Playoff ETA: NextYear

A top closer ison board and young talent is on the way, but for now ... it's wait and see

DIRECTLY BEHINDthe Indians' new spring training complex in Goodyear, Ariz., lies a vast desertfield of old, largely dormant aircraft. It's not a pretty sight, but it offersan apt metaphor for a sleek-looking 2008 Indians team that never really got offthe ground. Like the smaller planes in the field that on occasion take flight,lefthander Cliff Lee soared from out of nowhere to Cy Young greatness lastseason; but the bigger carriers, notably catcher Victor Martinez, righthanderFausto Carmona and DH Travis Hafner stalled. Cleveland had a .500 season thatwas every bit as unexpected as its run to the AL Championship Series in'07.

Last season'sunderperformance prompted a sell-off of free-agents-to-be CC Sabathia, CaseyBlake and Paul Byrd that brought a fleet of shiny prospects in return,including slugging outfielder Matt LaPorta, outfielder Michael Brantley andcatcher Carlos Santana, a superb switch-hitting talent who was the talk of campwith his line drive bat and shotgun arm. "This is our best collection ofyoung talent since the '90s," says general manager Mark Shapiro, referringto the era that produced such All-Stars as Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, JimThome and Kenny Lofton.

While the futurelooks exciting, there is still enough talent to compete now and continue thefranchise's trend of 90-plus victories in odd-numbered years (93 in 2005, 96 in'07, as opposed to 78 in '06 and 81 in '08). A bounce-back season by Hafner,who hit .197 in an injury-wrecked 2008, would be a big help. ("With ageplus injury, plus shrinkage [of stats]," one G.M. says, "I wouldn'thold my breath.") It's been a year and a half since Hafner has producedlike a middle-of-the-order slugger, but, says Shapiro hopefully, "there arenot many guys in the history of the game who just dropped off the face of theearth either."

Even if Hafnerisn't half of what he once was, there is other offensive firepower, startingwith 30-30 leadoff hitter and centerfielder Grady Sizemore. Shortstop JhonnyPeralta had more extra-base hits than Alex Rodriguez did in '08, andrightfielder Shin-Soo Choo, whose 1.038 on-base plus slugging percentage in thesecond half of the season trailed only superstars Ramirez, Albert Pujols andMark Teixeira, has the look of a hitting star in the making, especially nowthat he's learned to hit lefties. Mark DeRosa, obtained from the Cubs in theoff-season, has steadily improved as a hitter in each of the last four yearsand brings valuable versatility to the lineup.

If the offense,which led the majors with 379 runs after the All-Star break, has been enhanced,the bullpen has been upgraded dramatically. New closer Kerry Wood, coming off adominant season with the Cubs, "brings fear to the other team," sayscatcher Kelly Shoppach, a contrast to previous closer Joe Borowski, whomShoppach says admiringly, got by on "nothing." The only question everregarding Wood is his health. Though he was slowed early in camp by backsoreness, Wood says, "My body feels good."

Wood, however, isonly part of the bullpen equation. The regressions last season of setup menRafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez were big reasons why the Tribe had thesecond-worst bullpen ERA in the majors (5.13). Speaking like a man who'swatched his pen swing between excellent and awful for four seasons now, managerEric Wedge concedes, "We're feeling pretty good right now, but in a monthwe may be trying to figure it out."

The same goes fora rotation that has Cy Young winner Lee and Carmona, the fourth-place finisherin the '07 vote. But the steep decline of Carmona last year and the extraweight he appeared to be carrying this spring are no less a concern than therest of the rotation, which includes Yankees washout Carl Pavano as the No. 3starter.

If the rotationproves to be weak, there is enough positional depth to trade for a pitcher. Andwith the closer role stabilized, there's reason to believe that the Central'smost talented team is ready to take off again.

CONSIDER THIS AModest Proposal ...

Peak performancesby DH Travis Hafner in 2005 and '06, when he was the best hitter in the AL,should not be enough to guarantee him a job in '09. Cleveland suffered lastseason, largely from a lack of production from Hafner, who ate up 10% of theclub's payroll while hitting .197 with five homers and missing more than threemonths with a shoulder injury. Throw in a mediocre 2007, during which his homertotal fell by 18 and his slugging percentage dropped 208 points, and Pronk, 31,looks as if he's in steep decline. The Indians have to pay Hafner $49 millionthrough 2012 whether he hits or not; rather than have him torpedo anotherseason, they should take a long look at rookie Matt LaPorta, the big prize inthe CC Sabathia trade with Milwaukee. Like Hafner, LaPorta's game is entirelyin his bat, which is major league ready.

THE NUMBERS

DON'T LIE
.83

Strikeouts FaustoCarmona had for every walk he issued last season—well off his 2.25 K/BB rate in2007, when he was 19--8 with a 3.06 ERA. His regression in '08 (8--7, 5.44 ERA)might have another explanation: fatigue. During his breakthrough '07 season atage 23, he threw 1401/3 innings more than he did the previous year, well overthe 30-inning leap accepted as the unofficial industry standard for pitchersunder 25.

The Lineup
WITH 2008 STATISTICS

Manager EricWedge
SEVENTH SEASON WITH INDIANS

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

GRADY SIZEMORE CF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 6 .268 33 90 38
MARK DEROSA [NEW ACQUISITION] 3B
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 129 .285 21 87 6
VICTOR MARTINEZ C
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 105 .278 2 35 0
TRAVIS HAFNER DH
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 183 .197 5 24 1
JHONNY PERALTA SS
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 63 .276 23 89 3
SHIN-SOO CHOO RF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 134 .309 14 66 4
RYAN GARKO 1B
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 117 .273 14 90 0
BEN FRANCISCO LF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 173 .266 15 54 4
ASDRUBAL CABRERA 2B
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 236 .259 6 47 4
BENCH
KELLY SHOPPACH C
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 137 .261 21 55 0
JAMEY CARROLL IF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 297 .277 1 36 7

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

ROTATION
PITCHER PVR W L K/9 WHIP ERA
LH Cliff Lee 9 22 3 6.9 1.11 2.54
RH Fausto Carmona 117 8 7 4.3 1.62 5.44
RH Carl Pavano [NEW ACQUISITION] 182 4 2 3.9 1.49 5.77
LH Scott Lewis 175 4 0 5.6 1.08 2.63
RH Anthony Reyes 128 4 2 4.6 1.27 2.76
BULLPEN
PITCHER PVR W SV K/9 WHIP ERA
RH Kerry Wood [NEW ACQUISITION] 38 5 34 11.4 1.09 3.26
LH Rafael Perez 187 4 2 10.1 1.18 3.54
RH Jensen Lewis 120 0 13 7.1 1.44 3.82

NEWACQUISITION
B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)

NOW AT SI.COM/VAULT

EXCERPTED FROM SI
July 12, 1993

So let us just reach into the swirl, choose a momentand begin: A Florida morning, a baseball clubhouse, a week after Tim Crews andSteve Olin died when their heads struck a dock during a family outing on an offday. Grover—that's what everyone calls manager Mike Hargrove—is gazing out atthe surviving members of his bullpen, wondering how in hell he is ever going tobring this team back from its grief. On Eric Plunk's chest is one of SteveOlin's T-shirts. On Ted Power's waist is the belt Oly wore when he broke intothe majors. Thank God, they didn't know Tim Crews any better—another sweethuman being, just like Oly. Thank God, Tim had just joined the team.
—GARY SMITH

For free access to all Indians stories and photographsfrom the SI archives, plus video clips, go to SI.com/vault.

PHOTOBRAD MANGINHEAT'S ON Wood, lights-out for the Cubs in '08, gives the Tribe its first power closer since Danys Baez held the role in '03. PHOTOBRAD MANGIN (LAPORTA) PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)