We're only two weeks away from the Opener, and I can't just sit and wait for all the pundits and prognosticators to weigh in on what they think of the 2004 Cleveland Indians. What fun would that be? I'll post their lame opinions when they come out. For now, here are my lame opinions.
Full disclosure requires that I fess up to my over-optimism of last year, when I predicted 74 wins for a team that won only 68 games. The Indians team that was so incredibly young and green last year is only slightly less so in 2004, but so many key players on this roster were rookies at the same time last year, that the cumulative effect of that experience on the team could be a great leap forward this year. Let me quantify what I think that "leap" will be right here and now, so you don't think I'm getting carried away. I'm thinking 80-82 wins, and I base that on a feeling that this team will hit better than most people think it will, but will not pitch quite as well as expected.
Consider the everyday players on the Indians that last year experienced their first big league season, or partial season: Jody Gerut, Ben Broussard, Travis Hafner, Coco Crisp, Victor Martinez, Josh Bard, Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Phillips, Alex Escobar, Casey Blake , and Ryan Ludwick. Every one of these guys has shown that he can play at this level, and the 2004 season will be about if and how this core group of players shows that they belong in the majors for the long haul. And what I think we will see is that this group, along with veterans Omar Vizquel and Milton Bradley, will show that they can be a very good hitting team.
I try not to get romanced by Spring Training (much), but what is happening so far this year is encouraging. Crisp, Escobar, Broussard and Blake are hitting over .400, and Hafner, Martinez, Bard, Gerut, Bradley and Vizquel are having solid springs. So far this month, any enthusiasm I felt about the good Spring performance had been tempered by the obvious fact that victories in Spring Training mean zip. But I heard a radio interview yesterday with Tom Hamilton, radio play-by-play voice of the Indians, that got me all cranked up.
Now, Hamilton is no shill for this organization. He's a realist and a straight shooter, and he came across in this interview as seriously pumped about this team, based on what he observes in this camp in terms of "team attitude". And he credits the approach of one person in particular as a catalyst for that attitude. Matt Lawton. You heard me right. The same Matt Lawton that Tribe fans have come to resent for three years as Matt "overweight, overpaid, bad attitude, bad defense, disappointment" Lawton. Apparently, Lawton's wounded pride and ego, and not a "contract year", has motivated him to come to camp in great shape and with a positive approach that has been a great example to the younger Indians.
According to Hamilton, last year the "kids" were concerned principally with themselves; making the team, surviving in the majors, looking over their shoulders individually all year long, concerned that a bad day or a bad week could land them in Buffalo. Hamilton said that by contrast, this year they came to camp "thinking about each other", and his observation of that maturation process, coupled with all the talent, has him very excited. I'll buy it. Keep in mind that Manager Eric Wedge has his rookie year behind him as well, and it appears to me that his approach and attitude has much to do with the overall positive feeling among the players on this team.
So how good is the pitching? This is where I part company with some of the common wisdom. After C.C. Sabathia, we are banking on potential, hope and good health as opposed to track record. I'm as excited as the next guy about Jason Davis and Cliff Lee as our #2 and #3 starters, but the fact of the matter is that they won a combined total of 11 games last year, and neither one was 100% healthy. To be fair, Davis was shut down early more as a precaution, and Lee's health problems related to hernia surgery and shouldn't be a recurring issue. Lee wasn't even on the big league roster for most of the year, and his two late-season call ups represent the sum total of his major league experience. As talented as he may be, he will undoubtedly take his lumps this year as all first full year pitchers must.
Davis, on the other hand, has that learning season behind him, and should get a few more wins this year by virtue of the improved offense and a better bullpen. So if we assume Sabathia will win say, 18 games, and Davis may win 15, and we put Lee down for 12 or so, that's 45 wins. So I'm asking myself where 35 more wins are going to come from. The other two starters figure to sort themselves out from a group that includes Jake Westbrook, Chad Durbin, Jeff D'Amico, Jason Stanford, and Jason Bere.
I'm pulling for Stanford and Westbrook to land those spots, and for Durbin to make the team as the long reliever. D'Amico and Bere seem like veterans for veterans' sake, and I'd prefer going "young" all the way so we can find out if these guys can do it or not. Stanford just seems like a winner, and it's time for Westbrook to get an extended shot at proving his worth as a starter. I'd be ecstatic if those two could combine for 20 wins. Our potential ace-in-the-hole could be Jeremy Guthrie, at least in the second half of the season. If we have an injury or a major disappointment in the starting rotation, we'll see Guthrie at The Jake. He's older than C.C. and Davis, so let's get on with it if he's going to be a stud. Let's not go into 2005 still waiting for Guthrie to have his baptism under fire.
The bullpen that developed over the latter stages of last season will begin this year as a big improvement over last April's group. I lost count of the times that our pen wasted good early-season starts by Sabathia and Davis last year, en route to a 7-20 April. Even a .500 record in the first 28 games gets us halfway to that increase of 14 wins I'm looking for. In the bullpen, Betancourt, Cressend, Stewart , Jiminez, and Riske look a lot better as a set-up crew if we can land Ugueth Urbina to close games.
A debate is developing in the media, if not in the front office, about whether the two or three million bucks that Urbina would cost might be better spent on a veteran starter, which would leave Riske as your closer. I'm OK with Riske as the closer, but only if the "veteran starter" we land is not just Jason Bere in disguise. And I certainly wouldn't part with blue-chip prospects, which is what any team trying to move a starter is going to want in return, just to rent a guy for a year or two, (remember Sean Casey for Dave Burba?).
Now if we could unload Lawton (in order to clear the way for both Crisp and Escobar to make the team), and one of Gutierrez, Merloni, McDonald, along with a prospect or two, then we'd be making sense. Something tells me though, that Shapiro's phone isn't ringing of the hook with offers to take Lawton and his $7 million/yr. off his hands, new attitude or no new attitude.
Shapiro's run at signing Urbina, and his attempt to locate a serviceable starter at least signal that he thinks the division could be won by this year's version of the Indians, and that we're not just going through the motions till 2005. I heard Shapiro say today that he thinks the Twins are the best team in the division, although I think the Royals just might be. Neither team has starting pitching that is any better than ours, and as I've said, we will hit. I think we could have three legitimate .300 hitters on this team in Bradley, Martinez and Gerut, with three or four more flirting with .290 in Vizquel, Crisp, Broussard and Hafner.
In today's Plain Dealer, Bud Shaw summons a large yawn with regard to the 2004 Tribe, (he predicts 75-78 wins). I admit that no team lining up Blake, Belliard, and Broussard around the infield every day is going to strike fear into the hearts of the rest of MLB. At least not in April. Maybe we can earn some respect by July, and scare somebody down the stretch. But with only one veteran starter (Vizquel) we can be sure that the 2004 season will demonstrate to fans and management which of our young core players are keepers, and which are also-rans. Let's hope we have some fun doing it.
(cross-posted at Sportsblog)