There really isn’t much of anything negative to say about the 2004 offense, other than they didn’t hit a lot of home runs.
In my mind, there were exactly two disappointments; Alex Escobar and Jody Gerut. Escobar is now property of the Chicago White Sox, and Gerut at least justified playing time before his knee injury by playing an excellent right field.
Breakout years: Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, and Coco Crisp
What Hafner did in 2004 astounds me even more now that I look more closely at the numbers he put up. Only Vladamir Guerrero, Melvin Mora, Ichiro, and Miguel Tejada had a higher VORP among AL position players. He might even finish in the top 10 in MVP voting, despite playing for a team that was out of the race by September 1st. I’ll get into Hafner and what kind of career I think he can have later on in my player reviews, but suffice to say he’s simply a fantastic hitter. Victor Martinez bucked the recent trend of catching prospects who didn’t live up of to the advanced billing. With Josh Bard being a much better backup catcher than Tim Laker, Eric Wedge should be able to keep Martinez fresher down the stretch next year. Coco Crisp really surprised me; although I’m a lot less sure of him than I am with Hafner and Martinez, he has a lot of interesting facets to his game, especially his surprising power, that has piqued my interest.
Comeback years: Matt Lawton, Ronnie Belliard, and Omar Vizquel
Lawton and Vizquel simply got healthy, and gave the Indians generally what was expected out of them. Vizquel has somewhat compensated for the decline of range in the field by becoming a better hitter at the plate. Lawton faded after the All-Star Break, but still ended the season with numbers in line with his career averages. Belliard was the big surprise; in a down year for second basemen, he was one of the best in the American League this season.
Marked Improvement: Casey Blake, Ben Broussard
Blake, who was the best hitter on the 2003 Indians (which wasn’t saying much), improved pretty much every aspect of his offensive game. Ben Broussard, who was in real danger of being kicked to the curb after a couple simply awful stretches early in the season, turned it on after the All-Star Break, one of the few players to do so. Now he’s played himself into a job next season.
The Overall Approach
The 2004 Indians scored runs through hitting a ton of doubles and drawing a ton of walks, an approach the sabermetrician in me really likes. While I don’t like to give pitching or hitting coaches too much credit (or blame) for player performance, the drastic team-wide improvement has to be in some part due to hitting instructor Eddie Murray. Another big reason has to be the fact a lot of the main cogs were second year players, and had finally started to feel comfortable in the majors. And of course a huge reason is that the lineup was generally kept intact for the whole year; before September, only Lou Merloni went on the Disabled List before September.
Omar Vizquel and Ronnie Belliard are probably on their way out, with Aaron Boone and Jhonny Peralta the likely candidates to take their places on the roster. Grady Sizemore will probably get a full-time job somewhere in the outfield, and Josh Phelps will probably replace Lou Merloni as the 1B/DH against left-handed pitchers, leaving Merloni (if he returns) to be more of a utility guy (If Blake ends up as the second baseman, Merloni might spot him against a tough left-hander). The offensive vacuums of John McDonald and Tim Laker will be replaced by Merloni (or Brandon Phillips) and Josh Bard. Obviously, there’s a much greater chance of offensive regression to the mean as far as runs scored next season, but the additions of Phelps (over a full season), Peralta, and Boone should improve the team’s power production. With pitching being more of a concern this offseason, the offense is going to be counted on to at least stay constant; hopefully, with an improved pitching staff, the offense won’t have to “win” as many games as this past season.