Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cleveland Indians 2007 Outlook

2006 results: 78-84, 4th place, AL Central

Pythagorean record: 89-73

Key free agents: None

Plan for 2007: Add a bat at first base or left field and hope for better luck.

The Cleveland Indians of 2005-06 were cursed.

That’s one theory, anyway. The 2005 squad missed the playoffs despite being the best team in baseball by many measures. Their follow-up act was to finish second in the league in scoring and seventh in runs allowed, yet post a losing record. A curse would also explain how Jhonny Peralta suddenly declined from an outstanding two years in 2004-05 to a merely good year in 2006, how Jason Michaels went from a productive left fielder to a placeholder, how the Cleveland bullpen went from the best in the AL in 2005 to a big liability in 2006.

The 2006 Indians suffered significant injuries to Travis Hafner, C.C. Sabathia, Rafael Betancourt, Matt Miller, Aaron Boone, and Casey Blake. They traded Ben Broussard, Eduardo Perez, Ron Belliard and Bob Wickman in midseason. All of this lost time from productive players led to a Pythagorean record of 89-73, the level of a borderline playoff team in most seasons. They scored more runs and allowed fewer than the White Sox, who stayed incredibly healthy all year and won 90 games. That they actually won only 78 reflects their poor record in one-run games (again) and their excellent record in blowouts. As any analyst will tell you, this is mostly a function of luck; a poor closer can account for an extra loss or two in close games, but not 11.

Despite all their bad karma the past two years, Cleveland has a very bright outlook in 2007, entering the offseason as the best team in the AL Central. Though they finished fourth in 2006, the Indians have no free agents to lose and don’t have an aging lineup (White Sox), a star pitcher out for 2007 (Twins), or a team likely to regress heavily (Tigers).

Though Hafner and Grady Sizemore had better seasons than expected, this was balanced by the declines of Peralta, Michaels and Victor Martinez. The core of Hafner, Sizemore, Peralta and Martinez should retain its combined 2006 value next year, giving the Indians four stars to build around.

The Tribe will also have a solid supporting cast. Shin-Soo Choo, Joe Inglett, and Kevin Kouzmanoff are all cheap, young, and should be productive on-base threats. Blake has had two good years in three, and he’s signed cheaply enough to be replaced if the team needs it. Sabathia is a legit number 1 starter who will be 26 in 2007, and a rotation of Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook, Paul Byrd and Jeremy Sowers has no real holes. Betancourt and Miller are two of MLB’s best relievers, and Fernando Cabrera should split the difference between his 2005 and 2006 and be productive as well.

If there’s an obvious weakness for Cleveland, it’s the bats at first base and left field. Currently, those spots are occupied by Ryan Garko and Jason Michaels. Neither is the worst in the AL at his position, but neither is really an acceptable starter for a team in contention that has room to raise its payroll, especially since they occupy two of the three easiest positions (along with designated hitter) to find a bat. With the team in an excellent position to make a championship run for the next two years, it only makes sense for them to open up their wallets.

Through deft acquisitions and signings by GM Mark Shapiro, the Indians have assembled their core on the cheap. Hafner will earn $3.75 million in 2007, Martinez $3 million, Peralta and Sizemore $750,000 each. With those three earning a combined $8.25 million instead of the $50 million they could command on the open market, the Indians have plenty of cash left in their pockets to fill the holes in their lineup.

Though the free agent market isn’t deep, most of the talented players are 1B/LF types. Barry Bonds is an obvious short-term solution who won’t bankrupt the Indians in future years, although the Cleveland lineup already leans heavily left-handed. Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee won’t be worth what they eventually get paid, but the other big free agent bat, Aramis Ramirez, is a good fit in Cleveland, where his subpar fielding can be moved to first base. Ramirez won’t be cheap, but he’s two years younger than Soriano or Lee and has been the best hitter of the three over the past three years.

Frank Thomas isn’t an option, unless the Indians believe Hafner can play first base full-time, which seems unlikely. The other potential difference-making free agents are Ryan Klesko and Trot Nixon, who are aging and injury-prone. Though neither would be a marquee signing, they are good secondary options for the Indians since Michaels and Garko would make fine backups in the event they are needed. An offseason haul of Ramirez and Nixon would be a big upgrade.

On the pitching side, the Indians don’t have any major needs. Though Jason Schmidt or Daisuke Matsuzaka would be a significant upgrade, the money needed to sign them would be better spent on hitting, and the Indians have already bowed out of the Matsuzaka bidding. The back end of the bullpen is potentially soft, but there’s no need to shell out big money for a reliever with live arms like Jason Davis, Brian Sikorski and Edward Mujica available nearly for free.

Whatever they do, the biggest addition the Indians can make is to get back the 11 wins they lost to variance in 2006. This is a team that was talented enough to make the playoffs in each of the last two years, and will be in 2007 as well, even if they don’t change a thing. In a tough division and a tough AL, however, they would do well to aim even higher, taking a shot at the title before their stars become expensive or reach free agency. Cleveland’s window is 2007-08, and they need to strike while the iron is hot.

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