Indians Opening Day outlook

Indians Opening Day outlook

The Indians came into Spring Training camp with a very small agenda.

Yes, the club did have to identify the last arm that would fill its bullpen, the catcher who would back up Victor Martinez and the utility man who would round out its infield.

But for a team that had position battles at nearly every spot in the lineup just a few short years ago, those were trifling matters.

The Tribe comes into 2006 hungry to make the leap from late-season contention to actual playoff participation. It's a leap the team hopes will come from the experience the young core of the lineup gained a season ago, the influx of newcomers such as Paul Byrd, Jason Johnson, Guillermo Mota and Jason Michaels, and the depth the organization has down on the farm, if a need arises.

With Opening Day right around the corner, this is the outlook for the Indians this season:

BATTING ORDER
1. Grady Sizemore, CF:
Sizemore quickly established himself as a reliable leadoff man in his first full season last year. The popular center fielder needs to keep up his strong work ethic and be an anchor to this lineup of fellow youngsters.

2. Jason Michaels, LF:
In his first full season as an everyday player, Michaels will be counted on to improve the offense's performance against left-handers and its situational hitting in general.

3. Jhonny Peralta, SS:
Recently signed to a long-term contract, Peralta needs to continue to hone his defensive skills after notching 19 errors in '05. At the plate, he has power and run-producing assets rare among players at his position.

4. Travis Hafner, DH:
The Indians hope to use Hafner at first base between 20 and 30 times this season. With last year's concussion behind him, he could improve upon his .305 average, 33 homers and 108 RBIs, scary as that sounds.

5. Victor Martinez, C:
Martinez caught 142 games behind the plate last year, so the Indians will look to spell him a bit more this season, giving him the occasional start at DH or even first base. He needs to pick up where he left off with a .380 average in the second half of '05.

6. Ronnie Belliard, 2B:
The underrated Belliard had season highs in homers (17) and RBIs (78) last season, and he hit a respectable .284. The Indians would take those numbers again in a heartbeat.

7. Ben Broussard, 1B:
Broussard was remarkably inconsistent at the plate last season. He had a pair of two-homer games and his 19 homers were a career-high. But he hit over .260 in only two months of the season. Simply put, he needs to be more reliable at the plate.

8. Aaron Boone, 3B:
Now that he has a full season under his belt after his knee injury in '04, Boone can't afford to get off to the slow start he endured in '05. He needs to be the hitter that batted .276 in the second half.

9. Casey Blake, RF:
The Indians liked that Blake put up 56 extra-base hits last season. But he needs to improve upon his overall average (.241 in '05) and his average with runners in scoring position (.171).

ROTATION
1. C.C. Sabathia, LHP:
Now is the time for Sabathia to truly live up to his "ace" tag. He was as good as it gets in the last two months of '05, going 9-1 with a 2.24 ERA.

2. Jake Westbrook, RHP:
The fact that he went 15-15 shows how inconsistent Westbrook was in '05. He needs to have regular control of his sinker to get quick outs and be as effective as he was in '04.

3. Cliff Lee, LHP:
Lee's breakout '05 season saw him finish in fourth place in AL Cy Young voting. If he takes his approach from that campaign into '06, he should continue to be effective on the mound.

4. Paul Byrd, RHP:
A veteran with playoff success -- against the White Sox, no less -- under his belt, Byrd will be counted on to provide leadership similar to what Kevin Millwood gave the club last season.

5. Jason Johnson, RHP:
Johnson is a proven innings-eater who racks up quality starts by the bundle. But he's never been on a winning team, and his career record [52-86] shows it. The Indians hope their success will rub off on him.

BULLPEN
The effectiveness of the bullpen will hinge on whether Bob Wickman can continue his strong performance from '05, during which he notched 45 saves, which tied for the AL lead. The Indians have concerns about how long Wickman's 37-year-old arm will hold out, but they can't argue with last year's results. The team is going to be equally careful with right-handed setup man Guillermo Mota. Though he's long been one of the better setup men in the game, Mota suffered from elbow and shoulder injuries last year with the Marlins. Right-hander Rafael Betancourt could also pitch in the eighth, and 24-year-old Fernando Cabrera is not far behind. Scott Sauerbeck is the only left-hander in the mix, and he'll be used as a situational reliever. Right-hander Matt Miller is a question mark after last year's elbow problems.

OPENING DELAYED
The Indians were knocking on wood as camp drew to a close, because they had no major injuries to report.

BURNING QUESTION
Can the Indians make the jump from near-contenders to playoff participants and can they get off to a better April start? The two questions are very much interrelated. Last year's 9-14 April mark really came back to bite the club at season's end. A slow start to the season dictated the need for a second-half surge that sapped the energy from the lineup in the last week of the season, and the results were disappointing. On paper, the club hasn't done much to improve from '05, but, then again, not much improvement was needed. The young core of the lineup and rotation remains, and the Indians are banking on the notion that last year's near-miss experiences will only serve to make the team better.

ON THE RECORD
"We're sitting here right now better than last year, from the intangible standpoint and the tangibles. The guys have a better understanding of themselves and what they're capable of and an understanding of what we're trying to do here" -- Indians manager Eric Wedge

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.