Always use protection
Rookie Kyle Denney was shot in the right calf Sept. 29 in a drive-by shooting while riding on the team bus after a game in Kansas City. Denney’s calf was partially protected by a white go-go boot he was wearing. Denney was dressed as a USC cheerleader as part of a rookie hazing prank when he was shot.
Bombed in the Bronx
The Indians have lost more than 1,000 games to the Yankees over their long history, but on Aug. 31, they gained a small measure of revenge, beating New York 22–0 at Yankee Stadium. It was the worst loss in Yankee history and matched the Tribe’s biggest shutout in history.
Thanks for the memories
When the Indians didn’t exercise Omar Vizquel’s $5 million option for 2005, they severed ties with the last player on the roster to appear in the 1995 and 1997 World Series.
Catch me if you can
Victor Martinez, who had 108 RBIs overall, had 101 of them as a catcher to set a club record. The previous high was 83 by Sandy Alomar Jr.
Night to remember
In a game against Seattle on July 16, Martinez went 5-for-5 with three homers and seven RBIs. He hit homers from both sides of the plate and became the first Tribe catcher to hit three homers in one game.
Patience of Casey
Casey Blake saw an average of 4.26 pitches per at-bat last season. It was the highest average of any hitter in the American League.
Not only did David Riske blow seven saves last season, but he also won seven straight decisions from May 29 through Aug. 25.
C.C. Sabathia threw 509 pitches at 95 mph or higher last year, the second-most in the AL.
The Indians came out of nowhere and placed five players on the AL All-Star team. The Yankees and Rangers were the only teams with more.
This is the season when GM Mark Shapiro said the Indians would contend again. Shapiro is four years into his rebuilding plan, and so far his timetable has run true to course. To make contention a reality in the American League Central, the Indians will need a solid year out of free agent arrival Kevin Millwood, a more focused C.C. Sabathia in the rotation and a healthy Bob Wickman in the bullpen. Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, Casey Blake and Coco Crisp must continue to drive last year’s unexpectedly productive offense, and manager Eric Wedge must find out if Jhonny Peralta can replace Omar Vizquel at shortstop.
Millwood, Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee give the Indians four decent starters. Millwood was a nice consolation prize for Cleveland after the club was outbid for starters Jon Lieber, Matt Clement and David Wells. Sabathia, distracted by on- and off-the-field issues last year, needs to stop baiting umpires and keep his emotions in check. If ground-ball specialist Westbrook builds on last year’s breakout season, he could become one of the best No. 2 or No. 3 starters in the American League. Lee, 9–1 in the first half and 5–7 in the second half last season, may one day replace Sabathia as the No. 1 starter if he can develop some consistency. Scott Elarton, who settled down in the second half after a horrible start with Colorado, could round out the rotation. Jason Davis opened last season as the No. 2 starter but could be the Tribe’s new closer by the end of the season.
The effectiveness of the bullpen will be a key to the Indians’ season. They blew 28 saves last year, 21 by the All-Star break. Wickman, 13-of-14 in save situations after the break, is back despite a questionable right elbow. Setup men Bobby Howry and David Riske have Wickman’s back if he struggles. Wedge spent much of last season without an effective lefty, but he’ll have options this year in veterans Arthur Rhodes and Scott Sauerbeck, along with Cliff Bartosh. Rhodes was acquired from Pittsburgh, and Sauerbeck missed last season with rotator cuff surgery. Sidearmer Matt Miller and Rafael Betancourt will compete for the middle innings, with Davis, Kaz Tadano and Jeremy Guthrie candidates to be long men and spot starters.
Peralta has the difficult job of replacing Vizquel, who ended his 11-year stay as the Indians’ shortstop by signing a three-year deal with San Francisco. Peralta, the International League Player of the Year last season at Class AAA Buffalo, made 27 errors bouncing between short and third. He needs work on his backhand. Ronnie Belliard offers stability and a good bat at second. Alex Cora and Jose Hernandez both can play shortstop if Peralta falters.
After two productive years, Casey Blake is headed for the outfield, provided Aaron Boone can step in at third. Boone, signed in June as a free agent, didn’t play last year because of two operations on his left knee. The Indians expect him to be ready by Opening Day, but no one knows how much Boone, 32, has left after missing an entire year. When Boone was acquired last year, it made first baseman Ben Broussard trade bait. He wasn’t hitting, and Blake’s second-best position is first. But Broussard started to hit, particularly in the clutch, and saved his job. Broussard gives Wedge a productive left-handed hitter who can bat anywhere from fifth through eighth in the lineup.
If Juan Gonzalez, signed to a minor league contract, makes it through spring training healthy, a jumbled outfield will begin to look orderly. Gonzalez will be in right field, Blake will move from right to left and Coco Crisp will play center. Gonzalez has been plagued by injuries over the last three years, but if he gives the Indians anything close to what he gave them in 2001 (.325, 35 HRs, 140 RBIs), he’ll be a steal. What the Indians really want him to do is replace the 100 runs scored by Matt Lawton, who was traded to Pittsburgh in December. Blake, who has gone from third base to right field to left field since the end of last season, hit 28 homers last season but has never played a big league game in the outfield. Crisp, who will get a chance to hit leadoff, can run the ball down in center, but he has a weak arm. He stunned management last year by hitting .318 with 10 homers and 39 RBIs in the second half.
The switch-hitting Martinez and Josh Bard could be the Tribe’s catchers for a long time. When Martinez moved into the cleanup spot in May, the offense took off. Martinez made the All-Star team, but he wore down in the second half and his throwing is a liability. When the Indians released veteran Tim Laker, they cleared a spot for Bard. He has a better arm than Martinez and has some power.
The Indians likely would have offered Hafner a multi-year contract in the offseason had he not undergone surgery on his right elbow in October. Hafner is disciplined, works the count and has big-time power. Manny Ramirez was the only AL player with a better OPS than Hafner in 2004. Hernandez brings versatility because he can play all the infield positions as well as some outfield, and he’s a productive — albeit strike-prone — hitter. Cora can be a boost as well, especially defensively, and handles the bat extremely well. Bard will be the backup catcher, and Ryan Ludwick, slowed by knee surgeries last year, has a chance to be the fourth outfielder. Jody Gerut, when he recovers from ACL surgery on his right knee, will be a factor as well. Brandon Phillips could fill the extra infield spot.
Shapiro’s rebuilding plan has been painful, because owner Larry Dolan has kept a tight hold on his wallet. Still, Shapiro has made progress, and he was rewarded with a contract extension in the offseason that will keep him with the club through the 2007 season. Now it’s up to him, Wedge and the players to take the next step. The Indians improved from 68 victories in 2003 to 80 in 2004, and they were one game out of first place on Aug. 14 before falling out of the race. Since blowing up the club in 2002, Shapiro has restocked the minor league system with trades, good drafts and about $100 million of Dolan’s money. He hired Wedge, who struck a motivational chord with his players last season. It will be interesting to find out if that chord is still ringing this year.
Even in the conservative AL Central, payrolls are climbing. The Twins, winners of three straight division titles, are holding at $55 million to $60 million, but the White Sox and Tigers could go well beyond that. The Indians, with all their young talent, may not be able to compete with a projected payroll of between $42 million and $45 million, although securing a tested starter like Millwood will certainly help.