Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lazy Sunday Not So Funday

Hey troops,
T-Bone here to slap together a Lazy as Paul wrapping up his brother's wedding festivities. I’ve been off the Tribe radar the past couple days, and upon looking around at the headlines… great googily moogily, this will indeed be a brief Lazy.


Let's get this out of the way first. Thanks Cavs, it was a hell of a ride. Sad, shocking end, but hell of a ride.

CC returned to the Jake last night. Tribe lost.

The Dellucci Era ended Friday, and we wont throw any more dirt on his grave other than the obligatory Dump David Dellucci link. After ridding Cleveland of Casey Blake and Dellucci, I wonder who DDD will target next? As for the Looch, a little birdie told me [as of April] he was dating a Price Is Right model, so at least he’s got that going for him, which is nice.

OK, here's a little more dirt courtesy of Castro:

The Indians signed David Dellucci to a three-year, $11.5 million contract to hit right-handed pitching, right? Well, in three years, Dellucci racked up a grand total of 127 hits off right-handers. That comes out to $90,551.18 per hit off a righty.
That'll buy a lot of Affliction shirts. As a result, Raffy P is back up after pitching nine scoreless innings in C-Bus.

The past few days have not been good injury-wise. Last night Vic leaves the game after fouling one off the shin. He's day-to-day. Sweet! Grady’s bum elbow has landed him on the DL (Chris Gimenez up). Awesome! Pronk’s shoulder is still bothering him and everyone's still scratching their heads. Great! In that same Pronk link, Anthony Reyes is looking at ulner nerve transportation, and 4-6 months recovery. To quote Reyes, "it sucks." Wonderful!

Mr. Pluto touches on DeRosa, LaPorta, the bullpen and the rotation… mentioning some guy named Paul Cousineau in the process (!!!).

Josh Weir at the Canton Repository and his take on “How did the Indians get here?

Tony Lastoria offers an “Extended Spring Training 101.”

The Lake Erie Crushers open up All Pro Freight Stadium Tuesday in Avon.
Ed note: I may be attending said game, and if I do at the very least I'll snag some pictures to share.

Lastly, I’d like to congratulate my brother and sister-in-law, who brought a lovely little girl into the world Friday evening, making me a first-time uncle (and the reason I was off the Tribe radar the past few days). The Bone clan is on cloud nine, congrats M-Bone!

Sure made last night's happenings in Orlando a bit easier to deal with...


Friday, May 29, 2009

Tomahawks with Relief from Unlikely Sources

With the last couple of non-Lazy posts not exactly painting a rosy picture (what with the “I hate this team” declaration to the post-apocolyptic jaunt to the realization that the rotation is a mess) let me reassure you where I stand here.

Lest anyone think that I’m turning into one of those bittermen, happy to sling arrows from afar and decry the position that we may find ourselves in and not look at the positive side of things as I always have, just know that the last few weeks have been nearly impossibly difficult to bear and if it feels like what I’m throwing out here takes you through the roller-coaster of emotions that we’re all on – know that it is precisely that and that the catharsis of writing about this stuff generally makes it a little better for me…as odd as that sounds.

As frustrating as this team has been over the course of the first 50 games, there may be a silver lining to all of these gray clouds as we see that a simple four-game winning streak has the Indians suddenly 3 games out of second place.

By the way, since I wrote that I “hate” this team on the 18th of May, the team is 7-3, so apparently, all I need to do around here is show a little negativity and…the whole season turns around, right?

What, oh what, can I write about that other team that plays down in Gateway to get some good karma going for them for the last couple of games here?

While I think about that, let’s release the ‘hawks:
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If we’re talking about the Tribe getting closer in the Central, it’s worth pointing out that the Tribe has moved up the ladder in terms of worst record in the AL, passing the Oakland A’s for 2nd worst record in the AL…White Sox, that bulls-eye is on your back now.

While that is meant to be amusing and lend a little perspective in terms of getting too excited about a four-game winning streak, the AL Central is really still wide open and the Indians could be looking at a portion of their schedule that they can make up some ground in a hurry.

Want some ridiculous news?
After the Yankees leave town, the next AL East opponent for the Indians is Baltimore…on August 27th. The next AL East opponent not named the Orioles for the Indians (after the Bombers leave town, obviously) is the Boston Red Sox on…wait for it…October 1st.

If there’s any thought that the AL East boasts some of the more talented teams in the AL, know that after Monday, the Indians have 10 games left against them, and only 4 of those games DON’T come against the O’s.

If we’re looking for a silver lining to this start by the Indians, maybe there is something to the fact that their early-season schedule slotted them against some of the heavyweights outside of their division early on and that this will all come out in the wash, with the Central ultimately being won by the team with the best record against the Central.

Longtime readers (going back to the White Sox run in 2005 and the Tigers run in 2006) will know that this my favorite thing to say this time of year if the Indians are scuffling and an unexpected divisional rival is thriving, but…the Tigers can’t keep this up…can they?
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Why the sudden turnaround for the Indians if the rotation looks to be in shambles and the 5th starting spot has become a revolving door?

Buckle up, kids…but it’s the bullpen.
And more specifically, it’s the bullpen NOW populated with veteran “retreads”.

Remember all of those years whey we moaned about Graves and Oldberto and Jose Jimenez and asked why the Indians couldn’t just get over their infatuation with these over-the-hill relievers and just go with the young arms from the get-go?

Um…as is the case with bullpen and construction of a bullpen, scratch that. The Indians bullpen has been settled by Matt Herges, Luis Vizcaino, and Greg Aquino stepping in to mop up for short starts by the rotation and have allowed Rocky Betancourt and Kerry Wood to simply pitch the 8th and 9th innings as some semblance of order has finally emerged in the bullpen.

In the last 9 games, in which the Indians are 7-2 (and which would start the night AFTER the Kerry Wood meltdown in the 9th in KC, here are the numbers for the Tribe’s bullpen:
2.20 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 32 K, 21 BB in 41 IP over 9 games

I’m not sure how many of you caught those last two numbers there, but 41 IP in 9 games is 4 2/3 IP per game for the bullpen in games that the Indians went 7-2 in BECAUSE of the bullpen.

Throw in the fact that 1 2/3 of those 41 innings were Jensen Lewis’ 5 earned run extravaganza on the night of the comeback and there’s no doubt that those numbers are unbelievable.
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So why the sudden stability and where is this coming from?
Of the six best FIP (which measures how a pitcher pitched regardless of how his fielders fielded) currently residing on the Indians’ pitching staff, an astonishing FOUR are held down by players that have often been described as “retread” signings or acquisitions:
CP Lee – 3.16 FIP
Herges – 3.69 FIP
Pavano – 3.77 FIP
Betancourt – 4.03 FIP
Aquino – 4.16 FIP
Vizcaino – 4.74 FIP
Without getting into WHY these guys even find themselves on the team and how much had to go wrong for one (much less three) to be topside, how is this even happening as these guys have come off of the scrap heap to settle the bullpen?

Can we have whoever did the scouting and recommendation on these guys take a look around the starters that may become available in the near future?
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So, now with this settled bullpen, how do we handle the news that Rafael Perez and Joe Smith are getting ready to re-join the Indians? While this may be a crazy thing to ask given what we’ve seen recently in the bullpen – who goes down to AAA or gets the DFA?

This is crazy to think about, but follow me on this in terms of who has earned the right to stay on the 25-man with their recent performance:
Rotation
Lee
Pavano

Bullpen
Wood
Betancourt
Herges
Lewis
Aquino
Vizcaino

The other pitchers on the 25-man roster, all of whom a case can be made for their demotion would be Carmona, Sowers, Huff, and Ohka (only because he is…you know, Tomo Ohka). So here’s a scary thought - if we’ve already seen a revolving door and the bullpen is showing signs of stability, what happens when Perez and (more specifically) Smith are ready to come up?

In terms of the rotation, I stick with Carmona and hope that Carl Willis can work some magic, give Dave Huff every opportunity to stay on the big-league club because…well, because he’s the Indians best prospect that is available to the team and not at AA, and use that 5th starter spot to get a couple of starts out of…let’s say Jeremy Sowers until Jake Westbrook is (hopefully) ready to come back by the end of June.

With the off days sprinkled around the month of June, it could be 3 or 4 starts we’re talking about between Monday’s game against the Yankees and the last weekend series at home against the Reds if they skip that 5th spot in the rotation from time to time to essentially minimize the damage that can be done from that 5th spot from Sowers, who needs to be told that he is fighting for his future in this organization and that if, when Westbrook is ready to come back, he’s the weakest link, it’s time to look for something more permanent than an apartment in Columbus.

Not exactly confidence-inspiring to make a run at .500 in June, but there it is for the starters.

As for the bullpen, with Perez getting the call-up and the tenure of The Looch officially over, you would think that Ohka goes down when Hafner is ready to emerge to make the bullpen whole again. Obviously, Perez’s return puts a LHP in the bullpen and allows him to work his way into the bullpen slowly as they’ve done fine in the last week or two without him and with the way they’re going now, if they can get the production from The Scarecrow that they’re used to, that’s just gravy.

Smith’s readiness, however, presents a bit of a different problem as the reliever who has probably been the most inconsistent that would figure to be in the bullpen when Smith is given a clean bill of health would be Jensen Lewis. Lewis, however, has been serving as a kind of de facto long man and the question would become whether guys like Aquino and Vizcaino can continue to contribute multiple innings to give Stomp a respite in AAA.

Truthfully, while Lewis may ultimately benefit from a stint in Columbus, when Smith is ready (and because he has options remaining), I don’t mess with a good thing. If one of the pleasant surprises goes awry, Smith can make his way up to replace a pitcher whose effectiveness may have waned; but if the bullpen is showing signs of stability, it may not be a good time to rock the boat for fear of another capsizing.
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With the Yankees in town, it’s time to take a look at this beauty again:

Now would be a good time to mention that there were some…um…Canadian soldiers outside of my house this morning when I went to get the paper. They must have known that the Yankees were in town.

When is Justin Chamberlain scheduled to start again?
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Finally, my brother’s getting married this weekend, so our ol’ friend t-bone has agreed to take the wheel on a Lazy Sunday as it looks to be like a long weekend for your humble host as the Indians look to continue their winning ways against the Yanks.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Break in the Waves

When the Indians began their rebuilding phase in earnest in late June of 2002, trading Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos for a slew of prospects, Indians’ GM Mark Shapiro talked up the idea of hitting the fast-forward button on the rebuilding process, attempting to shorten the usual length of rebuilding by moving their most valuable asset for close-to-MLB-ready players and by following up that move with an adherence to a philosophy of how a team should be built to compete year after year in the Cleveland market.

This “PLAN” became the subject of much speculation and much discussion, but the way that the team set itself up left no doubt that one of the fundamental pillars (if not the main driving force) of “The PLAN” was that the best way that a small market team to compete on a consistent basis was to rely on a strong starting rotation, capable of winning games or keeping the team in games. The logic behind the premise was simple enough, in that a strong starting staff could easily hide the warts in a bullpen by pitching late into games and minimizing the damage that an inconsistent bullpen could do on a season as well as keeping a team with an average or solid offense in games, simply by contributing six or seven innings of baseball to make any run or runs scored by the offense all that more important.

Given the payroll restrictions that the Indians foresaw, the philosophy of stressing the importance of a solid rotation above all else seemed not only solid, but also achievable in that pieces were already in place to build around with CC Sabathia. Of course, this is not exactly rocket science that good starting pitching wins baseball games, but the manner in which the Indians’ Front Office put all of their emphasis on creating a deep and talented pitching staff showed a commitment to that area of the team that was stronger than other areas.

As some of the talent began to develop with this basic tenet in place, the likes of CC Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, and Cliff Lee emerged as stalwarts in the rotation, complemented by what constituted “big-money” Free Agent acquisitions (for the Indians, at least) in Kevin Millwood and Paul Byrd while the Indians waited for their young starters to start to emerge from the farm system…those “waves of arms”, if you will, designed to be a constant flow to the parent club to provide the Indians with quality and depth for their rotation.

After a tease of a season in 2005 (with Millwood) and a clunker in 2006, the Indians’ “PLAN” looked to be right on course in 2007, when everything went so right. The starting rotation boasted two homegrown “aces” in Sabathia and Carmona, innings-eaters in Westbrook and Byrd, and compensated for CP Lee falling off the cliff by simply plugging in the revelation of the second half of 2006, Jeremy Sowers , and another young arm in Aaron Laffey to pick up the slack, with fireballing Atom Miller supposedly waiting in the wings in AAA.

Remember that?
Remember how right that all looked, how the Indians seemed poised to simply plug in parts to that rotation, even with the knowledge that CC was likely to leave and Byrd was simply pitching out his contract?

Sitting here now, a mere two years later, waiting for Zach Jackson to start a game in late-May, is it fair to ask what happened?
Where are the waves of arms?
Where is the depth?
Where is the quality?

Just two years after that 2007 rotation, the Indians’ 2009 rotation is ready to use the 9th starter of the season in The Zach Attack on Wednesday…all of this before the end of May.

Want some comparative numbers to throw that up against in terms of the years that the starting pitching was designed to be the strength of the team?

2008
12 starters used in the season

2007
8 starters used in the season

2006
9 starters used in the season

2005
6 starters used in the season

Does the number of starters tell the whole story as to how a season is going for a starting rotation? Absolutely not, but isn’t it pretty fair to assume that the fewer starters that pitch in a season means that those starters are contributing more quality and more length than a team with a number of starters toeing the rubber?

Why is it that, rather suddenly, the Indians find themselves dipping THIS deep into their starting depth? Is it simply injuries, or does ineffectiveness and lack of quality depth options play a role?

Certainly the case can be made for injury and injury causing some of that ineffectiveness as the quality of pitchers is going to drop the deeper a team has to go into their rotational depth, but wasn’t the idea that the Indians would plan for that with these “waves of arms”?

For a team that prides itself on having contingency plans for their contingency plans, is it fair to simply blame injuries or has it devolved more into a talent issue or a talent evaluation issue?

To me, at a certain point, this becomes a talent issue as the Indians simply haven’t developed these arms that have contributed at a Big League level with any sort of consistency since “The PLAN” became the credo of the organization. As the calendar is about to flip to June in 2009, the Colon trade occurred nearly seven years ago…care to take a guess how many pitchers broke camp with the Indians this year from Goodyear that were drafted or were international signings and were developed by the Indians since that trade in 2002?
Two….
Two pitchers that started the season on the 25-man roster this year were drafted or signed as amateurs by the Indians and developed by the organization since that day in late June of 2002.
Scott Lewis and Jensen Lewis…that’s it.

If you want to throw some of the players who have come up since Opening Day to contribute who fall under that same criteria (drafted or signed as amateurs since the Colon deal and developed by the Indians), add Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers and Tony Sipp.

How are those “waves of arms” looking now?
It’s true that Carmona and Perez were both signed as amateurs by the Indians and worked their way through the organization, but both were inked by the Tribe prior to that night in June of 2002. That’s probably picking hairs, so sure…throw them in there too.

This is the “waves of arms” that’s going to feed the parent club to overcome the losses in Free Agency?

Obviously some of the best-laid plans have gone amiss, but have the failures of Sowers been THAT damaging or the injuries to Westbrook and Atom Miller been THAT difficult to overcome that the Indians are about to enter June and have no appealing option to start a game this week?

But it’s not just that the alternatives to fill holes don’t seem to be there – the pitchers that HAVE logged innings this year have been underwhelming at best. Consider what the Indians’ rotation (and this includes those names that have emerged to augment the parent club) have put forth this season:
2009 Rotation after Monday’s game
5.79 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 1.51 K/BB, 5.47 innings per game

Oof…right?
Want a real sucker punch?
2009 Rotation without CP Lee after Monday’s game
6.81 ERA, 1.69 WHIP, 1.22 K/BB, 5.10 innings per game

That’s 46 games into the season after Monday’s game, nearly 1/3 of the way into the season, so we’re not exactly looking at a small sample size anymore and suddenly the Indians are looking to put together a run back into the AL Central with Lee, Pavano, and a number of question marks that get bigger with each passing game, particularly without the services of the pitcher who was probably the most valuable to them this season this side of the reigning Cy Young winner in Aaron Laffey.

Sure, Carl Pavano has been a nice revelation after his first start and a nice “find”, but why was it even necessary to go out and sign a player like Pavano if the whole idea behind “The PLAN” was to develop layers of arms, supposedly accounting for attrition, so the Indians’ rotation would always have steady stream of arms?

Why was it necessary to continue to pitch an obviously injured and ineffective Anthony Reyes if the Indians were designed to fill the back-end of the rotation from within?

Essentially, the “wave” that was supposed to be breaking into Cleveland at this time resembled more of a gentle lapping at the coast and the Indians, obviously lacking confidence in their home-grown players, saw that this “break” in the waves was coming and the only way to counteract this development was to sign or acquire players like Pavano and Reyes, some four years removed from their first foray into the bargain bin with Kevin Millwood and Jason Johnson.

Is this “break” in arms or apparent flaw in “The PLAN” simply a result of the arms not being around to emerge as viable MLB starters?

Maybe, and while the Indians stocked their position player depth via trade, acquiring Cabrera, Choo, Shoppach, Valbuena, LaPorta, Brantley, Santana, and others to make up for their organization holes around the diamond, the sense that these “waves of arms” still existed as viable options resulted in the Indians essentially attempting to ride out this downturn in talent that arrived in MLB as starting pitchers.

While it was necessary to augment the position players via trade en masse, the acquisition of arms lagged behind (perhaps because they simply weren’t available), laying waste to the idea that the Indians would see arms periodically arrive in Cleveland at a steady and consistent rate as the players that they had developed on their own were found to either be lacking or just never made it to MLB due to injury issues and the net result is that that “depth” becomes compromised or becomes so watered down that you’re not really talking about “depth” at all in terms of quality, you’re just talking about arms who can start a game.

As my friend Tyler Chirdon so eloquently points out on the topic, “Depth is not having a second string in place when you break camp, because you have to assume that a number of your starters AND your first-choice replacements will get injured, such that you don't know what your real roster issues are until you're about 5 weeks in. Depth is having a full roster's worth of replacements in late May… not about emergency options, but replacement-level-plus guys.”

Usually, the Indians stress going “7 or 8 deep” into their AAA rotation, but if the quality from #4 to #8 isn’t all that different and isn’t all that great, doesn’t that scream for an infusion of talent in the rotation, perhaps not to save the 2009 season, but at the very least to give a better sense about 2010?

What does 2010 look like, assuming Lee’s staying and Pavano’s cashing in elsewhere?
Lee
Carmona
Westbrook
Laffey
Huff

Knowing nothing about what Westbrook’s going to look like and seeing Carmona struggle with every inning that can snowball on him, how comfortable are you with that going into next year?

Sowers and Zachson are out of options, so count them out unless you put them in the Opening Day rotation, and Ant Reyes and Scott Lewis may be looking at going into 2010 with their arms held together by chicken wire and bubble gum…feeling any more confident yet?

Of course, the argument can be made that there’s another batch of arms in AA with Hector Rondon and Jeanmar Gomez, as well as other talented players like Chuck Lofgren and Josh Tomlin; but which of these players is going to come to the parent club and legitimately establish himself as a viable MLB starter? Dave Huff blew away AA and AAA hitting in 2008 and has struggled in his first few starts and, while that’s obviously making an unfair knee-jerk reaction, the idea that Huff would be have to be counted on to come into the rotation and perhaps immediately become the 3rd or 4th best starter on the team goes back to the idea that the talent just doesn’t seem to be there in the rotation.

Yes, there are arms there, but what I’m referring to is pitchers that legitimately sit at the top or the middle of the rotation and don’t simply represent back-end-of-the-rotation fodder or depth options in that the team would be happy if they were able to contribute a 5-inning outing once in a while.

Seven years and not one consistently effective starter has been developed by the team. Think about that…sure, Laffey has had his moments, as has Sowers in 2006, and if you want to include Carmona (signed in 2000), you start to see some stretches of effectiveness by players signed or drafted by the Tribe, but where are the long-term, legitimate replacements that plug the holes in the team’s rotation?

You want a problem for this team in 2009 and this organization as a whole? Go ahead, blame the bullpen and blame roster mismanagement in terms of which players are playing and where they’re playing the field…there’s plenty of blame to go around. But for this organization, allegedly adhering to this “PLAN” in which starting pitching is the bedrock which the whole idea of consistent contention is built upon, the failure of the organization to see those “waves of arms” hit with consistency and effectiveness looks to be the glaring area of this team that is lacking for this year and into the near future.

Beyond that, the scariest part of this revelation is that the water looks pretty calm here on the shore and the next waves look to be a good distance away from the beach as days, months, and seasons begin to pass.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Those Were the Days

In the midst of putting together a piece attempting to put my finger on what exactly has gone wrong (the 11-run comeback considered) with the Indians, I thought that using a piece that I put together in the middle of February of 2007 would serve as a nice preface for where the Indians sit now.

How do the Indians sit where they do?
Where has it gone wrong?

Maybe it’s time to remember how we interpreted “The Plan” a little over two years ago…and remember, this is PRIOR to the magical 2007 season:

Last December, I examined “The PLAN” and laid out the basic philosophies that the Indians seemed to be following in the pursuit of putting a consistent contender on the field. It’s time to expand on those initial thoughts to look at a more detailed analysis of the implementation of “The PLAN” as it pertains to the players that the Indians include in their long-term plans.

The evolution of “The PLAN” has been an interesting thing to observe, particularly considering that Shapiro plied his craft at the knee of John Hart, who believed in a Beer League Softball style of bashing his way to success in Cleveland. When Shapiro took over in 2001, it was fair to assume that he would continue Hart’s philosophies and beliefs, assembling overwhelmingly talented position players, cobbling together a starting staff, and manufacturing a bullpen out of castoffs and graybeards. But Shapiro has proven to be his own man, with his own philosophies, more deeply rooted in the simple credo of “pitching beats hitting”, perhaps after watching the Murderers’ Row of Indians hitters baffled by the Three Aces in the 1995 World Series.

But “good pitching beats good hitting” is simply one principle of “The PLAN”.

The basic tenets break down this way:

Strong Starting Pitching
Obviously, if any team could develop the starting staff the Indians look to be entering 2007 with, they would do it in a heartbeat. But Shapiro, since his trade of Bartolo Colon (which was the only way to circumvent the seemingly mandatory 10 year rebuilding plan seen in Detroit and Kansas City, among others) has gone out of his way to stock what is often referred to as the “waves of arms” that are designed to hit Cleveland when the parent club is in need of some new ammunition. Out of his 6 1st Round Picks since 2002, ½ have been college pitchers – one with disappointing results (Guthrie), one with promise (Sowers), and one with very limited experience (Huff) – and one sandwich pick used on a high school flamethrower (Miller).

Those “waves” are starting to whitecap. Sowers is in Cleveland and the rest of the 1st wave of Carmona, Miller, and Slocum are ready to possibly contribute this year. The 2nd wave of Lofgren, the Lewis Boys, Laffey, Ness, and Sean Smith is only a step lower.

Need proof that these aren’t just highly touted names with nothing behind them? Here are the 2006 staff ERA’s for the Indians’ farm teams:

Buffalo – 3.44
Akron – 3.74
Kinston – 3.44
Lake County – 3.60

Those are TEAM ERA’s!

Realizing that the Majors (where only 3 teams were sub-4.00 in 2006) than Minor League pitching, and a completely different animal, those numbers still speak to the quality and quantity of arms the Indians have stockpiled in Shapiro’s time as GM.

Will all of these pitchers pan out? Certainly not.

Remember that Jason Davis, Ricardo Rodriguez, Jeremy Guthrie, and Billy Traber don’t currently complement C.C. in the rotation. But the strength in numbers is a solid strategy in that only one or two of these players at each level are going to survive the grind and the gauntlet and emerge as viable options at the ML level.

Will Miller and Carmona replace Byrd and Westbrook for 2008? Will Lofgren replace C.C. in 2009?

Even if they’re not going to have to, the idea of having a legitimate replacement starter emerge from the farm is much more palatable than seeing a contract to a middling starter replace them and do little more than clog up the payroll.

A Few (two to three) Exceptional Position Players
Truly irreplaceable MLB everyday players (or players that you would take over any other player that position in the Majors) are rare commodities in that few teams boast more than two at any time.

Morneau and Mauer
Howard and Utley
Wright and Reyes
Ortiz and Manny
Pujols and Rolen
Chipper and Andruw (five years ago)
And, of course, SuperSizemore and Pronk

There are other good players in baseball, to be sure, but the best of the best on the same team form the core of an offense and solidify a lineup every single game.

To have three or four of these players on one team, in their prime, is nearly unheard of – but not without precedent. The Tribe of the 90’s had Belle, Thome, and Ramirez entering their prime, complemented by Omar, Lofton, Baerga, and Sandy. Great players, but Joey, Jimmy, and Manny were the centerpieces.

Acquiring these rare players sometimes come by design (Mauer, the 1st pick of the draft), others by surprise (Ortiz, a FA reject). But when a team gets one of these players, much less two, it forms the foundation of a potent offense. With Grady signed through 2011 (an absolute masterstroke, particularly when you look at the contract numbers late in the deal) and Hafner signed through 2008, the Indians have a leg up on most teams when looking at offensive production.

How many of these players are in the pipeline for the Indians? That’s hard to say. Would you have pegged Hafner as one of the top 3 three hitters in baseball when the Tribe acquired him with Aaron Myette for Ryan Drese and Einar Diaz? Do you think the Rangers did?

Players develop into these players, they don’t usually don’t burst on the scene and announce their arrival with a Ryan Howard-esque rookie season. Can Andy Marte develop into one of these players? Can Trevor Crowe? Can Jhonny Peralta revert back to the form of 2005, when he was mentioned in the same breath as Miguel Tejada in terms of overall production? Who knows?

For now, the Indians have Sizemore for five more years and some time to negotiate with Pronk. If he moves on, Shapiro and the boys hope that one of the aforementioned names will have moved into the realm of the elite to keep a few exceptional players on which to build the everyday lineup.

Reliable and Experienced, if Unspectacular, Bullpen
This is the one aspect of “The PLAN” that has likely undergone some revisions since Shapiro took the reins in 2001. We’ve seen the Good (2005 and Howry), the Bad (2006 and Mota) and the Ugly (2004 and Stewart/Jimenez … I think I just threw up in my mouth remembering those two), but have yet to see the year-to-year reliability that good teams crave.

The “throw it up against the wall and see what sticks” method seems to be the current strategy in constructing a bullpen league-wide. The fact that relievers are relievers for a reason (that is, they’re not starters or closers) is the most widely held belief in realizing that building a bullpen takes more than a little luck.

The key is to find a pitcher on the verge of a great season, not one season later. How do you figure that? Very simply, you can’t. You can throw gobs of money at pitchers that have experienced recent success (like the Orioles did), but there’s no guarantee that those pitchers won’t blow up and become a burden for the remainder of the contract.

Prospects can be developed to join the ML bullpen ready to contribute; but, as we learned last year, the pressure in Dunn Tire Park in Buffalo is a tad different than standing on the mound in Fenway looking at Big Papi. The progression of relievers from effective minor league relievers to cogs in a ML bullpen is a long and rocky one. Just ask Fernando Cabrera, the man with the nastiest stuff this side of Paul Shuey.

It would be great to throw the likes of Mujica, Sipp, Mastny, Perez, and Jason Dangerously (all terrific arms with great potential) out there and cross our fingers. But the reality of that option flew over the LF fence in Comerica with Pudge’s walk-off last year as Carmona raised his hands to his shell-shocked head.

In lieu of watching these guys learn their craft by sending them through the gauntlet, the idea is to find reliability and stability in a historically unreliable and unstable aspect of the team.

Affordable Complementary Players
Is it necessary to build a lineup of All Stars to put a consistent contender on the field?

Ask Scott Brosius after the 1996 World Series. Or that Red Sox RF from 2004 … what was that guy’s name again – Trot or something like that?

If the core of a team is in place to lend stability and potency to the lineup (Grady, Pronk, Victor, and to a lesser degree Blake), then the balance of the lineup can be comprised of either young players with promise (Barfield, Marte, Garko) or dependable veterans who have proven themselves to be more than proficient in one or more aspect of their game (Dellucci vs. RHP, Michaels vs. LHP, Nixon vs. RHP).

The strategy of complementing the core with these types of players keeps the payroll flexible (the young players aren’t quite arbitration eligible and the older players play on short contracts for less money as they try to prove themselves to be more complete than previously proven to earn a bigger contract), allowing the money to be spent on retaining the more important aspects of the team – namely starting pitching and locking up the core position players to long-term deals.

Ideally these complementary players come from the minors to fill the holes that exist on the ML roster. But Major League Baseball is no Xanadu. If the youngsters prove not-quite-ready-for-primetime, holes are plugged with available rosters on short deals until a viable replacement can be found in the minors.

Want examples?

Michael Aubrey’s body falls apart, halting his ascension as the “1B of the Future”. No other internal option exists and Benuardo is born, then replaced by Blarko. Or Brad Snyder’s swing develops a giant hole, resulting in 158 K’s in 52 Akron AB, and Frank the Tank loses his power stroke somewhere between Vero Beach and Cleveland forcing Dellichaels to rear his ugly head.

Would we all like to see seven Indians in the All Star lineup every year? Sure, but what that got us was a couple of AL Pennants and no World Series flag to fly over the Jake.

SUMMARY
A number of teams have executed these philosophies effectively, most notably the Atlanta Braves and their run from 1991 to 2005. They were built around their starting pitching – Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux, Millwood and solid 4th and 5th starters as the base. Chipper and Justice/Andruw Jones made up their “exceptional players” criteria, with the likes of Javy Lopez, Fred McGriff, and Gary Sheffield complementing them. Noted stalwarts Mark Wohlers, Kerry Lightenberg, and John Rocker anchored the bullpen.

That sustained run of excellence by the Braves is what the Indians aspire to and the goal of “The PLAN” – the framework by which the Indians have been built and are being projected to remain. The names on the back of the jersey will change as the makeup of the team changes. But the principles they are evaluated by will be the constant.

The players are no different than the actors in a play. The scriptwriter has the framework of what he wants to see played out for a long run on the stage.

Sit back and enjoy the show.
Up next…how did we ever get off this course that looked so sound after the 2007 season that followed the piece and is it possible to get back to the path that "The Plan" seemed to put this team so squarely upon?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Lazy Sunday Spent Looking for Arms

Looking across Lake Chautauqua on this fine Memorial Day Weekend and thinking again about LeShot, let’s just get going on a Lazy Sunday before I become a viable option for the Indians’ rotation:

The biggest revelation of the week (other than the fact that the Indians’ bullpen now boasts Greg Aquino, Luis Vizcaino, Matt Herges, AND Rich Rundles) came via SI.com’s Jon Heymann, who was the first to report that Mark DeRosa found himself on the proverbial trading block, which should have come as no surprise as the Indians, now officially (OK, maybe not officially) committed to “The Shift” of Jhonny to 3B, find themselves not so much in need of a 3B…which, apparently is still the position that the Indians feel is DeRosa’s best, unless you count 1B.

Without getting into the “Orlando Hudson and his 1-year deal would look awfully good here right now” rant, it would seem that DeRosa finds himself in the super-utility role that Casey Blake was oft-rumored to be destined for, but never quite got to. If he is that super-utility guy, then DeRosa may be a luxury that the Indians just don’t need, given their obvious need for arms…any arms…capable of getting consistent outs, be it in the rotation or the bullpen.

By no means am I suggesting that DeRosa is not a valuable commodity on this team, but with Peralta at 3B, Cabrera at SS, Valbuena and Carroll around to patrol 2B, and the Indians having the pieces in the OF, we’re going to keep DeRosa around…to what?
Play 1B and move around the diamond?

Aren’t the Indians already chock full of 1B playing out of position and can’t Carroll and all of those other names move around the diamond as Valbuena can play 2B, SS, and 3B, etc? If, then, he becomes a redundancy on this team, particularly with Carroll healthy, doesn’t it stand to reason that another team, in need of a player like DeRosa more than the Indians at this point would be looking for exactly the “rent a versatile veteran for a year” idea that the Indians acquired him for last New Year’s Eve?

The bottom line is that the Indians need arms and they need to infuse some arms in a hurry to this team in an attempt to keep hope alive in this season and start to load up for next season. If Mark DeRosa can net some arms for the Indians that can help right now, then there’s your move to make right now.

It’s a notion that was put out there by Jayson Stark (with a veritable cornucopia of info on the Erie Warriors), who clarified what Heymann started in terms of what the Indians are and are not looking to do in the trade market with the pieces and parts that could net them some arms:
Lee-way: Another team in almost an identical position is the Indians, with Cliff Lee. Clubs that have felt out the Indians about Lee's availability have come away thinking GM Mark Shapiro wants to hang on to Lee, pick up his $9 million option for next year and hope things go right around him for a change.

Shapiro hasn't told other teams he won't listen on Lee this July, or even next winter, if the Indians don't U-turn in the next few weeks. But they would almost certainly want a can't-miss, ace-waiting-to-happen young starter back, plus at least one other star-caliber prospect. And teams just don't trade away pitchers like that (think Tommy Hanson, David Price, etc.) in this day and age. So don't look for much Rumor Central action on Cliff Lee before July 2010, if ever.

Buy-or-sell land
: On that note, for all those who thought Cleveland was nearly ready to bag this season and start selling off parts … uh, guess again. Clubs that have spoken with the Indians say they're still trying to ADD pitching, to give the current group at least another month to right the ship.

Other teams report the Indians are very willing to talk about Mark DeRosa for the right pitcher, which makes the Giants a better match than the Brewers or Mets. You should also remember that this is a team overstuffed with outfield depth, with Ben Francisco, Matt LaPorta, Trevor Crowe, Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo all positioned to battle for playing time on either side of Grady Sizemore within the next year. And there are indications the Indians also would talk about dealing off some of that depth for the right arm, or arms.


Now this is an idea I can get behind…
Let’s start to use some redundant assets to stockpile some arms at the upper levels and forget the notion that every trade of an outfielder for a pitcher is going to evoke memories of Brian Giles-for-Ricardo Rincon.

Filling holes in the upper levels is something that the Indians have excelled at in years’ past with veterans (and quite successfully with Benuardo becoming Choo and Cabrera, Blake becoming Santana) in terms of targeting players that had more value to other teams and moving them to fill organizational holes. Beyond the “flip the veteran” philosophy, the Frank the Tank trade showed a newfound willingness to deal a younger player from a position of depth to acquire a young player(s) at a position of need.

But, at this point, it’s time to get a little more aggressive with this notion in terms of the Indians (suddenly) being loaded with position player talent and bereft of pitching talent…and by that I mean, nearly any pitching talent in AAA and, well…the parent club. With this newfound depth among the position players, could the Indians pull off what the Tigers and Red Sox were able to in the off-season, when Detroit moved OF Matt Joyce for Edwin Jackson (currently leading the AL in ERA…non-Greinke category) to stabilize their rotation or when the Red Sox sent OF Coco Crisp to KC for Ramon Ramirez (currently 7th in MLB in WXRL) to deepen their bullpen?

Who knows, but the time may be now for the Indians to get pro-active in terms of knowing what they have and what they need and not waiting for the off-season or for the trading deadline to make these moves.

Now am I suggesting a Kenny Williams-esque attempt at a trade here?
I don’t think so, although it certainly is interesting to see how Williams, with his team currently sitting on a 2.6% chance of winning the Central (the Indians own a hefty 8.5% chance), responds to his season going down the drain.

But maybe now is the time to acknowledge that the Indians are a team badly in need of arms (primarily in the bullpen but with the rotation past Lee no getting any free passes), and what they may have to dangle out there to become more whole.

Does that mean that they should move a piece like Victor (and didn’t I tell you that this piece was coming) to get some MLB-ready, high-quality arms in the system?

Not unless you’re looking at this year as a complete wash and surveying the landscape of what 2010 may look like and seeing the need for THAT many more arms for the Indians to legitimately get back to having a surplus of arms…and by that I mean a surplus of QUALITY arms.

Maybe you’re at that point right now (and the argument can be made in a very compelling manner just by looking at a potential 2010 rotation), but I’m not there JUST yet and look for guys like DeRosa as the more immediate piece that could be moved for something, and by “something” I don’t mean an arm for Kinston or Lake County. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on arms currently residing in organizations like the Giants, the Mets, the Brewers, or any other team that may be looking for a 2B or a 3B or a fill-in-the-cracks kind of player like DeRosa, but the Indians need arms at the big-league level and if Mark DeRosa can be flipped for an arm like that, there’s no reason to wait for any kind of magical date to make that happen.

If DeRosa is moved, however, don’t take it as the sign that the “Garage Sale” is on, as Stark adroitly reports. Rather, it’s as simple as DeRosa not having the defined role that he did going into the season and trading him should be taken more as an acknowledgement that the Indians misevaluated what 2009 held in store for their infielders and essentially targeted the wrong player.

He may not be the last player moved, but he almost certainly will be the first.
How did it come to this before Memorial Day?
Don’t ask…

Moving on, and attempting to avoid the fact that the Indians may be having a starting pitcher named Kirk Saarloos or Tomo Ohka before the END OF MAY, if you’ve not seen the cover of SI this week, it has a local feel to it as my fellow native South Euclidean Joe Posnanski has a piece on Cleveland. He addresses the whole “Cleveland cover” thing which is another great read, but if you click just one of the links here, read his piece from the magazine.
It’s that good.

Finally, a Happy Memorial Day to everyone…I’ll be spending mine with my wife, my son, my brother, and his fiancĂ©e at the ballgame. At this point in the season (and, yes, it is only MEMORIAL DAY tomorrow), all we may have for the rest of the season is the enjoyment of a baseball game on a beautiful summer night, spending time with family and friends.

As strange as it sounds with the Indians still 10 games under .500, I couldn’t think of a better day.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Walking The Road

Attempting to find better uses for my time as this Indians’ season fritters away, day by day and game by game, I found myself reading through my latest issue of Esquire. In the current issue (the one with the delicious Megan Fox on the cover), there is an article in which the terrific prose of Tom Chiarella describes a scene in the upcoming movie “The Road”, the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant post-apocolyptic novel.

My mind working (unfortunately) as it does, I couldn’t help but find myself drifting off back onto the Reservation as Chiarella’s introduction captured what I’m feeling right now:
At one point in “The Road”, a moment that is never otherwise explained or referenced, the father and the son stare at a dead forest as it burns. The fire leers profanely from one edge of the screen to the other. Dense and hot, certainly loud, it's the sort of fire from which there is no safe distance. It feels like the two of them should get out of there. From the get-go, the father and son have moved. And yet now they stand there watching the fire, dazed, like two drunks gazing out the window of a Laundromat at a mushroom cloud.
Move, guys. Move.


And as much as I want to move from this fire burning before my very eyes, I can’t move. As loudly as my head is telling me to get away from this smoldering mess that is the Indians’ season, I can’t pull my heart out of it – mesmerized inexplicably by watching the season go further and further into the abyss.

What is it that makes me want to rationalize that this season is salvageable?
Is it the knowledge that the Indians posted a .611 winning percentage last year over the final 72 games, going 44-28 to finish at the .500 mark with nearly the same cast of characters that we see donning the script “I” night after night?

Why do I sit here and rationalize that if the Indians can go 13-6 in their next 19 games before their next day off, that the season will somehow remain in play?
Do I look at the rest of the AL Central and think that, a quarter of the way into the season, 85 wins is all it could take to win the division and we’re only a hot streak away from that?

Honestly, I don’t know for sure, but I feel more and more like I’m on a post-apocalyptic trip through scorched Earth like the father and son in “The Road” with Chiarella’s words (from a magazine that you should really consider if you enjoy superb writing on topics as varied as “The Esquire Bible of Drinking” to a piece by Nate Silver on the death of the American Automobile industry) painting the picture of what this season feels like:
Everything is dead. There is no color left in anything — not the people, not the plants, not the faces of mountains. Ruined, wrecked, and used up— it is our world, consumed at its edges by fire, at its center by rot…Sounds awful, because it goddamned well is. But it's awful, too, as in full of awe. Awful as in you cannot avert your gaze. It's hard not to watch a fire.

Maybe the comparison is a bit of an overstatement in terms of comparing something as small in the grand scheme of things as a baseball season to a “ruined, wrecked, and used up” world…but didn’t that blown save by Wood resemble something of a mushroom cloud?

So, why is it that I cannot avert my gaze?

Why is there that little part of me that forces me to watch these games, thinking beyond logic that somehow this team is going to miraculously turn this thing around and convincing me that I want to be there when the turnaround begins? How is it that I am able to somehow block out the fact that the team would need to go 71-51 over the last 122 to hit those 85 wins that it will probably take to win the AL Central. My head tells my heart over and over again that the chances of this team hitting that .581 winning percentage look pretty bleak in terms of overcoming a rotation full of question marks after CP Lee and a bullpen whose complete and utter failure is now complete.

In this landscape of scorched Earth, why am I unable to look away from the fire?

The fruitlessness of the trip now becomes crushing as nothing that the Indians do, or attempt to do, seems to work and usually only causes pain – not unlike the movie adaptation that Chiarella describes:
When they do move, the father and the son progress through a quietly seething dream, a world at its end. When they run from danger, they clank and rustle and seem wetly destined to never get away. When the father grips the boy's mouth to quiet him, it is too rough. Rivers seem to be icy sloughs of poison. Yet they swim. They are a father and son. They carry two bullets. Anytime the man turns his back on the boy or separates from him, it feels — in a way that scary, apocalyptic movies often do — as if everything will end.

So, as we grasp for even the littlest victories, for any tiny detail that offers hope, the question comes flying at us - is this the end…or has the end already happened and we’re just plodding along aimlessly in a lost world, reaching for answers when we’re the truth is that we may be asking the wrong questions…

Monday, May 18, 2009

Coming Clean

It’s time to come clean on something.
(Deep breath)
I hate this team.

I hate watching the games in agony, waiting for the bullpen take over for a starter fully aware that the implosion is coming.

I hate watching the offense score a bundle of runs for a Reyes start like clockwork in vain, only to be silenced for a CP Lee start when only one run is needed.

I hate the feeling that all of the levers are being pulled to put a different, better team on the field and still seeing the same tired names being trotted out there in the lineup.

I hate the feeling that everything could have gone against the team this season has, and that a good portion of it is the fault of the team.

I hate watching them take issue with a perceived slight by another team a full three days after said slight and only when their closer came into a game that they were losing, taking their frustration out on an opponent only so they don’t start turning on themselves or Wedge, assuming he’s around for the team to turn on.

More than anything, I just hate the losing and the feeling that the winning streak or winning stretch that is necessary to put this team into the AL Central isn’t going to come around because the problems.

I hate it all and the trouble is that with each passing game, the sense that this “tinkering” to find a solution is actually doing more damage than anything for the team. Say what you will about how it doesn’t matter what reliever enters a game because the song remains the same, but consider for a moment that there have been three combinations of the starting lineup that have been together for more than two games – one for six games, one for three games, and one other starting lineup for two games.

We’re not talking batting orders here, where players may move around the different spots in the batting order; we’re talking about nine players playing the same position on a team. I’m all for versatility and at one time was fully behind the thought that finding the right mix was still possible by utilizing the versatility of certain players on the team; but at this point, the Indians are just picking names out of a hat…and I don’t mean in terms of who’s batting where. The team is playing guys at the wrong positions and the net result has been chaos.

Want a crazy idea in an attempt to get some stability to the team?

How about some stability in the lineup?

How about saying, “These are the nine most talented position players on the team, and they’re going to play the positions that suit them the best every day”?

How about filling out the lineup card in permanent marker one of these nights and letting it ride for a while to end this chicanery that has ensued in the determination of who plays where and when?

I’m all for making a change to this team to get it jump-started…but not the drastic change that you’re thinking of – how about making a change of setting a group of regulars from the players on the roster and…I don’t know, play them for consecutive days.
You know what…make it two weeks and see what happens.

Throw this out there and see what sticks:
C – Shoppach
1B – Martinez
2B – DeRosa
SS – Cabrera
3B – Peralta
RF – Choo
CF – Sizemore
LF – LaPorta
DH – Garko
There…there’s your lineup for the next two weeks, come hell or high water.

Put them in the batting order however you want, but play them at those positions nearly everyday with Martinez catching Carmona being the only exception to this combination of players. If you want to move Valbuena or Carroll in there for a sporadic start so DeRosa can move to 3B, LF, or RF to give one of those guys a day off, fine. If Hafner returns before those two weeks are up, he takes over the DH spot being spelled occasionally by Garko, who is relegated to the bench otherwise.

Otherwise, go with this lineup for two weeks…after two weeks, see where we stand.

I’m not saying that The Atomic Wedgie should pull a Norman Dale and play short-handed, telling us in some grand statement that he’s fed up with some of the guys in the clubhouse to the point that “his team is on the field” down a player; rather, I’m saying that there is talent in this lineup, but it’s being grossly underutilized as Wedge as tried too many combinations of players, many of them in positions that are foreign to them or players that simply don’t merit an everyday look in MLB at this point in their careers.

Looking at the bench players in this arrangement, can anyone make a compelling argument that any of these guys should be playing even close to everyday ahead of one of the names listed above?
Dellucci – Age 35 – career 98 OPS+
Carroll – Age 35 – career 82 OPS+
Francisco – Age 27 – career 99 OPS+
Valbuena – Age 23 – career 63 OPS+

Valbuena? Maybe at some point in the future…but right now, if he’s not playing everyday, why not just send him to AAA to get everyday AB to be ready to play 2B every day, allowing Barfield can become the designated pinch-runner on a team of base cloggers while not worrying about him not having to bring his bat or his glove for road trips.

We don’t need to “find” AB for the rest of these guys, including Garko if Hafner comes back. They can fill in to give regulars a day off now and again, but this constant motion around the diamond and in and out of the lineup is making me nauseous with seasickness and the playing of these guys out of position further exacerbates the problems on this team.

At this point in the season, the Indians are fighting for what’s left of 2009 (if it’s even salvageable) and it looks like they’re going to need all the offensive firepower they can muster to overcome the holes in their rotation and the gas cans that trot in from the bullpen. If that’s the case, let’s go with the best players available to fill the lineup…every single day…at their best position.

Maybe employing such a novel concept will restore my faith and, perhaps, my love for this team – because right now, I have neither.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Unfortunate Familiarity of a Lazy Sunday

Reeling from another loss and on my way down to the Cleveland Marathon…no, not to run, but to cheer on those that are and hold my cup of coffee at the “refreshment stations” (I’m kidding), let’s roll right into another Lazy Sunday with another lever being pulled from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, this time with Dave Huff making his MLB debut in Tampa and with Masa being removed from our greater consciousness forever.

And…away we go:
Starting where we often do, Terry Pluto hits on many of the pertinent topics on the Reservation today, but leads off with the topic du jour (that’s the topic of the day…which sounds good, I think I’ll have that) – that being the movement of one Mr. Jhonny Antonio Peralta to 3B, saying that “the Indians finally accept the obvious and move Jhonny Peralta to third, Asdrubal Cabrera to short.”

Obviously, this topic has some wear on the tires, but Dennis Manoloff at the PD had a piece after the first alignment of Peralta at 3B-Cabrera at SS pleading for Peralta to stay at 3B with some well-thought out assertions and logic, even if they’re well-thought out assertions and logic that have been out there for a while. I’m not sure why the PD doesn’t have Manoloff do more pieces like this as he seems to have a pretty good grasp of what’s what with the Tribe and conveys an informed opinion without coming across as out-of-touch or sitting on an agenda.

What’s too bad is that I challenge you to find someone who knows that anybody at the PD writes about the Indians other than Hoynes and Pluto…maybe because this piece didn’t even make the print edition of the paper.
A piece by Livingston on horse racing the next day?
Sure, they’ll find a spot for that…but a timely article on the only team in town currently playing while the Cavs wait for their opponent?
Gonna have to squeeze that one into the “online-only” content category.

Back to the “Jhonny to 3B issue”, how about the human element of the situation, Mr. Castrovince?
Jhonny Peralta isn't thrilled with the prospect of bouncing back and forth between third and short. "It's not frustrating," he said, "but I'd like to be at one position, instead of moving all the time." When I asked him what he thinks of playing third tonight, he responded, "What do you think?" I think Jhonny's upset.

Want more of the feelings that Jhonny’s emoting, this time to Hoynes?
Asked if he preferred to play shortstop, Peralta said, “That the position I play.”

“What do you think?”…”That (sic) the position I play”?
Oh boy.
Um, Wedgie…time to put on that “Manager” hat and make this thing right as you’ve finally realized that this defensive alignment is the best use of your infielders and it sounds like somebody isn’t on board with this.

With this move to 3B for Peralta looking like it may find some roots before Memorial Day (and realizing that I’m going the “Hindsight 20/20” route), how good would Orlando Hudson look in the everyday lineup at 2B if the Indians would have signed him?

The O-Dog, who’s hitting at a .344 BA / .422 OBP / .523 SLG / .945 OPS clip, inked a one-year deal with the Dodgers that can be worth up to $4.6M in incentive bonuses, which is about $900,000 less than they’ll end up paying Mark DeRosa to move around the diamond, not to mention the three relievers (including this guy, who might have been useful) they gave up to get DeRosa.

Elsewhere, and on the topic of players who don’t respond to questions from beat reporters about their new role with a “What do you think?”, Andrew Humphries of the LGT has a nice piece entitled “In Praise of Aaron Laffey” lauding the job that The Babyfaced Bulldog has done wherever and whenever the Indians have needed him.

Want more praise of Aaron Laffey?
Here are the numbers from the relievers in the bullpen since Laffey made the move there on May 6th:
Laffey – 9 2/3 IP, 2 ER, 7 H, 3 BB, 8 K

Herges – 7 IP, 2 ER, 3 H, 2 BB, 6 K
Lewis – 6 1/3 IP, 1 ER, 4 H, 0 BB, 5 K
Betancourt – 6 IP, 3 ER, 5 H, 3 BB, 6 K
Wood – 2 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 0 BB, 1 K
Sipp – 1 1/3 IP, 1 ER, 1 H, 6 BB, 1 K
Kobayashi – 0 IP, 5 ER, 5 H, 0 BB, 0 K
Vizcaino – 0 IP, 1 ER, 1 H, 0 BB, 0 K

Bullpen since Laffey’s move there on May 6th:
Laffey – 9 2/3 IP, 1.86 ERA, 1.03 WHIP
Rest of Bullpen – 22 2/3 IP, 5.16 ERA, 1.37 WHIP

Since his move to the bullpen, Laffey’s thrown 30% of the available innings to the bullpen in 11 games on his own and has let up 2 ER. In the other 70% of the innings thrown by the bullpen, the relievers not named Aaron Laffey have allowed 13 ER.

So where is Laffey more valuable, considering that Sowers pitched poorly enough in two starts for the Indians to promote Dave Huff earlier than they wanted to and Anthony Reyes has a 6.97 ERA in the two starts since Laffey made the move to the bullpen and has yet to make it into the 7th inning of any game this year?

Unfortunately, it’s probably still in the bullpen (as much as I hate to admit that) as the Indians’ bullpen (now next-to-last in MLB in WXRL) has pitchers who cannot string together consistently effective outings. Look at those numbers up above there for the relievers in the last week and a half and see how Stomp Lewis has been the most efficient reliever for the Indians (even taking into account his Friday night, after which HE was the singular target for Eric Wedge while everyone else in that bullpen has been just as, if not more, frustrating) along with Betancourt and how those two were as culpable for the loss on Friday as Tony Sipp and Jose Vizcaino were.

It’s become fairly comical with these relievers, if only because at this point if you’re not laughing in disbelief you’ve probably already ripped out all of your hair.
Maybe Rafael Perez has righted himself in Columbus and can replace Tony Sipp, who has quickly gone from 8th inning candidate to BB machine, or maybe the Indians are going to see what a guy like Steven Wright (oh wait…wrong link…this guy who has looked good in his few appearances out of the bullpen) can do before dipping into Zach Putnam or Hector Rondon.

While we’re grasping at straws and attempting to pull out all the stops here, maybe they could consider moving Ant Reyes to the bullpen considering these numbers:
1st Time Facing Reyes in Game
.182 BA / .270 OBP / .291 SLG / .561 OPS

2nd Time Facing Reyes in Game
.345 BA / .403 OBP / .618 SLG / 1.021 OPS
Reyes has pitched out of the bullpen before (with some modicum of success), but to me, if Laffey’s working in the bullpen right now (and little else is), why move what could be another question mark like Reyes into a bullpen full of question marks if you figure that he’s just biding his time in the rotation until Jake Westbrook is (hopefully) ready to return.

All told, Shapiro is right to tell Jon Heymann of SI that the bullpen has been “horrific”.

Speaking of the article in which that quote appears, Heymann becomes the next in line with another “Will the Indians trade Cliff Lee?” piece, complete with the SI.com front page showing Lee with the headline “Trade Bait” above CP Lee. Everything that Heymann writes is an extension of what was written earlier this year by that Danny Knobler guy, but the summation that Heymann puts out there comes as more than a little disturbing:
Most importantly, Shapiro isn't afraid to change course, as he did last year. So the Lee situation is worth keeping an eye on.

The issue there, quite obviously, is that while Shapiro may not be “afraid to change course”, if they just changed course last year, is this simply becoming a year-after-year selling off of veterans with one or more years left on their deal to re-stock the farm? Certainly some Indians’ fans see the organization as it is currently set up to be little more than that, an endless cycle of the Indians trading away veterans for prospects in what becomes a circular process, one in which “Next Year” is always the focus. Trading CC and Blake with months remaining on their deals is an entirely different animal than trading the reigning Cy Young winner with another full option year left on his deal in terms of declaring where the future of this team lies…and, more importantly, when.

I suppose if Lee is traded, it would validate that to a degree; but to me, watching the Indians queuing up what feels like Plan F or maybe Plan G in their lineup, their rotation, AND their bullpen, it would seem to me that they’re being pretty pro-active in attempting to find answers instead of sitting back and continuing to “let this play out”. For a change, there does seem to be some urgency and some moves that are being made that go against what has always been organizational philosophy.

While the results haven’t all been positive, the sense that they’re simply willing to give up on this year and focus on 2010 (during which Lee WILL still be under contract) is certainly not the one that’s being conveyed as the Indians moves are coming fast and furious.

With all of these moves being made to salvage the 2009 season there is a feeling that if the Indians haven’t thrown the kitchen sink yet at these problems, that the plumbing has been disconnected and sink is off the wall ready for the old heave.

Also on this “Will the Indians trade Cliff Lee” thing, I know about the marquee value of the FA Pitcher here, but why no articles so far on flipping Victor Martinez to add some parts? Doesn’t Victor have that same 2010 option and isn’t he playing about as well as he ever has…how is his situation different from Lee’s other than the dollars it would take to keep each past 2010?

It’s still too early to talk about stuff like that…isn’t it?
Let me check my handy dandy “How Early Is It?” Calculator, via Left Field Lampoon…

Finally, I think it’s time for everyone to pull their weight here to see if we, as a group, can help the Tribe get untracked…and this is what I’ve come up with:
In honor of Dave Huff’s first start, and with the full knowledge that Huff often sports upper lip fuzz (the “Huffstache”, if you will) at various times in the season, it’s time to go NHL Playoff Hockey style and grow out some facial hair.

Myself, I’ll be attempting to pull off the Chester Arthur look to do my part to turn this train around…that is, until The DiaBride cuts this idea off at the knees.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Can I Have Some Tomahawks On That Roll?

The Indians are winning, the offense looks better with the roster (gasp) finally being managed to optimize the lineup and CP Lee looks like Cy Phifer Lee again. With all of those good things happening and with roster moves happening en masse (again), let’s get right to the Tomahawks:
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The big news of the week, obviously, is that top prospect Hector Rondon will be leaving the Akron rotation to join the movement to the bullpen. It’s a series of moves that was dissected about as well as one could possibly imagine already by Tony Lastoria, but let’s look at the Rondon move from a practical perspective as to why he may project as a bullpen arm, at least in the short term.

Ideally, the arms that you want to come out of the bullpen are ones that don’t walk too many people, but also who have the ability to induce swings and misses and notch some strikeouts…not too crazy of a concept, right?
Well, here are the pitchers with the highest K/BB rates in the system, regardless of level:
Kelvin De La Cruz – 9.50 K/BB
Paolo Espino – 6.00 K/BB
Hector Rondon – 4.67 K/BB
Josh Judy – 4.67 K/BB
Anillins Martinez – 4.67 K/BB
Zach Putnam – 4.50 K/BB
Recognize some of those names as guys that recently made the switch to the bullpen?

As for the names that you may not recognize from recent weeks, KDLC has been shut down for six weeks after blazing to a phenomenal start in Kinston, and Espino is currently bouncing around Lake County, Kinston, and Akron to fill in holes in the rotation and bullpen and is not nearly the prospect that the others are, as Tony Lastoria tells me.

But past those two is where you get into some names and may really help with Rondon and Putnam now together in the Akron bullpen after each started the season in the rotations in Kinston and Akron, respectively. Josh Judy has recently been promoted from the Kinston to the Akron bullpen and Anillins Martinez is really finding his first success in the Lake County bullpen, which means that the 9 2/3 innings he’s thrown may or may not be an indication that he should be fast-tracked.

So, of the pitchers in the organization with the highest K/BB rates, two have now been put into the bullpen with the idea that they may be able to help the scuffling bullpen.

Want an idea how K/BB rates portends success out of the bullpen?
Top K/BB rates in MLB in 2008
Mo Rivera – 12.83 K/BB
Jon Papelbon – 9.63 K/BB
Matt Capps – 7.80 K/BB

Obviously, that needs to be taken with a bit of a grain of salt as neither Rondon nor Putnam has those video-game numbers (even in MiLB), but it points out what criteria the Indians are looking at in terms of transitioning young arms to the bullpen.
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The downside of the Rondon move is not that different, though, from the move of Aaron Laffey to the bullpen as, while it may strengthen the bullpen, it unquestionably hurts the rotation. Think for a moment how the starters’ depth chart looked when the season started:
Lee
Carmona
Pavano
Reyes
Lewis
Laffey
Sowers
Huff
Jackson

That’s nine names and, as hard as it may be to believe, the thought that they’re going to have to go deeper than that when we’re in mid-May is valid as Reyes and Sowers have shown that they’re not worthy of getting the ball every 5th day, SLewis is hurt (again), Laffey has been called out of this mix to save the bullpen and Huff is still probably a couple of weeks away from making his way up to the parent club.

So, past those nine, you would have probably put Rondon and Westbrook as the other two legitimate starting options for this year…that is, until Rondon made the move to the bullpen. Thus, what we’re looking at with Sowers going back down and Reyes struggling to the point that he probably shouldn’t be in the rotation is that the Indians have to hope that Huff can step into the rotation at some point (assuming Laffey stays in the bullpen…which shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion) and that Westbrook returns healthy and ready to contribute.

At this point, that may be asking for a little too much to go right in that rotation…particularly in the back end.
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Speaking of that back end of the rotation, is anyone holding out hope that Jeremy Sowers is going to ever find success as a MLB starter?

Since his 2006 season, Sowers has gone 5-17 with a 6.16 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP over 197 1/3 innings and things actually seem to be getting worse for him as he’s on his way back to AAA with the Indians’ 5th starting spot seemingly up for grabs.

What’s so frustrating about watching Sowers go one night, then watching Lee go the next is that to watch the radar gun, the two aren’t separated by too much in terms of MPH, with both sitting between 89 and 91 with their fastballs in their last start…but, as we’ve learned from watching CP Lee turn into Cy Lee, it’s all about location.

Don’t believe me?
Here are the pitch charts for each from their last starts, starting with Lee via brooksbaseball.net:

See how Lee lives on those edges of the strike zone, spotting his pitches around the strike zone without just grooving them right down the middle?

Check out Sowers’ pitch chart (again, via brooksbaseball.net), with the balls all over the place and those in the strike zone focused right down the middle or, worse, middle up.

Yuck.
Is Sowers salvageable at this point?
That’s hard to see and knowing that he’s out of options after this year and probably pitched his way out a legitimate opportunity to start a game for the Indians with his last two games, who knows what the future holds for Sowers…but his window of opportunity to be a legitimate starting option in Cleveland is closing quickly.
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Knowing that Sowers is out of options out of this year, who else is?
Aubrey
Barfield
Carmona
Francisco
Zachson
Perez

What players are out of options after 2010?
Garko
Laffey
Jen Lewis
SLewis
Meloan
Miller
Sipp

Not sure if you find that interesting or not as the haves versus the have-nots in terms of who’s out of options after this year doesn’t make it that hard to see which players are on their last legs as Indians.
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With the win in Tampa, the Indians are 13-15 since their 1-7 start with what can charitably be called an unsettled bullpen and a still-evolving offense and now find themselves merely five games out.
Thank goodness for the AL Central…

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Not Enough Benefits, Too Much Doubt

In the maelstrom that is swirling regarding the immediate future of The Atomic Wedgie, I started thinking about what indicators are really out there that are widely apparent to the everyday fan in terms of evaluating a manager without knowing the inner workings of a ball club. Obviously, there is a “tone” set for a team that comes from a manager that should bear out in the games, but exactly how the “tone” comes from the manager or the “attitude” that is set by the manager is a fairly ambiguous unit of measure.

Does it look like this Indians’ team is buying into the “respect the game”, “do the little things” product that Wedge is selling? Certainly not, but how much of that is on Wedge and how much is on the players is not exactly easy to determine if you’re going by what the manager can literally control by his decisions on a day-to-day basis.

That is, how much of a bearing does Wedge’s managerial style have on Grady striking out a lot or Asdrubal looking like an All-Star? Isn’t that more on the player than it is anyone doing much more than coaching them (which, as fans, we can only make assumptions on) and putting them into a particular place on the lineup card?

Does Wedge have control of Peralta looking lost at the plate any more than he does on Victor looking as good as he has offensively in his career?

What I’m getting at is that the manager can only tangibly control certain things on a team that is easily seen from the stands or from the couch, with everything else ultimately falling on the players decided upon by the manager who puts them into certain situations.
To me, the things that an MLB manager controls that is easy for anyone to see would be the setting of a lineup, the management of a bullpen and in-game situational decisions like bunting, when to execute a hit-and-run, pinch-hitting, pinch-running, etc.

Things beyond that, at least in my opinion, are dictated by the players between the lines with the manager essentially functioning as the person in charge of ideally placing those players in the best possible situation to succeed or by putting the best players on the field or on the mound as much as possible to optimize success for the team.

Getting back to Wedge then, I think it’s pretty safe to assume at this point that to blame him for the meltdown in the bullpen is more than a little misplaced as Wedge is trying whatever mix of players he thinks might be remotely successful, burned by the same pitchers who may have thrown three excellent innings prior to a meltdown. His handling of the relievers can be excused if only because I'd like to see an assertion that the handling of the bullpen has been the problem and not the pitchers that make up the bullpen.

Beyond the bullpen, truthfully, I’m not that interested in debating individual game decisions as calling for a bunt versus not calling for a bunt or executing a hit-and-run versus not calling for one usually balance themselves out over a long season. It may make for interesting at-the-moment conversation and debate, but the long-term effect of one individual move, to me at least, shake out in the wash over 162 games.
Some things work, some things don’t…let’s move on.

Filling out the lineup card, however, has been more of the issue with Wedge…particularly recently. The offense this year has been uneven at best, as easily capable of 9-run outburst as much as it is a long stretch of futility. Obviously, this isn’t that much of a surprise given that EVERY team goes through the ups and downs of the season.

What has been interesting is the way that Wedge has defended his struggling players, asserting that the players that remain in the everyday lineup “have a track record of success” in MLB that earns them the benefit of the doubt.
With some of the struggling players, this is certainly true:
Grady has earned the benefit of the doubt…
Peralta has earned the benefit of the doubt…
DeRosa has earned the benefit of the doubt…

The line ends there, though, as Ben Francisco and Dave Dellucci…they have not.
And with the presence of a couple of highly-touted prospects now on the team and not waiting for the call in AAA, there has been absolutely no reason for either to start a game since May 3rd, when Matt LaPorta and Luis Valbuena were called up from Columbus.

No reason, you say?
I know I’ve laid this out there before, but here are some pertinent statistics for each of those players.
Ben Francisco in his first 19 games in 2008
.365 BA / .397 OBP / .619 SLG / 1.016 OPS in 63 AB

Ben Francisco since those 19 games through Monday’s game

.249 BA / .322 OBP / .399 SLG / .721 OPS in 481 AB

Now, if The Ben Francisco Treat were showing signs of life after dovetailing last year, maybe an argument could be made for him to get even a sporadic start. But for the player on the team with the lowest OPS of anyone on the team not named Jhonny Peralta with more than 50 plate appearances, it’s time to relegate the Frisco Kid to the 4th OF role that he should have been a week and a half ago when LaPorta and Valbuena arrived.

As for the other culprit in stealing playing time from the youngsters (and being enabled by his skipper), let’s examine what The Looch has put forth as an Indian. Before reading this, you should be warned that this may make you nauseous when you consider that the only numbers I’m putting up here (for the benefit of everyone involved) are those for Dellucci against RHP, the pitchers that he was brought to Cleveland EXCLUSIVELY to face because of his track record against RHP:
Dellucci 2007 vs. RHP
.240 BA / .306 OBP / .403 SLG / .703 OPS in 154 AB

Dellucci 2008 vs. RHP
.251 BA / .319 OBP / .426 SLG / .746 OPS in 319 AB

Dellucci 2009 vs. RHP

.259 BA / .310 OBP / .333 SLG / .644 OPS in 27 AB

Ready for the grand totals of The Looch, as an Indian, against RHP?
Drumroll, please…
.248 BA / .315 OBP / .414 SLG / .729 OPS in 500 AB

Again, that’s taking OUT any AB against LHP that Dellucci is known to be incapable of hitting, that’s ONLY against RHP, the very pitchers he was brought into hit.
Hit them…he has not, and his inclusion on the roster past the return of Jamey Carroll or, at the very latest, Travis Hafner is a decision that should be apparent to anyone with even an elementary grasp of analysis.

That inclusion on the roster is to say nothing of his inclusion in the everyday lineup as he’s started nine of the eleven games for the team since his return from AAA. Beyond the obvious frustration, why does the presence of his name on the lineup card game after game against RHP reek of bullheadedness?

Here’s why:
Matt LaPorta in MiLB vs. RHP
.311 BA / .407 OBP / .626 SLG / 1.033 OPS in 441 AB

Is this against MiLB pitching?
Absolutely, but his OPS in the Minors against RHP is actually 254 points HIGHER than it is against LHP, so he’s shown that he hits RHP better than LHP in the Minors and the idea that the level of performance that is known to come with Dellucci is going to outpace what may come from LaPorta gets to the whole crux of the issue.

That is, of course, that the Indians know (or at least they SHOULD know) what they have in Francisco and Dellucci. An OPS of .721 by Francisco in the 421 AB since his hot start last year pretty much tell us that Frisco is what he is, just as Dellucci’s cumulative .729 OPS against RHP as an Indian give as much information as is needed to relegate these two to the bench or to some fishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

After the promotion of LaPorta and Valbuena, the assumption was that both Francisco and Dellucci would find themselves in reduced roles as the Indians are reticent to call up top prospects and are more than adverse to calling them up and sitting them, not even taking into consideration the issue of LaPorta’s service time that he’s accumulating on the bench.

Instead, both Francisco and Dellucci found themselves in the lineup as the youngsters found sporadic starts since the May 3rd promotion:
Francisco – 8 starts in 9 games
Dellucci – 7 starts in 9 games
LaPorta – 4 starts in 9 games
Valbuena – 4 starts in 9 games

It’s one thing if Francisco or Dellucci have that one redeeming skill that keeps them on the field, but Dellucci’s one alleged skill (the ability to hit RHP) is one that hasn’t been exhibited now in 500 AB against said RHP and Francisco’s defense, or lack thereof, would likely put him on the bench for most teams regardless of his lack of offense. Neither player has any compelling skill to see everyday action or even anything close to it.

Now, if you want to stash either on the bench for a rare PH opportunity or for Francisco’s “ability” to play all three OF to allow the Indians to give someone a day off, that’s fine. But with LaPorta and Valbuena on the team and with their success in AAA this year validating their status as likely everyday players in MLB, there’s even less of a reason for either to play.

If you want to have the argument of what the lineup should look like (who should hit where), that’s fine and have at it, but to me the construction of a lineup falls well below the content of the lineup in terms of how the offense can succeed…and the lineup of players that puts this team in the best position to win doesn’t include Francisco or Dellucci.

The lineup of players that puts this team in the best position to win right now looks something like this:
Shoppach/Martinez – C
Martinez/LaPorta/Garko/DeRosa – 1B
Cabrera/Valbuena – 2B
Peralta/Cabrera – SS
DeRosa/Peralta – 3B
LaPorta/DeRosa – LF
Sizemore – CF
Choo/DeRosa – RF
LaPorta/Garko – DH

That’s it and there are hundreds of ways that those player combinations can bear themselves out and hundreds of ways to then find the right mix of players for the offense until consistency is achieved…but none of them include Francisco or Dellucci.

Now, in full disclosure, it should be noted that The Atomic Wedgie may be coming along to this line of thinking as per Castrovince’s blog post last night prior to the 9-4 win:

• No Matt LaPorta again tonight. Wedge is sticking with his "regulars" (and David Dellucci is included in this mix), essentially because of the 40-minute players meeting that was held Saturday night. "These guys got together and looked each other in the eye the other night, and I want to give them a chance to stand behind it and do something about it," Wedge said.
• But it sounds as though that chance will last exactly two days, and the Indians already wasted one of them with Sunday's 5-3 loss. If things don't turn around tonight, expect some changes. Expect LaPorta to be in tomorrow's lineup, regardless, because left-hander Clayton Richard will be on the mound, but LaPorta might get a more extended look. And he might see time at first base, where he's been seeing regular time during pregame drills.
• Wedge might start playing Jhonny Peralta at third base and Mark DeRosa at first to get Luis Valbuena more time. He might use Ryan Garko at DH or in the outfield. He's expecting Jamey Carroll to be back any day now, and that will have an impact. Carroll, in fact, might be back as soon as tomorrow or Wednesday. Wedge said he'll talk to him after tonight's game.


This whole “give the guys a chance” thing is fine if we’re talking in a vacuum and it really did just affect Sunday and Monday’s games, but there were a whole week of games prior to the games after the players’ only meeting that reek of Wedge’s stubbornness to go with “the army he’s gone to battle with before” without taking the performance of two of the components of that army into consideration.

Maybe it can be argued that the inclusion of Francisco and Dellucci had little bearing on the performance of the team recently, but with the team scuffling as it was (particularly offensively), their inclusion asserts a misplayed confidence on the part of the manager. That misplaced confidence on Wedge’s part and it’s one that’s not new to Indians fans as Wedge’s misplaced loyalties to average players that he knows come at the expense of the potential of players that Wedge does not know or perhaps trust.

But these moves (if they are in fact made and followed through with for longer than a few games) are about a week overdue and should have been ushered in when LaPorta and Valbuena were promoted to an already scuffling club.

For those who have been paying attention, these misplaced loyalties aren’t a new development with Wedge, but the difference here with the continued playing time for Francisco and Dellucci has been that the options to replace them were already ON THE TEAM and not waiting for the call-up in AAA, and each represented an immediate potential upgrade sitting in uniform in the clubhouse and on the bench.

Whether or not either LaPorta or Valbuena represents an upgrade remains to be seen but the bar isn’t set that high for either to be an improvement over what Francisco and Dellucci were providing. The only thing keeping that potential improvement from occurring over the last week can be traced to Wedge’s stubbornness, the same stubbornness that may serve as the grease in his chute out of town.