Spring Training 2004 Preview – Part I

After the flurry of moves during the 2002 season, the Indians for the most part stood pat during 2003, played its prospects, and predictably lost more than 90 games. Coming into the 2004 season, the Indians again did very little, bringing in only a couple of role players. There’s not much of a chance of contention, even in a very weak division, but the players that did make their debut last year should start to pay dividends, and by the end of this season, a core should be in place to build around. You can find each player’s stats from 2003 by clicking on their name. These comments are a bit difficult to make, because a lot of these players have little major-league experience, and therefore is hard to make an informed decision on. However, by looking at their numbers in the minors, and, if applicable, their time with Cleveland, this is what I think of the 2004 version of the Tribe:

Catcher (2 spots)

Josh Bard – Age 26 Bats: Both Option: Yes

He started out the year as the starter, and like most of the rest of the team, struggled. By July, he was back in Buffalo, and Victor Martinez was being looked at as the starter of the future. Bard is probably not going to start on a regular basis in Cleveland. Now, a catcher his age and with his defensive skills is going to be in demand, so if the Indians get blown away by an offer, they shouldn’t hesitate to send him on his way. If Einar Diaz brought in Travis Hafner, there has to be a market for Bard. However, while he’s still cheap, he’ll be a great caddy for the next 2-3 years.

Tim Laker – Age: 34 Bats: Right Option: No

One of the more puzzling aspects of Shapiro over the last year or so has been his infatuation over Tim Laker. Yeah, he’s an acceptable backup catcher, but when you have two young catchers on your 40-man roster, what’s the point in a third catcher? Laker is the type of player you sign to a minor-league deal in January and bring to Spring Training just to have an extra backstop to work out the pitchers with. But Shapiro gave Laker a guaranteed contract in November, so they may just send Josh Bard down to Buffalo just because they have options on him.

Victor Martinez – Age 25 Bats: Both Option: Yes

If the Indians make a 10-win jump in 2004, Martinez will be a big reason why. He’s won two batting titles in the minors, and it’s a matter of time before he becomes a middle-of-the-order hitter. Most of his defensive drawbacks are mainly a function of his hitting; if he hit like Josh Bard, he’d “call a good game”, and be “a heady player”. But he’s a good hitter with decent defensive skills, so the critics will harp on that. He’s one of the best young catchers in the game, and while he’ll be lost in the Joe Mauer hype this year, look for him to be one of the best offensive backstops in baseball this year.

NRIs: David Wallace, Vic Valencia, Dusty Wathan, Brian Luderer

On the horizon: Javi Herrera (A+), Ryan Garko (A-)

First Baseman/Designated Hitter (2 spots)

Ben Broussard – Age 27 Bats: Left Option: Yes

Broussard is probably never going to be a top-notch 1st baseman, but he should be adequate enough to keep the position warm until Michael Aubrey arrives on the scene. He’s always been able to take a walk, he could probably give you 20-30 home runs given enough playing time, and he plays decent defense, not that that’s a major concern at the position. Left-handers owned him last year, so there’s a possibility that Ryan Ludwick or even Victor Martinez may see some time here versus left-handers. With a projected leftie-heavy lineup, the Indians will need to be able to platoon effectively more than most teams. If Ryan Ludwick’s knee prevents him from spending much time in the outfield, a Broussard/Ludwick platoon will acquit itself quite nicely. Regardless, any production Broussard can give the Indians is gravy consider they got him for strkeout savant Russell Branyan.

Travis Hafner – Age 28 Bats: Left Option: Yes

The best power prospect on the team right now, and a big key to the Indians’ success this year. Stolen from the Rangers for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese, Hafner showed signs of breaking out towards the end of the year. Given enough playing time, look for Hafner to solidify himself as the teams’ cleanup hitter this season.

On the horizon: Michael Aubrey (A+), Matt Knox (AA), Eric Crozier (AAA)

Second Base (1 spot)

Ron Belliard – Age 29 Bats: Right Option: No

The definition of a stopgap, but with a bit of upside. The Indians were the high bidders on Todd Walker, but lost out when he went to Chicago. Belliard was the next best choice, and they got him for a reasonable price *cough*Vina*cough*. Cleveland’s “esteemed” journalist Roger Brown mentioned that his “source” said that Belliard was as big as a house while playing in the Winter Leagues, but all indications are that Belliard, while not exactly in the best of shape, should be able to play decent defense, and be a huge upgrade over the Brandon Phillips disaster last year. He’s still fairly young, so a good season in Cleveland could jumpstart his career. Hopefully the Indians will gladly let him go at the end of the year, because that would mean that Brandon Phillips had found his batting eye again.

Brandon Phillips – Age 23 Bats: Right Option: Yes

He’s going to spend at least the first part of the year in Buffalo, and it’s not to work on his defense. Phillips was statistically the worst hitter in baseball last year, and while he’s still young, he’s got to rebound quickly if he wants to continue to be thought of as a future star. If he does have a good year, there’s still the question as to where he’s going to end up; both second base and shortstop will be vacant after this season. He’s definitely athletic enough to play the position, and you could even live with a little less offense there.

John McDonald – Age 29 Bats: Right Option: No

He still can’t hit, and as good as his defense is, that’s not going to fly in this day and age. There’s even a possibility that NRI Lou Merloni may force the Indians to trade him before the season starts. But he’ll probably remain the Indians’ sure-handed utility man for the next year or so.

Lou Merloni – Age 33 Bats: Right NRI

His main calling card is his verastility and his splits versus left-handers, which could definitely be useful on a team where its main hitters are almost exclusively left-handed. If the Indians had signed Todd Walker, Merloni could be very useful as a platoon partner, but Ron Belliard has always hit southpaws fairly effectively, so his chances of making the club are fairly remote.

On the horizon: Rodney Choy Foo (AA), Micah Schilling (A+), Shaun Larkin (A+)

Shortstop (1 spot)

Omar Vizquel – Age 37 Bats: Both Option: No

2004 is more than likely Vizquel’s 11th and final year in Cleveland, and it looks like his career may be almost over. A knee injury hobbled Vizquel for most of the season. He can still play outstanding defense, but it’s become clear that he can’t make some of the plays he used to. If healthy, Vizquel will provide the Indians with some decent numbers, and keep the position warm for Peralta and Phillips. It’s been a great run, Omar, and thanks for the memories.

Jhonny Peralta – Age 22 Bats: Right Option: Yes

My pick to have a breakout season. He was rushed to the majors thanks to the bevy of injuries that befell the Indians last year, and predictably was overmatched at first. But he showed some definite signs of life towards the end of his stint in Cleveland. He hit 15 home runs in Akron at age 19, so the power potential is definitely there. He could become a very valuable shortstop, or, if he continues to fill out, a third baseman. He’ll spend a good part of the season in Buffalo, so we’ll have a much better handle on his future by August.

Ivan Ochoa – Age 21 Bats: Both Option: Yes

Probably the most surprising roster addition in November, Ochoa has not put up the offensive numbers that would make him a top prospect. What got him on the roster was his defense. The obvious comparison to Ochoa is a young Omar Vizquel, and the Indians would be ecstatic if Ivan lived up to those expectations. However, in the worst-case scenario, he could become a John McDonald clone. Either way, he’ll be the starting shortstop in Akron this year, and his offensive game will be put under the microscope.

Utility: John McDonald, Lou Merloni

On the horizon: Eider Torres (AA), Chris de la Cruz (A+), Brandon Pinckney (A-)

Third Base (1 spot)

Casey Blake – Age 29 Bats: Right Option: No

He’s either been overrated or underrated over the past year, but he’s still the same player that the Indians signed last year. He’s fully capable of playing a fairly unspectacular third base, and providing some power for a bargain-basement price. Given his age, it’s unrealistic to expect any appreciable jump in projection, but you know what? That’s fine with me, and probably fine with the Indians as well. If Blake is no longer the starting third baseman next year, then either Corey Smith made good on his potential or the Tribe made a splash in the free agent market.

Corey Smith – Age 22 Bats: Right Option: Yes

This is a huge year for Corey; the third base job is his if he can prove he can make the throw to first base and cut down on his strikeouts. If he can’t do the former, but delivers on the latter, the Indians might grudgingly move him to the outfield, where his power would fit the profile of a corner outfielder. Obviously, the Indians would love to have Corey fill the 3rd base position, but if his power continues to develop, a spot will be found for him regardless of his errors.

Utility: John McDonald, Lou Merloni

NRIs: Chris Clapinski, Adam Piatt

On the horizon: Pat Osborn (A+), Matt Whitney (A-), Kevin Kouzmanoff (A-)

Corner Outfielders (3-4 spots)

Jody Gerut – Age 26 Bats: Left Option: Yes

The biggest surprise of the 2003 season was the ROY-caliber season Jody put up. Nobody saw this coming, which is a big reason you never know with prospects. Before last season, Gerut posted high-OBP numbers, with little power. After an offseason conditioning program following the 2002 season, Gerut showcased legitamate corner outfield power. There are some concerns going forward, however. As with any rookie having this type of season, there’s a definite chance of regression. Also, Gerut has a small tear in his rotator cuff, which didn’t require surgery, yet remains cause for concern, especially in an outfielder. But if anyone can beat these odds, it’s Jody.

Matt Lawton – Age 32 Bats: Left Option: No

If Matt can stay healthy (and that’s a huge IF), he’ll post an high OBP, decent power, and very little range in the outfield. There are two more years remaining on the ill-advised contract extension the Indians signed him to before the 2002 season, but he’s still a nice player to have on your team, although not $7.5M good. Regardless, he should be starting in left field on Opening Day.

Ryan Ludwick – Age 26 Bats: Right Option: Yes

The best of the current crop of young outfielders who will be fighting for a job this spring, Ludwick has definite power potential, and with a lineup full of lefties, Ludwick can be a valuable player this year if used right. The Indians seem to be on the platoon bandwagon, as they’re contemplating spotting Victor Martinez at first versus southpaws, so Ludwick should be in the lineup in place of Gerut or Lawton when facing a left-hander as well. Although I’m still uneasy with trading away Ricardo Rodriguez, Ludwick is a tempting talent that may become a greatly-needed right-handed power threat.

Alex Escobar – Age 25 Bats: Right Option: Yes

Since he now has another option, Escobar may find himself in Buffalo again to start the year. Even though he did hit 24 home runs in AAA last year, his plate discipline has to be improved for him to stay in the majors. He’s an outstanding defensive outfielder, who’s fully capable of playing all three outfield positions. But with veterens (Lawton), proven young players (Gerut, Bradley), and more polished hitters (Ludwick) in front of him, Alex needs to up his game, and specifically cut down on the strikeouts.

Coco Crisp – Age 24 Bats: Both Option: Yes

Scouts look at body types, as do fans. When you look at Coco, you see a prototypical leadoff hitter. But while the tools are there, the application of them aren’t. Coco struggled to get on base last year, and when he did get on, had a terrible steal rate. There’s still time for Coco to become that top-of-the-order hitter, as he proved that he was one in Buffalo, but with little power and other talented players ahead of and behind him, he has to prove he can be one in Cleveland very soon.

NRIs: Adam Piatt, Ernie Young

On the horizon: Luke Scott (AA), Brad Snyder (A-), Jason Cooper (AA), Ben Francisco (A+)

Center Field: (1 spot)

Milton Bradley – Age 25 Bats: Both Option: No

Played like an All-Star last year, and should have been one. Had he accumulated enough at-bats, he would have been in a lot of top 10 lists, including batting average and on-base percentage. Because the Indians struggled to score runs last year, Bradley was misplaced in the middle of the order. With the emergence of a couple power bats, Bradley could then move back the leadoff position, where he’s at his best.

Grady Sizemore – Age 21 Bats: Left Option: Yes

The Indians’ #1 prospect, Sizemore showed promising potential in Akron last year at a young age. From here, Sizemore’s development could go several different directions. Most compare him to power-hitting center fielders like Darren Erstad, and some more optimistic comparisons include Kirk Gibson. Regardless, the Indians aren’t going to rush him, so most of the season will be spent in Buffalo.

Backups: Coco Crisp, Alex Escobar

On the horizon: Nathan Panther (A+), Juan Valdes (R+)

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