Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Arizona Dreamin’ – Starting It Off

Since the Spring Training Countdown Clock tells me that Pitchers and Catchers report less than three weeks from now, I thought that this would be as good a time as any to get into some of the different issues that figure to be sorted out in Goodyear for the 2009 season. Unless you REALLY have an interest in the WBC rosters (and as long as no Indians’ pitchers are on said roster, I don’t) or want to deeply examine why the prospect of Garko running around in the outfield makes me think of John Belushi as a Decathlete plugging “Little Chocolate Donuts”, there’s not a lot that figures to be happening on the Reservation between now and February 12th, outside of the wildly entertaining Winter Press Tour.

Thus, to pass my time until February 12th (get here already!), I thought that I would try to break down the different aspects of the Tribe roster in a series of pieces and get into some of the questions facing the Tribe that will hopefully find an answer before the team heads East from Goodyear to Arlington for the Season Opener against the Rangers on April 6th. Starting out the series, let’s get right into what looks to be the area of the team that is probably the most important part of the team, but also arrives to Arizona with the most question marks around it – the starting rotation as a whole and, more in depth as to how the middle-to-back-end of the rotation looks to be filled out by the candidates to fill out the rotation to start the season. Obviously, there’s a lot of folks who plan on attending that middle-to-back-of-the-rotation party, but how about we start with a little bit on some things to watch in Spring Training for the pitchers that figure into the top two slots in the rotation, whose importance cannot be underestimated given the question marks behind them.

Starting at the top, Cliff Lee’s 2008 remains the great (and wonderful) mystery of the season as he elevated himself from presumed back-end-of-the-rotation fodder to winning the Cy Young. While his 2008 seemed to come out of nowhere as his numbers had all declined to some degree from his 2004 and 2005 seasons to the point that him getting the 5th spot out of Winter Haven last year was no sure thing (remember this one?), there’s no debate that Lee’s season was a revelation, as he outperformed every pitcher in the AL by attacking hitters, getting ahead in counts, and looking to be in total control with every pitch. His success can be traced to his ability to spot his fastball and limit baserunners, which resulted in his ability to get strikeouts to rise, without compromising the amount of hitters he walked.

To that end, it will be interesting with Lee this Spring to watch his K rate to see that he’s striking batters out with the consistency that he did last year, after seeing it drop for a couple of previous years, and watching to see that he’s keeping with the low BB rate that helped his tremendous 2008 season. If he can keep up the tremendous ratio of K to BB as he did in 2008, or at least show the similar signs in Spring Training that mean that he’s still attacking hitters with his fastball and throwing strikes with location. If he is, there’s no reason to believe that 2008 simply will be remembered as the year that Cliff turned the corner into an elite pitcher, and not the aberration that some believe it to be.

With Carmona, you’re really looking at a total body of work that started with the mostly forgettable 2006 season that saw him get into one whale of a groove when he entered the bullpen (0.95 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 26 K, 7 BB over 28 1/3 IP in his first 22 games as a reliever) until the wheels famously came off when he was given the chance to close. He followed that off with his breakthrough 2007 as a starter, when he was statistically one of the top five pitchers in baseball, only to come back with his downright disappointing 2008 season, during which his 0.83 K/BB ratio (that would be more BB than K) didn’t…um, rank real high in terms of MLB pitchers and puts in perspective how “off” he was all season.

Anyone else feel like they’re riding the Blue Streak or the old Big Dipper on this one…up, down, up, down…
So this should be an “up” year, which means the third consecutive Cy Young for the Tribe, right?
It’s pretty hard to predict what to expect with him as when he’s on, he’s essentially unhittable (one more drink before last call, Torii?) but when he’s off, he allows things to domino on him in terms of allowing baserunners by giving up consecutive walks and hits. Let’s just say that if he stays healthy, that’s step one, which hopefully leads to him finding more success as he attempts to iron out the mechanical problems that allowed batters to simply sit on his sinker and wait for him to throw strikes. But if you’re looking something to watch in Spring Training for Carmona, watch his walk totals as the number of walks he gave up in 2007 (2.55 per 9 innings) more than doubled in 2008 (5.22 per 9 innings) to see if he’s hitting the strike zone consistently and if he’s forcing hitters to swing at his sinker by throwing it for a strike. Additionally, watch the pitch count for him as the number of pitches that it took him to get through an inning in 2007 (14.59 on average) saw an uptick in 2008 (to 16.8 on average). While 14.59 to 16.80 isn’t a huge jump, realize that Carmona’s sinker is designed to initiate grounders and is meant to be swung at and put into play, so the more pitches that he throws, the more that it means that hitters are simply sitting back, waiting for him to throw strikes.

Past those top two, there are players assumed to be starters in the rotation, if only because of their lack of options (Reyes) or a guarantee from the GM (Pavano), assuming health and some semblance of effectiveness in Goodyear. For the 5th spot then, the Indians look to have a gaggle of LHP who will be vying to break camp with the parent club and not simply fill out the Columbus rotation and wait for their chance.

For the pitcher that could be assumed to be the de facto #3 starter entering Goodyear, it must be asked - will the real Anthony Reyes please stand up? A hotshot prospect that turned into a suspect over the course of a few years, The Man with the Flat Brim came to Cleveland and put up some phenomenal numbers, posting a 1.83 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP, over 6 starts for the Tribe. While he didn’t miss many bats (only 15 K in 39 1/3 IP, admittedly a small sample size) for the Tribe, he did go through the St. Louis system as a strikeout pitcher of sorts, striking out 136 batters in 128 2/3 IP for AAA Memphis as a 23-year-old in 2005. After that season, Reyes famously ascended to the Majors in time for the Cards’ 2006 WS victory before, perhaps more famously, butting heads with St. Louis Pitching Coach Dave Duncan on what type of pitcher Reyes should be. Whether getting out from under Duncan is a good thing in the long-term remains to be seen, but the early results in his time with Carl Willis portend good things for 2009. If you buy into projections at all (and, if you do, B-Pro’s book should be out by Valentine’s Day), know that the Bill James projection for Reyes in 2009 (3.88 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and 135 K to 53 BB in 168 IP) has him re-capturing the magic that seemed to leave him in 2006. If those numbers shake out, or even come close to shaking out, Reyes slots very nicely as the #3 starter that can go a long way to settling the middle of the rotation and serving as the bridge between the top two in front of him and the bevy of LHP behind him.

After Reyes in terms of pitchers who, assuming health and with the expectation that they don’t spike themselves in Goodyear, look to have a spot in the rotation going into Spring Training, Carl Pavano is the veteran reclamation project whose signing has received probably more attention than it truly deserves. If he can truly be counted on to stay healthy and, if healthy, effective will be one of the Spring’s more intriguing developments. I’m interested to see how the Indians handle his inning load in Arizona – if they’re going to treat him with kid gloves with the idea that they want him to stay healthy of if they’re going to throw him out there with the rest of the pack and see what he has left in the tank. Beyond that, obviously his performance will be closely monitored and it will be interesting to see what the Indians do if he’s obviously struggling in Spring Training. That is, if Pavano goes out this Spring and just gets blown up in every outing, will the Indians eat their $1.5M gamble and let the youngsters slot themselves for one more spot or do they give Pavano a few shots in the regular season before the cord is cut?
Of course, Pavano could make all of these points moot and just pretend that the year is 2004 again and become a fixture in the rotation right out of the gate.
As for me…I’m not going to hold my breath for that to happen.

If Reyes and Pavano are assumed to have spots in the rotation to begin the season, there really is only one spot left in the rotation for the likes of Laffey, Sowers, Huff, and Jackson to battle it out for. Out of those names, probably the leader at the starting gate for the 5th spot is Laffey, who has thrived at every level that he’s pitched at (save his time in Buffalo last year when arm discomfort compromised his effectiveness) and his performance after being promoted to the Indians last May. How much has the still-23-year-old Laffey dominated the minors? Take out his 2008 in Buffalo, during which he experienced arm issues, and his minor league statistics are pretty impressive - 3.38 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP over 583 2/3 IP. Unlike some of the other pitchers in the mix, Laffey has experienced a modicum of success in MLB over the course of two seasons now, enough that the Tribe coaching staff may have a level of confidence in that they know what to expect from him after the last two years, over which he’s posted an MLB line of a 4.34 ERA (104 ERA+) and a 1.40 WHIP. Not exactly top-of-the-rotation stuff, but if that’s what the Indians are getting out of their 5th starter (or perhaps 4th, dependent on how this all shakes out), they could do quite a bit worse. With Laffey, maybe his ceiling is as a 4th or 5th starter, but if he’s 4th or 5th starter right now who can eat innings and post respectable numbers from that spot, it’s worth giving the Babyfaced Bulldog the first crack at showing he belongs out of Goodyear.

In the interest of full disclosure, if we’re talking about a LHP who has shown that he can thrive in the minors, and has experienced success in the Bigs, Jeremy Sowers fits the bill as well as Laffey. Sowers has a minor-league career line of a 2.50 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP over 413 2/3 IP, with a tremendous 2008 in Buffalo that saw him post a 2.08 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP with 43 K and 17 BB in 60 2/3 IP. Upon that unbridled minor-league success, throw the second half of his 2006 season (3.57 ERA, 1.19 WHIP over 88 1/3 IP in 14 starts) that remains etched in everyone’s memory to some extent as he showed flashes of brilliance, even if nobody could figure out how he was achieving the results he was. Since that run of innings in 2006, though, Sowers hasn’t been able to find MLB success, compiling a 5.88 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP for the Tribe over the last two years. The question needs to be asked as to why Jeremy Sowers has not been able to replicate his 2006 success and why is he able to dominate AAA hitting, only to see MLB hitters tee off on him? I don’t know…and truthfully, some small part of me wants to believe that Sowers can come back to something close to his 2006 success or that he can finally translate his minor-league success to the Bigs. But at this point, it’s going to take quite a bit of convincing for me not to believe that Sowers is not unlike that AAAA position player who thrives against AAA competition but is unable to translate that success to a prolonged MLB career.

If Laffey is the leader at the gate in this field, Dave Huff is the definite dark horse as Huff proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can be successful in AAA with the type of performance in his 16 starts in Buffalo (particularly the 81 K to 15 BB in his 80 1/3 AAA innings) that would translate to success in MLB. Based purely on potential and statistics that portend MLB success, Huff has a leg up on the rest of the candidates with his ability to miss bats and his varied and effective pitch repertoire, which revolves around his ability to spot his fastball and using his change-up to complement his fastball. An X-factor with Huff is that he only pitched 146 1/3 innings in AA and AAA last year after being limited to 59 2/3 innings in 2007. Limiting innings in MLB, particularly for young pitchers, is something that the Indians have always been very cognizant of and limiting Huff’s innings may be in the Indians’ minds when deciding which LHP is going to break camp in the rotation. Huff isn’t likely to throw more than 150 or 160 innings this year and where he throws those innings remains to be seen as is Huff is going to be on an inning limit for the season, so do the Indians want Huff to throw most of those in Columbus? Finally, unlike the rest of the candidates, however, is not on the Indians’ 40-man roster and would have to be added – which would be an easy hurdle to clear if Huff forces his way onto the team out of Goodyear.

As for the long shot in the starting gate, the idea that Zach Jackson figured onto the 25-man roster out of Goodyear as it was (incorrectly, it turns out) assumed that he was out of options. The thought was that Zachson could fill the role of the long man/spot starter out of the gate to allow the rest of the bullpen to settle in Cleveland and Columbus and to give the Indians the luxury of having a pitcher whose workload and frequency of work was not one that they had to closely monitor. With the extra option however, it’s pretty obvious that Jackson at this point will fill that role…just not on the 25-man roster. He looks like a depth starter who is likely to shuttle back and forth between Columbus and Cleveland if he’s called to do so. It’s likely that a number of these other pitchers slot ahead of Jackson in terms of long-term viability in the rotation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a spot start at some point in 2009, if only because he’s already on the 40-man and a scheduled start for him in Columbus may coincide with a need in the big-league rotation. The thought that Jackson could fill the role of a long man for the Tribe in 2009, able to eat innings and pitch without the promise of regular appearances went by the wayside a bit in the past few weeks as the Indians loaded up on veteran depth to go along with their high-ceiling young prospects. At this point in his career, he’ll turn 26 in May without any real MLB success (career MLB ERA of 5.49, career MLB WHIP of 1.52) or a minor-league track record (career MiLB ERA of 4.62, career MiLB WHIP of 1.43) that would project that he just hasn’t been able to turn the corner in MLB, so it’s getting late soon for The Zach Attack to show that he’s a legitimate option in a legitimate rotation and not just the spot starter/long man that he looks to be right now.

When it comes to breaking down the rotation going into Spring Training, Arizona may give us a peek as to whether the Indians can reasonably expect Lee v.2008 and Carmona v.2007 to anchor their rotation and let the rest of the starters sort themselves out. If either is close to as good as they have been, the Indians’ rotation could boast one of the top pitchers in the AL. If both can come close to replicating their successful seasons of the past, the Indians will have arguably the best 1-2 punch in MLB, not just the AL.

Past those two, if Reyes and Pavano are healthy and don’t completely implode in Goodyear, both are going to be breaking Spring Training in the rotation. Where they slot in the rotation really doesn’t matter that much to me as if both are healthy and even moderately effective into…let’s say May, then the Indians will be thrilled with them in the middle of their rotation.

As for the rest of the candidates going for the 5th spot, I would think that the spot is Laffey’s to lose at this point as he had the most success in MLB in recent years and the fact that the all of these guys all have options remaining means that they can all be stashed in Columbus to sort themselves out and to allow the Indians to mix-and-match and dip into their depth to find the hot hand as the season progresses.

Lots of questions face all of these candidates and the idea that Jake Westbrook returns to the rotation in July still seems to be out there as a bit of a wild card in the deck. How much can reasonably expected out of Westbrook remains to be seen (if, in fact, he even comes back that early and is ready to pitch in MLB), but the 2009 rotation looks to be a pretty fluid situation, Jake or no Jake, where the Indians may be seeing their rotation evolve from the Season Opener all the way into the Fall, depending upon the performances of the individual pitchers. It’s always possible that a guy like Scott Lewis emerges to jump ahead of everyone, but to me most of these guys that don’t get the 5th spot (Lewis included) simply serve as the depth that figures to be leaned on to find the right mix of pitchers to fill out the rotation.

The rotation is likely to play a big role in what the 2009 Indians do, and some of the questions that need to be answered to ensure that the rotation remains a pillar of this team (or at least close to it) figure to find some answers in Goodyear.

5 comments:

Adam said...

The reasonable projections for our rotation this season have to span the entire range from very good to very bad. But we certainly have lots of options. I think the key will be Wedge striking the right balance of giving guys a chance to struggle and swapping in/swapping out guys as performance dictates. No easy task.

Les Savy Ferd said...

If I had to put some money on who I thought would land the 5th spot I'd have to say Sowers. I wish I could provide wonderful details like those provided in the above article as to why I think this way, but alas, this is just my gut talking. Unfortunately (and thanks to the wonderful line from High Fidelity) "we all know my gut has #$%@ for brains."

A curious aside, I was looking at ESPN's hot stove depth chart (updated daily, or so they say) which also has Sowers slotted in our rotation (much to my chagrin... I am uncomfortable agreeing with ESPN) and apparently Rafael Perez is our third string SS? I had no idea.

http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/teams/depth?team=cle

A.G.B said...

I am glad someone else looks forward to the release of the Baseball Prospectus as much as I do!

I think the rotation is the biggest question mark for the Tribe this year. I am confident in the 'pen, the line-up and even the fielding but I just see question marks all over the rotation. You are right in saying that we don't really know what to expect from both Lee and Carmona. Chances are, they will be solid #1 and #2 but we just can't know for sure.

No way Laffey doesn't make the team either. Shapiro is infatuated in him and rightfully so.

Anybody else here that Omar signed with Texas on a Minor League contract? Doesn't that just make you want to curl up in a ball and weep for awhile? I brought out my old #13 jersey to wear today. Who cares if it is two sizes too small?

Bresci has a posse said...

according to beyond the boxscore ( http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2009/1/21/729705/behold-the-power-of-the-gl ) , Vizquel is even just slightly above replacement level at this point in his career.

Rockdawg said...

I am a little behind here, but I FINALLY got a chance to listen to the podcast...freaking great!!

I also just read Baltimorian's slander towards me (or was it libel, I always get the two confused). I would just like to say that I NEVER thought that wins are a good stat to judge a pitcher's performance. I am, however, a huge fan of posts that follow games after the poster has enjoyed a couple pops.

I am pleased that, although the options for the back end of the rotation aren't SOLID, at least we have options. I wasn't a huge fan of the Pavano signing, but at least it provides us with an arm that has had success in MLB. I love the fact that Shapiro piles up starters as if we are going to use an 8-man rotation, I give him the "thumbs up" heading into Spring Training. (as if that means anything)

PTC, I've found this Lebron character to be a pretty good stop gap until the 12th.