The Cleveland Indians are a hard team to figure out. Two years ago they looked like an up-and-coming powerhouse in the Central. Built around stone cold masher Travis Hafner, the up-the-middle excellence of Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, and Grady Sizemore, and emerging ace C.C. Sabathia, they won 93 games in 2005, just missing both the Wild Card and AL Central titles due to a collapse in the season's final week. Last year, they collapsed altogether, winning just 78 games and finishing a distant fourth behind the Twins, Tigers, and White Sox in an increasingly competitive Central division. One seemingly obvious cause of this fall was the loss of Jhonny Peralta's production (he hit just .257/.323/.385 last year, down from .292/.366/.520 in 2005), but closer inspection shows that the Indians collapse was largely illusory.
In large part due to an abysmal showing by their bullpen, the Indians underperformed their Pythagorean record by a staggering 11 games in 2006. In fact, looking at their runs scored and allowed totals, the team the 2006 Cleveland Indians most resembled was the 2006 New York Yankees. The Indians were second to only the Yankees in all of baseball in runs scored per game last year (this despite Peralta's poor showing), and also finished right behind the Yankees in runs allowed per game (seventh in the AL to the Yanks' sixth). In fact, the Yankees and Indians had identical team ERAs in 2006 with the Indians holding a slight advantage in ERA+ due to playing in a less severe pitchers park.
One thing that tripped Cleveland up last year, in addition to their shaky bullpen, was poor defensive play. The Tribe was 25th in the majors in both defensive efficiency and fielding percentage. This year that trend has continued. Though the Yankees are dead last in the majors in fielding percentage thanks to their major league worst 14 errors (nearly half of which are Derek Jeter's), their defensive efficiency--the rate at which they turn all balls in play into outs--is actually the fourth best in baseball, just as it was a year ago. Cleveland, however, is 27th in fielding percentage (having made nine errors in nine games) and 21st in defensive efficiency. That means their pitching staff has to work that much harder to keep runs off the board.
Amazingly, it's been able to do that thus far. The Indians staff ERA is the third best in the American League, while the ERA of their rebuilt bullpen is second best in the AL to that of the Yankees' pen. The offense, however, is in a bit of a slump, though their scheduling problems may have played a part in that.
The big story of the Indians season thus far is that the entirety of their home opening series against the Mariners was snowed out and that their subsequent series against the Angels was moved indoors to Milwaukee's Miller Park because of the ongoing winter weather. The Indians scored 7 2/3 runs per game while taking two of three from the White Sox in Chicago to start the season. They then sat idle for four days as their games against the Mariners were snowed out, rescheduled as double headers, then snowed out again. They finally resumed play with three games in Milwaukee, then returned home for a series against the White Sox and have scored just 3 2/3 runs per game over those last six games.
Of course, it may not be fair to judge the Indians on their performance thus far this season. While the team has gone 6-3, winning all three series, six of their nine games have come against the White Sox. Their eventual home opener at Jacobs Field was played in front of just 16,789 people (as opposed to the usual 42,400 or so), and their catcher and cleanup hitter Victor Martinez has played only three games, suffering a quadriceps injury in the last game of their opening series in Chicago. That is to say, the Cleveland Indians are a hard team to figure out largely because there's not a lot to go on.
Still, the bullpen looks suspect as the new faces are Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez, and Aaron Fultz. C.C. Sabathia (who's still just 26 years old) is a true ace and Jake Westbrook is a strong mid-rotation starter and every bit as extreme a groundball pitcher as Chien-Ming Wang, but Jeremy Sowers' strike out rate is alarmingly low for a flyball pitcher and neither Paul Byrd nor extreme flyballer Cliff Lee or his replacement Fausto Carmona inspire much enthusiasm. On offense, Peralta, who had corrective vision surgery in the offseason and supposedly has put behind him some personal problems that contributed to his poor 2006 season, looks to be rebounding, Martinez should return to action this week, possibly even tonight, and the decision to platoon the outfield corners smells of small market brilliance. On the flip side, that platoon means Casey Blake still has a job, and everyone's still waiting for Andy Marte to hit. As they were two years ago, the Tribe was a trendy pick to win the Central this year. I'm not entirely sold. They're a good team, but not a great one. If they win, I suspect it will have as much to do with the decline of their competition as with their own success.
2006 Record: 78-84 2006 Pythagorean Record: 89-73
Manager: Eric Wedge General Manager: Mark Shapiro
Home Ballpark (2006 Park Factors): Jacobs Field (97/98)
Who's Replacing Whom?
Josh Barfield replaces Ronnie Belliard and Hector Luna (minors)
Andy Marte takes over Aaron Boone's playing time
Ryan Garko takes over Ben Broussard's playing time
Mike Rouse replaces Joe Inglett (DL)
Trot Nixon replaces Shin-Soo Choo (minors) and cuts into Casey Blake's playing time
David Dellucci replaces Todd Hollandsworth and cuts into Jason Michaels' playing time
Jeremy Sowers takes over Jason Johnson's starts
Fausto Carmona is holding Cliff Lee's place in the rotation (DL)
Joe Borowski replaces Bob Wickman, Brian Sikorski, and Jeremy Guthrie
Roberto Hernandez replaces Guillermo Mota, Danny Graves, and Andrew Brown
Aaron Fultz replaces Scott Sauerbeck and Rafael Perez (minors)
Tom Mastny takes Edward Mujica's (minors), Brian Slocum's (minors) and Matt Miller's (DL) innings
1B - Ryan Garko (R)
2B - Josh Barfield (R)
SS - Jhonny Peralta (R)
3B - Andy Marte (R)
C - Kelly Shoppach (R)
RF - Trot Nixon (L)
CF - Grady Sizemore (L)
LF - David Dellucci (L)
DH - Travis Hafner (L)
R - Casey Blake (OF/1B/3B)
R - Jason Michaels (OF)
L - Mike Rouse (IF)
S - Victor Martinez (C)*
L - C.C. Sabathia
R - Jake Westbrook
L - Jeremy Sowers
R - Fausto Carmona
R - Paul Byrd
R - Joe Borowski
R - Rafael Betancourt
L - Aaron Fultz
R - Roberto Hernandez
R - Tom Mastny
R - Fernando Cabrera
R - Jason Davis
DL: R - Cliff Lee, R - Matt Miller, L - Joe Inglett (IF)
*Martinez hasn't played since April 5 due to a quadriceps injury. He could return during this series, but might DH, pushing Travis Hafner into the field at first base and Garko to the bench. Martinez would then slot into Garko's lineup spot as the cleanup hitter.
L - Grady Sizemore (L)
L - Trot Nixon (RF)*
L - Travis Hafner (DH)
R - Ryan Garko (1B)
L - David Dellucci (LF)*
R - Jhonny Peralta (SS)
R - Josh Barfield (2B)
R - Andy Marte (3B)
R - Kelly Shoppach (C)
*Nixon and Dellucci are in strict platoons with Casey Blake and Jason Michaels respectively. The lineup against lefties, however, has left fielder Michaels batting second and right fielder Blake batting fifth. A line-up with both Martinez and Garko would have Martinez fourth, Garko sixth and push Peralta, Barfield and Marte down one spot each.