Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Darkhorse for the 2009 Major League Baseball Season

The ones you think are beautiful, but no one else does? Those are the best.—Unknown

It's official. Actually, it's been official for a couple days now. There are less than 10 days until pitchers and catchers report. If you don't understand the magic in those words, you might not want to keep reading because this is gonna be about Major League Baseball.

And it's not gonna feature the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox or Manny Ramirez. At least not heavily.

It's magic for one simple reason—once there's a hurler on the mound somewhere and the tools of ignorance are donned with the words 'Spring Training' attached, a major hurdle has been cleared. Let the dreams of April 5, 2009 flow freely.

Otherwise known as Opening Day.

In any other year, we'd already be seeing preview articles and prediction pieces by the hundreds. Teams would be set, nuclei would have been assessed, and those of us who follow the Bigs closely would have a clearer understanding of the landscape. It's a tad different this year because there are so many significant free agents still available.

That said, I don't think any of the merchandise going stale on the shelves is a season-changer. Maybe Ben Sheets, but he's apparently going under the knife. For a pitcher with an injury history like that guy's, who knows what that means for his future. Forget about his immediate horizon i.e. the 2009 season.

Adam Dunn is nice, but he strikes out a ton. If he goes to a team that's already stacked, say Boston, it'd be a pretty substantial addition. But what if my San Francisco Giants signed him?

It would make the Orange and Black a lot better, but it wouldn't make the boys World Series material.

Same goes for guys like Bobby Abreu, Garret Anderson, and Orlando Hudson. Even Manny Ramirez to a degree, but that's irrelevant because he and Scott Boras seem to be the only ones who don't realize that he'll be wearing Los Angeles Dodger blue in 2009.

Whether on a baseball field or on the beach somewhere (at least that's what I keep telling myself because the alternative is apparently orange and black, which would really bum me out).

So I'm gonna go ahead and throw my version of a "prediction" on the table. It's not actually a prediction because I think it's the definition of silly to argue, with any degree of certitude, who will make the playoffs, advance, and win MLB's ultimate prize. Frankly, I think it's pretty silly to do it at the All-Star break.

Fun? Yes, but almost meaningless.

Instead, I'm gonna tab a team I expect to make a serious run at a ring. A team that's flown under the radar and yet seems poised for big things. I'll still link it to the World Series because the franchise popping champagne at the end of the year is rarely one that everyone saw coming.

Sometimes it happens that way, like when the Yankees were steam-rolling to title after title in the late 1990s. But that's the exception, not the rule.

Usually, it's a team that nobody was really hyping. A team that seems surprising while they're doing it. Yet, through the clear lens of hindsight, it's a team that makes those of us—who fancy ourselves knowledgeable about the sport—feel stupid for overlooking.

It's normally a squad that had a good year not too long before, a dash of young talent that was due to mature, an established star who was due for a leap to the next level, solid pitching to build from, a steadying veteran presence in the clubhouse, and/or a little roster continuity.

Of course, there's always a healthy bit o' luck and that's why predicting the winner 162 games prematurely is a baaaad idea.

So I'm not saying the Cleveland Indians will win the Fall Classic.

That would be foolishness masquerading as bravado and prescience, especially considering the offseason had by the Bronx Bombers. I am saying that I expect them to make a sincere run at it.

I'd go so far as to pick them to win the American League Central. Of course, that's not so bold all things considered.

Anyway, look at the Tribes' projected starting lineup plus rotation and significant relief (from the 'pen and bench):


Catcher—Kelly Shoppach
First Base—Ryan Garko
Second Base—Mark DeRosa
Third Base—Andy Marte
Shortstop—Jhonny Peralta
Left Field—Ben Francisco
Center Field—Grady Sizemore
Right Field—Shin-Soo Choo
Designated Hitter—Victor Martinez/Travis Hafner

Starting Rotation:

Ace—Cliff Lee
Second—Fausto Carmona
Third—Aaron Laffey
Fourth—Carl Pavano
Fifth—Jeremy Sowers/Anthony Reyes


Closer—Kerry Wood
Set-up—Rafael Bettencourt
Set-up—Jensen Lewis
Set-up—Rafael Perez
Set-up—Masa Kobayashi

Bench: David Dellucci, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jamey Carroll

Now recall that the Indians were a couple lucky breaks away from going to the World Series in 2007 only to be vanquished by the eventual champion Boston Red Sox. They suffered some injuries in 2008, got a good view of CC Sabathia's large rear as he was shipped off to the Milwaukee Brewers, and regressed a bit.

But they rallied at the end and managed to finish 81-81. Recent success? Check.

The roster features Laffey (24 years old), who got off to a great start in '08 only to crack under the pressure/stress of a full season in the Show. It features Carmona, who is another youngster (25) who has shown flashes of brilliance while struggling with consistency. The same can be said of Lewis (25), Sowers (~26), Reyes (~27), and Perez (27).

And that's just on the mound.

In the batter's box, you've got Marte (25 and a former blue-chip prospect), Peralta (27 and already a legit 25+ homer/.275+ hitter), and Choo (~27 and hit the cover off the ball at times in '08).

Shoot, Shoppach barely has more than a season's worth of at-bats so you could even lump him in this group despite his advancing (for pro sports) age of 29 years.

Regardless, I'd say that's a dash of young talent with a good chance of maturation.

Then there's the matter of Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee, both of whom are established stars at this point.

I'll focus on Sizemore since it'd be crass to say Lee could make another leap. I'm not sure what a leap would look like considering he won the American League Cy Young by posting 223+ innings, 170 strikeouts against 34 walks, a 2.54 earned run average, a 1.11 WHIP, and finishing 22-3. That doesn't leave much room for improvement.

I'm guessing that's the best pitching campaign we'll see for a while; maybe Tim Lincecum can beat it. I love the Franchise, but I'm not so sure.

Plus, Grady's a bit younger. Lee's only gonna be 31 in August, but Sizemore will be 27 in the same month. Four years is a substantial difference in professional athletics.

Sizemore's 2008 season wasn't exactly shabby—101 runs scored, 39 doubles, 33 homeruns, 90 runs batted in, 38 steals, a .268 average, a .375 on-base percentage, and a .502 slugging percentage.

On the downside, he struck out a lot (130 times) and his average dipped from his previous seasons (probably can account for the bump in taters). So there's substantially more room for improvement compared to Lee. And Grady is entering his prime.

Established star due for a leap? Check.

The low-key additions of Pavano, Wood, and DeRosa all bode well.

Part of the derailment in '08 can be attributed to Cleveland's bullpen, which was one of the worst in MLB. Kerry Wood greatly rights that ship because he allows Betancourt and Perez to shift back to roles in which they apparently feel more comfortable.

It also allows the Tribe to pump the brakes on the development of young Jensen Lewis, who already showed promise while greatly solidifying the gelatinous 'pen last year.

Pavano pitched much better than anyone expected in his return to the Pinstripes towards the end of '08. I wouldn't pin my hopes on the guy because he has yet to prove he has a spine to speak of, but he showed enough to be cautiously optimistic.

So solid pitching? Check.

DeRosa joins Lee, Sizemore, Wood, and Martinez to reinforce the veteran leadership and add to the well of experience. That includes the postseason.

Last but not least, there hasn't been much roster upheaval since the big man got his walking papers. The additions have been minimalistic, but calculated to contribute most where Cleveland was weakest. And they only strengthen the nucleus that was there last year.

Yep, with a little luck, I see very good things for the Cleveland Indians in 2009. Unfortunately, the baseball gods have made a habit out of kicking me in the junk over the years and I don't know why this year would be any different.

So I may have just doomed the Tribe to another year of one step forward, two steps back.


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