It’s an odd-numbered year, and considering what has happened to the Indians over the past four seasons, the odds should be in the Indians’ favor in 2009. In 2005, they won 93 games and missed the playoffs by two games, and in 2007 they went to the American League Championship, losing to the Red Sox in seven games. Conversely, the Indians were 78-84 in 2006, and needed to finish with a flourish just to finish with an 81-81 record in 2008.
Like all managers, Eric Wedge would like to see more consistency from his teams, and he does not subscribe to the odd/even theory. He’s hoping that the Indians can keep the good vibe they had going at the end of last season when they went 44-28 after July 10 to finish at .500, a run that began three days after they traded 2007 American League Cy Young winner CC Sabathia to the Brewers. “Building off what we did last season is something we’d definitely like to do,” Wedge said. “The guys have always done a good job at getting better, making some adjustments. We’ve got a great coaching staff. They’re very aware and familiar with what’s going on, and they don’t ever give in to it. I think our guys did a good job of getting better last season. They learned from the first half; now we’d like to see that carry over to 2009.”
PECOTA likes the Indians to not only win the AL Central, but to be the only team in the division to have a winning record with a projection of 83-79. General manager Mark Shapiro expects more than one team to finish better than break-even, and he also believes that the division is wide open. “What I see when I look at the division is, despite the overall inactivity [by most of the teams], is that it’s a good division,” Shapiro said. “You could make a pretty good case for why each team could win the division, and a pretty good case for why each team is flawed. I like our chances in the division, but as I look at those other clubs, I don’t think there is going to be a bad team among them, and I can see reasons why each team could win the division. So it’s a winnable division for all five teams.”
Not only were the Indians without Sabathia during their strong finish last year, but designated hitter Travis Hafner was out from May 26 to September 8 because of a damaged joint in his right shoulder that eventually required off-season surgery. Furthermore, catcher Victor Martinez ended up sitting out from June 12 through August 28 while recovering from surgery to remove bone chips from his throwing elbow.
Both are healed up now, and Wedge expects great improvements in their 2009 numbers; Hafner had a .230 EqA last season, and Martinez finished with a .253 mark. Despite those down years, the Indians were still sixth in the major leagues with an average of 4.98 runs per game as right fielder Shin-Soo Choo blossomed in his first season of regular duty with a .320 EqA, and center fielder Grady Sizemore put up a .307 mark. “The injuries did give some younger guys a chance to play last season, and they gained confidence,” Wedge said. “We have more depth now, but I definitely want to see Pronk [Hafner] and Victor in the lineup every day this season. They make us a lot better team.”
Besides making sure that Hafner and Martinez stay healthy, the Indians’ biggest order of business this spring will be sorting out the starting rotation. Left-hander Cliff Lee, last year’s AL Cy Young winner, and right-handers Fausto Carmona and Anthony Reyes are the three pitchers who can be counted on, but right-hander Jake Westbrook won’t be back until midseason after having undergone reconstructive elbow surgery last year.
The Indians are hoping that veteran right-hander Carl Pavano can be slotted into the middle of the rotation after being signed as a free agent over the winter, but he has only made 26 starts with the Yankees over the past four seasons because of injuries. Prospect David Huff is one of five young lefties who will compete for the fifth spot this spring, battling with Zach Jackson, Aaron Laffey, Scott Lewis, and Jeremy Sowers for the last slot.
Shapiro had a busy winter, because in addition to taking a shot on Pavano, the Indians signed closer Kerry Wood as a free agent, and traded for infielder Mark DeRosa after both had been key figures for the National League Central-winning Cubs last season. Wood had 2.089 WXRL in ’08, and DeRosa had a .291 EqA playing second and the outfield for the Cubs. “We said before last season even ended that getting a closer was our number one priority, and we felt Kerry Wood was the best of the best as far as what we could do [financially],” Wedge said. “He’s been through so much in his career. He’s been a starter and reliever. He’s been a dominant starter and a dominant closer. He’s fought through injuries. He just has a great presence on the mound, and is a great leader with a great personality.”
DeRosa is capable of playing every position but pitcher, catcher, and perhaps center field in anything more than a pinch, but the Indians will be primarily using him at third base; Andy Marte had failed to fill the void at the hot corner last season after Casey Blake was traded to the Dodgers in late July. “Mark is so excited to be coming to play for us, and there might not be a better character guy in all of baseball, so he’ll fit in on a team with a lot of high-character guys,” Wedge said. “He’s looking forward to playing third base. He feels it’s his best position. I can foresee him playing some left field and right field when the need arises, moving over to second base or first base when we need to pinch-run or pinch-hit late in the game. Guys like him are always valuable.”
Pavano is coming off of four injury-plagued years with the Yankees after signing a four-year, $39.95 million contract as a free agent, which caused George King of the New York Post to hang one of the all-time great nicknames on him, “The American Idle.” Wedge, however, believes that a new environment can rejuvenate Pavano. “Carl is a guy who is looking for a different situation, a change of scenery,” Wedge said. “He’s an interesting guy. He’s proven he is a good major league pitcher when he is healthy, but he has had a lot of injuries the last four years. It’s nobody’s fault, stuff like that just happens. The biggest priority is to get him healthy and make sure he can get out there and make a lot of starts for us.”
It’s becoming apparent with each new revelation about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball that steroids were more prevalent in the game from the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s than most people had thought. However, commissioner Bud Selig makes it clear that no fingers should be pointed at him for the proliferation of PEDs, even if the two sluggers who were the central figures of the Great Home Run Chase of 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, have been linked to steroid use. McGwire and Sosa are widely credited with helping to restore interest in baseball four years after a players’ strike had caused the cancellation of the postseason.
“I’m not sure I would have done anything differently,” Selig told Newsday. “A lot of people say we should have done this or that, and I understand that. They ask me, ‘How could you not know?’ and I guess in the retrospect of history, that’s not an unfair question, but we learned and we’ve done something about it. When I look back at where we were in ’98 and where we are today, I’m proud of the progress we’ve made.”
Major League Baseball has enacted penalties for steroid use after much grandstanding by Congress, but Selig’s detractors insist that he could have done more to stem the problem sooner. He bristles at such talk. “I don’t want to hear the commissioner turned a blind eye to this or he didn’t care about it,” Selig said. “That annoys the you-know-what out of me. You bet I’m sensitive to the criticism. The reason I’m so frustrated is, if you look at our whole body of work, I think we’ve come farther than anyone ever dreamed possible.”
There has been a reduction in the number of players who have tested positive for steroids over the last three years, and there have been penalties in place since 2005 for those found to use both PEDs and amphetamines, but there are suspicions in baseball that at least some players are using human growth hormone, which cannot be detected by a urine test.
After Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez admitted last week to testing positive during a supposedly confidential steroids test in 2003, Selig said that he was considering eliminating records set during the “Steroids Era,” or at least adding an asterisk to them. Ford Frick is, of course, famous for being the asterisk commissioner, having decreed that Roger Maris‘ 61 home runs in 1961 that broke Babe Ruth‘s single-season record would only be considered the record for the 162-game season, and that Ruth would keep the record for a 154-game schedule.
Having made it, however, Selig seems to be re-thinking the asterisk comment. “I’m not going to comment on changing the records, except to say that I never flatly deny anything,” Selig said. “I’ve always said I’d consider everything. But the record situation, if you go back to what Ford Frick did, is a very slippery slope. Changing records is a very difficult process.”
When the Marlins convened for their first full-squad workout of spring training on Tuesday morning in Jupiter, Florida, vice president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest made an announcement that went over extremely well with the players, informing them that manager Fredi Gonzalez had received a two-year contract extension that runs through the 2011 season.
Gonzalez has compiled a 155-168 record in his two years with the club, and he led the Marlins to a surprising third-place finish in the National League East last season with an 84-77 mark during a year in which many expected them to battle the Nationals for last place. “It wasn’t a tough decision or anything,” said Beinfest. “It’s something we talked about for quite some time. We talked about production and being on the same page with the organization. Fredi met the criteria, and he’s done a wonderful job. We see great things in the future. Our players play hard for him every day. They’re well prepared. Both he and his staff do a great job getting our guys ready to play and compete.”
Gonzalez is one of the most underrated managers in the game; the Marlins get almost no national media exposure, but the Miami native says he has no desire to leave his hometown to pursue a higher-profile gig. “As long as they want me here, I’d love to stay here,” Gonzalez said. “I want to be here a long time and win a championship.”
Center fielder Willy Taveras is setting high goals for himself in his first season with the Reds. He wants to steal 100 bases, a mark no player has achieved since Vince Coleman had 109 for the 1987 Cardinals.
Of course, Taveras will need to get on base at a better clip than the .302 on-base percentage he posted with the Rockies in 538 plate appearances last season, though he did have a major league-best 68 steals in 75 attempts. The low OBP is one of the reasons that the Rockies decided to not tender him a contract as an arbitration-eligible player last December, instead allowing him to become a free agent.
Taveras says that he’s ready for a breakout season. “I didn’t play all the time last year, for some reason,” Taveras told Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News. “I can only remember playing one Sunday game all year. I can be a consistent hitter if I’m in the lineup. I know I can get my average up and my on-base average up. A leadoff hitter who plays every day can get 600 to 700 at-bats. I stole 68 with only 479 at-bats and a low average and on-base percentage. So yes, stealing 100 is possible if I get the at-bats and have a .350 on-base average. And I’m working on bunts and plan to bunt at least once a game.”
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Braves appear to be the likely destination for outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. in his first foray into free agency; he likes the idea of having spring training in Orlando, Florida, just minutes away from his home, and of playing in the South. … The Dodgers appear to be the frontrunners to sign free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson, but the Royals are still hopeful of adding him if they can create payroll space or add to the budget. … The Marlins appear to be free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez’s likely destination, but he may have to take a minor league contract. … If Major League Baseball allows Type-A free agents to be part of sign-and-trade deals, the Diamondbacks will hold out for a significant prospect in return for reliever Juan Cruz. … Former Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen is likely to sign a minor league contract with the Dodgers. … The Brewers have interest in free-agent reliever Chad Cordero. … Left-hander Odalis Perez says he will not report to spring training with the Nationals until they tear up his minor league contract and give him a major league deal. … Sean Marshall has the edge in the competition to be the Cubs’ fifth starter over Jeff Samardzija, Chad Gaudin, and Aaron Heilman. … Kyle Kendrick is the favorite to be the Phillies‘ fifth starter over Chan Ho Park, Carlos Carrasco, and J.A. Happ. … The Rockies will look at a host of pitchers as their fifth starter, including Jason Hirsh, Franklin Morales, Greg Smith, Greg Reynolds, Glendon Rusch, and Josh Fogg. … The Reds are considering using Homer Bailey, who has failed as a starting pitcher in the major leagues, out of the bullpen this season. … While Brian Barden still appears to be the most likely to candidate to play third base for the Cardinals while Troy Glaus recovers from shoulder surgery, David Freese will also receive strong consideration, and outfielder Joe Mather will work out at the hot corner. … The Mets plan to line their first four rotation spots up with Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez, and John Maine, in that order.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle is considering retiring when his contract expires following the 2011 season. … If the Mariners stick with their plan to have Brandon Morrow in the starting rotation, Miguel Batista is most likely to be the closer. … The Indians have had first baseman Ryan Garko taking fly balls in left field during the early days of spring training as a way of opening space in the lineup for Martinez to play more at first and for backup catcher Kelly Shoppach to get more starts. … The Indians will also look at second baseman Josh Barfield in the outfield this spring to increase his versatility. … The Tigers‘ Gary Sheffield is willing to give up playing the outfield to be a full-time designated hitter, something he has resisted in the past. … Jerome Williams, Josh Outman, and Gio Gonzalez will compete for the fifth starter’s job with the A’s. … The Rangers have already set their starting rotation: Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, Scott Feldman, Matt Harrison, and Brandon McCarthy.