Indians Opening Day outlook

Indians Opening Day outlook

The temptation to think ahead is natural.

After all, the Indians did come within a whisker of the World Series last fall, and they have all the key pieces coming back from the '07 club that won the American League Central Division by eight games.

Given this precedent, it would be easy for the Indians to enter April with thoughts of October.

But the goal of '08, as always, is to focus on the more immediate demands of the regular season and, in particular, what should be a very difficult division.

Manager Eric Wedge has stressed all spring the importance of not getting caught up in the good and the bad of the way last season ended and to place all focus on the task ahead. The players, unsurprisingly, have bought into that concept.

"Everybody's on the same page, everybody plays the game hard, and we have the same goals," designated hitter Travis Hafner said. "It makes it that much easier to go out and play when everybody's goals are the same. When you put on a Cleveland Indians uniform, you know what's expected of you from fans, from teammates, from everybody."

What's expected this year is a dogfight with the Tigers for AL Central superiority. An improved performance from Hafner, in particular, could go a long way toward the Indians winning that fight.

If all goes to plan, the Indians could get a chance to take care of the unfinished business they left behind in the AL Championship Series last year.

"We had a taste of the playoffs," third baseman Casey Blake said. "Our goal is to get back to it again. This is a new year, a new season, and we just know we've got to take care of our own backyard. The rest will fall into place."

Calling card
Unlike the Tribe's playoff teams in the 1990s, this club is built on a deep and potent pitching staff, not a juggernaut offense. With two 19-game winners (C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona) fronting the rotation and everybody back from one of the big leagues' best bullpens in '07, the Indians are difficult to match up with.

Projected starting lineup
1. CF Grady Sizemore
2. 2B Asdrubal Cabrera
3. DH Travis Hafner
4. C Victor Martinez
5. SS Jhonny Peralta
6. 1B Ryan Garko
7. LF David Dellucci
8. RF Franklin Gutierrez
9. 3B Casey Blake
Projected rotation
1. LHP C.C. Sabathia
2. RHP Fausto Carmona
3. RHP Jake Westbrook
4. RHP Paul Byrd
5. LHP Cliff Lee
Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Joe Borowski
Setup: RHP Rafael Betancourt
Setup: LHP Rafael Perez
Middle: RHP Masa Kobayashi
Middle: RHP Jensen Lewis
Middle: LHP Craig Breslow
Achilles' Heel
Dellucci

The left-field platoon of David Dellucci and Jason Michaels was good for a combined .254 average, 11 homers and 59 RBIs last season, with Dellucci missing most of the year with a torn left hamstring. Combine that with the youth of Franklin Gutierrez, entering his first full season, in right, and the production from the corner-outfield spots is a potential concern.

You'll know they're rollin' if...
Hafner is back to his '06 form, driving the ball with consistency and changing the complexion of the middle of the order. And if the bullpen, which has unraveled some seasons past, is gelling as well as it did last year, with Joe Borowski closing the door in the ninth, all should be well for this team.

You'll know they're in trouble if...

Hafner

Sabathia, Carmona and setup man Rafael Betancourt show signs of fatigue from their career-high innings totals of '07, Pronk continues to get flustered by the infield shift and Victor Martinez can't carry the lineup on his own.

Testing, testing
Pay particular attention to what transpires in consecutive two-game series against the Red Sox and Tigers at Progressive Field on April 14-17. If an early season litmus test exists, this toe-warmer with two of the AL's elite clubs is it.

Interleague Play
In addition to the usual Showdown of Ohio against the Reds, the Indians will face foes from the National League West this season. That includes a June trip to Colorado -- the trip the Indians had hoped to make last October -- as well as games against the Dodgers, Padres and Giants. In 2005, an 11-1 record against the NL West helped vault the Tribe into playoff contention, but the division has certainly improved since then.

The Bottom Line
The Tigers made the splashier headlines this offseason, no doubt, but the Indians' depth of talent, particularly in the pitching department, can't be overlooked.

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