Counting Down to Spring Training

Spring training is just days away from opening for all 30 teams in Major League Baseball.  It’s one of the best times of the year and signifies the unofficial end to winter… even if there’s still two feet of snow on the ground and wind chills of fifteen below zero.  For whatever reason the start of spring training makes everyone who loves baseball feel a little bit warmer.  It’s magical like that.

It also signifies the official start of the journey that is a new season of Cleveland Indians baseball.  Pitchers and catchers for the Indians report on Wednesday with position players following on Saturday.  The first full team workout takes place on Sunday signifying the start of the journey for the 2011 Indians.

This year is a make or break deal for the Indians and there are a number of questions surrounding the team as it is currently constructed.  What are these questions exactly?  Well, luckily for you I’m here to break it down for you.  I also know how much you all love countdowns and lists so without further adieu…

The Top 10 Questions for the 2011 Cleveland Indians.

10.  Can Manny Acta shake the stigma that he is a crappy manager?

It hasn’t been said much publicly, but Manny Acta doesn’t have the greatest record going as a big league manager.  In four seasons between the Nationals and the Indians he has compiled a record of 227-345.  For all of you non math majors, that’s a winning percentage of .397 so in other words… not good.  Granted, it’s not entirely Acta’s fault.  He was hamstrung by a lack of talent during his three years in Washington and the same could be said about his first year with the Indians.  However, this is a year where the Indians have to show signs of progress and that burden falls squarely on the shoulders of Acta.  He has to get them playing competitively and show to all of us that he knows how to run a winning ball club.  If the Indians should stumble to another 90 loss season, Acta will have to be held partly accountable.

9.  What can the Indians realistically expect from Orlando Cabrera?

This one is tricky.  Tricky in the sense that I really like the signing of Cabrera, but he’s also 36 years old.  That’s old for a baseball player and it’s really old for a shortstop.  Luckily, the Indians have no plans of playing Cabrera at short stop given the emergence of Asdrubal Cabrera.  The plan is to have Cabrera play either short or second depending on how those position battles pan out.  Either way there are two benefits here for the Indians.  The first is that they are competitive and Cabrera provides the veteran leadership many feel they are lacking.  Second, Cabrera plays well enough to generate trade interest and nets the Indians more prospects before the trading deadline.  There is also the chance Cabrera breaks down physically and the move is a wash, but he has been incredibly durable and consistent during his career.  This move should play out well.

8.  Does Fausto Carmona have what it takes to be a true #1 starter?

This is another tricky question to try to answer.  Many people feel like Fausto has the arsenal of pitches to be a #1 starter.  The main problem is whether or not he has what it takes between the ears to make it happen.  Fausto has shown in the past he can do it but it’s been such an up and down struggle at times that it leaves everyone feeling nauseous.  Although his record last year didn’t show it, Carmona had a sort of renaissance in 2010 thanks to a new approach and mentality overall towards pitching.  It was probably the best he’s pitched since the 2007 season.  Let’s just hope he can build on that momentum.

7.  What happens with the log jam in the outfield?

There are three outfield spots and the Indians have roughly 900 outfielders from which to choose and 1400 different scenarios.  Ok, so maybe I’m exaggerating that number just a bit.  The bottom line is the Indians have some decisions to make.  Shin-Soo Choo’s spot is set in right field.  He’s a burgeoning all-star and arguably the Indians best player.  It’s the other two spots that are the big question marks.  Do they keep Grady Sizemore in centerfield or do they move him to left?  Is Michael Brantley ready to play everyday in center?  Shelley Duncan or Austin Kearns… is there even a difference?  Can the Indians ignore the play last season of Trevor Crowe?  The linchpin in all of this is Sizemore.  Whatever they decide to do with him will have a domino effect on the rest of the team.  It’s also a move they have to get right or risk spending the second half of the season trying to correct the mistake.  My best guess is the Indians stick with the status quo and play Sizemore in center with Brantley or the platoon of Kearns and Duncan left with the former being the favorite going in.  Stay tuned on this one.

6.  Does Lonnie Chisenhall have a legit shot at making the Opening Day roster at third?

The short simple answer according to the Indians…No, absolutely not.  However, if Chisenhall has a good spring, and by good I mean so good it can’t be ignored, the Indians might not have a choice in the matter.  He’s the third baseman and everyone who follows the Indians knows it.  If plays like he should be the starter the Indians will have a hard time finding reasons not to.  What are the going to sell to fans?  Cabrera, Jayson Nix, or Jason Donald?  No one is going to buy that when they have a stud waiting in Triple A.  It’s going to make things even worse once the third base platoon struggles and the real reason is to delay Chisenhall’s salary arbitration eligibility an additional year.  I’m not saying Chisenhall deserves the job at third right now and I’m not saying he is or isn’t the best option, but the Indians have to give him a legit shot to make the team.

5.  Is Matt LaPorta finally ready?

To be honest, this is it for Matt LaPorta.  It’s time to put up or shut up.  As the center piece of the C.C. Sabathia trade LaPorta was supposed to be the big bat that has been missing.  He has been anything but that since his acquisition.  Most of this is due in part to the Indians lack of commitment in him.  They’ve brough him up, they’ve dropped him down.  They put him in left field and then put him at first.  They make him the full-time first baseman and then sign Russell Branyan and make him a platoon player.  It’s no surprise then that his confidence is a bit shot.  He’s shown glimpses here and there but not enough to make anyone say, “wow!”  Regardless of what’s happened in the past, this is year.  He’s the starting first baseman and the job is his to lose.  If he doesn’t put up the numbers he’ll have no one to blame but himself.  More importantly, the Indians need him to put up the numbers if they want to compete in the central.

4.  What does Carlos Santana have in store for an encore?

Carlos Santana was a stud in the short period of time he played last year.  No small coincidence, when Santana was in the lineup the Indians actually played well.  Once he got hurt and was done for the season, the Indians went into a free fall.  All reports are saying that Santana is fully recovered and looks like the player before that a$$hole from Boston broke his leg.  Yes, I’m defensive about this.  Carlos Santana quickly turned into my new man crush last year.  There, I admit it, OK!  Fact of the matter is that Carlos Santana can flat out hit the baseball.  Always has.  There is no doubt that plugging him into the third or fifth spot around Choo will be magical.  The big question, as it is with most players, will be health.  We won’t know if he’s fully recovered until they start playing for real.  I think he’ll be OK though.  He’s too good not to be.  Stay tuned.

3.  Travis Hafner… Yeah… Travis Hafner?

What the hell are we supposed to make of Travis Hafner at this point?  I doubt the Indians even know what to make of him at this point.  He’s a shell of his former self.  He doesn’t hit for power.  He strikes out too much.  He can’t play the field… at all.  He is useless at this point, but given his mammoth contract the Indians have no choice but to play him.  They have to get some type of return on that investment.  There’s always a chance he could have a comeback year, but we’ve been saying that for about 3 years now.  Something just isn’t right.  The Indians best hope is that Hafner has a solid first half and does enough to generate some type of interest in him and then dump him at the first possible chance.  This is unlikely to happen, but if the Blue Jays can dump Vernon Wells contract, then someone out there is dumb enough to take Hafner.  Cross your fingers people… cross your fingers.

2.  Is Grady Sizemore finally healthy?

This is another one of those questions where the answer will have a significant impact on how the Indians season unfolds.  Sizemore is this team’s superstar (Shin-Soo Choo excluded) and they need him to be on top of his game, especially if Acta plugs him into his traditional lead off spot.  If he isn’t hitting and can’t cause trouble on the base paths the Indians offense is going to sputter to mediocre results.  Granted there’s no guarantee the Indians offense will be a juggernaut even with a healthy Sizemore.  There is also the continuing drama involving his future with the team.  Will they trade him or won’t they trade him?  Will they exercise his extension?  Will they sign him to an extension?  It’ll be interesting to see what happens and I can all but guarantee that it hinges on his performance and health.

1.  How will the Indians pitching staff perform as a whole?

If you can’t pitch, you can’t win.  It’s as simple as that.  For the Indians in 2011, pitching is going to be the biggest question mark.  Who get’s the ball after Fausto?  Mitch Talbot?  Carlos Carrasco?  Jeanmar Gomez?  It’s an interesting debate and quite honestly it’ll be a pitching staff by committee influenced heavily by who’s healthy and who’s getting the job done at the particular time.  The most likely five man rotation looks like Carmona, Masterson, Carrasco, Talbot, and Gomez… not necessarily in the order.  It also depends on whether or not they sign Jeremy Bonderman, which has been rumored for about a week now.  Meanwhile, the bullpen is a lot less of a mystery.  Chris Perez will be the anchor as the closer with Rafael Perez, Jensen Lewis, Tony Sipp, and Joe Smith rounding out the set up roles.  All have proven effective in the past so there’s no reason to believe they can’t repeat that success.

So with all of that said and done, get ready Tribe fans.  It’s time for baseball.  Let’s just hope 2011 goes a hell of a lot better than 2010.  In the meantime, stay tuned.  There will be plenty more previews and analysis to come as the Indians progress through spring training.

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