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2008 Cleveland Indians
Can They Surviving Waking a Sleeping Giant?

BaseballEvolution.com 2008 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
February 22, 2008

Some teams go along from year to year without any sense of cohesion or continuity. Not the Cleveland Indians. After a great run in the 1990s, the current incarnation of the Cleveland Indians is now entering its six season - Wedge Year Six, if you will. The Eric Wedge era has been filled with ups - like nearly upsetting the eventual World Champion White Sox for the division title in 2005 and getting one game away from the World Series before succombing to the eventual World Champion Red Sox in 2007 - and downs - like the resounding thud of 2006, when the impressively young and talented Indians team endured horrendous defense and a season-ending injury to Travis Hafner and didn't play an important game after June.

In any other division in any other year, this Indians team would look primed to deliver a trip to the World Series. Indeed, Wedge Year Six by all rights should be "The Year," given what this team has accomplished in Wedge Years One through Five. Unfortunately, this Indians team plays in the AL Central, and the year is 2008, which means the Indians have a huge obstacle standing between them and October baseball. With a vastly improved Detroit Tigers team in the division, the Indians could probably improve on last season's record by two, three, or even four games and not make the playoffs.

2007 Standings - AL Central W L PCT GB HOME ROAD RS RA Pyth W Pyth L
Cleveland Indians 96 66 0.593 - 52-29 44-37 811 704 91 71
Detroit Tigers 88 74 0.543 8 45-36 43-38 887 797 89 73
Minnesota Twins 79 83 0.488 17 41-40 38-43 718 725 80 82
Chicago White Sox 72 90 0.444 24 38-43 34-47 693 839 67 95
Kansas City Royals 69 93 0.426 27 35-46 34-47 706 778 74 88

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Rick Bauer RHP
Jamey Carroll 3B
Brendan Donnelly RHP
Scott Elarton RHP
Matt Ginter RHP
Andy Gonzalez 3B
Jorge Julio RHP
Masahide Kobayashi RHP
Danny Sandoval SS
Jason Tyner OF
a
Departed Pos.
Chris Gomez INF
Trot Nixon OF
Mike Rouse 2B
The Indians surprised the Tigers - and a lot of baseball pundits, including me - by taking the AL Central in convincing fashion last season. But in winning the division, the Indians awakened a sleeping giant, as the Tigers made several moves this off-season to add serious talent to their team. In order to remain on top in the division, the Indians will have to be better than they were in 2007.

Catcher
2007 Starter    Victor Martinez
Projected 2008 Starter   Victor Martinez

One of the finest catchers in the game both behind the plate and standing next to it with a bat in his hand, Martinez enjoyed what was arguably his finest year in 2007. A team always has to be cautious when depending on major offense from a catcher, as the Rangers found out in 2000 when Ivan Rodriguez was ripping the league apart before breaking the tip of a finger behind the plate and missing the season. Still, Martinez is currently the best catcher in baseball, which is always nice to have.

First Base
2007 Starter   Ryan Garko
Projected 2008 Starter   Ryan Garko

Comeback Player
Travis Hafner
Broke his hand in 2006, clearly wasn't the same in 2007, should be back to normal in 2008
Disappointment Candidate
Fausto Carmona
Beat guys up with crafty but not dominant stuff. 19 wins could be an illusion.
Garko was significantly better at home than on the road in 2007, but not so much as to cause concern. In his first full year in the bigs, Garko held his own, but now Cleveland fans will be looking for him to prove that he can be a 25-30 homerun 110 RBI, 300 average guy that he projected to in the minors. Last season he was solid while putting up numbers significantly below what was expected of him. This is probably a good sign.

Second Base
2007 Starter   Josh Barfield
Projected 2008 Starter   Asdrubal Cabrera

Barfield was part of the "our defense sucks so bad it sold out our pitching and thus our hitting wasn't enough to carry us" re-tooling after the 2006 season, and it took just under a full season for Barfield to lose his job to Cabrera. The Indians have enough offense to not need it from this position, and whichever player can best get the job done on defense will find himself starting on opening day.


Travis Hafner
Third Base
2007 Starter   Casey Blake
Projected 2008 Starter   Casey Blake

You know what sucks about Casey Blake? Not much. You know what I like about Casey Blake? Not much. Casey Blake is a classic gauge of people's opinions about steroids in sports. If you are of the belief that not a lot of players use them, you think Blake could have improved a little if he had used them. If you are of the opinion that everyone uses them, then you think Blake should be flipping burgers at Jack-in-the-Box. If you think steroids are bad, you probably celebrate Blake as someone who plays the game the right way. If you think they are good, you probably hate Blake for not trying harder to win.

Casey Blake is a league average hitter and a below league average defender. In the last four years, he has been surprisingly good twice and disappointing twice. And those seasons alternated. Blake is the type of player who makes you glad you have the position filled, but whom you'd put on the first bus to Kansas City if a legitimate third base prospect ever emerged on the Triple-A team.

Shortstop
2007 Starter   Jhonny Peralta
Projected 2008 Starter   Jhonny Peralta

Manager of the Year Candidate
Eric Wedge
Could join Bobby Cox in the rare back-to-back club if he finds a way to top the Tigers
Mark Redman Candidate
Jake Westbrook
I picked him last year. Don't stop believin'!
According to ESPN.com, only Juan Uribe had a better range factor than Jhonny Peralta in the AL last season. Oddly enough, only Derek Jeter had a worse zone rating than Peralta, which gives you an idea of the kind of fielder Peralta is. Peralta was terrific at the plate in 2005 before declining drastically in 2006, and then finally blossoming into a perfectly mediocre player in 2007. Hard to believe he is only 26 years old this season.

Outfield
2007 Starters   Grady Sizemore, Jason Michaels, Trot Nixon, Franklin Gutierrez, Dave Dellucci, Kenny Lofton
Projected 2008 Starters   Grady Sizemore, Dave Dellucci, Franklin Gutierrez

Seven months from now, when the Indians are sitting at home wondering how they managed to not make the playoffs, their failure to acquire quality corner outfielders will no doubt weigh heavily on their minds. I myself have called Jason Michaels underrated, but he has done nothing in two years in Cleveland to prove me right. Dave Dellucci is not nearly as good as his one year in the sun made him appear, and the duo of Franklin Gutierrez and Ben Francisco are not quite ready for prime time, to say nothing of their respective lack of up-side.

Indians Fun Fact
Grady Sizemore has 30 HBP and 5 GIDPs in the last two seasons.
The upside for the Cleveland Indians outfield is without a doubt Grazy Sizemore, one of the great young talents in the game. Sizemore had a very strange year in 2007, as he managed to raise his on-base percentage by 15 points while seeing his average fall by 13 points. What this really reflected was a general decline in Sizemore's numbers across the board, coupled with a rather sizeable increase in walks. In this offense, Sizemore will likely score 100 runs no matter what, but the Indians would like to Sizemore's overall numbers go up, rather than down, in 2008. Luckily, he is only 25, so there is not much need for worry.

Designated Hitter
2007 Starter Travis Hafner
Projected 2008 Starter Travis Hafner

Travis Hafner is the key to the Indians repeating as AL Central Champions. In 2004 and 2005, Hafner was one of the American League's elite hitters. In 2006, he was enjoying one of the finest seasons in Indians history when a broken hand ended his season a month-and-a-half early. His poor (for him) outing in 2007 was almost certainly a result of his injury, and the Indians have to hope that in 2008 he is a lot more comfortable at the plate than he was a year ago. The good news is Hafner broke the 150-game and 500-at bat marks for the first time last season at the age of 30. Nevertheless, Hafner will have to be healthy AND dominant in order for the Tribe to win the division this year.

Bench
2007 Crew Trot Nixon, Kenny Lofton, Kelly Shoppach, Ben Francisco, Asdrubal Cabrera
Projected 2008 Bench Jason Tyner, Ben Francisco, Andy Marte, Josh Barfield, Jamey Carroll

Not a whole lot going on here, other than a couple of older prospects who have never proven their worth and a few defensive replacements. Francisco is supposed to emerge sooner or later, but I don't buy it.

Starting Pitchers
2007 Starters C.C. Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook, Paul Byrd, Cliff Lee, Jeremy Sowers
Projected 2008 Starters Sabathia, Carmona, Westbrook, Byrd, Aaron Laffey, Sowers


C.C. Sabathia
For the entirety of the 2007 season, I swore that the Indians pitching was inferior to that of the Tigers. But a funny thing happened - the Indians continued to, as I perceived it, over-achieve, while the Tigers seemingly promising pitching tanked in the second half.

The performance of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona are good reason for Indians fans to be excited. As long as Sabathia stays healthy, I think he remains one of the elite pitchers in baseball. However, I am not yet a Carmona believer. His low walk/homerun/strikeout style is worrisome, and makes me wonder how long it will take American League hitters to figure him out.

Jeremy Sowers seems to be developing into a draft bust right before our eyes. He was other-worldly in A+ and AA ball the year after the Indians drafted him with the sixth overall pick, but since then his K/BB ratio has been legitimately terrible, and he has had very little overall success. It is hard to believe he'll be counted on for much in 2008.

Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee, and Paul Byrd will continue in 2008 to make the least exciting crew of starting pitchers in the majors. Despite injury issues with Lee and Westbrook, and HGH issues with Byrd, look for these guys to produce roughly 50 starts, a K/BB a hair under 2:1, and essentially a league average ERA.

Relief Pitchers
2007 Relievers Joe Borowski, Rafael Betancourt, Tom Mastny, Aaron Fultz, Rafael Perez, Fernando Cabrera, Jensen Lewis.
Projected 2008 Relievers Borowski, Betancourt, Mastny, Fultz, Perez, Cabrera, Lewis, Masahide Kobayashi

Joe Borowski had a very good season in 2008 - unless, of course, you judge a season by more than just saves. JoBo put up 45 saves but a 5.07 ERA last year, which, as Keith has pointed out, was a historical accomplishment. Part of JoBo's problem was his nine homeruns allowed, which is an absurd total. But the other part of his sucking was purely that - sucking. For example, he allowed more hits than innings pitched in 2007 - a closer no-no. His strikeout total was actually pretty high, and he put up a good K/BB ratio, but those numbers are rather uncompelling. The closer's job is his to lose in the spring this year, but he needs to be on a short leash.

The good news is that the remainder of the Tribe's pen is really quite great. Rafael Betancourt has his best year yet in '07, Rafael Perez was dominant in his first full season, and rookie Jensen Lewis had an outstanding 2007 during which he posted a 95/27 K/BB ratio and an ERA in the 1.00s across AA, AAA, and the majors. Japanese import Masahide Kobayashi has looked promising in the early spring, and may be able to have an impact as a middle reliever.

Outlook for the Season

2007 was a mediocre year for the AL Central - the White Sox floundered, the Twins failed to live up to their 2006 success, and the Tigers inexplicably disappointed. As a result, a very good but flawed Cleveland Indians team was able to win the division for the first time since the 1990s.

While 2008 will not feature four teams that expect to win the division - the White Sox look to be short and the Twins look to be rebuilding - it will feature one mighty team that is built to win it all, and the Indians will have to contend with that. In all likelihood, the Indians will have a much easier time making a run at the wild card this season, because while their status as the second best team in the AL Central is probably locked down, this is not the best team in the division.


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