For any of you that may have recently just found us, to follow is the fourth and final installment of an incredible 2006 preview of the Cleveland Indians by Swerbs Blurbs Indians writer and website Consigliere Tony Lastoria. I've included links to the first three installments. Enjoy! ~ Swerb
Part I: The Starting Rotation
Part II: The Bullpen
Part III: The Infielders
While the starting infield from 2005 returns this season intact, there will be major changes to the makeup of the bench and the starting outfield in 2006.Grady Sizemore returns in CF, and unfortunately, Casey Blake returns in RF. However, in a pair of off-season trades, the Indians dealt away 2005 starting left fielder Coco Crisp to Boston for 3B prospect Andy Marte, and in turn traded for Phillies outfielder Jason Michaels to fill the void left by the departing Crisp. Gone is the happy-go-lucky Crisp. In comes the hardnosed Michaels.Indians GM Mark Shapiro also added a much needed right-handed bat on the bench by signing free agent Eduardo Perez, and Todd Hollandsworth looks to have the 4th outfielder position locked up. Two spots on the bench for the backup catcher and utility infield jobs are the only spots where a position battle will take place in Spring Training. New acquisition Kelly “Shopvac” Shoppach and Einar Diaz will battle it out at catcher, and the utility infielder job will be a battle between Brandon Phillips and Ramon Vazquez. Both of these spots on the roster should carry out over the course of Spring Training and not be decided on until the last week of camp.Barring any trades or injuries, here is the projected 2006 batting order (prior year stats in parentheses):1. Grady Sizemore CF (.289, 22 HRs, 81 RBIs)2. Jason Michaels LF (.304, 4 HRs, 31 RBIs)3. Jhonny Peralta SS (.292, 24 HRs, 78 RBIs)4. Travis Hafner DH (.305, 33 HRs, 108 RBIs)5. Victor Martinez C (.305, 20 HRs, 80 RBIs)6. Ron Belliard 2B (.284, 17 HRs, 78 RBIs)7. Ben Broussard 1B (.255, 19 HRs, 68 RBIs)8. Casey Blake RF (.241, 23 HRs, 58 RBIs)9. Aaron Boone 3B (.243, 16 HRs, 60 RBIs)LF: Jason MichaelsThe Indians acquired Michaels in an off-season trade with the Phillies on the heels of the Coco Crisp trade. As a part-time player the past four years, Michaels has proven to be very comparable to Crisp. In 2005, Michaels hit .304 with 4 HRs, 31 RBIs, and had a .814 OPS in only 289 at bats. For his career, he is a .291 hitter and has an .822 OPS. The key with Michaels, however, will be how he performs in a fulltime role. Michaels is an aggressive base-runner with slightly above-average speed, and he should help the offense with one of their greatest weaknesses in 2005: hitting left-handed pitching. In 2005, Michaels hit .323 with an .853 OPS against lefties, and over the last three years has hit .323 with a .909 OPS against them. Michaels production does drop when facing righties, as he hit .289 with a .778 OPS in 2005, and has a .278 batting average and .778 OPS against righties the last three years. While Michaels will get all the at bats in LF against lefties, he may give way to 4th outfielder Todd Hollandsworth (or Dubois) about a 1/3 of the time against righties.Michaels was a good clutch hitter in 2005, but his situational hitting in 2005 was above his averages over the last three years (2003-2005 numbers in parentheses): .295 with RISP (.274), .271 with RISP and two out (.236), .300 close and late (.299), .333 with a runner on 3rd with less than two outs (.382), and .500 with the bases loaded (.421).Like when Peralta replaced Vizquel in 2005, Michaels is in the unenviable position of replacing a fan favorite in Coco Crisp. The Indians can ill afford to have Michaels go into the tank since they have very limited options in the outfield, especially after dealing Crisp. No doubt, for many fans, early in the season one eye will be on Michaels watching what he is doing, while the other eye will be checking the scoreboard/box scores to see what Crisp is doing in Boston. Eventually, if Michaels performs, this will dissipate. If he struggles, the fan backlash could get ugly.CF: Grady SizemoreSizemore was a breath of fresh air for Indians fans last year. Not only was he a hit with the ladies, but he appealed to all fans with his gritty play-style as he ran every batted ball out and would run through walls in the outfield. On the field, he performed well by hitting .289 with 22 HRs, 81 RBIs, and an .832 OPS. Off the field, his own clothing line was started by the Indians with “Mrs. Sizemore” T-shirts. Not bad for his first full season in the big leagues.Last year, Sizemore struggled early in the season hitting only .233 with a .609 OPS in April, and then had a decent May hitting .286 with a .784 OPS. But, Sizemore truly burst onto the scene in June, as he hit .377 with 4 HRs, 16 RBIs and a whopping 1.097 OPS. He ended the first half of the season hitting .287 with 9 HRS, 40 RBIs, and an .810 OPS, and used it as a springboard to his second half where he hit .292 with 13 HRs, 41 RBIs and an .857 OPS after the All-Star break. Situationally, Sizemore was one of the Indians better hitters as he hit .300 with RISP, .279 with RISP and two outs, .324 with runner’s on, .and 350 with a runner on 3rd and less than two out. Sizemore did have his faults last year. While he was great against right-handed pitching in hitting .307 with 19 HRs, 64 RBIs and a .902 OPS, he struggled against lefties by only hitting .245 with 3 HRs, 17 RBIs and a .660 OPS. Also, as the Indians leadoff hitter last season, Sizemore only walked 52 times while striking out 132 times. Going forward, he will need to work on his two-strike approach and work more counts as the Indians can’t have a leadoff hitter with a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio. If Sizemore can improve against lefties, and reduce his strikeout/walk ratio to even 2:1, it would provide the middle of the lineup many more RBI opportunities and also help extend innings.Sizemore is one of the most important keys to the team in 2006. If he progresses and shows improvement in the noted areas of weakness from last season, the Indians offense could be in for big things this year. Sizemore could very well be on the verge of a breakout season, and many All-Star appearances as the premier center-fielder in the American League. The Indians control Sizemore through the 2010 season, and there are strong rumors of a long-term deal that could be announced before the start of the season. Such a deal could keep him an Indian for even longer, and keep our prized center-fielder patrolling the outfield in Jacob’s Field for a long time. RF: Casey BlakeAfter three seasons as a regular with the Indians, Blake has had one above average season surrounded with two below average seasons. After a very solid season in 2004 where Blake hit .271 with 28 HRs, 88 RBIs and an .840 OPS, Blake reverted to his 2003 season and career minor league form by hitting .241 with 23 HRs, 58 RBIs and a .746 OPS. Blake was equally as bad against lefties and righties in 2005, hitting .241 against both. Over his three seasons as a regular with the Indians, he has hit slightly better versus righties (.262) than lefties (.243). He does show more power against lefties, as his slugged .526 in 2005 (.407 vs. righties), and he had an .828 OPS against lefties (.707 vs. righties). On the positive side, Blake showed some improvement the second half of the season. After hitting .228 with 10 HRs, 29 RBIS and a .697 OPS prior to the All-Star break, Blake hit a respectable .254 with 13 HRs, 29 RBIs and a .797 OPS after the break. For whatever reason, Blake struggles at Jacob’s Field. Last year, he hit .233 with 7 HRs, 21 RBIs and a .673 OPS, but in only 7 more at bats on the road he hit .249 with 16 HRs, 37 RBIs and an .817 OPS. In his three year Indians career, the disparity between his road/home splits is even larger as in the last three seasons he has combined to hit .244 with 22 HRs, 81 RBIs and a .714 OPS at home, but has hit .269 with 46 HRs, 132 RBIs and an .825 OPS on the road. Maybe the anti-Blake chants and constant heckling he gets at Jacob’s Field actually DO affect him. Who knows.Situationaly, Blake was horrible in 2005. This is not news to Tribe fans, as his struggles were well documented during the season last year with his poor performance with RISP. Last year, Blake batted .171 with RISP, and .085 with RISP and two outs. The general feeling among fans and even front office personnel is those poor averages with RISP by Blake should not be repeated this season, and that they were an anomaly. There may be some truth behind that, as in 2004 he hit .254 with RISP, and .281 with RISP and two outs. Also, in 2003, he hit .233 with RISP and .154 with RISP and two out. If he could hit somewhere between the 2003 and 2004 splits, it would result in a marked improvement to his RBI totals in key situations this year.The two biggest weaknesses with the starting lineup are Aaron Boon and Casey Blake. The Indians have Andy Marte waiting in the wings at 3B if Boone falters early, but the Indians don’t have that type of luxury or insurance waiting for use in RF. As a contending team, the Indians can’t afford to turn to kids like Franklin Gutierrez or Brad Snyder since neither player is major league ready. Because of this, Blake could be on just as short a leash as Boone early this season. If Blake struggles early, he could be moved to the bench or traded and Shapiro could look to a trade for guys like Kevin Mench, Craig Wilson, Ryan Shealy, or Corey Hart as stop-gaps to fill the void in RF.1B/3B/OF: Eduardo PerezThe Indians signed Perez to a one year $1.825M deal this off-season, and he will basically take over the role on the bench that Jose Hernandez had in 2005. The Indians are hoping that Perez can provide a much more potent bat against left-handers than Hernandez provided in 2005, and will use Perez in a lefty-righty platoon with Broussard at 1B. He also will get some time occasionally in the outfield and even at 3B. As a Devil Ray in 2005, Perez primarily only hit against lefties (only 26 at bats vs. righties) and hit .259 with 10 HRs, 25 RBIs and had an .897 OPS. Over the last three, Perez has crushed left-handed pitching with a .288 batting average and 19 HRs, 46 RBIs, and a sizzling .958 OPS in 264 at bats. His .239 and .654 OPS the last three years against righties should keep him exclusive to left-handers only. With Perez and Broussard in a lefty-righty platoon in 2006, the Cleveland Indians starting 1B could total 25 or more HRs and 100+ RBIs in 162 games.4th Outfielder: Todd Hollandsworth/Jason DuboisIndians manager Eric Wedge and GM Mark Shapiro have hinted several times through the media that, barring an injury or a complete collapse, Hollandsworth will go into the 2006 season as the Indians 4th outfielder. Hollandsworth can play any of the three outfield positions, and even has played some 1B in his career. Hitting from the left-side, he could spell Michaels or Blake often and get around 300 at bats against right-handed pitching. In 2005, he hit a combined .244 with 6 HRs, 36 RBIs and a .671 OPS in 303 at bats with the Braves and Cubs. The .671 OPS is alarming, although over the last three years he has proven to be serviceable versus right-handers hitting .260 with a .752 OPS. The problem with Hollandsworth, is he is not that good. If I had to guess, I’d say he is about the equivalent to Wayne Kirby, yeah that guy, at this point in his career. In other words, why bother?Jason Dubois is the dark horse in the race for the 4th outfielder role. Many fans were quickly turned off by his poor showing last year after being acquired from the Cubs in July for Jody Gerut. In 14 games with the Indians (45 at bats), he hit .222 with 2 HRs and 2 RBIs, but had a nauseating 25 strikeouts. The slate has been wiped clean in 2006, and Dubois could still be in the plans for the Indians. One thing going for Dubois is he is on the 40-man roster already (Hollandsworth is not). The Indians will not need to remove someone from the 40-man in order to add Dubois to the team like they will with Hollandsworth. However, Dubois does not fit the mold of a 4th outfielder since he can only play the corner outfield positions, so Hollandsworth has the advantage there. Dubois does have one option remaining, so it is likely the Indians start him in Buffalo to play him everyday and while there exclusively work on his two strike approach. Someone to keep in mind for the 4th outfielder job is Ben Francisco. Not only can he play any of the three outfield positions, but Francisco also has good speed and has some good pop in his bat. Unfortunately, he has already been assigned to minor league camp and is set to start the year in Buffalo, but he could figure into the outfield mix by mid-season. More on him in the Buffalo preview. Others like Franklin Gutierrez, Todd Donovan, and even Brad Snyder will start the year in the minors, but could get consideration for the 4th outfielder role as the season progresses if Hollandsworth struggles. Utility Infielder: Brandon Phillips/Ramon VazquezThe battle for the utility infielder job is between Ramon Vazquez, Brandon Phillips and Lou Merloni. Merloni is an extreme long shot as he is recovering from an injury that ended his season prematurely in 2005, and most likely starts the year in Buffalo if he can’t find a major league job with another team. This position battle will come down to Vazquez and Phillips.This corner opines that Phillips should win the utility infield job. After a disastrous 2003 campaign in Cleveland and Buffalo that saw him hit a combined .198 with 9 HRs and 46 RBIs, Phillips bounced back in 2004 hitting .296 with 8 HRs, 50 RBIs and a .769 OPS for AAA Buffalo, then followed that up in a return trip to Buffalo in 2005 hitting .256 with 15 HRs, 46 RBIs and a .735 OPS. Phillips is out of options, so he must make the 25-man roster or be exposed to waivers before sending him to the minors. If exposed to waivers, someone will definitely pick him up. Even after the debacle in 2003, and two forgotten years in 2004 and 2005 at Buffalo, the Indians should not give up on him yet. With current 2B Ronnie Belliard eligible for free agency after this season , and the minor league system devoid of any talent at 2B or SS to help in the near future, it would be a mistake to give up on Phillips so early. Especially in favor of Ramon Vazquez. Still only 24, the Indians should give Phillips one final shot to show the fans and organization this season why he was tabbed the #1 prospect in the system in 2003, and why he was a top 10 prospect in the game that year. Vazquez is a dime a dozen player, who should not be viewed as a significant loss if the Indians choose to keep Brandon Phillips. Players of Vazquez’s caliber are found throughout the league waiver wire, and the Indians probably have 7-8 players in the system that could fill his role right now as a utility guy if they had to. In 1080 career major league at bats, Vazquez has hit a respectable .258, but he provides little production as noted by his 6 HRs and 84 RBIs. That’s not very good. Like Phillips, Vazquez is out of options. Bottom line: the Indians should just stick with Phillips and let Vazquez walk. Phillips still has upside, Vazquez does not.Backup Catcher: Kelly Shoppach/Einar Diaz/Tim Laker
The backup catcher job is between Kelly Shoppach and Einar Diaz. Shoppach has an option left, while Diaz is in camp on a minor league deal. Tim Laker is also in camp, but he should accept an assignment to Buffalo and backup the loser between Shoppach/Diaz.Since being traded in the 2002 off-season in a deal that brought Travis Hafner to the Indians in one of Shapiro’s biggest heists, Diaz has bounced around the league. In the three seasons since the trade he has played for three different teams (Texas, Montreal and St. Louis). Last year, as a Cardinal, Diaz hit .208 with 1 HR and 17 RBIs in 58 games (130 at bats). Still only 33, Diaz is trying to hold onto a career that appears all but done. His OPS the last four seasons from 2002-2005: .542 (2002), .635 (2003), .595 (2004), and .525 (2003). Good Lord that is awful.Shoppach is a highly regarded defensive catcher who has very good HR power. In his four year minor league career, he has been voted as the top defensive catcher in the league every season, and is outstanding at controlling a running game. Also, he has 70 career HRs in the minors, along with an .819 OPS. In the last two years alone, he hit 48 HRs at AAA Pawtucket. Also, and probably most importantly, Shoppach is already on the 40-man roster, while Diaz is not. In no way is Diaz worth losing a promising young and talented player over since the Indians would need to drop a player to add him to the 40-man roster.The idea is to have a backup catcher who can actually play so Victor Martinez is not run into the ground by August, and Diaz just is not the answer. Shoppach should win the job to be Victor’s caddy, while Diaz should strictly be a last resort, an option to call up and backup Shoppach if Victor were to suffer a serious injury.Buffalo Bound:Ryan Garko (1B), Andy Marte (3B), Joe Inglett (2B), Jake Gautreau (2B/3B), Tim Laker (C), Einar Diaz (C), Brad Snyder (OF), Franklin Gutierrez (OF), Ben Francisco (OF), Jason Cooper (OF/DH), Jason Dubois (OF/DH)Up Next: AAA Buffalo preview, featuring the proposed starting lineup and pitching rotation.