As we start the first FULL week of Spring Training games, Cleveland fans remain hopeful that Mark Shapiro made the necesary moves to not only improve the club from last year (who am I kidding, improve the club from THE YEAR BEFORE), but end up ahead of the Tigers, Twins and White Sox. It really may be to early to tell what's going to happen once the season begins, but that's no reason not to speculate. Today, I'm going to look at the top eight on and off-field questions the Tribe will hopefully be able to answer by the time Cleveland takes the field at the start of this season. Even if they can't, I WILL. Of course, before that, I need to mention who I think will MAKE THE ROSTER. I do believe things are relatively settled, minus surprises and injuries, of course:
LF-Jason Michaels or LF-David Delucci
SS/2B--Mike Rouse (based on Terry Pluto)
(look for Garko to be the odd man out--and VMart to rotate at 1b)
Middle Relief--Jason Davis--RHP
Middle Relief--Matt Miller--RHP
alright, on with the questions...
10. Is Mark Shapiro signing a contract a done deal? How many weeks in a row have we heard that Shapiro is signed, sealed and delivered? My only questions then is, WHY HASN'T HE SIGNED? Most people seem to agree that Shapiro does an amazing job with the payroll he's given. The ONLY problem is that there haven't been results. Shapiro HAS to produce a playoff appearance this season, because if his offseason acquisitions explode on him this year, the way they did last year, there are going to be far less folks saying how good he is. Look for Shapiro to sign a deal soon, as I really do see Shapiro putting it off while he's dealing with Westbrook, Sabathia and Pronk. He'll sign before the start of the season. Most of you know what I think about Shapiro. If he wants to stay, they should let him sign a deal that allows him to stay as long as he wants too. He's that good. I'm just surprised he hasn't tried to pursue a team with a larger payroll. My bet is if he did, he'd figure out a way to get them to the series in the first two years there. Let's just hope he never gets the itch.
9. Is Eric Wedge on the hot seat? I rarely disagree with Terry Pluto. Most will agree that he's as good as it gets, and rarely gets it wrong. Today, Mr. Pluto discussed how Eric Wedge ISN'T on the hot seat this year, that he isn't worried about his contract since he sees this team as playoff calibre, and that this team is a lock for 90 games (minus injury). I don't agree at all. I think Wedge IS on the hot seat. I think as relaxed as he looks, he'll begin feeling the pressure if the Indians aren't in the mix early. I also think Showalter may not have been brought in to replace Wedge, but do you really think he'll say no? I will say that Pluto brings a solid argument about the job Wedge has done with this team, and how he handles his starters, his rotation, and his strategy. The bottom line, however, is the 'scapegoat' mentality by Dolan. If this team doesn't do well, he'll defer, and we'll see Wedge go first, and Shapiro second. Wedge is on the hot seat, if this team doesn't perform. I absolutely think Cleveland will make it to the playoffs this year, and possibly, if the bullpen is as good as I suspect it is, win the division. If they don't make the playoffs, Wedge, who's contract is up this season will be gone. This would be rated higher, but if it becomes an issue, it won't be until break or later.
8. Which minor league players will make an impact on the Big League club out of Spring Training, and as the season progresses. Adam Miller will be on this team before the end of the year. I think Cleveland would ultimately want to see him make it until the end of the season in AAA, before taking over Westbrook or Byrd's slot next season, but he's just going to be too good to not have on the big club. No, I don't think he's going to make the club out of Spring Training. Trevor Crowe is the guy that's perhaps hurt the most by the platoon situations. Yeah, it pushes Choo and Garko out, but Choo is the unquestioned next guy in line in the outfield, and Garko will more than likely make the team. Crowe, who had one of those fantastic seasons last year that many didn't expect, will have to have a lot happen. I think we'll either see Crowe or see Crowe dealt by July. I like him, but most say he doesn't have the range to play center field. I could see him in left, but not with platoon central. He could be the bait we need, like K2, that could upgrade a position at the break. THE PLAYER that I believe will have the most impact on the big league club this year is Tony Sipp. It may not be until the stretch run, and there will be a couple that go before him, but Sipp will be this team's closer, perhaps as early as next year. They'll want him up earlier.
7. Is Andy Marte the answer at third base? Lake Erie Hope does a really nice job talking about Marte, Travis Fryman's help, and his potential in the lineup. I don't agree that he's in the same position as Peralta was two years ago, but I do agree that Marte could be the fulcrum of this team. IF Marte performs above expectations, and provides icing on the cake, the Indians offense will be incredible. If he just performs to standards, hits for power, not for average, Clevelands offense will overall improve. There is concern on my part, that Marte may underperform. Marte has never hit for average, and learning HOW to hit for average in the majors is a mistake in my opinion. Marte is only 23 years old, and we've yet to see the player that Marte will become. My hope is that he's ready this year. I have a strange feeling that he's not. Of course, any Andy Marte will be better than the Aaron Boone-led platoon of last season. Of course, Marte only batted .226 in his limited action. Not exactly stellar statistics. Strange things could happen at third base this year, and it may help clear up problems in other areas.
6. Which Platoons (Delucci/Michaels in left, Blake/Nixon in right, Blake/Garko/VMart at first) will work, and which platoons won't? I really like the Delucci/Michaels platoon. This platoon is going to produce all year long, and I don't really have much more to say about it. What will ultimately happen here is that we will forget all about left field becuase these two can play defense, and can hit. Both are scrappy, and are those guys you need on the team to succeed. Blake and Nixon will work for as long as Nixon isn't hurt. My prediction is that he will be however, which will bring Choo and Garko back into play. Back to that in a second. I also believe that Garko is the real deal at 1B, as most others do. The problem is that there is no room for Garko with the addition of Nixon. Look for VMart to play a bit more at 1B in the platoon with Blake. If Nixon gets hurt, look for the hot bat, Garko or Choo, to get called up. More than likely, it will be Garko, to platoon with VMart, while Blake takes the majority of AB's in right. I also think it is distinctly possible that you could see Blake playing third base. I hope I'm wrong about Marte, but I just can't get Alex Escobar (without the injuries) out of my head. Look for left field to work well, and Right Field and First base to just plain work out. This could get really complicated as the season progresses, so tune back in to the DOJO to see how it all works out.
5. Will Mark Shapiro be able to sign Jake Westbrook by the start of the season? Jake Westbrook may not be the most talented Tribehand starter, but he's certainly the most consistent. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2004, JW has averaged 32 starts, 212 IP, 3 CG, 15 wins, 11 losses, and a 4 ERA. Here's a guy you plug into your 2 or 3 hole (preferably 3), and forget about. He's the guy that gives your starting pitching depth. He's also not worth the money that will certainly be offered to him next October by one of the large market teams. The question then becomes, will Mark Shapiro find a creative way to get Westbrook to not only sign on the dotted line, but sign in a way that will still allow him to go after Pronk and CC before their contracts run out next year. The popular opinion is that Shapiro might be able to sign 2 of the 3, and will probably be able to only sign one of the big 3. Sabathia and Pronk are both higher ceiling guys, so what Shapiro WON'T do is overspend now, and lose both Sabathia AND Pronk. If Cleveland can manage to get Westbrook to sign a decent deal that fits payroll, then look for Shapiro to jump on getting one of the other 2 to sign as well. Why is this a big question this preseason, when Westbrook isn't a free agent until the end of the year? Signing Westbrook now, not only will build support from the fan base to support the Dolan-led Tribe, but will send a clear message to the other Indians AND Free Agents that Cleveland is trying to build a winner. Shapiro has done a nice job building Cleveland as a team that can rebuild a career, and it has paid dividends in the free agent market. Now both the Dolans, and Shapiro need to take the next step. The Wildcard here, of course, is the Indians depth at starting pitching. With Adam Miller and Fausto Carmona both looking like potential top-end starters, and Chuck Lofgren and Scott Lewis looking even more dominating heading to AA this year, the focus for Shapiro might not be on starting pitching. Of course, if you are always looking towards the future, WHEN do you try and win the series? Personally, Cleveland should set their sights on Westbrook and Pronk. I would absolutely love to have Sabathia sitting there at the #1 slot, but I also wouldn't even DREAM OF PAYING him 130 million dollars over 7 years. Set your sights on Westbrook and Pronk (and just figure Pronk you WILL sign), and hope for the best.
4. Which player will surprise out of the gate? I really think that Josh Barfield is going to be someone that has everyone talking. LEH talked about him in the same breath as another former Padre, Roberto Alomar, and I agree. I know people think he's good, but my guess is that we'll see Barfield in the 2 hole before we get to the break. His upside is huge, and as many can already tell you, he's the type of player and person that works hard to get where he wants to be. He's working with Peralta right now, and you can tell from watching (or listening) that he's a gamer. I know there are players with questions, like VMart throwing guys out, and the others that I've mentioned, but I think all that will iron itself out. Barfield will take this team to the next level. It's all about being strong up the middle...and I do believe that Barfield, Sizemore and yes, Peralta, will be a strength for years to come...and I do mean offensively AND defensively.
3. What role will Fausto Carmona play on this team? Carmona is going to be the #1 guy in Buffalo, where he should be. Cleveland tried him out as a closer last year, and it failed miserably. I can't help but think back to Julian Tavarez, and it's just hard to believe it was 14 years ago. He came out as a starter in 1993, and was shelled as a starter his first year, in 7 starts. Spent a year in the minors in 1994, then was a lights out relief pitcher in 1995, before struggling in 1996 while moving between starting and relieving. Of course, he's been used in a variety of roles since leaving Cleveland after 1996, but you have to wonder what would have happened had he been used strictly as a starter, or a reliever, earlier in his career. Many thought he had top of the rotation potential. Cleveland never gave him the shot because they needed the slot in the pen, and had two kids named Wright and Colon. Carmona hopped back and forth last year as well. This year, however, Shapiro seems committed at allowing Carmona to remain a starter, and that's the way it should be. I see Carmona being the first line of defense if/when one of the starters go down. I really get a sense that this kid could be something special. My suspician is that we'll get to see some of that this year. The key will be to keep him as a STARTER!
2. Who will come out as the best player on the team? Pronk is Ortiz. Ortiz is Pronk. The similarities are astounding. But I believe this is the year that a player will come out of spring showing everyone that not only is he the best player on the Tribe, but the best player IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE. Grady Sizemore is going to have a monster year. I watch Sizemore play, and I can't help but think of Robin Yount. He LOOKS like him in the outfield, the way he charges the ball...the ground he covers. Yount wasn't flashy, but he flashed in the outfield. Yount didn't dominate you offensively, but he made you bleed. Sizemore is the same way, and only getting better. I believe that this season, we are going to see something special...that Sizemore is going to potentially show the league that he is not only the best in the AL, but the best in MLB. I don't have to tell you Indians fans about him, most of you are probably nodding right now. His OBP jumped to .375 last year, and I think will improve this year, with steadier bats in front of him. I also believe we will see Sizemore pick up some more RBI's, and have more power opportunities for as long as Barfield is batting 9th. It's not inconceivable to predict Sizemore closing in or surpassing 30-30 this season. Expect big things from the kid, he's that good.
1. What will happen to Jhonny Peralta? Jhonny Peralta WILL be back to his old self. I'm NOT talking about the Peralta from last year that everyone is fixating on. I'm talking about the Jhonny Peralta from EVERY OTHER YEAR HE'S PLAYED. I keep reading things that are infuriating, and the one at the top of the list is that "The Indians haven't made a move to make sure they have a shortstop to take over if Peralta struggles as he did last year." Look, I'm all for having a backup plan, but to make it sound like Peralta is a dog that needs to be put to sleep, instead of that dog that barked every other year of his career is absolutely ridiculous. Let's look at the facts last season. Peralta struggled, and there's no doubt. He lived in Wedge's doghouse all season, and wasn't in shape. You also have to look at the changes at the top of the order with the dealing of Coco Crisp as a major shift. It was one season, and a season in which it is very evident. He's in great shape this year, has already looked like a different player in the field, and has a good stick. He's also looked very good with Barfield. I really believe that not only will Peralta be improved at the plate, but with Barfield, will be ABOVE AVERAGE in the field. There, I said it. Now, about Peralta growing to 6'8", gaining X-Ray vision, and having three bones removed from his ribcage, well...everyone has to have an excuse.
Notice what's NOT mentioned? Nothing about the relief corp. I'm just going to say it's improved, and you'll have to live with it. It has some depth, and should allow Cleveland to develop some of their relievers.
I hope this helps with some of you as Spring Training continues, and hold onto the rope, things are sure as hell going to get bumpy...