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Indians Indians Archive Where Do We Go From Here? - 2009 Indians Preview
Written by Paul Cousineau

Paul Cousineau
With 2008 firmly in the past, after having examined the highs and lows of the Blue Streak of a season that we all just experienced, it's time to put those blinders on again and cast a forlorn gaze at what lies ahead. With 2008 firmly in the past, after having examined the highs and lows of the Blue Streak of a season that we all just experienced, it's time to put those blinders on again and cast a forlorn gaze at what lies ahead. After the high hopes that accompanied the start of the 2008 season were dashed into mediocrity, what do the Indians need to do to position themselves to recapture the momentum that they had to close out the 2007 season and how do they improve themselves to figure squarely in the mix in the winnable AL Central (where no team looks to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack) in 2009?

Obviously, many questions face the Tribe brass as needs have been publicly identified as an infielder (either a 2B or 3B), bullpen fortification, perhaps a middle-of-the-rotation starter, and a possible upgrade at a corner position not known as 3B (LF and 1B would be the most logical spots). Lockstep with those needs, decisions need to be made on particular players like Kelly Shoppach and whether his value is greater as a trading chip, and whether players like Ryan Garko and Franklin Gutierrez were victims of the bad years or if 2008 simply showed them for who they are. Beyond that, injury questions linger about Travis Hafner and Fausto Carmona and which versions of them will show up in 2009 as both players will have an enormous impact on the 2009 club if they reappear at top form or, going in the other direction, if either continues to struggle.

This could go on and on in paragraph format, so let's break this down into a few sections that breaks it up and makes it easier to follow. Again, I'm breaking this up into a couple of parts as I got a little long-winded and don't want to tax anyone's time more than I already do:

Where are the weaknesses?

As previously listed, the stated needs of the organization are a 2B or a 3B to supplement Asdrubal and Peralta to fill out three of the infield positions, bullpen arms to settle a bullpen that vastly underperformed in 2008 and looks to be full of promising, if unproven, young arms, a starter to bridge the rotation from Lee and Carmona to the back-end-of-the-rotation fodder and provide insurance that Jake Westbrook doesn't return as planned, and better production from 1B and LF.

That's it?

No sweat...right?

Actually, the better question in coming up with an off-season game plan to address in filling many of these weaknesses is determining which have the opportunity to be filled internally and which ones would be most helped by adding a piece through Free Agency. The corollary to that, of course, is
what the Indians' payroll for 2009 figures to look like and prioritizing needs based on dollars that can be spent. That is to say, if signing a middle-of-the-rotation starter on the Free Agent market is going to eat up most of the available dollars (because that's what starters get in Free Agency), is it wise to simply fill that hole and attempt to be creative with strengthening the other weaknesses? Or would it behoove the Indians to determine where the best value is going to be on the FA market (in comparison to their other needs) and identify that hole as the one to fill through FA and go after other players via trade?

Infield Addition

Forgive me if this all sounds familiar to you, but a while back I went into the
possible options at 2B and 3B on the FA market, a list that looks more underwhelming when you look at the 2B and 3B in MLB listed by OBP (which is really what we're looking for here - a table-setter) with at least 450 plate appearances this year. The more I look at that 2B, the more I feel my mouth saying "meh" - and if Jhonny's REALLY going to 3B (and the quote from Wedge that, "At some point, I do feel Jhonny is going to end up at third base and Asdrubal will be at shortstop" sure makes it sound like he is) meaning that the Indians are already buttering us up for a new 2B having surveyed the two positions, who on the 2B list jumps out at you as a player that looks good?

Yes, Mr. Pluto, I see your hand...I know Brian Roberts - but the Indians biggest trading chip (Shoppach) happens to play the same postion as the Orioles' top prospect Matt Wieters, who also happens to be
one of the top prospects in baseball. So unless you're talking about the Orioles having an interest in some combination of Ryan Garko, a LHP, Wes Hodges, and Francisco/Gutierrez - it looks like the O's aren't looking like a match. Maybe the Orioles want a number of middling players with the idea that they can develop them into quality MLB players, but I just don't see a logical exchange where the Orioles would be looking for something that the Indians would be willing to give up.

Beyond Roberts, I see Orlando Hudson (a FA) and maybe a Dan Uggla (who doesn't fit the profile of the high-OBP and looks to be one of those all-or-nothing guys that we already have a few of which lead us to those boom-or-bust stretches as an offense) as possibilities.

Are Luis Castillo, Rickie Weeks, Kelly Johnson, Mark Grudzielanek (a FA) or Mark Ellis (also a FA) that appealing?

Everyone can see that Robinson Cano isn't worth anything close to the money he's owed, right?

All told, it looks like slim pickings at 2B with the possibilities for finding an impact 3B looking much worse. The addendum to the 2B/3B issue, however, is that the Indians' organization is devoid of upper-level talent that legitimately figures into the 2009 plans or even the 2010 plans (sorry, Wes Hodges...I don't see it), leading me to believe that if the Indians are going to add to the team via FA with a multi-year deal, this is the spot they do it in.

By signing a FA to a multi-year deal (and, really, any FA worth anything is going to get more than a one-year deal), it's not like the Indians are blocking any of their young talent, which looks to be firmly locked up at the corner OF spots (LaPorta, Weglarz) or 1B (LaPorta, Mills). Truly, the only 2B FA worthy of a multi-year deal is Hudson (injury history and concerns and all) as the rest of the players available via FA (notably Ellis and Grudzielanek) feel like stop-gaps...but waiting for who to emerge? Josh Barfield!?! Cord Phelps!?! Because of the void in the system, this is the position that the Indians go outside of their "comfort zone" and add a defensive-minded 2B with OBP skills that can slot into the top of the lineup behind Grady.

Beyond Hudson (and omitting Roberts based on the lack of the Orioles needing anything the Indians could offer), very few options appeal to me much more than slotting Jamey Carroll at the 2B position and allowing players already on the 40-man at predetermined, low salaries like Josh Barfield or Andy Marte (gasp) to remain as auxiliary players. While it wouldn't be the ideal set-up (by any stretch of the imagination), if no players available to the Indians on the FA market or the trade market represent THAT much of an upgrade over what they already have (in that they'd be bottom-of-the-order hitters, not unlike Carroll, Barfield, or Marte), one would have to think that the Indians might simply be content to look for other pieces that could help the team at other positions (LF or 1B, notably) more than just pulling a veteran onto to the team to fill a roster spot and unnecessarily and unwisely spending money or players to do so.

Bullpen Augmentation

If adding an infielder is a priority this off-season, how does one identify the needs in the bullpen? Does putting the word PRIORITY in bold typeface give any extra oomph to the fact that the Indians need to add pieces and parts to the existing bullpen to avoid a 2008esque meltdown?

Certainly, some internal options already exist with spots in the bullpen being claimed by Jensen Lewis' performance as the closer since the beginning of August, the continued effectiveness of Rafael Perez, and the hope that Rafael Betancourt reverts to his 2007 form. Masa Kobayashi's inning limit is enough of a concern that he may be an option to start the season, but may not be counted on for much more than pitching an inning here or there in low-pressure situations. After those four, the usual suspects of Tom Mastny, Edward Mujica, and Rich Rundles go hand-in-hand with the reclamation projects of Brendan Donnelly and Juan Rincon, assuming either is re-signed or given a non-roster invite to Spring Training.

Outside of those relievers that we have seen topside, those that may be able to help in some capacity in 2009 are seen as Zach Jackson (more of a long reliever/spot starter than a true "reliever"), Jeff Stevens (with a great article about him with the person that I think is the Bullpen Coach in waiting, Scott Radinsky, being quoted extensively
here), Jon Meloan, Atom Miller, and Tony Sipp. Stevens and Meloan may figure into the mix immediately as both have live arms and recent success in the high minors as relievers. Miller and Sipp, however, would both be coming off of injury and may be closer to the mid-season addition to the bullpen as the inevitable injury or ineffectiveness befell a reliever throughout the course of the season.

All told, internal options (assuming no relievers are added) have a 2009 bullpen that could look something like this out of Goodyear:


While this is essentially the bullpen that coagulated in the last two months of the season to allow the Indians to string together some victories, a nice little bump in quality there at the top end wouldn't look bad, would it? That way, all of those arms basically slot down in the progression and it allows the younger players to provide depth from Columbus while getting them regular work without having to fill out the bottom of the bullpen and be subjected to the irregular appearances that have plagued younger relievers in recent years.

Also, judging by all of the comments made by the Indians' organization that Jensen Lewis' performance as the closer at the end of this year was a nice surprise will not change their plans to add bullpen arms to the mix listed above.

What arms are out there?

Well, there was
this exercise from back right around the time that Jenny Lew became the closer as to what is going to be available on the FA market and how each of the available relievers has performed this year.

Now, with the season complete, look again at the top of the RHRP list to see a pitcher who has suddenly developed as a closer for a team playing in the ALCS...Dan Wheeler. While some may guffaw at the notion that a player like Wheeler is the best option and prefer the theatrics and track record of a K-Rod or go after an "established" closer like Brian Fuentes, I'd prefer a reliever on the upswing of his career who is likely to perform at the same high level that he did in 2008. That way, you're paying a reliever for FUTURE performance and not just basing it on the three previous years.

Obviously, if everyone knew what relievers were on the upswing, signings like Eric Gagne and Kyle Farnsworth wouldn't regularly happen, but I think that the Indians should be targeting relievers who have experienced multiple years of success, even if it's not exclusively as a closer. Some closing experience helps, but I'd prefer a player that slots into the back end of the bullpen without demanding the absurdity that K-Rod's contract will be.

Who are guys like this?

I'm glad you asked as here are four with their 2008 numbers:

Dan Wheeler - RHP - 3.12 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 53 K, 22 BB in 66 1/3 IP with 13 saves
Scott Downs - LHP - 1.78 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 57 K, 27 BB in 70 2/3 IP with 5 saves
Joe Beimel - LHP - 2.02 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 32 K, 21 BB in 49 IP with 0 saves
David Weathers - RHP - 3.25 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 46 K, 30 BB in 69 1/3 IP with 0 saves

Are any of these guys your lock-it-down, cue-the-closer-music-and-turn-out-the-lights kind of reliever who will have the box office phones burning up and cause me to flush all of my TUMS down the toilet? Probably not, but the addition of a guy like Wheeler (who may be adding zeroes to his asking price with each postseason appearance) or Downs would add a quality arm to the back-end of the bullpen while adding some closing experience and lengthening the ladder of progression to allow Lewis, Perez, Betancourt and the youngsters to sort themselves out around him.

To a lesser degree than Wheeler or Downs, the Indians could throw some money at Beimel or Weathers to add another arm to the bullpen, though neither would classify as legitimate closer options for 2009. Sure, Weathers has 74 career saves (Beimel has 3), but the 39-year-old Weathers also has 50 career blown saves, so relying on him to be the main option may be a dicey proposition, particularly considering that he'd be pitching in the AL for the first time since 1997 when he...spent some time on the Tribe!

When it's all said and done in the bullpen, the Indians are likely to look to add one FA reliever (trading a valuable position player like Shoppach for a volatile commodity like a reliever seems counterintuitive) to augment the young arms that currently reside in the pen. The FA arm will probably tend toward the lower portion of the better arms available, if only because the top portion is going to be absurdly overpaid in terms of guaranteed years. Beyond that, a wave of young hard-throwers ("Hallelujah") look to make up the depth in the hopes that the inevitable regression by a reliever that was thought to be counted on (please don't let it be Jenny Lew) can be replaced with an in-house arm.

Plenty more still to discuss, including the rotation, Mr. ShowPack, whether the Indians need to look for outside help to upgrade 1B or LF, and what can reasonably be expected from some of the principal players who spent much of 2008 on the shelf and/or ineffective.

Until then, remember that Michael Brantley and his agent will join Tony Lastoria and I for our Thursday night show,
"Smoke Signals" which airs from 9:30 PM to 10:30 PM with the podcast available soon after the completion of the show, which I'll be sure to post in the second installment.

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