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Springtime Storylines: When will the Indians be finished with their rebuilding phase?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Another rebuilding year in Cleveland.

The Big Question: When will the Indians be finished with their rebuilding phase?

After three consecutive .500-or-worse seasons, including 93 and 97 losses in the past two years, the Indians have surprisingly little to show for a rebuilding effort that included trading away established stars CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez in the middle of their primes.

Not only do Manny Acta and company look very capable of losing another 90-plus games this year, aside from stealing superstar-in-the-making Carlos Santana from the Dodgers in a trade that may go down as one of the biggest heists in MLB history surprisingly few long-term building blocks have emerged in Cleveland. Some of that has simply been bad luck, as injuries wrecked Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, and one-time elite pitching prospect Adam Miller.

However, none of Andy Marte, Chuck Lofgren, Trevor Crowe, Jeremy Sowers, and Michael Aubrey panned out as prospects, Franklin Gutierrez, Jeremy Guthrie, and Brandon Phillips were let go before they emerged as valuable big leaguers, and now even Sabathia trade centerpiece Matt LaPorta’s upside is in question. Santana is a stud, Shin-Soo Choo is one of MLB’s best, most underrated players, and Lonnie Chisenhall, Alex White, Jason Kipnis, and Drew Pomeranz are a good group of top prospects, but Indians fans had to be hoping that the losing would be over by now and/or the traded stars would yield a more impressive next wave of talent.

So what else is going on?

  • I drooled over Santana while selecting him as one of my breakout picks for 2011, so instead of repeating all of that praise I’ll simply note that perhaps the most important aspect of the Indians’ entire season will be keeping him healthy behind the plate. He has a chance to be an MVP-caliber player at a premium defensive position, and while the rest of the long-term cupboard may not be as fully stocked as hoped a switch-hitting, on-base machine catcher is an awfully good block from which to start building.
  • This might be Sizemore’s final season in Cleveland, as the Indians hold an $8.5 million option on him for 2012. At his peak Sizemore was worth twice that much and he’s still just 28 years old, but his production has dropped dramatically, he missed most of last season with significant injuries, and will begin this year back on the disabled list. And even if he gets healthy and is playing well the Indians could be tempted to trade him.
  • Similarly, while Choo and Fausto Carmona are under contract through 2013 and 2014 respectively the Indians may decide that cashing them in for more prospects makes sense if they feel like the current team is another couple years from contending. Of course, if Sizemore, Choo, Carmona are all playing well alongside Santana the Indians may be respectable enough to balk at blowing things up again.
  • Despite being a very smart guy with some interesting ideas Mark Shapiro’s stint as general manager was ultimately underwhelming, but I’m very optimistic about his successor Chris Antonetti and in general the Indians have done their best to be ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, sabermetrics, and even social media. They’re on the right track–including an impressive 2010 draft–but some half-decent luck also wouldn’t hurt.
  • Acta’s choice of headwear, as always, will be the best in the league.

So how are they gonna do?

Kansas City’s presence in the AL Central should make it fairly easy for Cleveland to stay out of the cellar, but it would take an awful lot of things breaking right for the Indians to make a run at one of the top three spots in the division. My guess is they’ll show some relatively modest improvement from last season’s 69 wins to somewere in the mid-70s while having some very interesting decisions to make at the trading deadline.

Evan Gattis undergoes surgery for hernia; recovery is 4-6 weeks

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Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle shares the bad news

One of the Astros’ big bats won’t be taking hacks when the Astros hold their first full workout on Feb. 23.

Astros designated hitter Evan Gattis recently underwent surgery to repair a hernia, the Chronicle has learned, taking away most of his spring training at a minimum. The recovery is four to six weeks but fortunately for Gattis and the Astros, the injury is not considered severe.

Gattis was working hard on his overall conditioning this winter, even telling MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart in late January that he had already dropped 18 pounds. It sounds like the big slugger might have gone a bit overboard with those workouts, and now he is in real danger of missing the first couple weeks of the 2016 regular season.

Gattis batted .246/.285/.463 with 27 home runs and 88 RBI in 153 games last season for the Astros. The 29-year-old is arbitration-eligible for the first time in his career and has a hearing with the Astros scheduled for February 16 to determine his salary for 2016. He requested $3.8 million and was offered $3 million when figures were exchanged a little over three weeks ago.

Suddenly the Astros’ front office might have a new talking point for those arbitrators.

Seung-Hwan Oh finally receives his work visa, will be on time for Cardinals camp

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At last check, new Cardinals reliever Seung-Hwan Oh was still awaiting a work visa from the United States Embassy in South Korea and there was some worry that he might not be able to arrive on time to spring training in Jupiter, Florida.

But that is now officially a non-story.

Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Oh has recieved his work visa and is expected to report to Cardinals camp next week along with the rest of the club’s pitchers and catchers. Oh might even show up a bit earlier than the Cardinals originally asked him to, per Goold.

Oh saved 357 games in 11 seasons between Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization before inking a one-year contract with St. Louis this winter. He also registered a stellar 1.81 ERA and 772 strikeouts across 646 total innings in Asia, earning the nickname “The Final Boss.”

Oh is expected to work in a setup role this year for Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal.

John Lamb had back surgery in December, will likely get off to late start in 2016

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John Lamb was part of the Reds’ return package in last July’s Johnny Cueto trade and he had a strong showing at the Triple-A level in 2015. But the young left-hander posted a 5.80 ERA in a 10-start cup of coffee with Cincinnati late last season — his first 10 appearances as a major leaguer — and now comes word from MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon that Lamb will probably have to get off to a late start in 2016.

Lamb underwent surgery in December to repair a herniated disc in his back — a surgery that went unreported by the Reds until Tuesday afternoon. Reds manager Bryan Price acknowledged on MLB Network that Lamb is behind the team’s other starting pitchers and will likely open the coming season on the disabled list. The hope is that he might be ready by mid-April.

It’s a small but frustrating blow for a rebuilding Reds team that will be looking to establish some foundational pieces in 2016. Once he is recovered, Lamb will be expected to fill the Reds’ fifth rotation spot behind Raisel Iglesias, Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, and Michael Lorenzen.

This is going to be an ugly year for Cincinnati baseball fans.

Yu Darvish will report to spring training on time, hopes to begin mound work in March

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Rangers ace Yu Darvish missed the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery last March 17. Most starting pitchers take 13-15 months to fully recover from that procedure, and the Rangers aren’t counting on Darvish until sometime this May.

His rehab so far has gone on without issue.

Darvish offered some very positive updates Tuesday to Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram …

Darvish, 29, boasts a 3.27 ERA and 1.196 WHIP in 83 career major league starts. He can also claim a whopping 680 strikeouts in 545 1/3 career major league innings.

Texas has him under contract for $10 million in 2016 and $11 million in 2017.