Preseason Preview: Cleveland Indians

After the Cleveland Indians couldn't complete their goal of winning a World Series, they elected to tear things down, and rebuild. After a few years of rebuilding, the team appears ready to get back into the thick of things with their strong, young nucleus and a couple key free agent additions.

Next year is definitely here, according to both the Cleveland Indians' management and fans.

When the Indians began a rebuilding plan in 2002, general manager Mark Shapiro laid out what he called his "blueprint for success," which forecast 2005 as the time he expected the Indians to again be a serious player in the AL's Central Division. After getting within one game of first place last August and eventually finishing with a 12-game improvement in the standings in 2004, the Indians believe they are right on target to achieve their stated goal of returning to postseason play.

Manager Eric Wedge believes it is a realistic goal, and so does the team's top offseason acquisition, right-hander Kevin Millwood.

"We do have reason for optimism," said Wedge as he enters his third season as Cleveland manager. "Our expectations are much higher this year than last year. We've made strides in several areas."

Millwood, signed to a one-year, $7 million contract, said he left Philadelphia for Cleveland because he believes in the Indians' chances to win, too.

"Put it this way," he said. "I don't come here if I don't think this team was ready to win and they don't come after me if they didn't think they have a shot."

Shapiro wanted to maintain the nucleus of the club and believes he did so by re-signing closer Bob Wickman, second baseman Ronnie Belliard and right-hander Scott Elarton. He added to it with some shrewd signings, including an incentive-laced contract with oft-injured outfielder Juan Gonzalez.

RHP Kevin Millwood (free agent from Philadelphia); LHP Arthur Rhodes (trade from Pittsburgh); SS-2B Alex Cora (free agent from Los Angeles); INF-OF Jose Hernandez (free agent from Los Angeles); OF Juan Gonzalez (free agent from Kansas City).

SS Omar Vizquel (free agent to San Francisco); OF Matt Lawton (traded to Pittsburgh); INF John McDonald (traded to Toronto); 1B-DH Josh Phelps (free agent to Tampa Bay); INF Lou Merloni (free agent to Anaheim); C Tim Laker (free agent to Tampa Bay); RHP Rick White (free agent to Pittsburgh).

1: 2B Ronnie Belliard
2: CF Coco Crisp
3: DH Travis Hafner
4: C Victor Martinez
5: RF Juan Gonzalez
6: 1B Ben Broussard
7: 3B Aaron Boone
8: LF Casey Blake
9: SS Jhonny Peralta

Gonzalez, if his aching back does not flare up, Boone, if fully recovered from knee surgery, and rookie Peralta, if ready to play at this level, have been added to a well-balanced offense.

Of course, those are three big questions. Gonzalez has not played anything near to a full season since 2001 -- when he hit 35 homers with 140 RBI and a .325 average. Boone had two operations on his knee last year and has not played since becoming a postseason hero in New York with the Yankees in 2003. Peralta put up impressive numbers in Triple-A last year, hitting .323 with 15 homers, 86 RBI and 110 runs and was named MVP of the International League -- but he's only 21 and will feel the pressure of replacing a Cleveland legend in the departed Omar Vizquel.

Peralta, 22, will battle Brandon Phillips, 23, for the starting job. Phillips, a natural shortstop who flopped in a 2003 trial with the Indians at second base, put his career back on track last year with a solid season at Triple-A Buffalo, hitting .296 with eight homers, 50 RBI and 88 runs.

"All nine spots in the order were productive last season and that one through nine approach is something the coaching staff and I have been preaching," Wedge said. "The offense will continue to evolve around the middle of the order. Victor (Martinez) flourished in the cleanup spot and Travis Hafner led the team in RBI. Ben Broussard was among our most productive hitters in the second half. We feel confident we can score runs."

INF-OF Jose Hernandez
INF Alex Cora
OF Ryan Ludwick
C Josh Bard

Adding Hernandez and Cora gives Wedge more flexibility in making moves. Ludwick is yet another player trying to come back from knee surgery, while Bard missed much of 2004 after having hernia surgery in spring training.

Outfielder Jody Gerut, the team's top rookie in 2003, is expected back from knee surgery in June and young Grady Sizemore, the club's top position prospect, will challenge for a roster spot, too. But Sizemore, along with either Phillips or Peralta, will likely go back to Buffalo and play on an everyday basis if they don't win a starting job in Cleveland.

LH C.C. Sabathia
RH Jake Westbrook
RH Kevin Millwood
LH Cliff Lee
RH Scott Elarton

Sabathia and Westbrook were on the AL All-Star Team last year and the addition of Millwood, if he shows no sign of the strained elbow that sidelined him the last six weeks of 2004, makes this unit solid.

Lee was 10-1 last July before enduring a prolonged slump, while Elarton came to Cleveland after a disastrous stint in Colorado and got his career back on track.

"We look at C.C. as our number one," Wedge said. "Then there's Millwood and Westbrook with one being (number) two and one being (number) three depending on what is best for our team. With all five, there's some experience there, but also pitchers who hopefully will continue to develop and progress."

Closer Bob Wickman
LH setup Arthur Rhodes
RH setup Bob Howry
RH setup/middle relief David Riske, Matt Miller, Rafael Betancourt
LH setup/middle relief Scott Sauerbeck
LR Jason Davis

With Wickman sidelined the first half of 2004 by a sore elbow, the bullpen's disastrous first three months pretty much kept Cleveland from seriously challenging.

Now, Wedge believes his relief corps is a strong point.
"The key was bringing back Wickman, making sure we had a veteran, experienced closer," he said. "We now have two veteran lefties in Rhodes and Sauerbeck. Then Howry and Riske are important parts, veteran guys back with us who have done it in the past. Miller and Betancourt in particular did a very good job for us last year.

"Jason Davis is a strong security blanket in our sixth spot in regards to the rotation. If we don't need him to start then he will be in our bullpen. I feel good about J.D. in either role."

Make that marks, plural. Millwood, Wickman, Gonzalez, Boone, Gerut, Ludwick and Bard all missed significant portions of the 2004 season with various ailments. Millwood and Wickman, in particular, must stay healthy. Without either, the club cannot contend. Getting potent production from any of the five position players will be considered somewhat of a bonus added to an offense that did score runs a year ago -- though many believe it was an over-achieving group that could  struggle to match it in 2005.

A year ago, Martinez, Hafner, Crisp, Westbrook and to a lesser extent Belliard, Blake and Broussard all had breakout years -- which does support those who believe the 2004 Indians were over-achievers.

This could be the year Sabathia goes from promise to production. Sure, he went 17-5 as a precocious rookie in 2001 -- but that was largely due to an overwhelming offense that gave him incredible run support. The big left-hander has gone 13-11, 13-9 and 11-10 the past three seasons, though he did make the All-Star Team the last two years. But he wasn't consistently dominant in the manner of a true No. 1 pitcher.

Sabathia has been touted as a potential star, a big guy with a big fastball. Now at age 24, he should start living up to expectations of being "the man" -- as have many former greats at that exact same age. Not to say Sabathia will match these numbers, but take a look at what some others did at age 24:

Dizzy Dean, 30-7, 2.66 ERA in 1934
Denny McLain, 31-6, 1.96 ERA in 1968
Tom Seaver, 25-7, 2.21 ERA in 1969
Jim Palmer, 20-10, 2.71 ERA in 1970
Roger Clemens, 20-9, 2.97 ERA in 1987

Then again, Sabathia is already ahead of these Hall of Famers:

Carl Hubbell, Warren Spahn and Lefty Grove all got their first wins at age 25, Phil Niekro at age 26.
Sandy Koufax's career record after age 24 was only 36-40; Gaylord Perry was just 4-7 and Bob Gibson 6-11.
Bob Lemon was still a struggling third baseman in the minors before being switched to pitcher at age 25.

The 2005 Indians, if healthy, will challenge for the division title -- but it also is likely that one or more players will regress from 2004. It will be tough for Hafner (28, 109, .311), Martinez (23, 108, .283), Blake (28, 88. .271) and even Belliard, Broussard and Crisp to ALL replicate what they did in 2004 -- though Hafner and Martinez could continue to improve.

The bullpen appears to be solid and the addition of Millwood makes the starting rotation formidable.

Cleveland must get a fortunate break or two in order to win the division, however. A healthy, motivated and productive Gonzalez would be good for starters. A breakout year by Sabathia or Lee in the starting rotation would help. A big year from the developing Crisp or Sizemore could be key.

The AL Central appears to be a three-way race between the defending champion Minnesota Twins, who took a hit by losing players to free agency, the Chicago White Sox, who signed some key free agents, and the Indians.

The Detroit Tigers could evolve this year the way the Indians did in 2004, while in Kansas City, the Royals are searching to put back together a club that appeared promising in 2003, but was a great disappointment last year.

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