The Baseball Notebook

March 3, 2010 2:00 PM

Cleveland Indians Preview

Rebuilding is in full-scale mode in Cleveland, as hopes for 2010 pin heavily on the rapid emergence of young players and the recovery of established ones. In the latter case, the Tribe have good reason to hope for the revival of Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner. Sizemore had a rough year last season, but it was first off-year and the likelihood is that he will re-emerge to what he was prior, and that is the best all-around centerfielder in baseball. Hafner is a tougher call. He hasn’t produced since the Indians’ last big year in 2007, but he appeared to have hit his bottom in ’08 and trended back upward last season. The home run totals were still down and his health is a serious concern, but he did slug .470 and posted a .355 OBP. Even if he’s not the top DH in the league, he can still be a solid offensive force if he’s healthy.

To help these two holdovers from better days, Cleveland signed Russell Branyan, fresh off a big year in Seattle, to play first base. Branyan is unlikely to repeat his performance of last year, when he played for his free-agent contract, but he’s still put together two nice power years in a row and has a good glove over at first. And Shin Soo-Choo is still on board in right field, after an excellent season in 2009, his first as a full-time player. Choo was the best at his position last year and even if he doesn’t duplicate that, he’s still going to be a contributor.

The hope for the veterans and on the offensive side in general is pretty good. I see Sizemore and Hafner rebounding, and Branyan and Choo providing good support. Where the problem really comes in is run prevention. The infield is shifting positions and no one is particularly adept with the glove. Asdrubal Cabrera shifts from second to short. He has a decent bat for a middle infielder, but is subpar in the field. Jhonny Peralta goes from short to third, with no real strength either with the bat or the glove. And second goes to newcomer Luis Valbuena who flashed little with the leather. Hit the ball on the ground and you’ve got a good chance of getting it through against this infield.

And the pitching is worse. Justin Masterson, a middle reliever and spot starter in Boston prior to his acquisition in the Victor Martinez deal last July, looks to be the staff ace. More comebacks are needed in the rotation from 2007 holdovers, in this case, Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook. But unlike the hitters who have to bounce back, these pitchers don’t have the same track record to suggest confidence. In the bullpen, Kerry Wood is a pedestrian closer and the setup team has no real strengths.

Cleveland still has a couple hole cards. This year will see the emergence of Matt LaPorta, the prospect acquired in the C.C. Sabathia trade of 2008. LaPorta is a highly regarded bat, so much so, that friends I have in Milwaukee didn’t like the deal that shipped him out in exchange for four months of C.C. Look for LaPorta to get some at-bats in left field and to possibly step in occasionally at first base or DH when Branyan or Hafner need a rest. And at third base, the team still hopes Andy Marte can fulfill the promise he had as a top prospect in the Braves organization, even though three years of mediocrity have dimmed those hopes.

There’s reason to think the Indians will be an interesting team, with the offensive talent and young players. But without pitching they won’t be a winning one.

Up Next: Cincinnati Reds tomorrow
Final AL Central Picks & Preview: April 2

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