WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- After an unexpected step back in 2006, the Indians are looking to take two big steps forward in 2007.Building around a core of players that includes MVP-caliber hitters Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, potent catcher Victor Martinez and innings-eating starting pitchers C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Jeremy Sowers, the Indians have added considerable depth and postseason experience to their otherwise youthful roster. Nevertheless, the exceptionally dangerous American League Central will pose a test of endurance for the Indians, who are out to prove their '06 struggles were by no means a sign of things to come. Team strength: The lineup. Though it wasn't always the most consistent of units, the Indians' offense still managed to score no less than 870 runs last season, ranking second in all of baseball behind the Yankees. Sizemore does things from the leadoff spot that most teams would love from their No. 3 hitter, while Hafner has established himself as one of the game's premier sluggers. Throw in the consistent bat of Martinez, the speed of the newly acquired Josh Barfield and the middle-of-the-order pop of Casey Blake, David Dellucci and, if he makes the club, Ryan Garko, and this is a force to be reckoned with.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Achilles' heel: Take your pick between the bullpen and the infield defense. Both gave the Indians fits last season, and it's hard to know for certain if either will be satisfactorily improved this year. The additions of Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz bring needed experience to the 'pen, but the Indians could be an injury away from disaster. And the infield is awfully young with Andy Marte at third base, Jhonny Peralta at short and Barfield at second. Top newcomer: The Indians surprised many in baseball when they were able to pry Barfield from the Padres for an unproven talent in Kevin Kouzmanoff. Barfield is coming off an impressive rookie season in which he hit .280 with 13 homers and 58 RBIs. He has a solid glove at second and provides some much-needed speed on the bases and at the bottom of the order for the Tribe. What's more, he's under contractual control for the next five years. Ready to make the leap: The left-handed Sowers looks like he might sit next to you in a high school algebra class. But on the mound, he has the wiliness and know-how of a 10-year veteran. In half a season with the Indians, he was able to go 7-4 with a 3.57 ERA in 14 starts, including consecutive complete-game shutouts against the Twins and Mariners. His first full season in the bigs could see him emerge as one of the game's most heralded young arms. On the hot seat: He's managing a club with a small payroll and not every personnel decision has worked to his advantage, but, after the disappointment of '06, Eric Wedge still needs to show the organization he's the man to run this club. Wedge's contract is up for review after the season, and improving on his poor record of April starts would certainly go a long way toward getting his club options for '08 and '09 picked up. You can bank on: Forget the month on the calendar or the Tribe's spot in the standings. No matter the occasion, Sizemore rises to it. He's all hustle, as evidenced by his willingness to dive for every fly ball in reach and ability to crank out 92 extra-base hits out of the leadoff spot. If he keeps this up, he could very well become one of the most memorable players of his generation, and all indications are that he will. Litmus test: Peralta's performance at shortstop and at the plate is absolutely pivotal to this club's contention hopes. The Indians can't afford anymore uncertainty in their infield, and they need Peralta's bat to come back to life and firm up the lower half of the order. Games you don't want to miss (home games only): Indians vs. Tigers, May 31-June 3. A four-game series against the defending AL champs gives the Indians an early idea of where they stack up in a tough division.
Indians vs. Phillies, June 18-20. When Sabathia gave up a monster home run to Ryan Howard this spring, he said he was looking forward to a rematch. He'll get one in this series, when Howard and former Tribe skipper Charlie Manuel come to town.
Indians vs. Red Sox, July 23-26. Coco Crisp was injured and thus didn't make the trip with the Red Sox last year. But this four-game series should serve as the popular outfielder's return visit to The Jake.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.