All right, so I'm full of crap. My self-imposed exile from baseball hasn't been much of an exile at all. I still check the scores, know the stats, read the articles, even listen to an inning or two here and there. Oh, I'm still mad, mind you, mad as hell. I'm mad about steroids, mad about the balance of power, but in the wake of all my fist shaking and tsk-tsking, I still love my Indians, and I wanna talk about about next season for a minute without spewing too much invective.
I have no idea how the Tribe's rotation or bullpen is going to shape up next season. Combine the worst salary structure in all of professional sports and owner Larry Dolan's miserly ways and you end up being a tad short on consecutive Cy Young award winning pitchers. However, as the season progresses and certain players begin to distinguish themselves, it becomes increasingly easy to determine who should comprise the everyday lineup for 2010. Assuming that the bullpen will as usual implode the season by late April, here's what makes up a pretty intriguing batting brigade for another likely 70-80 win season.
1) CF Grady Sizemore - The lone superstar on the team is destined for another city by the time his contract ends. His elbow troubles were part of what ruined that many experts predicted would end with a world series ring. After off-season surgery, expect Grady to come back hungry and ready to have the type of year that has made him one of the best all-around players in the AL. He has been the leadoff hitter for the past 5 seasons. A drop in the order may be imminent.
2) SS Asdrubal Cabrera - Probably the Tribe's MVP of the 2009 season, Asdrubal has been the team's best hitter and best fielder all year long. A genuine star in the making, he will be the shortstop until the Indians can no longer afford him. By the time he reaches his prime, the Yankees will be awarded with a seasoned and top shelf replacement for Jeter.
3) LF Shin-Soo Choo - No more questions about whether this guy can play. Choo is a line drive machine at the plate, fully capable of clearing the fences but smart enough to shorten his swing with two strikes. He also is a gem in the field and possesses far and away the best outfield arm on the team. How about baserunning? 18 steals in 20 attempts. Choo excels in every area and should be a fixture in the outfield for the foreseeable future. The best thing? Choo is still getting better. Could be an all-star one day.
4) 3B Jhonny Peralta - The perpetually undervalued member of the Indians lineup is good for .280/20/80 every single year. You don't just toss something like that away, yet his critics always seem ready to do so. Sure he radiates all the electricity of a bowl of oatmeal, but he's dependable in the field and more than competent at the plate and, at 28, he is an affordable and reliable veteran presence among a gaggle of rookies.
5) DH Travis Hafner - Hafner has been bad for two and a half seasons. I'm not sure what that indicates, whether he's off the juice and we're seeing the real Hafner, or if his shoulder has indeed been that messed up. Either way, it does not bode well. Healthy, the guy is simply one of the scariest hitters in the AL. That guy, the one who finished third in MVP voting in '06, has been largely MIA since 2007. If a major rebound to form to the tune of .300-30-100 doesn't happen next season, it may be time to close the books on what should have been a magnificent career.
6) C Kelly Shoppach - As a hitter, Shoppach is all raw power, a strikeout artist that makes enough contact that 20+ homeruns are a realistic yearly output. He is also steady behind the plate, and, when on his game, has a nice arm vs. would-be base stealers. However, as a starter he is merely keeping it warm for Carlos Santana, who will most likely have his first cup of coffee in September 2010. In the meantime, Shoppach is adequate.
7) RF Matt LaPorta - The brief glimpse we have had of LaPorta has been fairly impressive, and, given his accomplishments in the minors, I see no reason not to throw him out there in 2010. Let him get 500 ABs in the bigs and see if he was worth the price of C.C. Sabathia. If LaPorta's potential as a middle of the order power hitter does not come true, it could mean GM Mark Shapiro's head.
8) 1B Andy Marte - A third baseman by trade, Marte is finally beginning to assert himself at the big league level since his most recent call up from the minors. I (and everyone else except himself apparently) wrote this guy off long ago, mostly due to his .219 batting average over 4 seasons. To me he had what appeared to be a long, loopy, uncontrolled swing that most often resulted in weak grounders to the shortstop. However, after a year of sustained play during which he completely tore apart AAA pitching, perhaps he has figured it out. Lately his swing looks under control, shorter, and, most shockingly, clutch. The recently jettisoned Ryan Garko opened up room at first base. Let's have Marte plug the hole for a season and see why scouts were once so high on him. If Marte doesn't work out, and odds are he won't, prized prospect Jordan Brown is waiting in the minors.
9) 2B Luis Valbuena - Ideally, Josh Barfield would fill this spot, but since his arrival in 2007, Barfield has displayed little aside from the inability to hit the ball out of the infield or ever get on base. Valbuena, on the other hand, has shown a decided knack for hitting for extra bases. His glove is marginal, but he has exhibited enough prowess with the bat to justify letting him man second base next season while providing some pop at the bottom of the order. He's only 23, so perhaps there is room to improve on that .240 batting average, too.
UT Jamey Carroll - This is what you want in a utility player--versatility in the field and competence at the plate. That's Carroll, who has been nothing but consistent in a backup role. He will not hit for power, but he's a nice contact hitter who seems to excel in situational at bats. He could form one half of a very productive platoon, should Valbuena prove incapable against left-handed pitchers.
Is this the lineup of a playoff-bound team? Probably not. And even if it is, I doubt there is enough firepower to compensate for the annual bullpen flameout that has been the signature of the Shapiro/Wedge era. Still, I like what I've seen since the all-star break, and hope to see more of the same next season.