A look at why the Indians will win the AL Central once again

Editors note (Mike): We forgot to introduce a third person who will be a guest contributor for us. He already wrote a story for us. Ben is a passionate baseball fan, and possesses homerish tendencies towards the Cleveland Indians. To sum up Ben: opinionated.

Since the Detroit Tigers acquired stud third baseman Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis from the Marlins in a deal that included their top two prospects Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin, a large, loud, obnoxious, arrogant, and ignorant contingent of the Tigers’ fanbase has proclaimed the race for the division title over before the season even started. With that said, let’s let some facts speak for themselves.

The Tigers return a team with a powerful offense, terrible bullpen, questionable starting pitching, and depleted farm system that raises concerns should the injury bug bite the pitching staff. The Tigers struggled against the division champion Cleveland Indians last season, going 6-13 and finishing the season with 88 wins, 8 games shy of the Indians’ MLB best 96 wins. Please don’t interpret my lack of focus on the Tigers offense as bias, because I simply believe there is very little that needs to be said about it. On paper, it should be great this season. Curtis Granderson – who will begin the year on the DL – needs to learn how to hit lefties, but his overall game is sensational. Gary Sheffield needs to stay healthy, but if he doesn’t, Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, and Carlos Guillen will provide PLENTY of punch anyways. Brandon Inge sucks, but he won’t be playing much. The lineup is great. The Tigers lineup MIGHT rival the lineups of the Indians in the 1990’s and the Yankees lineups of this decade. The main achilles’ heel of the Tigers all season long last year, however, was the bullpen and instability in the rotation.

How did the Tigers address this in the offseason? By upgrading their offense that was already stellar. OK, to be fair, they did acquire 27 year old Denny Bautista from the Colorado Rockies, who has been awful in limited Major League service time, but is said to have a power arm, which teams always look for in the bullpen. Joel Zumaya is out until at least after the All Star break, and his velocity was down when he returned late last season. Fernando Rodney will begin the year on the DL, and has never shown the consistency that the Tigers need from an 8th inning set up man. Rodney, of any of the pitchers in the pen, has the most ability to be a great set up man. But he hasn’t been able to stay healthy and perform consistently. The Tigers need one or two guys in the bullpen, be it Rodney, Bautista, Bobby Seay, or Jason Grilli, to step up and be great in the pen to get games to closer Todd Jones.

Justin Verlander is one of the best young pitchers in baseball, and should be a dependable ace for the Tigers once again this season. The acquisition of Dontrelle Willis may help bring some stability to the rotation, as he can likely provide 200 innings. But the question will be if Willis is capable of success in the American League. Willis has regressed the last two years, and had a 5.17 ERA last year in the National League. Moving on up in his 40’s, Kenny Rogers must be healthy AND effective this season. One of my biggest x-factors for this season is Jeremy Bonderman. Having watched him pitch on dozens of occasions, he has talent. It’s clear. He just hasn’t exhibited, on a consistent basis, the mental aspect of pitching. His pitch selection is often questionable and he often suffers from “the big inning”. The Tigers NEED Bonderman to put together a great season if they are to have any chance of surpassing the defending champion Indians.

Now that I have situated the Tigers in the context of last season and what they need to do this season, I’ll turn my focus to the Cleveland Indians. Last season, the Indians tied the Boston Red Sox for the most wins in the major leagues, and appeared to have the Red Sox on the ropes in the ALCS, with a dominating 3-1 lead. Of course, in classic Cleveland sports style, they managed to lose the lead as Josh Beckett did his best Jesus Christ impersonation and led the Red Sox to their 2nd World Series Title in 4 years.

Upon further reflection, though, the Indians had a great season. They dominated in division play, going 47-24. They overcame a poor season from their best hitter, Travis Hafner, who still managed to drive in 100 runs. They overcame the ineffectiveness and injury of 3 opening day rotation members – Jake Westbrook, Jeremy Sowers, and Cliff Lee. Westbrook came back after injury and was outstanding in the second half and in the post season. Cliff Lee seems to be figuring out how he won 18 games in 2005. The bullpen was outstanding, but will now have terrific lefty Rafael Perez, who held left handed hitters to a .142 batting average last season, and Jensen Lewis for the entire season. Thus, the bullpen figures to be even stronger than last year. With Perez, Lewis, and the best set up man in the game last year, Rafael Betancourt, the Indians could shorten games.

The Indians will also have flashy 2B Asdrubal Cabrera, who looked like a gold glover last summer at a position he had never played (he is a natural shortstop), and 5-tool RF Franklin Gutierrez firmly entrenched in the opening day lineup this year. The Indians went 28-13 when Cabrera started last year, and he has shown the same promising signs this spring that he showed last year at the plate. Cabrera reminds people more and more of a – gasp – Roberto Alomar. He shows outstanding plate discipline for a 21 year old kid, takes the ball to the opposite field, and is developing surprising power.

Cabrera and Gutierrez figure to help Cleveland’s lineup this season. The lineup includes all-stars Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez, emerging hitters Ryan Garko and Jhonny Peralta, and consistent veterans Casey Blake and Jason Michaels. However, while Sizemore is the team’s best all around player, nobody has the ability to impact this offense more than Travis Hafner. Hafner averaged the highest OPS in the AL between 2004 and 2006 and led the league in OBP in those years. He struggled mightily in 2007 and never felt comfortable at the plate, yet he still managed 100 RBI. The Indians often entered long offensive droughts last year. If Hafner can return to his MVP form of the previous three seasons, the Indians will field a very formidable lineup that could probably put up nearly as many runs as the Tigers. But if the Indians were able to win 96 games and dominate the division with an underachieving offense, think of what they’ll do if Hafner returns to form. Hafner’s the key. Grady Sizemore is primed for another all star season, Victor Martinez is the best hitting catcher in the game, and Ryan Garko is capable of hitting .300 with 25-30 home runs. But if Travis Hafner performs like he is capable of, the combination of a strong lineup to go with the Indians’ great pitching could lead to a dominating season for the Tribe. Frankly, 100 wins is a very real possibility for this team.

Ultimately, the biggest strength that will separate the Indians from the Tigers is pitching. Last year’s Cy Young Award winner, C.C. Sabathia anchors the best one-two punch in baseball with Fausto Carmona, who scouts all over the league labeled as the “most impressive” pitcher in either league last season. Coming off a monster spring in which he did not allow a run, Jake Westbrook looks healthy and ready to return to being one of the most reliable right handed starters in the American League. Sabathia and Carmona are two guys that can go deep into games and dominate great lineups, which the Tigers, I assume, will have this season. If anybody in the rotation falters, the Indians have lefties Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey in AAA, and top prospect Adam Miller waiting in the wings. Sowers has had success in the big leagues before and is still quite young. Laffey displayed remarkable poise in a late season call up last year after Cliff Lee’s demotion, throwing strikes and inducing a lot of ground balls.

In 2007, the Indians and Tigers both dealt with injuries and mishaps. That’s baseball. In the 162 game season, injuries happen. They happen to key contributors. That’s just the way it is. This “woe is us” argument that I have heard from a lot of Tigers fans all offseason in regards to the 2007 season simply does not work. In all honesty, the INDIANS were actually the team with more key unexpected inconveniences, and yet they managed to win the most games in baseball. They were better.

The Tigers finished eight games behind the Indians because of inferior pitching. They did next to nothing this winter to address this area. The Indians, meanwhile, return a team that, on paper, figures to at least repeat or build on the strong pitching from last season and produce more runs. This is why the Cleveland Indians will repeat as American League Central Division Champions.

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One Comment on “A look at why the Indians will win the AL Central once again”

  1. Poopster Says:

    wrong


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