First time in a while I was away from the web, the tube and the phone for three full days. Turns out a man can survive. But missing the first two rounds of the NCAA's blows any way you slice it. On the upside, I got in my first 18 holes of the year.
I had a chance tonight to see the Indians play on TV for the first time this Spring. They looked pretty sharp waxing the Braves 8-0. Westbrook made Chipper, Teixeira, Francoeur and friends look silly with six perfect innings, and the bullpen finished off a two-hitter. Franklin Gutierrez is raking the ball, and playing great defense in right. He complements Gold Glover Sizemore and the platoon of Michaels and Delucci in left to form a strong defensive outfield.
The Indians' bench appears better than in 2007 too. Jamey Carroll looks like a gamer as the utility infielder, and Andy Marte could help as a bat off the bench, although ideally you'd like your pinch-hitters to be a little more seasoned. Backup catcher Kelly Shoppach can be an offensive threat as well, and the off-half of the Dellichaels platoon rounds out the bench. The bullpen could also be even better than last year, with the newcomer Kobayashi and a full year from Jensen Lewis.
So management has tinkered around the edges of a 96-win team, in the expectation that the core stars, who are still very young, will continue to get better. Sabathia, Carmona, Sizemore, Martinez, Westbrook, Hafner and Peralta all could plausibly do that, barring injury naturally. And the next generation of comers, Ryan Garko, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Gutierrez principally, all got enough experience last year to potentially have breakout seasons in 2008.
I said in this space two months ago, that in a perfect world, 2007 AAA International League batting champion Ben Francisco would hit his way onto the team this Spring, and force Wedge to start him over the veteran leftfield platoon he has now. Well, Francisco has done his part, hitting .370 with power in spring training. But management goes with the veterans, including probably Choo when he gets healthy, so the 26-year old with nothing to prove at AAA probably goes back to Buffalo. Sigh.
Paul Cousineau (of DiaTribe fame) has a good piece up at The Cleveland Fan on the overall Wedge-Shapiro strategy of backing up veterans with young talent, and how that worked out for them in 2007 and prior seasons.
I can well imagine the race coming down to a September battle with the Tigers to win the Central, with both teams possibly making the playoffs. As cliché as it sounds, there does seem to be a quiet confidence evident with this group of guys. I'm sure last October's bitter disappointment didn't go away for a long time, but they sure weren't demoralized by it either. Wedge has grown as a manager, and the team is almost Belichikesque in its humility and unselfishness.
The leadership seems to come from all quarters...Sabathia....Blake...Martinez....Sizemore. Quiet, "show-me" leadership. If Hafner regains some of that 2006 form, and Cliff Lee can win more games than he loses in the fifth spot in the rotation, I think the Indians could win 95 or more games again, and get us back to October drama.
And fortunately, that prediction will soon be relegated to the archives, where only I will remember or ever care about it. (Who says the Internet is forever? The Internet is for five minutes.)
There's always lots of good content at The Cleveland Fan, but serious Tribe fans must see the reporting of Tony Lastoria on the Indians minor league system, their teams and their talent, most recently here and here.
This is a great example of New Media filling an information void. Lastoria runs rings around local newspapers in terms of coverage of the Indians' minor league system. It is reporting that was largely unavailable to the average fan a few short years ago. Thanks, and keep it up guys. The whole Lastoria series is here, and you can read more of Cousineau here.