10/05/09 1:32 AM ET
Tribe's season never got on track
Pitching falters in '09 that saw Lee, Martinez dealt
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
Way back when -- April 6, 2009, to be exact -- the Cleveland Indians looked like a potential contender for the American League Central crown. That was a preseason standing that was as much a commentary on the suspect division as it was on the strengths of a Tribe team that would be the first to admit its starting rotation had some major question marks.
Still, the Indians had a strong lineup, a rebuilt bullpen and a solid second half of 2008 to build on. They had reigning Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee fronting their rotation, and All-Star catcher Victor Martinez at full health.
The Tribe charged out of the Goodyear, Ariz., gates after an extended Spring Training under the Arizona sun, headed deep into the heart of Texas ... and lost 9-1 on Opening Day at Rangers Ballpark.
And if you were following along from that point on, through the twists and turns of a multitude of roster moves (52 players were used, including 29 pitchers), injuries, trades and the dismissal of Eric Wedge and his coaching staff, you know that Opening Day was not a rough bump in the road but rather an ominous sign of things to come.
This was a season that never got on track. Even though the Indians, for the second consecutive season, played their best baseball after trading a Cy Young Award winner, the buzz of rookie injections eventually gave way to a September hangover in which the wins were few and far between.
What went wrong? And where do the Indians go from here? The list of answers to both questions are long enough to cover both base lines. And some of the answers to the latter question will be revealed in the coming days and weeks, as the Indians search for their next skipper.
The trades of Lee and Martinez, both of whom were under contract for 2010, made it clear that this is a club in some semblance of a rebuild. The Indians think -- or, at least, hope -- it will be a relatively quick fix, as they still have the makings of a solid core in Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera, among others.
But 2009 was yet another reminder that in baseball, as in life, the best-laid plans don't always mesh with reality.
What follows is a quick look back at a season of unmet expectations and unforeseen alterations:
Record: 65-97, Tied for last in AL Central.
Defining moment: While the trades of Lee and Martinez and the dismissal of Wedge will serve as the most impactful moves in a year of copious changes (by season's end, only 10 members of the Opening Day roster were still active), the losses that led to those drastic decisions are also important to remember. And no loss served as a greater telltale moment for 2009 than the one the Indians suffered against the Brewers on June 15. The offense overcame a rough start from Carl Pavano to take a five-run lead into the eighth inning. Then the bullpen had perhaps the greatest of its many meltdowns, capped by Prince Fielder's game-winning grand slam off Rafael Perez. The Indians lost, 14-12, that night, and the trades that dismantled this club followed soon thereafter, beginning with the June 27 swap that sent Mark DeRosa to the Cardinals.
What went right: Cabrera emerged as a rising star and made the move to his natural spot at shortstop. Choo put together another solid season that leads one to believe he'll be a fixture in the middle of the order. ... Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley, the two key acquisitions in the 2008 CC Sabathia trade, made their big league debuts and were impressive. ... Chris Perez, acquired in the DeRosa deal, and rookie Tony Sipp helped solidify the bullpen in the second half. ... Looking ahead, the Indians hope the returns they received in the trades of Lee, Martinez, DeRosa, Pavano, Ben Francisco, Ryan Garko, Rafael Betancourt fall into the "what went right" category somewhere down the road.
What went wrong: The pitching staff was a mess. Fausto Carmona was so bad he had to be demoted to the Arizona desert to get straightened out, and his return proved he's still a major work in progress. Veteran Jake Westbrook didn't make it back from his 2008 Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, as expected. ... In the bullpen, closer Kerry Wood, the Tribe's prized offseason signee, barely got any work in the first half and was shaky when he did, and purported setup men Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis pitched their way back to Triple-A for reconfiguring. ... On the position player side of things, Travis Hafner's surgically repaired right shoulder didn't allow him to play more than three or four days in a row, and Sizemore played with a bum left elbow and left groin issue, both of which required season-ending surgery. ... Finally, business-wise, the attendance at Progressive Field was among the lowest in baseball, prompting major payroll slashing that will drop next season's number somewhere in the $60 million range after an Opening Day payroll of more than $80 million this year.
Biggest surprise: You might have speculated that a poor start would lead to Lee getting dealt, particularly after the Indians decided not to negotiate a contract extension with him during Spring Training. But few felt this season would become so unhinged that Martinez, the face of the franchise and heart and soul of the clubhouse, would be wearing a different uniform by year's end.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.