AL Central: Cleveland

Many analysts are predicting that the AL Central will produce four 90-win teams this year. That's a tall order with the current unbalanced schedules, especially when the team that added the most talent in the off season is the one that is not projected to finish with 90 wins or more (the Royals). I highly doubt that the division will produce four 90-win teams. But to demonstrate this, we'll have to  look at each team in isolation.

This diary will examine the Cleveland Indians' chances of adding at least 12 wins to their bottom line in order to accomplish the 90-win milestone.

I start with the Indians because it seems the longest shot not only to add 12 wins, but to add the 18 wins necessary to overtake the Twins. That's right, the Indians finished at 78-84, while the Twins finished with 18 more wins at 96-66. And many are predicting that the Indians will finish ahead of the Twins. When you add that they project the Twins to win between 92 and 94 games, it seems they are saying the Indians will add at least 14 wins. That is quite a feat in this division. So on what do they base their findings?

Better Bullpen
Most people say the Indians bullpen should be much better this year than the one that blew so many saves last year. The Indians bullpen lost an incredible 32 games in 2006, 10 of which came from the closer the team ordained after trading Bob Wickman--Fausto Carmona. If indeed the Indians can cut the blown saves in half, the bullpen alone can make up the difference. The question is, how much better is this year's bullpen?

Well, not that much, actually. Kieth Foulke, one of five free agent relieves GM Shapiro added in the offseason, retired before spring training. That leaves the closer job to Joe Borowski, a finesse pitcher in the mold of Wickman who has lost his closer job in his last two stops (Cubs and Marlins). The team has added Aaron Fulz as a left-hander who has had an up-and down career. Last year was one of his up years. Will this year also be an up year? The other veteran lefty they added is Cliff Politte, who has also had some excellence punctuated by mediocrity. Then there's Roberto Hernandez, who seems to have a comeback every couple of years, but he's like 50 years old, so I wonder how much he has left in the tank.

The Indians do have some returning arms in Rafeal Betancourt and Jason Davis, not to mention Carmona and Fernando Cabrera. But overall, that's an underwhelming group. When you compare it to the Twins bullpen, you have to say there's really no comparison. I would rate the Indians bullpen as the fourth best in the division, not exactly cause for renewed optimism. Maybe it'll save three more games than it did last year.

Resurgent Infield
Another cause for renewed optimism is an improved infield. Gone are Ronnie Belliard and Aaron Boone. In are Josh Barfield and Andy Marte. Both should be upgrades, but both are young and still developing. Marte was awful for most of last year both at the plate and in the field. He had his moments, but he has to step up to be even as good as Boone. He certainly has the tools, but the jury's out. Barfield is one of the game's best infield prospects. But the best infielder the Indians had last year was Belliard, so it's not as though Barfield will be that big of an upgrade.

Most of the optimism I'm reading comes out of the Jhonny Peralta camp. He can't really be as bad as last year, can he? Well no. He will be somewhat better. But other than getting a new contact prescription, I see no reason to be all that optimistic. He's a free swinger with big holes in his swing--holes that everyone knows about and exploits at every opportunity. And now that Juan Castro is in the NL, he has the least amount of range of any shortstop in the AL. New contacts won't help his feet move any faster.

You know the Indians media hype machine is in full swing when this comes out of Ken Rosenthal's column:

The Indians need utility-infield help, and former Twins second baseman Luis Rivas is making a strong early impression. Rivas, 27, suffered a broken hand in Devil Rays' camp last spring and spent the rest of the season at Class AAA, batting only .218 in 69 games. He originally was a shortstop and could offer speed off the bench.

You read that right: The Indians are counting on Luis Rivas to help with infield depth. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel to find fault with that. But what the heck, never miss a genuine opportunity. Rivas has not played a position outside of second since 1999. That was one of the reasons he couldn't stick with the Twins as a utility guy. He's never hit. His fielding is sporadic at best. And he still has the attitude of a prima donna long after there was any hope of prima in his game. Donna is a better name for him. Well, you all know this. Ken, you can do better, and so can Shapiro.

When you add the likelihood of either Ryan Garko or Victor Martinez at first base, I would say the Indians' infield is marginally better this year--not enough to justify the kind of optimism analysts are bringing. I see a one-win gain, tops.

Deeper Outfield
As the above quotes says, the Indians did make a couple of good moves in the off season, adding the underrated David Dellucci and the always undervalued Trot Nixon to the mix. That gives Eric Wedge a much-needed platoon partner for Jason Michaels in left and a less-needed platoon partner for Casey Blake in right.

We can expect Grady Sizemore to continue to emerge as a premier talent in the league. And Dellucci and Nixon will help. That might add up to five more wins, which is saying an awful lot.

Righteous Rotation
The one thing the Indians have that the Twins don't have is a strong rotation. CC Sabbathia, Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee, Paul Byrd and Jeremy Sowers give the team a chance to win every game.

The trouble with projecting more wins out of this rotation is it's essentially the same rotation as last year. Looking at their numbers, none of them was much above average last year. But the rotation still features three lefthanded starters on the good side of 28. So there some improvement is warranted--not 14 wins mind you--but a a few wins.

With the lefthanded starters, the team will be a formidable opponent for a team like the Twins, at least until the game becomes a battle of the bullpens. The Tigers and White Sox will continue to feast on Indians pitching. Still, if a few things go right for Eric Wedge and his team, it could push 90 wins and challenge for third place in the division. But to overtake the Twins, it would need a much more significant upgrade in talent. And I just don't see it.