By this time, just about everyone in baseball has made their way to Florida and Arizona, and spring training is moving into high gear. By the end of the week, teams will begin their exhibition schedules, and we’ll all be treated to nightly clips from that camera on the roof behind home plate, the one that makes the games indistinguishable from one another.
God, I can’t wait.
I was asked last week to name a team I think is on the rise and one I think is ready for a fall. It’s a standard spring topic, but one that this year is interesting because of the sheer number of teams who seem to be jumping into each category. I think the Blue Jays, Orioles, Mets and Reds are all in for big jumps from their 2004 performances, while the Yankees, Braves, Cardinals and Giants all look to me to be aging and unlikely to continue their recent success.
The top rising star in baseball, though, is in Cleveland, where the Indians are very close to a reprise of their 1990s run atop the AL Central. Mark Shapiro has assembled a lot of young talent, particularly young hitters, and is moving from the talent-collection phase to actually carving a baseball team from the raw material.
Last year, the Tribe hung around the division race into August, this despite a bullpen that was one of the worst in recent memory. They were carried by an offense that ended the season fifth in the AL in runs and third in EqA, and was actually well ahead of those marks for most of the year. A young middle of the lineup–Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner and Ben Broussard–provided OBP and power, while the Indians also enjoyed career years from journeymen Casey Blake and Ronnie Belliard.
By the end of the season, though, the Indians had changed identities. Thanks to the revamping of the bullpen, the Tribe was a much better late-game team in September, as Matt Miller and Bobby Howry got the outs pitchers like Jose Jimenez and David Riske couldn’t get in the first half. Unfortunately, the offense sputtered just as the bullpen rounded into shape, leading to a late-season fade and an eventual 80-82 finish.
Here’s how the Tribe developed in-season:
Month RS RA Record April 121 137 9-13 May 136 140 13-13 June 156 139 15-13 July 164 160 16-12 August 160 143 14-15 Sept./Oct. 121 138 13-16
This year, the Indians bring back their young hitting core, adding to it with prospects Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta. While veterans such as Aaron Boone and Juan Gonzalez have been the focus of attention, it’s the continued development of the young players, the Shapiro Indians, who are exciting. You can have Boone, Gonzalez and Kevin Millwood. Give me Peralta, Sizemore and Cliff Lee. Even after his awful second half last year, I still think Lee is on the verge of an Oliver Perez-style breakout.
The Indians’ weak spot is likely to be the rotation. My optimism about Lee notwithstanding, their projected rotation includes very few sure things. Millwood’s peripherals were stronger than his ERA last season, and he’s expected to be healthy again, but he’s not an ace. Jake Westbrook had as good a season as you can have while striking out 4.8 men a game; his ERA will rise. To C.C. Sabathia‘s credit, he has defied various BP predictions about his ability to stay healthy. What he hasn’t done is become a top-tier starting pitcher.
The good thing for the Indians is that they don’t need their starters to carry the load. With Arthur Rhodes added to the bullpen that was so effective down the stretch, they can win if their rotation gives them six good innings a night. They’re going to score runs, and they’re going to be, once again, one of the best stories in baseball.
Remember what a great place Jacobs Field was back when Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton were doing their thing, or even the crowds who packed the park last summer when the Indians got within a game of the Twins? That’s the kind of excitement we’re likely to see again this year. The Indians may still be a year away from winning the AL Central, but this is no longer a one-team division.
The flip side of the Indians’ story is that of the Astros. Their Cinderella run from seventh in the wild-card chase to the seventh game of the ALCS was one of ’04’s great stories. It also provided an object lesson in how the length of the baseball season makes fools of those of us who make broad statements based on how things look at any point in time.
On February 28, though, it’s hard to see how the Astros can repeat last year’s success. They are going to lose a ton of runs from even last year’s average attack–seventh in the NL in EqA. Carlos Beltran is gone. Jeff Kent is gone. Their best hitter, Lance Berkman, is going to miss at least a few weeks rehabbing a knee injury. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio are a year older. Even in the best-case scenario, where Chris Burke and Jason Lane are allowed to win jobs and both hit to expectations, that just makes up for the losses of Beltran and Kent.
At their best, the Astros are carrying Adam Everett, Brad Ausmus and a pitcher. If you have even one more low-OBP hitter in the lineup, it becomes almost impossible to sustain an offense. Moreover, playing the second-best hitter on the roster–Lane–forces the Astros to play an outfield of Biggio, Lane and a coming-back-off-surgery Berkman. The other solution is to force someone like Willy Taveras–the only real center fielder in the top half of the system–into the outfield, which would mean benching either Lane or Burke with Biggio moving to second base.
The point isn’t the individual solutions, whichever ones are implemented. The point is that the Astros not only have an inadequate talent base, but that the talent on hand doesn’t fit together very well. There are no center fielders here, and the organizational commitment to Biggio, who had the lowest OBP of his career last year, makes it hard to implement the most effective workarounds. This was a fairly good defensive team with Beltran and Kent on the field; it’s going to be much worse this season.
The Astros aren’t going to make it up on the pitching side. Keeping Roger Clemens around just kept them running in place. They still have the same depth issues as they did a year ago, with a host of injury cases and suspects vying to fill out the rotation behind Clemens and Roy Oswalt and the bullpen in front of Brad Lidge. A healthy Andy Pettitte makes up some of that, but there’s still the question of whether two starters can be found from among Brandon Backe, Carlos Hernandez, Tim Redding, or even a longshot like Ezequiel Astacio.
Last year’s playoff run happened because the front end of the Astros’ roster included some very dominant players. They’re down two stars this year, and the likelihood that Clemens and Lidge can match ’04’s work is slim. They don’t have the depth to make up for that kind of slippage. Not only are the Astros unlikely to return to the postseason, I doubt they can stay in contention.