2011 has only just started, but after another lackluster season from the Cleveland Browns and a very hard to watch season going on from the Cleveland Cavaliers, my focus has quickly switched to counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report. February 13th for those who are keeping track. Sure, 2010 was a hard year for the Indians, falling farther away from where we all want the team to be as they look to rebuild and make another run at contention. 2011 should be better, all of the young players will be one year older and one year more experienced, while the veterans who were hurt, and those who were not, will hopefully be ready to go. The Travis Hafners, Grady Sizemores and Carlos Santanas have been mending and will hopefully be ready to produce to the fullest of their abilities come opening day. I know it is foolish to think that Travis Hafner may be consistent and healthy, but most people would say that it is foolish to be an Indians fan in the first place. So while January is only just beginning and pitchers and catchers reporting is still over a month away, I have been thinking about key story lines or things to watch for throughout the year.
1. Who is Matt LaPorta?
To me this is the most important question that needs to be answered in 2011. This is an important year for LaPorta and the Indians, I think that if he fails to produce at the level that he is expected to you can officially chalk up his involvement in the CC Sabathia trade a few summers ago as a bust. The book is still out on him and Michael Brantley, but Brantley is younger and at least has health and speed on his side. It is also a very important year for Brantley, but that is something we will talk about more later. LaPorta has been mostly disappointing since he came over from the Milwaukee Brewers, and while recovering from off season surgery last season he struggled to perform. LaPorta, who turns 26 at the end of the week, played in 110 games last season, almost a full year, and even had to spend time in AAA because he was struggling so mightily. He posted a .221 batting average and struck out 82 times compared to 46 walks in 376 at bats. Seen as a power prospect and a potential clean up hitter, he disappointed even more. 12 homeruns and 41 rbi’s. He was just bad all year. Granted he may have struggled at the plate because of a transition in position, and hiccups in a recovery from hip and toe surgery, but I can’t make excuses for him any more. He isn’t a prospect anymore, and 2011 is the year that he has to prove himself. Shin-Soo Choo cannot carry the team himself and contribution from LaPorta could help the Indians surprise some people in 2011.
2. Can Fausto Carmona remain effective?
One of the truly positive stories of last season, Fausto Carmona regained his ace-like form that he displayed in 2007. If the Indians stand a chance of being competitive it starts and ends with starting pitching. The rest of the rotation is truthfully a big question mark, and if Carmona can remain the ace of the staff and anchor the young rotation, he could lead by example and the rest of the rotation could fall in line. Carmona showed last year glimpses of his prior years of struggling while mixing in the amazing potential that he has to be an amazing starting pitcher. He needs to remain consistent and attack hitters with his mesmerizing movement and speed.
3. Who will play 2nd base?
The position that has plagued the Indians the most in recent years, other than 3rd base of course, is 2nd base. Since Roberto Alomar left there has not really been a plus 2nd baseman in Cleveland, you could count Ronnie Belliard but he was inconsistent despite being a fan-favorite. I would have put the issue at 3rd base here but that is something that has been talked about much more over the off season and it really needs more than just a paragraph. Jason Donald, Laynce Nix and Adam Everett are probably the 3 most likely to receive playing time early in the year, while almost all of us would like to see Jason Kipnis start off the year and see how he does, but he will have to earn the job in spring training.
4. When will we see Lonnie Chisenhall, Nick Weglarz and Jared Goedart?
These 3 players that the Tribe will likely have starting the year in AAA really get me excited for the future. The team is always talking about the core group of players that you build around, well those are guys I think you can build around. Chisenhall will hopefully be slotted in at 3rd base come the 2nd half of the year, Nick Weglarz could take time away from Hafner at DH or be a 4th outfield option when rosters expand. Goedart is where it gets tricky. He has shown great power in the minors and hit 27 homers last season in AAA. I think he is the team’s best option for 3B while we wait for Chisenhall and he could end up being a very good extra infielder or even 1st baseman if LaPorta doesn’t pan out.
Those 4 are the ones that I have been deeply pondering here the past few days. As we get closer we will have more things discuss, and of course, some predictions of how the season might turn out. The four things I brought up are definitely things to watch for the upcoming season. The first 3 are vital to the success of the Tribe this year, while the 4th is almost completely focused on how this year might impact the future, since that is really all we have to look forward to isn’t it?