Thursday, March 23, 2006

Quick Q & A

Going into the 2006 season, the Indians face a few internal questions that should play out as the season progresses. Without addressing unforeseen injuries to key players (everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, knock on wood 3 times) or external factors (what the White Sox did in the offseason, etc.), the Tribe enters 2006 with fewer questions than in years past, but questions nonetheless.

The questions of Spring Training, while fun to debate, don't count once Opening Day hits (maybe then I will stop getting my B-Phil updates - by the way, a virus has kept him out of camp for the last week, further damaging his chances at making the team).

Most serious questions have to do with specific players and how their performance affects the development of particular positions in 2006. Without further ado:

Was 2005 the aberration year for Casey Blake, or was 2004?
Blake famously exceeded all expectations for him in 2004, putting up big numbers (.271 BA, 28 HR, 88 RBI) and earning a contract from the Tribe. But, in 2005, he showed why he didn't make it to the Majors on a full-time basis until age 30 as he struggled, particularly with runners on base. So which Casey Blake will patrol RF this year, Version 2.4 or Version 2.5?

Much has been intimated that Blake went through personal problems in 2005, about how he made a position change to the OF, and about how he put undue pressure on himself after signing a long-term deal, but the first 3 months of 2006 are vital for Blake to reestablish himself as a legitimate full-time Big Leaguer. If he recaptures the consistency of the 2004 campaign, the point is moot and you pencil him in at RF and at the bottom of the order for some nice RH pop.
However, if he continues his descent into the world of being Kasey rather than Casey (K's too much), the Indians will have no choice but to explore other options. Blake figures to be on a shorter leash than last season as the position change adjustment should be over and the Tribe expects to contend from Day 1. If Blake is hitting in the sub-.240's with a low OBP by Memorial Day, somthing will be done.

But what can be done?
Who's out there that represents that much of an upgrade? Do Craig Wilson or Trot Nixon (who seems to be the odd man out in Fenway with the addition of Wily Mo) figure to put up THAT much bettter numbers than Blake? Keep in mind that neither are cheap and are flawed, just like Blake?

Are there internal options?
Spring Training showed that neither Franklin Gutierrez nor Brad Snyder are ready to play in the Majors every day right now, so the options are Jason Dubois and, possibly Ryan Mulhern. Dubois is intriguing because of his AAA numbers last year and his Spring, but his cup of coffee in Cleveland couldn't have gone worse (25K's in 45 AB). Mulhern, the Tribe 2005 Minor League Player of the Year, impressed at Spring Training, but still could use some polish on his overall game and will start the season at Buffalo.

So, what do the Indians do if Blake struggles in 2006? The answer is that they probably go outside of the organization to add a veteran, who may or may not be that "big bat" that EVERYONE feels the Tribe needs right now. It's awfully early to throw names out there, but Moises Alou would look pretty nice as that hired gun. What you would give up would be the question.

Blake, to most, is the most pressing question (mainly because the Tribe lacks an obvious contingency plan), but an answer as to whether Casey or Kasey is suiting up this year should be evident by Memorial Day.

Is Jason Michaels ready to be a full-time player, and can he replace Coco Colavito...I mean Crisp?
This, to me, is one of the lesser concerns, as Michaels does have a track record of being a prototypical #2 hitter, had a good Spring, and is solid defensively. The suggestions that Michaels will platoon with Todd Hollandsworth in LF to me seems ridiculous. Wedgie has gone on record saying he dislikes platoons, and with the obvious platoon at 1B, I doubt that Wedge wants to vary his lineup that frequently. Michaels has also been told from Day 1 by the Tribe that LF and the 2 hole are his.

Michaels will be under scrutiny by the "fans of Coco", who will forget their declaration to stay away from the Jake (made after the Coco deal) as soon as they see that Michaels is not that much of a downgrade from Coco (if at all) and that the Indians are in contention. Michaels' style of play - hardnosed, hustling, and fundamentally sound - should resonate with the fan base that has embraced Sizemore.

By year's end, Michaels will have adequately replaced Coco's numbers and should hold down the LF job (on a full time basis) all year.

What will become of Benny B?
History majors do not normally find math to be their strong suit, but I was "crunching some numbers" the other day and came up with some interesting results. Typically in a 162 game season, a full time player will log approximately 580 AB. Players in a platoon situation (like Broussard will be with Perez this year) can cut that number in half (that's math by a History major). So, we're at 290 AB apiece for Ben and Perez.
BUT, the Indians have stated that Travis Hafner will play about 30 games at 1B, thus taking another 65 AB (130 AB/2) away from both (because Broussard can only play 1B). So, now we're at 225 AB each.
BUT, the Indians have said that they want Victor to play about 10 games at 1B to keep him fresh all year, taking away another 25 away from each (50 AB/2). We are now all the way down to 200 AB for Broussard and Perez this year.

Considering the contract that Broussard just signed (a little under $2.5M), his streaky bat, and public statements by Shapiro and Wedge that this is a "make or break year" for Benny, 200 AB is not a good thing. Unless Broussard comes torching out of the gate and continues some sustained excellence (not mediocrity) at the plate, the Indians will be looking in another direction...and fast.

The fact that he has struggled this Spring, to the tune of a .541 OPS (!?!) and the report from Rotoworld that his contract is not guaranteed and even the ever-optimistic Terry Pluto is saying "don't be shocked if Broussard is traded" and the deck looks to be stacked against the young axeman.

If Blake is on a tight leash, they're holding Broussard by the collar. Throw Ryan Garko into the mix, who was ahead of everyone's expectations defensively this Spring and can, by most observers' estimations, be an impact RH bat in the lineup and things don't look good for Benny.

So how will it all play out for Benny (and Perez, and Garko for that matter) in 2006? If Broussard and Perez are both able to perform well while in the linuep, again the point is moot. But if Broussard falters, I doubt that the Tribe would hand the 1B job to Perez lock, stock, and barrell. Garko would likely be called up, with Broussard likely getting traded. Perez could also be trade bait, but would likely stay on as a late inning defensive replacement at 1B or to act as the veteran RH bat off of the bench.

Most people are pulling for Broussard to thrive (which would make the season better), but his Spring performance and the Tribe brass' opinions on his general streakiness seem to show an underlying theme that his time may be limited in Cleveland. Maybe if you buy his CD, he'll start hitting in the Haven.

There remains a possibility that Broussard doesn't even break camp with the team (2 roster spots are needed to add Hollandsworth and Graves/Karsay to the 40 man roster) and Mark Shapiro proved with the Milton Bradley deal that he's not afraid of some last-minute tinkering - but, for now - we'll assume that Broussard heads north to the North Coast.

Will Aaron Boone return to form, or was 2005 an indication of what a post-knee injury Boone can do?
This was one of the pressing questions as the Tribe entered camp, particularly with the glowing initial reports that came out of Florida about Andy Marte. But Boone has scorched this Spring, as if to say that he's not ready to concede 3B just yet. All of that could change, of course, once the games start to count if Boone struggles. But the organizations' opinion of Boone's leadership and work ethic would lead me to believe that he's on the longest leash of the Filler B's.

If, by some terrible situation, Boone is hitting .210 in June of 2006 - you won't see Boone hitting on a regular basis at the Jake. If he does struggle out of the gate, Marte (like Garko at 1B) is a phone call away to lend a heavy bat to the lineup. Boone could then be moved in a trade, or can provide some leadership and infield flexibility as a utility player (though he hasn't played SS in 3 years).

A very serious long-term possibility is that Boone stays on the Tribe for next year as well, replacing Free Agent Ronnie Belliard at 2B, while he mentors a young Marte at 3B in 2007.

Is Jason Johnson better than his career record indicates, and what if he's not?
The Indians point to the Scott Elarton Reclamation Project (now showing in Kansas City) as Exhibit A that a pitcher in the right circumstances can thrive. Those right circumstances for Johnson would be pitching out of the 5 spot in the rotation, against lesser pitchers, and without the pressure of being a top-of-the-rotation starter. They would also point to the high number of quality starts in 2005 for Johnson, his history of pitching 200 innings, and the development of his sinker last year as reasons he should succeed in 2006.

His career record would be attributed to the losing teams that he's played on, but that doesn't explain his career ERA or his propensity to give up the long ball. So, what if Johnson crashes and burns in the 5 spot? What do the Indians do?

Two words: Fausto Carmona. Carmona's Spring performance and his continued brilliance throughout a minor league career have the Indians excited about the possibilities. Some could even second-guess the signing of Johnson if Carmona was, in fact, ready to step into the rotation this year. Carmona would get the nod over Jeremy Sowers, who probably needs another 2-3 months in the minors to develop his confidence. Carmona, on the other hand, seems to be there.

Don't be surprised if someone misses a few starts (again knock on wood...HARD) and Carmona forces himself into the rotation like Westbrook did in 2004. If that were to happen, Johnson could be moved (somebody always needs affordable veteran pitching) and the Tribe could let Carmona develop from that 5 spot.

What if Wickman's tight-rope saves turn into throw-things-at-the-TV blown saves?
If Wickman struggles out of the gate, or goes through a prolonged slump, the Indians do actually have legitimate options (not Scott Stewart or Jose Jimenez) to step in. Guillermo Mota, who closed in Florida last year, Fernando Cabrera, who closed for the Puerto Rican team in the WBC, or Rafael Betancourt, who just strikes guys out, would all be acceptable options.

I have a feeling, though, that it won't come to that. Maybe because I'm one of Wickmans' Warriors, maybe because I'd like to drink some High Lifes with the guy, I don't know what it is. I think that Wickman will match, if not exceed, his 2005 season.

There was a report that Wickman last year still couldn't throw his slider because it hurt too much, so he really excelled on guts and guile. This year, with that slider back in the fold, and that gut getting bigger...I mean, that guts and guile still in play, Wickman should exceed expectations again and keep the bullpen intact.

If he does implode, though, and the shelves at Walgreens are devoid of Pepto because of it, the other relievers are there to fill that role.

Those are the main questions entering the 2006 season, some more pressing (because they lack an obvious contingency plan) than others. One never knows with a baseball season, though. Last year, the question we were asking ourselves was how Jhonny Peralta could possibly replace Omar Vizquel.

I saw my first ESPN commercial advertising Opening Night with the Tribe v. Sox. That is enough to put you in the mood for some baseball. Only 11 days until it happens.

Coming soon, in celebration of the one-year anniversary of The DiaTribe, the 2nd Annual Nickname Team, as well as a preview of the 2006 season.

1 comment:

T-Bone said...

your coldplay offer sounds like the offer that made me go to aerosmith a few months ago, floor seats along one of the catwalks.

well, off to see the lebrons. when i have time to catch my breath i'll comment on recent posts, as well as 2006 Bennett Builders Softball!!!