The goal of this preview is to generate conversation. I do not want to tell you things, I want you to discuss things. Thars a' baseball conversation gold in them thar Bauxites, and I'ma aimin' to mine fer it.
Keep an eye out for the italicized "Conversation Starters", with which this preview is liberally peppered, and respond to them.
In 2004, Cleveland scored one more run than they allowed, good for an 82-80 record and third in the American League Central. The team sported a .351 on-base percentage, the League's third best behind only the Mercanaries and the Idiots. Their key players - Hafner, Martinez, Broussard, Sabathia, Lee and Westbrook - will all be between 24 and 29 years of age this season. They signed Kevin Millwood to a one-year deal, Juan Gonzalez to a minor league deal, and will be availed of a healthy Aaron Boone at the hot corner. What I think I am trying to say here is that Cleveland is my pick to win the American League Central, and bring playoff baseball back to the Jake for the first time since 2001.
Conversation Starter 1: am I crazy for believing that Cleveland will win the division in 2005?
Victor Martinez (.283/.359/.492 last season) had an incredible year at the plate in 2004, slugging 38 doubles and 23 home runs, good enough for an OPS+ of 121. That 121 OPS+ represents a better age 25 season than was produced by Jorge Posada (102), Javy Lopez (100) or Ivan Rodriguez (114), but not as strong as Piazza (141). Backing up Martinez will be Josh Bard, whose career line of .248/.294/.398 in 447 plate appearances represents about one season worth of mediocre offensive performance, which is fine for a backup catcher.
Cleveland clearly has one of the best management teams in baseball, having stockpiled bright young stars and avoided large and undesirable contracts, so defering to their judgment seems wise. Getting the production that Martinez is capable of out of the catcher's spot is a valuable asset, and the team already has two first basemen. Despite these factors, however, it seems reasonable to proffer this:
Conversation Starter 2: should Victor Martinez be moved to a position other than catcher in order to prolong what promises to be a fantastic offensive career?
Ben Broussard (.275/.370/.488 in 2004) will get the call to start at first base for Cleveland this season against both left and right handed pitchers after having posted a slight reverse platoon split last season. Trading Eric Crozier in midseason, and then allowing Josh Phelps to be signed by the Devil Rays, are two moves which indicate that the full-time job is Broussard's. His .300/.395/.595 line after the all-star break seems to indicate that Broussard could be even better in 2005 than in 2004, or does it?
Conversation Starter 3: does a tremendous increase in performance level after the all-star break indicate that a player is improving, or is it simply a small sample aberration that should not be given any greater weight than first half perfomance?
Ronnie Belliard (.282/.348/.426) was an all-star in 2005 and will be the starting second baseman for Cleveland this season. Belliard hit 48 doubles last season, a total high enough that we should consider the possibility that he could be a candidate for a power surge in 2005. Oddly enough, however, his extra-base power increased in 2004 despite the fact that he moved from Coors Field to Jacob's Field after the 2003 season. Cleveland signed Alex Cora (.264/.364/.380) to a two-year 2.7 million dollar contract to backup Belliard, and since both are capable of being productive middle-infielders, it is not inconceivable that one of them (most likely Belliard) could be moved to shortstop if both Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Phillips stumble.
Conversation Starter 4: which of the following statements is more accurate than the other? (A) At least eight of Belliard's 48 doubles in 2004 will find their way over the fence in 2005, leading to his first 20 home run season, or (B) if he could not hit 20 home runs at Coors Field, he cannot do it anywhere.
Aaron Boone (.267/.327/.453 in 2003) did not play last season as he was recovering from a torn ACL. He looked great yesterday, helping West Virginia upset Wake Forest to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
Boone has 91 career stolen bases in 113 attempts, and it will be interesting to see if age and the injury will conspire to slow him down. Boone is taking over third base from Casey Blake, who is being moved to the outfield following the trade of Matt Lawton to Pittsburgh. In terms of offensive production, Lawton (.277/.366/.421) has been better than Boone, so Cleveland's lineup could suffer somewhat from that shuffle.
Backing up Boone will be Jose Hernandez (.289/.370/.540) who, like Cora, was signed away from the Dodgers and is ready to pounce should the starter falter. Hernandez played mostly against left-handed pitching last year, making his line look a little bit better than it really was. He did cut down on his famously high strikeout rate last season, and is the leading candidate to play first base against left-handed pitching should Broussard prove that he cannot handle it.
Conversation Starter 5: signing productive, veteran backup infielders (Hernandez, Cora) to million dollar contracts is something that rebuilding teams generally do not do. Do you interpret these signings as an indication that Cleveland's management believes that this is the year that they overtake the Twins and win the American League Central?
Jhonny Peralta (.326/.384/.493 in 2004 at AAA) appears to have a slight edge on Brandon Phillips (.303/.363/.430 in 2004 at AAA) for the starting job at shortstop. Peralta was the Most Valuable Player in the International League last year, and appears to be ready join a young and talented lineup in Cleveland. Phillips will likely be stuck behind Peralta, left in Buffalo to ponder the fact that he would be the Nationals' starting shortstop if Omar Minaya had not dealt him to Cleveland as part of the package that brought Bartolo Colon to Montreal in June of 2002.
Conversation Starter 6: do you believe that the Minaya's kamikaze trade in 2002 (Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Lee Stevens for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew) was a wise move, given the Expos circumstances at the time?
Casey Blake (.271/.354/.486) will be Cleveland's starting left fielder this season, having been moved there from third base in the Matt Lawton/Aaron Boone shuffle. The former Blue Jay was Cleveland's full-time third baseman for the second consecutive season in 2004, socking 36 doubles and 28 home runs. He has never played a single inning as an outfielder at the Major League level.
Coco Crisp (.297/.344/.446) will start in centre field after having established himself as a productive player in 2004, but he has to be looking over his shoulder at Grady Sizemore (.246/.333/.406) who was acquired in the aforementioned Bartolo Colon trade. Crisp has to continue to develop the unexpected power (15 homers in 2004) and stop trying to steal bases (20 stolen bases, 13 caught stealing) in order to fend off the younger and more promising Sizemore. For his part, Sizemore would be well served to work on his power (8 home runs in 418 at bats at AAA Buffalo in 2004).
Cleveland took a cheap flier on Juan Gonzalez (.276/.326/.441) during the offseason, in the hopes that he can regain his old form. At 35, if Gonzalez can stay moderately healthy for 100 games or so, he could certainly return to his 2003 level of production (.294/.329/.572), which could help catapult Cleveland into contention. Should Gonzalez fail, both Crisp and Sizemore could be in the starting lineup.
Jody Gerut (.252/.334/.405) tore his ACL in September, putting an end to what was generally a disappointing season after his surprisingly stellar 2003 (.279/.336/.494). His baseball-reference.com list of most comparable players through age 26 includes Paul O'Neill and Cito Gaston, so there could still be hope for Gerut. Ryan Ludwick (.239/.294/.403 career) figures to round out the outfield contingent.
Conversation Starter 7: considering offence and defence, which of the following is better? (A) Aaron Boone at third base and Casey Blake in left field, or (B) Casey Blake at third and Matt Lawton in left field. Subquestion: if the answer is (B), is the difference made up for by the addition of Arthur Rhodes to the bullpen (acquired in the Lawton trade)?
Travis Hafner (.311/.410/.583) broke through in a big way in 2004, slugging 28 homers and driving in 109 runs. He's 27, left-handed and fully recovered from his offseason surgery: the sky is the limit. I looked over his splits to find some little inanity for this module, but there is basically no hitting situation in which Hafner does not excel.
C.C. Sabathia (11-10, 4.12) seems to have settled into his role as a 200 inning per year, 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio, 4.00ish earned run average starting pitcher, which is very valuable. Intuitively, there would be health concerns about a 24 year-old pitcher who has thrown 776 innings, but he has managed to evade major injury thus far. He is, however, already listed as "doubtful" for the season opener on April 4th.
Jake Westbrook (14-9, 3.38) had his breakout season in 2004, due mostly to his vastly improved strikeout to walk ratio of 1.9:1 (compared to what was essentially 1:1 in 2003). His earned run average probably will not remain under 4.00, but he can still be better than average for 200 innings, which makes him an asset.
Kevin Millwood (9-6, 4.85) was signed to a one-year, seven million dollar contract in the offseason, which is another sign that Cleveland's management believes that this is the year that the team will step up and grab the American League Central crown. Millwood's peripherals were just fine last year: 2.5:1 strikeout to walk ratio, 7.98 strikeouts per nine innings, and 0.89 home runs per nine innings. He is still really good.
Cliff Lee (14-8, 5.43) pitched his first full season in the Majors in 2004, and was largely successful except for the fact that he gave up way too many homers (30 in 179 innings). He did strikeout 161 batters in those 179 innings, while walking 81. Those numbers are fine, he just needs a cure for that damn gopheritis.
Scott Elarton (3-11, 5.90) seems to have solidified the fifth spot in the starting rotation. After escaping from Coors Field in 2004, Elarton pitched 117.3 innings for Cleveland, posting a 4.53 earned run average with 80 strikeouts and 42 walks.
Conversation Starter 8: it seems to be a safe assumption that each of these five starting pitchers will strike out twice as many batters as he walks. Which of the three most often cited peripherals - strikeouts/walks, strikeouts/inning or home runs/inning - ought to be weighted most heavily when looking at a pitcher's statistics? Is the answer different if the goal is forecasting than it is if the goal is assessment of contribution and accomplishment?
Bob Wickman (13 saves, 4.25) will start the season as the closer, and should remain in that role unless he has health issues. He only pitched 29.7 innings in 2004, but he did manage to strikeout 26 and walk only 10. Bobby Howry (2.74) will be waiting, should Wickman get hurt, to take over the role. Howry pitched 42.7 innings in 2004, striking out 39 and walking 12. These two, Wickman and Howry, will make it difficult for teams to create rallies beyond the seventh inning.
The rest of the bullpen is stellar. Rafael Betancourt (3.92) was fantastic in the Cleveland bullpen last season, striking out 76 while walking only 18 in 66.7 innings. I was projecting Arthur Rhodes (5.12) to be dominant as the Athletics' closer last season, but alas, he was not. Cleveland picked him up from the Pirates this offseason and hope to see him become, at least, a valuable LOOGY, and at most a dominant set-up man. David Riske (3.72) is yet another good reliever in what is looking to be a great bullpen. Riske struck out 78 batters and walked 41 in 77.3 innings in 2004. Jason Davis (5.51) figures to join the bullpen this season, despite having started 19 games in 2004. Paul Shuey could be a factor if he recovers from the hip surgery that prevented him from pitching in 2004.
Conversation Starter 9: if everything breaks right, is this the best bullpen in baseball?
Cleveland should be able to improve on last season's 80-82 record. In fact, the more I look at this, the better I think this team is. Other than outfield defence and the uncertainty that accompanies having a rookie shortstop, there does not appear to many weaknesses here. I can envision Cleveland winning the American League Central, barring a disproportionate number of injuries or off-years. Heck, throw in a complete lack of injuries, a few career years, and one last great season from Juan Gonzalez, and I can envision Cleveland winning the division in August.