This could be the year for the Cleveland Indians.
Don't be confused and think that this is a prediction that the Indians will in fact win the World Series. All I mean is that this might be their best shot at a deep trip to the playoffs as the windows of opportunity seem to be getting shorter and shorter. After a disappointing 2006 season, it might seem oddly confident to say that a team that didn't see post-season action a year ago has its best shot at winning it all the following season, but here it is anyway.
This year is the culmination of general manager Mark Shapiro's rebuilding process. It seems like more than a decade ago that Shapiro traded Bartolo Colon. That was the deal that kicked off the whole process. As we approach the beginning of the 2007 baseball season, there are new players all over the field. All these players were green rookies just a few years ago. And this might be a completely different conversation had the Indians gotten into the playoffs in 2005 when they missed by a game, but now this 2007 team represents the best shot that the Indians have to win the World Series since they made it in 1997.
The Indians should field an offense that can compete with any in the American League. They have speed in center fielder Grady Sizemore. They have power with DH Travis Hafner. They have steady consistency with switch-hitting catcher Victor Martinez. There are plenty of guys with potential behind them with Josh Barfield, Ryan Garko, Jhonny Peralta, David Dellucci, Casey Blake, Trot Nixon, and others. If manager Eric Wedge can find the right combinations with this strange mix of young players and veterans, the Indians will be in the top five in many offensive categories this season.
The Indians also have one of the best starting pitching staffs that they have ever been able to assemble. C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook, Paul Byrd, and relative newcomer Jeremy Sowers will be the starters on opening day. This is a great mix of righties and lefties; power and finesse.
The bullpen, which was blamed almost totally for the meltdown last year, has been re-built with Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez, and Aaron Fultz. There are plenty of options to back them up, but they have to be good this season. They have to hold games, close games and give the Indians a chance to win. And they need to do it now.
The reason that it is so urgent that they do it now is that the Indians window could be closing after this season. The Indians have the potential to lose Sabathia, Westbrook, and Hafner over the next two seasons. They might be able to sign one and possibly even two of them, but conventional wisdom holds that they will not be able to sign them all. I also understand that it is always possible for a young guy to come in and replace the productivity of someone else who departs, but that isn't guaranteed and represents an unknown quantity.
This team, this year, right here, right now, is a known quantity, and it would be a shame to waste it while it is here.