Monday, February 14, 2005

No One Said It Would Be Easy: Part Two

Over the next few days I’m going to continue the series I began last week in which we’ll take a quick pre-Spring Training look at the Twins’ competition in the AL Central. Last Friday it was the Detroit Tigers, and today it will be none other than this year's chic pick in the division, the Cleveland Indians.

Today’s Topic:The Cleveland Indians

Key Acquisitions:
Kevin Millwood (SP, FA from Philadelphia)
Arthur Rhodes (RP, acq. via trade)
Juan Gonzalez (OF, FA from KC)
Aaron Boone (3B, signed last year from NYY)
Alex Cora (IF, FA from LA)
Jose Hernandez (IF, FA from LA)

Key Losses:
Omar Vizquel (SS, went to SF as FA)

2004 Season: 80-82, 12 GB Twins

Pre-Spring Training Outlook:
Most people believe that the up-and-coming Indians will be the biggest obstacle for the Twins in their quest for a fourth straight division title, and after looking at this team on paper (while keeping in mind the scare they gave us back in August) I have to agree with those people. This is a very formidable team in nearly every aspect of the game. The Twins have never looked all that impressive on paper (Terry Ryan usually admits this, even without prompting) but the Indians seem to have all the pieces in place: a great offense, a deep bullpen, a solid bench, and a potentially good rotation. However, division championships are won on the field, not on paper. I know that’s a rather hackneyed expression (you’re probably groaning about now), but it still rings true.

This Indians offense has the potential to challenge New York for the best in the American League. Victor Martinez had a breakout season at catcher last year and should repeat that production again in 2005. North Dakota native Travis Hafner is one of the best young hitters in the majors and could emerge as a superstar. The lineup contains several other solid producers, most of who’s names happen to start with the letter “B” (Broussard, Belliard, Boone, and Blake). Even if all these players don’t fulfill expectations, the Indians will still score a lot of runs (quite a few more than the Twins, to be certain).

But as the Indians of the mid-to-late ‘90s proved by not winning a WS title, good pitching will almost always beat good hitting when it really counts. The Tribe’s bullpen is relatively unspectacular (no mind-bogglingly amazing Joe Nathan-like numbers here) but very deep. Rhodes is a nice addition from the left side, and should rebound from a sub-par 2004 campaign by going back to his old role. Righties Shuey, Raphael Bentacourt, Bobby Howry, David Riske, and Bob Wickman also compare favorably with the Twins’ own quartet of Nathan, Rincon, Balfour, and Crain.

However, starting pitching might be the area that separates these two Central contenders. C.C. Sabathia is quite possibly one of the most physically gifted pitchers in the game, but he regressed a bit last year with a low strikeout rate and a 4.12 ERA. I imagine he will rebound at least somewhat, but he’s definitely no Johan Santana. The Tribe also signed Millwood to help out the front of their rotation. Experts always seem to expect big things from Millwood, but you have to realize that there’s a reason he had to sign with the Indians for one year and “only” $3.5 million. Millwood’s injury and performance woes over the past couple of seasons make him anything but a sure thing. Third starter Jake Westbrook had one of the most improbable seasons in the majors last year (215 innings with just a 3.38 ERA) and was truly 2004’s Estaban Loaiza. Can he do it again or will we see a Loaiza-like crash down to earth in 2005? I’d lean more towards the latter, but realistically we’ll probably see something between the two. The Indians’ potential fourth and fifth starters (Cliff Lee and Scott Elarton) are nothing to write home about, although don’t be surprised if Lee has a breakout season.

Like the Tigers, starting pitching is the greatest weakness of this Indians team. But unlike the Tigers, the Indians experienced a taste of actual success last season and proved that they don’t merely look good on paper. I admit that I am not exactly a non-partisan observer (this site is, after all, called Twins Chatter for a reason) but I’m not quite ready to anoint the Indians as the successors to the AL Central crown. They will take another step this season, but their rotation and inexperience will enable the Twins to take the division once more. I’m predicting 85-88 wins and a second place finish for the Tribe in ’05.

Tomorrow/Wendesday’s topic: the Chicago White Sox

-Ryan M.

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