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Six years gone

Eric Wedge

2009 wasn’t supposed to go like this for the Cleveland Indians. After getting off to a terrible start in 2008, the Indians rallied to finish the year 81-81, with the help of some promising young talent from Buffalo. The 2009 Indians brought back Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, added free agents Mark DeRosa, Kerry Wood and Joe Smith, and were poised to compete in the weak AL Central division.

It didn’t work out that way. Whether it was injuries, ineffectiveness, or just plain bad luck, the 2009 Indians had their worst season in almost 20 years. When you assess a season like this, where do you begin? My review of the 2009 Indians is after the jump.

The dog days of August

I remember around the All-Star break, I posted a midseason review. At that point, the Indians had thrown in the towel on 2008 and traded CC Sabathia to Milwaukee, where he has yet to lose and has already hit two home runs. This came on the heels (actually, the trade was in the midst of) a ten-game losing streak that effectively ended the Indians’ hopes at making a postseason run.

And yet, as I write today, the Indians have won their tenth game in a row.

Stranger things have happened, right?

A few encouraging things I’ve seen in the midst of this streak (apart from the fact that the Indians are now a fun team to watch again):

  • Kelly Shoppach is giving the Indians a very real reason to think about making him more than a backup catcher. He homered again last night (a monster shot, too), and is hitting .263 with 17 home runs this season. After his miserable start, .263 is a drastic improvement. Realistically, Shoppach may never be the caliber hitter Martinez is, but I think you could pencil him in to hit about .280, maybe hit 25 home runs and drive in 80-90 runs in a year where he plays every day. Those kind of numbers are good enough to start on most teams, and depending on how Martinez comes back from this injury, may merit searching for a solution that gets Martinez and Shoppach in the lineup every day.
  • Who doesn’t like watching Jhonny Peralta hit? Ever since getting thrown into that cleanup spot (sort of by default, because no one else besides Grady had any experience whatsoever), he’s been an RBI machine. He’s got 73 RBI this year – an outside shot at getting 100 with 30 games left. But it’s how he’s getting those RBI lately that is more impressive. Yesterday, he swung at a first pitch from Justin Verlander in the first and simply served it into left field. He broke his bat, and he didn’t hit it especially hard, but he got the RBI with two out. It’s really been a remarkable turnaround for Peralta: before he started batting cleanup in June, I think he had something like 11 home runs and 20 RBI. Today, he has 21 homers and 73 RBI.
  • Franklin Gutierrez is finally starting to hit. And he’s hitting in the clutch too, driving in go-ahead and winning runs in three of the Indians wins over the streak. I don’t want the Indians to give up on this guy. We all see what he can do defensively, and if he can ever figure out the offense he’ll be a premier outfielder.
  • Shin-Soo Choo is showing no ill-effects after his surgery. He’s making strong throws from the outfield and yesterday he hit an absolute bomb to the second deck in right. He’s another guy I’d hate to see them give up on – what about platooning him with Francisco and Gutierrez next year? All three guys can play both corners. Francisco is showing he can hit everyone, and the other two are, shall we say, “improving” at hitting same-handed pitchers. Why not keep a loose platoon for part of the year and then if two of those players start to stand out move to a strict starting lineup?
  • Asdrubal Cabrera looks like the Asdrubal Cabrera who gave the Indians a spark in 2007. He still plays phenomenal defense, and now he’s starting to hit too. He’s more patient at the plate, he lays down a good bunt if needed, and last night he stole a base. I think it goes without saying that the Indians shouldn’t give up on this guy; he might be the shortstop of the future.
  • Ben Francisco is putting up Rookie of the Year-like numbers. After last night, Francisco is hitting .284 with 14 HR and 50 RBI in “limited” playing time (he now has the fourth most AB of any Indian on the roster, behind Sizemore, Peralta, and Garko). If he can continue his pace, he might edge out Longoria (of Tampa Bay) for Rookie of the Year simply because Longoria has been hurt.
  • Ever since getting benched, Garko is back to his 2006 form. Part of what was so frustrating with Garko most of this year is that he has shown he can be a great hitter with two strikes, he has shown that he can get RBIs even without hitting the ball well…he just wasn’t doing that. It seems like now he’s choking up on the bat with two strikes like he used to, and he’s playing smarter: just trying to make solid contact and get base hits without worrying about hammering the ball all over the ballpark.
  • I like what I’m seeing out of Anthony Reyes and Zach Jackson. Both have pitched pretty well, particularly Reyes, who is now 2-1 with the Indians. I’m anxious to see what both can become the rest of the year – are these guys we want in the rotation next year?
  • “And now into close for the Indians…Jensen Lewis?” He’s 7 for 7 in save situations this year, and finally overtook Joe Borowski as the Indians saves leader. I don’t think he’s our closer of the future, but he’s doing a better job than I thought he would.

Look, the playoffs are probably still out of the question for the Indians at this point (win 10 more, then we’ll talk). But .500 is definitely reachable. There’s still a chance for Grady to hit 40 home runs this season and drive in 100. Cliff Lee never loses. So even though this team probably won’t be playing in October, keep watching – things are getting interesting.

A trade of epic proportions

On May 15, the Indians had won three in a row, were three games above .500, and had first place all to themselves. Since then, the Tribe’s only won 26 more games and lost 43. The Indians have dealt their ace, lost their marquee catcher and powerful designated hitter to injury, and lost their closer who led the league in saves last year to a release.

Meanwhile, back on May 15, the Boston Red Sox were 24-19, a game behind the first-place Tampa Bay Rays. Most analysts figured the Rays would be back in their comfortable, familiar last place in a month or so. Since then, the Red Sox played just a game over .500, lost and regained David “Big Papi” Ortiz, and finally started to look like a mortal team.

The Red Sox are getting old, and there’s no one more exemplary of that fact than Jason Varitek. The team captain, he’s a switch hitting catcher who has been instrumental in both Red Sox World Series victories. Varitek is hitting an anemic .218 (that’s below even David Dellucci!) with only 25 extra-base hits all season. It’s becoming clear to me (and perhaps others as well) that Varitek is in the twilight of his solid career.

What I’m proposing is a trade, between the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians, in a move that could potentially help both teams. Let me just throw it out there first, and then I’ll explain it: in my trade, the Indians would get RHP Jonathan Papelbon, and the Red Sox would get C Victor Martinez.

Let’s look at it for a minute. The Indians need bullpen help, particularly a closer. Right now, except for perhaps Mariano Rivera, there is no better closer in baseball than Papelbon. Papelbon is young (he was a rookie in 2006) and thus does not come with an expensive pricetag. He’s got good stuff, including an explosive fastball and a dominant curveball, and has the “stuff” to be a closer (which basically means he’s lucky).

Victor Martinez, with Varitek, Posada and Rodriguez in decline, the best offensive catcher in the American League. He’s a little bit injury-prone, but he has a career batting average of .299 and slugs .463. He’s a team leader, which the Sox will need when Varitek retires. He’s great at calling a game and is defensively underrated.

Meanwhile, the Indians would have Kelly Shoppach as their starting catcher, who has shown in the last few weeks he can handle it. The Indians have depth in the organization at first base and catcher, so finding a backup would not be difficult. The Red Sox have pitchers like Hideki Okajima who could close, or prospects like Clay Bucholz who could do the job. Of course, they also have a gargantuan payroll that could be used to get the best closer money can buy.

Obviously this deal won’t happen. Both teams consider both players too valuable to deal. But it’s an interesting prospect, no?

The roster is set

The Indians have finalized their Opening Day roster, sending Tom Mastny to the minors to make room for newcomer Craig Breslow. I’m not sure I like this move (or, for that matter, the Cliff Lee, David Dellucci or Jorge Julio moves), but we’ll see how it (and the others) pan out. I’m just hoping Ben Francisco does get a chance at some point this year, as I think he’s the Asdrubal Cabrera of 2008.

I also hope the Indians finally, at some point, get rid of the dead weight that is Andy Marte. Look, Mark, we know you have your pride and don’t want to admit that trade was a failure; but in case you haven’t noticed, it hasn’t worked out so well for the Red Sox either, and we still have Kelly Shoppach, who is probably one of the top 10 catchers in the league and he doesn’t even play every day for us.

Given the choice, I’d much rather see Josh Barfield, because even if Barfield is hitting .050 as a fifth infielder, he plays outstanding defense and runs well! You certainly can’t claim the latter for Marte, and given what’s happened the last couple days you can’t claim the former either.

And by the way, in other baseball-related news, the Red Sox lost this morning. I love the city of Boston, I may want to live there at some point in my life, but today seems a little sweeter because the Red Sox lost. And now that that series is over, the baseball world can go back to normal and play the games at night.