Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Recovery Room – 2009 Part III

With my voice coming slowly back after attending Monday night’s splendor on the Lakefront, let’s try to finish off this earliest of early 2009 previews in an attempt to set up the off-season while the playoffs roll on. Of course, the topics already hit on involve issues pertaining to the infield, the bullpen, the rotation, and what may be the best course of action regarding Kelly Show Pack. Most of those topics involve going outside the organization to augment the team, whether it be via FA or trade – but questions exist internally that will play just as much of a factor in 2009 as anything that the organization adds to the current roster this off-season. The biggest questions regarding players on the 25-man roster and what can be reasonably expected from them revolve around the health and effectiveness of Fausto Carmona and Travis Hafner. The performance of both players, ideally linchpins for the rotation and the lineup, will have a dramatic effect on the 2009 Indians as the players attempt to recapture some of their past successes, whether it be their performance from 2004 to 2006 (Hafner) or 2007 (Carmona).

Before getting into the sobering part of the piece (you know, the one that involves the phrase – “performed by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham”), let’s get into The Faustastic One and what exactly went wrong in his 2008 season. The raw numbers say that Fausto’s numbers were divided up between those posted prior to his hip injury shelving him and those after he returned from the DL and some rehab starts:
4-2, 3.10 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 54 H, 38 BB, 23 K, .697 OPS against over 58 IP in 10 starts
4-5, 7.61 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 72 H, 32 BB, 35 K, .812 OPS against over 62 2/3 IP in 12 starts

A Tale of Two Faustos?
Not really, as the nice ERA and the decent record prior to the injury belie a propensity all season to allow base runners, both via hit and walk, even prior to his DL stint. Now, some of this is a byproduct of his sinker, as grounders are going to find holes and the prevailing sense that he could ALWAYS get out of a jam with a double play ball is never far away from anyone’s mind when Fausto toes the slab.

But this year, there almost seemed to be too much movement on pitches, as hitters would sit on them (particularly his sinker) to see if they would end up in the strike zone, as opposed to just hammering them into the ground like they did last year. Whether it was his mechanics or the league adjusting to him, the amount of walks that Carmona gave up in 2008 was a startling number, particularly compared to 2007. In fact, most of his numbers relating to K and BB trended in the wrong direction (sometimes dramatically so) from 2007 to 2008:
2007 K/9 – 5.73
2008 K/9 – 4.33

2007 BB/9 – 2.55
2008 BB/9 – 5.22

2007 K/BB – 2.25
2008 K/BB – 0.83

The long and short of it was that he simply walked too many batters, as the percentages of the types of balls struck remained remarkably similar between the two years:
2007 Line Drive % - 14.0%
2008 Line Drive % - 15.0%

2007 Ground Ball % - 64.3%
2008 Ground Ball % - 63.5%

2007 Fly Ball % - 21.7%
2008 Fly Ball % - 21.6%
So, when hitters were putting the ball in play, the results didn’t vary much from 2007 to 2008. The big difference, then, was the walks as his K numbers decreased slightly…but his BB numbers more than doubled!

What happened here?
Was Carmona nursing an injury prior to the hip injury?
Were his mechanics off to such a degree that his pitches were all over the place, allowing hitters to merely wait for the umpire to call strikes?

There is no obvious answer, other than the idea that hitters - knowing that they could do little with his sinking fastball - simply took the sinker, hoping that it was called a ball. The result (as many of them were balls) was that Carmona walked more than twice as many hitters as he did in 2007 while running high pitch counts in every outing. One can only hope that the “problem” is simply mechanical and is easily fixable. If it is, there’s no reason that a healthy and mechanically-sound Fausto can’t become the 2nd pitcher on the Indians in as many years to make a glorious run into the upper echelon of AL pitchers.

Can he be next year’s C.P. Lee, healthy and locked in from Day 1?
His 2007 suggests that the results are in there, but Carmona’s control needs to be rectified to get him back to pounding the strike zone with that unhittable sinker instead of watching that sinker tail away from the plate, as batters drop their bats and trot to 1st. With a Carmona close to his 2007 form and Lee somewhere close to his 2008 form (and, really, is anyone expecting Lee to suddenly turn into Sandy Koufax and replicate his Cy Young season?), the Indians boast two of the top starters in MLB – a duo that can carry them to the top of the AL Central. However, if Carmona falls into the same rut in 2009 that he occupied in 2008, the Indians are going to have bigger rotational issues than determining who their 5th starter is out of Goodyear.

If the importance of Fausto Carmona in 2009 is news to anyone (as, really a lot of people had him pegged to eventually replace CC as the de facto ace on the staff this time last year) and merely constitutes a hope that things return to 2007, what is there to say about Travis Hafner at this point?

We all know by now about the news that he HAS undergone shoulder surgery, after hearing for most of the season that surgery was not necessary and that rehabilitation would be the path back to Pronk. Actually, the only thing of note to come out of the surgery is that nothing was found:
“No structural or nerve damage was found or repaired during Travis Hafner's right shoulder surgery Tuesday. Hafner had what the Indians are calling successful arthroscopic surgery on the shoulder. The 45-minute procedure was performed by Dr. James Andrews at St. Vincent Hospital in Birmingham, Ala. Essentially, the procedure cleaned out Hafner's shoulder joint, removing chronic changes brought about by the grind of baseball.”

So, the Indians went on the conservative side against surgery, in the hopes that the strength could be built back up through exercise and rehabilitation after multiple doctors told them that surgery was not necessary. Now, since the shoulder did not respond to the exercise and rehabilitation, an exploratory surgery was deemed to be necessary, if only to see – up close – what was happening in his shoulder. Once the surgery was performed, nothing unusual was found and the only work done was a “clean out” of the shoulder.
Do I have that right…and does it really sound like they know anything more than they did in May?

How is the “news” that nothing was found to be structurally wrong with his shoulder not bad news?

That is to say, if “damage” was found, then it could have been conceivably “repaired” and that “damage” could be pointed to as the cause of the shoulder weakness. But “no structural or nerve damage was found or repaired”, so the explanation as to why Hafner’s shoulder bottomed out at 15% strength this year and prevented him from playing consecutive days after rehabilitation continues to elude us. Is the thought that removing these “chronic changes brought about by the grind of baseball” (I'd like a translation on that, by the way) the first step to recovery? Despite news that he’ll be “ready for Spring Training” that we’re supposed to take at face value, are we all now simply to assume that because the shoulder has been “cleaned out” that a miraculous return to Pronkitude is ahead of us?

Pardon me while I attempt to look past this grain of salt…
Look, we all know what a healthy Pronk means to the middle of this lineup and the APB went out for him as long ago as June of last year, with his continued absence contributing to the problems of 2008, but the results of this surgery, and the lack of any real cause or answer, underscores how badly this could all turn out. The Indians owe Hafner $49M over the next four seasons and being forced to either put him in the lineup, because of his contract and regardless of his effectiveness, or hang the albatross of a contract with no production to show for it has enormous ramifications on the future of this team.

Is it telling that a line of .800 OPS with 20 HR and 75 RBI from Hafner in 2009 would look AWFULLY good to me? How’s that for diminished expectations…and, truthfully, I’m not even expecting that given the way that this whole shoulder debacle is going. Don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE to see Pronk return in 2009 with the ferocity that we all grew to love from 2004 to 2006, but the cloak-and-dagger nature of every bit of information about his shoulder and the fact that little is still known about what is wrong with it (seeing as how the Indians have a bit of a financial stake in identifying it and fixing it), much less what the proper way to return his shoulder to a level of strength over 75% (without having to skip every other game) has me worried about the long-term future of Travis Hafner…much less if we’ll ever see the return of Pronk.

Given then, that Hafner is now suddenly a wild card in the 2009 mix as Dr. James Andrews’ name generally does not accompany happy news in terms of an athlete’s health, what do the Indians do to provide themselves some insurance in the chance that Hafner will not be ready to contribute in 2009?

The idea of keeping Shoppach has been thrown out there, with the idea that ShopVac would remain the C, Victor would become the 1B, and Ryan Garko would become the DH…and that very well could be case eventually, though Garko at DH is less appealing to me than Garko at 1B (which is unappealing to begin with). Suddenly, I think that the Hafner situation may affect the Shoppach discussion (and I think you move him ONLY if he’s netting a legit top-to-mid-rotation starter or an impact infielder, regardless of Hafner) as the middle of the Indians’ lineup just got murkier. That being said, I would have to think that the insurance for Hafner, in the long-term (and maybe even at some point this year) is going to be provided by Matt LaPorta.

Prior to this Hafner melodrama, I pictured LaPorta starting the 2009 season in Columbus, splitting time between LF and 1B (with Michael Brantley splitting time between LF and CF to accommodate LaPorta in the OF), if only to keep him prepared at both positions for when the Indians decided to call on his services. The thought process went that LaPorta would start the season in AAA, with Francisco and Garko ahead of him at the two positions that he would be manning in Columbus. If LaPorta shot out of the gate in AAA, the Indians would have him ready to step in at either LF or 1B (thought to be two of the more questionable positions of the team for the long-term), depending upon the performances of The Ben Francisco Treat and Gark. Now, with this Hafner conundrum in the mix, it becomes very possible that DH is now added to the list of LF and 1B as possible destinations for LaPorta at some point in early-to-mid-May.

Early-to-mid-May, you say…when he has yet to take an AB in AAA?
Yes, early-to-mid-May…and while perhaps I’m overly bullish on the timeframe of LaPorta’s arrival, I look to the performance of a few other players and their leap from thriving in AA to MLB with relative smoothness.

For the sake of comparison, I’ll use LaPorta’s numbers from Huntsville and Akron (where he admittedly did not hit very well for a variety of reasons, namely a trip to Beijing, his mother being diagnosed with MS, and the whirlwind of life changes that accompanies simply changing organizations) here to encompass the whole body of work and not just to post the absurdly good Huntsville numbers.
And with the middling Akron numbers thrown in there, his line is still pretty impressive:
Matt LaPorta – 2008 in AA (age 23)
.279 BA / .386 OBP / .539 SLG / .924 OPS with 22 HR, 24 2B, and 74 RBI in 101 games

Now compare those numbers to two players who have recently made the successful leap to the Majors with very little time spent in AAA:
Ryan Braun – 2006 in AA (age 22)
.303 BA / .367 OBP / .589 SLG / .956 OPS with 15 HR, 19 2B, and 40 RBI in 59 games

Evan Longoria – 2007 in AA (age 21)
.307 BA / .403 OBP / .528 SLG / .931 OPS with 21 HR, 21 2B, and 76 RBI in 105 games

Is this wishful thinking or discriminately cherry-picking names, based on how both of these players seamlessly mashed their way into the Bigs? Perhaps, but if LaPorta’s bat is as advanced as it was purported to be at the time of the trade and as his AA numbers compare favorably to these two, isn’t there some merit to the thought that LaPorta could follow the path blazed by them (starting the year in AAA, before an early-season call-up) in 2009?

Braun started his 2007 in AAA, playing in 34 games there (mashing to the tune of a 1.119 OPS) before beginning his Rookie of the Year campaign for the Brew Crew. Likewise, Longoria did spend 31 games in AAA in 2007 before getting 7 games under his belt in Durham this year prior to his call-up to the Rays, but his overall time in AAA was pretty limited. Yes, LaPorta was the oldest of the three players at AA, but he also began his minor league career as a 22-year-old in Rookie Ball mainly because of his age when drafted, whereas Ryan Braun played for the same Milwaukee Rookie League affiliate as a 21-year-old, and Longoria began his minor league career as a 20-year-old in A ball. The fast-track progression of the three is very similar as they hit their way out of every level they played in until the call was made for them to join the parent club…in the case of Braun and Longoria, at least.

Obviously, a good deal of this is going to depend on LaPorta’s performance out of the gate in AAA, but if LaPorta excels in Columbus while one of the three positions that he can fill (LF, 1B, or DH) reveals itself as a weakness on the parent club, I can’t imagine a justification for leaving LaPorta in AAA if Hafner isn’t healthy or Francisco/Garko struggle. Depending upon what, exactly, happens with the progression of Hafner’s shoulder, the Indians could use LaPorta’s “flexibility” (if you can really call it that) to cover one of those positions if one of the players falters or isn’t healthy. Of course, if Hafner is on the shelf to start the season AND Shoppach is moved for a starter, the Indians are going to be scrambling somewhat to find players to fill both 1B and DH out of the gate (Mike Aubrey anyone) or moving some of the extra OF into the DH role (Dellucci, Francisco, and Gutierrez) around to take some AB with the hope that LaPorta’s scheduled arrival happens earlier rather than later.

Much of this, though, falls on Hafner – even if he is able to merely post Garko-esque numbers from the DH spot – as it allows the Indians not to scramble around for 2009 for someone to take AB as the DH and to allow LaPorta to (hopefully) settle in at AAA before his car hits the ramp to I-71 North from Columbus to Cleveland. However, all of those plans are contingent on Hafner’s name being on the lineup card from Opening Day in 2009…which is less of a certainty today than it was even last May.


Halifax said...

With every additional setback without reason, it becomes more and more evident that the Pronk we knew will never return. It also raises one of two explanations, one natural and the other unnatural. The natural one is age and the basic decline that comes with it (hey, you get old, you fall apart -- most of us can attest). The unnatural ...

jo said...

when does insureance kick in?
Is it enough to just suck tremendously or does he have to retire?

Halifax said...

If it's like all other kinds of insurance, it'll have to be five times worse than whatever the policy states before they'll even consider paying up. Nothing burns me more than the big ripoff insurance is where solid citizens pay through the nose for YEARS to be covered in case of a need then when the need does occur the company fights it, then finally pays it, then RAISES your rates. That makes sense in what circles of life?

Sorry for the tangent, I doubt they have suck insurance.

KonstrucktaTribe said...

Travis Hafner 2009 Comeback player of the year! Cliff Lee made me a believer in the comeback! Have faith fans of the feather...have faith.

Cy Slapnicka said...

evan longoria, meet casey blake.

Halifax said...

Yep, that was a great play gone sour... he makes that throw, they win. If Gross keeps coming and catches Pedroia's hit, they win, maybe with a shutout.

I don't see them pulling a Tribe, though. They're going back home. That comeback last night doesn't happen in Tampa.