This is a team just as intrigued by the depth options it has at Triple-A Columbus as it is about many of the available options on the Major League roster. It is a team loaded with versatility, but also question marks. And it's a team playing in an American League Central Division that -- on paper, anyway -- appears to be up for grabs.Fans, then, have no choice but to sit back and watch it all unfold. Because while the 2009 season comes with no guarantee of the Indians reclaiming the Central crown they captured in 2007, it's certainly bound to have plenty of intrigue. "I feel best about our team's chances, but it's a wide-open division," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "That's why you're anxious to get out and play games that count and find out." The first game that counts comes Monday in Arlington, as the Indians open on the road against the Rangers. On the mound will be reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee. Following him on Wednesday will be former 19-game winner Fausto Carmona, who had a strong spring camp. And if those two games go the way the Indians intend them to, Kerry Wood will be coming on in the ninth to shut the door on the Rangers. Throw in a lineup featuring 30-30 man Grady Sizemore, the return of a healthy Martinez, who missed 2 1/2 months of '08 after elbow surgery, the addition of the versatile Mark DeRosa, and the first full season out of right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, who had a 1.038 second-half OPS last year, and the Indians have a formula that they believe adds up to contention. "Offensively, I feel like we're strong," DeRosa said. "We've got two horses at the front of the rotation and a monster closing the door. We have all the pieces. It's just a matter of going out there and executing, playing good defense and getting some pitching." It all sounds so easy this time of year. Now we'll see if the pieces come together.
Projected starting lineup
|1. CF Grady Sizemore|
|2. 3B Mark DeRosa|
|3. 1B Victor Martinez|
|4. DH Travis Hafner|
|5. SS Jhonny Peralta|
|6. RF Shin-Soo Choo|
|7. C Kelly Shoppach|
|8. LF Ben Francisco|
|9. 2B Asdrubal Cabrera|
|1. LHP Cliff Lee|
|2. RHP Fausto Carmona|
|3. RHP Carl Pavano|
|4. LHP Scott Lewis|
|5. RHP Anthony Reyes|
|Closer: RHP Kerry Wood|
|Setup: RHP Jensen Lewis|
|Setup: LHP Rafael Perez|
|Middle: RHP Joe Smith|
|Middle: RHP Rafael Betancourt|
|Middle: RHP Masa Kobayashi|
|Middle: LHP Zach Jackson|
Under manager Eric Wedge, the Indians have tried to establish a "one through nine" mentality in the lineup, and this is, indeed, a deep and versatile collection. DeRosa in the No. 2 spot adds a nice complement to leadoff man Sizemore, and Choo and Jhonny Peralta proved last season that they can take some of the pressure off Hafner and Martinez in the middle. Kelly Shoppach and/or Garko have the ability to provide run production from the lower-third of the order.
It's a redundant theme, but the weakness of this club is its rotation. Lee returns as the ace, but no one is expecting him to go 22-3 again. Following from there, Carmona walked more batters than he struck out last season, Pavano is a mystery man, Scott Lewis still has a lot to prove, and Anthony Reyes' elbow condition will have to be monitored all year. Young left-handers David Huff, Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers will be waiting in the wings.
You'll know they're rollin' if...
Lee picks up where he left off, Carmona finds his '07 form, Hafner gets back to being a consistent run-producer and the retooled bullpen gels.
You'll know they're in trouble if...
The rotation struggles to the point where Jake Westbrook, due back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery by the All-Star break, is needed as a savior. And if Wood's body betrays him, as it has all too often in his career, that could be a crushing blow.
The Indians have an off-day the day after the season opener. From that point, they'll play 21 games in 22 days, including nine games against division opponents Kansas City (April 13-15 and 21-23) and Minnesota (April 24-26). It will be an important early period for Wedge to settle roles in the bullpen and for the rotation to reveal its identity.
The Tribe will tangle with NL Central foes this season, and that makes for some short road trips. Highlighting the Interleague schedule is a June 19-21 trip to Wrigley Field, where the Indians haven't played since 1998. Wood and DeRosa will run into their former club. Also on the Interleague slate is the usual home-and-home series with the Reds (May 22-24 in Cincinnati; June 26-28 in Cleveland), a weekend home set with the Cardinals (June 12-14) and a visit to Pittsburgh's PNC Park (June 23-25).
The Bottom Line
On the one hand, a lot has to go right for the Indians to return to their 90-plus winning ways of '05 and '07. On the other hand, the Tribe has possible contingency plans down on the farm for a lot of things that could go wrong. This depth, partnered with the parity of the division, should allow the Indians to stay alive in the division race.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.