Spring Postcard: Indians hoping Hafner can recapture old magic
Cleveland is in its first season at its new spring training complex
Travis Hafner and Kerry Wood could be the vital cogs this season
The starting pitching is fairly thin, but there's quality at the top
1) Their camp, at a beautiful new facility out in the middle of nowhere (or as close to nowhere as most will go), is extremely quiet and businesslike. It also appears very well run, which is a plus. The oddity is the plane "cemetery" next to the fields, a lineup of airplanes put out to pasture (or in the case, out to desert), where the dry air allows them to survive for parts or emergencies. Occasionally, there is a takeoff, momentarily disrupting the eerie (as opposed to Erie) calm.
2) They need Travis Hafner to revert to the former Travis Hafner. He hit some nice shots in batting practice, but so far is working slowly into games (0-for-2 at the plate so far). Which is to say, no one who's going to help much. "I am confident he's going to come back. I'm confident he's going to be a middle-of-the-order producer for us," manager Eric Wedge said. The alternative, the 2008 Hafner (.197), isn't pretty.
3) Fausto Carmona doesn't look quite as big as I'd heard he was. "He's worked his way into shape," Wedge said of the rising star whose career path took a dip in '08. He pitched winter ball but apparently the food was very tasty down there. Excellent pitching coach Carl Willis was working on Carmona's delivery on this day. If he's right, he could give the Indians two aces. Last year he wasn't right, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio that wasn't even 1 to 1 (70 walks, 58 strikeouts).
Wish You Were Here
How about Pedro Martinez? "That's an interesting name," one Indians person said. Yes, it would be interesting for a team that needs another proven starter. However, Martinez said he's not signing for what Tom Glavine signed for ($1 million guaranteed, plus incentives), and the Indians aren't sure they have even that. They're tapped out after acquiring Mark DeRosa, Kerry Wood and Carl Pavano, one Indians person said.
There's great competition at the end of a fairly thin rotation. After Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, Carmona plus Pavano, they are hoping Anthony Reyes, who looked good late last year, wins the No. 4 spot. After that, it's a guessing game. Aaron Laffey has a good shot, though he isn't having a great spring. So does Jeremy Sowers, who's had a rough couple years. And Zach Jackson and Kirk Saarloos are among others in the picture. By July, Jake Westbrook (elbow surgery) could be back to help. Camp Star Powerful shortstop Jhonny Peralta is taking advantage of favorable hitting conditions in the desert to bat .643 so far.
Prospect Creating Buzz
Actually, there are a few, and many of them play the outfield. Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta, both acquired in the CC Sabathia trade, are terrific prospects. Nick Weglarz, a drafted player from Canada described as "Bunyonesque," has great power. Additionally, catching prospect Carlos Santana, who was acquired in the Casey Blake trade, is making beautiful music. He was converted from third base but appears to have a lot of tools.
New Face, New Place
Kerry Wood could be the key to the team. The Indians for years employed all-heart, no-stuff Joe Borowski as their closer, and catcher Kelly Shoppach said, lovingly, "The thing about Joe is, he didn't have anything." Wood, on the other hand, has everything, provided he has his health that is. He was set back early by a back issue that's considered minor and will throw his second simulated game Tuesday. Said Shoppach, "He brings fear to the opposing team."
What Can He Do for an Encore?
Asked if he could repeat his 22-3 season of a year ago, Cliff Lee answered, "I don't know. We'll see," Lee, actually, isn't setting that as a goal. "I want to stay healthy, make every start and give our team a chance to win," Lee said in his usual understated manner. Wood, sitting next to him, interjected, 'That's not true. He told me he was going to win 26." Wood was kidding, I think.
Whatever Happened to?
Tomo Ohka is here. Though he isn't exactly starting promisingly, pitching to a 14.73 ERA so far this spring.
Not Done Yet
Pavano? I say that with a question mark because it's hard to have too much faith after seeing the last four years (9-9 with the Yankees with a .310 opponents' batting average for $39.95 million). Wedge says the difference is that he's healthy. Also, the manager mentioned that he's getting along with his teammates, another plus. Maybe Cleveland's just a better spot for him than New York.
At full strength, the bullpen looks strong. If the Rafaels, Perez and Betancourt, can get back to their 2007 performance, it could be one of the best pens around. Sidearming Joe Smith comes from the Mets to add an extra dimension. And Wood has a chance to be one of the biggest acquisitions anyone made this winter.
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