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2010 Cleveland Indians: Starting Over Again. Again. 2009 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey,
April 6, 2010

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Russ Branyan 1B
Mitch Talbot SP
Austin Kearns OF
Mike Redmond C
Mark Grudzielanek 2B
Departed Pos.
Kelly Shoppach C
Jamey Carroll IF
Jose Veras RP
Bill Simmons created a phenomenon known as “Manning Face,” which is the look on Peyton Manning’s face whenever his team is about to lose a big game; it’s official definition, as described by Malcolm Gladwell, is: “the look of someone who has just faced up to a sobering fact: I am in complete control of this offense. I prepare for games like no other quarterback in the NFL. I am in the best shape of my life. I have done everything I can to succeed - and I'm losing. Ohmigod. I'm not that good."

The baseball equivalent of Manning Face has got to be Wedge Face. In the last decade of Cleveland Indians baseball, the Indians managed to develop from within their farm system two Cy Young Award winners (C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee), a fourth place Cy Young finisher (Fausto Carmona), one of the most exciting five-tool centerfielders in baseball (Grady Sizemore), one of the best offense/defense second basemen in baseball (Brandon Phillips), and one of the three best offensive catchers in baseball (Victor Martinez). The Indians also acquired one of the great offensive forces of the last five years in Travis Hafner for next to nothing and developed a litany of apparent hot-shot prospects (Kevin Kouzmanoff, Jeremy Sowers, Ryan Garko, Aaron Laffey).

What do the Indians have to show for all of this? One trip to the playoffs in 2007 – in which they blew a 3-1 ALCS lead to the Red Sox – one second place finish in 2006, and a lot of underachievement. During the last few games of 2009, when Wedge had been informed that he was going to be fired at the end of the season but decided to play out the string anyway, Wedge that look on his face: “We had one of the most talented rosters in baseball, we had some of the best pitching and hitting in all of baseball, our farm system was loaded, we had a weak division, and we came away with nothing. Ohmigod, I’m not that good.”

2009 Standings - AL Central
Central W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Minnesota Twins 87 76 .534 0 49-33 38-43 817 765 .530 59-44 28-32
Detroit Tigers 86 77 .528 1 51-30 35-47 743 745 .499 57-57 29-20
Chicago White Sox 79 83 .488 8 43-38 36-45 724 732 .495 54-59 25-24
Cleveland Indians 65 97 .401 22 35-46 30-51 773 865 .449 48-74 17-23
Kansas City Royals 65 97 .401 22 33-48 32-49 686 842 .407 45-61 20-36

And so it is that the Cleveland Indians begin this new decade in the same place that they find themselves every five years or so – rebuilding. Working with what is left of the would-be Cleveland Indians Dynasty of the Aughts (Hafner, Sizemore, Carmona, Jhonny Peralta), the returns on the trades of Sabathia (Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley) and Lee (Lou Marson, Carlos Carrasco), and some interesting new faces, the Indians expect to field a viable major league baseball team in 2010. They may even win some games.

(I am walking backwards at this point, but it is worth noting what the Indians had at the beginning of the previous decade: four future Hall of Famers (Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel, and Roberto Alomar), four other multiple All Stars (Richie Sexson, Travis Fryman, Chuck Finley, and Bartolo Colon), and a manager who would go on to take the Phillies to two straight World Series in Charlie Manuel.)

Travis Hafner
Things About the Indians to Know

We May Have Seen the Last of Travis Hafner

Juan Gonzalez hit 434 homeruns in his illustrious career, along with 1404 RBI, 1061 runs, 388 doubles, and 1936 hits. If I asked you, then, how old Juan-Gone was when he played his last full season, you might seem shocked to discover that he was 31 years old the last time he managed to play more than 82 games in a season, and he played his final game at the age of 35 (and it was literally a final game – his season stats for that year are one game, one plate appearance, one at-bat, one hamstring-ripping groundout).

Why do I bring up Gonzalez here? Like Hafner, he began his career in Texas, and like Hafner, he played for Cleveland. More importantly, Hafner has now a quality we saw in Gonzalez in his last few years – an extreme willingness to be hurt. Don’t get me wrong – guys get hurt. But at a certain point in their career, some guys (looking at you, Chipper Jones) will opt not to play because of an ailment that wouldn’t necessarily keep them out of the game if they weren’t rich or if they still loved playing.

In the last four years, Hafner has played 129 games, 152 games, 57 games, and 94 games. The 129-game season ended when Hafner broke his hand after being struck by a pitch. The 152-game season was one in which Hafner never seemed to get comfortable again. The 57-game season came in 2008, when Hafner battled shoulder issues the whole season, and had shoulder surgery after the season. Then the 94-game season was one in which he continued to battle with lingering shoulder issues. This year, though, fans have been assured by the Indians that Hafner is healthy, pain-free, and ready to go.

Grady Sizemore
Here’s the thing with 33-year old, injury-plagued, power-hitting designated hitters – they are always pain-free and ready to go, until they aren’t again. While I would be pleased as punch to see Hafner play even 130 games this year (he is, after all, one of my favorite players), I think he fits the mold of a guy who, at this stage in his career with his injury history, won’t be able to break 100.

Grady Sizemore Needs to be a Comeback Player of the Year

I don’t know why the Indians have achieved so little the last five years, but I do know this: Grady Sizemore simply must be back in top form for the Indians to have any chance to compete. There was a time when Sizemore was the table-setter for a very impressive lineup, but Sizemore is now the main course in this Indians offense, and they need to have him hitting homeruns, stealing bases, and getting on base.

Indians Team Capsule

04/08/10: Fausto or Famine - Last night, Fausto Carmona pitched six innings, giving up one hit and getting the win. That one hit, however, was a homerun, and he also gave up three earned runs by walking six batters and striking out only one.

True or False: If Fausto Carmona continues to walk a batter per inning and give up a homerun every six innings, he will continue to win games. --ABC

The New Look Cleveland Indians Rotation

Fausto Carmona heads up an Indians rotation that features, somehow, both underrated and overrated players. The good news is that for the first time in several years, the Indians will not be counting on Jeremy Sowers or Aaron Laffey to be contributors. I don’t know why those guys didn’t pan out, but I know that they did not.

Carmona, of course, is most famous for having won 19 games for the 2007 and finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting that year. Even then, Carmona’s win total seemed to be hiding imperfections – he wasn’t an overpowering pitcher, and he walked too many batters while also giving up to many hits. In the subsequent two seasons, Carmona’s strikeout-to-walk ratio has been just about 1:1, and he has given up tons of hits. The Indians consider this guy their ace on the strength of a remarkable spring in which his WHIP fell through the floor. Talk to me again in July.

The Indians have been without Jake Westbrook for all of 2009 and most of 2008. Westbrook has never been a great pitcher, and now he will attempt to hold down the number two spot in the rotation. Without belaboring the point, this is not a good sign.

Justin Masterson

After Carmona and Westbrook, though, the Indians actually have some good upside. Justin Masterson came over from the Boston Red Sox in the Victor Martinez trade, and has proven to be a good news/bad news guy. The good news is that he struck out 29 batters in 21 innings this spring. The bad news is that he gave up almost as many hits and had an ERA of 5.14.

Meanwhile, Mitch Talbot has been one of my favorite minor league pitchers for a few seasons now, while he has toiled in Triple-A in a pitching-rich Tampa Bay Rays system. Talbot has always had good K:BB numbers and never given up many homeruns. If he has enough time to mature in the majors, he should be just as good as Westbrook, if not better.

David Huff has earned the fifth spot in the rotation after an inauspicious rookie season in 2009 in which he put up an ERA over five and could not get anyone out, or so it seemed. In the minor leagues, Huff has consistently struck out seven-to-eight batters per nine innings, but he must have that translate to the majors if he wants to have success.

What about Matt LaPorta?

Is Matt LaPorta ready for the major leagues? Unclear. What we do know is that he ripped up spring training (10-for-29) after a lackluster debut season in which he failed to live up to the hype that arrived with him when he was traded to the Indians in the Sabathia deal. LaPorta begins this season at first base, subbing for an injured Russ Branyan, and when Branyan returns LaPorta will likely kick Michael Brantley to the minors.

Russ “OPS” Branyan

Speaking of Branyan, he returns to the Indians on the heels of a “career year” with the Mariners last season in which he hit 31 homeruns in 116 games. Here’s a Russ Branyan Fun Fact for you: his .251 batting average in 2009 was the second highest batting average of his 12 year major league career. Branyan, in fact, is probably the poster child for OPS headed into the new decade; he has a career .822 OPS which is astonishing when you consider his career average of .234. Branyan set career highs in almost every major offensive category in 2009, which isn’t necessarily a good thing for a 34-year old who has only played over 100 games three times.

Other Indians Fun Facts

The Indians finished with the third most offensive strikeouts in the AL last season, and then added Russ Branyan (149 Ks in 116 games).

Strikeouts may not be that big of a deal, though. In 156 games Shin-Soo Choo finished with 175 hits, 38 doubles, 6 triples, 20 homeruns, and 21 stolen bases. He also finished with a rate stat line of .300/.394/.489/.883, despite striking out 151 times. This was his second straight year with an average over .300 and an on-base percentage over .390. Keep on swingin’, Shin-Soo.

Outlook on the Season

I am very down on the Cleveland Indians, but I am also mindful of the weaknesses of the AL Central. Unlike the Kansas City Royals, for whom success will be impossible in 2010, the Indians could have a good year if eight or nine things go right for them. I just don’t think they will. The important thing, though, is that this team has talent and it has prospects and if they catch lightening in a bottle, they might win 85 games. I just don’t think they will. And now I’m just repeating myself.

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