Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Evolutionary Road

Given that the slow start to the Indians’ season has persisted, maybe it’s time to again take a “bigger picture” view of the evolution of a baseball team that takes place over the course of a season, despite the stomach acid gurgling in our stomachs with each Fausto BB or Tribe strikeout with runners on base. As fans, the pitch-by-pitch, game-by-game reaction to the events transpiring on the field is impossible to distance yourself from and as much as you try to will Jhonny not to swing at that curve low and away, it becomes a fruitless and frustrating endeavor to watch the team struggle.

But mounting frustration considered, and not evoking the “it’s early” card just yet, the Indians’ team that you see on the field every night in April is simply not the Indians’ team that you’re going to see when Memorial Day rolls around and THAT team (at the end of May) is not going to be the same team that you see in the dog days of August. It may seem elementary, but it’s an important concept to remember as we all wail and gnash our teeth with each loss…that this team does have the pieces available to improve as this evolution figures to begin. The Indians have depth in their higher levels of the minor leagues that figures to augment the 25-roster as it is currently constructed as the lineup, rotation, and bullpen evolves and improves throughout the course of the season.

While watching the Indians struggle to find their initial footing, realize that (while it is embarrassingly early to give serious thought to it) there are multiple options that exist in Columbus and Akron, with a good match in terms of which positions the higher-end prospects play and where deficiencies may emerge on the parent club. That is, the Indians’ AAA team began the season stocked with three LHP who would probably find a spot on most rotations in the Majors (don’t believe me, go look at some 5th starters around the league) and all will find some starts for the Indians this year as the season progresses. Additionally, Columbus is full of high-ceiling hitters off to solid starts (if anything can truly be gleaned from a week of action, regardless of level) that figure to essentially be slotting themselves for a call-up at some point to fill in the gaps that have yet to reveal themselves.

And, really, that’s what bears watching, while admittedly shielding your eyes from these losses – those gaps that figure to reveal themselves this season. Not over the course of 8 games (although Carl Pav-OH-NO’s first start tested that theory), but over the course of 20 games or 40 games. Along the path to the completion of those 20 or 40 games, there are going to be some surprises (Masa - bullpen assassin) just as there are going to be some disappointments (Rafael Perez - “WBCitis”) and the Indians’ ability to deal with and address those disappointments is what ultimately will decide how the season goes, not two weeks in April.

Everyone knows that rosters evolve over the course of a season, but look at the Opening Day Roster in 2007 vs. the team that ended that season on top of the Central:
Opening Day 2007 Lineup
Sizemore – CF
Nixon – RF
Hafner – DH
Martinez – C
Blake – 1B
Dellucci – LF
Peralta – SS
Barfield – 2B
Marte – 3B

Evolved 2007 Lineup
Sizemore – CF
Cabrera – 2B
Hafner – DH
Martinez – C
Garko – 1B
Peralta – SS
Lofton – LF
Gutierrez – RF
Blake – 3B
That’s four completely different players who not only found their way into the lineup, but two of them found themselves in the #2 and #5 spots in the lineup on a team that eventually ran away with the Central. The evolution of that team was not immediate or sudden, but rather simply took time to reveal itself as players assert themselves into the mix as others play their way out of said mix.

That evolution is probably already underway for the Indians this year, started with the news that The Babyfaced Bulldog will be taking SLewis’ spot in the rotation on Wednesday. With SLewis scheduled to come off of the DL in 2 to 4 weeks, we’re now looking at a 2 to 4 week audition between Laffey and Hot Carl to see whose spot in the rotation that SLewis figures to take, assuming he’s healthy in 2 to 4 weeks.

And the evolution is going to roll on all season long as injuries take some arms out of the bullpen or out of the lineup, or a player finds himself stapled to The Atomic Wedgie’s bench, or a player in Columbus simply forces himself into the conversation and into the immediate plans.

It’s a concept that’s not all that novel and it’s one that I discussed with Jay Levin from Let’s Go Tribe and Vince Grzegorek from Scene Magazine over cocktails on Monday. We were lamenting the issues in the rotation as Carmona (the key to the season, remember) walked the first two batters and Jay mentioned how he thought that the Indians’ 3rd and 4th best starters weren’t on this team yet, saying that he felt that Huff and Laffey would eventually emerge as the Indians’ middle-of-the-rotation when everything came to pass. Unable to disagree with the assertion, we concluded that this season is one in which very little is set in stone and how these jigsaw pieces and parts figure to be moved around until the picture becomes clear. What amalgamation of players ultimately makes up the rotation, the lineup, and the bullpen isn’t known here in mid-April, but the answers will come.

Of course, it raises the obvious question – why don’t the Indians just go with their “best” players out of Goodyear and why is this evolution always necessary?
Simply, because the results in Goodyear don’t guarantee anything and the way that the Indians design their team to emerge over the course of a season is to start their young players in the minors and have them work their way onto the 25-man roster instead of simply handing it to them. The strategy is oft-criticized and sometimes questionable, but the idea is that the team really doesn’t know what it’s going to get from a guy like Pavano. Statistical analysis and scouting reports aside, the idea is that the team can afford to throw Pavano out there every 5 days at the beginning of the season for a month or so and if he succeeds – great, the rotation gets a pleasant surprise. If he fails…well, the depth is still in place in AAA (where they’ve been slotting themselves with their performance as Clippers) to ascend to the parent club to assume that spot on the team. It’s no different than going with Ryan Garko or Ben Francisco instead of Matt LaPorta to start the season out. If Garko or Francisco shine in their opportunities to lay claim to an everyday job, all the better as it allows the Indians to use LaPorta to fill that other hole that’s going to show.

Certainly, some of these players on the parent club are on pretty short leashes despite answers that seem to be emerging, but it is still wildly early to say that Cabrera is a mess at the plate, just as it is to say that Hafner is back to being Pronk. Once more games have been completed, an honest and fair evaluation can be made on these players…but that’s not after having played 7 or 8 games, as disastrous as the results have been. To legitimately make a judgment on a player and his performance, a barrier like the 20-game mark or the 40-game mark serve as much better barometers for what the season holds…regardless of how obvious some things may seem and regardless of how painful it is to endure these growing pains.

The other question that arises, then, is how the Indians manage this massaging of the roster without allowing too many calendar days to pass if losses continue to mount. The answer to that really is tantamount to the whole discussion as the short leash that some of these guys may be on may be that 20-game mark…which is less than two weeks away, with the hopes that at the 20-game mark or the 40-game mark that the Indians won’t be absurdly behind in the Central race.

However, the caveat to that idea that the Indians can’t let this season get away from them as they figure to evolve is the mere fact that the AL Central simply isn’t good and that no team obviously stands head and shoulders above the rest that the Indians would have to “chase down” if they dig themselves too much of a whole. Really, if you look at the standings in the AL at this point (and, finally introducing it...“it’s early”), the East and the Central look like they’ve been turned upside down when you look at expectations (Boston and New York assumed to be the front-runners in the East, Minnesota and Cleveland thought to be the cream of the Central) versus where we stand today as those four aforementioned teams round out the last spots in their respective divisions.

The 162-game season takes time to establish a rhythm and a tone, just as players take time every season to put forth a body of work large enough to allow a fair evaluation. Reading too deeply into two or three weeks at any time in the season doesn’t give enough time to justifiably make an informed judgment, as difficult as that is with the daily disappointment that’s accompanied the beginning of the season.

Ultimately, the evolution of the configuration of this team is going to be a long and winding road this season and the Indians, early returns considered, have plenty of time and plenty of options to make this start forgettable, particularly in the Central…regardless of what that case of TUMS that just arrived at my back door tells me.


David Groppi said...

I agree that the Indians love to hide there young'ens down on the farm and bring them up. If memory serves they did this with manny. He came up like late May never to return to the Farmlands.
My greatest concern is that our pitching has been Sooooooooo bad! And not JUST starting pitching. We rejoice when Pavano pitched 6 innings and gave up 4 runs tonight. Our pitchers are just not making the quality pitches when they need to. Tonight with the game just 4-3, one out and a man on 1st (int'walked) and 3rd. Perez throws a please hit me slider on a 0-2 count!! Maybe a new voice needs to be heard from the pitching coach? I like our coaches. But something HAS to change in our decsion making processes.
But who knows. Maybe Huff, Rondon, Sowers, Laffey (already here) and Adam Miller are here by July.
The question is will that be a good thing or bad.
Go Tribe!!

A.G.B said...

I appreciate your trying to make us all feel better.

But I am still about 4 seconds from gouging my eyes out with a salad fork. This suuuuuucks.

csusi said...

i agree with both above comments. and as much as i hate to play this card, i agree heavily with the slight mention by david in regards to our coaching. it seems as though spring training, which i thought to be a time where you work on the "fundamentals" didnt even really happen. we continue to make ridiculous defensive mistakes and like david mentioned, the pitching decisions (not quality) that are being relayed from the dugout leave me confused most nights.

so yeah, to second A.G.B.
"this does suuuuuuuck."

Cy Slapnicka said...

Conversation in the clubhouse between Victor and Hafner:

Victor: What the hell did you take that sh!t for?
Hafner: Nobody seemed to mind when I was mashing the ball!
Victor: Sh*t, I rake too, you don't see me all fu**ed up on that stuff!
Hafner: Not everybody has your ability Victor, you do what you do to play!
Victor: Well you ain't playin much now are ya?

I can see how this story ends, Hafner left crying in the dugout after a game, having left the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th.

We can only hope that is followed by him showing up the next game with facepaint and being seen smashing his head through car windows, shouting..."Starting lineup! Place at the table!"

Of course, this would do nothing to solve our pitching woes.

Les Savy Ferd said...

@ David

Although I see your point, I disagree completely with your example. I watched and rewound that hit several times and it was a fine bit of hitting. That 0-2 slider was a nasty piece of work. It was the PERFECT pitch to throw on that occasion, breaking low and away just out of the strike zone that any pitching coach, catcher or pitcher would be happy to have called and executed.

The batter (Dejesus?) made a helluva play and ended up contributing to a deathknell of an inning.

And that sort of thing has been happening all week. Carmona had several very good pitches cranked by blue jays who had no business driving the stuff they did. Of course Carmona ALSO had some floaters too.

Rockdawg said...

Cy, nice Program reference. Do you think there was a Pavano - Laffey exchange on day one that went like this:

Pavano (extending hand for a shake: "Carl....Pitcher."

Laffey: "Aaron...Major League Pitcher"

Cy Slapnicka said...

Rock, LOVE that one.

So the real question is, is Pavano quick enough to fire back, "I know, thats why they recruited me!" or does he respond, "Yeah you got me! My mouth was open! My mouth was open!"