CLEVELAND -- Plenty has been written to describe the Indians' 2008 season. In his annual postseason session with reporters, general manager Mark Shapiro did his best to describe it in a single statement. "To characterize the season as anything other than disappointing would be disingenuous," Shapiro said. "To talk to you guys in an empty ballpark, while other teams are still playing, with the expectations we had coming into the year, is disappointing."
With the disappointment still fresh, Shapiro and his front-office staff are about to embark on an offseason that they hope will get their contention plans back on track after an 81-81 campaign. "We need to go out and be relentless," Shapiro said. "We need to execute an offseason plan that acknowledges that we have areas to improve. We cannot, and will not, be complacent. We acknowledge we have spots where we can be better." It has long been known and reported that two of those spots are the infield, where Andy Marte did not make good on the notion that he could be this club's third baseman of the future, and the bullpen, where the Indians hope to add a closer. But Shapiro also pointed to the starting rotation as an area of concern going forward. It's a given that 22-game winner Cliff Lee will anchor the rotation. Beyond Lee, though, plenty of questions arise. Can Fausto Carmona get back the control that helped make him a 19-game winner in 2007? Will Jake Westbrook's rehab from Tommy John elbow surgery on his right elbow go smoothly enough for him to rejoin the rotation in June or July? Were the five strong starts put up by Anthony Reyes in August worth believing in, and can he recover completely from an elbow strain? Can Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey overcome their inconsistency? Was what Scott Lewis accomplished in September real? And can prospect Dave Huff bring his dominance of Minor League competition to the Major League level? These are all questions Shapiro can't answer yet. "We have a lot of alternatives," Shapiro said. "I'd feel better if we had one more experienced top-of-the-rotation guy. The area I feel least comfortable with in our organization is our upper-level starting pitching." Of course, finding a top-of-the-rotation starter is easier said than done, and it's doubtful that's a need the Indians will be able to satisfy. A back-end starter, such as veteran Paul Byrd, is much easier (and cheaper) to find, but Shapiro indicated he'd rather roll with his in-house options than go that route. "I don't see us allocating a lot of dollars to a fifth starter," Shapiro said. "Our goal would be to acquire a guy who would pitch in the first three games of a playoff series. Our hope is that guy would be Jake Westbrook, who would be coming back in June or July if he doesn't have any setbacks." As far as the bullpen is concerned, Shapiro was quick to point out that only two legitimate closers -- Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Fuentes, both of whom will command big money and long-term commitments -- will be on the free-agent market this winter. For that reason, the Indians will have to explore the trade market or stick with youngster Jensen Lewis, who took over the ninth-inning role in August and saved each of his last 13 opportunities. Shapiro said he doesn't plan to invest heavily in the construction of the bullpen, but he plans to invest wisely. "We need to do a better job building a bullpen as a front office," he said. "The last few years, when we've been bad, we've been terrible. We need to narrow those ranges we've been living in -- extreme ups and extreme downs." As far as the infield is concerned, the Indians appear willing to consider moving shortstop Jhonny Peralta to third base, because second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera's natural position is short. That perceived flexibility prevents the Indians from being handcuffed into finding a third baseman. They can also look for a second baseman. "What we won't do," Shapiro said, "is add an inferior player because he fits a position. We'll look to have the best team we can have. If that involves moving a player, we'll address it with the player first and feel confident he can do it, then we'll address it publicly." The free-agent waters, as usual, will be difficult to navigate for an Indians team with a mid-market budget. Shapiro was asked if that will make him lean more heavily toward trades. "To me, costs are costs, whether it's young players or dollars," he said. "Every one of those young players has a dollar value that exceeds what you give up in free agency or at least comes close to meeting it. I wouldn't want to characterize [the offseason strategy] as limiting free-agent expenditures and focusing on trades. We'll look at both. We'll look at the impact those players make, as well as the value that we apply to them and the costs associated with them."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.