Tribe has stronger 'pen heading into '09

Tribe has stronger 'pen heading into '09

CLEVELAND -- It's an odd trend, but odd years tend to favor the Indians.

In 2005, the club surged in the second half and came within a whiff of the postseason. In 2007, the Tribe tied for the best regular-season record in baseball and came within a game of the World Series.

The 2006 season that came between those two years was a tremendous disappointment, and the same can be said of '08.

So while it might be completely unscientific, it is at least worth noting that the Indians appear due for a little magic in 2009.

Now, it doesn't take a sabermetrician to notice that the success (or lack thereof) of the bullpen in the aforementioned years had a direct impact on the season's outcome. And with that notion in mind, the Indians made the bullpen their chief offseason priority as they look ahead to '09.

Their first order of business this winter was to find a legitimate closer, and they did so by signing Kerry Wood to a two-year contract worth $20.5 million. The thinking is that a strong presence like Wood in the back end will have a stabilizing effect on the rest of the 'pen, which will also now include the newly acquired Joe Smith.

"I think we've got the pieces to put together what could be a very good bullpen," general manager Mark Shapiro said.

Of course, it takes more than just a good 'pen to have a good team. And no offseason acquisition will have a greater impact than the one a healthy and productive Travis Hafner could have on the middle of the order.

Hafner had shoulder surgery at the end of the 2008 season, and he has been working out regularly in Cleveland this winter to reshape his body and, he hopes, reignite his career. Pronk's subpar '07 season and his injury-plagued '08 have made him a legitimate concern to an Indians team paying him $49 million over the next four years.

"We need him in the middle of the lineup," manager Eric Wedge said. "I'm confident that he's going to be a productive guy for us. He's dedicated; he's putting the time into [the rehab]. I think he's in a good spot mentally, and that's important, too, as much time as he's missed and some of the things that he's gone through over the last couple years."

Other question marks are in the starting rotation.

American League Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee will anchor the rotation, but the questions follow from there. Will Fausto Carmona return to his '07 form? Will Anthony Reyes recover from the elbow problem that prematurely ended his '08? Will Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers find consistent success in the big leagues? Are Zach Jackson and Scott Lewis prepared to contribute on a full-time basis? And is prospect Dave Huff ready for prime time?

 Season in Preview
A lot can change by Opening Day, but as 2008 becomes 2009, this is who is projected to take the field for the Indians:
  CFGrady Sizemore
  3BMark DeRosa
  RFShin-Soo Choo
  SSJhonny Peralta
  1BVictor Martinez
  DHTravis Hafner
  CKelly Shoppach
  LFBen Francisco
  2BAsdrubal Cabrera
  SPCliff Lee
  SPFausto Carmona
  SPAaron Laffey
  SPAnthony Reyes
  SPJeremy Sowers
  CLKerry Wood
Schedules: Spring | Regular season
Tickets: Spring | Regular season
More previews:

The Indians will continue to look for another option to add to the starting mix, but, given the limited remaining financial resources, it appears the Tribe will have to go with the names mentioned above, knowing Jake Westbrook could be recovered from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery by the second half.

Question marks in the infield have been answered by the acquisition of Mark DeRosa from the Cubs, who not only adds versatility but also a run-producing bat to the mix, and prospect Luis Valbuena, who adds depth up the middle. DeRosa will take over at third base, allowing Jhonny Peralta and Asdrubal Cabrera to stay put at shortstop and second base, respectively.

With those pieces in place, the Indians, in six short weeks, will head to their first Spring Training camp in Goodyear, Ariz., looking to make some noise in an odd year.

Grading on a curve: The curve in question here is the limited financial resources the Indians' front office has to work with this winter. The Wood deal ate up the vast majority of the Tribe's offseason spending, but it also authoritatively addressed a pressing need. The Valbuena and Smith acquisitions addressed two areas of concern while dealing from a position of depth (outfielder Franklin Gutierrez). The DeRosa deal involved no proven Major League talent, and the $5.5 million he'll make in '09 is affordable. It has been a relentless offseason, as promised, and it earns Shapiro and company an "A" here.

Arrivals: RHP Wood, 3B DeRosa, RHP Smith, INF Valbuena and RHP Tomo Ohka.

Departures: OF Gutierrez, RHPs Tom Mastny, Brendan Donnelly, Juan Rincon, Scott Elarton, Jeff Stevens, Chris Archer, Bryan Bullington, Brian Slocum, LHP John Gaub and C Sal Fasano.

The Road Ahead: The Indians will search the discount bin for a starting pitcher to round out the rotation. But if they're going to add a player, they might have to remove payroll elsewhere.

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