If you set the Lee and Martinez trades as the start of the present small-market "success cycle," the Indians enter the 2011 season in their second full season of rebuilding.
Chris Antonetti, in his first off-season as Indians general manager, made just a couple of minor moves, so this new season looks a lot like a continuation of the 2010 campaign. Austin Kearns was brought back to serve as a full-time starter, while Grady Sizemore continues to work his way from major knee surgery. Orlando Cabrera was signed to play second base and to serve as shortstop insurance. Chad Durbin was brought in to soak up relief innings. On the whole, though, the players who ended the 2010 season with the club will be in Indians uniforms today.
The biggest off-season move was not any player move, but the ticket price changes. The Indians finished at the bottom of the league in attendance, and the front office responded by cutting ticket prices just about across the board. Bleacher tickets are now $10.00 for every game except Opening Day, more benefits were given to season ticket holders, and upper box seat prices were cut significantly. With the Cavaliers still reeling from last summer's Decision and the NFL in a major labor battle, this would seem to be a major opportunity for the Indians to win back a major portion of the Cleveland fan's budget. But the ultimate goal is to win back fans, and ticket prices aren't really going to help that. Success on the field, or at least demonstrable improvement, is the only sure way to lure in the non-rabid Cleveland fan still put off by the 2009 trades.
The Indians have four very good prospects, three of whom have a good shot of appearing with the Indians in 2011. Both Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall will start the year in Columbus, and their debuts with the Indians are dependent on how they play, not anybody ahead of them on the depth chart. Alex White should also appear with the Indians at some point; again, if he's doing well, there's no reason for the Indians to keep him in AAA. If the Indians are looking at 2012 as a competitive season, they need to give these three substantial time at the major-league level.
Shin-Soo Choo, who led the team in every meaningful offensive category last season, is back and should be just as good in 2011, but the rest of the lineup are talented question marks. Grady Sizemore and Jason Donald will both start the season on the Disabled List, with both expected to return by the end of April. Donald will get back into the lineup as soon as he's ready, but Sizemore will need to be eased back slowly. Carlos Santana, also coming off knee surgery, will have no restrictions, quite a recovery considering how bad that home plate collision in Boston looked. Travis Hafner's playing time will, as always, need to be carefully managed. Asdrubal Cabrera is coming a season in which he missed over 60 games.
Both Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley need to have breakout seasons. The two main pieces of the Sabathia deal will get plenty of opportunities for at-bats; LaPorta has no real competition at first base, while Brantley should get lots of time in center, as Sizemore is expected to return slowly.
The rotation was a pleasant surprise in 2010, headed by Fausto Carmona's magnificent comeback. He'll be joined by Carlos Carrasco, a pitcher with a lot of talent but also with some things to learn at the major-league level. Mitch Talbot and Justin Masterson will start their second full seasons with the Indians, and Josh Tomlin won the final spot in the rotation after making 12 starts a year ago. The Indians could keep this particular rotation for another 3-4 years if they wish, but they will also have decent backup options in AAA (David Huff, Jeanmar Gomez, Alex White) should they need them.
Even though I can see more clearly now several paths to contention, contention isn't happening this season. There's talent in the majors or just below, but it's way too much to ask this young a team to compete with Detroit, Minnesota, or even Chicago. They might finish below Kansas City. The key this season is to get Kipnis, Chisenhall and White meaningful time in the majors, get Grady Sizemore healthy, see Matt LaPorta turn into a major-league power hitter and Asdrubal Cabrera turn back into a good major-league shortstop, so that 2012 can open with playoff hopes.