Thursday, May 01, 2008

Tomahawks Flying

In an AL where no team has separated itself (whether it be in the Central or elsewhere), the Indians remain right in the thick of things as the calendar turns to May with certain players (Pronk, Garko, Brodzoski, C.C., just to name a few) more than happy to rip the “April” page off their desk calendars than others (C.P. Lee, Masa, um…I guess Dellucci).
Perhaps the April showers have passed and May promises to be full of, well…let’s just let ‘em fly before I get all poetic:

As good as Sandy Koufax…I mean Steve Carlton…I mean Warren Spahn…I mean Cliff Lee (there, I got it) has been and as much as his numbers are a mind blowing anomaly in comparison to his previous two seasons, here’s the greatest part of his 2008 season – three of his five victories have ended three game losing streaks for the Indians. If CLIFF LEE is playing the role of “Stopper”, what will that mean when C.C. finally gets fully untracked, when Jake returns, and when Fausto stops walking people – that the Indians won’t have a losing streak longer than two games?
The way that the starting pitching is setting up, the Indians are one offensive hot streak (even if it’s just 4 to 5 runs a game) from putting a string of victories together that could put some distance between them and the rest of the AL Central.

Interesting to see the Mariners jettison both OF Brad Wilkerson and 1B Greg Norton after Tuesday’s victory over the Tribe. Granted, Norton was playing very little and his replacement on the roster (Jeff Clement) is a highly thought-of prospect and Wilkerson had posted an OPS of .652 to that point in the season, but the Mariners hadn’t even played 30 games when the move was made. Generally, we all hear that the “magical” 40-game mark is the point that organizations wait for before making significant changes on their roster.

Whether getting rid of two aging veterans who weren’t really contributing and didn’t have much upside represent “significant changes” is debatable, but it may serve as the first among many moves as teams around the league switch gears or move some plate appearances around. If that is the case (and I know that my harping on Carson Kressley is bordering on the irrational as his inclusion in the lineup is simply an irritation and not a HUGE problem), I happen to know of a certain blonde-locked OF taking time away from other potential players (presently in Cleveland and Buffalo) whose OPS cracked the .500 mark after ONLY 48 AB while playing in 20 of the first 28 games of the season.

I’m certainly not one to the live in the past (the suggestion that Omar Vizquel should return to Cleveland at this point in his career to “upgrade our defense” and “recapture the magic of Jacobs Field” puts my stomach in knots), but does anyone else miss seeing the Rally Pies fly in the post game interviews?

Fully realizing that the Trotter was the burr under everyone’s saddle last year, the looseness of the clubhouse that seems to be notably lacking this year is one big difference between this year’s team and last year’s incarnation of the Tribe. It’s obviously an attribute that doesn’t show up anywhere on paper and is certainly is not quantifiable, but I long for the mischief and mayhem of a whipped cream concoction in a post-game interview.

On a somewhat related note, somebody’s looking pretty good in AAA this year, and I don’t mean the “Just For Men”-free goatee. His OPS for Tucson is 100 points higher than anyone in Buffalo.
Whose blood pressure just went up?

In case you haven’t noticed, since the Bronx Bombers have left town on Monday night, their transaction log has been rather full:
Placed Jorge Posada on the 15-day DL (Right Shoulder)
Placed A-Quad on the 15-day DL (Strained Quadriceps)
Placed Phil Hughes on the 15-day DL (Strained Oblique)

Regardless of how effective “surefire HOFer” Phil Hughes has been, we all know what a strained oblique does to a pitcher (see Jake and C.P. Lee circa 2007) and I can’t imagine that a throwing shoulder injury to a catcher is something that is easily ironed out (made worse that the Yankees’ DH queue is already full with Damon and HGHiambi), so this is not good news in the Bronx. Throw in the fact that Brian Bruney, one of their only reliable relievers not named Joba or Mo, just learned that his foot injury will keep him out until August at the earliest and you see that the depth that the Indians have, and the Yankees lack, could make a big difference down the stretch in the AL…unless you think that Jose Molina, Morgan Ensberg, Alberto Gonzalez, and the likes of Billy Traber, Kei Igawa (seriously), and Ross Ohlendorf (who sounds like a goon from “Slap Shot”) are going to carry the flag for the Yanks as their roster ages before our eyes.

With all of that said (that is, about the Indians’ depth and how it relates to the rest of the AL), an interesting batch of players to watch on the farm for the next few weeks is going to be the arms that constitute the Indians’ starting pitching depth. With Laffey figuring to stay on the parent club while Jake rehabs, the Indians’ #7 through #9 starters look to be Sowers, Atom Miller, and Smoke ‘Em Brian Slocum. Further down the ladder, former 1st round pick David Huff seems to have turned a corner in Akron and could figure into the depth going forward.

Why will this be interesting to watch shake out? Let’s say that Laffey performs well in his stint in Cleveland, that Atom Miller (whose starts since returning have been playing to glowing reviews) shows that his talent is real and that he is healthy, that Slocum fills the role of a #7 to #8 depth starter by eating innings in Buffalo, and that Huff continues his progression as a prospect into Buffalo. Would the Indians entertain trading Sowers, who they see (trust me) as no more than a #5 starter and could have some trade value with his 2005 season, his start against the Yankees, and continued success in Buffalo?

I know that the Indians figure to have two spots to fill in the rotation for 2009 and the trade of Sean Smith thinned out their depth already, but if the Indians count on Laffey and Miller and possibly add an arm in FA, as well has having a comfort level with the development of players like Huff or even a Ryan Edell, there’s a good possibility that they can sell high on Sowers to fill another organizational hole. Would he bring a huge return? No, not by himself…but he could be a piece that the Tribe dangles in front of other teams as a young, cheap, talented arm that may be more valuable to an organization that doesn’t play their home games at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Maybe I’m late to the game on this, but I recently learned that Rocky Betancourt’s entrance music is not some absurd Venezuelan death metal, as I had previously thought. It’s actually the White Stripes song “Conquest”, whose linked video has me walking around all day whistling the horn intro that accompanies the Fist of Steel to the mound. Regardless of his terrifying HR rate this year (he’s given up 3 HR in 11 1/3 IP after giving up 4 HR throughout all of his 79 1/3 IP in 2007), I know that he will come to “make a…conquest”.
Cue the horns.

After the recent foibles of the Tribe bats, you may be in the dumper on this team and it’s all-or-nothing offense, but Cheer Up, Charlie – the Indians are 13-15 with Pronk’s OPS sitting at .642, with Brodzoski (The Close) blowing 2 games before the revelation that his right arm may have been held together with chicken wire and bubble gum which have now failed him, and their reigning Cy Young winner’s first 4 starts of the season netting a ERA of 11.57.
How are they not hopelessly out of the race already with those factors?
Very simply, consistent and consistently excellent pitching.

If the formula really is pitching, pitching and more pitching, you have to remain optimistic about this team, regardless of how difficult that may seem on certain nights. The starting pitching will keep this team in most games and, assuming that the progression of relievers is solidified, the bullpen will keep opposing offenses at bay – allowing the offense to find its footing and some semblance of consistency and traction.
And when (not if) it does, watch out.


manormyth said...

Would the Indians entertain trading Sowers, who they see (trust me) as no more than a #5 starter and could have some trade value with his 2005 season, his start against the Yankees, and continued success in Buffalo?

The Indians almost never make trades like that. Their MO is to wait till there's no room on the 40-man roster for someone, then let him walk (Barton, Phillips).

...the looseness of the clubhouse that seems to be notably lacking this year is one big difference between this year’s team and last year’s incarnation of the Tribe.

The same loose team choked last October and choked in the 2005 pennant race without him, so I don't think Nixon made any difference.

I do think there's a lack of obvious onfield leadership here, relating in my opinion to the organization's devaluing of, if not outright distrust of, vocal guys and players with a noticeable personality. Which is why Brandon Phillips will hit 30 homers for a second straight year in Cincinnati and not Cleveland.

R.M. Jennings said...

Caption on a Yahoo! photo:

"Cleveland Indians' Victor Martinez, right, congratulates closing pitcher Jorge Julio after Julio pitched the ninth inning to close out an 8-3 Indians win of a baseball game in Cleveland, on Wednesday, April 30, 2008."

Can you find the part of the caption that made my blood pressure spike momentarily?

Ryan said...

Great point on them being a week of solid pitching from putting them up at the top of the AL.

Just need to keep reciting: The hits will come. The hits WILL come.

Paul Cousineau said...

Not sure I agree with you on the leadership thing as my point had more to do with the team being loose (whether or not they “choked” two of the last three years). I would peg Victor and C.C. as the leaders of the team with the rest of the players taking their cues from them.
Is there a Big Papi on the team – that universally commands respect in the clubhouse AND calls his teammates out as he did after Game 4 of the ALCS last year?
No…but how many of those are there in the league?

Also, on the 40-man thing, I agree with you that the team waits for too long to make a decision on their players – but I don’t like either of your examples. From the time that Phillips flamed out after his 1st stint with the team, he developed serious flaws in his game (and seemed to be at constant odds with management, dressing down John Farrell in the Bisons’ clubhouse at one point) and wasn’t going to bring much in return in a trade at any point after that. Whether or not he would have blossomed in Cleveland as he has in Cincinnati is debatable as I think that the move prompted Phillips’ resurgence, in effect, to prove the Indians wrong and to justify his comments (even if only in his own mind) during the press conference of Sizemore’s contract that “it should have been me”.

As for Barton, he was a 25-year-old AAA player who SLUGGED .420 in Buffalo last year with Gutierrez and Francisco in front of him on the depth chart, not to mention Sizemore. Should he have been protected over Brad Snyder? Probably, but I still don’t see him as much more than a platoon OF or a 4th OF and would take Gutz and The Frisco Kid today.
Playing Francisco, however…

I think the better examples of the team waiting too long come from Jeremy Guthrie or Andrew Brown and not “selling high” on prospects from a guy like a Trevor Crowe. One of the things that drove the Braves’ sustained run of excellence was identifying which of their prospects they felt strongly about and which were overrated or had simply benefited from one good year. Those “suspects” then were moved for other parts and the real “prospects” stuck around to help the team. If there is an area that the Indians’ Front Office needs to improve, it is that. They need to identify which players LEGITIMATELY can help the team down the road as a difference-maker and which ones simply project as 5th starters, middle relievers, 4th outfielders, or utility players. If you can find a team that values one of your players more highly than you do, you make the move and don’t look back.

Paul Cousineau said...

Welcome to the the way.