Courtesy of MCT
As the calendar moves to the latter part of February, professional baseball players around the nation are beginning to migrate south as they prepare for that special time of year: Spring Training.
After the Cleveland Indians’ surprising 2011 season in which they went 80-82, held the American League Central lead for the better part of the year and were in the playoff race right up until the last month of the season, expectations are high.
The roster is deep, manager Manny Acta is comfortable in his third year at the helm, and the fans are ready to start flocking back to Progressive Field.
With all the hype comes a few uncertainties and questions, though.
Will injured players return to tip-top shape?
Last season, many key players missed significant time, continually giving Acta the challenge of having to plug players in at different positions and shuffle the lineup seemingly every game. All three starting outfielders, Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo and Michael Brantley, as well as designated hitter Travis Hafner missed significant time with various injuries. With arguably four of the five best hitters on the team missing a combined 284 games, the team struggled at the plate and eventually faded down the stretch. If all four, or even two or three of them for that matter, can stay healthy for all of 2012, the Indians lineup should be a potent force.
What will the fate of starting pitcher Roberto “Fausto Carmona” Hernandez be?
In the situation of Hernandez, known as Fausto Carmona to Indians fans and the team for the past 11 years, the future is uncertain.
Arrested on Jan. 19 in the Dominican Republic for allegedly falsifying his identity years ago to obtain a major league baseball contract, the 31-year-old not only lied about his name, but also his age, claiming he was three years younger than he actually is. The team placed Hernandez on the MLB’s restricted players list, meaning he will not be paid and does not count against the roster count until he returns, which general manager Chris Antonetti has expressed will be the case only once he is legally allowed to return to the U.S. Hernandez has been a cog in the Indians rotation for several years now, even though he has never matched his 19-win 2007 season and has been largely inconsistent.
The organization has the depth in the rotation to replace Hernandez, but having him on the mound with all the experience he brings would be beneficial to the Tribe.
How will the team match up against the mighty Detroit Tigers?
The biggest question for the team is not internal. It comes in the form of the Detroit Tigers. With a managerial change in Chicago and two down-trodden teams in Minnesota and Kansas City, the Indians look to be in the second-best shape of any team in the division. But the Tigers solidified their position as the pre-season division favorites this offseason. Already armed with a deep rotation headed by last year’s Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, a war-tested manager in Jim Leyland, and one of the best lineups in the league, the Tigers’ front office had to like the roster that sat in front of them. But after catcher Victor Martinez tore his ACL in January, general manager Dave Dombrowski went out and reeled in the second-biggest fish in this year’s free agent class in slugger Prince Fielder. The massive first baseman slugged 228 home runs over the last six seasons in Milwaukee, and will fortify an already-loaded Tigers lineup while alleviating some of the pressure on their pitching staff.
Whether or not the Indians will be able to keep pace with the Tigers will be the question. Most of that answer will be determined by the Indians’ lineup, who will have to find a way to manufacture many runs as the staff will have their hands full already.
Making the playoffs is not out of the question, and many in Cleveland will actually be expecting at least something close. And as Opening Day on April 5 approaches, we will learn much more about this young team shouldering the weight of an entire city’s expectations.