Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Tribe in the Shadows

There has been a lot of movement this offseason. We've seen Detroit, San Diego, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago make big changes. Most of those teams have spent big money to lure in free agents, overpaying in the long term for short term gains.

And of course, the small market team gets overlooked. Who is the hidden darkhorse of 2007? Mark Shapiro's Cleveland Indians.

I think that Shapiro is a vastly underrated General Manager. He has completely rebuilt the aging franchise of Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, and Jim Thome. It looked like the Indians were ready for greatness in 2005, as the Indians formed one of the best pitching/defense combinations in the AL, coming within a few games of a playoff appearance. Their young hitters were not ready for prime time. 2006 saw a decline in pitching as those hitters blossomed in to legit stars.

Amid all the big spending, Shapiro got smart. He signed Trot Nixon to a one year, three million dollar deal. He picked up Keith Foulke for 5 million dollars. Joe Borowski to 4.25 million. He may have signed the best deal for a position player of the offseason, signing David Delluci to a 3 year, 11.5 million dollar deal. Shapiro signed Roberto Herndandez for 3.5 million with incentives. He even got Aaron Fultz for just 1.5 million.

He got rid of Aaron Boone. He traded promising hitter Kevin Kouzmanoff, whose position he already has covered with Andy Marte, for the much needed 2nd baseman Josh Barfield.

The Indians simply have a great collection of position players right now. Grady Sizemore may be the most underrated player in all of baseball, and is under Shapiro's control for many years. Travis Hafner may be the AL's best hitter. Victor Martinez may be the best offensive catcher. He has Shin-Shoo Choo, David Delluci, Jason Michaels, and Trot Nixon to get creative and platoon in the outfield. Andy Marte is going to be a great major league hitter once he inherits the full time job.

Pitching wise, the Indians should improve over last season. Westbrook, Sowers, and Sabathia give him three above average or better healthy starters, and Cliff Lee may just give him a fourth. As far as 5th starters go, he's doing pretty well with Paul Byrd. If things go wrong, he can always call up top prospect Adam Miller.

His bullpen? Foulke, Borowski, and Hernandez will fight it out for the closer job. He has Rafael Betancourt, Jason Davis, Aaron Fultz, and Fernando Cabrera to round out the bullpen. That's a pretty strong group. It's not top heavy, but the back end is solid.

I'm not sure how I will predict it in the coming days (when I do my major league predictions), but I'm thinking about sticking my neck out and projecting the 1st place Cleveland Indians.