There were nights last season when Jhonny Peralta, from his shortstop position, couldn't make out the signs flashed by his catcher and didn't know what pitch was coming. Nor could he read the spin of the ball off the bat. "In the day nothing was bad," he says, "but sometimes at night things were blurry." Peralta finally got checked out and fitted for contacts, but he found that they irritated his eyes. The seasonlong vision problems contributed to his 16 errors and an .817 zone rating (the percentage of balls fielded in a player's typical "defensive zone"), fourth worst among AL shortstops -- woes that Peralta, 24, hopes off-season laser eye surgery has cured. Says manager Eric Wedge, channeling Johnnie Cochran, "The better he can see, the better off we'll be."
Last year Cleveland ranked second-worst in the league in errors (118) and allowed a major-league-high 84 unearned runs, undermining an offense that trailed only the Yankees in scoring and a rotation whose 4.31 ERA was third in the league. To address part of the problem Cleveland acquired 24-year-old second baseman Josh Barfield from the Padres and permanently installed 23-year-old Andy Marte at third base, improvements over Ronnie Belliard and Aaron Boone, respectively. The new infield thrills ace lefthander C.C. Sabathia. "You know that they're going to turn the double plays you need, and you can pitch to contact," he says. "You don't have to throw it by guys."
If there was one aspect of the 2006 Indians worse than their defense, it was a bullpen that had only 24 saves -- fewest by an AL team in 10 years -- in 47 opportunities. G.M. Mark Shapiro bolstered the pen with four newcomers (a fifth, Keith Foulke, retired before the start of spring training). The most important signing is that of free-agent pickup Joe Borowski, who will be the closer, a role in which he has excelled in the past. At 35 he doesn't have an elite closer's dominant stuff -- his fastball barely grazes 90 mph -- but he does have guts and a short memory, qualities lacking in the young pitchers the Indians auditioned last season. "You go out and get the job done all the time, but everybody doubts you," says Borowski. "Early in my career I was worried about that stuff. Now I don't care. I'm here because I can do the job."
Borowski should have plenty of leads to protect in '07. The lineup boasts three of baseball's premier hitters at their positions in catcher Victor Martinez, centerfielder Grady Sizemore and DH Travis Hafner, who says the broken hand that might have cost him the MVP last year was "good to go about two weeks after the season was over." The key to the offense, though -- sense a pattern? -- could be Peralta. In 2005, his first full season, he had a .520 slugging percentage, best among shortstops in the majors, and hit .292 with 24 home runs. But in '06 he plummeted to 13th at the position in slugging (.385), dropped 35 points off his average and hit 11 fewer homers. While his eyesight may have played a role (he batted .285 in day games, .244 at night) Shapiro believes he was most likely suffering a typical sophomore slump. "If he's '06 defensively and '06 offensively," warns Shapiro, "I'm not saying we can't win, but it's going to be a challenge."
In the second inning of the Indians' first spring training game Peralta got an early read on a grounder by the Astros' Jason Lane and ranged far to his right to scoop it up and flip it to Barfield, who turned a quicksilver double play that elicited the sort of cheers from teammates usually reserved for 400-foot bombs. It was only early March, but with an improved defense and an experienced bullpen to match their explosive offense and solid rotation, the Indians have a clear-eyed vision of an AL Central title. -- Ben Reiter
Issue date: March 26, 2007