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Playoff ETA: Next Year
A top closer is on board and young talent is on the way, but for now ... it's wait and see
DIRECTLY BEHIND the Indians' new spring training complex in Goodyear, Ariz., lies a vast desert field of old, largely dormant aircraft. It's not a pretty sight, but it offers an apt metaphor for a sleek-looking 2008 Indians team that never really got off the ground. Like the smaller planes in the field that on occasion take flight, lefthander Cliff Lee soared from out of nowhere to Cy Young greatness last season; but the bigger carriers, notably catcher Victor Martinez, righthander Fausto Carmona and DH Travis Hafner stalled. Cleveland had a .500 season that was every bit as unexpected as its run to the AL Championship Series in '07.
Last season's underperformance prompted a sell-off of free-agents-to-be CC Sabathia, Casey Blake and Paul Byrd that brought a fleet of shiny prospects in return, including slugging outfielder Matt LaPorta, outfielder Michael Brantley and catcher Carlos Santana, a superb switch-hitting talent who was the talk of camp with his line drive bat and shotgun arm. "This is our best collection of young talent since the '90s," says general manager Mark Shapiro, referring to the era that produced such All-Stars as Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Kenny Lofton.
While the future looks exciting, there is still enough talent to compete now and continue the franchise's trend of 90-plus victories in odd-numbered years (93 in 2005, 96 in '07, as opposed to 78 in '06 and 81 in '08). A bounce-back season by Hafner, who hit .197 in an injury-wrecked 2008, would be a big help. ("With age plus injury, plus shrinkage [of stats]," one G.M. says, "I wouldn't hold my breath.") It's been a year and a half since Hafner has produced like a middle-of-the-order slugger, but, says Shapiro hopefully, "there are not many guys in the history of the game who just dropped off the face of the earth either."
Even if Hafner isn't half of what he once was, there is other offensive firepower, starting with 30-30 leadoff hitter and centerfielder Grady Sizemore. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta had more extra-base hits than Alex Rodriguez did in '08, and rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo, whose 1.038 on-base plus slugging percentage in the second half of the season trailed only superstars Ramirez, Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira, has the look of a hitting star in the making, especially now that he's learned to hit lefties. Mark DeRosa, obtained from the Cubs in the off-season, has steadily improved as a hitter in each of the last four years and brings valuable versatility to the lineup.
If the offense, which led the majors with 379 runs after the All-Star break, has been enhanced, the bullpen has been upgraded dramatically. New closer Kerry Wood, coming off a dominant season with the Cubs, "brings fear to the other team," says catcher Kelly Shoppach, a contrast to previous closer Joe Borowski, whom Shoppach says admiringly, got by on "nothing." The only question ever regarding Wood is his health. Though he was slowed early in camp by back soreness, Wood says, "My body feels good."
Wood, however, is only part of the bullpen equation. The regressions last season of setup men Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez were big reasons why the Tribe had the second-worst bullpen ERA in the majors (5.13). Speaking like a man who's watched his pen swing between excellent and awful for four seasons now, manager Eric Wedge concedes, "We're feeling pretty good right now, but in a month we may be trying to figure it out."
The same goes for a rotation that has Cy Young winner Lee and Carmona, the fourth-place finisher in the '07 vote. But the steep decline of Carmona last year and the extra weight he appeared to be carrying this spring are no less a concern than the rest of the rotation, which includes Yankees washout Carl Pavano as the No. 3 starter.
If the rotation proves to be weak, there is enough positional depth to trade for a pitcher. And with the closer role stabilized, there's reason to believe that the Central's most talented team is ready to take off again.