Mark it down

Man, I?m jacked up for baseball season. Every Tribe fan should be excited. This team is built to contend.

It all starts on the mound with C.C. Sabathia, who must mature into a true staff ace in his fifth big-league season. Jake Westbrook is listed as the #2 starter but realistically, while he should still be solid, he can?t be counted on to match his stats from his spectacular 2004 season. Things start to get very interesting, though, with Kevin Millwood, who has mixed several ace-quality seasons with just as many mediocre ones during his eight-year career. If he pitches like he did in 2002 (18-8, 3.24 ERA) or even 2003 (14-12, 4.01 ERA), this staff suddenly becomes very dangerous, with lefty Cliff Lee and likely Scott Elarton or Jason Davis rounding out the rotation.

The bullpen, meanwhile, is insanely deep, even if closer Bob Wickman instills about as much confidence in me as our 43rd president does. Rafael Betancourt, David Riske, Bob Howry and Scott Sauerbeck all have lively arms, as does lefty Arthur Rhodes, whose acquisition quite possibly stands as Mark Shapiro?s best offseason move.

In fact, I don?t think Shapiro gets enough credit for the team he?s assembled, especially considering the tight budget constraints he?s working with. This is a franchise built to compete this year and beyond, with a healthy farm system ready to feed the big-league club with quality talent or, if needed, attractive trade bait. Beyond the pitching depth, they?ve got guys like Ben Broussard, Alex Cora and Jose Hernandez stabilizing the bench, along with whoever misses out on a starting job between Jody Gerut, Grady Sizemore, Coco Crisp and Ryan Ludwick. Aaron Boone?s at third with Casey Blake, currently slated to start in left, available to take over if Boon?s knee doesn?t hold up. Meanwhile, Juan Gonzalez, a fantastic low-risk/high-reward signing, hopefully will deliver 100 healthy games from the cleanup spot as the DH, which would likely translate into 20-plus homers. And I haven?t even mentioned Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez, two of the American League?s most promising young hitters.

I?ll go ahead and mark them down for the 2005 AL Central crown right now. If they stay relatively healthy, the Indians should make good on that prediction.

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