Monday, February 9, 2009

My doubts about the Tribe as camp is days away

Before I get into the Tribe, let me just say - as you can tell by the photo to the left - that, pre-preseason or not, NY tabloid headline writers are in mid-season form. Unless you've been in a cave the last four days or so, you know what that cover of today's NY Post is all about, so let me get down to the business at hand - The Tribe.

I've been mostly absent from this site over the winter. A switch in duties and schedule at work has - unfortunately - left me with less time and energy to think and write about the Tribe.

So I've been saving up most of this for quite some time.

I'll start first with my thoughts on how I think the lineup and pitching staff will shape up and then explain why I'm not as optimistic as most about the Tribe season ahead.

I guess I'll start with what I consider to be the Tribe's Achilles heel - the starting rotation. Does anyone see anything but question marks beyond one member of the rotation - Cliff Lee.

Last year's Cy Young winner is the only "sure thing" in the rotation. And even Cliff can't be counted on to repeat last year's performance - since it was off-the-charts good, just as the previous season was off-the-charts bad for Lee. Expect a more "typical" season from Lee - about 16 or 17 wins with an ERA in the low-4.00's.

Beyond Lee, uncertainty abounds.

As high as the No. 2 spot in the rotation, there are serious questions to be asked. Which Fausto Carmona will we see? Will he be the 19-game winner of two seasons ago, or the Wild Thing who took the hill - when healthy - last season?

No 3. is Carl Pavano. I did a piece last month saying I thought Pavano was a good gamble on an incentive-laden pact. The operative word in that piece was "gamble." If he's healthy he can slot nicely into the No. 3 hole. He's no better than that if healthy, but he is talented enough fill that role if his body holds up.

Nos. 4 and 5 will likely be Aaron Laffey and Anthony Reyes. Both had injury issues last season and Laffey had performance issues as well. Are they sound? Who knows.

The good news is the Tribe has Jeremy Sowers, Dave Huff, Zack Jackson and Scott Lewis waiting in the wings to respond to the liklihood that at least one the four question marks above will be answered with a negative.

Of this group, I have little confidence that either Jackson or Sowers can be effective in the four hole or even as an acceptable number five. Scott Lewis had a great few weeks with the Tribe at the end of last season, so he offers hope. Dave Huff, in my mind, should and will be in the Tribe rotation this season - and probably right from April.

By far, the best and biggest move of the off-season was the signing of Kerry Wood to anchor what looks to be a solid-to-spectacular bullpen.

Jensen Lewis and the two Raffies - with the closer situation settled - should make the eighth inning as air-tight as the ninth should be in Wood's hands. Add Joe Smith to the mix and Eric Wedge has plenty of switches to flip to lock down the last three innings of the game - something that will be necessary with the questionable starting rotation.

To further illustrate just how much better the pen is this year, Masa Kobayashi - who was a key cog (or meant to be anyway) in last year's pen - will be called upon to do a lot less this - a good thing since he ran out of gas at the All-Star break last season.

And I haven't even mentioned Adam Miller, who - if healthy - could push his way into the late innings as he and the season progress.

In the second half of last season the Tribe's offense - once rid of the defective parts that Eric Wedge kept sending to the plate until they could no longer swing a bat - started to click. It was among the best offenses in the league in the post-All Star period. Some may say the attack was helped by the pressure of a pennant race being no longer a factor. That could be. But I tend to think it had more to do with the fact that impostors wearing Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner unis were counted on for way too long.

Martinez is (the Tribe says) as good as new heading into this year. Travis Hafner remains a very big "if".

The Tribe added a legitimate No.2 hitter in Mark DeRosa - something that has been missing since Omar left town.

While most people say the success of the offense depends on Hafner returning to his former self, I say that is only partially true.

Ben Francisco - currently slated to start in left field - had a lousy second half last season and it makes you wonder whether the league had him figured out, he tired in his first full-time big-league season, or he's just a fourth outfielder playing the role of starter.

Shin-Soo Chu also has to be considered something far short of a sure thing in right. But of the two, I have much more confidence in Choo. Still, with Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantely, not to mention Trevor Crowe, waiting in the minors, I'm less concerned about the outfield than I am about the starting rotation - both parts of the team that are loaded with question marks.

No I did not forget David Dellucci. I just couldn't bring myself to mention him.

As far as the infield goes, the only real question is how they will line up, not who they will be or whether they will perform

My preference would be Kelly Shoppach behind the plate, Victor Martinez at 1B, Mark DeRosa at 2B, Asdrubal Cabrerra at SS and Jhonny Peralta at 3B, with Travis Hafner at DH. There's enough versatility in the C-1B-DH roles that plenty of ABs can also be found for Ryan Garko, if he proves himself to deserve those ABs. I think he went a long way in the second half of last season to redeem himself, but if he gets pull happy early he may see lots of time on the bench. Still, it wouldn't hurt to give Victor, Hafner and Shoppach a day off or two each week to keep them fresh. Maybe only one a week for Victor.

Despite what I think, I would say the reality is that Victor Martinez will catch at least half the time. I have no problem at all with Victor behind the plate, I just think 1B is a better place for a banged up player to play and I'd rather see more of Shoppach and less of Garko - something that won't happen if Victor plays a lot behind the plate.

I think it is more likely that I might see my preferred defensive alignment at 2B-SS-3B. But that is a question that should be settled in spring training. Moving three people to new spots during the season is not advisable, but lots of experimenting in training camp is something I would like to see. I can't stress enough how much I would rather see Cabrerra at SS than Peralta.

One other note about the roster. I keep hearing that Josh Barfield could be kept as a utility player. The term utility player implies that a guy can play more than one position. I still happen to like Barfield, but I just don't see him with a role, even on a team that has a lot of versatility.

Now to my thoughts as to how all this will play out.

Mostly pointing to the inactivity of the other teams in the division, the Tribe is being picked by many as the team to beat in the Central Division and - from what I read online anyway - the hopes are high in Cleveland.

I just can't see how a team with four question marks in a five-man rotation can be picked as a favorite. Gun to my head, I suppose I would pick the Tribe to win the division, but I think in reality it can be won by four of the five teams, with the Royals excepted. The winner will be the team whose many questions are answered with positive results.

That said, there's the post-season grind to work through. That, even more than during the Central Division race, will be where the iffy rotation will hurt the Tribe.

There should be plenty of fun ahead this season, and I can understand the optimism many feel about winning the Central Division. But if it is the brass ring you are hoping for, 2009 will not be the year - not unless that rotation is bolstered at the trade deadline.