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Hail to the Chiefs

 

Cleveland looms large in 2005 and beyond

 

By Adam Hoff

 

As we head deep into August and the Major League Baseball postseason sits perched right around the corner, it seems like a perfect time to project next year's impact team.  Right?  Okay, so maybe this is a little bit random, but it still warrants discussion.  The Cleveland Indians are on the verge of something special, and that's a fact.

 

Start with what is happening right now.  Winners of 12 of their last 15 games, the Tribe has pulled to within two games of the first place Twins in the AL Central, leapfrogging the White Sox in the process.  Their offense is continuing to pound the ball, their starting pitching is providing quality starts, and now that closer Bob Wickman is back (5 saves in a 6-day stretch a few weeks back), even the bullpen is bringing something to the table.  Imagine if the Indians hadn't blown more saves than they converted in the first half of the season?  They'd probably be in first place with a 3-5 game lead over Minnesota.  Regardless though, this young team has matured faster than anyone expected and are poised to give the Twinkies all they can handle down the stretch. 

 

So make no mistake, I'm not ruling out a Cleveland appearance in the 2004 playoffs.  It could easily happen.  However, the purpose of this column is to look ahead.  To gaze down the road a bit and get a peek at a team that is poised to become the new ringleader of the American League's Central Division.  Possibly even the successors to the Yankees as the top dog in the entire Junior Circuit. 

 

Don't snicker.  In fact, let's look at the talent that Cleveland will be putting on the field next year. 

 

Offense.  This is the area that has been a strength for the Indians all season.  Victor Martinez is emerging as a bona fide superstar at catcher, landing an All-Star appearance in his first full season and putting up staggering numbers (.298/20/91) for a backstop.  Ronnie Belliard has given Cleveland a nice presence at the top of the order and has shored up the second base position while prized prospect Brandon Phillips figures things out at the Triple AAA level.  Casey Blake (.279 with 20 home runs and a .360 OBP) is quickly becoming one of the best third basemen in the American League.  Coco Crisp (.304 over the past month) has emerged as a quality centerfielder after being given the starting job when Milton Bradley was sent to LA.  First basemen Ben Broussard hit two game-winning home runs last week, one of them a pinch-hit, grand slam.  Grady Sizemore is considered to be one of the best prospects in all of baseball and has already made a splash in the big leagues with 13 RBI on his first 18 hits.  And Matt Lawton is the runaway winner of the mythical Comeback Player of the Year award, with outstanding numbers of 19 home runs, 19 stolen bases, and 88 runs scored. 

 

Then there's Travis Hafner.  Did anyone see this guy coming?  There will be more on him in an upcoming fantasy baseball column, but his performance is worth looking at twice.  The young slugger is hitting .321 with 23 home runs and 91 RBI.  Compare those numbers to anyone in the American League.  Not to mention the fact that he ranks third in the AL in OBP at .413 and fourth in slugging at .590.  Are you kidding me?  Seriously, take a look at the rest of the elite players in the American League.  Vlad Guerrero is hitting 4 points higher and has 2 more HR, but has 2 fewer RBI and his OPS is over 60 points lower than Hafner's.   Miguel Tejada has 15 more RBI and the same number of home runs, but his average is lower and his OPS is 100 points below the Indians' slugger.  Alex Rodriguez has more home runs (29) and stolen bases (20) but comes up woefully short in every other important category.  Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz have almost identical numbers to Hafner, albeit with more home runs.  Honestly, in a discussion of the AL's best layers, Travis Hafner stacks up with any of them.

 

Starting Pitching.  You could argue that Cleveland is developing one of the best young pitching staffs in the game.  The Marlins' group of Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Dontrelle Willis, and Carl Pavano is more battle-tested and proven and Oakland's Hudson-Mulder-Harden-Zito (in that order, by the way) is the best in the game, but the Indians belong in the conversation.  C.C. Sabathia was referred to in a newspaper article recently as “a veteran” on the Cleveland roster, despite the fact that he is 24 years old.  He's not a great fantasy player, but he seems to fit the bill as staff ace nicely.  He has a 3.91 ERA, good for 12th in the AL and a 9-7 record.  However, he might be the least talented hurler on the Tribe's projected staff for 2005.  Jake Westbrook is already on the verge of surpassing him, posting 11 wins and a 3.51 ERA (4th in the AL) in his breakout 2004 campaign.  Immensely talented lefty Cliff Ellis has also begun to deliver already with a 10-4 record and 118 K's in 139 innings.  Throw in the best prospect of them all, hard-throwing right-hander Jason Stanford and Cleveland is one veteran pick-up away from boasting the best staff in the division. 

 

Relief Pitching.  This has been a huge problem almost all season, but is slowly turning into a strength.  At one point, closer-to-be David Riske was a complete mess and relegated to throwing in the 5th and 6th innings, Rafael Bettencourt was serving as the setup man, and journeyman Jose Jimenez was trying to close out games.  Ouch.  It was not a pretty sight at Jacobs Field.  However, things have turned around in a big way.  Bob Wickman has returned from the DL and is once again anchoring the 9th inning.  His emergence as the closer has not only shored up Cleveland's blown saves problem, it has also allowed the rest of the relievers to become more comfortable in their roles.  Riske has found the stuff that made him an elite setup man last year and is back pitching the 8th inning again.  Over the past month he has pitched much better and he actually leads the American League with wins in six straight decisions.  Bettencourt has moved back to pitch in the 7th and Jimenez and Rick White are being used – appropriately – only when necessary. 

 

Needs.  While Cleveland may be peaking at the right time this season and looming as a power next year, no team is perfect.  Just ask the Yankees, who have spent $200 million and still need starting pitching.  Here are the pieces of the puzzle that the Indians still need to be a legitimate World Series contender next year:

 

A left-handed setup man in the bullpen.  I actually like the Bettencourt-Riske-Wickman trio a lot and based on their stats over the past month, they make a perfectly capable bullpen.  It's certainly not to the level of Lidge-Dotel-Wagner in Houston last year or Quantrill-Gordon-Rivera in NY this season, but it's not a bad group of arms.  What Cleveland is really lacking though is a left-handed presence in that bullpen.  While great lefthanders don't grow on trees, there should still be some quality pitchers available this offseason.  Scott Schowenwies has bounced around and knows how to get American League hitters out.  After making a run at bring the White Sox' fifth starter this season, he should welcome the chance to move back into a valuable relief role for a contender.  Ricardo Rincon may have worn out his welcome in Oakland.  A guy like that could be a critical pickup.

 

A veteran starting pitcher.  As much as I like the look of their rotation, the Indians are going to need an experienced arm to guide them and take the pressure off of their young pitching staff.  Imagine where the Cubs would be this year without Greg Maddux?  Not only has he given them 9 wins and a sub-4.00 ERA, but he's no doubt provided a calming presence through all of the injuries (Wood and Prior) and hard luck (Clement's 8-11 record).  Plus, he's clearly brought out the best in Carlos Zambrano.  I'm not saying that Cleveland should expect to land a guy like Greg Maddux, but acquiring a successful veteran pitcher makes a ton of sense. 

 

Kevin Millwood has been brutal in Philly and if GM is willing to swallow his fat contract, he'd provide a big boost.  Matt Morris is another pseudo veteran that has been struggling.  Perhaps they could give St. Louis a prospect in exchange for Morris?  Jaime Moyer comes to mind if Seattle wants to go into complete rebuilding mode.  Hideo Nomo is due for his 87th comeback and will be probably left for dead in LA this offseason.  Mike Mussina has really struggled in New York this season and with Steinbrenner's quick trigger, Cleveland could probably get the Moose to anchor their staff (particularly since big George is so sensitive to the criticisms about his farm system – the chance to replenish the ranks with some stud prospects would have to tickle his fancy).  There will undoubtedly be a ton of options, but the key is that Cleveland must be willing to overpay for some experience.  They've done a fabulous job of rebuilding with young players and will probably be tempted to continue shying away from big contracts and aging players; however, this roster is ready to win now and to do so they will have to bring in some experienced players to flesh out the roster. 

 

A pinch hitting specialist.  This isn't as much of a requirement in the American League, since the pitcher doesn't hit.  However, Cleveland could use a veteran bat in the dugout.  Someone like Todd Hollandsworth or Dave Delluci.  A guy that only needs about 175 at bats in a season to be happy and can give you a spot start, some versatility, and clutch hitting late in the game.  I don't think the Indians need much on offense and I believe that Omar Vizquel and Matt Lawton are all the veterans they need in the starting lineup; however, they could definitely use one “gamer” coming off the bench.

 

Other than that, I think they are set. 

 

Overall.  When I was making my predictions for this 2004 season, two teams leaped out at me as future juggernauts.  In the NL it was the Dodgers because of who they hired as the new general manager.  Paul DePodesta is bringing his Moneyball mindset of seeking value to a team with tons of cash.  There's no way that can't work.  In the AL, I thought the Indians were the team on the rise.  With so many blue chip prospects and so much young power pitching, they looked like a blueprint for how to build a major league team.  In fact, I made the offhanded prediction that those two teams would meet in the 2006 World Series. 

 

It looks like I might be off by a couple of years. 

 

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and can be reached at ahoff@uchicago.edu or by sitemail at adamo112.

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