February 15, 2005

Reality Therapy

So I'm in full baseball fever mode these days, and picked up The Sporting News preseason baseball magazine at the newsstand today. I'm waiting till Opening Day to make my official prediction for the number of Indians victories in 2005, but I've made no secret of my optimism about the season. I've convinced myself that the team can contend for win the Central Division title. So I don't want to say that the Sporting News magazine discouraged me, because it couldn't do that. I'm jazzed. But maybe it splashed a little cold water on my face and got me thinking about, well...reality.

For starters, let me say that I hold The Sporting News in high regard generally, and prefer most of their publications to the competition. I don't track the "batting average" of their predictions, but my sense is that they're among the more credible prognosticators. TSN had six experts pick all of the division races, (and the rest of the playoffs and Series). All six experts picked the Twins to win the Central. However, four of the six picked the Indians to finish second, one picked them third, and one fourth. (FYI, five of the six picked the Yankees to win it all.)

So, about that reality thing. Part of what has me worried is taking another look at the Twins rotation and lineup and closer. It's better than I thought it was going to be. I keep thinking we have the best rotation in the division 1 through 5, but Santana, Radke, Carlos Silva (forgot about him), Kyle Lohse, and Joe Mays ain't chopped liver. Their lineup is young, like ours, but there are lots of guys who figure to get nothing but better this year; Lew Ford, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer. Then there's Shannon Stewart, Torii Hunter, Jacques Jones. Tough. Closer? Joe Nathan. Tough.

If their rotation is good, Chicago's is better. Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, El Duque Hernandez, Jose Contreras, and Jon Garland. I'll spare you their lineup because it doesn't approach either ours or the Twins as an everyday group, though they did pick up A.(for a-hole) J. Pierzynski and Jermaine Dye. Again though, their closer Takatsu, is not a question mark like ours is.

And the problem is that there are a whole bunch of question marks for the Indians that just don't seem to be there for the Twins. Some of the following are paraphrasing concerns raised by the writeup in the TSN magazine section on the Indians and shared by me, and others are strictly my observations.

1) The Manager: Under Wedge the team has been inconsistent and streaky. (There are lots of good things to say about Wedge, but this is about concerns and question marks, OK?) The Indians have not been a good baserunning team under Wedge. At the crucial moment last year, down only a game to the Twins in early to mid-August, they swooned into a nine game losing streak. How much of this is attributable to the overall team youth and inexperience (or the manager's youth and inexperience?) is something we should begin to find out about this season. The fact that this is "a young team", while still true, must cease being an excuse on a day in - day out basis this year. I like Wedge as a manager, but we're talking about matching up with the Twins here (and ultimately, the Red Sox and Yankees) and right now Gardenhire has to be given the edge until Wedge starts to show he can get smarter, more consistent play from his guys when it counts.

2) The Outfield: On paper this is not even close. Assuming Juan Gonzalez' back allows him to play, the Indians will be starting a 35 year-old outfielder who managed to play only 33 games last year, and whose numbers have declined sharply over the last three seasons. Casey Blake is a good hitter, but has never played a major league game in the outfield, and Coco Crisp is a kid with only two years of experience and while he's an excellent defensive player he has a relatively weak arm. The Twins have Torii Hunter, Jacques Jones and Shannon Stewart, with Lew Ford and Michael Restovich coming off the bench. Even if we substitute the budding star Grady Sizemore for the aging Gonzalez, we're adding a green rookie, getting younger and delaying winning. Remember, we're talking about trying to win this year, not just long term. (I am on record as strongly favoring getting the first full ML season for Sizemore out of the way now, and letting Juan be Gone-zalez.)

3) The Shortstop: Omar is gone. We will be starting a very talented player at shortstop, whether that turns out to be Jhonny (watch where you put that "h") Peralta or Brandon Phillips. But either way, we will be taking some lumps defensively compared to past years if only because we are replacing the best defensive shortstop to ever walk the planet. Oh yeah, Omar also hit over .300 last year, and led the team in sacrifice bunts, etc. etc. Peralta will probably provide more power and probably more RBI, but the pressure will be on. To be fair, the Twins will be starting a different shortstop as well in Juan Castro, who is only a .226 hitter lifetime. Still, he's an upgrade over the lifeless Christian Guzman.

4) The Closer: The Twins - Joe Nathan: 2004 stats - 72 innings pitched, 89 strikeouts. 44 saves in 47 save opportunities, 1.62 ERA. All Star. The Indians - Bob Wickman: Missed the entire season in 2003 and came back late in 2004 to finish the year with 13 saves in 14 save opportunities while nursing a right elbow still not 100% recovered from major surgery. Has tremendous guts, heart, leadership abilities, a surgically repaired elbow, and a knack for giving up a few base hits and making every save an adventure. Who knows?

5) The Rotation: Even with the question mark of our other bad elbow, Kevin Millwood's, I like our rotation better than the Twins group. But if Millwood can't go all the way to October, we're going with a much less experienced starter every fifth day (Stanford, Davis, Guthrie, Traber, Tadano??), and so we must include this group in our list of question marks.

I guess that's about it. Two bum elbows, a green shortstop, an aging ex-MVP hoping to stay healthy, a lack of power from the corner positions, a revamped bullpen. Incredibly, I think our bullpen is less a question than any of these other issues. I'm confident we'll be much stronger and more consistent there (assuming Wickman's continued good health).

And the everyday lineup looks so good offensively that I simply must include it here, along with last years numbers, just to make myself feel better. (see my previous post before I was taken down a peg by reality)

Coco Crisp CF --- .297, 15 HR, 71 RBI
Ronnie Belliard 2B --- .282, 12 HR, 70 RBI
Juan Gonzalez RF --- .276, 5 HR, 17 RBI (33 games)
Victor Martinez C --- .283, 23 HR, 108 RBI
Travis Hafner DH --- .311, 28 HR, 109 RBI
Casey Blake LF --- .271, 28 HR, 88 RBI
Ben Broussard 1B --- .285, 17 HR, 82 RBI
Aaron Boone 3B --- .267, 24 HR, 96 RBI (2003)
Jhonny Peralta SS --- .326, 15 HR, 86 RBI (AAA)

I think I've been able to get all that negativism out of my system now. On paper, we shouldn't be able to win the division. Most of the experts say we won't win the division. I think we've got them right about where we want them.

Posted by dan at February 15, 2005 08:21 PM

WOW! I hardly recognize the team anymore. Aaron Boone is one of my favorite players, I'm glad that he's back in Ohio. I hope that he recovers well from his surgery. He may be the wild card that could spark a suprising team.

Spring always brings such optimism - let's hope for a good season!

Posted by: Steven J. Kelso Sr. at February 16, 2005 11:00 AM
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