The Indians are going to win the division in 2006. They're going to be a very good team, maybe even a great one.
The national prognosticators like the Indians, even if a slim plurality likes the White Sox a little better. It says a lot about the Indians that they're considered to be just a hair behind the defending champions, who always carry a presumption of superiority. It says a lot that even though the White Sox added Vazquez and Thome, and the Indians added, um, a little less than that ... the Indians are still almost running even with them.
I'm here to tell you, the Indians are even better than the experts and projectionists think -- and for that matter, they're even better than you think. And here's why.
- A Great Offense. The Indians led the majors in scoring for the last four months of the 2005 season. In fact, it wasn't even close. Boone finally turned the corner on his injury. Sizemore and Peralta took off and never looked back. Guess what? Boone isn't going to be un-rehabbed, and Sizemore and Peralta aren't rookies who need to adjust anymore -- and Eddie Murray won't be coming back. And by the way, none of these in-season trends are accounted for by any of the projection systems. We're not just getting the 2005 lineup back nearly intact. We're getting the late-2005 lineup. They are a real threat to lead the league in scoring.
- No Post-Career-Year Slumps. Seriously, was anyone all that much better than we expected them to be? Sure, there were a few players, but they were all (a) guys we got rid of, and (b) guys who were under 25. The guys we got rid of (Millwood and Howry) will do their regressions on someone else's dime. As for the guys under 25 ... when young guys break out, it isn't a career year. It's development. Peralta may take a step back based on BABIP luck alone, but he may also hit 30 home runs. The White Sox were chock full of hitters having career-years -- including pretend-star Paul Konerko -- and still only cobbled together a mediocre offense. Even if Thome comes back to have a nice season, they will still struggle to score runs.
- Tougher Rotation. Is it just me, or are our Big Three starting to feel like grizzled veterans? Forget Millwood -- any of those three is capable of stealing an ERA title. Byrd is not as good as Millwood, but the difference is not as great as you might think. Johnson is a step up from Elarton. As for injury risks -- what exactly is the risk? That we might have to throw one of our incredibly talented and totally ripened prospects in there? This rotation is capable of being the best in the division.
- Improved Bullpen. Don't believe it? Relievers are incredibly volatile -- because they pitch so few innings, it's hard to figure out who's really good and who ain't, so teams fluctuate wildly from year to year. But one of the few consistent things you can plan around is strikeouts -- get relievers who pile up strikeouts, and you should be okay. Did you know that Shapiro got rid of two of our worst relievers in terms of strikeouts -- Riske and Howry -- and replaced them with two strikeout machines -- Mota and Cabrera? A healthy Matt Miller will also help.
- Great Closer. I know, I know. Nobody gives big fat Bob Wickman any damned respect. But how many closers consistently get the save in about 90 percent of their chances, year after year after year? I'll tell you how many: Four. And Bob Wickman is one of him. So show him a a little damned respect. It's true that he allowed way too many baserunners last season and seemed to luck out of three jams a week. But have you looked at his second-half numbers? The 25-7 K/BB in 29 innings? The 2.17 ERA? It's true that a 37-year-old can go at any time. But Bob is a much better closer than you think.
- No Holes. The Killer B's were bad last year ... but not horrible. Our competition has several horrible hitters. We don't have any. And at our most suspect positions, we have true power hitters ready to step in. Boone has Marte, and in a way Belliard also has Marte. Blake has Dubois and Mulhern. Broussard has Perez, Mulhern and Garko. We are going to have a tough lineup, one through nine, one way or another.
- MVP Candidates. Four of them. We don't need four MVP candidates, but it can't hurt.
- The Prepared Mind. "Chance favors the prepared mind," as Louis Pasteur said. Has any team ever had a more prepared mind than these Indians? The Indians know all about PECOTA and Zips -- but the Indians also have their own projection system plus the requisite small army of scouts plus one of the most advanced medical programs in the game. PECOTA is great -- and PECOTA loves the Indians -- but the Indians front office is even better. When luck gives this team an opportunity, on-field or off, they are going to pounce.
- Payroll Flexibility. The Indians spent some $5 to $10 million less in the offseason than they had budgeted for. There just wasn't anything good to spend money on. That, along with a surplus of outfield and pitching prospects, widens the net considerably for the kinds of trades the team can consider after May.
- Great Defense. We may not know how to measure it yet, but everybody who's working on it says the Indians prevented runs like crazy last year. This season should be just as good if not better, as former novices Blake, Peralta and Sizemore continue to master their positions.
- A Great Team. We had a great team in 2005 -- whether or not you noticed.
Ask yourself this question: If the Indians had won 93 games and made the playoffs -- in any way -- would you still be nitpicking the bunts and trades and Killer B's? Would you still feel so ambivalent about them? Or would you be hailing their return to contention?
The local beat writers have put out the myth that the 2005 Indians were lucky to get to 93 wins. They did enjoy some good fortune -- an exceptionally healthy pitching staff, young players surpassing expectations -- but it wasn't all luck. Team health is a priority for the Indians. Drafting and development are priorities. These things are not accidents. You're going to see most of those kinds of luck carry over. Meanwhile, over in Chicago, a team encountered every type of luck known to baseball. Career years from role players. Efficient run-scoring. One-run victories -- many against divisional rivals. Winning in a short postseason series. Players getting hot at just the right time.
I take nothing away from the White Sox. But were they really any better than the Indians? Was their pitching better? No. Was their defense better? No. Was their hitting better? Hell no. Only their luck was better.
The 2005 Indians earned every one of their 93 wins. They weren't lucky. In fact, with average luck, they would have won even more games. They had great pitching, great hitting and great defense. That team could have won 100 games.
The 2006 Indians will once again contend to have the division's best pitching staff. They could outscore their rivals by as many as 80 runs.
This is a very good team, maybe even a great team, and they will win the American League Central. Believe it.