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It’s funny how things change in 10 years.

Ten years ago, not one person in Cleveland had sobered up yet from his Bazooka-induced sugar buzz. The Tribe romped to its first postseason berth in 41 years, christening the new ballpark in grand fashion and beginning a five-year run of dominance in the AL Central:

Year   W   L  Runner-up     GB
1995  100 44  Kansas City  30.0
1996   99 62  Chicago      14.5
1997   86 75  Chicago       6.0
1998   89 83  Chicago       9.0
1999   97 65  Chicago      21.5

Within a decade, the lineup’s fifth hitter was traded to Baltimore, socked his 500th home run, retired, uttered his induction speech in Cooperstown, and was hired and fired as the Indians hitting coach. The left fielder, right fielder, third baseman and an obscure rookie outfielder, all became stars and outgrew Cleveland. Unflappable closer Jose Mesa has slipped in stature ever so slightly. And a local boy once lost in the euphoria, 10-year-old LeBron James, has grown into the King of Town.

The Indians bandwagon still hasn’t fully regained its steam, but it’s a more efficient machine these days.

If Kevin Millwood wants a four- or five-year contract, it won’t be in Cleveland. That’s not exactly what Millwood’s agent Scott Boras said publicly, but it’s close enough. After a disappointing stint in Philadelphia, Millwood signed with Cleveland last winter for one year and $7 million–a shrewd offer on Cleveland’s part, since it was structured to pay less if Millwood couldn’t stay healthy. At this point, it looks like a win-win contract. The Indians got one tremendous season from Millwood at a relative bargain price. There’s no obligation beyond this year, and assuming Cleveland offers Millwood arbitration and he signs elsewhere (both scenarios appear likely), they receive a first- or second-round compensatory draft pick next June. Meanwhile, the Indians will probably scour the free-agent market for another low-profile one- or two-year bargain. They don’t feel locked into re-investing all the money in the pitching staff, since there are holes to plug in right field and first base.

In fact, as James Click’s recent study attests, Cleveland’s biggest steal last winter was actually Bob Wickman. As a Class A free agent, he could be worth two picks next June, but the Indians might not be able to sneak an arbitration offer past Wickman. Millwood, Wickman, and Bob Howry have a lot in common, all injury-prone veterans who enjoyed big seasons as they enter free agency. Like Wickman, Howry could also net the Tribe two compensation picks. It’s very feasible that Cleveland might let them all walk if the price is too high. At least one paper reported Tom Gordon was given an offer to be the Indians’ closer. Either way, the market for relief pitching is deep, and Fernando Cabrera is quite ready to assume a full-time role next year:

           IP    H  HR  BB   K    ERA
AAA BUF   51.1  36   3  11  68   1.23
MLB CLE   30.2  24   1  11  29   1.47

Fifth starter Scott Elarton is the Tribe’s other significant free agent. Allowing him to leave could clear an opening in the rotation. The best in-house candidate for a starting gig looks to be 22-year-old lefty Jeremy Sowers.

           IP    H  HR  BB   K    ERA
A+  KIN   71.1  60   5  19  75   2.78
AA  AKR   82.1  74   8   9  70   2.08
AAA BUF    5.2   7   0   1   4   1.59

Dave Haller

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The Washington Nationals were one of the worst offensive clubs in baseball this past year. In 2006, with Jose Guillen coming off of shoulder surgery, they could be even worse. The first part of the solution, as detailed by our own Christina Kahrl was brilliant, as it assures Ryan Zimmerman a starting role while dumping a hitter, in Vinny Castilla, who wasn’t going to help. Their most recent move, inking Marlon Anderson to a two-year deal, was not so brilliant. It guarantees two things for the ’06 Nationals: 1) they will have the only two Marlon’s in Major League history, and 2) they will have a sub-optimal bench.

Consider for a minute the general composition of the modern 25-man roster. A team is generally going to keep 12 pitchers and at least two catchers. This leaves 11 spots on the roster for the other seven positions on the diamond, seven starters and four bench players. For the Nats, six of those will be used on starters Nick Johnson, Jose Vidro, Zimmerman, Cristian Guzman, Jose Guillen, and Brad Wilkerson. This leaves five roster spots available for a starting left fielder and four bench players.

We know that Damian Jackson will serve in the super-utility role, and that Marlon Anderson will serve in the super-pinch-hitting-for-the-pitcher role.
That leaves three spots open, and we can identify as many as 14 players who will vie for them. How can the Nats get the most value from those three spots?

One of the first things to look at when constructing a bench is the ability to platoon. Unfortunately, the Nats don’t have a lot of platoon situations:

                        <-----vs. RHP---->   <-----vs. LHP---->
Pos   Player     Bats     AB   AVG/OBP/SLG     AB   AVG/OBP/SLG
C     Schneider  L      1229   257/326/413    274   252/311/354
1B    Johnson    L      1134   258/372/440    339   292/420/425
2B    Vidro      S      2840   303/365/468    954   299/362/461
3B    Zimmerman* R       217   336/379/539     91   374/394/626
SS    Guzman     S      2634   260/301/363   1099   259/290/399
CF    Wilkerson  L      1704   350/361/450    561   275/377/460
RF    Guillen    R      2715   278/326/448    936   269/319/450
* All pro at-bats, minors included

Brian Schneider could probably use a platoon partner to spell him against left-handed pitching, but that player has been accounted for above. But what of left field, who will play there?

The problem created by Anderson’s signing is readily apparent when looking at the left-field situation. As it stands presently, the Nats do not have someone they can trust for the full 162 games in left field. Let’s look at exactly who manned the spot for the Nats in ’05:

Nationals 2005 Leftfielders

Player           AdjG
Marlon Byrd      42.9
Ryan Church      37.2
Brad Wilkerson   32.0
Preston Wilson   10.4
Terrmel Sledge    8.8
Brandon Watson    7.7
Jeffrey Hammonds  6.4
J.J. Davis        6.0
Tony Blanco       4.7
Matt Cepicky      4.0
Jose Guillen      1.9

Of these 11, just Marlon Byrd, Ryan Church and Terrmel Sledge remain with the team and can be considered legitimate candidates to start. However, Church and Sledge have had injury problems, and Byrd can’t hit right-handers. No matter who starts, it is safe to say that Byrd will be on the roster in some capacity due to his defensive reputation, unjust though that may be (Church and Sledge have better FRAA numbers than Byrd). If you’re still scoring at home, we have now filled three of the five remaining roster spots for the Nats:

UTIL   Damian Jackson
PH     Marlon Anderson
OF     Marlon Byrd

This legitimately leaves five players: Church, Sledge, Brendan Harris, Bernie Castro and Junior Spivey–to occupy two roster spots, starting left-fielder and 25th man.

Of these five players, the only player who sticks out with a legitimate long-term future is Harris, and as such it is imperative that they get him onto the roster. However, Harris’ main positions of third base and second base are presently taken by Zimmerman and Vidro. Bowden would have to trade Vidro to get Harris playing time in the infield, and that would be a remarkable feat. Vidro has missed nearly 130 games the past two seasons, and is not the same player anymore. In ’02 and ’03 Vidro compiled EqAs of .292 and .293; in ’04 and ’05 he his EqAs were .278 and .272.

Faced with this dilemma, the Nats should be either eating Vidro’s salary or making Harris learn a new position. Since the team can’t yet throw money down the drain (the Guzman contract notwithstanding), learning a new position seems the easiest route to travel. Can Harris handle left field all by himself? He certainly deserves a shot, and putting Harris there is likely the best way to create a potent lineup for the Nats in ’06 and beyond. However, in order to give him insurance, it would be wise to keep either Sledge or Church on the roster.

So after all this, how do the five spots shape up? Let us take a look:

LF     Brendan Harris

UTIL   Damian Jackson
PH     Marlon Anderson
OF     Marlon Byrd
OF     Sledge/Church

This scenario leaves out Castro, Spivey, Brandon Watson, Jamey Carroll, Rick Short, Tony Blanco, Alex Escobar and either Sledge or Church. Friday’s signing of Anderson further forces the Nats hand into making a sub-optimal decision with their roster. Sledge, Church and Castro would likely be just as good in a pinch-hitting role and cheaper to boot, but Anderson cultivated a reputation for pinch-hitting this season in New York, and it earned him a two-year deal. With so many inexpensive alternatives around, it would behoove Bowden and Co. to save what few chits they have to make a big splash and land an impact offensive player, rather than spread it around for mediocrity. Not only have they done the latter, but they may be forever stunting the development of some of the rare fruits remaining in their barren farm system.

Paul Swydan

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