Watching the AL Central: Cleveland Indians

The Cleveland Indians have never been one of the rich teams in baseball – as they struggled in the 90's to keep together a talented nucleus with a limited payroll. Most of that group is gone, but through one of the strongest farm systems in baseball, the Indians are on their way back with a young nucleus of emerging stars.

The Cleveland Indians came close to glory – making it to their first world series in nearly a half century, but the group of heralded players that put up shop on Jacobs Field was never able to achieve glory. The new group hopes it'll have more success.

The team's main goal for improvement is for the most part to allow its younger players to develop. Some have already become solid big league ballplayers, on the verge of stardom.

In 2004, a pair of players had breakout seasons – DH Travis Hafner and C Victor Martinez. Both approached 30 Home Runs (Hafner and 28, Martinez 26) and eclipsed the 100 RBI mark.

The team did have a couple free agents, but were able to resign both. The most important man returning is 2B Ronnie Belliard, who came out of obscurity to have an All Star season for the Indians in 2004.

The team also returned its closer; Bob Wickman, signing him to a 1-year deal.

The Indians will however have a couple of holes to replace; one due to trade, the other due to a declined option, possibly the final sign of the changing of the guard in Cleveland.

The Indians declined their 2005 option on free agent Shortstop Omar Visquel, ending his run as the team's Shortstop, a role he held for over 10 years. Visquel, despite his age, still had a productive season in 2004, and will be a tough player to replace, offensively, defensively and as a leader in the clubhouse.

To replace him, they'll leave the job up to competition in camp, as they signed Jose Hernandez from the L.A. Dodgers, who will battle with Jhonny Peralta and former standout prospect Brandon Phillips for the everyday job. The rest of the infield is set, with 3B Casey Blake and 1B Ben Broussard returning to their starting spots.

The Outfield has been young for the Indians, and will continue to get younger. Jody Gerut and Coco Crisp will keep their starting roles, while the third spot has been vacated with the trade of Matt Lawton to Pittsburgh in exchange for lefty reliever Arthur Rhodes. The final Outfield spot could end up going to young standout Grady Sizemore, or there is a chance that the team could give the job to minor league free agent signing Juan Gonzalez. Gonzalez, the former Tiger, has fallen on hard times after being one of the top hitters in all of baseball throughout the 90's.

Moving on to pitching, we find the one area where the team made a big free agent signing. Kevin Millwood has been one of the better pitchers in baseball, however, a rough past couple seasons have left Millwood's star dimmed some, and so the big free agent deals that many others were capitalizing on weren't available to Millwood. In turn, he took the 1-year offer for $7 million from Cleveland, and will head a staff already featuring young studs Jake Westbrook and C.C. Sabathia.

Wickman and Rhodes will headline the back of the Indians bullpen. David Riske and Bob Howry will provide help in the middle as well.

Overall, the Indians have a number of young, impressive hitters throughout their lineup that the team is now relying on to hopefully take them to the promised land. They obviously still have a ways to go, but given their past track record, they should be in good hands. Catching the Twins will be another matter.


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