Conventional wisdom says that a good team is strong up the middle, and at least offensively, the Indians have followed that aphorism. Going into 2009, the Indians will have in their lineup the best center fielder in baseball, the best offensive shortstop in the American League, and the best offensive catching tandem in the game. The problem is that their corner positions (1B, DH, 3B, RF, and LF) give away any advantage that the up-the-middle positions have relative to their peers.
To illustrate my point, here's the 10 position players that look to be getting regular playing time in 2009. For the years 2006-2008, I've listed their OPS+ (OPS relative to the league and adjusted for park effects), and for 2009, I've listed their age. Generally, position players peak in their late 20s and start to decline after their early 30s. I've left out seasons with only minimal playing time, and noted seasons that were affected by injury.
|CF||Grady Sizemore||132||122||128||Age 26|
|3B||Mark DeRosa||108||102||118||Age 34|
|C/1B||Victor Martinez||121||127||INJ||Age 30|
|SS||Jhonny Peralta||83||100||108||Age 27|
|RF||Shin-Soo Choo||X||X||146||Age 26|
|LF||Ben Francisco||X||X||100||Age 27|
|DH||Travis Hafner||179||118||INJ||Age 31|
|C||Kelly Shoppach||74||101||123||Age 29|
|2B||Asdrubal Cabrera||X||101||88||Age 23|
|1B||Ryan Garko||X||117||97||Age 28|
Edit: Here's the Average AL Starter OPS+ by position in 2008:
Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner both had injury-marred seasons, but while Victor Martinez showed his usual form after returning in September, Hafner didn't show the slighest glimpse of his old self in 2008, and hasn't been an elite hitter since 2006. We don't even know if Hafner is completely healthy, much less whether he can still hit.
As things look, the three best hitters in this offense will come from the Indians' starting center fielder, shortstop and catcher. It's quite an accomplishment to have elite hitters at these positions; usually teams are forced to write off any offensive production from at least one of these positions. The Indians, instead, may not get much of anything from their left fielders, first basemen, or even their designated hitter.
On a positive note, notice how many of the players in this projected lineup are in their mid-to-late 20s. Shin-Soo Choo only made 370 plate appearances last season, but torched the league, having his best month in September. Ryan Garko also improved as the season went along, slugging .616 in September.
If Garko does fall off, the Indians do have the backup plan of Martinez at first and Shoppach behind the plate. But with the trade of Franklin Gutierrez to Seattle, the depth in the outfield is thin. David Dellucci can't play anywhere but left, and even then he's a negative in the field. Mark DeRosa can play the outfield, but that would shore up the outfield at the expense of third base. Trevor Crowe has returned to prospectdom, but power isn't his game. And if Travis Hafner isn't healthy, the problem only gets worse.
With the Indians having to rebuild their rotation, the offense is going to have to shoulder more of the load. And by offense, I mean the entire offense.