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What to watch for on Indians’ Opening Day

The Cleveland Indians will begin their 111th MLB season Friday at Progressive Field against division rival Chicago White Sox. Manny Acta, entering his second season as the Tribe’s manager, will see if his young team can produce enough to improve on a 2010 record of 69-93 and compete in the American League Central Division. The tight-budgeted Indians management was not very active in free agency, instead relying on prospects to fill major roles for this year’s team. Here is a positional preview of the 2011 season:

Catchers

If there is one Cleveland player to watch this season, it is Carlos Santana. The 24-year-old will start at catcher and hit cleanup for the Tribe. Santana burst onto the scene after a June call-up last year, batting .345 with 15 RBIs in his first 18 games, but his season was cut short by a knee injury Aug. 2. Fully healed heading into 2011, Santana should be the Indians’ best hitter by the end of the season. Lou Marson will back up Santana at catcher. Marson, 24, struggled at the plate last season, hitting .195, but finished third among AL catchers in caught stealing percentage, throwing out base stealers 38 percent of the time.

Infielders

The front office did very little to address what was arguably Cleveland’s weakest position set at the end of last season. Asdrubal Cabrera and Matt LaPorta retain their starting positions at shortstop and first base, respectively, and Acta is counting on the 26-year-old LaPorta to rebound from a disappointing 2010 campaign (.221, 12 home runs, 41 RBIs). Cabrera, 25, will be joined up the middle by 36-year-old Orlando Cabrera (no relation), whom the Indians signed to a one-year contract to be the starting second baseman. Although he’s started just 27 games at second base during his 14-year career, the older Cabrera should provide a veteran presence in the locker room. Jack Hannahan, a nonroster invitee to spring training, became the starting third baseman after projected starter Jason Donald injured his hand in early March. The 31-year-old Hannahan, primarily known for his defense, will keep the hot corner warm until highly touted prospect Lonnie Chisenhall gets promoted from Columbus, probably sometime about the All-Star break.

Outfielders/designated hitter

Shin-Soo Choo enters 2011 as the Tribe’s best player, and should garner consideration to represent Cleveland at the 2011 All-Star Game. The 28-year-old will start in right field and bat third in the order. Much of Cleveland’s 2011 hopes lie in how well former All-Star center fielder Grady Sizemore returns from having knee surgery last June. Sizemore, 28, will not begin the season in Cleveland as he finishes his rehab, but should return sometime in late April. Until then, 23-year-old Michael Brantley will start in center field and lead off in Sizemore’s absence, shifting to left field once Sizemore returns. Veteran outfielder Austin Kearns returns for his second tour of duty with Cleveland after being traded to the New York Yankees halfway through last season. The Tribe also desperately needs designated hitter Travis “Pronk” Hafner to regain his presence in the middle of the lineup. A series of shoulder injuries over the past few seasons have sapped some of Hafner’s power, but Acta said he believes Pronk still has some good hitting left.

Starting pitchers

2010 All-Star Fausto Carmona will lead the starting rotation. After Carmona, there is a lot of inexperience and questions. After posting six quality starts (six or more innings pitched, three or fewer runs allowed) in his seven outings last year, 24-year-old right-hander Carlos Carrasco assumes the No. 2 spot. Right-handers Justin Masterson, 26, and Mitch Talbot, 27, will begin their second season in the Tribe rotation. After Carmona’s 13 wins, Talbot was second on the team, with 10 victories last season. Josh Tomlin, a 25-year-old right-hander, beat out Jeanmar Gomez and David Huff during spring training for the final spot in the rotation.

Bullpen

Closer Chris Perez appears to be on the verge of a breakout season. The 25-year-old right-hander saved 23 games in 27 opportunities in 2010, including a 0.63 ERA during the second half of the season. Left-handers Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp return from the 2010 bullpen, and both will be counted on to pitch in key situations. Right-hander J.D. Durbin was signed as a free agent, and the 29-year-old veteran should see plenty of appearances as well. Acta selected young right-handers Frank Herrmann, Vinnie Pestano and Justin Germano to fill out the relief corps.

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