Key season for Indians, Brewers

Jeff Passan

The cusp is an unforgiving place. The Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers found themselves there last season, poised to parlay surprising 2005s into bountiful 2006s, until they were reminded, in rather abrupt fashion, that one good year does not equal a VIP pass into the playoffs.

Neither the Indians nor Brewers cracked .500. Both had issues with injuries and depth and fielding. Indians general manager Mark Shapiro calls the season "underachieving." Brewers GM Doug Melvin prefers "disappointing." Either word works.

The Indians and Brewers are plenty alike already, from their market size to their reliance on a young core. In fact, Milwaukee happened to be the site of the Indians' last World Series win. It was at County Stadium, which was the on-screen stand-in for Cleveland Municipal Stadium in "Major League," but whatever. When your last real championship came in 1948, sometimes fiction must suffice.

Truth is, these Indians and Brewers teams could compete for the World Series with a few breaks here, a few emergences there. And, conversely, they're teams that, with another bad season, will lose their luster – and be one year closer to losing some of their young stars to big-money free-agent contracts.

Which is why the 2007 season is so important for the Clevelands and Milwaukees of the baseball world: They're on the cusp again, only this time teetering toward the wrong side.

"The toughest thing we have to do is win consistently," Melvin said. "We haven't won in 12 years. Look at the Cardinals. They have that edge, that aura. Last year, they win 83 games and win a World Series.

"One .500 season doesn't make us successful. We want to go beyond that point. We need that atmosphere that we're going to be a contending club and go for division titles year after year."

In a weakened National League Central, there's certainly enough there. If Ben Sheets is healthy, he and Chris Capuano might be the best 1-2 starting-pitching punch in the NL. First baseman Prince Fielder hit 28 home runs as a rookie last season, second baseman Rickie Weeks has the quickest wrists this side of Gary Sheffield, top prospect Ryan Braun has a shot at the third-base job and Melvin won't hesitate to bring wunkerkind pitcher Yovani Gallardo to the big-league club. Add in Bill Hall, who hit 35 home runs last season, and closer Francisco Cordero, who Melvin acquired in the Carlos Lee deal last season, and it's certainly a good start.

"Ryan Howard is five years older than Prince Fielder," Melvin said. "He'll have 125 home runs by the time he gets to Howard's age. Chase Utley is 28 and Rickie's just 24. We like our young guys."

Aside from signing starter Jeff Suppan to replace the traded Doug Davis, most of the Brewers' changes this offseason were complementary. When shortstop J.J. Hardy and Weeks went down with injuries last year, the Brewers struggled to replace them, so Melvin re-signed Tony Graffanino and brought in Craig Counsell to hold down utility spots.

"I learned my lesson," Melvin said.

Well, mostly. Melvin is still chancing it with his defense. Weeks can be a butcher and Braun committed 31 errors between High-A and Double-A last year. Hall, heretofore a utility guy, will play full-time in center field, and Corey Hart will shift from left field to right.

Ideal it's not.

"We always have to overlook something," Shapiro said, speaking not just for the Indians but all low-revenue teams. "We can't pay attention to every detail. In a perfect world, our eight guys would be great defenders, runners, hitters.

"We have to pick our flaws."

Never did Shapiro figure their flaws last season – bullpen and fielding – would be as egregious as they were. A year after leading baseball in 2005 with a 2.80 bullpen earned-run average, the Indians' relievers were 24th in the big leagues last year.

"Because there's so much year-to-year volatility with relievers," Shapiro said, his best solution, in lieu of a standout closer, is bullpen-by-carpet bomb. Cleveland signed veterans Keith Foulke, Joe Borowski and Roberto Hernandez in hopes that one will succeed at closer, brought in Aaron Fultz as a left-handed specialist and will sort out the rest of his spots with Rafael Betancourt, Fernando Cabrera, Fausto Carmona, Matt Miller, Rafael Perez, Juan Lara, Edward Mujica and Brian Slocum.

As for the defense … well, Shapiro admits the Indians whiffed there, particularly with their proliferation of pitch-to-contact starters. So he traded for Josh Barfield, installed Andy Marte as the full-time third baseman and can only hope Jhonny Peralta doesn't take another step back and catcher Victor Martinez takes to limited duty at first base, with a full-time switch there a possibility.

Remember, the Indians still have Travis Hafner, perhaps the best hitter in the American League, and Grady Sizemore, who may eventually become that. C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee are a solid 1-2-3, and Jeremy Sowers was one of the best pitchers in the AL in the second half last season.

"Two years ago, although not 93 wins' worth, it was for real," Shapiro said. "We certainly underachieved last year. You're looking at a core of Hafner, Sizemore, Sabathia, Martinez, Peralta, Westbrook and Lee. Almost everything has gone according to plan."

Shapiro knows almost isn't enough. The Indians can score the second-most runs in the big leagues (which they did last year) and post the fourth-best ERA in the AL (which they did, too) and still end up with 15 less wins than the previous season.

Almost doesn't suffice when you're on the cusp. The Indians and Brewers know that as well as anyone.