Sunday, July 03, 2011

Moving Day on A Lazy Sunday

Now officially at the halfway point of the season (no…seriously, add up the W-L total), the Indians still find themselves at the top of their division despite the cavalcade of obituaries that have been written about the team in the past month. The excitement of the hot start was tempered by their June swoon and yet the Tribe has emerged to go 8-6 in their last 14 games and, while that may not cause any Cleveland-area printers to fire up their machines for playoff tickets, given the performance over the previous 22 games (6-16), it’s a step in the right direction.

Really, isn’t that what this season is about…steps?
In their last 162 games (the first 81 this year, the last 81 in 2010), the Indians are 81-81 and (again) while that may not mean that anyone needs to start blocking off Euclid Avenue for a ticker-tape parade, the express elevator that this franchise seemed to be riding downward since the end of the 2007 season seems to be heading upwards just as quickly. Don’t take that to mean that the Indians are right back where they were in the Fall of 2007, but they’re still at the top of their division in July and have the opportunity in a flawed division to, at the very least, stick around.

Of course, whether they’re able to stick around for the final half of the season is going to largely depend upon the sustainability of the success of the front-end-of-the-rotation and the back-end-of-the-bullpen as well as the offense finding some rhythm for the team to find its pace. That said, there was a great analogy from a Tom Verducci article on in which he compares the month of July in a baseball season to “moving day” in a golf tournament, explaining the comparison thusly:
What a Saturday is to a golf tournament (moving day), July is to the baseball season. It’s the one month that forces clubs to decide whether they are playoff worthy or not -- to determine whether they are buyers or sellers. As such, you are at the mercy of the schedule this time of year.

Given what we’ve seen from the Indians this season, I can’t tell you how much I love this analogy as the Indians were the surprise of the “Thursday round”, as pundits all over decried the Indians as a mirage who would come flying back to Earth eventually, the way that so many early-round leaders in golf tournaments do. In the month of June (and Jordan Bastian has all the sordid details so I don’t need to go too far into them), the Indians fell back to the pack…again, as so many early-round leaders in golf tournaments often do on Friday, perhaps overwhelmed by their surprising position or simply as they revert (or is it regress) to what they actually are.

So here we are, stepping up to the tee box on “Moving Day” as the month of July figures to reveal perhaps what the true 2011 Indians’ season will be remembered for. As high as the hopes were in April and May, the depths that they plumbed in June were just as extreme. Perhaps the Indians’ 2011 season is no different than that of the 2003 Royals, a team whose path Rany Jazayerli describes in a piece at Grantland writing, “the Royals shocked everyone by winning 16 of their first 19 games. They led the division by seven games at the All-Star break. No one thought it would last, and it didn’t. They coughed up the lead by August and finished seven games back.”

After the month of June, the overwhelming feeling on the North Coast is that the Indians were sure to follow a path blazed by those surprising Royals (and, let’s face it…they still might), but the recent resiliency that the team has shown, particularly since the injury to Choo has been both a revelation and a reason for hope. Playing in NL parks without Choo and with Hafner limited to one plate appearance a game (don’t say at-bat, because it seems like more often than not he walks), the Indians have shown some toughness as their recent performance has given birth to the idea that the Tribe is not willing to step aside and let the Tigers and White Sox battle it out for the AL Central, as so many pundits predicted as the Indians were being swept by the Giants…who can sweep the Tigers with a victory in Motown today.

If July is really going to be instructive as to what the rest of the season holds, the question emerges as to whether the Indians can hang around and perhaps take advantage of what looks like a largely favorable schedule. While I realize that one of the favorite traditions on the North Coast is to examine the Browns’ schedule and say (with a great amount of certainty, I might add) which games are “winnable” and which are not, here’s what the month of the July looks like for the Indians heading into today’s tilt on the shores of the Ohio River:
Remaining July Schedule
CIN – 1 game
NYY – 3 games
TOR – 3 games
BAL – 3 games
MIN – 4 games
CHW – 3 games
LAA – 3 games
KCR – 3 games

Yes, those are the “mighty” Bronx Bombers there at the top to visit the corner of Carnegie and Ontario (allowing “lifelong” Yankee fans from North Ridgeville to North Royalton to don the pinstripes and act obnoxious at an “away” park) tomorrow, and the Yankees are the divisional leaders in the tough AL East, but do you know how many of those teams past the Yankees on the schedule currently have records over .500?
One…the LA Angels, at 43-41.

Remember that period of the schedule that put the Indians through the gauntlet that would provide some insight as to whether the Indians were as good as they looked in April and May? Well, they weren’t as good as they looked in April and May and they aren’t as bad as they looked in June, so July represents an opportunity to take advantage of a schedule that looks favorable…and not just because of the opponents. Of those 24 games, 16 of them will be contested at the friendly confines of Carnegie and Ontario and, more importantly, the Indians’ offense may actually be able to consistently score some runs as Toronto, Minnesota, Baltimore, and Kansas City have 4 of the 5 worst team ERA’s in the AL. With no Choo, with Sizemore looking more lost than he ever has in his career (how much is attributable to injury is debatable) until just recently, and with Brantley oftentimes looking like he needs to catch his breath, the Indians need to get that momentum going again on offense to see if they can win some of the games that their pitching staff is putting them squarely in place to win. Whether the Tribe staff can keep up this torrid pace is another seemingly debatable subject as, while voices local and national continue to sing that the Indians pitching isn’t this good, they now have a starter with a 2.85 ERA on the season in Masterson, one of the hottest pitchers in the league in Carrasco, and a bullpen who seems to enjoy being counted out and overlooked. Going back to that July schedule, it is worth noting that Minnesota, Los Angeles, White Sox, and Royals are all in the lower half of the AL in terms of team OPS, so the Indians’ pitching staff may find some breathing room after they attempt to tame the Yankee lineup this week.

Could the Indians use this July “Moving Day” to push themselves back up that leader board, or at least keep their name at the top?
One would think so at first glance, but don’t take that to mean that the Indians aren’t still a flawed team, that still needs MUCH more consistency from their offense and needs their back-end-of-the-rotation to at least tread water (on top of the current pleasant “surprises” remaining pleasantly surprising) or at least be able to run down the 1st base line without pulling a “hide-your-eyes” fall, but the Indians have endured some major obstacles to this point and are still treading water, with their heads above it.

What happens if the month of July progresses and the Indians still find themselves topside given that, as Verducci writes, July is the “one month that forces clubs to decide whether they are playoff worthy or not -- to determine whether they are buyers or sellers”?

Well, seeing as how that is still a solid four weeks away (and a lot can happen to a lot of teams in four weeks…including the Indians), I still think it’s WAY too early to talk trade market, particularly given that so many questions still need answers for this Indians team. That said, the trade market seems to be the topic of conversation – albeit somewhat forced – in terms of the Indians and as I have always found it all to be a little sensationalistic and unnecessary (though no more unnecessary that the All-Star game or All-Star team “predictions” or “debates), those feelings were reinforced on Friday of this past week.

If you’re wondering why, Friday was July 1st and I accidentally found my radio dial on the Cleveland sports talk station (not the Akron one that has the always tremendous Dan Patrick show…and this is a good read explaining why the show is enjoyable) when I got into the car in the morning and listened as Buster Olney and Mike Greenburg were celebrating the fact that it was July because July is the…wait for it…month that the Trade Deadline comes about. Not that there are so many teams still within sniffing distance of their division lead (they actually seem sad about this because it means there aren’t as many obvious “sellers” to attach rumors to) or that baseball has unquestionably reverted back to a beautiful game, based on pitching, gap doubles, and defense instead of waiting for the 3-run HR.

They were excited about the Trading Deadline being 30 days away and the conjecture and the created theater that July 31st allows them to fabricate at The Mothership, with all of the little satellites that orbit around Bristol and the “news” that emanates from there to throw it into another gear. Perhaps I’m overly callous to this because the Indians have been “sellers” for the past three years and July 31st has represented some sad days for Tribe fans, but the Trade Deadline always seems to be so tailor-made for the sports-talk radio crowd, the “did you hear” or “what about this guy” that it usually represents sound and fury…signifying nothing.

Bringing that around to the Indians’ situation, when I see a name that legitimately gets me excited as an obvious and major upgrade over what the Indians have that isn’t going to throw out the baby with the bath water, I’m all ears. But Ryan Ludwick and his ilk (assuming Travis Buck, who had settled into an “everyday” role quite well, is healthy) don’t strike me as obvious or even legitimate upgrades or much more than more expensive, equally flawed “upgrades” and when teams like the Twins are unlikely to deal pending FA like Mike Cuddyer (as Jon Heymann notes), I wonder where this “big bat” to save the season is going to magically appear from.

For some context, fish around the 2010 MLB Trade Deadline Home Page (sponsored by Mike’s Hard Lemonade apparently) or even just read the recap from last year and show me the big bat that changed the balance of power last year…was it Lance Berkman and Austin Kearns to the Yankees or Ryan Ludwick and Miggy Tejada to the Padres (who are mentioned as the only “sellers” in the aforementioned Heymann piece) or maybe it was Rick Ankiel to the Braves.
No? Must have been Jorge Cantu and Christian Guzman to the Rangers…

Look, I get it that the MLB Trade Deadline is fun and ESPN “insiders” make their hay and their page click quota this month, attaching names to teams and creating rumors to make these Interwebs swirl…but for what?

Yes, in Cleveland we know the backside of the hand of July 31st (and here is the 2009 MLB Trade Deadline Home Page, but be prepared for sadness) and it would be great to be on the other end of that phone line to make that ONE big move to push the Indians past this imaginary threshold into a REAL contender. Sure, let’s add Jose Reyes and Heath Bell to this current team and NOW we’re talking, right?

Maybe in some perfect world in which the Indians are the ones that “basically print money” (and read this again if you’re having trouble summoning your hatred for the Yankees and their financial situation as they arrive tomorrow), but the reality in which the Indians operate is one in which they are a young, still developing – and flawed – team that probably needs to stay the course as they continue to rise from the ashes of 2008 and 2009.

Staying the course does not mean remaining inactive as the Indians have already started to make moves to improve the team and while most Indians’ fans would like to see the Indians go out and add a big bat, and a top-of-the-rotation starter and maybe a back-end-of-the-bullpen arm, the truth is that the Indians are going to continue to rely on their internal options until those internal options prove to be incapable of helping the team, at which point the Indians may go out and make improvements to the roster externally.

This is nothing new around these parts as Al alluded to this exact scenario a number of weeks ago as he sat in the captain’s chair, and it’s one that was articulated very well by Jordan Bastian as he surveyed the trade scene for the Tribe:
Internal options will likely continue to be Cleveland’s answer for issues at primary roles on the club. If the Indians do swing trades, it seems more probable that the moves would be to improve the reserve roles throughout the roster. Playing a role is the Tribe’s reluctance to part with its top prospects.

Highly-regarded prospects such as left-hander Drew Pomeranz and second baseman Jason Kipnis, along with players such as Chisenhall and White, are not going to be moved. They are viewed as integral pieces to Cleveland’s upcoming core, and the club is not going to mortgage that future for one playoff run this season.

That does not mean the Indians will not consider dealing prospects.

“There’s always a balance,” Antonetti said. “We’d measure the talent we feel we’d be getting back, the potential impact on this year’s team, their potential contributions to our team going forward and then weigh that against the acquisition cost both in terms of dollars and players.”

Given what we’ve seen in terms of production from some of the Tribe’s ballyhooed prospects this season, anyone really want to move Pomz, Kipnis, Chisenhall, or White for a rent-a-player for a team that may be more than “one player away” from obvious contention, particularly when that “one player” has not shown himself to even be available on the Trade Market?

As I said, it’s still VERY early to talk all trade as Indians’ fans – as much fun as it may feel to be prospective buyers – as the Indians right now should be focused on making those incremental improvements without unnecessarily sacrificing fungible assets (and I would take a flier on Mike Cameron to take Austin Kearns’ spot as a RH bat, despite how horrible he’s been this year as Kearns has been just as horrible and Cameron was at least decent in the recent past and has a reputation as a solid defender) and growing momentum in the month of July with the players that are playing everyday for them.

That’s not to say that the Indians should pull a Norman Dale and assert that “my team is on the floor” to the detriment of all, as they should be looking to improve this team anywhere and everywhere they can throughout the month of July. Maybe that means Jeanmar Gomez or Zach McAllister (and I suppose we’re about to see one of them in light of Fausto’s belly flop in Cincy) or Josh Judy sticking around or Zach Putnam arriving (though the bullpen has certainly been a strength and I’m not sure who deserves a demotion) or maybe the Indians promote Jason Donald to replace Jack Hannahan. Maybe there will be a call to promote Jason Kipnis, but Phelps has a .906 OPS in his last 9 games and (from the credit-where-credit-is-due department) the OC has as many XBH (4) in his last 6 games as he had in his 27 games…so maybe Acta is starting to figure out how to integrate these young players, while maximizing the roles of the veterans.

Regardless, even if Gomez or Putnam or Zeke Carrera or Donald arrives, those moves may invoke some warm-and-fuzzies or remove some of the whipping boys from the roster, but wouldn’t all of those be exactly what Bastian wrote, “moves…to improve the reserve roles throughout the roster”?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it doesn’t include the earth-shattering move that some Cleveland fans are looking for (nay, demanded) as a sign that the Dolans are “serious” and that the Indians are going to spend money when the “time is right”. To that end, wouldn’t money spent on extending Asdrubal or Masterson or Perez to long-term deals past their FA years a better use of funds, when compared up against paying Ryan Ludwick $3M for the rest of the year, compared to continuing to cut checks to Travis Buck?

Regardless, as important as this July may look at a passing glance in Cleveland, to examine it in the context of the entire AL Central is to truly appreciate what this “Moving Day” could mean for the future, both immediate and long-term, of the division. Since it has been about two months since sizing up the division, perhaps it is instructive to look to see how the futures of the different teams of the AL Central could be affected in the next 30 days as Verducci writes in the impetus for this piece that July is the “one month that forces clubs to decide whether they are playoff worthy or not -- to determine whether they are buyers or sellers.”

Given that the Twins are mentioned as potential sellers in every outlet that gets put on “paper”, what does that mean for the darlings of the AL Central…that team that “does everything right”, other than win a playoff game?

What if the Twins decide to move Liriano or Kubel or even Cuddyer, as their reinforcements from the Minors have underwhelmed and as the two players upon whom they’ve bet their future continue to spend more time in the recovery room than on the baseball field?

Could the Twins be on the precipice of another long-term dip in the standings?
And what of the White Sox, who are specifically mentioned in Verducci’s column, as he writes that the White Sox are one of the teams that need to make a move in July, writing, “Of their next 22 games, the Sox play nine against the teams they are chasing (Indians and Tigers) and the other 13 against losing teams (Cubs, Royals and Twins).”

Time to make a move” for sure for them…but what if they don’t?
Ken Rosenthal reported earlier in the week that “White Sox general manager Ken Williams frequently has spoken about how attendance influences his trade activity” and if you’ll remember the comments of White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf prior to the season, there is a very good chance that the White Sox blow it up, right along with the Twins, if they’re unable to make up considerable ground in the month of July. Given their aging lineup and Williams’ trigger finger (with pressure being perhaps applied by ownership), is it hard to picture the White Sox as “sellers” as the month wears on if they don’t “make a move” in the division?

If you don’t remember the comment from Reinsdorf before the season, that the White Sox went out of their comfort zone and how attendance is going to dictate their profitability, he said “If this team bombs and we draw 2.2 million people again, we are going to lose a lot of money. We are betting that we’re going to be good.”

In case you were wondering, the White Sox are .500 heading into July 4th and are on pace to draw 1.92 million people to The Cell. Remembering that Reinsdorf presided over the “White Flag Trade”, anyone want to guess how this ends if Chicago loses more ground this month?
Here’s a hint…it won’t be pretty on the South Side.

Obviously, the Tigers are going to attempt to add an arm and the Royals are going to continue to integrate their young players onto the parent club, but this July of 2011 could change the landscape of the AL Central…and not just for this year. If two of the teams that are universally considered to be among the cream of the AL Central crop year after year (although that “cream” is often curdled) become “sellers” on the Trade Market, it could push the Indians into a commanding position in the division, and not just for this year.

The destiny of the 2011 season is in the hands of the Indians with the opportunity to assert the organization as the odds-on favorite in the division for the coming years (regardless of whether a “big bat” or whatever is added before the end of July) as the Indians enter a month that has the potential to be a franchise-altering month.

Moving Day indeed…


GMAC said...

Mr. Nit picker is back...Norman Dale said "My team is on the floor" That aside great read. I agree 100% to use the cheddar on Ascab or Big Masty. I will say if they bring back Casey Blake there will be an insurrection.

dieseldave said...

The tribe seems to be a better second half team ,hope that trend continues. We will have a lot to cheer about.

CLohse said...

Say the Indians take a nosedive here in the next month and become sellers... who do you move? I think that's a pretty interesting question.

Paul Cousineau said...

With the caveat that the Tribe would have to take quite a nosedive (and end up something like 8 to 10 games out by the end of the month), I think you're only seeing the veterans shopped for whatever they could get.

Realizing that this is (gulp) agreeing with Bobby Valentine, Durbin and Rafael Perez (who is about to get another pay hike next year and is a middle reliever right now...albeit a good one) would generate some interest. I couldn't think that Carmona would fetch much and I get the sense that the Indians are still thinking that Grady's working his way back from his surgery and don't forget that Sizemore's club option becomes a player option if he's traded.

If you can find a taker for The OC or Kearns, I suppose you take it, but I don't see them rocking the boat even if they take a fast nosedive...and that's a big IF that presupposes that the Tigers (or White Sox) get as impossibly hot as the Tribe would have to be impossibly cold.

And fixed GMAC...thanks.

CLohse said...

Looking at your list of moveable parts, it consists of every single one of the retreads the Indians still have on the roster besides Hannahan, and none of them is particularly marketable. Perhaps the OC as a backup could be relocated, but Kearns? Nah. Durbin hasn't been stellar (and wouldn't he be the guy to be relegated should the front office decide to promote from within?) either. I'd bet Hannahan could go somewhere (and probably should) for a nominal return just as a defensive bench player for a competitor. In fact, I'd say that that role is his destiny if he's to stay in the majors long term.

Anyway, the thing about this stuff that's fascinating is that the Tribe is doing pretty well this year even though the offseason "harvest" was so scant. In years past, we've seen Millwood, Pavano, Kearns (again) and all sorts of cadavers make their way on to and off of the roster. We're a little sad to see them signed, and we're usually happy to see them go for prospects. Same for this year, except that we were sadder and will be happier. It's a good sign for the development of the Indians' nucleus of good, young players that we're more focused on the team's current record of wins and losses than whether we can get a prospect for Durbin.

Les Savy Ferd said...

insightful read. thanks, Paul.

PO13 said...

Love this blog..such a joy to have real analysis about the Tribe.

Great comment on saving money to perhaps sign some of the core to long-term deals. That's a point you never really hear.