Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tomahawks in the Cacti

As the temperature dips below the freezing mark again on the North Coast…I mean, come on…let’s imagine ourselves in Arizona, sitting under the sun looking at all of the cacti that surround us. Now, let’s imagine ourselves hurling tomahawks at those cacti because it’s time to release the first tomahawks of 2009.

While Spring Training stats are just that, who else is excited that Jhonny Peralta has continued the momentum from the end of his 2008 season into swinging a hot bat in Arizona? With questions still legitimately surrounding how frequently Hafner is going to play (and how effective he’ll be when he does), Peralta’s bat may play a huge role as middle-of-the-order presence with a healthy Victor and a full season of a (seemingly now healthy) S.S. Choo.

Everyone knows about the second-half emergences of Choo and Show Pack last season, but how about Jhonny, whose production took off once he was inserted into the #4 spot? Starting on June 22nd (his first appearance in the clean-up spot), Peralta posted a line of .306 BA / .365 OBP / .512 SLG / .877 OPS with 12 HR, 28 2B, and 59 RBI with 68 K and 30 BB in the 378 plate appearances over his final 86 games.
What number stands out there? And don’t you dare say RBI, Mr. and Mrs. Garko.

How about 28 Doubles in his final 86 games in 2008, when Peralta had 28 Doubles over 149 games in 2006 and 27 Doubles in 152 games in 2007? Over the course of a season, that pace puts Peralta at about 52 Doubles, a number reached by two Indians since 1926 (Sizemore with 53 in 2006 and Belle with 52 in 1995).

So much is made of where Peralta figures to play on the diamond, what’s overlooked is that Peralta looks to have fully recaptured the magic of his breakout 2005 season to become an excellent offensive player, regardless of what patch of dirt his cleats dig themselves into on the infield.

While Jhonny isn’t likely to continue the phenomenally torrid pace he’s setting in Goodyear (and does anyone else feel like someone should pull him aside and tell him to save for games that count), slotting him in the #5 hole behind Victor allows the lineup to stretch out in terms of quality.

Speaking of the lineup, is anyone else interested to see how the names are going to appear 1 through 9 when the games count? It’s assumed that Sizemore and DeRosa will hit first and second and that Victor will hit in the clean-up spot, but where do the Indians go with the #3 hole?

Are they really convinced that Hafner should sit in that #3 hole or would they be better served to give The BLC the first shot at it, allowing Hafner to work his way back into the groove without the added pressure (real or imagined) that he’s being counted on to carry a good deal of the offensive burden from Day 1?

If you were to ask me right now, I'd say the lineup should look like this:
CF – Sizemore
3B – DeRosa
RF – Choo
C/1B – Martinez
SS – Peralta
DH – Hafner
C/1B – Shoppach/Garko
LF – Francisco
2B – Cabrera

In that lineup, the first redundancy of handedness doesn’t come until the #7/#8 spot with Shoppach/Garko leading into Francisco, all of whom are RH. Otherwise, the lineup balances out the hitters pretty well and allows Hafner to ease into the mix, with the unused portion of the Garko/Shoppach combination taking Hafner’s spot in the lineup when Hafner needs a day off to rest his shoulder.

Does anyone else see where this “versatility” for Garko that we keep reading about is going?

The Indians keep talking about how Garko’s looked good in LF, about how they might take a look at him in RF, and how they want to “keep his bat in the lineup”…but why wouldn’t it be in the lineup seeing as how there’s not an “obvious” everyday 1B that figures to take playing time away from him?

I don’t think I’m telling any secrets to say that the answer is pretty simple – the Indians are going to be playing Victor at 1B a LOT more than they’re letting on, allowing Shoppach to get as many AB as the catcher as his 2008 merited. While the Indians have publicly commented that ShopVac will catch C.P. Lee and that Victor will catch Carmona, the fact that they’re so interested in adding “versatility” to Garko’s bag of tricks is telling. It’s telling because a decent amount of AB look, at least on the surface, to be available for Garko if he and Shoppach are truly in a convoluted platoon at C and 1B and Hafner’s going to need days off, making AB available at DH.

That is, unless, the Indians are figuring that Kelly and Victor figure to be getting the bulk of the playing time from the C and 1B positions (and last time I checked, Shoppach isn’t a 1B) and the Indians are figuring that Garko will see his plate appearances only at DH when Hafner’s taking a day off or in the OF.

It may be too much to say that Victor’s going to be playing 1B every time Carmona’s not on the mound, but Garko’s time in the OF means that the Indians are going to be getting Shoppach’s bat in the everyday lineup (and rightfully so) as much as possible and the player on the outside looking in if Shoppach’s going to get the bulk of the playing time is Garko.

Take that assumption that Victor’s going to see a lot of time at 1B this year and throw in the fact that DeRosa figures to really be the 4th OF out of camp and you have to wonder where and how often Garko’s going to find himself in the starting lineup this year.

Hence, the outfield experiment…that is, until the likes of LaPorta and Brantley are ready to emerge (perhaps at some point this year) to further muddy Garko’s role on the team going forward.

If you asked me to guess right now who the first veteran would be that would find himself off the Indians’ 2009 roster, my answer wouldn’t be David Dellucci.

I'd pick Masa Kobayashi, whose second-half performance last year, combined with the arms in camp in Goodyear that are making good impressions, might lead the Indians to make the decision to eat Kobayashi’s salary and go in another direction as they’ve shown they’re not hesitant to do with relievers in the past few years.

With that in mind, it makes the performances of the guys that figure to start the season down in Columbus this Spring and when in AAA that much more important as the faces and names that make up a bullpen are in a constant state of flux and spots are sure to open up as the season reveals itself. The impressions that some of the NRI’s (like Chulk) are making as well as what the youngsters (like Sipp) are doing in Goodyear could go a long way in determining who gets the call to join the parent club if a pitcher like Kobayashi is sent on his merry way.

As much hand-wringing as there has been about the middle-to-back-of-the-rotation (admittedly by me), I still think that the key to the Indians’ season is which Fausto Carmona shows up in 2009.

Throw out the best case scenarios for the pitchers who figure to round out the rotation after Lee and Carmona:
Even if Anthony Reyes continues the effectiveness that he enjoyed at the end of last year and stays healthy…
Even if Hot Carl Pavano recaptures the success that he hasn’t seen in too many years to count…
Even if whichever young pitcher emerges as the 5th starter as competent from Day 1…

If ALL of that were to happen, if Carmona doesn’t put his 2008 season completely behind him and is ineffective out of the gate, the already thin rotation (where a lot has to go right behind Carmona) goes on a crash diet.

To put it another way, imagine Lee continuing his 2008 season and Carmona recapturing his 2007 form…makes you feel a lot better about those spots behind them because you’re looking at two legitimate aces going 40% of the time in the rotation. Take an effective Carmona out of the mix and turn him into the question mark that he was last year and the Indians are looking at Anthony Reyes potentially as their second best starter and, while the early returns on Reyes last year and the reports this Spring have been favorable, that’s a pretty scary notion and an awfully big obstacle for a team that’s supposed to contend in the Central to overcome.

Which Carmona will show up and when we will know is the great question for me once the season starts as the difference between Carmona v.2008 and Carmona v.2007 showing up this year has the potential to be a huge factor in the difference between an AL Central Championship and irrelevance by the All-Star Break.

It’s an answer that should be fairly obvious after the first few starts by Carmona this year once the season starts, so until then, let’s sit back and watch more players “get their work in” while willing the Indians to stay healthy as this prolonged Spring Training rolls on.


Anonymous said...

Hey, PC, long time no comment. Got some responses to this guy, though.

RE: Garko's versatility, remember that both of the guys gunning for his roster spot, LaPorta and Brantley, play a decent first base. I think the Indians would prefer not to option down Garko or Francisco for mere roster management, but neither of the AAA young guns are going to get called up just to sit, so if Garko couldn't play some outfield and somebody was hitting his way out of Columbus, Garko's positional inflexibility would sort of make the Indians' decision for them, no? Long story short, he's playing for his roster spot right now, and I think he knows it.

RE: The rotation, I'm less worried than most, if only because there are SO MANY guys. With the exception of true top-tier starters, I'm beginning to believe they're really not that much more predictable, season-to-season, than relievers are. So why not employ the same philosophy with starters that we use with relievers? Get lots, use the ones who are throwing well. Still -- damn it all, Jeremy Guthrie, you couldn't break out ONE YEAR SOONER?

No, I'm mostly worried about the offense. The problem with this whole 35-man-deep pitching staff is that there's lag time in decision making for player evaluation and roster management. Somebody's got to be winning games for us while we're figuring out the arm situation.

Paul Cousineau said...

Good to hear from my favorite Law Student in Northwest Ohio...because I know so many, apparently.

I think that Garko's on the roster as he's at least shown that he's a competent bat, but I just don't see him in the long-term plans, with those long-term plans starting very soon.

I wouldn't be surprised if LaPorta makes the trip up I-71 to take this role that Garko seems to be carving out on the roster at some point this summer. That is, if LaPorta crushes AAA pitching, I could see him coming up to DH when Hafner needs a day off and to sometimes play LF or 1B, which is precisely what Garko figures to do out of the box.

As for the pitching, I don't disagree with you that there are a lot of possibilities to fill out that rotation, but most of them are just guys, with your comparison of not knowing what we'll get from these "guys" akin to how relievers work being pretty accurate. My fear (which I think you alluded to) is the amount of time the process of discerning who should ultimately going to be in the rotation is going to take.

Like you said, "somebody's got to be winning games for us while we're figuring out the arm situation" and I just don't know who that's going to be and how the Indians are going to overcome the growing pains of that process.

I'd like to hear why you're worried about the offense, which is actually probably above even the bullpen in terms of areas of the team I'm comfortable with.

G'son said...

Paul..Cleanup hitters are few and far between.. when you get one that performs.. you keep him!

Flipping Jhonny P and Vmart in your stated order would accomplish the same "handedness" you described.. and we all saw how well Jhonny P settled into the clean up role. There doesn't appear to be a good reason to change that, or, "...don't fix what ain't broke.." If anything, you might see Choo moved down to PRONK's spot (if he's raking) thereby giving PRONK more AB's.

It looks as if you have a slight bias toward VMart playing more and more 1B and giving Shoppach more and more playing time behind the plate. Wedge is as conservative & traditional as any manager you'll see. He's stated in several interviews that VMart is the starting catcher. We all know that it'll extend Vmart's career by not "donning the tools of ignorance", but, VMart is first and foremost the Indians starting catcher. In MLB, there aren't many that offer the type of offense he does, so, it's a plus plus for the Indians offense. You could project Vmart to be behind the plate in 95-110 games, leaving Shoppach the rest, or 52-67 games. There will be times that the Indians will use Kelly as a DH against particularly nasty left handers (CC Sabathia, as an example). Overall, Kelly should be able to get a minimum of around 300-325 AB's for the coming 2009 season, and possibly as many as 350. This will keep both Vmart and Shoppach fresh for October baseball.

what say you?

Cy Slapnicka said...

"In MLB, there aren't many that offer the type of offense he does, so, it's a plus plus for the Indians offense." Thats correct, except one of the few that provide that type of offense happens to be Victor's backup and our other catcher.

if kelly hits like he did last year, getting only 300 ABs for him is criminal. especially if those ABs are going to a Garko, unless Garko reclaims his nickname that I'm too lazy to type right now.

what say you?

Anonymous said...

Well, Paul, I'm sure (at least in part) that my concern stems from a dose of Cleveland skepticism. Everybody says the rotation's a concern, the bullpen's deep, and the offense is bulletproof? Then my first inclination is to believe the help will arrive to the rotation from unexpected places, the bullpen will be a 2007-ish contraption with 3 studs and a bunch of stiffs, and the offense will sputter like that Saturn I drove in high school. It's not scientific reasoning, but it's honest.

Thinking deeper about the lineup, I guess I depart from the common thinking that, hey, we were great from July on in 2008, and hey, we've got all those guys back, so, hey, we've got a stew goin'! The other side of that token is that most of these guys were part of the team that was sucking wind BEFORE July.

What changed? Injuries and pressure. As to the injuries, well, in the interests of making no assumptions, I'm not going to say Travis and Victor are "back" until they're actually hitting major league pitchers in games again. Unless and until then, we're still shopping for a middle third of a lineup as far as I'm concerned. And as for the pressure, I don't think it's an endorsement of these guys that they got their heads screwed on AFTER it became obvious that the season was over. I realize it's not very sabre of me, but these particular horses spit the bit right out of the gate last season. With the pitching situation as uncertain as it is, we're unlikely to have time to suck at the plate.

Put another way: I don't buy into the assumption that our second-half offense from last season is somehow our "real" offense, the one we're more likely to see in 2009. The crappy first-half offense was "real," too. There's a qualitative difference between being good for 60 games and being good for 160.

"I'll believe it when I see it," I think is what I'm saying.

Paul Cousineau said...

"I say" that you have to remember that Victor was the clean-up hitter for the second half of that 2007 season, when the Indians ran away with the Central and injuries in 2008 prevented him from continuing that role. Peralta did do quite well in the #4 hole last year, but I'd still put Vic ahead of him based on the body of work.

As for the "Vic is our C" thing, that's where the Garko-to-the-OF goes against that thinking, because if "Vic is the C" and Garko is adding "versatility" to get in the lineup...who's playing 1B? The logical answer is that it's Martinez and a full off-season has led them to believe that more AB for Shoppach (at the expense of Garko) is the direction they're going - and I'm not upset about that. Like Cy said, if Kelly rakes like he did last year, he should be in there everyday and those AB are coming at the expense of Garko.

Now you have me nervous again, after I'd convinced myself that the lineup was "bulletproof". I'm not sure if Hafner and Martinez come back (though I think it's more likely with Vic this year), but I think that whether Choo, Shoppach, and Peralta carry over their 2nd halves of 2008 from Day 1 will probably determine how solid this lineup is going to be.

I'm also excited about an "adjusted" Cabrera to continue what he did when he came back to make it more of a 1 through 9 attack.

Of course, I thought the same thing last year with Garko and Gutierrez establishing themselves as legitimate offensive presences in the lineup...

G'son said...

Garko is going to spend almost as many games in the outfield as he will behind the plate as the emergency catcher.. There may be "confidence building" words about what Gark has done during spring training in the OF by Eric Wedge and the front office.. but, let's be realistic.. IF an OF'er needs a day off.. it'll be Looch /Barfield / DeRo getting the call. If someone gets injured.. it won't be Garko to the rescue.. Even against particularly nasty left handed starting pitchers, Wedge would probably go with a lineup of Grady (L-CF), DeRo (R-LF), Vmart (S-1B), Jhonny P (R-SS), Ben F (R-RF), Jamie Carroll (R-3B) Droobs (S-2B) and Garko (R-DH) and Shoppach(R-C) The entire Garko "to the outfield angle" is a mistake, at worst.. humorous at best.

What say you?