Hot Stove Daily: Cleveland Indians

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2008 record: 81-81

Finish: Third in AL Central

2008 opening-day payroll: $79 million

2009 estimated opening-day payroll: $83 million

OFFSEASON ACTION

General manager Mark Shapiro strolled into the Bellagio hotel six weeks ago in Las Vegas and, at the risk of revealing too much to his fellow GMs at baseball’s winter meetings, admitted his roster required upgrades in at least four places:

Closer.

Third base.

Starting rotation.

Middle relief.

Oh, and he also admitted he didn’t have a lot of money.

So, this is what he brings to spring training: Kerry Wood, Mark DeRosa, Carl Pavano and Joe Smith. Simple, huh? OK, it’s not terribly splashy.

Say what you will about the Yankees and their half billion-dollar haul, the Red Sox and their endless tinkering, the Braves and their desperate grab for pitching, and the way those teams and those GMs can color an offseason.

There is something to be said about the mid-market GM making do with what he’s got, getting creative, stretching the few dollars he can spend.

He tags along in the J.J. Putz three-way deal to pull in Smith, who’ll put away right-handers. He takes a chance on Wood, whose 34 saves for the Cubs in 2008 confirmed he has a bullet or two left.

Pavano’s elbow checked out and somebody had to take the chance, right? And DeRosa’s offense might be ballpark driven – his best two seasons have been in Texas and Chicago – but The Jake isn’t exactly Petco, either, and he’s a sound ballplayer for a team that could use one.

Shapiro could not add the shortstop that would have enabled the Indians to move Jhonny Peralta to third base. And he certainly did nothing to make anyone forget that CC Sabathia won’t be in camp for the first time this decade.

But, even after a shockingly bad first half, the Indians posted 81 wins. And, it looks like help from the farm system (Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Trevor Crowe) is on the way.

REALITY CHECK

The Indians actually were a pretty good team in August and September, when they won 34 games and scored more than 300 runs. This was, of course, post Sabathia and Casey Blake, which is intriguing, and much, much too late to compete in the Central.

The ability to rebound – and therefore continue their trend of contending in odd-number years – depends on three areas, team management believes.

The first is the health of designated hitter/first baseman Travis Hafner and catcher Victor Martinez, huge parts of the offense and minimal contributors last season, and starters Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook, who combined for 25 wins in 2007 and nine last season.

Hafner had shoulder surgery in October to – he hopes – once and for all fix his body and become again the Triple Crown-type slugger he was only three seasons ago. He’s supposed to be ready for opening day. Hafner’s $57 million contract extension kicks in this season, meaning his salary increases to $11.5 million, a big nut for the middle-market Indians if he’s still not hitting. Martinez, limited to 73 games because of hamstring and elbow issues, and Carmona, plagued by a hip strain, are presumed healthy as well. Westbrook won’t return from Tommy John surgery until June at the earliest.

Once a strength, particularly on the back end, the Indians’ bullpen crashed in 2008. It’s the second area that must improve. If he’s through being frail, Wood is a huge upgrade. Smith has his moments, both ways, but it’ll probably do him good to get out of the Mets’ bullpen, which seems to infect all who step into it.

Third, DeRosa has to be healthy and productive, because he could be the guy who plugs holes all over the diamond. His value, in part, is in his versatility. It’s been a while since he’s done meaningful time at shortstop, but second base, third base, first base and the outfield corners might all be in play.

The division probably isn’t going anywhere. If two of the three go as planned – and Cliff Lee doesn’t backslide from his Cy Young award performance – the Indians are back in it.

Next: Arizona Diamondbacks.

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Feb 2, 2009