They lead the AL Central over 2nd place Detroit by 3.5 games. Most of you are already well aware that the Indians are in first place, but it’s still really, really fun to type that sentence. The weather in Northeast Ohio is starting to warm up, fans are coming out to support this team (33,000+ saw Travis Hafner’s walk-off HR on Friday) and the “are the Indians for real?” articles from national writers are finally starting to slow down. Tom Hamilton’s home run call even has its own facebook page. Any way you slice it, today is a good day to be a Clevelander, and there are still better days to come. With that uplifting intro out of the way, let’s take a look on this Lazy Sunday at all the news that’s fit to link…
Baseball Prospectus continually updates their Playoff Odds Report throughout the season. The odds are calculated based on both current standings as well as future projections. The good folks over at BP currently peg the Indians as having a 27.9% chance of making the playoffs, behind the Tigers who lead the division with a 52.7% chance. Interestingly, the 16-24 White Sox still have a 20.3% chance per BP, which seems awfully high when you consider their struggles this year. But this is a computer that takes in information and spits it out as it is programmed to do, so we can’t really accuse it of any sort of bias. Let’s just say I disagree that the Indians and White Sox have close to the same chance of making the 2011 playoffs. I do agree that there is a long way to go and plenty can happen between now and September. Another writer for BP, Jay Jaffe, has his own system for determine who will and won’t make the playoffs in 2011 based on the importance of the 30-game mark. Jaffe’s research has found that 30 games into the season is enough to make some statistically significant judgements about a team's playoff chances. The article is subscriber only, so I’ll just take this snippet for you:
At the 30-game point, the data—at least at the extremes, which is what's most pertinent to our discussion—become truly meaningful. Of the 115 teams that started 20-10 or better, just seven failed to finish with a winning record; of the 113 teams that started 10-20 or worse, only eight finished above .500. Combining the data, just 15 of the 228 teams on the extremes, or 6.6%, changed course by the end of the season. Looking at the 20-game data, 25 of the 215 teams—11.6%—on the extremes (14 or more wins or losses) changed course. And out of the 59 teams that started 22-8 or better, or 8-22 or worse, just one—the 1995 Phillies—made a complete about-face by season's end.
Trust me when I tell you I am saving you a lot of complex math here, and we’ll just skip to the part where Jaffe’s formula predicts a 1st place finish and a final winning percentage of .529 for the Wahoo Warriors this year. The data is based on 70 years’ worth of real, actual baseball, and while it does involve quite a bit of math that I don’t really understand, I’m a lot more comfortable with Jaffe’s numbers than I am with the BP Odds Report.
Despite the calendar only reading mid-May, much has already been made about whether or not the Indians will go get a player at the trading deadline. The team hasn’t found themselves as “buyers” at the deadline for several years now, instead dealing off established stars like Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez and other veteran parts like Austin Kearns and Jhonny Peralta to (successfully) restock the farm system. So this season, will the Indians go out and get a veteran bat or another righty arm out of the bullpen? I can pretty much guarantee that they will. What if I told you that they could flip the struggling Chad Durbin for a power righty with 3 pitches, a guy who strikes out just under a batter per inning and has posted a 2.07 GO/AO average so far this season? Is that something you might be interested in? Well then, how about we swap Durbin for Zach Putnam? Putnam is currently 2-0 with 5 saves and a 2.29 ERA for AAA Columbus. He’s struck out 16 and walked 4 in 19 2/3 IP so far this year, and would slot in nicely to the back end of the Indians bullpen down the stretch this year.
Not what you were expecting? Let me guess…you want a bat as well. Maybe a guy who can spell Orlando Cabrera down the stretch as his old legs start to tire, or fill in for Jack Hanahan against tough lefties. You’ll never believe this, but I have just the guy, and we can get him for the low, low price of Adam Everett. A guy who has a career OPS of over .900 in AAA, with 43 XBH in 359 career AAA at bats. He’s a switch hitter who can play 2B, 3B or even SS in a pinch. That’s right, we can deal Adam Everett straight up for one Robert Cord Phelps. Phelps is hitting .302/.428/.509 for Columbus this year, with 5 HR and 20 RBI in 32 games. He’s walked 27 times and has 7 2B and a triple. He’s an average defender at 2B and 3B, and below average at SS but does have experience there and can play short if needed. He has an advanced approach at the plate, and does a good job working pitchers deep into the count. And as a switch hitter, he would slot perfectly into the 6-hole behind lefty Travis Hafner. I've been campaigning for Phelps to replace Cabrera as the everyday 2B and have the OC slide into the UTL role, but I'd be satisfied if Phelps were the UTL guy over Everett and Cabrera remained at 2B.
Still not enough? So now you want a veteran, eh? Someone with MLB experience, playoff experience even? Fine, let me reach into my bag of tricks one last time and see if there’s anything left. Well what do you know…I think I found another player in here that we can pick up. He’s a lefthanded hitter with a career .401 OBP who has had a little trouble staying healthy, but has produced when he’s been in the lineup.solid defender at 1B, and was a member of the Yankees during a number of their playoff runs. I’m talking of course about Nick Johnson, who was signed prior to this season with the understanding that he wouldn’t be able to play until after the all-star break. Johnson is expected to go on a minor league rehab assignment soon, and should be able to return later this year. Worst case, he’ll be a valuable bat off the bench down the stretch. And all he will cost is whoever is the most expendable position player on the 25-man roster at the time.
So look at that, I just found a way to get a righty bullpen arm, a switch hitting utility infielder with some pop and a veteran, professional hitter for nothing more than Chad Durbin, Adam Everett and Austin Kearns. The point is, the Indians do not necessarily have to go out and deal some of their valuable prospect currency in order to improve the team down the stretch. They already tapped into the reservoir of talent in AAA when they chose to call up and keep Alex White on the active roster over guys like David Huff and Jenmar Gomez. But White is hardly the only player already in the organization that can help out the big league club this year. Will the Indians go out and add a veteran from outside the org as well? Maybe, if the price is right. But if the right player doesn’t become available for the right price, there’s still help on the way. Next year, I bet we’ll be able to go out and acquire a power lefty starter that profiles at the front end of a major league rotation and strikes out a batter per inning.
The Indians MLB beat writer Jordan Bastain has been all over the injury news this week, both at the MLB and MiLB level. Let’s start with the more concerning injury, the one to Grady Sizemore’s RIGHT knee. I stress that it is his RIGHT knee because the microfracture surgery was performed on Sizemore’s left knee last year, so this is a completely unrelated injury. Sizemore dinged the knee sliding into 2B to allow the Indians to score the go-ahead run on Tuesday night on a bases-loaded infield single by Asdrubal Cabrera. The play was a perfect example of what makes Sizemore such an important and also injury prone player. If a slower player was on first base, Tampa Bay may have been able to get the force at 2B and the game would have remained tied. Grady went into 2B the only way he knows how; all out. The precautionary MRI that was performed on the knee came back negative, and Sizemore is expected to be back in action soon. But it is the type of injury that we’re likely to see with Sizemore for the rest of his career, and in a way it is good to see that the offseason surgery didn’t change his mentality on the field.
In other knee-injury related news, Jason Donald is going to be out for 3-5 weeks with a sprained MCL that he suffered during his rehab stint in Columbus. Donald was taken out while turning a double play, and is now even further from reclaiming a spot on the active roster. Jack Hanahan’s job is a little bit safer, and now there is no question that Lonnie Chisenhall is the backup 3B for the big league club as it stands right now. It’s another tough break for Donald, who was pretty much assured the starting 3B job going into spring training this year.
CBS Sportsline has come up with a pretty neat tool that they created to cater to the fantasy baseball community, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find it useful for the real world as well. The charts that you’ll see when you click on the link serve to show how “lucky” (or unlucky) a pitcher has been so far this season by comparing his line drive rate with his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) allowed as well as his popup rate with BABIP. In theory, the higher the liner rate, the higher the BABIP; if the inverse is true, the pitcher has been “lucky.” Well, you’ll never believe this, but our own Josh Tomlin has been lucky this year, allowing just a .158 BABIP despite a liner rate of just over 21%. This probably doesn’t surprise many, because I don’t think anyone was counting on Tomlin leading the league in WHIP for all of 2011 (he’s currently at 0.86). But even if there is some regression out of the Texas righthander, he’s still a very useful arm in the back end of a major league rotation. So while there are still those who think Tomlin will turn into a pumpkin, it’s not like a regression to the “mean” will result in a guy who goes out there and gets shelled every 5th day. If you’re still depressed about Tomlin being “lucky” so far this year, type in the names Masterson and Carmona in the CBS tool, and see that both of them have been “unlucky” so far this season and are likely to improve. That should cheer everyone up sufficiently.
Speaking of Tomlin, there’s another converted SS in the organization who is pitching well in a starting role this year. But that’s where the similarities end. Austin Adams is 4-2 with a 2.36 ERA for Akron this year, and has 35 K in 34 1/3 IP. Adams sits comfortably between 94-96 MPH with his fastball, and has touched 99. He complements the plus-plus heat with a nasty slider as well as a developing curveball and changeup. Adams was a SS and closer for Faulkner University, and was a 5th round pick back in 2009. The best part about Adams is that he is still learning how to be a pitcher exclusively, and is only going to get better the more innings he throws. He’s an outstanding athlete who was actually throwing harder at the end of 2010 than he was at the beginning of the year. Adams is a guy that is really worth monitoring closely as the season goes on, and has a ceiling that is probably even higher than Tomlin’s. The stuff is there without question, he just needs the command and control and “pitchability” to go with it.
While we’re talking about prospects, here’s a fascinating piece from minor league guru Kevin Goldstein on how the Royals handled their top hitting prospect, Eric Hosmer. Kansas City is in a situation similar to ours here in Cleveland. They are better than they thought they would be, and are under some pressure to bring up some of their minor league talent in an effort to win now. The Royals have the best system in baseball by far, and the one of the crown jewels in the organization is the power hitting Hosmer. There’s little doubt that he is ready to handle major league pitching, as he was the proud owner of a .439/.528/.582 line in AAA when he was called up to Kansas City. The argument is whether it was the right time to call a guy up and possibly expose him to Super Two status down the road, and thus potentially costing themselves lots of money as a result.
You’d expect Goldstein, the prospect honk, to agree with the decision to bring up Hosmer. But he admits that after the initial exuberance of seeing Hosmer get the call wore off, Goldstein had to question the decision by the Royals. Going into the 2014 season, Hosmer may now be eligible for arbitration, which he wouldn’t be if he doesn’t qualify for Super Two. This could cost the Royals millions, and in a season where they legitimately expect to contend for a Central Division title:
The Royals don't have unlimited finances, and that multi-million deal that could have been avoided by waiting one more month three years ago suddenly limits the team in adding the pieces that might put them over the top. You still sure this was the right time for the Royals to unwrap their shiny new toy? Even if Hosmer is immediately great, say, a six-win player, that one month of impatience cost the team millions of dollars three years later for a single extra victory in a season where the odds say overwhelmingly that it just won't matter.
The point here is not that you shouldn’t bring up top prospects when the time is right. The point is that you better be really, really sure that the time is right, or you could end up sabotaging your own chances of contending down the road. Jack Hanahan’s performance has rendered this discussion moot, and by the time Chiz is really ready to come up Super Two shouldn’t be an issue. But remember this discussion next year if (when) Drew Pomeranz is dominating major league hitters again in spring training and he’s sent down to Columbus to start the season. Those two extra months can potentially mean millions of dollars down the road, dollars that could be used to augment the big league club with a piece or two that augments the home grown roster
With Seattle leaving town today, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they came to Cleveland without our old friend Milton Bradley, having finally decided that enough was enough and releasing the mercurial outfielder. His bloated contract ensured that he would make it through waivers unclaimed, and as we sit here on Sunday he remains a free agent. The former all-star who had a .999 OPS as recently as 2008 with the Rangers is unlikely to find work any time soon either. An incredible waste of talent, and kind of sad when you stop to think about it. My lasting memory of Bradley will be when he came out to LF in Seattle with earplugs in because he just couldn’t stand to listen to the HOME fans. In the first month of the season. It was pretty much all downhill there from Milton, but at least we got one iconic picture out of the deal.
Hafner’s walk-off blast on Friday prompted Brendan Bowers over at WFNY to look back at just how good the man we call Pronk was, and how frustrated Bowers became with Hafner’s struggles. Travis was my favorite player for quite a while, and his is still the only Indians jersey I own. His struggles became a microcosm of the franchise these past few years; he couldn’t really stay healthy, and when he was healthy he couldn’t hit. Fortunately, this 2011 season has been a rebirth for both Hafner and the Indians. Pronk is currently sporting a .340/.403/.528 line with 5 HR and 16 RBI, and he’s finally becoming the force in the middle of the lineup that this team so desperately needs him to be. He doesn’t quite have his old Pronkian power back, but he’s on pace for 21 HR and 70 RBI this season. After averaging 11/41 over three injury-plagued seasons, I’ll happily take 21/70 if that’s what he ends up with. More important than the numbers though is his presence in the middle of the lineup. I was supremely confident when Hafner strode to the plate in the bottom of the 9th on Friday, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. I really believed that something special was about to happen, and it did. Our faith in Pronk and the 2011 Indians was rewarded with some old fashioned Jaco…er, Progressive Field magic. I’m betting it’s not the last time that happens in 2011, as this team is primed to keep delivering the excitement long into September and maybe even beyond...