Friday, February 03, 2006

Winter thaw

The Cleveland weather forecast is white for one of the few times this winter. Areas east of the city could have over a foot of snow by nightfall tomorrow.
No matter. Winter's grip is bound to loosen. The truck that carries the Indians' bats, balls, uniforms and bubble gum to Winter Haven, Fla. pulled out of town today.
The Coco Crisp-less Indians will begin spring training in 13 days when pitchers and catchers report.
The off-season work of GM Mark Shapiro is winding down. Those Jake Westbrook-for-Austin Kearns rumors appear to be just that. The Indians might add an outfielder in spring training, but Shapiro will likely let the bulk of spring training play out before he decides on making a move.
The focus will soon shift to the guys in uniform: manager Eric Wedge and his players.
It will be the outset of a very interesting season for the Tribe, one that will go a long way to determine if the Shapiro-led rebuilding project can yield a perennial playoff contender, even when inhibited by a lack of funding from ownership.
Expectations are high. The Indians won 93 games and were a last-week collapse from making the playoffs last year. But several of the players who played a large part in last year's run -- namely Crisp, Kevin Millwood and Bob Howry -- are gone.

The good news: The backbone of the lineup and starting rotation remains intact. Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez both hit .305 last year. Jhonny Peralta and Grady Sizemore arrived with breakout years. Ronnie Belliard proved 2004 was not a fluke, and pitchers C.C. Sabathia and 18-game-winner Cliff Lee make up the front of the rotation along with playoff-tested Paul Byrd.

The bad news: Casey Blake is still in right field. Left field could be a platoon of part-timers Todd Hollandsworth and Jason Michaels. The durable Howry has been replaced by talented-but-fragile Guillermo Mota in the all-important eighth-inning setup role. Arthur Rhodes is gone. Wedge will be relying on reclamation projects Danny Graves and Steve Karsay to round out the bullpen. Closer Bob Wickman might have caught lightning in a bottle with his 45-save season last year. Sooner or later, his body is going to realize it's overweight and pushing 40.

More good news, at least possibly: The Indians have a group of talented youngsters at Class AAA Buffalo who might be ready to contribute this year. Andy Marte's ability has just about made scouts drool on their notebooks. If Aaron Boone continues his slow decline toward has-been status, Shapiro shouldn't hesitate to promote his newfound third-base prodigy. Ryan Garko can rake, but where he will play defensively remains a question. Franklin Gutierrez might be a long-term replacement for Crisp.
Pitchers Jason Davis, Fausto Carmona and Jeremy Sowers are waiting in the wings to round out the starting rotation and bullpen as needed. But understandably, Wedge probably would rather give jobs to veterans out of spring training. Dress rehearsal is over. It's time for this team to contend.

Good news or bad news: Fans are poised to pounce one way or the other. This season, the fans will either embrace a winner, or reject a team that, as they feared, took a major step backward this winter. Another season of double-digit Central Division deficits to the White Sox won't help matters. Season ticket sales are predictably up following last year's success, but baseball fans in Cleveland have shown they will embrace a winner and spurn a loser with equal passion. The Tribe's financial lifeblood, ticket revenue, hangs in the balance.

1 comment:

Zach said...

"The bad news: Casey Blake is still in right field."

I hear Casey Blake had Thanksgiving dinner at Eric Wedge's house. That certainly makes more sense than what Eric has been saying about Casey in recent Roger Brown columns