Return to contention expected of Tribe

Return to contention expected of Tribe

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- This should be a bounce-back season for the Cleveland Indians, but in their neighborhood, there is the question of how high the bounce can be.

The Indians were a disappointing 78-84 in 2006. On paper, they were much better than that. On paper, they are still much better than that.

Their lineup is imposing. The Indians were second in the Majors in runs scored last season, and there is reason to believe they might be even better this year.

Center fielder Grady Sizemore is one of the best young talents in the game. Designated hitter Travis Hafner has established himself as a top-shelf run producer. Andy Marte is a star in waiting at third. Whether he catches or plays first base, Victor Martinez can hit. There is so much potential productivity here that first baseman Ryan Garko, who drove in 45 runs in 50 games in his first big-league shot, is not guaranteed a regular spot.

Plus, the addition of Josh Barfield at second looks like an improvement on several levels. "I think it's an overall upgrade, especially with how we finished last year, kind of mixing and matching," general manager Mark Shapiro said on Monday.

"Josh is a guy who is going to bring an athletic dynamic on both sides of the game that we haven't had. He'll bring good, solid defense, he's an outstanding baserunner with some ability to not only steal bases but run the bases well. And obviously offensively, there's an upside. So I think Barfield brings a different dynamic to second base for us. With that athleticism, he's a complete player."

The rotation appears solid, with C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee, Paul Byrd and the 23-year-old Jeremy Sowers, who was impressive in 14 starts last season, his first big-league exposure.

And the bullpen disasters that followed the trade of closer Bob Wickman last season should be a thing of the past. The Indians planned to bring two veteran closer candidates to camp, but one of them, Keith Foulke, announced his retirement at the beginning of Spring Training. Still, the other candidate, Joe Borowski, is coming off a career-high 36 saves with Florida. The Indians like his chances and his makeup.

"He's hard-nosed," manager Eric Wedge said. "He's a warrior-type, back-end bullpen pitcher. He's been proving people wrong his whole career. There are guys that you want in your foxhole, and he definitely qualifies for that."

And the Indians have further stabilized the bullpen with the veteran additions of Roberto Hernandez and lefty Aaron Fultz.

"One of the philosophies this year was that this was the area we needed to impact the most, and we needed to address it with some bulk or some depth that could allow us to adjust on the fly," Shapiro said.

"With all of the trauma that our bullpen suffered last year, I would have felt good coming in with a lot of the internal options we had, because of all the young arms that have track records and that pitched relatively well for us last year and got some exposure. There's some great depth from those guys. But I felt like, in light of the trauma we went through, we had to bring in some veteran dynamics, guys who, the first time we blow a save, aren't going to look around and say, 'Holy cow, here we go again.'"

So, overall, this is a reputable group. It ought to play better defense than it did last year. It ought to be much more reliable in the bullpen than it was in the second half. The Indians last season were looking for something much more like the 93 victories they had in 2005, a season that included a second-half surge that nearly put them in the postseason.

That kind of performance would not be an unreasonable figure for the level of talent on this club. But part of the Indians' difficulty is that, in the American League Central, they are in against three of the best teams in baseball. There were just six teams in the Major Leagues that won 90 or more games in 2006. Three of those -- the Minnesota Twins, the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago White Sox -- were in the AL Central.

"That's our greatest challenge," Shapiro said. "Our greatest challenge is not our bullpen -- our greatest challenge is our division.

"Kansas City is going to be better, and you know that every night out, you're going to face a formidable opponent. I think of what [White Sox manager] Ozzie Guillen said a couple of years ago: 'If you can survive it, you're better prepared for the postseason than any team.'

"And the last two years, the AL champion came out of the Central. You can be regional and go coastal and talk about the strength of the AL East, but, top to bottom, this division is the best division in baseball. Every night, you've got to prepare for a very good starting pitcher and a good lineup."

The Indians will see soon enough how they stack up in this very difficult group. Going in, there is a sense that their record in 2007 should resemble that of 2005 much more than 2006.

"There's reason to believe beyond just the normal Spring Training optimism that we should be a good team," Shapiro says. "And then we face the realities of our division. But I really do believe that we've got as good a chance as anybody in our division. Not that I don't respect the other teams -- I know how good they are. And it would be hard to pick anybody to beat the Tigers. But I feel like we've got a good shot."

In the AL Central, just saying that you have a good shot is saying a lot.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.