Sunday, December 17, 2006

An Argumentative Lazy Sunday

Thanks to the dearth of decent things on TV (as we simply wait to make a hospital trip - 3 days from the DiaBride's due date), I happened to catch the 1982 Cleveland Indians Year in Review on STO. Accompanied by the mellifluous tones of Nev Chandler (how he is missed), it reviews the Tribe’s 1982 season and looks forward to a promising 1983.

With a strong rotation (Len Barker, Rick Sutcliffe, Bert Blyleven, and Larry Sorenson) a decent bullpen (anchored by Dan Spillner) and an offense led by a powerful DH (Thunder Thornton) and some nice pieces (Toby Harrah, Mike Hargrove, and Rick Manning), the 1982 season ended with a 78-84 record with high hopes for 1983.

In the off-season, they traded Von Hayes for Manny Trillo, Julio Franco, and George Vuckovich and acquired Juan Eichelberger to augment the pitching staff. They were rewarded with a record of…70-92.

Realizing that these “Years in Review” or “Previews” are blatantly optimistic (anyone who has seen a Cleveland Browns’ NFL Films Year in Review since 1999 can attest to that), it got me thinking.

What if the Indians in 2007 are headed for a big letdown?
What if the Indians aren’t primed for a playoff run?
What if the 78-84 records of 1982 and 2006 are more similar than dissimilar?
Is the 2007 squad set for a disappointment, something that (after last year) isn’t going to go well in Cleveland?

So, without the presence of noted thespian Keanu Reeves, I decided to play a little Devil’s Advocate.

Following are the questions or uncertainties facing the Tribe in 2007, accompanied by arguments as to why those questions could blow up into full-blown problems. Those arguments are then followed by rebuttals that give hope that the Indians’ remain on the right track for 2007 and beyond.

The 2007 Bullpen Is No Better
Argument – Borowski for Wickman. Hernandez for Mota. Fultz for Sauerbeck. Everything else (Cabrera, Betancourt, Miller, Davis) remains the same for a bullpen breaking Spring Training, so where’s the improvement? Given the volatility of relievers, there’s no guarantee that the new pitchers don’t turn into Mota and Sauerbeck – or worse – Jimenez and Stewart. If the FA signings blow up in the Indians’ faces, we’re back to where we started. The youngsters in AAA will be called upon to rescue the season and will try to learn on the fly, ready or not. If the Indians are not able to add another reliable arm, they’re playing with fire – risking them the possibility of getting burned 2 years in a row.

Rebuttal – The bullpen is always a crapshoot. The 2006 bullpen looked better coming out of Winter Haven than the one that was sent north in 2005, but the results could not have been more different. The volatility of relievers is always going to be a constant, so the luck comes in acquiring relievers on the verge of effectiveness, not on the downswing. The Indians’ approach of quantity in lieu of absolutely certain quality is a sound approach that allows them to have enough arms available in the case that Aaron Fultz is Scott Stewart in disguise. Let’s not forget, too, that at this point last year, most thought that Fernando Cabrera was the closer-in-waiting. After a dreadful start (thanks, maybe, to the WBC), Cabrera was the biggest disappointment of 2007 this side of Jhonny Peralta. If Cabrera is able to recapture the effectiveness of the 2005 season that portended so much success, the new arms will be allowed to slot further down the ladder. Additionally, the depth of the organization at AAA, reliever-wise, allows the Tribe to have multiple options (Mastny, Mujica, Sipp, Lara, etc.) in case one of the FA signings flops. Don’t expect the Tribe to hold on to a floundering reliever while Rome burns, regardless of the financial commitment.

The Rotation is not a Strength
Argument
– C.C. is injury-prone, Westbrook gives up too many hits, Sowers has 14 career starts, Lee is trending down with an inability to get through the 6th inning, and Byrd has become nothing more than a 5th starter. For what is supposed to be the strength of the team, that’s a lot of question marks. If one of the veterans goes down, the replacement comes in the form of Fausto Carmona (he of the 7 career starts) giving the Indians two starters with 21 career starts for a team intent on contention this year.

Rebuttal – Obviously, this is a pretty weak argument as it’s become clear that the Indians’ starters have missed 7 starts in the past 2 years, and C.C.’s numbers over the past 1 ½ years scream “aCCe”. Westbrook should benefit from the improved infield defense that a full year of Marte, Barfield, and someone not named Broussard at 1B to limit the amount of groundballs that find the outfield grass. Sowers showed that he has the guile and intelligence to have a preternatural ability to pitch in the MLB, inexperience aside. Lee was a disappointment last year, as his inability to get through the 6th in most of his starts exposed a flawed bullpen. One hopes that Lee will benefit from pitching further down in the rotation, against lesser starters, to keep him in most games until he can figure out what went wrong in 2006. Byrd, as a 5th starter, is probably one of the top three 5th starters in the league. Byrd isn’t being counted to be the ace of this staff, so let’s not overestimate his importance to the staff. The depth of the organization (with Carmona, Slocum, and Miller as the 6th, 7th, and 8th starters) is something that most teams would take as a “problem” 8 days a week.

There are too many Platoons
Argument – Instead of a set lineup with 9 players locked into a spot in the lineup, the Indians are counting on a Dellucci/Michaels platoon in LF, a Choo/Blake platoon in RF, and a Garko/Blake/Martinez platoon at 1B. The Indians should have spent the money being used on Michaels and Dellucci (about $5.5M) to get an everyday LF. Furthermore, they should sign a veteran hitter, either a RF or 1B to play everyday, hand a starting job to Choo or Garko, and let Blake become the super-utility player. A team so full of platoons means simply that the players participating in those platoons are not good enough ML players to earn full-time playing status and the higher the number of platoon players on a roster limits the flexibility of the roster

Rebuttal
– The Benuardo platoon of 2006 proved to be the most productive 1B this side of Albert Pujos before Broussard and Perez were sent to Seattle for Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera. The Dellucci/Michaels platoon in LF should prove to have similar results (Dellucci’s career OPS vs. RHP - .827, with Michaels’ career OPS vs. LHP - .851) and the price ($5.5M) isn’t too excessive if it’s figured the Indians offered a 2-year, $16M contract to Moises Alou to fill an outfield spot. Both Dellucci and Michaels have proven that they can hit either LHP or RHP, so the platoon should prove effective. As for the convoluted 1B/RF platoon, it’s likely that the Indians will watch the development of both Choo and Garko through the first few months of the 2007 season. If one struggles, it’s very possible that the Indians use some of the unused funds from the off-season to add a veteran hitter at one of those two positions, essentially replacing whichever player is less productive. The more productive player becomes a full-time fixture, allowing Blake to slot into that super-utility role. Of course, the current arrangement could work very well, Garko and Choo could both thrive to the point that they are given regular AB against both LHP and RHP and the point again becomes moot.

Jhonny Peralta v.2006 Shows Up Again
Argument
– Peralta’s deficiencies in the field weren’t offset by offensive productivity as he saw the bottom drop out of his OPS (.886 to .708) and HR (24 to 13), while his K’s (128 to 152) and GIDP (12 to 19) rose to the point of concern. His “breakthrough” year of 2005 has become a distant memory and it would take quite a bit for him to return to the 3 hole in the lineup, at which he thrived in the 2nd half of 2005. His lack of range in the field has become a major liability and the Indians are going to have to find a suitable backup at SS (neither Luna nor Inglett has shown the ability to play an adequate defensive SS) as a contingency plan in case Peralta’s 2005 season proves to be the aberration, rather than the 2006 season.

Rebuttal – For a player who doesn’t turn 25 until late May and showed enough in the 2005 season for the Tribe to give him a long-term contract, there’s a good deal of consternation about a sophomore slump. Perhaps the fact that the other player also receiving an extension last off-season (Grady) took the next step, while Peralta regressed at the plate played a part in the concern. At the bottom of the lineup, where he’ll be asked to improve his plate discipline (the guy in the bleachers knows he’s seeing a breaking ball low and away with 2 strikes) and revert back to his 2005 form, there will be a lot less pressure for him to recover. Defensively, Peralta will have the luxury of a superior 3B in Marte and a better defender at 2B in Barfield than he endured in 2006. It’s true that he needs to improve his range and approach to ensure that he’s properly positioned on EVERY pitch, but let’s remember that Peralta is still a young player learning the game, subject to the maturation process that every player goes through. Unfortunately for Peralta, he became the cover boy for everything that went wrong with the Indians in 2006, putting the microscope firmly on him. Shapiro has called Peralta “the most important player to the team in 2007”, so don’t think the glare of the microscope is off of him. How he responds and adjusts to his 3rd full year in MLB will determine if Peralta becomes a SS the caliber of Tejada (remember how we all thought he was Miggy’s second coming after 2005) or Dale Sveum (a one-year-wonder who never recaptures the success of his first full season).

Are Pronk, Grady, and the Stick Enough?
Argument – The Indians failed to add a leadoff hitter that would have allowed SuperSizemore to move to the 3 hole, and failed to add a big RH bat to protect Hafner in the 5 hole. By failing to add these pieces, the Indians are relying too heavily on either young, unproven players (Garko, Barfield, Marte, Choo) or players with mixed career results (Peralta, Blake, Dellucci, Michaels) to carry the offense. Grady, Pronk, and Victor can only do so much to shoulder the load and the unproven nature of the bottom of the order forces them to produce the bulk of the offense.

Rebuttal – This is the same team that was second in MLB in runs scored (behind only the NYY) and fourth in OPS and total bases in 2006, with the likes of Boone getting consistent AB, Joe Inglett getting over 200 AB, a dreadful year from Peralta, and Michaels batting against RHP. While the likes of Garko, Barfield, Marte, and Choo don’t have a lot of experience, they showed enough talent and promise that they should be an improvement over the players they’re replacing. Rather than throwing money at the likes of a 1B/RF like Aubrey Huff, a leadoff hitter like Juan Pierre, or a RH bopper like (gasp) Carlos Lee, the Indians are going to give their youngsters a chance to succeed. Allowing the Minor Leagues to bear their fruit is the proper (and prudent) way to build a team, filling holes from within and spending money or making trades only when holes are unable to be filled from the farm.

Going into 2007, there’s no question that question marks exist, but on December 17th, those question marks aren’t nearly as glaring as most teams face. While the naysayers will always see that half-empty glass, it’s much easier to see the glass half-full and remain optimistic about this team going forward. Of course, the 2007 season could turn into another 1983, but for now, it looks unlikely.

With that out of the way, here’s a brief Lazy Sunday (not much happening on the Reservation as of late) to put off the names on that Christmas list:
Terry Pluto brings us up to speed on the off-season moves.

Paul Hoynes addresses Pronk’s contract situation.

For now, enjoy the remainder of the Drive for Joe Thomas this Sunday.

3 comments:

Baltimoran said...

good luck PC

the aruement with yourself sounds terry plutoesque, very nice though. you make some good points, i was absolutely convinced the tribe would contend last year so i'm going into this season with a little less confidence.

the browns are literally a laughing stock; as i listened to some pre-game on the b-more station they were talking as if the ravens were about to play a high school team. i don't have high hopes for lecharles coming back next year, and unless joe thomas can play both sides we need too much to even be optimistic about next year. oh well only a couple of weeks til the buckeyes play again

Fleerdon said...

Terrific post. Best wishes to you and Mrs. Tabler.

May I offer the lesson I've learned from the last two seasons: the problems don't come from places we say they will.

Consider 2005, when nobody knew who Bobby "the $12 million-dollar man" Howry was, Raffy Betancourt was a dude with somewhat newer titanium screws in his arm, and Bob Wickman was a man with somewhat newer tendons in his elbow. Lo and behold, we had ourselves three good innings at the back of the pen.

And the 2005 lineup? Jeckyl and Hyde if ever there were. Remember the crowing of the guys who logged in drunk for their fantasy drafts and picked up Grady or Jhonny by accident? Conversely, remember Ronnie Belliard batting fifth?

My point: trouble, like [several similes censored], is born in unlit places. Can I give you some scenarios? 1) Grady pops a tendon in his left thumb fishing in Twilight Princess, 2) Barfield and Marte collide on a grounder up the middle (Peralta was a little out of position, in foul territory).

I'm talking injury, to the positions that run one-deep on the depth chart. The Indians have been bizarrely lucky about injuries for quite some time now. I'm not here to jinx the kids, I'm just saying, let's not be surprised if it happens. We're overdue.

I know, I know, every team has to deal with that possibility. But not every team can buy (for example) Bobby Abreu when (for example) Gary Sheffield is hurt/whiny.

Which is exactly my point: it's the problems we can't see (some of which may be more mundane than catastrophic injury -- reference a very un-injured Aaron Boone, circa June, 2006), and can't AFFORD to fix that are most likely to sink us. Otherwise, as the MbtL guys have said, the Indians will probably end up improving in 2007 by sheer probability.

Pat Tabler said...

That fear of the unknown is why I hesitate to deal any of the SP because keeping the depth of the organization intact provides the contingency plan.

I'm sure that problems will come from unexpected places. Having a Plan B that doesn't involve putting a player not prepared to contribute is what Shapiro and the boys will try to address before Opening Day.