MANAGER ERICWEDGE fifth season with Indians
This is an article from the March 26, 2007 issue
THERE WERE nights last season when Jhonny Peralta, from his shortstopposition, couldn't make out the signs flashed by his catcher and didn't knowwhat pitch was coming. Nor could he read the spin of the ball off the bat."In the day nothing was bad," he says, "but sometimes at nightthings were blurry." Peralta finally got checked out and fitted forcontacts, but he found that they irritated his eyes. The seasonlong visionproblems contributed to his 16 errors and an .817 zone rating (the percentageof balls fielded in a player's typical "defensive zone"), fourth worstamong AL shortstops--woes that Peralta, 24, hopes off-season laser eye surgeryhas cured. Says manager Eric Wedge, channeling Johnnie Cochran, "The betterhe can see, the better off we'll be."
Last yearCleveland ranked second-worst in the league in errors (118) and allowed amajor-league-high 84 unearned runs, undermining an offense that trailed onlythe Yankees in scoring and a rotation whose 4.31 ERA was third in the league.To address part of the problem Cleveland acquired 24-year-old second basemanJosh Barfield from the Padres and permanently installed 23-year-old Andy Marteat third base, improvements over Ronnie Belliard and Aaron Boone, respectively.The new infield thrills ace lefthander C.C. Sabathia. "You know thatthey're going to turn the double plays you need, and you can pitch tocontact," he says. "You don't have to throw it by guys."
If there was oneaspect of the 2006 Indians worse than their defense, it was a bullpen that hadonly 24 saves--fewest by an AL team in 10 years--in 47 opportunities. G.M. MarkShapiro bolstered the pen with four newcomers (a fifth, Keith Foulke, retiredbefore the start of spring training). The most important signing is that offree-agent pickup Joe Borowski, who will be the closer, a role in which he hasexcelled in the past. At 35 he doesn't have an elite closer's dominantstuff--his fastball barely grazes 90 mph--but he does have guts and a shortmemory, qualities lacking in the young pitchers the Indians auditioned lastseason. "You go out and get the job done all the time, but everybody doubtsyou," says Borowski. "Early in my career I was worried about thatstuff. Now I don't care. I'm here because I can do the job."
Borowski shouldhave plenty of leads to protect in '07. The lineup boasts three of baseball'spremier hitters at their positions in catcher Victor Martinez, centerfielderGrady Sizemore and DH Travis Hafner, who says the broken hand that might havecost him the MVP last year was "good to go about two weeks after the seasonwas over." The key to the offense, though--sense a pattern?--could bePeralta. In 2005, his first full season, he had a .520 slugging percentage,best among shortstops in the majors, and hit .292 with 24 home runs. But in '06he plummeted to 13th at the position in slugging (.385), dropped 35 points offhis average and hit 11 fewer homers. While his eyesight may have played a role(he batted .285 in day games, .244 at night) Shapiro believes he was mostlikely suffering a typical sophomore slump. "If he's '06 defensively and'06 offensively," warns Shapiro, "I'm not saying we can't win, but it'sgoing to be a challenge."
In the secondinning of the Indians' first spring training game Peralta got an early read ona grounder by the Astros' Jason Lane and ranged far to his right to scoop it upand flip it to Barfield, who turned a quicksilver double play that elicited thesort of cheers from teammates usually reserved for 400-foot bombs. It was onlyearly March, but with an improved defense and an experienced bullpen to matchtheir explosive offense and solid rotation, the Indians have a clear-eyedvision of an AL Central title.
a modest proposal...
To support TravisHafner and Victor Martinez in the middle of the order, the Tribe importedlefty-swinging outfielders David Dellucci and Trot Nixon for a total commitmentof more than $14 million. For just a shade above the minimum salary, though,Cleveland already has Shin-Soo Choo, whom they acquired from the Mariners lastJuly and used in an every-day role for the rest of the season. The 24-year-oldChoo (left) plays a solid corner outfield, runs well (at least 20 steals ineach of his last three minor league seasons) and hammers righthanded pitching(.281 batting average, .361 OBP, .475 slugging in the majors last year). He's aplayer with an upside, a trait that neither Dellucci, 33, nor Nixon, 32,shares. Choo needs to be platooned, but so do the two older players. There's noreason, other than a misplaced affection for service time, to prefer the twofree agents to Choo.
PROJECTED ROSTERWITH 2006 STATISTICS
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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236 Run differential for the Indians over the past two seasons, the secondhighest in the majors (behind the Yankees' +260). Nine teams--the Yankees,Indians, Cardinals, Mets, White Sox, Athletics, Angels, Twins and Braves--hadrun differentials of +135 or better during that period. Of those franchisesonly Cleveland failed to make the postseason in either year.