Saturday, February 28, 2009

Steady Bombin'

The Indians finally pulled out a Cactus League victory yesterday, thanks to Vic hitting as many HR in one February afternoon as he hit all of last year and, while these don't count for much, it is awfully nice to see some balls jump off of Victor's bat.

As usual, Larry Jones of Lazy Lightning Media was there and just happened to catch Vic in action as well as getting a shot of The Frisco Kid going yard as well, among other shots.

I hope everyone enjoys seeing these shots as much as I do:















Pictures are property of Lazy Lightning Media, all rights reserved.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Second Game Snaps

With game action coming at us on a daily basis, I thought I'd pass along the shots from Larry Jones at Lazy Lightning Media for Thursday’s game against the D-Backs.

The following images are property of Lazy Lightning Media, all rights reserved.









More to come regarding Spring Training thus far on Sunday…where it will be Lazy here, as it always is.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

First Game Photos

As the Indians christened their new ballpark in Goodyear with a 10-7 loss to the Giants, let’s allow the images from Larry Jones of Lazy Lightning Media tell the story in pictures as the game was…well, it was a Spring Training game. And first one or not, it was still just a Spring Training Game.

Obviously, all of the images are property of Lazy Lightning Media, all rights reserved.
Let’s get to those beautiful action shots from an actual game:











Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Rate of Rotation and Evolution

With the first Spring Training game scheduled for Wednesday at 3 PM (airing both on STO and MLB Network, by the by) and all of the focus on these “Spring Training Battles”, I think that it’s necessary to remove this focus on these “Battles” for the last few spots on the roster for a moment and take a longer look at the season, specifically in terms of how important the evolution of the rotation is to the season, long after Spring Training concludes. That is, as fun as it figures to be to watch these youngsters (Laffey, Huff, Sowers, Jackson, Lewis) battle it out for the 5th spot out of Spring Training in Goodyear, all it really means is that the “winner” is just getting the first crack to stay in what could be a rapidly revolving door (or doors) in the rotation.

Obviously, that “first crack” shouldn’t be discounted as, if the pitcher remains healthy and effective, it’s much easier to stay in the rotation than it is to be promoted to said rotation. But, the way that questions abound around the Indians’ rotation, whether it pertain to health or effectiveness, I don’t think that there’s much doubt that the Indians will be moving pieces and parts in and out of the rotation throughout the season to optimize the performance in the rotation. This isn’t a surprise, of course, as it’s nearly impossible to expect the 5 starters that break camp with the team to essentially start every game for a team (in an amazing accomplishment and aberration, all but 4 Indians’ starts were made by the five main starters in 2005), with some years seeing a virtual carousel of pitchers work their way through the rotation

To wit, take a look at how deep the Indians have had to go into their depth to get starters, even in that magical 2007 season when everything seemed to go right:
2008 – 13 pitchers started games (Lee, Carmona, Byrd, Sowers, Sabathia, Laffey, Jackson, Reyes, Westbrook, Scott Lewis, Ginter, Bullington, and Mastny)

2007 – 8 pitchers started games (Sabathia, Carmona, Byrd, Westbrook, Lee, Sowers, Laffey, and Stanford)

2006 – 9 pitchers started games (Lee, Westbrook, Byrd, Sabathia, Sowers, Jason Johnson, Carmona, Slocum, and Guthrie)

Now, seeing some of those names and knowing the starting pitching has been a pillar of the team in all three of those years, raise your hand if you think that Lee, Carmona, Reyes, Pavano, and whoever wins that 5th spot is going to go all 2005 on us?
Yeah…me neither.

And as much as the depth that the Indians seem to have is going to allow the Indians to preclude starts from guys like Matt Ginter or Bryan Bullington, the management of that depth and the massaging of those spots is, to me at least, probably the most important part of the Indians’ 2009 season. Whereas the bullpen looks to be fleshed out (on paper, at least) and the second half of 2008 showed that the offense can survive without Pronk (though getting him back will help), the rotation is the one spot I keep coming back to with questions. The crazy thing is, though, that the potential answers don’t seem to be lacking as the sheer volume of candidates for the rotation who can thrive almost guarantees that the Indians can cobble together an efficient rotation, particularly if you think that Jake Westbrook is coming back after the All-Star Break (which still looks awfully optimistic to me) to augment the rotation.

All of that talent considered, though, herein lies the rub – with all of the arms that could potentially contribute for the Indians, which pitchers are the ones that will eventually settle into that rotation and how can the Indians expedite the evolution to that effective mix of starters? To put it another way, through attrition and ineffectiveness, the Indians’ rotation is going to be comprised of different starters throughout the course of the year, so how do the Indians find that right combination earlier rather than later, with later being the point that they’re sitting in 3rd or 4th place in July due to portions of their rotation being ineffective?

Unfortunately, there’s no great answer out there as the Indians look to be set on breaking camp with the predetermined foursome of Lee, Carmona, Reyes, and Pavano (assuming they’re all healthy and even mildly effective in Goodyear), allowing the rest of the pitchers to attempt to slot themselves for chances to become a part of what would be that final combination of pitchers.

But what if Pavano is just moderately effective for two months, not good enough that anyone’s slapping the Tribe brass on their collective back for finding a diamond in the trash heap; but also isn’t awful enough that his performance merits a one-way ticket out of Cleveland? What if that mediocre pitcher then blocks a pitcher from joining the rotation that may represent an upgrade over what Pavano is putting forth every fifth game?

And what if Reyes struggles to find the groove that he got into was in at the end of 2008 or what if he struggles, without apparent injury, to the point that the Indians are forced to make a decision on him due to him being out of options?

By the same token, how do the youngsters slot themselves in Columbus or how do the Indians promote from within in a manner that isn’t going to result in some of these pitchers taking turns in the rotation when a more effective option exists still in Columbus?

In essence, the Indians rotation needs to find that effective combination of five pitchers early in the season so the performance of the starters taking the hill prior to that mix being found puts the team behind the proverbial 8-ball. How they do this and how long of a leash they have on some of these question marks could, in effect, play the most vital role in the Indians’ ability to contend in 2009.

For instance, what if Carmona or Reyes or Pavano attempts to pitch hurt or does find himself of the DL – how do the Indians fill that spot in the rotation quickly and effectively without turning every fifth game (or worse, two out of every five games) turning into an audition that could go either way. And how do they manage those pitchers in terms of shuttling them back and forth to Columbus (the ones that can be shuttled, at least, which would be one spot out of Goodyear) to maximize production in Cleveland?

The short answer is that they need to be constantly evolving and evaluating these players because other options exist. Those “other options” may be better or they may be worse, but the Indians need to find answers sooner rather than later. Finding that combination sooner rather than later could mean the difference between holding on in a divisional race in September and trying to catch up to a divisional race in September.

To me, as Spring Training games begin, the success of the season is going to be determined by the Indians finding the best five pitchers for their rotation in May or, at the very latest, June and not “seeing how things play out” as one or more of their starters struggle, digging a hole that may ultimately be too deep to climb out of. Who those five pitchers end up being is anyone’s guess as the calendar remains on February, but for the Indians to be squarely in the mix for the AL Central Crown in 2009, the evaluation and evolution of the starting rotation into an effective unit is the key for the whole season.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Desert Shutterbug

With the first Spring Training game only two days away, I’m pleased to present the next batch of pictures from Goodyear from the increasingly popular Larry Jones, whose new website can be found here.
As per usual all of the photos are courtesy of Lazy Lightning Media, all rights reserved.

Today, Larry gives us more of the incredible up-close shots that we’ve enjoyed previously, this time presenting Grady, Cliff, and Shapiro – with the Tribe GM looking like some WWII General addressing his troops. He then moves into some pics of the Indians’ new “Utility Players”…you know the ones, Garko and Barfield, patrolling the OF, as well as providing some pictures of infield practice. Finally, he closes it out with some photos of the field in Goodyear to get everyone set for Wednesday’s game against the Giants.

That game, by the way, will be on STO at 3 PM…so set your DVR now.
Enough from me, here we go again:





















Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lazy Sunday with Actual Games on the Horizon

The snow is falling again as Winter keeps its vise grip on the North Coast, so let’s think of sunnier days, among the cacti in Goodyear and get right off on a Lazy Lasy:

Leading off with the only print piece of note (sorry, the fluff pieces coming out of Goodyear are, while necessary because nothing’s happening, simply not worth linking), Terry Pluto throws some numbers at you regarding some of the young players who are trying to make an impression in Goodyear. The players he mentions (Santana, Valbuena, LaPorta, and Brantley) all excite me individually in terms of upper-level, young talent; but, as a group of players that figures to dot the Columbus and Akron rosters, I can honestly say that I haven’t been this excited to see how the position players perform in AA and AAA in a long while.

That Columbus team, in particular, is going to have AB up and down the lineup that I’m interested to see as the players attempt to slot themselves in line for a promotion to Cleveland…and that’s to say nothing of the middle of the lineup in Akron that’s going to boast Santana, Weglarz (who was on the show this week), Mills, and Carlos Rivero. Terry also throws a plug in for Tony Lastoria’s Prospect Book, which you may have heard about before…but is definitely worth your time, as Pluto points out.

One of the only things of note (albeit subtly) to come out of Goodyear this week was…no, not The Looch’s story about an alligator (if you’re looking for a link, it isn’t there)…this little dig from Castro:
The more I see of Luis Valbuena, the more I like. He looks quite polished in the field, and he has a smooth swing. One line on Valbuena when the Indians acquired him this winter was that he's a bit on the stocky side, but he looks to be in pretty good shape to me.
Fausto Carmona, on the other hand, must be a regular at the Andy Marte Buffet.
Speaking of which, there was a Marte sighting at camp here today. He came here to workout, as he is, technically, still with the organization. He got out of here before reporters could shake him down for a few thoughts on the move the other day.

Did you catch it in there?
I hope for your sake that you did, I put it in bold. It’s a quiet revelation that Carmona arrived to camp carrying a little extra baggage. This got pointed out in the comments section of one of Larry Jones’ picture galleries with poster Caryn fabulously pointing out that Carmona looked like that guy in “Total Recall” who had Kuato coming out of his stomach (yes, the comment was regarding the picture above), but let’s just hope that the words “oblique” and “strain” don’t come trickling out of Goodyear regarding Carmona as it has in the past few years with Lee, then Westbrook. As important as Carmona’s rebound is to the Tribe this year to couple with Lee at the top of the rotation ahead of the question marks behind them, losing Carmona or having him ineffective in the #2 hole could have disastrous ramifications for the season.

On the topic of Larry Jones of Lazy Lightning Media, he promises to continue to send more snapshots to me, much to the delight of all of you…if the e-mail’s I’m getting are any indication. Larry, by the way, is at the 2:24 mark of this video from the PD, just in case you’re interested.

Taking it around the horn, for an interesting retrospective on the Indians’ new closer and his time on the North Side, here’s a piece from the Chicago Sun-Time that appeared earlier in the week and answers some of the questions that were still out there about why Wood left the Cubs and what he valued most in his time in Chicago.

Here’s a fascinating look at how the Indians are attempting to get creative in terms of attendance for 2009, using statistical analysis to come up with variable pricing. The idea being that “not all games are created equal” and by pricing them according to time of year, opponent, promotions, and fireworks is a way for the Indians to entice fans to games in April and May and to a Royals series by pricing them differently from a Sunday afternoon game in July against the Yankees.

The consultant who managed the statistical analysis and applied it to ticket prices, Vince Gennaro, actually wrote a piece explaining just this process and how pricing was determined based on different variables in the IA2K9 that I was honored to participate in…which just happens to now be shipping from Maple Street Press.

Going around the Central, the Twins have inked Joe Crede to an incentive-laden deal for one year, the success of which will obviously hinge on Crede’s back. Perhaps Crede took the best deal that was out there for him, but the thought that a player with persistent back problems is going to stay healthy on the parking lot that is the Metrodome field should be raising red flags everywhere in Minnesota.

In addition to Crede, the Twins are allegedly talking about adding RHP Juan Cruz to their bullpen, which would be a phenomenal addition to the Minnesota pen as he would add an experienced arm to bridge their starters to Joe Nathan, a glaring hole particularly with Pat Neshek still battling his way back. Cruz, one of the relievers that was rumored to be considered by the Tribe to augment the back end of their bullpen (whether that was ever true or not, we’ll never know), but Cruz remains available because he is a Type-A Free Agent, which means that the team that signs him would have to give up a 1st Round Pick in next year’s draft (unless that pick is in the top 16) and not many teams are that anxious to add a set-up guy at the price of a top draft pick. But it looks like the Twins are being creative with this, initiating talks with the D-Backs on a sign-and-trade which would avoid the draft pick from changing hands and would likely only cost the Twins a middling prospect to make it happen. It’s an interesting solution to the Type-A quandary and, if the Twins can pull it off, it’s a move that may settle their 7th and 8th innings the same way that Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel did last year on the South Side.

With Crede and (perhaps) Cruz heading the Twin Cities, Minnesota could turn their previously quiet off-season around in the course of a few days as they look to have waited out the market and could be adding two players who have the potential of shoring up two of the major holes they entered the off-season facing.

Keeping it with the Central topic, SI has their AL Central preview, which actually looks pretty spot-on for each team and contains some kernels of interest regarding the Tribe (the position battle to watch is…DH) and offers up some thoughts from a scout about the Indians:
The bullpen behind [Wood] is not the best I've ever seen. Their rotation is real good up top, but it goes 1-2-5-5-5. There aren't any middle guys in there. ... Carmona definitely has the ability, but whether he's mentally ready, who knows? ... They're constructed like a playoff team rather than a full-season team, pitching-wise. They have a legitimate ace candidate and a legitimate closer candidate. ... A real important pickup for them is going to be Mark DeRosa. He's a very good, clutch player. I was very surprised the Cubs gave up on him as quickly as they did. He's a good clubhouse leader. ... If Hafner's healthy, he's one of the most dangerous hitters in major league baseball. His career path is very similar to David Ortiz: had a lot of holes, every year he closed up a couple of them, then the next year he closed a couple more.
Interesting takes on the rotation and DeRosa, which I happen to agree with, though his thoughts on the bullpen being questionable behind Wood and the optimism for Hafner are new to these parts.

Regarding that middle-to-back-end of the rotation that the above scout refers to as the “5-5-5” portion of the rotation, APV over at LGT has an in-depth look at Pavano, Reyes, and Laffey, with some tremendous data to pore over, particularly for Laffey’s repertoire.

Going past Pavano, Reyes, and Laffey, the pitcher that I think may emerge to become that “non-5” among all of the middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation fodder, Dave Huff, is featured in this piece from Yahoo with all of the pertinent obligatory stats that you’ve seen here before. New to me is the fact that Sweet Pete Gammons thinks that Huff will win 12 games for the Tribe this year, which isn’t interesting because of the number of wins (as wins are a fairly arbitrary gauge of a pitcher’s effectiveness), but rather the number of games that a pitcher generally has to start to even approach 12 wins. Knowing what we do about Gammons’ relationship with the Tribe Front Office, don’t think that this is just Gammons throwing something out there…his “information” or “predictions” are generally based on the opinions of people that he trusts and respects. Thus, that “information”, may be coming directly from Shapiro or Antonetti.

From the “Mark Your Calendar” department, the MLB Network has started their “30 Clubs in 30 Days” series, which covers each MLB team in a one-hour preview show. It started on Friday night with the Red Sox (which was very nicely done, if you were able to get past the overuse of the word “confident” by Hazel Mae), continued with the Twinkies last night, and will feature YOUR Cleveland Indians on March 16th.

Speaking of the MLB Network, Joe LeMire of SI.com has a nice piece on how MLBN has quickly established itself as capable of producing high-quality original entertainment with a couple of tremendous shows that doesn’t come off as a mouthpiece for MLB in any sense. For those searching for an alternative to the 4-letter word that broadcasts from Bristol, CT to get your sports fix (unless the “Mt. Rushmore of Sports” series is in your wheelhouse), add MLBN to you “Favorites” button on your remote…and thank me later.

Taking a quick diversion, Friday night was Conan O’Brien’s final show on “Late Night”, as he’ll move into “The Tonight Show” chair, promising “not to grow up” when he goes out to LA and into the 11:30 PM slot. While I’m not going to make the claim that I watch Conan all the time (The DiaperTribe generally wakes up about 6 hours after Conan starts and…let’s face it, I need to sleep), but it’s as good of an opportunity as any to post one of my favorite Conan clips.
Luckily for me, it has to do with baseball:


Finally, Cubs-Tribe tix for the June weekend series are procured, thanks to my brother-in-law (who, in the interest of full disclosure is a Cubs’ fan) taking Friday off and landing ducats for all 3 games. The Cubs sold out all three games within 4 hours of them going on sale on Friday and the Saturday game was the 3rd game to be completely sold out (a Cardinals’ game and a White Sox game went first), so let’s hope that people aren’t just going to see Wood and DeRosa come back to the North Side.
Hopefully, it’s because everyone’s readying their Grady jerseys for the weekend…I know of one person who is.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Good Ship Marte Has Sailed

As the Andy Marte Era ends with a whimper, nobody can feign surprise (unless the fact that he’s gone before the 1st Spring Training Game has even been played surprises you) as he finds himself likely out of the organization as the writing was on the wall that Marte should have a cardboard box ready for packing up his belongings next to his locker for quite some time. The Curious Case of Andy Marte has been hashed and re-hashed too many times (admittedly here, among other spots), but his decline after his successful 2005 season as a 21-year-old in AAA remains one of our great mysteries.

When examining what went wrong with Marte, quite a few things pop out at you starting with the fact that the guy just never hit well enough in AAA to force himself into the Indians’ plans and his demise was exacerbated by the fact that, when he was on the parent club, he was never given any real stretch of time to make that transition to MLB. Indulge for a moment, if you will, by taking a look back at what Marte did while in the Indians’ organization and how the Indians’ use (or misuse, to some) culminated with his Designation for Assignment on Thursday.

In 2006, the Indians started Marte in AAA despite a 2005 campaign in Richmond (the Braves’ AAA affiliate) that put him among the elite in terms of hitting prospects. Ahead of Marte at 3B in Cleveland was Aaron Boone, who would post an OPS of .684 over the course of the year and ostensibly lost his job to Marte in late July as Marte would start at 3B for 50 of the final 61 games of the 2006 season, posting a line of .226 BA / .287 OBP / .421 SLG / .708 OPS. Underwhelming numbers for sure, but as a still-22-year-old and replacing Aaron Boone in the lineup, Marte performed adequately if not phenomenally. It seemed that the second half 2006 would be the beginning of Marte manning 3B for the Tribe for the foreseeable future…something that did not ultimately happen.

After his 2006, Marte was handed the 2007 3B job in Spring Training with the idea that he would be on a pretty long leash, given his youth and the potential that he showed a mere two years earlier while in the Braves’ organization. Marte struggled out of the gate, though no one was surprised as he was purported to be a “slow starter” and posted a line of .179 BA / .220 OBP / .333 SLG / .553 OPS as he played in 13 of the first 15 games of the season until hitting the DL with an injury. His injury opened the door for Casey Blake to assume his regular spot at 3B, a spot that Marte would never get back as an Indian. While Blake produced in Marte’s absence, Marte at this point seemed to fall out of favor with the organization as he played three games in late May, then would be sent back to Buffalo until a late-season call-up. His performance in Buffalo when he was demoted didn’t create any buzz (.267 BA / .309 OBP / .457 SLG / .766 OPS), but it’s not as if he fell on his face as a still-23-year-old in AAA (for comparison’s sake, Wes Hodges will be 24 this year in Columbus), so there had to be some hope remaining that Marte could still translate to MLB.

All told though, Marte’s “big chance” to take a hold of the 3B job in 2007 consisted of 16 starts in 20 games with 57 at-bats. Granted, his performance in those 57 AB didn’t scream for extended time, but we’re talking about 57 AB that year - which is 10 less than Mike Rouse saw and 4 more than Chris Gomez saw.

If that’s the basis for the Indians deciding that Marte could not make the transition to MLB, that’s like making that decision after 2 weeks of games in a season. Because, really, those 13 starts in the first 15 games of 2007 constitute Marte’s last long look as a potential starter as his 2008 (when he was out of options and had to be on the team) began with merely 100 AB in the team’s first 106 games before Casey Blake was traded to the Dodgers. Marte remained nailed to the bench despite the 2008 Indians’ lineup containing gaping holes at 1B and LF for the better part of the first part of the season and with the player ahead of Marte at 3B able to play either 1B or LF, which would have opened a spot for Marte to receive at least more regular plate appearances. Instead, the Indians promoted Michael Aubrey (2 years older than Marte) and Ben Francisco (also 2 years older than Marte) to take AB at 1B and LF instead of simply moving Blake around the diamond and giving Marte consistent AB for the Tribe.

Even after Blake was traded, Marte played in only 43 of the final 60 games of the season, cementing the idea that the decision that Marte’s standing within the organization was non-existent as Utility IF Jamey Carroll played in only 2 fewer games than Marte after the Blake deal. Now, it should obviously be noted that Marte (when he was on the Indians) did look overwhelmed at the plate and the numbers in Cleveland bear that out when you look at the 3-year line he compiled from 2006 to 2008, posting a cumulative .221 BA / .268 OBP / .315 SLG / .583 OPS with 9 HR, 30 2B, 29 BB, and 99 K over 456 AB in those three years.

As a quick aside here, the 456 AB that Marte logged in his three years in MLB as an Indian are 9 fewer AB than Ben Francisco compiled in 2008 alone (after Frisco "forced" his way into the mix by posting a .623 OPS in the first 24 games in Buffalo), and Francisco didn’t enter the everyday lineup until May 6th, seeing 441 of his 447 AB in the 119 games he played over the final 130 games of the season.

Are you seeing yet how Marte’s chances were so few and so far between when you see it in that context? That is to say, the irregularity with which he played and the limited opportunities that he saw really didn’t give Marte much of an opportunity to find that rhythm in MLB or give the Indians an extended look to see if he was going to make the transition to being even a serviceable MLB player as the Indians’ handling of him give off a feeling that something outside of Marte’s performance on the field caused them to sour on him as a long-term option at 3B.

Maybe it was conditioning or his underwhelming stints in AAA, but the Indians really didn’t have an obvious reason not to move Blake around in a super-utility role or not to give Marte every AB from 3B in the lost 2008 season after Blake was traded unless, at some point between the beginning of the 2007 season (when Marte was handed the 3B job) the Indians came to the conclusion that whatever deficiencies they detected in Marte were not fixable and that he no longer figured into the long-term plans. Their usage of him screams that there was a moment that even Marte’s biggest supporter in the organization gave up on him.

Whether the Indians were right to think that will reveal itself in the coming years as questions still surround Marte’s viability as an MLB player. Whether Marte will ever rediscover that magical season as a 21-year-old in AAA will find an answer over the next few seasons as Marte is still just 25 and multiple teams (notably the Twins and the Giants) are looking to upgrade at 3B without a huge outlay of cash or committed years. Perhaps him being DFA’d (and I can’t think of any good reason for the Indians to keep him this Spring, eating up reps that Wes Hodges could get at 3B or that Victor, Garko, and the bevy of young 1B could get at 1B) allows him to find a team that’s interested and gives him the whole Spring to catch onto said team instead of getting cut the last day of camp and scrambling for a new employer. Regardless of whether he ever does find his footing in MLB, one thing that is certain is that he won’t do it in an Indians’ uniform.

As for the player the Indians acquired that needed to be added to the 40-man roster, Juan Salas looks like another RHP to slot among many that don’t figure too prominently in the Indians’ long-term plans (not unlike the Greg Aquino, Jack Cassell, etc. contingent) with the difference between Salas and the non-roster invitees being that Salas has an option remaining and is likely to be on the Cleveland-to-Columbus shuttle, if he makes it topside at all. He has a power arm and throws a cut fastball, but little else and now, at the age of 30 finds himself in a new organization who, presumably, thinks that they can tweak something with Salas to allow him to find the consistency that eluded him in Tampa.

Salas, to me, looks like nothing more than insurance against the inevitable attrition that takes place in a bullpen over the course of a season and represents an arm that can be moved up and down (if he even gets that high on the ladder) without starting anyone’s option clock too soon or promoting a more-highly-thought-of reliever to simply sit in the Indians’ bullpen until the roundtrip ticket to Columbus gets punched.

If the Indians are able to get anything out of Salas resembling a consistent reliever, well…huzzah; but the addition of Salas shouldn’t be taken at much more than face value in that it adds an arm to the organization that may become something special, but is more likely to become just that…an organizational arm.

For now, we enter our first Andy Marte-free weekend since 2006.
Fare thee well, young Marte.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Spring Snapshots

With the “big news” of camp breaking that Andy Marte is on his way out of the organization (presumably) and the Indians have added another power arm to the 7th spot/Columbus pen in Juan Salas, who allegedly has a nice cut fastball but little else, it’s time for the second installment of “Goodyear in Pictures” here as Larry Jones of Lazy Lightning Media attended yesterday’s Indians’ practice and sent along more incredible photos. Getting some legalities situated, I should mention that these photos are copyrighted by Lazy Lightning Media, all rights reserved and since the photos have not been approved for publication by the Indians, any specific player, or MLB they are not for sale. If, however, you do want a larger image of any of these pictures (as these are all at small resolution) for any reason, just e-mail me and we can review what exactly can be done.

Now, taking my lawyer pants off, here are the photos with a teaser that Larry has more in process that sound pretty awesome and has asked if there’s any particular shot that anybody’s looking for, just to post it in the comments and he’ll do his best.

Without further ado, then, here are the pics:











Nice, right?
How great are those Grady ones?
Or Cliff and Kerry, the combination that figures to win multiple games on their own?

We’ll be looking for more soon from Larry, but for now (as we all call Purple Hearts to tell them that there is a #15 jersey ready for pick-up) remember that these are copyrighted by Lazy Lighting Media, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Where Music Means Something

As has become the custom around these parts, the first full workout of Spring Training is accompanied by a little ritual called “The Soundtrack of Life”, a detailed explanation of which can be found here. If you don’t want to get too deep into it, just look at it as one man’s humble suggestions for what songs each Indian should bring with them to the plate or the mound down at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

After considering embedding all of the videos (now that I know how), I’m bailing on it as it will probably make the page load time quadruple and some of the linked videos aren’t exactly…um…PG. Regardless, the link for each song then is actually on the player and song title.

Without further ado, I hope that you enjoy for “The Soundtrack of Life, v.2009”:
Grady Sizemore – “Superman Theme” by John Williams
Forget humility, forget keeping your head down…it’s time to acknowledge that Grady could, in fact, be a superhero and what better way is there to step to the plate than to the “Superman Theme”?

Mark DeRosa – “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and The News
Playing off of the fact that the nickname bestowed on him last year was “The Pulse” (after an irregular heartbeat sent him to the hospital in Spring Training last year), how about embracing the line that all Clevelanders know in this classic from HL&TN…“the heart of Rock and Roll, the heart of Rock and Roll is still beatin’…in Cleveland.”
And the crowd goes wild.

Victor Martinez – “Back in the Saddle” by Aerosmith
Ignore, if you will, that Aerosmith is from Boston and focus instead on Victor marching to the plate to that intro, culminating in the guttural “I’M BACK” from Steven Tyler. After the 2008 that El Capit├ín went through, I think it’s pretty fitting.

Travis Hafner – “Broken Wings” by Mr. Mister
You can almost hear me screaming from the Mezzanine (AKA Pronkville) for my section’s namesake to “take these broken wings and learn to fly again”.
Please?

Jhonny Peralta – “Easy Like Sunday Morning” by The Commodores
Is it me, or does mellowness just ooze out of Jhonny? What song gets that aura across better than Lionel and the boys just maxin’ and relaxin’?

Shin-Soo Choo – “Choo Choo” by Arctic Monkeys
As much as I enjoyed The BLC coming out to Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty” last year, let’s play up the obviousness of his name without devolving into just a train whistle blowing. While I was tempted to incorporate the Quad City DJ’s in here (5 bonus points if you get that without a link) or even the old Big League Chew TV ad, we’ll save those for when he’s bashing doubles off the wall or when he’s gunning runners from RF.

Ryan Garko – “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips
With Victor likely to take AB away from him, with LaPorta in AAA, with Mills and maybe Weglarz in AA, maybe Garko can find some peace from the girls of Wilson Phillips to “hold on for one more day”...while patrolling LF.

Ben Francisco – “Me Against the World” by Tupac
With everyone so intent of replacing The Frisco Kid in LF at some point in 2009, maybe Francisco will take the approach that nobody’s coming to take his spot because he isn’t giving it up.
Certainly would be nice…

Kelly Shoppach – “La Grange” by ZZ Top
The thumper from Fort Worth gets the best guitar riff (in my opinion) from that little outfit from the Lone Star State. What were you expecting, the sound of a ShopVac?

Asdrubal Cabrera – “Abacab” by Genesis
While I’m not at all for the trend in nicknames that simply result from a player’s first and last name (you’ll never see V-Mart in these parts), the similarities between the young Venezuelan’s name and the Genesis anthem are just too striking to pass up.

Jamey Carroll – “Working Man” by Rush
Nothing fancy or exciting about Carroll, who just brings his lunch pail to work and does what the Indians ask of him. Plus the performance by Rush is from a show in Cleveland…3 years before I was even born.

Josh Barfield – “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing” by Jack Johnson
An anthem for the player who figures to be on the team…if not necessarily on the field…or in the batter’s box, with no discernable path back into the Indians’ plans anytime soon.

David Dellucci – “Promise Me You’ll Remember” by Harry Connick, Jr.
Apparently, this is the love theme to “The Godfather 3”, so if The Looch thinks he can keep coming out to the fantastic “Godfather Waltz” after the last couple of years, he has another thing coming. Performances like his 2007 and 2008 don’t give him “The Godfather Waltz”, they give him this.

Andy Marte – “Whipping Post” by The Allman Brothers Band
No, Andy’s not going to see an AB with the Indians to make this happen, but this HAS to be how he was feeling over the past year, watching Jamey Carroll take playing time away from him.
Whipping Post…Bench…call it what you like.

C.P. Lee – “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin
The methodical drumming of John Bonham at the beginning of this song just reminds me of the workmanlike approach that Clifton (a Zeppelin fan) takes to hammering the strike zone. All I can think of with each pound by Bonham is another strike hitting Shoppach’s glove.

Fausto Carmona – “Hold On Loosely” by 38 Special
After reading Victor’s quote in the Buster Olney piece earlier this week that Fausto has ridiculously filthy stuff when he’s not trying (actually SPECIFICALLY when he’s not really trying too hard), I first thought that some song by Enya or the like should play when The Focused One takes the mound…you know, to relax him. But this is Cleveland, man, Where Music Means Something, the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (despite not really having any real native Clevelanders who qualify as “rock legends”…Michael Stanley doesn’t count), the place where “Born to Run” is played (somewhat ironically) at 5PM on Fridays on MULTIPLE radio stations. We can’t have Enya playing at the ballpark, particularly when Fausto’s going.
Thus, the 38 Special Anthem to remind him that “if you cling to tightly…you’re going to lose it…you’re going to lose control.”

Anthony Reyes – “Dani California” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
The USC product gets to bring some Left Coast to the North Coast, along with his flat bill and socks.

Carl Pavano – “Fragile” by Sting
Sure, it’s a dig and about as far as you can get from an intimidating song or one that inspires confidence…but isn’t that kind of the point?

Aaron Laffey – “Crazy Game of Poker” by O.A.R.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been sitting on this one for about a year, ever since I saw that Laffey’s favorite band (in the 2008 Media Guide at least) is O.A.R., a band with some Ohio roots that developed a following when I was in college and has matured nicely since then.
If you’re not familiar with it, sit through the intro in the link as “Crazy Game of Poker” is a pretty great song, particularly for the end of a wedding reception. Just trust me that it is.

Jake Westbrook – “Rearviewmirror” by Pearl Jam
Let’s see…since signing his contract extension with the Indians, Jake has started all of 30 games in two seasons and doesn’t figure to come back (optimistically) until after the All-Star Break. Think he’s trying to look ahead, instead of behind him?

Jeremy Sowers – “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” – U2
Extra velocity, maybe a change-up, maybe better location?
At this point, who knows if Sowers v.2006 will ever come back, but this is a pretty good guess at what he’s thinking.

Zach Jackson – “Friends Forever” by Zack Attack
While the clip doesn’t show the actual Zack Attack lip-synching performance of “Friends Forever” (I simply can’t find it though the montage is pretty sweet), just know that this is the whole basis for Zach Jackson being called Zach Attack…an episode of “Saved By The Bell”.

Dave Huff – “The Next Episode” by Dr. Dre
The tallest whitecap at the forefront of the next “wave of arms” coming from the Minors merits Snoop and Dre being played over the speakers at Progressive Field…cleaned up of course.

Kerry Wood – “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent
While I’ve heard that Wood has came out to “Welcome to the Jungle” while with the Cubs, it’s time for him to distance himself from Eric Gagne, Jim Rome, and Axl Rose in one fell swoop. Coming out to this little ditty, “here I come again now, baby…”

Jensen Lewis – “The Stomp” by The Hives
Embracing the notion that Jensen Lewis should be called “Stomp” because of the violence that is his left leg hitting the mound in his follow-through, here’s a nice little riff from the soundtrack of Guy Ritchie’s “RocknRolla” by The Hives.

Rafael Perez – “Icky Thump” by The White Stripes
For the player who was perhaps the most consistently dominant performer for the Indians’ pitching staff (outside of a guy whose season merited some hardware), it’s time for him to get a solid guitar riff to accompany him in from the pen.
Jack White…at your service.

Rafael Betancourt – “Night Court Theme” by Jack Elliot
If the Indians are truly embracing this whole “Court Is In Session” for Rocky, let’s at least hold off on that dominance comes along with it, at least for a little bit. Instead, how about some nice horns and a quick blast from the past with Harry, Dan, Bull, and the gang.

Joe Smith – “Right Now” by Van Halen
Truthfully, I know very little about Joe Smith other than that he thrives as a RHP against RH batters. In lieu of any real other information and having never seen him then, a song with the word “right” in it is as good as I’ve got.

Masa Kobayashi – “Handle With Care” by The Traveling Wilburys
Assuming that Masa has no idea what the name of this song is (and “Handle With Care” is not exactly a line that you even pick up as Tom, Roy, George, and Bob sing), it should be fine to play as a warning that Kobayashi’s usage for 2009 should be closely monitored after we saw what happened in 2009. As a bonus, here’s a cover of the song by Jenny Lewis (no, not the one that sits in the bullpen with Masa) and Feist, which is also pretty solid.

Adam Miller – “Back in Black” by AC/DC
Yes, it’s presumptuous given that some of this is based on reports from the Dominican Winter League; but, he’s back and instead of easing him into the bullpen as an intimidating presence coming to the mind, let’s just dispense with the politeness and let the guitar blast.

Fire up iTunes and get your own mix going for home…these are already added in mine.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Goodyear in Pictures

With little happening in Goodyear more than physicals, meetings, and basic drills, I was thrilled to get an e-mail from longtime reader Larry Jones, who is a displaced Indians’ fan living out in Arizona, attending some practices at the new facility in Goodyear.
So what, right?

Well, Larry’s also an aspiring freelance photographer whose company is Lazy Lightning Media and has forwarded me some pictures that he snapped at practice today with the promise that he’ll continue to do so as Spring Training progresses.

Without further ado, life in Goodyear on a Monday in February:











Pretty sweet stuff, particularly that close-up of Victor in his gear.

Again, a big thanks to Larry Jones, whose company again is Lazy Lightning Media, with the hopes that he keeps these coming.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Lazy Sunday in Goodyear

Well, everyone’s in Goodyear which means that the waiting is over, right?

In one sense, yes, in that the players are there; but in another, now we have to wait for something to actually happen as the odd thing about waiting for the date that Pitchers and Catcher Report is that, once the players are there and before actual game action starts, there’s very little that comes out of Spring Training by way of “news”. Much of it is reports on who looks good, who doesn’t…who said what canned comments regarding a topic that’s been dissected to death in the off-season…what all the players think about the season, straight out of the Nuke LaLoosh Handbook for Player Quotes…etc, etc.

Obviously, no news can be good news, in that there are injuries to report, but Castro’s right when he calls the “news” in Arizona thus far “excruciating minutia” as we’re all dying for information, then when we get said information, there’s a kind of let-down…unless multiple quotes from Josh Barfield playing the OF are that compelling to you. Not that it’s the beat reporters’ fault as you can almost envision them aimlessly walking around, trying to find out something to write about when there is nothing going on. To wit, both Hoynes and Castrovince mention chicken on the grill as one of the highlights of camp thus far…no, seriously.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some nuggets of info to come east from Arizona, so we’re off:

Terry Pluto comes correct with a bit of a continuation of the “Three Divided by Four” piece that I did on the infield last week, expanding mainly on Victor and Show Pack and what 2009 may hold in store for each. The piece that jumps off the page, as I’m not sure it’s ever been put on paper by Terry (though he did mention it when he was on “Smoke Signals” a while back) is that the Indians really have no idea if Hafner is ever going to be 100% as “that right elbow and shoulder have long been sources of pain for him”.

On Hafner, Hoynes comes through with a piece that looks like he confronted Hafner point-blank and asked him if he ever used steroids, especially given that Hafner cut his teeth in MLB in a Rangers’ clubhouse that could have doubled as a GNC with a back-room operation. Unsurprisingly, Hafner denied ever using steroids (as if we were expecting some admission) saying that he was big enough (250 lbs. in AAA) without them and didn’t want to get any bigger. Hafner says that he was “scared what it would do to (his) body health-wise” and that “it was illegal”. Give Hoynes credit for laying the article out well in terms of making the case of why Hafner, on some level, has the traits of a former user and goes right to the source for the answer and give Hafner credit for giving the answers. Unfortunately for Hafner, however, in this day of denials followed by revelations of use, words are just that and questions will always surround him, fair or not.

That, to me, is one of the ugly corollaries of this whole A-Rod thing (among many) – that players are almost guilty by association or guilty by suspicion. Sure, some of them are guilty, but there’s very little that a player can do to remove all doubt about his cleanliness is simply to not have his name included on these lists that are certain to continue to emerge.

Getting back to the topic of Hoynes (or at least his mailbag), Jay Levin at the LGT dips into that well once more and takes a crack at the questions on the minds of Indians’ fans everywhere...or at least the ones that take the time to e-mail the PD beat reporter instead of just doing some research themselves.

For things actually happening ON the field in Goodyear, Grady Sizemore apparently hit the first HR at the new ballpark in Goodyear (in batting practice, not in a game), which will hopefully serve as a prelude to Sizemore christening the New Yankee Stadium with the first HR there too…off of CC…with the bases loaded…on his way to a 3 Grand Slam game.
Is that asking too much?

As a quick aside on the Yanks, Rosenthal has a piece that should warm your heart on a February morning about how spending $441M didn’t really solve all the problems in the Bronx.

An interesting bit of info came this week that Frank Viola is in Goodyear as a pitching instructor, presumably to help with the Indians’ bevy of young LHP who are all trying to separate themselves in the race for that 5th rotation spot. It’s odd to think that Viola’s connection here is that he was on the 1992 Red Sox team with a then-24-year-old Eric Wedge (mainly because I still have trouble picturing The Atomic Wedge as a player), but Viola’s credentials as a LHP who thrived in MLB with an ability to avoid HR and BB should complement Carl Willis very nicely in Goodyear. Maybe the first order of business for Viola should be for him to spend a week or two with Jeremy Sowers to see if he can see what happened to the former #1 pick and the pitcher that blazed his way to MLB in 2006.

Finally from Goodyear, the PD has a nice photo gallery up of all the pictures coming to them from Arizona, with the one with Joel Skinner driving a golf cart and Peralta and Garko sitting in the back seat being my favorite thus far.

I’m not sure why I get such a big kick out of it (other than the look on Peralta’s face), but it looks like he and Garko are kids being driven to school by a buddy’s parent.

Moving on, Tony Lastoria has some nice ins-and-outs regarding our conversation with Josh Tomlin on “Smoke Signals” this past week (yes, everyone, the Nicky Weglarz interview is FINALLY next week and you can e-mail us your questions at smokesignals@theclevelandfan.com) as well as announcing that some of the minor-leaguers will be blogging on his site. Most of the guys he mentions (Gimenez and Pestano, notably) have been guests of the show and lend tremendous insight, with enthusiasm and intelligence, as to what it’s like to be a lowly minor-leaguer chasing that dream.

Regarding that quixotic notion that fills the heads of many minor-leaguers, here’s an excerpt from this week’s SI from a book by Matt McCarthy, a former Angels’ minor-league pitcher. It’s a fascinating inside look at the type of players populate MiLB, with drop-ins by Bobby Jenks, Derrick Turnbow, and Joe Saunders as McCarthy navigates his way from a 21st round draft pick out of Yale through the sticks until finding himself out of baseball after a meeting with a tearful Tony Reagins.

Finally, this past Wednesday, I was jubilant to receive my 2009 Baseball Prospectus Book, which is full of wildly informative insight and analysis. Admittedly, I’ve only had time to pore over the Tribe parts, but right off the bat, the intro to the Indians’ section of the book is a tremendous look at the Tribe bullpens over the past 4 years and how the peaks and valleys experienced from 2005 to 2008 are unprecedented in all of baseball history in terms of successful bullpens being followed the next year by abominations.

Not to offer a book report type synopsis (or give too much away) here because you really should go out and get the book yourself for information not even related to the Tribe (and get this and this to complete your coverage of, in order, all of MLB, specifically the Indians, and the Indians’ farm system), but here are some of the tidbits and predictions that jumped off the page to me.
Just remember the predictions are according to them and should not be taken as fact…yet:
- Asdrubal could be one of the best middle infielders in the AL as early as this season, based on his performance in the second half of the 2008 season.

- LaPorta has the potential to be a mid-summer call-up (to either 1B or LF) with a “Ryan Braun-level impact not completely out of the question” this year.

- Hafner will devolve further from Pronk into…well…Sid Bream.

- DeRosa’s assumption as the regular 3B to mean that the Indians will “simultaneously play three infielders at their second-best positions”.

- Beau Mills is the best hitting prospect in the system, saying that he’ll be “knocking 30-plus homers…in a few years’ time”

- Sizemore is only the 3rd player in MLB history to achieve the accomplishment of single-season milestones of 100 BB, 50 2B, 30 HR, and 30 SB (not in the same season, but with those milestones reached in one season), joining only Bobby Abreu and A-Rod. Seeing as how Grady accomplished it before his 27th birthday, that Abreu didn’t do it until he was 28 and A-Rod…well, who knows what to think of him, is it time to appreciate Grady on another level – a historical level?

- Rounding out the top five behind Grady (42.5) in terms of projected VORP for hitters in 2009 are, in order, Peralta (20.7), Shoppach (16.6), Choo (13.3), and Martinez (12.3).

- As a final note on the hitters, Carlos Santana (who comes in as BPro’s #33 prospect overall, 3 slots below LaPorta) has a higher projected VORP (10.9) than Hafner (10.1).

- Cliff Lee will remain one of the AL’s best starters, if not figuring as prominently into the Cy Young race in 2009.

- Betancourt will perform at level closer to his 2006 season, not nearly as successful as his brilliant 2007 nor as atrocious as his 2008.

- Dave Huff was one of only 11 qualifying minor-leaguers to finish 2008 with more strikeouts than walks plus hits.

- Wood should have no problem reaching his vesting criteria to net the third year of his deal.

- Starters, behind Lee (28.0) in terms of projected VORP are, in order, Scott Lewis (14.5), David Huff (11.1), Carmona (10.4), Westbrook (6.4), Sowers (4.3), Reyes (3.4), Laffey (2.4), Pavano (-0.6).

- Scott Lewis and Dave Huff have the 4th and 10th highest projected VORP for Rookie pitchers…so, Scotty Lewis, everybody!

- Projected VORP for relievers, again in order, comes in with Perez (16.2), Wood (12.6), Joe Smith (12.3), Betancourt (10.6), Jen Lewis (9.0), Sipp (7.9), and Mujica (7.3). Everyone else (Kobayashi, Miller, Meloan, etc.) have lower numbers.

By the way, the folks at BPro see the Tribe and the Twins as the two major players in the AL Central and feel that the Indians (with a little luck, and not the bad kind) are set up for a sustained run at a World Series championship, with 2009 serving as the first year of the next renaissance.
That’s not coming from me, your designated homer, that’s from the folks whose book has quotes on the front and back by ESPN’s Rob Neyer, Billy Beane, Sports Illustrated, and Bob Costas.

Just for one last plug, in case that wetted your whistle for more information…which it should have – here’s where to buy this terrific book.

The first full practice happens this week, with coverage on STO every night at 10:00 PM to put moving pictures into the mix.
Slowly, but surely, we’re getting there…

Friday, February 13, 2009

What League You Been Playin' In?

Maybe yesterday in Goodyear wasn't quite like this, but a part of me always wants to think that it is:



In the words of the immortal Clark Griswold, "We made it...dammit, we made it."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Arizona Dreamin’ – “I Don’t Know…Third Base!”

As I finally pull this “Spring Training Preview” series that unintentionally morphed into a full-blown roster analysis into the garage, only one portion of the team remains - the infield positions and the players involved in 2B/SS/3B. So, since I’m not going to throw up links to the other four sections (you can find them on your own), let’s get right into it.

The Indians entered the off-season with an oft-stated goal to upgrade their infield, specifically at 2B or 3B as the two players who factored most prominently in the second-to-third-side-of-the infield plans, Asdrubal and Jhonny, looked to have the flexibility to cover the other two spots not addressed by the new acquisition. Much was discussed about whether Peralta would be willing (or able) to make the transition to 3B and whether the Indians became a better team with Cabrera manning SS.

Regardless of what the Indians did, it seemed that Cabrera and Peralta (who was instructed to play 3B in the Winter League to prepare for such a move) were seen as two parts, able to fill either 2B and SS or SS and 3B, depending upon the landscape of available players for the Tribe. While Cabrera still remained a bit of an enigma offensively (due to his regression to start 2008), Peralta was ever steady as a player regardless of the position he eventually manned.

If questions remain about Cabrera’s offensive potential for some, let’s take a moment and remember something – Asdrubal turned 23 last November and has posted an OPS of .765 as a 21-year-old and an OPS of .712 as a 22-year-old. While those numbers seem pedestrian at first glance, realize that he was the youngest player on the Tribe last year with more than 350 AB by 2 years and 9 months…and the second youngest player on the team with more than 350 AB (Frank the Tank) posted an OPS worse than Cabrera’s “sophomore slump”. While I would never want to throw a comparison at a young player, do you know how old Omar Vizquel was when he topped even a .700 OPS? How about as a 26-year-old in his 5th full season in Seattle.

But even more promising than those numbers are the cumulative numbers that Cabrera posted prior to him being sent to the minors and those he posted after being recalled:
Prior to Being Demoted
.184 BA / .282 OBP / .247 SLG / .529 OPS in 158 AB over 52 games

After Being Recalled
.320 BA / .398 OBP / .464 SLG / .862 OPS in 194 AB over 62 games

What that conveys is that Cabrera, after being recalled to the parent club, made the proper adjustments as a hitter and posted good numbers for any player and phenomenal results for a middle infielder. Whether that momentum carries into 2009 for Asdrubal at the plate remains to be seen (as he certainly didn’t ride the wave from his 2007 season into 2008), but even in Cabrera falls somewhere between those two numbers (and I think that he’s closer to the second set due to his age and level of advancement), the Indians can carry him in the lineup because of the defense that he provides.

While a natural SS, Cabrera made the transition to 2B seamlessly, turning the DP as quick as anyone in MLB, with terrific range (a necessary skill due to the fact that Garko and Peralta don’t get to many balls), and establishing himself as an elite defensive 2B at the tender age of 23.

But the question is always out there – if Cabrera is the Indians’ best defensive infielder and is a natural SS, what’s to prevent them from moving him there?
Is it really just Jhonny Peralta?

To a degree, yes as Peralta used the 2008 season as a reminder of what he did in 2005, when he burst on the scene as a 23-year-old everyday SS with power, as he posted career bests in 2B, extra-base hits, and RBI while posting his lowest strikeout total (despite a career high in AB) since becoming a regular in 2005. While other pillars of the team dropped around him, Peralta stayed the course that he has for 3 out of his 4 years in MLB, providing power and consistency from SS. As the need arose, Peralta found himself in the clean-up spot and (not unlike the way the offense took off in 2005 when he was the #3 hitter) set the tone for the offense as he posted a .306 BA / .365 OBP / .512 SLG / .877 OPS line with 43 extra-base hits in 340 AB over the last 86 games of the season. Because of Peralta’s contributions, the offense found its footing in the second half with Jhonny, always steady never spectacular, leading the way…if quietly.

Now, with some of the principals that were missing in 2008 (namely Martinez and Hafner) slated to return and with the emergence of some of the young middle-of-the-order talent (namely Choo and Show Pack), Peralta can continue to provide his steady offense from a little further down in the lineup, lengthening the depth and quality from one to nine.

What position he plays while making those offensive contributions, though, is where the debate comes in with Peralta as his much-maligned lack of range becomes an endless exchange of “Zone Ratings” and comments that he “makes the routine play better than anyone” as a SS. The Indians’ “suggestion” to Peralta to play 3B in the Winter League and the comments by The Atomic Wedgie that “eventually Jhonny will slide to 3B” leave no doubt that Peralta will move to the hot corner at some point (or maybe even 1B, as some have suggested) eventually clearing a path for Cabrera to play his natural position of SS.

So, why didn’t it happen this off-season?
At the risk of oversimplifying things, because a player whose best position (allegedly) is 3B in Mark DeRosa was the most attractive player for the Indians to acquire on the FA/trade front. While Rafael Furcal and Orlando Hudson (who is still a FA with P & C ready to report) were names thrown around that would have resulted in Cabrera and Peralta shifting to their right to accommodate a 2B, the Indians looked to set their sets initially on re-signing Casey Blake and (thankfully) realizing that the deal that the Dodgers gave Lacey Cake was about 2 years too long, turned their attention on a short-term answer at either of the two positions.

The reason that a short-term answer (and not a player that the Tribe could pencil into their infield for multiple years) became the aim was that the acquisition of Luis Valbuena suddenly gave the Indians depth at the upper levels of their farm system with Valbuena, who had played only 58 games above AA in his career (though he did play 18 games in Seattle last year) and figured to start the season in AAA to fill out his game, and Wes Hodges, who remained on the radar after a solid, if unspectacular, season in Akron. Both players figured to be fighting for a long-term spot in the Indians’ future, though neither seemed to be finished products, much less ready to contribute to the parent club from Day 1 in 2009.

Thus, the reasoning emerged that finding a short-term fix in the infield was the preferred method to bridge the gap between the failed experiments of Andy Marte and Josh Barfield to the next two in line, Valbuena and Hodges. That area, which no longer looked to be a gaping organizational hole, found its band-aid with the acquisition of Mark DeRosa on New Year’s Eve.

DeRosa arrives to the Indians as a similarly skilled player as the oft-criticized and underappreciated Casey Blake (who was often seen for what he was NOT instead of being recognized for what he WAS), in that he can play multiple positions on the field (namely 3B, 2B, and both corner OF spots) while providing better on-base skills, if less power, than Blake. If the ideal for a stop-gap was getting Blake back for one year (remember, he got three years from LA), DeRosa brings even more to the table as his on-base skills allow him to slot at the top of the lineup as Blake never could and by giving the Indians some insurance for multiple positions on the field, namely LF, while being able to play every day, regardless of position.

To wit, DeRosa’s OBP over the last three years has been .357, .371, and .376, quite an upgrade at the #2 hole in the lineup (where on-base skills are so important) as Indians’ hitters from the #2 hole posted OBP of .326, .328, and .317 over those same last three years. While that is certainly an organizational upgrade in terms of improving the lineup, the more important aspect of DeRosa’s presence is the flexibility that it gives the Indians in terms of maximizing the talent in the lineup and in the organization.

What DeRosa’s versatility allows the Indians to do is let the lineup evolve as the season progresses with the idea that DeRosa’s ability to play 3B, 2B, or (perhaps most importantly) both corner OF spots allows them to use DeRosa to plug holes that may emerge on the team and move the players around accordingly. Because of Peralta’s ability to play 3B (and putting him out there during the season won’t be a shocking move as he played there all Winter…putting Garko in the OF is a shocking move) and Carroll’s presence beneath DeRosa on the Utility ladder, the Indians can allow their Opening Day lineup to morph into a more effective unit, with DeRosa filling in wherever he needs to. That is, if Ben Francisco struggles out of the gate and Luis Valbuena starts the season as a house afire in Columbus, the Indians can rotate DeRosa into LF, slide Peralta and Cabrera over and call up Valbuena to play some games at 2B. Obviously, that’s just one scenario, but it gets to the point of what DeRosa’s versatility can do for the Tribe. It’s just as likely, however, that DeRosa remains ensconced as the 3B for the season, allowing the players below the surface in the organization to fight for positioning for 2010 as DeRosa on the roster doesn’t ostensibly block anyone, his presence just lengthens the transition time.

Also serving as insurance against injury and filling holes where needed, Jamey Carroll returns to the Tribe, albeit in a more limited role than he saw last year. Carroll’s never going to dazzle on the field on in the batter’s box, but given the carousel of Futility Infielders that have graced us with their presence on the Indians in the past few years, it’s actually kind of a nice feeling to have Carroll and his decent on-base skills and his ability to avoid strikeouts back in the fray. Due to the versatility of DeRosa, Carroll’s appearances are likely to be fewer and farther between (particularly if anyone has the notion to give Josh Barfield another chance), but Carroll’s the versatile veteran that many good teams rely on to fill holes and rest players throughout the course of the 162-game grind, without the significant drop-off of…say, Mike Rouse.

Interestingly, while Carroll would figure to look like the final position player on the Indians, he actually counts as the 12th, leaving one final spot open for the Indians to play with. Since the "Good Ship Andy Marte" has presumably sailed (or is at the very least sitting in the dock waiting for the end of Spring Training, ready to go as soon as the Tribe makes it out of Goodyear with most of their infielders healthy) it would appear that Josh Barfield is slated to take that 13th spot among position players.

If Barfield does, in fact, make the team out of Spring Training (as he is expected to do), it’s actually for the opposite reason that most players make a 25-man roster, in that he’ll make the team essentially so he doesn’t block Valbuena in Columbus at 2B and because he represents a cheap, under-club-control player that the Indians aren’t concerned with decelerating his development…as he’s done that all on his own. Rather than piling on Barfield or even Marte for that matter, since neither figures to be big parts of the Indians this year or going forward as contingency plans are in place to move on without them, here’s the bit that I wrote about Barfield and Marte and how each steadily came down the mountain established by both at a young age, either as an MLB rookie (in the case of Barfield) or in the minors (in the case of Marte).

Why will Barfield make the team instead of Marte, as each is on similarly slippery footing with the organization? Very simply, options remaining – as Barfield can be sent down to Columbus to keep a roster spot in flux as the season matures as Marte would have to clear waivers, which he’ll most certainly be exposed to without any guarantee that he’ll have a spot in the organization if he does clear waivers, given the glut of 3B/DH/1B that figure to populate Columbus. Barfield, unlike Marte, can be used as a pinch runner and, if reports are true, the Indians are thinking of moving him to the OF to increase his versatility as the likelihood that he’ll ever see regular AB in Cleveland is quickly diminishing.

Now, before you go thinking that perhaps Barfield is salvageable, just know that last year in Buffalo, a then-25-year-old Barfield posted the worst OPS (.660 OPS in 299 AB) for any Bison player with more than 240 AB. Above him were Aaron Herr (age 27, .696 OPS in 241 AB), Andy Gonzalez (age 26, .700 OPS in 289 AB), and Brad Snyder (age 26, .723 OPS in 411 AB). Unless you see one of those guys as a long-term option for the Indians and in that context, you start to see Barfield’s 2008 season (much less his 2007) doesn’t remove him too much from that level of expectancy. Maybe the Indians are holding out hope that Barfield can re-capture the success that he experienced in that rookie year in San Diego, but everything that he’s done since then (regardless of level) tells a different story and the Indians’ acquisition of Valbuena certainly shows that they’re thinking the same thing.

With Valbuena, the Indians have a 2B in Columbus on the cusp of MLB, if not quite ready for it right now. In 2008, Valbuena burst on the scene as a 22-year-old in the Mariners’ organization, posting an OPS of .864 in AA, then continuing his success in AAA, to the tune of a .302 BA / .383 OBP / .373 SLG / .756 OPS at Tacoma over 58 games before ascending to the Bigs for a cup of coffee at the end of the season. After a down year in AA in 2007 as a 21-year-old (.689 OPS), Valbuena rebounded by getting back to the on-base skills that he had exhibited early in his career as a Mariner. His strength is his batting eye, accumulating 197 BB in his minor-league career over 1,675 AB, which looks pretty good compared to Barfield’s 208 career 2,725 BB in career MiLB AB.

At this point, though, Valbuena looks to go into 2009 essentially fighting for position for the 2010 team. Sure, it’s possible that Valbuena performs at a level in Columbus that merits a promotion to the parent club; but for that to happen, an opportunity on said parent club has to present itself. If DeRosa makes a move off of 3B and Cabrera and Peralta slide over, it’s possible that Valbuena makes an appearance topside in 2009, but Valbuena is really slotting himself against the other players in Columbus (LaPorta, Crowe, Brantley in the OF, Gimenez, Torregas, and Hodges in the IF) to fill the holes that are going to present themselves this season, and specifically for Valbuena when DeRosa’s contract runs out and the Indians look to fill their infield hole from within.

Principal among Valbuena’s direct competition for the Indians’ long-term future, however, is Wes Hodges. Hodges, as a 23-year-old in Akron last year, continued his steady, if undistinguished, climb up the minor-league ladder as he posted comparable numbers to those he had posted in 2007 in Kinston. While his .290 BA / .354 OBP / .466 SLG / .820 OPS with 18 HR and 29 2B in 2008 kept him on the prospect map, it didn’t represent the break-out that some were hoping for as his numbers regressed (albeit slightly) from his A+ numbers in Kinston. Consistency has never been Hodges’ problem and while that’s certainly not a bad thing, the issue with him is that the potential that can be seen in more highly-thought-of prospects isn’t as apparent with Hodges. If slow and steady wins the race, Hodges is in a great position to perform well enough in Columbus to merit a look at the 3B job in 2010.

But that’s what confounds me about Hodges’ situation, as despite the fact that he still figures as the top 3B prospect in the system, the Indians have made clear (in no uncertain terms) that Peralta is going to end up at 3B and Hodges (whose defense has been called into question this off-season by some reports, right or wrong) really doesn’t have another path to the Bigs as the only other position he’s played in the minors is DH. Maybe Hodges goes out and lights up Columbus and forces the Indians to re-think their plans with Jhonny going forward, but the overwhelming talk out of Carnegie and Ontario seems to focus on the idea that Peralta will eventually slide to 3B, allowing Cabrera to move to his natural position of SS, seemingly opening a position for Valbuena to assume 2B in the long-term plans. Thus, it’s really a matter of Hodges attempting to outperform Valbuena in Columbus, and overwhelmingly enough that the Indians don’t simply assume that the aforementioned “Peralta to 3B” plans will go into motion at some point.

When the whole 2B/SS/3B situation is looked at as a whole, it’s not unlike the other portions of the Indians’ team in that there are a number of parts that can be moved and massaged for different fielding configurations and lineups with the idea that evolutions will become obvious as the season shakes out. Whether that means DeRosa playing more in the OF and Peralta logging some innings at SS or if it means the Indians giving Barfield one more try at resuscitating his once promising career before he goes the way of Andy Marte are certainly questions that will be answered as 2009 rolls on.

For now, however, enough with these questions…it’s time for those sweetest of words to pass through these fingers to your eyes:
Wait for it…Pitchers and Catchers report!

Finally, after months of debate and conjecture and projections, there will be cleats on the field and balls in the air. And while the photos and videos of activities are likely to be limited to a bunch of guys in uniforms laughing and stretching, it represents something bigger – because they will be Cleveland Indians in Cleveland Indians uniforms doing all of that laughing and all of that stretching under the Arizona sun.

Spring Training is upon us, which means the 2009 season isn’t far behind.