Cleveland Indians fantasy team preview

If you're not getting better, you're getting worse.

It sounds like a Yogi-ism, but in this day and age, it's not common for a major league team that was one win away from the World Series to return the following season with essentially the same roster. That's what the Cleveland Indians are doing in 2008.

Of course, just because they didn't change the makeup of their roster a great deal during the offseason doesn't really mean the Indians are getting worse. What it does mean in fantasy terms is that most players are in the same roles they were in when the team tied for the most wins in the majors with 96 in 2007. But does that mean you should expect similar production from the key cogs in the Indians' lineup, rotation and bullpen?

It's hard to find fault with one of the top leadoff men in the game, Grady Sizemore, or arguably the top offensive catcher in the game, Victor Martinez. Both have been consistent and durable and show no signs of slowing down. In fact, there still is room for growth in Sizemore's game, as scary as that might sound. While Travis Hafner endured a very difficult 2007 (more on that later), he still is a major force in the middle of the Tribe lineup. Cleveland's complementary players, like Ryan Garko, Jhonny Peralta and Casey Blake, won't be looking over their shoulders, either.

The only Indians hitter who enters spring training with an everyday gig but sizable question marks is second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, whose outstanding defense -- and offensive numbers right in line with his career minor-league totals -- made him one of the biggest surprises on the roster. It's likely Cabrera will experience his share of ups and downs at the plate this season, and he might even lose his handle on the No. 2 spot in the order at some point, but the defensive ability and adequate contact rate he has demonstrated (one strikeout every 5.6 at-bats in the minors, 5.5 with in the bigs) should keep him in the lineup. Last season's Opening Day second baseman, Josh Barfield, scuffled through a horrendous sophomore season, both offensively and defensively, and is a possible trade piece if the Indians look to upgrade at either corner outfield spot.

Fausto Carmona's emergence as the 2 in the 1-2 punch that starts with C.C. Sabathia was a pleasant surprise after the team's misguided attempt to use Carmona as a closer in the summer of 2006. While there is concern that Sabathia and Carmona, who combined to pitch 486 1/3 innings including the postseason, might not be as sharp this season, the Indians have been careful with their young arms in the past and will take care of their horses. Sabathia has eclipsed 200 innings just twice in his seven big league seasons; Carmona pitched into the seventh inning in 22 of his 32 regular-season starts in 2007, yet threw more than 106 pitches only five times (and never in consecutive outings).

When Joe Borowski climbed the mound last season, his owners' (and Indians fans') stomachs began to turn and heartbeats began to show through their shirts. That is unlikely to change this season, but Indians manager Eric Wedge likes to have clear roles on his team and Borowski is his unquestioned closer entering spring training. Rafael Betancourt was one of the best setup men in the game in 2007, and Wedge would prefer that he continue in that role. The team signed Japanese right-hander Masahide Kobayashi largely because of his extensive closing experience -- 227 career saves in nine seasons in Japan -- which gives the team options should Borowski falter. Kobayashi likely will start in middle relief, and the team hopes to use him in a more prominent setup role later in the season.

Signing Kobayashi was the biggest move Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro made during the offseason, as he didn't fiddle much with the roster -- including deciding not to attempt to trade Sabathia, who will be a free agent following this season -- because he feels this is a special group and one that can bring a World Series title to northeast Ohio for the first time in 60 years.

Ballpark: Ballpark factors are best evaluated over the course of four years or more because of the small sample size one season (81 games) represents. In 2007, Progressive Field ranked fourth in park factor for runs and 12th for home runs. This has to be considered an aberration. In the four previous seasons, Progressive Field ranked 27th, 18th, 27th and 22nd in runs and even worse in home runs, with an average of 25.5. Although the lack of foul territory certainly doesn't help pitchers, there is no evidence to support that 2007 was anything more than an isolated spike in favor of hitters. In fact, the numbers from the previous four seasons obviously suggest Progressive Field favors pitchers in those categories.

Top sleeper: In 2004-05 with the Rangers, David Dellucci slugged .502 and hit one homer every 15.7 at-bats versus right-handers, which is why the Indians were excited to land him last season. However, calf and (more significantly) hamstring problems ruined his first season in Cleveland. Unless the team makes a deal for a corner outfielder, Dellucci stands to get the majority of at-bats against righties and could provide quite a return. Given that Dellucci posted .367 and .369 on-base percentages in his two seasons prior to coming to Cleveland, it's possible he could find himself in the No. 2 spot in the lineup as the season progresses, because Cabrera still has to prove he is able to hold down the slot behind Sizemore.

Intriguing spring battles: The outfield corners are the hot spots, with Dellucci, Jason Michaels, Franklin Gutierrez and Ben Francisco the main combatants. Shin-Soo Choo, who is coming off Tommy John surgery on his left elbow, is expected to miss the first month of the season but eventually could find his way into the mix as well. Dellucci and Gutierrez should emerge as the starters in left and right field, respectively. Gutierrez's athleticism and strong arm are hard to ignore, but he must cut down on the strikeouts and hit better against right-handers. He was exposed against them in the playoffs, particularly against those with solid breaking stuff.

But the most interesting competition will be for the fifth spot in the starting rotation, a battle among Cliff Lee, Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers. Laffey finished the 2007 season in that role, and the team was happy with the way he pitched, in terms of keeping the ball in the park (only two home runs allowed in 49 2/3 innings) and limiting walks (2.2 per nine innings). Sowers (1-6, 6.42 ERA in 13 starts) and Lee (6.29 ERA) endured difficult 2007 seasons, but both have the makeup to bounce back this season. Sowers finished strong at Triple-A Buffalo last year, going 4-1 with a 2.95 ERA in his final nine starts, while Lee won 46 games from 2004 to 2006. While the winner of the competition might be decided simply by spring training performance, keep in mind that Lee was publicly unhappy about his demotion last season and could be dealt.

Platoons: As previously mentioned, Dellucci will serve as the left-handed portion of the left field platoon, with Michaels expected to handle the right-handed side. While Michaels has 477 plate appearance against right-handers in two seasons with the Indians, his .303 on-base percentage against them is certainly less than desirable, so he is not a candidate for full-time at-bats. In right field, Gutierrez is the favorite to win the job in spring training. While Francisco will be given an opportunity to create a platoon situation, it is more likely that the left-handed hitting Choo and his .371 on-base percentage in 51 games with the Indians, will get the at-bats against righties if he returns fully healthy. While the left field situation should be made clear during spring training, it will take at least a couple of months before the issue of playing time in right field is truly settled.

Future closer: Borowski is slated to become a free agent after the 2008 season, so it's quite possible the Indians will have a new closer in 2009. Betancourt's two-year deal contains incentives for late-inning duty, so the Indians could place him in that role next season. If Borowski falters early on, Betancourt is the best bet to get the save chances. However, the team signed Kobayashi for a reason, and if Wedge prefers not to severely alter the bullpen structure, he could simply move Kobayashi from sixth- and seventh-inning duty directly into the closer's role. Kobayashi will have to show he is capable of closing things down before Wedge will make such a move, though. The only questions with Betancourt are whether he has a closer's mentality, and if he will be able to put a blown save behind him and come back strong the next day.

Backups to watch: Kelly Shoppach did a fine job when asked to spell Martinez behind the dish last season. In his brief career, Shoppach has slugged .653 versus lefties, and Wedge will continue to give Martinez a break from putting the fingers down once a week or so. If an injury were to force Shoppach into more duty, he has the full confidence of the staff, and he is a defensive upgrade from Martinez.

Fantasy stud: Sizemore's .277 average and .462 slugging in 2007 were the lowest of his three full seasons in the majors. Yet it might have been his best season in terms of balance, thanks to his improvement against left-handers. He entered last season as a .223 hitter against southpaws but finished with a higher mark against lefties (.284) than against righties (.274). His walk totals have improved each season (52 in '05, 78 in '06 and 101 in '07), which is another sign Sizemore is only getting better. Just 25 years old, Sizemore is a 30-30 threat and will continue to mature, and his best years are still to come.

Prospects to watch for 2008: With so many roles determined, there is only one prospect who is expected to debut this season, and that's right-handed pitcher Adam Miller. Miller is unquestionably the top prospect in the Indians' system, but his ascent to Cleveland has been repeatedly interrupted by injury, particularly to his elbow. An outstanding spring could land him on the Opening Day roster, possibly even out of the bullpen. That's really a best-case scenario, since Miller has to prove his elbow is sound and he is able to remain healthy. If he does that, he will be in Cleveland sooner rather than later. Just keep in mind that he has pitched as many as 135 innings only once in five minor league seasons, so the Indians will watch him very closely.

Fearless prediction: Hafner will return to his 2006 form and be in the American League MVP discussion once again. He hit .237 with 14 homers and 61 RBIs from May through August last season, but after a strong September, he looked lost at the plate in the postseason. In the ALCS, he batted .148 with 12 strikeouts in 27 at-bats. So why the bounce-back? Hafner is extremely focused on proving that the $65 million contract extension the team gave him
last year was the right move. His walk rate remained strong, and he will once again thrive hitting in front of Martinez. From 2004 through 2006, the man Clevelanders affectionately call "Pronk" batted .308 and averaged 34 homers, 111 RBIs and 97 runs. He will meet or exceed all of those figures in '08.

Keith Lipscomb is an editor for ESPN Fantasy Games.