Commentary

The future is bright in Cleveland

Originally Published: November 10, 2007
By Phil Rogers | Special to ESPN.com

So close, so disappointing.

Few ownership groups have shown more faith in their baseball men than Larry Dolan has in his general manager, Mark Shapiro, and Shapiro's choice of manager, Eric Wedge. Dolan was rewarded with a division title and almost a pennant as Cleveland knocked off the Yankees in the first round and took a 3-1 lead over Boston in the American League Championship Series. The bottom dropped out when Josh Beckett dominated in Game 5, and the Indians had to watch the Red Sox celebrate a World Series victory.

CLEVELAND INDIANS
Indians GM: Mark Shapiro
Manager: Eric Wedge
'07 record: 96-66, 1st AL Central
'07 payroll: $61.3M, 23rd MLB
Runs scored: 811, 6th AL
Runs allowed: 704, 3rd AL
OPS: .771, 4th AL
ERA: 4.05, 3rd AL
Fielding percentage: .985, T-3rd AL
The key to the Indians' season was the emergence of right-hander Fausto Carmona, who joined C.C. Sabathia to give Wedge a pair of 19-game winners. Joe Borowski improved a bullpen that had been a major weakness in recent years. But Sabathia and Carmona seemed to hit the wall in October, faltering in the playoffs.

Cleveland's lineup was as solid as any outside of Boston and New York, with catcher Victor Martinez continuing his emergence as one of the best hitters in the league. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta also got a little bit better, and Asdrubal Cabrera provided a big lift when he was promoted. The only thing this group hasn't done together now is get to the World Series, which will be the goal in 2008.

Primary needs

1. Better production from the outfield corners. Kenny Lofton was a big help in left, and the Indians feel Franklin Gutierrez can be a long-term answer in right. But the reality is they ranked 10th in the AL in OPS in left and 13th in right last season.

Rafael Betancourt

Betancourt

2. A backup plan at closer. Joe Borowski not only led the AL with 45 saves last season but had more 1-2-3 innings than Mariano Rivera. Yet he allowed opponents to bat .289 and ended with a 5.07 ERA. Rafael Betancourt could move into the role, but that would leave a hole in the eighth inning.

3. Contract extensions for C.C. Sabathia and Casey Blake. Both are eligible for free agency after the season. Sabathia's value is obvious, but there are scouts who believe the versatile Blake is one of the most valuable Indians. He moves effortlessly between the outfield, third base and first base and seems comfortable anywhere in the order -- in other words, he's the type of underrated player who could be widely pursued as a free agent.

Free agents

OF Kenny Lofton, RF Trot Nixon, INF Chris Gomez

The Indians aren't likely to spend heavily to get free-agent help. They are more likely looking to make a trade. Cleveland could put together enticing packages for Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford or Pittsburgh's Jason Bay, but no one knows if those guys are going to be on the market. Geoff Jenkins could fit.

Jhonny Peralta

Peralta

Trade bait

Shortstop Jhonny Peralta could be dealt to make it easier to keep the core together while signing Sabathia to a top-dollar extension. Asdrubal Cabrera is a natural shortstop who could move over from second, giving Josh Barfield a second chance to establish himself.

A major disappointment last season, Cliff Lee is still owed $10.5 million. But his 54-36 career record could be good enough to tempt some team into taking a chance on him.

Farm aid

Only injuries have kept Adam Miller from claiming a spot in Cleveland's starting rotation. The right-hander can run his fastball into the high 90s or be very effective with a low-90s sinker.

Never a really high-profile prospect, the polished Aaron Laffey got a late-season chance ahead of the more experienced Lee and Jeremy Sowers, and the lefty took advantage of it, pitching his way onto the playoff roster. He will try to earn a rotation spot in spring training.

Left-hander Chuck Lofgren pitched in Double-A at 21 and continues to climb the ladder.

First baseman/outfielder Jordan Brown led the Eastern League in batting, outshining his talented teammate Trevor Crowe. The openings on the outfield corners give Brown some opportunity, but the left-handed hitter may be a better fit at first base, initially in a platoon with Ryan Garko.

Outlook

Shapiro is more patient than most of his peers and knows he doesn't need to do anything drastic for a team that won 102 games last season, including a 6-5 record in the playoffs. It will be a good offseason if it ends with Sabathia joining Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Jake Westbrook, Martinez and Peralta among the Indians signed through 2009 and beyond.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through Amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).

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