CL Bob Wickman
There are days when I sit down, look at the roster I’m about to work on and just shake my head. The Indians are not only one of the top medhead teams around, but also one of the best-organized front offices. From their pioneering use of databases to the way they have dealt with the Kaz Tadano situation, this franchise is first-rate. My sidekick on Baseball Prospectus Radio, Scott McCauley, is a big Tribe fan. Often, he’ll look like a dog that’s been kicked when we discuss the Indians, but I keep telling him that things are looking up.
As the dawn of hope starts to light the horizon, it can appear very dark. Even in the AL Central, that lineup isn’t going to cause a lot of fear, and the rotation has a ton of question marks. Still, as Rob Neyer pointed out, this team could sneak up on people. They won’t be the Yankees, Red Sox or even the A’s, but in the AL Central, they don’t need to be. If they sneak into the playoffs some time soon…well, we all know how to play craps, right?
As I’ve said time and again, what money buys is depth, and this team actually isn’t as bad as it looks if things break right. If an outfielder goes down–and they’re all yellow or red–then Coco Crisp or Grady Sizemore can step in. There’s depth on the corners with Hafner and Broussard, while Kevin Orie might not be a bad stopgap across the diamond. Brandon Phillips still has potential. Between rehab cases and some young arms, the rotation and bullpen could be patched together in a number of combinations. There’s as much to roster flexibility as there is to payroll flexibility.
The rotation is highly vulnerable. Losing a Davis or Stanford could be dealt with, but losing Sabathia or Lee, their top MLB-ready pitching prospect, couldn’t. Sabathia is seemingly crossing over from injury risk to one of those freaks for whom the PAP rules seemingly don’t apply. Sure, he could be protected a bit better, but really, what’s the option? As convinced that I am that he’s facing a traumatic breakdown at some point, I have no more idea than anyone else of when it will happen. By the numbers, Sabathia should be red, but several subjective factors bring him down slightly, as reluctant as I am to do that.
Cliff Lee pitched well when healthy last season, making it all the way to Cleveland, but a hernia mid-season cost him quite a bit of time and stamina. He was adequate in Cleveland, but pitching without pain usually portends better things to come. His control is key, and being able to use his core will certainly assist in that.
Jason Davis is a yellow based on his shoulder problems of last season, but he made it through a dead arm without damage, and that’s a positive. Unlike Brian Tallet and Billy Traber, who will spend 2004 getting healthy, Davis could establish himself as a key member of the rotation soon.
Jeff D’Amico is, with Sandy Alomar, Ken Griffey, and Darren Dreifort, one of those guys determined to keep me employed. I’ll thank him, remind you that he is very talented when healthy, and that he’s seldom healthy. He’s a combo upside pick and placeholder for the Tribe, but don’t look at D’Amico and think Esteban Loaiza.
Bob Wickman comes into the season after recovering from Tommy John. Combined with his age, Wickman is a major risk, unless you find yourself desperate for saves. The entire bullpen could end up getting auditioned for the shiny tag of relief ace.
The outfield is both a strength and a weakness. Like the Twins, the Indians have perhaps too many good outfielders–unlike pitchers, you can have too many outfielders. Of course, the risk the team carries in the outfield could make that surplus vanish quickly. Milton Bradley always seems to find a way to break down rather than break out. Alex Escobar is just returning to form after a nasty ACL tear. Jody Gerut is dealing with a shoulder problem that’s kept his off-season workouts light. Still, this could be an outfield to build around.
(Quick aside–last season in Triple-A, Coco Crisp got into a brawl after being hit by a Pasqual Coco pitch. Both were ejected, making for my favorite press note of the year: “Two Cocos To Go.”)
Omar Vizquel failed a physical that would have sent him to Seattle, saving Seattle from another poor acquisition. Cleveland has to be worried, right? Mark Shapiro hasn’t sounded that way, but GMs get paid to spin some things. Vizquel’s knees will never be the same and neither will his ability to play shortstop. The Indians do have Brandon Phillips; maybe being forced into the lineup will be what this stalled prospect needs to get going.
Travis Hafner is still dealing with wrist problems. Ron Belliard is fighting weight problems. The catcher situation is unsettled.
Adding Lonnie Soloff to the medical staff only makes me like this team more. Soloff should be given much of the credit for getting Ken Griffey back in less time than most expected. He’ll do the same for a team with several rehabbing arms. While other teams are spending millions, the Indians realize that sometimes it’s the moves that almost no one notices that make all the difference.
Take heart, Wahoo Nation, you’re another year closer to your next winning team. That’s a lot more than some other teams can say. If you need some help, just whisper to yourself… “The last two World Champions were the Angels and Marlins…”