First thing is, we're not going to lose, and there will be a companion article to this one explaining why we're not going to lose. But let's face the facts here, baseball is crazy, and the most likely scenario is that we face a tight race with the Tigers. We might lose. And if we lose, it will probably be for some combination of these reasons.
Pure talent. The Indians have more healthy key players, more
talented depth players, and fewer players who stand to regress back
from having had career seasons in 2007. But on the whole, the Tigers
have more talented key players, and if guys like Sheffield and Guillen can stay
healthy, then their lack of decent depth players won't make much
PECOTA projects the Tigers to score only 15 more runs than the Indians, but that's a weighted-mean projection that significantly factors in the chance of losing key players to injury. If the Tigers generally stay healthy, the offensive difference likely will be far greater.
The Indians meanwhile are at significant risk for below-average production at three out of four corner positions, and several of our key players are over 30 (Dellucci, Michaels, Hafner, Borowski, Byrd, Kobayashi) and, as a group, not likely to get more healthy or more productive than they were in 2007.
And despite a reputation for starter depth, not one of the four guys slated to man the last two rotation spots (Byrd, Lee, Laffey and Sowers) is a solid bet to post a league-average ERA this season.
Sketchy defense. Two of our best three starters are extreme groundballers, and both are righthanded. That means a significant part of our fate will rest in the disposition of groundballs headed toward the left side of the infield, where we will be starting two guys who could fall off a cliff defensively at any time. Both Peralta and Blake have had moments in their careers where their defense was actually praiseworthy, but they've also both been atrocious over an entire season at least once.
Moving Asdrubal to shortstop probably won't be a serious option, as that would replace Peralta's bat in the lineup with Carroll's or Barfield's. As for playing Marte at third, even if we take the charitable view that all he needs is a good month or so to settle in as a big-leaguer, exactly how many balls get booted while he's doing that?
Troubled youth. Much of our 2007 success was due to unexpected performances from rookies, but we don't really know how Asdrubal or Gutierrez will look after more exposure to major league pitching. It would not be surprising if both of them struggled, and of course Marte has never really performed well in the majors. Add in Perez and Lewis -- and arguably Carmona -- and you're looking at a significant chunk of the roster in the unpredictably youthful column.
Moreover, we're unlikely to get big contributions from four rookies again in 2008, or in any season, or even from two rookies.
Wacky bullpens. It just wouldn't be surprising if four or five of our relievers just could not get their acts together this season -- these things happen, bullpens are just like that. Borowski, Lewis, Kobayashi, Breslow, Julio -- all those guys could tank, and Betancourt has been known to hit the DL now and again.
Even leaving out the pessimism, we simply can't expect Betancourt to have the most impact of any reliever in the game again, and we can't expect to get major contributions from two guys who aren't even on the Opening Day roster, as we got last year. The Indians 2007 success overall was not particularly flukey, but it was in this area.
Tired arms. This one has been beat to death already, but that doesn't mean it isn't a significant concern. Carmona at 24 is out of the notorious "injury nexus," and people tend to ignore the fact that he threw 174 innings at age 21 with no ill effect, so throwing 215 at age 23 is not necessarily that big of a deal.
Sabathia, however, threw 256 innings, which is a lot for any pitcher of any age or experience, and often threw under more stress than Carmona faced. Thta's 58 more innings than he'd thrown in any season except 2002, and even that year, he only threw 210. Let's not forget, Sabathia loses three starts or so to injury in most seasons anyway, so how can he be likely to stay healthy following a 30% jump in workload? He can't be.
Lack of quality depth. I'm serious. On our 40-man roster, we've got nine warm bodies for four corner spots -- Garko, Gutierrez, Dellucci, Michaels, Blake, Marte, Choo, Francisco, Aubrey and Snyder -- but only one of them (Garko of course) is a really solid bet to post above-average production in 2008.
In the bullpen, we started 2007 with at least four rookies waiting in Buffalo -- Perez, Mujica, Lara and Slocum -- young, talented, live-armed dudes who'd already gotten their feet wet in 2006. We don't have the same caliber of reinforcements to start 2008. It's basically Elarton, Mastny and a diminished Mujica.
That guy, still not helping. Adam Miller sure could help in a number of these areas, and yet he sure can't be counted on to help in any of them.
Bad timing. Just as anything can happen in a short series, two evenly matched teams can produce just about any result in a 19-game season series. The Indians could outplay the Tigers by 6 games against all other teams and outscore them head-to-head with a few blowouts mixed in, but if they lose the season series 13-6, it won't matter. At the same time, while the schedule is very closely balanced for any two teams in the same division, facing a certain team in May isn't always the same as facing them in August.
Lack of pie. Yeah, you know what I'm talking about. Gritty, clutchy, leadership pie -- the kind of pie Trot Nixon knew how to make. Trot's gone, and we don't know if Dellucci or anyone else can pick up the slack.
Lack of Vizquel, Thome, Millwood, Colavito. No, not really. Geez, man, get a life. Maybe you didn't hear, last year, we won 96 games without those guys, and all of their teams sucked. Yes, even Colavito's.
So that's the bad news. Of course it's always possible that the Indians will find some other, more bizarre or unpredictable way to tank their season, something nobody could have or would have ever predicted. Just ask Travis Hafner.