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.
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.
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