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Cleveland Indians - 2007 Team Preview
Predicted Finish
88-74
2nd Place
AL Central

by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
March 7, 2007

2006 Record - 78-84, 4th Place AL Central, 18.0 behind the Twins
2006 Runs Scored - 870
2006 Runs Allowed - 782
Pythagorean Projection - 89-73



If you didn’t already, take a careful look at the 2006 Indians regular season record, and then their Pythagorean Projection. There is a discrepancy of 11 games between the two, and while I haven’t done extensive research on the issue, I am tempted to think that difference is historic. The explanation for a team’s failure to live up to its Pythagorean Projection is rather simple – the team underachieved. More specifically, the team scored a lot of runs, but also committed a lot of errors, had an ineffective pitching staff, and simply made too many mistakes. As it turns out, that is exactly what happened to the 2006 Cleveland Indians, a team that was second in the majors in runs scored, but also had the fifth most errors in Major League Baseball. If offense wins games, but pitching and defense win championships, the 2006 Indians were built for the former, not the latter, and actually ended up doing neither.

Catcher
2006 Starter - Victor Martinez
Projected 2007 Starter - Victor Martinez

Is Victor Martinez the best offensive catcher in Major League Baseball? In short, no, but right now, it is a three horse race between Martinez, Joe Mauer, and Brian McCann, and Martinez has the most game-time logged of the three. Martinez hits for average, gets on-base, has doubles power, and doesn’t strike out a ton. His 27 double plays were a red flag last season, but when you are catcher who puts the ball in play in an offense like the Indians had last season, that happens. Ask A.J. Pierzynski, who also had 27 double plays in 2004 Giants.

First Base
2006 Starter - Ben Broussard, Ryan Garko
Projected 2007 Starter - Casey Blake, Ryan Garko

Blake returns to the infield after two years in right field, and is coming off of his best season from a rate-statistic standpoint. Unfortunately, he missed 53 games, but he almost matched his previous season’s totals even with the missed games.

The Indians gave Ryan Garko a long look last year, and he was pretty impressive. The Indians currently have Dave Dellucci, Trot Nixon, and Andy Marte penciled in to start in left, right, and third base, respectively. It is hard to believe that the Indians won’t move Blake back to third base or the outfield to work Garko into the lineup often.

Second Base
2006 Starter - Ronnie Belliard, Joe Inglett
Projected 2007 Starter - Josh Barfield

Ronnie Belliard was one of things that made the Indians’ demise hard to predict. Going into last season, he looked like a scrappy hotshot with a sure glove and decent doubles power. Once the 2006 season got underway, however, Belliard looked old and slow, and he managed to hurt the team both at the plate and in the field.

Last season, Josh Barfield had a 741 OPS in his first action as a major leaguer, and hit 13 homeruns and 32 doubles. Taking a closer look, we see that Barfield’s OPS was 199 points higher on the road, and he hit 7 of his 13 homeruns and 20 of his 32 doubles away from Petco Park. Moving from Petco to Jacobs Field should help Barfield’s bat, and his glove will already be a improvement over Belliard’s. This is probably the Indians most significant improvement over last season.

Third Base
2006 Starter - Aaron Boone, Andy Marte
Projected 2007 Starter - Andy Marte

Andy Marte takes over third base full time this season, and Aaron Boone joins Ronnie Belliard on the mistake-train out of town. Like Belliard, Boone also hurt the Indians both in the field and at the plate. For the time being, Marte should only hurt them at the plate, and should eventually be a solid offensive contributor.

Shortstop
2006 Starter - Jhonny Peralta
Projected 2007 Starter - Jhonny Peralta

If Jhonny Peralta was the surprise player of 2005, then he wins the Neil Armstrong Award for Fastest Return to Earth for his performance in 2006. Peralta’s problems on defense have probably been overstated a touch, as he seems to actually have improved over his 2005 defense, but the bottom truly fell out from under his offense. The most shocking drop off was probably his slugging percentage, which fell from .520 to .385, but that shouldn’t distract from the fact that he worsened in almost every offensive category last season. In 2007, Peralta will have to show a sure glove, but he will also have to show that his 2005 performance was no fluke. Hell, the Indians will be happy if he can show that he is even an average offensive player.



Outfield
2006 Starters - Grady Sizemore, Casey Blake, Jason Michaels, Shin-Soo Choo
Projected 2007 Starter - Grady Sizemore, Dave Dellucci, Trot Nixon

The Indians acquired Shin-Soo Choo from the Mariners for Ben Broussard in July of last season, and Choo was very good in the field and at the plate. He strikes out a lot, but also posted a .373 on-base percentage in 45 games. Nevertheless, the Indians are going veteran in the corners, placing Dave Dellucci and Trot Nixon at the top of the depth chart.

Dave Dellucci is now two years removed from his explosion with the Texas Rangers in 2005, in which he set career highs in every offensive category save stolen bases. With Gary Mathews, Jr., having repeated the feat with the 2006 Rangers and subsequently coming under investigation for steroid use, one has to wonder about Dellucci. Nevertheless, Dellucci hit .292 for the Phillies last year with an .899 OPS, so he should be a solid contributor in left field until the Indians put either Garko or Choo out there.

I said it last year, and it bears repeating – “Grady Sizemore is one of the exciting young players in baseball.” After a fantastic 2005 as a 22 year old, Sizemore took his game to the next level in 2006, improving his on-base and slugging percentages to push his OPS over .900, hitting 16 more doubles and 6 more homeruns and taking 26 more walks than the year before. He also scored 23 more runs, and got caught stealing 4 fewer times. Perhaps the most shocking element of Sizemore’s game was his HBP to GDP ratio – Sizemore got hit by a pitch 13 times, and hit into only two double plays all year. The Indians’ centerfielder will only be 24 years old in 2007, and seems to have unlimited potential.

The opposite would seem to have to be said for Trot Nixon, who has spent the last three years hampered by various injuries and watching his offensive productivity decline. Unless he is healthy and rejuvenated, Nixon should be out of a job by the All Star Break.

Indians Fun Fact - Travis Hafner tied the major league record with six grand slams in 2006 despite missing the last month of the season.
Designated Hitter
2006 Starter - Travis Hafner
Projected 2007 Starter - Travis Hafner

Hafner continued to improve in every facet of the game and his numbers – 42 homeruns, 117 RBI, 100 runs, 100 walks – look like 162 game totals and disguise the fact that he missed the last month of the season with a broken bone. He has the dumbest nickname in sports – Pronk – when the obvious alternative – T-Haf – is so much better, and he is so allergic to playing defense that he gets benched in inter-league games, but he is one of the most dangerous hitters in major league baseball.

Starting Pitchers

2006 Starters - Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook, C.C. Sabathia, Jason Johnson, Jeremy Sowers, Paul Byrd
Projected 2007 Starters - C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee, Jeremy Sowers, Paul Byrd

The Indians pitching staff won the Bright As The Sun Award for last season – if you looked directly at them, you suffered permanent injury. With the exception of young Sabathia, the Indians pitching staff was legitimately bad last season, as Cliff Lee came back to earth after an 18-5 2005, Paul Byrd inexplicably fell apart, and Jason Johnson (fill in Jason Johnson joke here).

For what it is worth, Jake Westbrook actually improved upon a dismal 2005 season.

So what is it going to take for the Indians pitching staff to succeed in 2007? For one thing, addition by subtraction – Jason Johnson is gone. Secondly, they need Sabathia to be healthy – he set a career high in strikeouts and a career low in walks last season, but still missed time due to injury. Thirdly, they need less Paul Byrd, and more Jeremy Sowers. Sowers, the two-time first round pick, made his debut last year at 23 years old after tearing through the minors, and went 7-4 with a 3.57 ERA in 88.3 innings. If he is ready for 150-plus innings, this is will be a major improvement for the Indians pitching staff, to go along with the unpredictable Westbrook and Lee. If Sabathia, Sowers, Lee, and Westbrook are all healthy and consistent, the Indians would have four starting pitchers under the age of 30.



Relief Pitchers
2006 Relievers - Bob Wickman, Fernando Cabrera, Rafael Betancourt, Jason Davis, Guillermo Mota
Projected 2007 Relievers - Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez, Fernando Cabrera, Jason Davis, Juan Lara

The Bob Wickman Era officially drew to a close when the Indians shipped him to Atlanta last July. Power pitcher Fernando Cabrera went from lights out in 2005 to lights on in 2006, as his ERA jumped from 1.47 to 5.19. Rafael Betancourt likely watched his ERA jump over a point higher from 2005 to 2006. Indeed, the Indians bullpen was as symbolic of the Indians demise as Jhonny Peralta’s suddenly unsure bat or Ronnie Belliard’s suddenly unsure glove. A unit that featured six pitchers with ERAs under 3.00 in 2005 featured exactly two such pitchers in 2006 – Edward Mujica, in 18.3 innings, and Juan Lara, in 5.0 innings. If the Indians hope to contend in 2007, the bullpen, above all other positions, will have to be righted.

Outlook for the Season

This team surprised everybody by contending for the AL Central Division Crown in 2005, and then surprised everybody again by not showing up in 2006. The Indians have taken major steps, though, to eliminate problems both on defense and on offense, and look to have a solid, young, and hopefully consistent pitching staff. The Indians have four legitimate stars in Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, and C.C. Sabathia, and if the players around them can keep from making the mistakes they made last year, the Indians’ ship should be righted. Despite the performances of the Twins, Tigers, and White Sox last season, the AL Central division may nevertheless be in a state of flux, and the Indians may find themselves atop the division at season’s end.


Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at asher@baseballevolution.com.

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