Team Health Report: Cleveland Indians
by Will Carroll
I'm the first to admit that Mark Shapiro's master plan confuses me. For every good move, there seems to be one that goes against the grain. Each time he zigs, I expect a zag. All we can see at this point is that things are happening. It's too early to tell if they're the right things.
One thing that has to change is the injury situation. Compounded by the loss of beloved assistant trainer Jimy Warfield, the Indians appeared to be flailing last year. Players whispered that the team was ignoring complaints, missing diagnoses, and generally failing miserably. Looking at the team's track record doesn't clear the matter up. Cleveland has been all over the charts.
The situation came to a head with Matt Lawton, who left the team and went to the doctor of his choice. There were lots of rumors about Lawton's treatment, but in the end, he chose Tim Kremchek, the Reds team physician. Kremchek reportedly told Lawton that he had only a cyst on his collarbone. But once inside, doctors discovered that Lawton had a completely torn rotator cuff and a detached labrum. Six screws later, he was declared out until the All-Star Break. Recent reports, including one in a chat with Mark Shapiro on cleveland.com, indicate that Lawton is well ahead of schedule and could be ready for Opening Day. While these reports seem wildly optimistic, they're also coming from multiple sources. Lawton gets a bright yellow, but by mid-season, he should be healthy and much more like the on-base machine Lawton of old.
The situation is much less clear in regards to Ricky Gutierrez. Gutierrez played nearly the entire season with a serious neck injury, but he neglected to mention it and no one on the medical staff picked it up. Gutierrez had cervical fusion--if he plays at all this year, he still isn't someone you want manning third base for your team. There has been some discussion about moving catching stud Victor Martinez to third, but the Indians sound reluctant to give up on developing Martinez into a dominant catcher.
In center, the Indians were snakebit last year. Alex Escobar blew out his knee and will likely start this season at Triple-A as he tries to recover from not only an injury, but a lost year of development. Milton Bradley had a myriad of injuries--everything from nearly losing an eye to a HBP, a wrist problem, and an emergency appendectomy. Bradley should be ready, but he's nearing the point where everyone will say "injury prone" before saying his name. Escobar's not in the projected lineup, but like Bradley, he'd be a yellow.
Travis Hafner comes over to replace the departed Jim Thome. It's a tough job, but I think Hafner is just the type of player to succeed and get adopted by the Cleveland fans. The only concern with Hafner is a recurrent wrist problem that ended his winter ball season. Surgery was discussed but avoided for now. Hafner's shown the ability to be a very good major leaguer, but his history of wrist issues mean he could also end up on the injured list for a major portion of the season.
Ellis Burks is old and injury prone, but still one heck of a hitter. The Indians know that he's a commodity they don't need, and he'll likely move to a contender if they can find the righ dance partner. That trade would open up a slot at DH for Hafner or Ben Broussard.
In the pitching staff, the Indians signed Brian Anderson and Jason Bere to absorb innings and keep some of the young arms on the farm another year. Bere gets hurt too much to be trusted. While he's recovered from a torn groin that ended his 2002 season, he's likely to have one or more injuries that reduce his innings and effectiveness.
Leading up their rotation is a young, out of shape guy with quirky mechanics. I really debated putting a red light on C.C. Sabathia, but his injury history is clear--Tommy Lasorda must have sprinkled pixie dust on the 2000 Olympic squad, since none have come up lame since then, despite typical burnout rates for young pitchers. Sabathia could be special if he can bury his off-field troubles and get serious about his craft, but he could still succeed for a while on talent alone.
The Indians will fill the rotation's number four and five slots with two of their plethora of pitching prospects. They have a ton of guys in Double-A and Triple-A who could help, but they seem reluctant to rush anyone--a very good sign. I never like the odds of keeping young pitchers healthy, but the Indians have enough that they should be fine no matter how it turns out.
The Indians will not be a good team in 2003, that's clear. One of my favorite blogs--the Cleveland Indians Report--will likely alternate between the gnashing of teeth and variations on the theme of 'wait until next year.' By 2005, the Jake should be filled with great young players, and likely full of fans again.
Will Carroll is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.