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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.

Marlins defeat the Mets, then pay their respects to Jose Fernandez on the pitcher’s mound

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 26: Miami Marlins players all wearing jerseys bearing the number 16 and name Fernandez honor the late Jose Fernandez before the game against the New York Mets at Marlins Park on September 26, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Rob Foldy/Getty Images
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The Marlins were somehow able to muster up the strength not only to play Monday night’s game against the Mets, but also win it convincingly one day after losing Jose Fernandez in a tragic boating accident. The Marlins and Mets helped pay tribute to Fernandez prior to the start of the game as outlined here.

When the game started, the Marlins came out of the gate with a bang. Dee Gordon homered in his first at-bat, then the club hung a four-spot in the second inning. They tacked on two more in the third inning to chase starter Bartolo Colon and take a commanding 7-0 lead. The Mets chipped away for two runs in the fifth on an Asdrubal Cabrera two-run homer and tacked on one more in the eighth, but ultimately fell short by a 7-3 margin.

Gordon finished 4-for-5 with the homer and two RBI. Justin Bour went 3-for-3 with a single, double, triple, and a walk along with an RBI and two runs scored.

A.J. Ramos, who closed out the win, placed the ball on the pitcher’s mound for Fernandez. The Marlins huddled around the mound and said a prayer. The players huddled closer to the rubber on the mound, then left their hats behind as they retreated to the clubhouse as fans at Marlins Park chanted, “Jose, Jose, Jose.”

In a post-game interview, Gordon called his first-inning home run “the best moment of my life,” as NBC 6 Sports reports.

Indians defeat Tigers, clinch AL Central for first division title since 2007

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 7: Roberto Perez #55 of the Cleveland Indians hits an RBI single during the second inning against the Houston Astros at Progressive Field on September 7, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images
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The Indians beat the Tigers 7-4 at Comerica Park on Monday night, clinching the AL Central for their first division title since 2007. Starter Corey Kluber lasted only four innings before exiting with right groin tightness, but the Indians were able to overcome the adversity.

Coco Crisp gave the Indians their first two runs with a two-run home run in the second inning off of starter Buck Farmer. The Tigers would promptly tie the game on a two-run homer by J.D. Martinez in the bottom half of the inning.

In the fifth, an RBI double by Jason Kipnis and a sacrifice fly by Mike Napoli put the Tribe back on top 4-2. The Tigers answered once again with a Miguel Cabrera RBI single in the bottom half to make it 4-3.

Roberto Perez homered for the Indians in the top of the top of the seventh, and Cabrera answered with another RBI single in the bottom half to keep it within one run at 5-4.

The Indians tacked on another insurance run in the eighth on three consecutive two-out singles by Crisp, Rajai Davis, and Perez. Carlos Santana then hit what should have been the final out of the eighth inning, but J.D. Martinez botched the catch, allowing the Indians’ seventh run to score.

Cody Allen shut the Tigers down in the bottom of the ninth, protecting the 7-4 lead for his 30th save of the season.

The last time the Indians won the AL Central, their starting lineup featured a 28-year-old Victor Martinez, a 25-year-old Jhonny Peralta, a 24-year-old Grady Sizemore, and a 26-year-old CC Sabathia. It’s been a long time.

The American League playoff picture still isn’t set yet, so the Indians will be intently watching the final week of the season to see who will be their playoff opponent.