AL Central Watch: Cleveland Indians

Can Hafner lead the Tribe to the playoffs?

The Cleveland Indians were a young up-and-coming team in 2005, but a great second half run put them within striking distance of the Chicago White Sox in the final week of the season. Can the White Sox take the next step and re-claim a playoff spot?

The Indians of course had a big loss when Kevin Millwood became a free agent and the Indians entered the offseason knowing they weren't going to be able to meet his contract demands. Instead, they made up for his loss by signing pitchers Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson to short term contracts. Byrd and Johnson should adequately take up innings for the Tribe, though they likely won't be the front line guy that Millwood was.

Instead of Millwood, the Indians are going to rely on the youngsters at the top of the rotation; C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee. Lee was the true surprise of the year for Cleveland, bringing in 18 wins a year after his ERA was well into the 5's.

The team of course was involved in the one of the biggest trades of the new year when they acquired minor league star prospect Andy Marte along with reliever Guillermo Mota in exchange for Coco Crisp. A centerfielder by trade, Crisp was expendable because of the presence of star-in-the-making Grady Sizemore. Marte might not be ready for big league action just yet, but with only the declining Aaron Boone in front of him at third base, it's safe to say could become a key component of Cleveland's offense sooner rather than later.

The Indians have put together quite a collection of offensive talent that they hope can help guide them back to the playoffs. Besides Sizemore (who posted an .832 OPS in his rookie season), the team also has young star Jhonny Peralta, who at 23 put up a .520 slugging percentage as the team's everyday shortstop. Couple those two with established sluggers Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, and solid veterans Ronnie Belliard and Ben Broussard, and the Indians feel very confident of their ability to score runs in the 2006 season.

Where they might not be quite as confident is in their bullpen, where Bob Howry and Arthur Rhodes are no longer on call in the late innings (Rhodes moving on to Philadelphia, Howry to the Cubs). The team brought back closer Bob Wickman, but they'll have a new cast of relievers working the later innings.

Mota will be looked upon to help bridge the gap between the lost veterans the youngsters that were used in the middle innings last year, but there are still concerns about his health. Mota threw over 200 innings in 2003 and 2004 combined, and then failed his initial physical. If Mota runs into injury problems, then the team will be forced to turn to impressive but inexperienced youngsters like Fernando Cabrera. Cabrera did appear in 15 games for the Tribe, but rarely was used in pressure situations (he recorded just one hold for the year). Rafael Betancourt will be another reliever that is relied upon heavily.

The Indians undoubtedly have a ton of talent that they believe can take them very far in the baseball world. The question is, is the talent that was capable of winning 93 games last year ready to get the team over the hump and into the '06 playoffs?

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