One of the stories that got somewhat lost in the 2008 season was the strong finish of the Cleveland Indians. The Indians went 44-28 after July 9, the second-best record in the American League during that stretch. They finished with 81 wins -- one fewer than the Diamondbacks -- and finished seven games out of first place in the American League Central, closer than the Yankees or Brewers finished in their divisions.
Granted, a terrible May and June effectively ended the season early for the Indians, who had come within one victory of the World Series in 2007. And, yes, it can be misleading to judge a team that got hot when the games didn't mean as much. "But it was very important for our organization," said Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. "The players knew they were capable of winning even without a great pitcher and great team leader like CC [Sabathia]. It gave credibility for our fan base. The second half was meaningful for our club."
The winter has also been meaningful. The Indians had to upgrade their bullpen after it posted a 5.13 ERA in 2008, second worst in the major leagues -- better only than the 5.15 ERA posted by the Rangers' pen. And Cleveland did upgrade its bullpen by signing free-agent closer Kerry Wood to a two-year, $20.5 million deal.
"He transcends our prior experiences at closer since I've been here," Shapiro said. "We've had capable guys at the end of games, but they got by on toughness, and playing the odds. Now we have a strikeout guy, with a fear factor. And we have support for him."
The Indians also acquired reliever Joe Smith, a sidearmer against whom right-handed hitters batted .192 last season, from the Mets. He joins Rafael Perez (one of the top eighth-inning pitchers in the game), Jensen Lewis (13-for-13 in save opportunities in '08) and Rafael Betancourt, who went from being a premier set-up guy in 2007 to wildly ineffective in 2008. The Indians have yet another option after the emergence of one of their top pitching prospects, right-hander Adam Miller, in winter ball and the instructional league.
"I saw him in the Dominican," one scout said of Miller. "He threw 97 [mph] with a great slider. They could use him at the end of the game."
The beginning of the game -- the starting rotation -- "is not where I want it to be," Shapiro said. He has 2008 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee at the top, followed by Fausto Carmona, whose victory total dropped from 19 in 2007 to eight in 2008, and his ERA ballooned from 3.06 in '07 to 5.45 in '08. But, according to Shapiro, Carmona is healthy and has fixed some of his mechanical flaws while pitching in winter ball in the Dominican Republic.
That leaves the rest of the rotation to be formed by some combination of Anthony Reyes ("he exceeded expectations after we got him from St. Louis," said Shapiro), Aaron Laffey, Zach Jackson, Scott Lewis, David Huff and Jeremy Sowers. Plus, Jake Westbrook is expected to be healthy and back in the major leagues by mid-July.
"We will have to mix and match there," Shapiro said of the Indians' rotation.
The Indians spent last season mixing and matching their lineup, given significant injuries to DH Travis Hafner and catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez. But even with those two driving in a total of only 59 runs, the Indians scored 805 runs -- seventh most in the major leagues.
Shapiro said Martinez and Hafner are healthy and ready to go, which creates an issue when it comes to playing time at first base and behind the plate. With Martinez hurt, Kelly Shoppach got a chance to catch every day, and responded by hitting 21 homers and slugging .517 in 352 at-bats.
"He has earned every opportunity to play more," said Shapiro of Shoppach.
So, manager Eric Wedge will mix and match behind the plate and at first base with Martinez, Shoppach and Ryan Garko, who, after a slow start, finished the season with 90 RBIs.
"With Vic and Haf," said Shapiro, "we hope to return to the elite level of run production."
The rest of the infield isn't clear. The Indians missed out on signing free-agent third baseman Casey Blake, who signed a three-year deal with the Dodgers instead. So, for now, shortstop Jhonny Peralta will play third, where he played almost exclusively in winter ball in the Dominican Republic. Asdrubal Cabrera will move from second base to shortstop, and second base will be handled by some combination of Josh Barfield, Jamey Carroll and rookie Luis Valbuena.
There is still a lot of work to do, "but the winter isn't over yet," Shapiro said. The Indians are looking for another starting pitcher to follow Lee and Carmona. They are looking for the best infielder available, be it a third baseman, shortstop or second baseman -- and who they acquire will determine where Peralta and Cabrera play. Count on the Indians signing or trading for someone else, but it won't be a major move because they don't have very much more money to spend.
They spent most of their money on Wood. But if he can be the healthy closer he was in Chicago all last year (the last pitch he threw was clocked at 97 mph), Carmona has a bounce-back season, they find another infielder and another starting pitcher, corner outfielders Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo continue to progress and Martinez and Hafner produce like they're supposed to, that hot finish by the Indians last season could be followed by a hot start in 2009.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback on May 27. Click here to order a copy.