Can the Tribe rebuild quickly in 2011?
Some good news: The Indians aren’t likely to finish in fourth place once again. The bad news: This team appears headed for last place in the AL Central — one spot below the seemingly always-rebuilding Royals. The Indians are too young and have too many questions to be considered anything but a doormat. Center fielder Grady Sizemore and catcher Carlos Santana are coming off serious knee operations. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, like Sizemore, hasn’t had a healthy season in the last two years, and the Indians are unsettled at second and third base. Pitching, thought to be a weakness last season, turned into a strength, but not on the level of the World Series champion Giants. Fausto Carmona needs to build on his comeback season in 2010 to continue to lead the rotation. In the bullpen, promising closer Chris Perez will be tested over a full season.
Carmona is the only starter who has pitched more than 200 innings in a season, which is why the Indians spent the offseason trying to acquire a veteran to protect their young arms. Carmona, Justin Masterson, Mitch Talbot and Carlos Carrasco are expected to fill the first four spots. The fifth spot will be decided among David Huff, Josh Tomlin, Jeanmar Gomez, Anthony Reyes and a veteran starter if the cash-strapped Indians are able to find one. Huff, who won 11 games in 2009 and lost 11 in 2010, is the only lefthander in the group. Masterson was given a chance to start for much of last season and responded with 180 innings and a team-high 140 strikeouts — but much inconsistency. If he can lock in his mechanics as he did for his last eight starts in 2010, he could be a key to the rotation. Alex White and Drew Pomeranz, the Indians' last two No. 1 picks, could help. White, drafted in 2009, would get the first shot.
While the rotation is righthander-heavy, the pen has nice balance. Perez, the closer, is a righthander, and his top two setup men, Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp, are lefties. Sidearmer Joe Smith is a situational righthander. Jensen Lewis and Frank Herrmann, both righties, can go more than one inning. Lefty Aaron Laffey offers length. Rookie Vinnie Pestano saved 14 games at Class AAA before showing moxie in five September appearances with the Tribe. Other relief options in the pipeline include Josh Judy, Zach Putnam, Jess Todd and Bryce Stowell. This is the deepest part of the roster.
This is a weak spot. Cabrera is a solid defender and productive hitter if he keeps his weight down and stays off the disabled list, two things he’s been unable to do the last two years. He fractured his left forearm in May and didn’t look like the same player when he returned in July. Jason Donald and Luis Valbuena were the primary starters at second base last year. Donald was the better offensive player, but they both struggled defensively. The Indians signed veteran Orlando Cabrera (no relation) late in the winter as a solution for second. Cabrera is a proven winner and brings leadership to the clubhouse. If his skills haven’t declined too much, he will be a major upgrade. Jayson Nix, who spent much of last season playing out of position at third base, is the most experienced second baseman, but he could be the starter at third. Prospects Jason Kipnis and Cord Phelps will be pushing hard for playing time. Kipnis, a converted center fielder, has a chance to be the Opening Day starter at second. Donald and Valbuena were a disaster at short last year.
Third and first base might not be as shaky as short and second, but they’re close. The Indians need first baseman Matt LaPorta to become the right-handed run producer that their lineup desperately needs. LaPorta, the key player in the 2008 CC Sabathia trade with Milwaukee, had an on-base percentage of .306 last season. Going into the 2010 season, he was forced to spend most of his time rehabbing from toe and hip surgery. There were no offseason surgeries last winter, so better results are expected. Third base is a mystery. If GM Chris Antonetti doesn’t add a third baseman, Nix and Donald will get first crack at the job. Veteran Jack Hannahan and prospects Phelps and Lonnie Chisenhall are possibilities. Chisenhall is the third baseman of the future, but he’s not ready yet.
This has the potential to be the strongest part of the offense, but three things need to go right. Sizemore needs to stay healthy for the first time in two years. He missed most of last season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee, and there is a chance he might not be ready to open the season. Left fielder Michael Brantley needs to continue the improvement he showed on his third trip to the big leagues late last season. And finally, Shin-Soo Choo needs to produce his third straight strong season from right field. Sizemore, Brantley and Choo hit left-handed. Right-handed hitting Austin Kearns was re-signed to a one-year deal to help against lefties. Kearns opened last season with the Tribe before being traded to the Yankees in July. Shelley Duncan, Trevor Crowe and Travis Buck will also be competing for bench jobs in case Sizemore suffers a setback.
The last hitter to arrive in Cleveland with a louder buzz than Carlos Santana was Manny Ramirez. Manager Manny Acta dropped Santana into the middle of the lineup the moment he arrived from Triple-A Columbus on June 11, and he stayed there until he suffered a season-ending knee injury blocking the plate in Boston on Aug. 2. The switch-hitting Santana did make the Indians more dangerous, but he was in his first prolonged slump when he tore the lateral collateral ligament in his knee at Fenway Park. Santana is ahead of Sizemore in his recovery from surgery, and Acta is determined to keep him in the middle of the lineup. Lou Marson had the best percentage of throwing out basestealers in the AL last season, but if he wants to back up Santana he better hit more than .195. Luke Carlin and Paul Phillips will try to steal the job from him.
One problem with the roster is that DH Travis Hafner is making $13 million this year and $13 million in 2012. Combine that with a payroll that has been cut dramatically since 2007 and it doesn’t allow much roster flexibility. Hafner had a better second half, but it’s doubtful he’ll ever show his old power. Kearns and Crowe are the extra outfielders; Kearns can provide pop, while Crowe adds speed. Everett, if he makes the team, will play both middle infield spots.
This is Antonetti’s first year on the job as GM. He was Mark Shapiro’s assistant for the last nine years so he knows what the deal is in Cleveland. Antonetti didn’t have much to spend this winter and realizes that if the Indians are going to make any strides this year, it’s primarily going to be the work of the players already on the roster. Acta is entering the second year of a three-year deal. He showed patience during last year’s 93-loss season and a nice touch with the pitching staff.
The Indians have fallen from a team that was one victory away from a World Series in 2007 to one that is in trouble. They have lost money for the last two years despite revenue sharing. They finished last in attendance in 2010, a showing that demonstrated the disgust of a fan base that at one time sold out 455 straight games at Progressive Field. CEO Paul Dolan said in November that now is not the time to spend on free agents. Fans have heard this before. They didn’t like it then — they like it even less now. If contraction was still a talking point by Commissioner Bud Selig, the Indians, charter members of the American League, would be a candidate.