In 2011, Cleveland fully expects to pick up where it left off at the end of last season. Overcome by injuries and forced to utilize the youngest roster in baseball, the Indians finished their 93-loss showing with a solid second half. The club now has players who have more experience and a handful of stars expected to return from health issues.
Those are reasons for hope for a team that is fighting an uphill battle economically at the moment. The Indians finished last in attendance in baseball in 2010 and scaled back their payroll again this winter. It is all part of the rebuilding process, but the club firmly believes it has the pieces in place to perform better than outside expectations.
This will be a season for assessing the internal options in place, a time to watch the young players grow together on the field. Growing pains are to be expected, but there is always the possibility of a surprise showing. With that in mind, here is a look at 10 key questions facing the Indians in the coming campaign.
1. What impact will Chris Antonetti have in his first year as general manager?
Unfortunately, Antonetti has assumed the GM role at a time when the Indians are limited in what they can do financially. His first offseason at the helm has been quiet as he has been forced to work within the constraints of a reduced payroll. It will be easier to evaluate Antonetti's progress as the general manager after he has more flexibility to make the moves he wants. It will take time to have a sense of what kind of impact Antonetti will have on the Indians organization in his new role.
2. Will center fielder Grady Sizemore be ready in time for Opening Day?
One thing is for certain, the Indians are not going to rush Sizemore's recovery from microfracture surgery on his left knee. The Tribe will take a conservative approach with Sizemore this spring with the hope that he will indeed be ready for Opening Day. If he faces any type of setback, you can bet that Cleveland will move forward with a contingency plan for the start of the season. It's more important to have Sizemore completely healthy than to have him in the lineup for the first of a 162-game slate.
3. Can the rotation build on the success it had in the second half last season?
The rotation will play a large role in whether the Indians can improve on last year's overall performance. The Tribe believes the young starters have solid potential, especially after the pitching staff as a whole put up the fourth-best ERA (3.89) in the American League during the second half. In the upcoming season, the Indians will get to see what they have in Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco. Both have shown their ability in flashes, but full campaigns in the rotation from the righties will help determine the status of the staff.
4. Will the bullpen serve as a strength for the Indians?
Cleveland thought its bullpen would be a source of stability heading into last season, but the group faltered early on. When it was all said and done, though, a relief corps anchored by closer Chris Perez ended the year on an extremely high note. The Tribe's bullpen posted a 2.95 ERA in the season's second half, providing hope for the campaign ahead. Like the rotation, the bullpen will be young, so there are sure to be bumps along the way. That said, the Indians are hopeful that the 'pen will be solid.
5. Can the Tribe expect to see an improved offense this year?
If the Indians can avoid excessive use of the trainer's room, the offense should be much better than it was in 2010. As things currently stand, the Tribe expects to have both Sizemore and catcher Carlos Santana back from their respective knee injuries and in the lineup for Opening Day. That would act like two marquee acquisitions. The Indians do not, however, have the experienced depth or necessary resources to withstand another widespread wave of injury woes. With health will come improved production.
6. Will the Indians sign outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to a long-term deal?
It seems unlikely to happen before Opening Day and the Indians would probably prefer to avoid such negotiations during the season. If Cleveland does convince Choo to sign a deal that would keep him in the fold beyond 2013 (his final season before free-agent eligibility), it will likely happen in one of the next two offseasons. Choo's agent, Scott Boras, is known for taking his star clients into free agency to seek lucrative contracts. Before Choo can reach that point, the Indians plan on doing everything they can to hopefully persuade him to sign a long-term deal.
7. Will first baseman Matt LaPorta have a breakout season?
A major part of the trade that sent CC Sabathia to the Brewers in July 2008, LaPorta has not lived up to the hype that followed him up through the Minor Leagues. The Indians hope that '11 will be the year that LaPorta puts it all together, giving the club the power-hitting righty it needs in the lineup. That could certainly happen. But, if LaPorta struggles again, Cleveland might be forced to begin reconsidering its long-term plan for first base. A breakout season for LaPorta would be great for the club, and for him.
8. Will the Indians find some stability around the infield?
The Tribe currently has a handful of unanswered questions at second and third base. Even shortstop is no sure thing with Asdrubal Cabrera's recent history of injury. Spring Training will include competitions for both the second- and third-base roles, with Jason Donald and Jayson Nix, respectively, seemingly the current front-runners. Donald is coming off an inconsistent rookie campaign and Nix has had his issues defensively at the hot corner. Cleveland will head into spring with a handful of players in the mix for the jobs at second and third and the team is hoping to have a couple players seize the opportunity.
9. Which prospect will have the biggest impact this season?
Given the current questions surrounding the infield, this is as good a chance as any for second-base prospect Jason Kipnis to force the Indians' hand. The Tribe feels Kipnis' bat is nearly big league ready and he's shown tremendous progress at second base since moving from the outfield. Kipnis will likely open the season with Triple-A Columbus, but he'll do all he can to head north with the Tribe in Spring Training. Cord Phelps will try to do the same at third base. Also Keep an eye on pitching prospect Alex White and third-base prospect Lonnie Chisenhall as the season progresses.
10. Can the Indians be a surprise contender in the AL Central?
Indians manager Manny Acta likes to point to the 2010 San Diego Padres as an example of a team that was not expected to do much of anything, but nearly made the playoffs despite operating on a small payroll. Acta believes the Indians could surprise people and make a similar push in the AL Central. Considering the Tribe's roster is so young and the team has lost 190 games combined over the past two years, such a run seems highly unlikely. There is certainly talent within the young cast, but the Indians are in the midst of a rebuild and, while the city has not celebrated a World Series since 1948, Cleveland fans will need to remain patient.