Friday, April 18, 2008

(Tribe 2008): Waking Up Blind With The House On Fire

Mr. Jake Westbrook: Dealing.It was nearly a month ago now that the sports writers' predictions were coming in fast and furious, with The Detroit Tigers heavily favored to take the 2008 American League Central title and only The Cleveland Indians looming as a potential challenge to Motor City dominance. With coronation all but assured, all these two teams had to do was, you know, actually play the 162 scheduled games that stood between Spring Training and the Happy Hunting Grounds of October.

One of the funny things about baseball is that with so many games to play, anything can and does happen, and many times "anything" includes The Totally Unexpected: a few weeks later, with sixteen games now in the books, the Tigers and the Indians are indeed fiercely locked in battle ... for the basement of the AL Central.

While the Tribe's victory against the White Sox on Opening Day seemed to kick off the 2008 season on a positive note, the events of the 14 games that followed torpedoed the initial enthusiasm of Cleveland fans as nearly every aspect of their team's game began to break down over the next week. It was only after last night's payback rout of the Tigers (current owners of the worst win-loss record in all of baseball) that the Indians are starting to resemble the ball club everyone expected them to be this year.

Ryan Garko sends one to Souvenir City, wherever that may be.In a creepy recreation of their post All-Star Break swoon of last summer, the offensive engine of the Indians has been sputtering and coughing, seemingly unable to string together hits (or even come up with hits themselves). While Ryan Garko and Victor Martinez have seemingly been supplying nearly all of the Tribe's hitting (with notable assists from platoon outfielder David Delucci and backup second baseman Jamie Carroll), legitimate concerns persist over the entire bottom third of the starting lineup (especially right fielder Franklin Gutierrez) and the status of slugger Travis Hafner and whether he will (or can) regain the form that made him the terror of the American League as recently as the 2006 campaign. Defensively, infield defense remains a nagging concern as well, with groan worthy miscues from Casey Blake and Jhonny Peralta provoking some fan ire.

Mr. Fausto Carmona. Also known as The Man.If there has been any semblance of stability in one area of the team, it has been the pitching, but even that department has hands wringing all over Northeastern Ohio. The Tribe has seen excellent starts from Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee (both of whom had sub par, if not flat-out terrible years in 2007) that greatly helped alleviate an uneven, though promising, start for backup ace Fausto Carmona, a disconcerting pair of uncharacteristically wild performances from Paul Byrd and, most shockingly, the near-total collapse of 2007 Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia.

Brodzoski (The Close) is not pleased with himself right now.The Cleveland bullpen has also been in a troubling state of flux, with set-up ace Rafael Betancourt now the closing pitcher in the wake of Joe Borowski's move to the Disabled List following two disastrous ninth inning outings against the Oakland Athletics and the Boston Red Sox. Illustrating the on-and-off nature of bullpens, two of last year's trusted stalwarts Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis have been as hit and miss this year as they were lights-out last year. Meanwhile, the jury remains out on the newly acquired Masahide Kobayashi, while veteran reliever Jorge Julio has shown flashes of promise but has been erratic overall.

With a series at home next weekend against the 2007 ALDS rival the New York Yankees (which will hopefully go far better than the Tribe's first 2008 encounter with 2007 ALCS rival Boston) as the centerpiece battle of the next phase of the season, the Indians now have to find a way to keep their newly reacquired focus and chase down the current AL Central leading White Sox with the stabilizing Detroit Tigers snapping at their heels.

The newly re-christned Mr. Cliff Lee in what looks like 2005 form.We've got a long way to go, and over five months to get there.