The Indians finished tied for last place in the AL Central in 2009, tied with Kansas City. So it’s not realistic to think they’ll go worst to first and take the division.
But the Tribe does have a few things going for them. First, the Central is a weak division, and neither the Twins nor the White Sox did much to improve this winter, while the Tigers arguably got worse with the departures of Placido Polanco, Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson.
Second, Cleveland had some pretty crappy luck in 2009, under-performing their Pythagorean record and watching star CF Grady Sizemore struggle with injuries. Sizemore had season-ending elbow and
abdominal surgeries in September and will be back on the field in 2010, as will pitcher Jake Westbrook, who missed the entire 2009 season after Tommy John elbow surgery.
What else does Cleveland have to look forward to? The best player you’ve never heard of, Shin-Soo Choo, will try to improve on his 20/20 2009 season, and his .393 OBP. Carlos Santana, the Indians’ best prospect, could see a lot of action behind the plate.
Matt LaPorta should get a full season’s worth of action at first base, after struggling a bit as an outfielder during a brief call-up last season. Here’s what ESPN’s Kieth Law had to say about LaPorta (ESPN Insider required):
LaPorta’s power is prodigious, and he gets very good extension through the ball; he’s strong enough to power the ball out the other way but can get too pull-conscious. His swing is a little long, but he hasn’t had trouble making contact through Double-A, fanning in just 19 percent of his plate appearances in pro ball. To the extent that he continues that, he can be more than just a three-true-outcomes player and would elevate himself from “above-average regular” to “potential star.”
Elsewhere on the diamond, Luis Valbuena will likely get another shot at second base, though he’s yet to distinguish himself either with the bat or the glove, and this could be his last shot. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta is looking to rebound from a disappointing season, where he OBP’d just .316 and was also sub par with the glove. Meanwhile, 3B Asdrubal Cabrera is looking to prove that his 2009 was no fluke. And, for what it’s worth, Bill James doesn’t think it was.
Oh, and don’t forget about Pronk. He’ll DH until he hurts himself.
Then there’s the rotation. There’s Westbrook, who might take a while to round into form but has been a valuable innings-eater in the past. Behind Westbrook is a ton of young arms.
Let’s start with Mitch Talbot, 26, who the Tribe acquired this winter when they traded Kelly Shoppach to the Rays. Here’s what MLB Trade Rumors had to say about Talbot:
Talbot, 26, pitched mostly at Triple A this year. He posted a 4.47 ERA, 6.6 K/9, and 3.0 BB/9 in ten starts. He missed a few months with an elbow injury, so the Rays had him make six starts in the Arizona Fall League to get more work. He’s out of options, so he’ll presumably compete for a spot in the Indians’ rotation.
After Talbot there’s Carlos Carrasco, who Cleveland got from Philly in the Cliff Lee trade. Carrasco has shown an ability to miss bats at the minor league level, but he’s been inconsistent. There’s Justin Masterson, who Cleveland got from the Red Sox last season, in the Victor Martinez trade. Masterson has been effective as both a starter and a reliever at the major league level. He’s pretty close to a lock to make the rotation. Then there’s Fausto Carmona, Anthony Reyes, Hector Rondon and Jess Todd — all of whom could make the team out of spring training (though Todd is more likely to land in the bullpen).
Except for the bullpen (which is always a crapshoot) that’s about it. Phew! So what do the Indians need in 2010? A little luck, a little patience, and a really good pitching coach.
In November, former pitcher Tim Belcher was named the Indians’ pitching coach after spending the last eight seasons in the organization as a Special Assistant to Baseball Operations. It’s his first coaching gig of any kind (at least, according to his Wikipedia page). Belcher might be a genius. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure: he’ll need to get the most out of his young staff if the Indians are going to succeed.
I love this squad. The Indians are loaded with young talent. Sizemore, when healthy, is an all-star. Shin-Soo, though not flashy, is a stud. Santana looks like the second coming of Johnny Bench. And LaPorta, given time, should emerge as a slugger.
Like last year’s Oakland squad, this year’s Indians are a tough team to predict, due to a reliance on untested pitchers. And like last season’s A’s, I expect this Cleveland team to take it’s lumps. But watch out for them in 201o — and beyond!