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Midseason Thoughts

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Disappointment is probably the best word you could use to describe the first half of the 2006 baseball season, because the talent is there but the execution too often was lacking. Combine that with two teams in the division playing .650 baseball, and we're talking about next year already.

Now how do you fix this team? It certainly would be overreacting to call for blowing the roster up; the core players will all be around next year. But I think significant changes should be made:

(1) Improve the infield defense. You know the drill. Defense is pitching, and pitching is defense. And the infield defense has been horrible. Two of the major culprits, Aaron Boone and Ronnie Belliard, are free agents at the end of the season. The Indians will replace Boone with Andy Marte, but there's no obvious internal fix for second base (Actually, there is, but he's only 20 and struggling to hit in AAA), so Mark Shapiro will have to go shopping this winter for an upgrade.

The other infield issues are more tricky. Victor Martinez, who was never good at throwing out basestealers to begin with, has now regressed to the point where teams will start sending everybody as soon as they get a lead. Victor generally does a good job at other aspects of the position, but his throwing weakness is just about to the point where a position change is being talked about. The most recent solution is platooning Victor with Ben Broussard at first base, thus getting a better arm behind the plate every third or fourth game. The obvious problem with that is there's going to be an offensive dropoff from Broussard to Shoppach. You also lose the strategic advantage of having a catcher who can hit in the middle of the order, namely, the ability to acquire more offense at traditionally strong positions.

Now if Shoppach can bridge the projected offensive gulf by hitting .250/.320/.430 or so, then the Indians might think about making the switch permanent. Ben Broussard is going to get another large raise in the offseason, and Ryan Garko has his own defensive baggage. The only way to reach an informed decision is to give Shoppach as much playing time as possible under the present roster configuration.

I'm less inclined to move Jhonny Peralta, who's been having his own struggles at shortstop. His range is still good, but he's having problems reading hops. Perhaps some of that is due to growing an inch in the off-season, or perhaps it's concentration issues. Whatever the case, shortstop is probably the one position on the infield that shouldn't be changed.

(2) Rebuild the bullpen. While Shapiro shouldn't have to touch the rotation, he's going to have to take a wrecking ball to this season's bullpen. Bob Wickman and Guillermo Mota are free agents and unlikely to return, Fausto Carmona and Rafael Perez are converted starters, and Rafael Betancourt and Fernando Cabrera have been big disappointments.

I think the big key is to deal Bob Wickman as soon as possible. I don't mean that in an angry, "get him out of here!" way. If there is another closer on this roster, the only way to find him is to deal the current one. Try any and all promising arms in high-leverage situations, so that by the time the offseason comes around, you'll know whether or not to go get a closer. Even if the Indians do find that relief ace, they shouldn't hesitate to sign an extra arm or two, because if this season has taught anything, it's that anything can or will go wrong in a bullpen.