Spring Training 2011 Question Of The Day: Cleveland Indians

To get their fans back, the Cleveland Indians need to win a lot more games, and to win a lot more games they need to find more great players. Do they have a chance to do that in 2011?

There are questions surrounding all 30 MLB teams during Spring Training, and Rob Neyer intends to answer them with his 30-part Question of the Day series. Today, he takes a look at the Cleveland Indians.

Over the last 15 years, the Cleveland Indians have been the American League's boom-and-bust champions.

Beginning in 1995, the Indians won six division titles in seven years and played to a packed (then) Jacobs Field in almost literally every game. They were Baseball's model franchise.

Then the big stars left for big money, and three straight losing seasons. The Indians had convinced everyone that Cleveland was a great baseball town and maybe it was. But the fact remains that just two years after winning a division title and playing to sellout crowds in 2001, the franchise dropped well below .500 on the field and dropped to 12th in the American League in attendance.

The team bounced back with 93 wins in 2005, but attendance hardly budged.

After a losing 2006, the Indians bounced back once more with 96 wins in 2007, drubbing the Yankees in their Division Series before losing the ALCS by a nose to the Red Sox.

Attendance was better that season, but still far from the sellouts of the late '90s.

The Indians followed up their near-World Series campaign with an 81-81 record, followed by two years of -- well, there is no kind way to put this -- disaster. They've lost 195 games in the last two seasons, and in 2010 attendance fell to 1.4 million, worst in the major leagues.

The overarching question, then, the very heart of the thing, is this: Can the Cleveland Indians ever recapture the hearts of their fans, as they did just more than a decade ago?

I'm not real good with overarching questions, though. So let's ask a sort of sub-question.

If the franchise does eventually win back the fans, it will be the result of winning baseball games; a lot of baseball games over the course of two or three seasons. Frankly, if that doesn't bring the fans back, the Indians should start looking for a new, more appreciative home.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The Indians need to win more games, and to win more games they'll need more great players. So the question today is this: Do the Indians have any realistic hope of having great players anytime soon?

Happily, they've already got one: Shin-Soo Choo looks like this decade's version of (the young) Bobby Abreu, a legitimately great right fielder who nobody ever seems to talk about.

It will take more than one, though. Last season, Choo was the only Indian to play more than 122 games. He finished the season with 5.6 Wins Above Replacement; no other Indian was credited with more than 2.

There's little help on the way from the farm system. The Indians do have a couple of interesting hitters who topped out last season in Double-A. Both figure to bolster the Indians' weak infield; neither project as superstars.

So what does that leave? The Indians have two players, right now, who might well join Shin-Soo Choo among the league's biggest stars. They just have to be healthy.

From 2005 through 2008, the three best players in the American League might have been Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki and ... Cleveland center fielder Grady Sizemore

Then, the injuries. In 2009, it was a left elbow that twice sent Sizemore to the Disabled List for nearly a month. And in 2010, something much more serious: knee microfracture surgery that knocked him out in May for the entire season.

What's next for Sizemore? Will Carroll is not optimistic, particularly regarding Sizemore's speed. As Carroll writes, "It's a long, difficult rehab and most worryingly, there's never been a procedure in baseball that would meet with most people's definition of 'success.' While some, like Brian Giles and Chad Tracy, have come back from the surgery, neither returned to their previous levels."

That's discouraging. But Sizemore is younger than Giles and Tracy were, and even if Sizemore isn't fast he can still help the Indians with his bat.

Hey, it's almost March. We can dream a little.

Sizemore's not the only rehabbing Indian with an exciting history.

In June, ex-Dodger farmhand Carlos Santana arrived in the majors, and for 46 games he tore things up.

Specifically, in his first 46 games he rang up a .260/.401/.467 batting line, with an OPS that ranked third in the majors -- behind only Geovany Soto and Joe Mauer, and ahead of Buster Posey -- among catchers with at least 150 plate appearances.

There would have been a lot more plate appearances for Santana, except he suffered a season-ending knee injury on the 2nd of August. Don't worry too much about Santana, though; the injury wasn't as serious as first feared, and the early signs about his recovery are excellent. Just this week, the News-Herald's Jim Ingraham wrote, "The 24-year-old catcher has been hitting, running, sliding and generally making everyone feel good about his chances of reclaiming his spot in the middle of the Indians' lineup and his status as one of the top young players in the American League."

If that happens, the Indians should be blessed with two stars. If Grady Sizemore makes a miracle recovery, make that three stars. And with three stars ... Hey, it's only February. Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

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