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When a team misses the playoffs by one or two games, it’s easy to point fingers at a certain game or at-bat or DL stint that could have made the difference. In broader terms, what would have made a difference in the scope of the entire season? In other words, what about this team is fixable heading into 2006?

Guilt certainly does not lie on the pitching staff (3.61 ERA, second in AL) or the defense (third in the game in Defensive Efficiency).

The offense ranked fourth in the AL in scoring. With such balance, no wonder they fared so well in the year-end Prospectus Hit List. It’s not easy to find a weakness. Not easy, but not impossible.

The lineup clicked so well because of its one through five hitters. For all of Eric Wedge’s talk of a “balanced attack”–every Indians starter clubbed at least 16 home runs–the lineup experienced a very sharp drop-off after Victor Martinez in slot five. That’s not unusual, per se, but the strange thing about Cleveland’s lineup is the weight borne by players in key defensive positions. Up the middle: Martinez at catcher, Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, Ron Belliard at second base (the beginning of the lineup’s drop-off, but a good hitter for his position), and Grady Sizemore in center. It’s not the strength of this lineup that’s unique; it’s the composition.

As the designated hitter, Travis Hafner is clearly the Tribe’s Scary Monster. Left fielder Coco Crisp hasn’t turned 26 and modestly stepped up every side of his game, hitting over .300 in the two-hole, and seems like a big part of Cleveland’s future.

But three of these guys are not like the others. Three players at “power positions,” no less, who together composed the bottom third of the lineup. Casey Blake in rightfield, Aaron Boone at third, and Ben Broussard at first base prevented the Indians offense from becoming spectacular.

It’s something that could use some attention this winter.

Broussard is facing arbitration and it’s not hard to imagine a non-tender. Broussard’s downer 2005 came a year after busting out with a .289 EqA, so it’s possible the Indians might sign him for cheap and hope he returns to form. That 2004 campaign is useful as an upside, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of his career. And the improved plate discipline he showed that year has since vanished. Broussard’s platoon partner was Jose Hernandez, whose contract is up after not demolishing lefties (.216/.288/.434) like he was expected to based on last season with the Dodgers (.310/.383/.616).

Stanford grad Ryan Garko could be the internal solution. In Buffalo, he hit .303/.384/.498. He’ll be 25 next year and came up as a catcher, but his future is probably at first base. Cleveland could also shift Hafner to first if need be, and use another player as the DH if that becomes more plausible.

Defensively, Blake’s shift to right field was a smashing success. He’d never played outfield in the Majors before this season, and he finished at 18 FRAR, more than he’d amassed in his third base career in over twice as much playing time. But his hitting is a different story. PECOTA had a hunch that we’d seen the best of Blake in 2004, and short of a violent rebound, PECOTA is right. Blake cut his strikeouts, but everything else in his bat deteriorated. Blake is under contract for 2006, and should be a utility player rather than a starter, regardless of position.

Boone, like Blake, can’t be faulted for his defense. Apart from a minor downturn in power, his hitting was in line with the progression (regression?) of his career prior to the injured knee. But at this point, he’s a lesser hitter than his brother, who was released twice this season, and he’s playing a more prime offensive position. Boone’s disappointing season can be mostly traced to a sterile April and May (.157/.211/.261), when he might not have been playing at full strength. From June on, he hit .279/.337/.427. The Indians recently exercised Boone’s 2006 option for $3.75 million, so they must have been encouraged by his rebound. Expect him to start again at third base next year–Cleveland has no viable internal options and free agent third basemen are slim pickings this winter–but his leash ought to be short if his bat isn’t better than 2005. Defense alone can’t make up for that kind of performance at the plate.

The Indians lineup is on the brink of greatness. They’ve done the hard part, assembling potent bats at positions where they are tough to find. It’s tough to picture them splurging this winter on someone like Brian Giles or Paul Konerko, but even a more modest acquisition (Austin Kearns? Roberto Petagine? Bill Mueller? Reggie Sanders?) could make a surprising difference.

Dave Haller

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Kissing Your Sister–In baseball, sometimes you expect to win and sometimes you expect to lose. You don’t expect to tie–at least not for the best record in your division. That’s precisely what the Yankees did after their climactic series at Fenway against the Red Sox, with both teams finishing with identical 95-67 records.

Before this, two other races ended with the division decided by less than one game. In 2001, the Cardinals and the Astros tied, on the last day of the season, at 93-69. With both teams ahead of the 90-72 San Francisco Giants, the season ended with the Astros winning the division based upon a 9-7 record against the Cards. Both teams lost their respective division series. In 2000, when the Seattle Mariners finished within a half game of the Oakland A’s, the A’s did not even bother to play a makeup game to determine whether they tied or remained ahead of the M’s.

The Mariners at least managed to reach past the Division Series to meet the Yankees in the ALCS, a match-up the Yankees won on their way to their most recent World Championship.

Does the tie foretell anything about the Yanks’ and Sox’s postseason chances? Not much, other than the teams seem as equally matched as they have been in the last two ALCS. The tie is an artifact of the Wild Card era, an era that has put profits and convenience over the integrity of the regular season. The fun will come if the Red Sox decide to list themselves as co-champions of the AL East next Spring. Of course, if either team can list themselves as World Champions in their media guides, we doubt anyone will care much about the 2005 AL East final standings.

Southpaw Jinx–Now that all is said and done for the regular season, we can revisit a prediction fearlessly made in this space’s predecessor, Prospectus Triple Play, that Randy Johnson would be the guy to finally break the Yankees’ single-season strikeout record, if he could stay healthy. If you look it up, Johnson stayed healthy–despite a few injuries, he made 34 starts–but didn’t break any records. His 211 strikeouts displaced “Bullet” Bob Turley for 8th place on the list, behind Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens‘s 2001 performances, and well short of Ron Guidry, 1978 vintage.

The need to pitch the Big Unit last Saturday at Fenway meant that the Yankees came into the postseason with their rotation in disarray. One thing to look for is that while the Yankees are unlikely to set up their rotation to maximize usage of Johnson–in this or subsequent series, if any–Joe Torre could utilize the lefty’s throw days as an opportunity to take some pressure off the team’s beleaguered middle relief corps. After all, someone has to spell 37 year-old Tom Gordon and 35 year-old Mariano Rivera. Why not 41 year old Randy Johnson?

Derek Jacques

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Hall to go to Arb? One question facing Tampa Bay this off-season is what to do about Toby Hall‘s arbitration eligibility. With a stat-line of .287/.316/.369 in 134 games, Hall is certainly no world-beater, but remember, he’s a catcher. According to BP’s VORP stat, Hall is the 21st most valuable catcher in the majors, and the 12th most valuable catcher in the AL. He’s nothing to write home about, but he’s certainly a passable option behind the dish. Don’t forget that 19 catchers with 50 or more plate appearances put up negative VORPs in 2005.

According to Clay Davenport’s fielding statistics Toby Hall is at least an average defender. The combination of decent defense, decent hitting, and increasing major league service time spells a pay raise according to the vagaries of baseball’s salary arbitration system.

Hall’s award ought to sit a touch below the contracts signed by other catchers in their 4+ service time years–players like Jason LaRue ($2,600,000), Michael Barrett ($2,600,000), and the king of 4+ catchers, Jorge Posada ($4,000,000). A better comparison for Hall might be A.J. Pierzynski, who hit .272/.319/.410 (with 11 home runs but 27 GIDPs) for San Francisco in 2004 and was non-tendered due to the unlikelihood of the Giants getting a salary cut off his previous year’s salary of $3,500,000. In free agency that year Pierzynski received $2,250,000 from the Chicago White Sox (which may have been a touch lower than the market would have otherwise given because of concerns over Pierzynski’s character and his defense).

In any case, if Hall goes to arbitration he will get a raise from his current one-year deal worth $1,950,000 (with an additional $50,000 in possible incentives). If the team non-tenders or trades Hall, what are their options?

Pete Laforest had a monster power year at Triple-A Durham (21 HRs, extra-base hit rate of 54.8%) but he stunk it up at Tampa (.172/.243/.266) and has a bad batting eye (98 Ks to 17 BBs in Triple-A this year). Other catchers kicking around the system who don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence are Kevin Cash (career .172/.221/.274 hitter in the majors) and Tim Laker (career .224/.275/.324 in the majors). Shawn Riggans had a decent year at Double-A Montgomery in his second go-around at that level but it would be a bold (and probably fool-hardy) move for the team to move him all the way up to the starting role at the major league level.

It’s hard to picture the Tampa Bay front office being all that happy with a $2,300,000 salary for Toby Hall, but it’s also hard to see them going with any of their internal options. If the front office doesn’t want to be stuck with Hall they’re going to need to explore options in the trade market.

Moving Day: Baseball’s post-season has meant little coverage from BP of the turmoil in Tampa Bay’s front office, but the writing is on the wall. Lou Pinella is gone and Thursday it is expected that the team will announce that ownership control has passed from Vince Naimoli to Stuart Sternberg. When this occurs the first action of the new ownership will be to fire General Manager Chuck LaMar. There is no word yet who might be in line to interview for the GM opening. BP Notebook will follow the story throughout the off-season.

Tom Gorman

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