Hafner, Indians hope to contend in AL Central raceAcross the plaza from LeBron James’ home-court office, powerwashers blast winter’s leftovers off the seats and corridors inside Progressive Field. With opening day approaching, the fabulous ballpark is being spruced up for another season. Outside the gates, it’s quiet. Real quiet.
CLEVELAND (AP) — Across the plaza from LeBron James’ home-court office, powerwashers blast winter’s leftovers off the seats and corridors inside Progressive Field. With opening day approaching, the fabulous ballpark is being spruced up for another season.
Outside the gates, it’s quiet. Real quiet.
There’s only one customer at box office window No. 7, and after picking up an extra ticket for an April 10 game against Toronto, the longtime fan summed up how many Clevelanders are feeling about the Cleveland Indians and their chances of winning in 2009.
“It’s going to be a show-me first attitude,” said George Roth of Shaker Heights, a season-ticket holder for the past 15 years. “Right now, with the economy, it’s LeBron and the Cavaliers. Then, it’s the Indians. I think after what happened last year, fans are a little more reticent.”
As James and the Cavs take aim at a first NBA title and the Browns rebuild, the Indians, who grossly underperformed while going 81-81 last season, are getting minimal attention.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The club’s trend in recent years is to contend when no one expects it to. After winning 93 games in 2005, the Indians dropped to 78 wins in 2006. After winning 96 games and getting to the ALCS in 2007, the Indians slid to 81 wins last season.
Well, it’s an odd-numbered year, and in the wide-open AL Central, manager Eric Wedge’s squad is as good as any in the division.
“We definitely have the pieces we need to be successful,” said catcher Victor Martinez, who will share duties behind the plate with Kelly Shoppach and play some at first. “I believe in this team. There are some players that maybe have not been noticed before and are going to step up. Without injuries, this is a very, very good baseball team.”
It’s also one with its fair share of question marks.
Except for Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, Cleveland’s starting rotation is loaded with uncertainty. Right-hander Fausto Carmona, so dominant as a 19-game winner in ‘07, struggled with his control and missed a large chunk of last season with a hip strain. His weight raised some eyebrows this spring, but the 25-year-old’s sinker seemed to be in much better shape.
After blowing their free-agent money on closer Kerry Wood (two years, $20.5 million), the mid-market Indians couldn’t afford a high-priced starter. However, they may have found a bargain-basement steal in Carl Pavano, who flamed out in New York and because of injuries has pitched just 45 innings the past three seasons. He’ll be Cleveland’s No. 3, as shaky a middle-of-the-rotation starter as you’ll find in baseball.
The Indians were encouraged by Pavano’s progress during camp, and they’ll begin the season with Scott Lewis and Anthony Reyes in the Nos. 4 and 5 slots. If they struggle, help is just a two-hour drive away at Triple-A Columbus, where left-handers David Huff, Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey will be on call.
In fact, Cleveland has an abundance of young talent in the upper minors with outfield prospects Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley, second baseman Luis Valbuena and third baseman Wes Hodges at the top of a class that gives the Indians a promising future.
“Every time I walk down to the minor league fields and watch them play, it reinforces the depth of talent we’ve got,” general manager Mark Shapiro said. “I’m not prone to creating expectations in that area, but with the realities of our market, that’s essential to how we conduct our business. It’s talent we can build around for years to come.”
This year’s success, however, could hinge on designated hitter Travis Hafner bouncing back from an injury-ravaged 2008.
After batting just .197 in 57 games with a baffling right shoulder injury, Hafner underwent offseason surgery and insists he’s healthy again. His swing isn’t. During training camp, Hafner did not drive balls into the gaps the way he did a few years ago, when he was arguably the AL’s most feared power hitter.
Shapiro remains optimistic Hafner will come around.
“I believe in the person and believe in the track record,” Shapiro said. “Obviously, everything is not together right now. But we feel he’s moving in the right direction, and that it’s going to come together at some point soon.”
If Hafner doesn’t come back, Cleveland’s offense, which scored a major league-leading 379 runs in the second half last season, should have enough firepower to sustain.
Leadoff hitter extraordinaire Grady Sizemore could become baseball’s next 40-40 (homers-steals) club member as long as he doesn’t break himself in half running into an outfield wall.
Right fielder Shin Soo-Choo may be on the verge of stardom. The 26-year-old missed the first two months last season following Tommy John elbow surgery, but then hit .343 with 20 doubles, 11 homers, 48 RBIs, 50 runs scored and a 1.038 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) in 58 games in the second half.
“Shin-Soo Choo, I didn’t really know who he was,” said third baseman Mark DeRosa, who came over in an offseason trade from the Cubs. “But he’s got some of the most serious pop I’ve seen.”
The biggest pop, though, could come from Wood’s fastball. Cleveland’s bullpen was a disaster in ‘08. An ERA of 5.11 was the second-worst in the AL, but the addition of Wood and sidearmer Joe Smith (3.55 ERA in 82 games for Mets) should improve things immensely.
Also in the Indians’ favor is a division with no clear favorite. Cleveland has its flaws but so does Chicago, Minnesota, Kansas City and Detroit.
“On paper, I could make a pretty good case for you why each team will win the division,” Shapiro said. “And then we can go through that list again, and I can tell you why that team won’t win the division. Our team is in that group.”