Hafner and Martinez, or at least one of them, will have bounce-back seasons, as both were injured last year, and even if they don’t, the Indians at least have fallback options in Garko and LaPorta.

    All that said, there is still a lot that could go wrong with this team. The rotation in particular is suspect. I am not at all certain that Cliff Lee can come close to last year’s performance, and after his turn in the rotation their are a lot of question marks. But at least the Indians do have a lot of semi-reasonable arms to throw out there.

    My main point is that this team won 81 games last year with no Hafner, no Martinez, no Carmona, and no bullpen. All four of those missing pieces *could* potentially be back and the defense is improved, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that they could win a few more games and they aren’t that far from contention to begin with.

  3. Coley Ward says:

    I’m really curious: Is Shin-Soo Choo for real? How good will he be in 2009?

  4. Paul Moro says:

    ZiPS has Choo with a .282/.364/.456 line. MARCELS likes him even more at .295/.376/.494. So pretty good. We’ll obviously have to see to know for sure but indicators are positive. I’m thinking the only thing we don’t know enough about is his ability to hit lefties over a longer period of time. But so far, so good.

  5. Paul Moro says:

    Nick, point taken. Garko can’t hit enough to be a 1B and can’t field either. So Martinez is probably an improvement. But Blake/Peralta is probably comparable.

    And the other part of the IF defense is how well Cabrera plays at SS. I know that’s his natural position and it’s not hard to improve on Peralta. But DeRosa isn’t good at second. We’ll need to see how much better Cabrera is over Peralta. And figuring that out right now is something that’s above my head.

  6. DeRosa isn’t going to play second, he’s going to play third.

  7. Don’t worry if Shoppach ends up bombing too. They have Carlos Santana waiting.

    Thanks Ned!

  8. Nick Kapur says:

    Stupid Ned Colletti.

  9. Sarah Green says:

    Kelly Shoppach, you haunt my dreams.

    signed,
    Theo Epstein.

  10. Sarah Green says:

    Oh, and:

    “Stupid Ned Colletti. — Nick Kapur”

    Take one drink.

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