The defending champion Indians figured to battle with the offensively loaded Tigers for the 2008 AL Central crown. But a rash of injuries and disappointing performances effectively ended Cleveland's season before the All-Star break.
On the plus side, Cliff Lee had a monster season, going 22-3 with a league-leading 2.54 ERA, giving himself the inside track for the AL Cy Young award. Grady Sizemore was arguably the best position player in the league, while Kelly Shoppach and Shin-Soo Choo both had breakout seasons in support roles.
Pitching, of all stripes. Even with Lee's emergence, the midseason trade of CC Sabathia left the Indians shorthanded in the rotation, with Fausto Carmona too Jekyll-and-Hyde a pitcher to be a reliable No. 2 on a championship team and the other starting pitcher options all talented youngsters with question marks. General manager Mark Shapiro might opt to let Jeremy Sowers, Anthony Reyes, Scott Lewis, Aaron Laffey and Zach Jackson battle for the bottom three jobs, with Jake Westbrook hopeful for a midseason return from Tommy John surgery. If the Indians see 2009 as more than a rebuilding year, though, an aggressive play for a legitimate No. 2 starter would make a lot of sense.
In the bullpen, nearly all the jobs are in flux. Rafael Betancourt has epitomized the unpredictability of bullpen performance over the past few years, going from scrap-heap pickup to unhittable eighth-inning force to human piñata mode in short order. The team has said it will pursue a veteran closer in the offseason, with Jensen Lewis pushed to set-up duty if the Indians find a replacement. Mercifully, the name "Joe Borowski" will never be uttered in connection with the Cleveland bullpen again, unless it's something like "the new guy's struggling, but hey, at least he's not Joe Borowski."
The Indians did a good job of cashing in on their biggest walk-year player, acquiring top slugging prospect Matt LaPorta and other goodies for Sabathia. Paul Byrd fetched only a player to be named later, while Borowski was simply released.
Shoppach's emergence leaves the Indians with two above-average hitters at catcher, opening the door for either a Shoppach trade or perhaps a more ambitious Victor Martinez deal. The Tribe also has a glut of young corner outfielders, with Choo, Ben Francisco and Franklin Gutierrez all potential trade bait for a bigger bat; one recent rumor had the Indians acquiring Mark Teahen from the Royals to play third base, and shipping back Francisco, Gutierrez or prospect Trevor Crowe in return. Ryan Garko regressed last season (.842 OPS down to just .750 in '08), leaving the incumbent first baseman on the hot seat -- especially with LaPorta and Beau Mills bashing their way through the minors.
The party line is that LaPorta, who has just half a season of Double-A experience under his belt, will spend most of 2009 plying his trade in the minors. Don't count on it. With the Indians looking for a big bat and LaPorta a legitimate 30-homer threat, a Ryan Braun-style May promotion can't be ruled out. The higher levels of the farm system are thin, with injuries forcing former top pitching prospect Adam Miller to the bullpen and lefty Chuck Lofgren now looking like a long shot to be a viable major league starter. Third base remains an organizational weak spot, with most of Andy Marte's prospect sheen now rubbed off and Wes Hodges posting decent but not great numbers in Double-A in '08.
With Travis Hafner and Martinez expected back and healthy next season, the Indians would seem likely to recapture some of their 2007 success. But Hafner's bat was in severe decline even before the injury bug hit, and young starters Garko, Marte and Asdrubal Cabrera did little to impress in '08, leaving half the lineup in doubt.
There's talent in the rotation, but given typical attrition rates for pitchers, the Indians should probably count themselves lucky if even one of their young arms establishes himself as a reliable starter behind Lee and Carmona.
The Indians ranked 15th in team payroll in 2008 at just under $79 million, a number that figures to come down as the team regroups and assesses its young talent. In a division that lacks a dominant team, a youth movement might still produce an 80-something-win contender in Cleveland next season.