Although it’s still pretty early in the season, it might be worth thinking about the 2006 Indians season and the lessons it holds for this year’s team. The 2005 team narrowly missed the playoffs, just as last year’s team narrowly missed the World Series. The 2006 team started the season with high expectations (like this year’s team) but never got going. What did we learn from that experience?
a. Bullpens are a black box (but a crucial one) – The 2005 bullpen was very good, but several of its key members left or were traded in the offseason. The 2006 bullpen was much less effective and really hurt the team’s chances. The 2008 bullpen isn’t as toxic as that one, although Bob Wickman was better in 2006 than Joe Borowski has been so far this year. The Indians need to get the bullpen straightened out if they’re to avoid a repeat of the 2006 implosion.
b. Don’t stick too long with a faltering starter: Jason Johnson was the 5th starter for the 2006 Indians. He was consistently ineffective, but the Tribe stuck with him for weeks, which undermined the bullpen and led to numerous discouraging losses. By the time Jeremy Sowers replaced him, the Indians’ season was stagnating. The Indians can’t wait too long on Paul Byrd if they want to avoid a repeat of 2006.
c. The bottom of the lineup matters. In 2006, the bottom portion of the Indians line up was not strong, often featuring journeymen Aaron Boone, Todd Hollandsworth, Ramon Vasquez, Joe Inglett and struggling rookies (Gutierrez, Marte, etc.), which made pitching to the lineup as a whole easier. So far in 2008, a similar pattern has emerged (with Blake, Gutierrez and Michaels hitting poorly). Those guys need to hit better (or the Indians need to replace them) or their offense will continue to stagnate.
d. Defense is important. The 2006 Indians had various defensive problems, including weaknesses in the middle infield, poor outfield throwing arms, and Martinez’s struggles throwing out runners. Those problems didn’t disappear in 2007, but the team improved defensively. Statistically, the Indians defense this year is ranked about the same as the 2007 team. But, defensive problems have again hurt the Tribe, notably weak play at 3rd, some problems behind the plate, and some weak outfield play (especially in left). The Indians need to play strong defense if they’re to contend; they rely on pitching to win, and that means defense. They have to be strong defensively and may need to replace players like Blake and the left field platoon to do that.
It’s a long season, and patience is a virtue, but up to a point. So, while it’s early, the Indians front brain trust can’t wait forever to adjust. Hopefully, they've learned the lessons of the season of Jason Johnson, Aaron Boone and Guillermo Mota!!