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Tribe looks to put first half in rearview

Tribe looks to put first half in rearview

CLEVELAND -- When the Indians began the 2009 season at 0-5, it was not just a rough bump in the road but the first stretch of a long, dark highway.

Along the way, manager Eric Wedge's job security has come into question (though he and his coaching staff have been assured they're sticking around through the end of the season), Mark DeRosa has been traded and the Indians find themselves once again focusing on the future.

Pick a problem, any problem. They all added up to the Indians' inability to compete in a winnable American League Central Division this season.

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Many preseason forecasts had a Tribe club that restructured its bullpen and upgraded the upper levels of its farm system not only competing in but also winning the division. Some were even so bold as to suggest the Indians might reach the World Series.

Not even the most negative of souls figured Cleveland's only contention would be for the worst record in the AL.

But the problems for this Tribe club mounted early and often. The bullpen's performance was notoriously dismal, the starters often did not go deep into games, ace Cliff Lee got little to no run support, supposed lynchpins Fausto Carmona and Rafael Perez pitched their way into the Minors, the offense was inconsistent and injuries took their toll on Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner and Asdrubal Cabrera, among others.

As the second half dawns, the Indians are looking for any positives they can eke out of what remains of this lost season, so that the dark ride does not continue in 2010.

Club MVP: Victor Martinez returned from his injury woes of 2008 to put up an All-Star-worthy first half. His hot bat cooled considerably in June -- perhaps a result of him wearing down from playing nearly every game at catcher or first base and wearing the effects of his team's disappointments -- but his value to this club is beyond reproach. Honorable mention goes to Shin-Soo Choo, whose run-production, base-stealing and outfield assists have made him look more and more like a star in the making.

Call him "Ace": The Indians had braced themselves for the possibility (or likelihood) of Lee taking a step back after his Cy Young season of '08. But Lee has remained a rock at the top of the rotation. His record is no indication of how well he's pitched, because his supporting cast has routinely let him down. Yet Lee remains a consistent competitor who takes the ball every fifth day, does not throw his teammates under the bus and says all the right things to the press after tough losses -- and there have been many for him this season.

Greatest strength: It's hard to argue with the Tribe's overall run production this season, as the Indians rank among the most potent producers in the game. Injuries, ineffectiveness and a reliance on versatility have led to Wedge's use of a new lineup nearly every day, and that has probably lent a hand to the inconsistencies of that output. But the performances of Cabrera, Martinez and Choo, in particular, have been strong.

Biggest problem: As mentioned above, problems abound for this club. But if the bullpen had lived up to expectations -- or even been merely average -- it's possible the Indians could have stayed in contention in a weak Central division. Rafael Perez's subpar setup performance, Jensen Lewis' step back, Kerry Wood's inconsistency and the front-office's inability to find immediate help from outside the organization has made the 'pen an ongoing mess.

Biggest surprise: Again, it has to be the 'pen, simply because the Indians had made it such an offseason priority. After all the hoopla over Wood's acquisition, he barely got the ball in the first half. And when he did, he didn't always pitch like the dominant back-end arm the Indians hoped for when they promised him $20.5 million over two years.

Team needs: Pitching, pitching and more pitching. This season -- the Tribe has already used 26 pitchers -- has demonstrated that the upper levels of the farm system are desperately in need of high-impact arms for both the rotation and the 'pen. When the Indians dipped into the Minors well for help early on, it was just about dry. It certainly didn't help matters when top pitching prospect Adam Miller had season-ending, career-threatening surgery on his right middle finger.

He said it: "I absolutely want to see some development. There are some young players up here that we need to get back on track to ensure the team is in a position to do what we want to do next year." -- general manager Mark Shapiro, on what he wants to see in the second half

Mark your calendar: July 31-Aug. 2: The Indians will enshrine Sandy Alomar Jr. into their team Hall of Fame at Heritage Park during the weekend series against the Tigers. Former pitcher Wes Ferrell and former owners Bill Veeck and Dick Jacobs will be inducted posthumously; Sept. 22-30: The final homestand of 2009 features games against the Tigers and White Sox, as the Indians could have a direct say in how the final AL Central standings shake out; Oct. 1-4: The Indians wrap up the season with a four-game set in Boston's famous Fenway Park.

Fearless second-half prediction: The Indians will show modest improvement in the second half by finally getting some sense of stability from their pitchers. But if the improvement is enough to save the jobs of Wedge and his coaching staff is a big question.

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

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