Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Throwing Tomahawks and Kitchen Sinks

Now that my ears have finally stopped bleeding after having to listen to Bobby Valentine – as he waxed poetically about how a (then) 1st place team is probably going to start selling off their bullpen arms (and probably more) because Mark Sha-PEE-ro knows what he’s doing – for 3 hours on Sunday night, it is comforting to know that Bobby Valentine is as close to the Tribe manager’s chair as I am…and the distance between each of us and the helm of the Good Ship Wahoo is probably going to remain the same.

Frankly, I don’t watch a lot of ESPN (or any of it really), so I don’t know if Bobby Valentine is good or entertaining on TV most of the time or if he’s reasonably insightful at any time as he’s breaking down baseball or other teams. What I do know is that he came across as the know-it-all blowhard he has always been purported to be over just 3 hours and, as his “analysis” dipped further into the abyss, I began to question why anyone would willingly go to him (or ESPN) for insight or information on baseball at all. Unfortunately, we were all forced there on Sunday night as my pre-existing opinions and views on ESPN were reinforced as the Mothership flies further and further away from my line of sight.

Regardless, as much as Valentine’s laughable opinion that the Indians “had some good bullpen arms that contenders would want” (and I’m paraphrasing there) hung in the air on Sunday night, the Indians recent performance certainly feels like a team whose once-firm grip of the AL Central has not just loosened, but broken free entirely. That said, it certainly does not look as if the Indians are ready to simply go quietly into the night as the organization acted decisively (or is it prematurely) in promoting top prospect Lonnie (apparently not short for Alonzo) Chisenhall from Columbus.

Since watching the move go down was akin to watching the kitchen sink break free from the wall and catch some air as the organization begins to throw everything that they have through this still-open window, let’s get some Tomahawks in the air to go along with the kitchen sink that was just thrown…

That’s right Cleveland, Lonnie Chisenhall has arrived in an Indians’ uniform to save our fair season (or at least that’s what some would have you believe) as the Indians bypassed the more obvious promotion of Jason Donald to get their highly prized prospect onto the field for the parent club. While I’m as excited as any about The Chiz’s arrival, there’s not much question that he remains an unfinished product (with Al pointing out Lonnie’s struggles against LHP) even if he came out both barrels blazing in the desert…against RHP.

Chisenhall is an interesting case study as he’s been talked about in revered tones for the past three years and, this pains me to say it, I think a good deal of that has to do with Chisenhall representing something that had been in such short supply – an early-round pick by the Indians that gradually climbed up the ladder, posting consistent numbers on his ascent. Unlike Trevor Crowe or Beau Mills or Jerry Sowers or Dave Huff (who all hit their limited ceilings relatively quickly), Lonnie represented that first sign that “things had changed” for the Indians’ drafting, with Al White and Drew Pomz following him as 1st round picks that the Indians could point to as likely starters for the Tribe.

That said, as much as we’ve heard about The Chiz, his performance in the Minors is not one that shrieks out that this is the next coming of Evan Longoria or Ryan Zimmerman or David Wright just waiting to burst onto the MLB stage. By that I mean that those three put up monster numbers in MiLB (all at young ages) while Chisenhall has been consistent in the Minors, if not consistently overwhelming:
Chisenhall by Year
2008 - .794 OPS in Rookie Ball as a 19-year-old
2009 - .797 OPS in A+/AA as a 20-year-old
2010 - .801 OPS in AA as a 21-year-old
2011 - .779 OPS in AAA as a 22-year-old

More than most, I would love Lonnie to arrive in Cleveland and have the type of impact that those players have had, but the fact is that he has never posted an OPS at a particular level over .780 since he has left Kinston. Of course, numbers only tell us so much about any young player and scouts have universally and perpetually raved about Chisenhall’s “sweet swing” and the ages listed above mean quite a bit as The Chiz has always been the youngest regular position player on his team. That’s important because while numbers for guys like Jerad Head or Matt McBride may quicken the pulse, the fact that those guys are 28 in AAA or 26 in AA tempers any real thought that they’re legitimate options in MLB, much less impact players on the horizon.

Does that mean that Chisenhall is about to come an impact player?
Watching him stroke doubles into the gap in Chase Field certainly gives all of us something to dream on, but the reality of the situation is that he’s likely to be a solid-to-good player at the hot corner for the Indians for the foreseeable future with that “future” starting on Monday. Don’t discount that in the context of the 2011 season as “solid-to-good” is a lot more than what can be said about what we were seeing with Hannahan/Everett/The OC at 3B this year as each player proved/are proving themselves to be the flawed veterans that everyone knew they were when they were signed.

Regardless, back to Chisenhall, who immediately becomes the best hitter the Indians have had as a 3B (platoon split considered) since Casey Blake and the Blake mention is interesting as it was a comparison that was invoked by Ben Lindbergh at B-Pro, regarding Chisenhall’s prospect pedigree and perhaps his ceiling:
Chisenhall didn’t debut with the same sort of hype that a true blue-chipper commands, and for good reason, since little about his record suggests outright stardom. Above-average is well within his reach, though (at least eventually), so his arrival is something to celebrate, if not to salivate over. As Kevin Goldstein suggested, his perfect-world projection looks like a more consistent Casey Blake; Blake peaked close to the five-win level, and Chisenhall might have the same sort of ceiling, though he’s likely to approach it earlier and more often than Blake did.

Realizing how (inexplicably) reviled Blake was in Cleveland, given the black hole that has existed in Cleveland at 3B since Blake left, that’s a breath of fresh air, as is the thought that another former Indian 3B perhaps provides an interesting comparison for Chisenhall – Travis Fryman.

This has been brought up before in this space, but Chisenhall’s former manager in Mahoning Valley moved quickly through the Tigers’ system despite never having a breakout season in the Minors (he had a .710 OPS in AA as a 20-year-old and his highest MiLB OPS was .723 in the first half of his 21-year-old season in AAA), before he debuted in Detroit as a 21-year-old. From the time he broke into MLB as a precocious infielder, he posted an OPS somewhere between .766 and .865 every year as a Tiger, compiling a cumulative .779 OPS in 8 seasons manning 3B for the Motor City Kitties.

That may not be what how you remember Fryman at the plate, but given what we’ve seen at 3B in Cleveland, if that’s what the next 8 seasons turn into for Lonnie as an Indian, would you take that?
Every single day…and it is interesting to note that the most HR that Fryman hit as a Tiger was 22 and never hit 40 2B in a season during those 8 seasons in Detroit. As much as many Clevelanders may remember Fryman only from his days donning the Chief, Fryman’s best two seasons statistically were as an Indian, when he was 29 years old in 1998 and when he was 31 years old in 2000, so his years in Detroit are probably more instructive as a possible career arc for Chisenhall.

Is all of that pointed out to discount Fryman’s career or Chisenhall’s potential?
Of course not as Fryman was a solid, steady contributor who generally batted 3rd or 5th for the Tigers (although those Tigers weren’t particularly good teams) for a stretch of seasons in which he was a constant presence for them in the lineup and on the field. He won one Silver Slugger award as a Tiger and made a couple of All-Star Games (though what does that really tell you), but generally he was a good – not great – player for the better part of 8 seasons in Detroit.

That said, perhaps putting Fryman (or Robin Ventura) up there as a model of what Chisenhall might be – instead of assuming that he’s going to go Longoria/Zimmerman/Wright from Day 1 is just attempting to put the proper context of who Lonnie Chisenhall is and who he could be as the PD irresponsibly posts headlines from their columnists that “Lonnie Chisenhall is the best young hitter I’ve seen in years”. Which gets to the point that too much is being pinned on this kid to be the savior for a muddling offense and as much as it represents an upgrade over the Adam Everetts and Jack Hannahans of the world, let’s hold off on any grand pronouncements that the only local paper in town seems intent on doing in their attempt to stay relevant.

What the Lonnie Chisenhall promotion means is that the current Indians’ Front Office (not the previous one helmed by the current Team President) has acted quickly and decisively now to add their top prospects – ready or not – to the parent club as the opportunity afforded to them by their fast start is something that they’re trying to capitalize on. Maybe you wanted to see Cord Phelps sooner (and I did) or maybe you wonder what took the Indians so long to jettison Adam Everett, but the fact of the matter is that the calendar has not yet flipped into July and the Indians have promoted The Chiz, Al White, and Bobby Phelps (among others like Gomez, Zeke, and Judy) as they pushed the fast-forward button on ingratiating their top young talent at the MLB level.

While you may say that this doesn’t represent anything different than what happened in 2007, remember…Asdrubal didn’t arrive in 2007 until August and Rafael Perez and Frank the Tank had spent time on the parent club in years past. The Indians have an opportunity in front of them (…still, thanks to the struggles of the AL Central) and they’re promoting from within to see if answers can be found internally before perhaps exploring the trade market…if the Indians are still in contention at the end of next month.

As B-Pro’s Lindbergh wrote in his aforementioned piece regarding the promotion of players that have already made it to Cleveland, “most of those players entered 2011 on track for 2012 debuts, but the Indians have made a reasonable response to a fluid situation, doing all they can to maximize their success in the short term while leaving their long-term plans intact”.

And those “long-terms plans” remaining “intact” should not be overlooked here as the “present” is starting to resemble the “future” that has long been envisioned on the filed.
Ultimately, this is a very good thing as the chess pieces are starting to line up on the board and these players (Chiz, Phelps, etc.) are playing in meaningful games in June and July in a pennant race instead of cutting their teeth in meaningless August or September games.

Maybe the Indians jumped the gun in promoting Chisenhall as the idea that improvement, even if it ends up being incremental, carried the day and that the Indians wanted to get the “lineup of the future” one name closer to fruition. After the series in San Francisco, the Indians’ offense looked like desperate times had arrived in the Indians lineup. Whether calling up Chisenhall constitutes as “desperate measures” can be debated away. What can’t be debated is that Chisenhall (warts and all) represented an upgrade over what had been seen from the Indians’ 3B for the last month or so.

How much of an upgrade or where Lonnie Chisenhall’s career arc goes from here will now start to find some answers, with those answers coming in an Indians’ uniform…

Going back to that idea of desperation, the Indians now find themselves staring squarely in the face of replacing Choo for 8 to 10 weeks, so until September…maybe. As these Interwebs churn, there seems to be some talk of the Indians exploring internal options past Kearns and Buck, with the names of Jerad Head and Chad Huffman being bandied about as perhaps being possible options. Since I’m not going to defend any plate appearances given to Austin Kearns and feel that Buck should be simply given the keys to RF for the next month or so to see if he will sink or swim, let me illuminate you as to why Head and Huffman are (or at least should be) non-options for the Indians in RF.

First, consider the birthdays of the following players:
Jerad Head – 11/15/82
Travis Buck – 11/18/83
Chad Huffman – 4/29/85
If you’re having trouble with the math, Head is a full year older than Buck, who is only 1 ½ years older than Huffman.

Next, career MLB numbers for the trio with total MLB plate appearances listed:
Head – N/A
Buck - .247 BA / .322 OBP / .411 SLG / .733 OPS in 782 PA
Huffman - .167 BA / .286 OBP / .167 SLG / .452 OPS in 21 PA
Small or no sample size for Head and Huffman, that’s not the point that I’m trying to make here…

This is…as we look at AAA numbers for the trio, again with total AAA plate appearances listed:
Head - .296 BA / .357 OBP / .508 SLG / .865 OPS in 337 PA
Buck – .289 BA / .373 OBP / .440 SLG / .813 OPS in 668 PA
Huffman - .267 BA / .356 OBP / .442 SLG / .799 OPS in 1,244 PA
Head, who will be 29 this November, has 337 PA above AA and Huffman has a career .799 OPS with over 1,244 PA in AAA…and THESE guys are the ones that some want to give a shot to over Travis Buck.

Is this the devil you don’t know being preferable to the devil you allegedly know, or what?

Realizing that everyone’s looking for the next Casey Blake (and there’s the 2nd time Lacey Cake makes an appearance here) as a late-bloomer who just needs a chance, Blake actually thrived in AAA for a full 4 seasons before coming over to the Tribe in 2003. Also, Blake was joining a 2003 team that was simply looking for a warm body to start the season at 3B, not one to enter a playoff race in late June.

Do you want Head (55 K in only AAA 60 games this year) or Huffman (63 K in only 69 AAA games this year) get any kind of leash to stick in RF in Cleveland this year?

If these guys are the answers that some are coming up with, they’re asking the wrong question as Buck should be put out in RF…above TRUE 4A fodder like Head and Huffman and past-their-prime OF like Kearns. Perhaps the argument could be made for Zeke Carrera as the 4th OF because of his speed and defense, but the best internal option that the Indians have to replace Choo is Buck…every day, and no numbers from Columbus by players on the south side of 25 are going to change that fact. If you’re still thinking that a platoon is a good idea, just forget about it as if there is a kernel of truth to what Buck told’s Jordan Bastian, that he “played every day basically my whole career, or for the majority of my career. I’m finding out how tough it is to be a bench player”, let’s see if playing every day for a month or so can resuscitate his once promising career.

Don’t take this comparison to non-prospects or that quote as a method to anoint Travis Buck as THE ANSWER in RF for the Indians, as he unquestionably has his flaws that shouldn’t be looked past. That said, he’s the best internal option that the Indians have (and not by a small margin) as a defensive RF (and this is where Shelley Duncan exits any conversation over who can and/or should play RF right now) who may actually have some upside if he can re-capture the success that he experienced as a rookie in Oakland.

In the interest of long-term viability from the position, the Indians should absolutely be exploring adding a piece on the trade market (and they’re not alone as this piece is a nice primer on the RF trade market) because of the length of Choo’s DL stint, but while that shakes out, the Indians should be playing Buck every day as they plan for Kearns to eventually make his way off of the roster and recognizing the “options” in Columbus for what they are…non-options.

You want some sunshine in the midst of all of these dark clouds?
How about these numbers for what is now the unquestioned front-of-the-Indians’ rotation over their past few starts, not including Carrasco’s Wednesday afternoon start:
Cookie Carrasco – Last 4 Starts
0.61 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, .432 OPS against with 21 K in 29 2/3 IP

Justin Masterson – Last 4 Starts
2.08 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, .646 OPS against with 17 K in 26 IP

Josh Tomlin – Last 3 Starts
2.70 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, .630 OPS against with 12 K in 20 IP

That’s the good news and one of the main reasons that the Indians COULD remain in the AL Central race despite their offensive struggles, which unfortunately (and here’s the bad news) led to the Indians only going 6-5 in those 11 games, another damning indictment of what the ineptitude of the offense has done to this team.

Regardless, the trio of Carrasco, Masterson, and Tomlin have pitched well enough (particularly recently) that you can think that the Indians should have a conceivable shot at winning a good portion of their starts. Of course, that hasn’t happened recently because of the offense and maybe you want to still assert that the performance of that troika is unsustainable, but we’re about to go into July and each of those three pitchers has an ERA under 4.00.

The Tigers have one pitcher with an ERA under 4.00 and while he may be Justin Verlander, the Indians are the only AL Central team with three pitchers with sub-4.00 ERA as the White Sox and Twins have two each while the Royals only have two starting pitchers with sub-5.00 ERA’s. Obviously, the middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation for each team is going to play a large role in what happens in the AL Central race, but the Indians have a developing front-to-middle-of-the-rotation in Carrasco, Masterson, and Tomlin, for whom success has now been sustained over nearly ½ of a season…if not longer.

Though the bullpen will have its hiccups (and Pestano’s Monday night reminded us that even the most formidable reliever is not invincible), the Indians are going to have to ride the arms at the front of their rotation and the back end of their bullpen for a while longer as the offense continues to find its footing.

Whether it can or not, to watch the development and maturation of Carrasco, Masterson, and Tomlin (particularly recently) with the knowledge that Al White may still come back in 2011 is enough to brighten up even the darkest of days that the Indians have had recently…and they’ve had quite a few.

Still just 1 game out of the AL Central race (but with that gap widening and confidence in this team shaky at best), the Indians return to their home state to meet up with the Reds, a team that they swept just a month ago. There’s no question that the Reds are looking to return the favor as the Indians try anything and everything to pull themselves out of this tailspin as the sense of urgency coming from the offices at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario grows with each passing day…

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Here Comes the Cavalry

It is finally upon us. The day that some had called for since spring training is here. Lonnie Chisenhall, universally regarded as one of the top two position prospects in the Indians system, has been called up to the active roster. Veteran utility infielder Adam Everett is the 25-man casualty, designated for assignment and flying back East as the team prepares for another interleague series in Arizona. Everett hit .217 in his 60 at bats with the Indians this year, with one double and one RBI. He will not be missed on the field, although by all accounts he was a good guy to have around the clubhouse.

Chisenhall is of course the real story here, as his hot spring with the bat had some calling for him to be the opening day third baseman. Those calls only intensified when Jason Donald got hurt, but the job went to veteran journeyman Jack Hannahan. Chisenhall was sent down to AAA Columbus to continue his seasoning, a move that made sense considering he had not had a single AAA at bat prior to 2011. The move made even more sense when Chisenhall hit just .247/.347/.395 in April with 2 HR, hardly setting the world on fire. He picked things up in May though, going for a .278/.374/.444 line with 3 HR and 14 RBI. He went on the DL in mid-June with concussion-like symptoms after banging his head sliding headfirst. In his 5 games since returning from the DL, Chiz went 9-21 with 2 HR, a 3B and 14 RBI. That, combined with a dreadful teamwide offensive slump at the big league level, convinced Indians brass that it was time to give the kid a shot.

Chiz is being thrust into a difficult spot in Cleveland. His minor league numbers suggest that he should find success vs. RHP, but will likely struggle against lefties. He's shown almost a platoon-level split in AAA, with a .292/.380/.455 line against righties but put up just a .200/.282/.360 line against lefthanded pitching. And that's in AAA, not against major league pitching. His overall line of .265/.352/.427 with 7 HR and 44 RBI is solid, but his numbers weren't as good as those of switch hitter Cord Phelps, who has found major league pitching poses quite a challenge. Chiz is going to be asked to not just tread water, but to step right in and contribute offensively at the big league level. Jack Hannahan's .214/.304/.333 line should not be too difficult to live up to, but Hannahan did that while playing outsanding defense in the field. If Chisenhall comes up and is worth an extra win with his bat but takes away two wins with his glove, then what? Chisenhall's glove has been getting better reviews this season, but he's far from a gold glover at the hot corner. Will his bat make up for it? I sure hope so.
We've seen Alex White, Cord Phelps and now will see Chisenhall at the major league level this season. Vinnie Pestano had virtually no major league experience before 2011. Kipnis is hitting well in Columbus and will be in Cleveland before the end of the season. Relivers Zach Putnam and Josh Judy are at the cusp of an extended major league audition. The cavalry is coming, there's no doubt about that. But how effective will they be? Will they be like Patton's tanks rolling through the Ardennes Forrest against the Germans? Or will the be more like the Polish lancers that futily rode against the Panzers in September 1939? One way or another, we're going to find out. And before anyone feels the need to "correct" me, I'm well aware that is George C. Scott to the left astride his Sherman tank and not actually General Patton.

Whether Chiz, Phelps and any other prospects who are called up this year manage to stem the tide and keep the Indians in first place remains to be seen. Regardless though, there's a benefit to the club down the road. Even if they have limited success this year and the Indians miss the playoffs, the kids will be gaining valuable experience that they will be able to use next year when the Indians should again be contending for the Central Divison crown. The only way to learn how to hit major league pitching is to get reps hitting major league pitching. Phelps looked overwhelmed for a week or so, and then settled in at the plate and started looking much more comfortable. I expect it will be much the same for Chisenhall. He should continue to find success against righthanded pitching, but will likely struggle against lefties at the major league level. The key to his long-term success will be overcoming those struggles and figuring out a way to hit lefties. If not, I'm afraid this could be more Poland than Patton.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Choo-sing the Next Step on A Lazy Sunday

As the Indians ready themselves for the national spotlight that comes by being featured on Sunday Night Baseball tonight in San Francisco, they take the stage without one of their lead actors as Shin-Soo Choo was felled by a characteristically wild pitch from the Giants’ Jonathan Sanchez. After dropping to the ground and being led off of the field, the news has come down that the worst fears for the injury (which even looked bad at the time) have come true as The BLC is likely to miss 6 to 8 weeks with the thumb injury. If you’re not looking at a calendar, that puts Choo out of commission until mid-August on the optimistic side and perhaps not even until the end of August or beginning of September.

As even Manny Acta admits, to say that this is a blow to the tied-for-1st place Indians is an understatement…

While it is true that Choo’s season-long numbers have dipped significantly from his performance of the past few years (and his OPS was just .687 when he went down), the fact is that Choo had finally started to heat up (.981 OPS in the 8 games prior to the injury) and – despite his struggles this year – he represented one of the only players on the Indians for whom a track record of recent production existed. Though some would assert that the Indians have been “missing” Choo (as we’ve known him from years past), the fact is that the Indians with Choo are a far more formidable opponent than the Indians without Choo.

That may be fairly obvious (and you really don’t need to hear that…I know), but remember how the Indians’ lineup looked completely different with Hafner in there last week versus a lineup without Hafner?

Get ready for the next 6 to 8 weeks (and more pointedly until they can get out of these NL parks as now BOTH Choo and Hafner will be missing) as the Indians look to try to hold their ground in the AL Central without one of their best players, and certainly the player who had performed at the highest level in the previous few seasons.

Reportedly, the Indians’ initial plans involve using “Austin Kearns and Travis Buck in a platoon situation in right field” with the linked piece reporting those plans including the truth that “Acta added that the struggles of Kearns and Buck likely stemmed from their sporadic playing time” with Acta even admitting that “It’s kind of tough to ask either one of those guys to produce when neither one of them has ever been a bench player.”

So…the idea that both will suddenly thrive in sporadic playing time when they have not comes from where?

Presumably in this “platoon” Kearns would face LHP and Buck would face RHP, although the fact that Kearns faced the RH Matt Cain on Saturday already brings into question what the Indians are going to do here. Regardless of this planned “platoon”, here’s the problem that I see – the plan includes Austin Kearns, who hasn’t hit anybody this year, regardless of handedness. Kearns’ struggles this year are well-known and the object of scorn everywhere, but which part of this player looks like a candidate for a platoon?
Kearns vs. LHP (2011) - .551 OPS
Kearns vs. RHP (2011) - .566 OPS

His inclusion on the roster as a RH bat looks good in theory, until you actually look to see that he’s simply a poor hitter at this stage of his career, regardless of the pitcher he’s facing. Maybe you think those are based on small sample sizes that don’t show a discernable platoon split and if you think that the non-platoon split is unique to this year, consider this:
Kearns vs. LHP (Career) - .788 OPS
Kearns vs. RHP (Career) - .762 OPS

What that means is that Kearns has historically hit LHP and RHP nearly equally and seeing as how his OPS against both LHP and RHP are nearly identical again, I’m not sure where this idea that Kearns is going to thrive as a platoon member is coming from. Perhaps you could make the same argument about Buck as his splits this year have been nearly as atrocious, if at least separated by handedness:
Buck vs. LHP (2011) - .321 OPS
Buck vs. RHP (2011) - .666 OPS

Again, underwhelming numbers to be sure, but the number vs. LHP is based only on 13 plate appearances this year and Buck’s career splits show that he, like Kearns, has a history free of a discernible platoon split:
Buck vs. LHP (Career) - .714 OPS
Buck vs. RHP (Career) - .742 OPS

Maybe they think that Kearns is going to somehow miraculously pull out of his 2011 tailspin, but while Kearns has been far from an MLB player since he was traded to the Yankees last year – regardless of whether he’s facing LHP or RHP – the thought that Buck could actually revive his lost career with regular plate appearances at least has the aura of a well-thought-out Plan B. Back when Hafner hit the DL, Buck did actually post a .783 OPS in the 16 game stretch that he played 13 games in when he was the de facto replacement for Hafner, so the notion of handing him the keys to RF for a month certainly would have more logic behind than platooning the two or going out and adding a player like a Ryan Ludwick (who has a .677 OPS in his last 134 games and whose OPS in the NL is a full 100 points higher than it is in the AL) to see if it might represent an upgrade over an in-house option.

Of course, the very real possibility that Buck may crash-and-burn as an everyday player exists, but it’s a near-certainty that fostering a platoon with Kearns and Buck will surely end poorly, with the Indians’ manager essentially coming out and saying as much – that both players have struggled because of sporadic playing time.
So let’s solve it by giving them sporadic playing time?

However this “platoon” idea plays out (and it won’t be good if they actually do employ it…trust me), the manner in which the Indians approach the loss of Choo in the coming weeks and months is going to be more than a little telling in terms of how they perceive this created opportunity in the AL Central race. Certainly they can rely on these internal options (and again, if we’re going that route, I’d like to see Buck playing everyday to see if he can get into a rhythm) for a time, but the sense of urgency surrounding the loss of Choo and attempting to replace his production (albeit diminished) is going to be the canary in the coal mine when looking at what moves the Indians are/aren’t going to make to augment this team going forward.

To that end, Anthony Castrovince had a nice piece on Carmona (and the Fausto topic is one I’m coming back to) that accurately painted the picture for the Indians as they currently exist…and this was written before Big League Choo went down:
But if this keeps up, something’s got to give… assuming, of course, that the Indians remain serious about remaining in contention (and last week’s dismissal of Jon Nunnally was certainly serious)…Given their ample issues in the lineup, the Indians are a fragile club with little wiggle room.

The “assuming, of course, that the Indians remain serious about remaining in contention line” is the money shot there and while AC’s piece was about how long the Indians could realistically put Carmona out there every 5th day, the line is wildly applicable to what just happened with Choo and the likely internal replacements. With Choo out (seemingly unable to show us all how a frog leaps forward after dropping back…and read this if you haven’t), the Indians will turn to Buck and Kearns and maybe Duncan (and I’m hoping just Buck) to see if they can hold the line in Choo’s absence.
But what if they can’t?

The Indians are entering the final week of June still in 1st place, having endured extended DL stints from Hafner, Sizemore (2 of them), Carrasco, and Talbot, and are still in the midst of waiting for Al White to return. Now, the injury to Choo puts them in a difficult situation as, unlike at their other positions of “need” (2B, 3B, SP), the Indians don’t have a stud prospect sitting in Columbus waiting for an opportunity that they can run with.

Sure, Zeke Carrerra has the potential to be a very nice 4th OF though he offers little long-term upside past that of a 4th OF, but Chad Huffman and Jerad Head are roster filler who should realistically fall far below Travis Buck and even Austin Kearns in terms of internal options...and it is here where I note that Buck outperformed both Huffman and Head in his brief time in Columbus. With Choo out conceivably until rosters expand (and that’s a LONG ways away), the Indians may be forced to examine the trade market to augment the team…just not at the spot they thought they were going to have to.

While much of the talk about an addition has revolved around a RH bat, the idea was that the RH bat would perhaps play a corner infield position seemed to carry the day, evidenced by the rumor that the Indians had contacted the Dodgers (prior to the Choo injury) about Casey Blake. Looking through the list compiled by’s Jon Heymann last week regarding the hitters that might be available via the trade market, the Indians might have an interest in Josh Willingham (although he just hit the DL as well), Mike Cuddyer, Luke Scott, Melky Cabrera, the aforementioned Ryan Ludwick, David DeJesus, and…gulp…Jeff Francoeur.

There may be flights of fancy about the Indians adding that HUGE bat to replace Choo, but the greater likelihood is that they’re going to give either Buck or Kearns a long leash to claim the every day RF (and, again…I’m hoping that leash is connected to Buck) for about the next month. If RF becomes a black hole in Choo’s absence, the Indians will have no choice but to add a player via a trade…assuming they’re still hanging around in the AL Central, which seems pretty likely as no team has taken the division by the horns to this point since the Tribe came back to Earth.

However, their activity to improve the roster is likely going to come in other forms prior to that July 31st Trade Deadline as the Indians are going to have start making every improvement (as incremental as each may be) to this team in Choo’s absence. No longer should Orlando Cabrera’s bat, glove, and grousing be tolerated, as the Indians need to start valuing talent above all else at every position, as the Choo injury may have just put the accelerator down on some moves that may have been planned…just not for a while.

Most of those moves are going to involve the talent in Columbus and (while it may not include The Chiz or Kipnis…yet) it was late on Thursday night, as I was attempting to coax a small child back to sleep, when I caught a bit of the replay of the Clippers/Mud Hens contest on STO. During the victory for the Clippers, the Mud Hens play-by-play guy said that the Columbus team was “stacked”, but that since the Indians were doing so well…that he imagined that the Clippers – as they’re currently constructed – would remain more or less intact.

Well, if the thought was that the Clippers would remain intact for just a little while longer, that’s about to change as the rest of AAA may be celebrating a breaking up of the juggernaut Clippers very soon. If I’m picking up that phone, my first call for a player to arrive from Columbus would be Nick Johnson and while Johnson’s not exactly tearing it up down in AAA, he has a track record of success in MLB that would eclipse most players (and certainly LaPorta) currently on the Indians’ roster. Health is important here, but remember how the LaPorta injury forced the Indians to play Lou Marson more frequently, even against the RHP that have crushed him this year?

Realizing that I JUST wrote that I have no problem with Marson playing everyday (even with his struggles against RHP), the Choo injury puts the sense of urgency back in there for the Indians to maximize every asset that they have right now to get as much offense as they possibly can out of the organization. Seeing as how Johnson’s a LH bat, I wouldn’t be upset to see this shake out…very soon:
Defense vs. LHP
Santana at 1B
Marson at C

Defense vs. RHP
Johnson at 1B
Santana at C

How soon is “very soon”?
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he’s actually added by the end of the week as, if you’ll remember, he has an out clause for July 1st. If that seems alarmingly soon, it’s because it is, but if you start to look at the schedules for the Indians and Clippers for the coming week, you can start to see how this actually might shake out. By that I mean that while the Indians are out on the West Coast, everyone realizes that the Indians have an off day/travel day on June 30th, right…the day before Johnson’s out clause?

And the team is flying from Arizona to Cincinnati after the Diamondbacks on Wednesday night, right?

Coincidentally, the Clippers finish up a series with the Mud Hens in Columbus on Wednesday afternoon, meaning that Johnson could finish the Wednesday (6-29) game with the Clippers, shoot down I-71 to Cincinnati and meet up with the Tribe for the Reds’ series that starts on July 1st, being added to the roster on June 30th and beating the deadline for the opt out by a day.

What about Matt LaPorta, whose progress from his injury seems to be on the fast-track?
Frankly, the Matt MaTola that we saw in the month prior to his injury is not one that I’m all that anxious to see again on the North Coast and his continued presence at the bottom of the lineup leads me to believe that the Indians felt the same way, meaning that they could proceed cautiously with MaTola. Whether that means rehab stints to ensure that he’s not only healthy but…you know, hitting or whether that means that the Indians advise LaPorta to take it slow, the best course of action with LaPorta is to wait for a productive LaPorta (not MaTola) to arrive. Because that guy in the #7 jersey, with the .309 OBP in his first 220 plate appearances…that guy’s not helping make up for any lost production in Choo’s absence.

Is that to assert that Nick Johnson is the savior for this team in light of the Choo injury?
That’s pushing things more than just a little bit and it is true that the addition of Johnson makes an overly LH team (which hopefully includes Buck playing every day in RF), but that’s where the other obvious move comes in to add a RH bat to the mix by promoting Jason Donald to the parent club to take over 3B. Realizing that I’m the guy who has been so protective of Supermannahan because of his incredible glove behind the groundball-inducing staff and given that Jason Donald’s first foray at the hot corner was…um, interesting, if the team was ready to break camp with Donald at 3B, a time should arrive when they are ready to hand the reins back over to Donald.

Donald is crushing the ball for Columbus and while his .690 OPS last year in Cleveland was nothing to throw parades about, that .690 OPS in 2010 still puts him higher than what Hannahan has done at the plate this year and in his career. Obviously, Hannahan’s value is in his defense and I’m not saying that the Indians should outright a useful Hannahan off of the roster, but with Choo out of the lineup, it’s time to start lining some of these guys up here to see what young players represent offensive upgrades to the current roster, and Donald falls on that list.

This may seem like too much movement, but if the first two games against the Giants reinforced any notions, it is that the Indians’ offense is going to struggle without their big guns in the middle of the lineup. Though Hafner will be coming back when the team returns to Cleveland at the end of the week, the loss of Choo (or even the threat of The BLC v.2009-2010) should expedite any plans that the Tribe may have had for internal replacements into the here and now before the AL Central gets away from them. Ultimately, there needs to be a point in the season when the veterans that helped the team get to this point, but have been exposed as “who we thought they were” will be sent away and that moment may have arrived when Sanchez’s fastball struck Choo on Friday night.

Though I can already hear the calls for Chisenhall and Kipnis if the Indians need to be maximizing offensive output, I’m more inclined to see what Donald and Phelps can do, and truthfully, I’m still not sure that Chisenhall is going to arrive before September or that Kipnis is going to arrive at all. Maybe Donald and Phelps turn out to be flawed players, no better than merely placeholders for Chisenhall and Kipnis, but compared to the current occupants of 3B and 2B, that might still represent a healthy upgrade.

While the idea that the Indians could go out and get a Casey Blake or a Ryan Ludwick right now, wouldn’t it make more sense to see what Jason Donald can do at 3B for about a month or how Nick Johnson could enter a rotation with Marson and Santana at C/1B?

Whether that’s the path that the Indians take, I can’t help but be reminded of the way that the team promoted Alex White earlier in the season, signaling a SHARP departure from the handling of prospect in years’ past. White making his way to Cleveland showed that the Indians were very serious about contending and while White could still “be on pace to potentially rejoin the Tribe in late August or early September”, that means he’s not going to arrive (optimistically) around the same time Choo does.

Which brings us back to that AC piece on Fausto as the Indians’ urgency in their lineup configuration needs to be one that carries over to the rotation as well, and their handling of Carmona (and his spot in the rotation) are just as – if not more important – than how the Indians handle the attempt at replacing Choo. Castrovince paints the picture pretty accurately here, particularly in the final line:
Perhaps Carmona does, indeed, right himself in the near-term. Tim Belcher has told Acta that he’s pinpointed some delivery issues that Carmona might be able to iron out. But those numbers with runners on indicate that the Indians once again have a head case on their hands. And if Carmona doesn’t get straight soon, the Indians simply have to pursue the ‘pen possibility. Because it’s not as if they’re lacking in attractive starting options down below.

The names “down below” are well known around these parts and John Perrotto B-Pro had an interesting nugget regarding Carmona and augmenting the rotation via a trade when he dropped this:
The Indians would at least consider pairing right-hander Fausto Carmona with a prospect in a trade for a veteran starting pitcher who could provide innings. One possible target is Astros right-hander Brett Myers.
Now, “would at least consider” is a pretty big qualifier as I “would at least consider” a lot of take that for what it’s worth. What the Indians should be giving STRONG consideration to is not letting the cavalry that’s been oft-discussed and that stands at the ready to remain perched on the horizon.

There is a great moment in “Braveheart” at the Battle of Stirling when the Scottish troops are being charged upon by horses, having taken arrows, with casualties all around them and the odds looking decidedly against them. As the thunder of hooves bears down upon them, Wallace extols his line to “Hold…Hold…Hold…” to the point that even the most faithful begin to wonder when the call for the counter-attack is coming. When it comes, the battle is on as the Scots hold their ground and fight valiantly until their reinforcements surprisingly arrive to lay waste to the British.

Though my description of the battle does it no justice, the line has been held and the fighting has been valiant to this point by the 2011 Indians…now it’s time to allow the reinforcements to arrive to see if the battle can be won with the team going at full strength.
Or at least as close to “full strength” as possible…

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tomahawks Hitting the Edges of the Roster

As the Indians head off to the Left Coast for non-DH Interleague match-ups while much of the North Coast celebrates the fact that Yuengling will be available in October in Ohio (why it was not previously available is beyond me), my excitement comes from the fact that the (somewhat) long search for the Blonde Bombshell has finished with a happy ending. My odyssey took me to Rozi’s in Lakewood (not sure why I didn’t try there first or why I just don’t go there more frequently, given their selection), where I found the Mother Lode of the Bombshell and loaded up. Just to make my trip all the more sweet, Rozi’s carries Bell’s Third Coast Beer, which I had been unable to locate (other than at the Winking Lizard) up to that point.

Regardless, the Bombshell was back where it belongs in my fridge on Wednesday and…what do you know, the Indians were able to salvage the series against the Rox. Perhaps this idea that the Bombshell holds some magical powers this year for the Tribe is not as far-fetched as it may seem to ANY rational person.

Nevertheless, while I’ll attempt to do MY part (even with the team playing some late games in the coming week) with the Bombshells, let’s get some Tomahawks in the air…

While the Indians made a move to firm up their bench for the NL park games, calling Shelley Duncan up (to ostensibly be the RH pinch hitter) and sending Travis Buck back to Columbus, as Austin Kearns lives to see another day…though he may not be seeing many more. That said, the movement in the 4th OF/RH bat position doesn’t interest me nearly as much as what’s happening in the Indians’ infield…but I’ll get to that. For now, while I know that Kearns has a giant bulls-eye on his back right now – and deservedly so – with the Indians troika of OF figuring to take the lion’s share of plate appearances, the replacement of Buck for Duncan suits me fine, even if I’d rather have Buck as the 4th OF.

That said, it’s going to be interesting to see how the Indians use that bench in these NL parks given the obvious hesitation from Acta to use guys like Adam Everett and Austin Kearns in many situations. While that “hesitation” is completely justifiable, the presence of Cord Phelps and Shelley Duncan on the roster means that Everett and Kearns are pushed further down the list of useful options really at any time.

This isn’t worth a long dissertation (or even a lot of thought) because one could certainly make a strong and compelling argument that if Kearns’ main function is as a 4th OF since Duncan is now the assumed RH bat off of the bench and if the skill set of a 4th OF is to play all 3 OF positions with some level of capability in the field and at the plate, Kearns doesn’t really pass the muster. Really, with Buck representing a better 4th OF option and Duncan being the better RH bench bat, the argument to keep Kearns around really doesn’t exist. Further, if The OC is going to be the primary back-up 3B (and I’ll get to why this is a horrible idea), the question becomes what purpose Adam Everett serves on this team, other than pinch-running responsibilities.

Realizing that this is complaining about the periphery of the roster that have little to no bearing on games, with the Indians about to play 9 games in NL parks, their bench should be full of useful players who have a specific role to play on this team. Right now, Kearns and Everett (particularly as he’s being used) are neither useful nor do they fill a role. While money may play a role in the decision to keep Kearns afloat on the Indians, let’s hope that the Indians come to their senses and maximize their roster options and eventually send Kearns (who now has a .589 OPS in the 217 plate appearances he has since the Indians traded him to the Yankees last year over) on his merry way…blazing a trail that will hopefully be followed soon by another off-season FA “addition” from this past off-season.

If the quotation marks around “addition” didn’t clue you in as to who I’m going after following that little plea to maximize the roster, let me first assert that I don’t really have that much of a problem with Everett on the team as he represents a SOLID defender who CAN play multiple positions, even if his bat leaves something to be desired. That’s not a bad bench piece to have, even if he’s unlikely to represent a viable PH option for the team. What I do have a problem with is the Indians continually playing Uncle Orlando, a SUBPAR defender who CANNOT play multiple positions AND has a bat that leaves something to be desired.

Seeing as how allowing him to thrash about 3B instead of 2B is the way that the Indians are going to handle Uncle Orlando, I have another suggestion (and click on these links to three tweets from WTAM’s Nick Camino to see how Uncle Orlando is responding to questions about his new “role”) in that if he’s not happy in the everyday lineup and is going to become petulant, outright him off of the roster.

While that may seem harsh, realize that Uncle Orlando now has the FOURTH-WORST OPS among qualified MLB players with a .590 OPS. Only Chone Figgins, Miggy Tejada, and Dan Uggla are worse and (with the exception of Tejada), those players represent players that are going to keep playing because of the unfortunate contracts that were meted out to them. Now, if The OC’s glove was a redeeming quality (as Hannahan’s is), it makes his flailing at the plate somewhat easier to digest but (since I don’t trust any defensive metrics out there as far as I can throw them) if you have watched Orlando Cabrera in more than one or two games this year at 2B (don’t get me started on his “efforts” at 3B), you would say that his range is limited, his effort is minimal at best, and that he’s a defensive liability in the field.

So he’s being kept around for what…for clubhouse presence?
The same guy who is complaining about having to platoon with Cord Phelps despite the fact that he has a .496 OPS vs. RHP, lowest in MLB for anyone with more than 150 PA against RHP not named Chone Figgins (who is about to see his role reduced pretty significantly in Seattle)…or the guy who says he doesn’t like playing 3B to the media when the alternative is that he would be sitting on the bench, which is where he should be?

Where is the path he’s treading that sets an example for the young players?
Is it the pouting to the media, the petulance towards his manager or the overwhelmingly myopic view of his abilities to still play every day in MLB?

While my previous stance was to simply diminish The OC’s role to a Utility IF, it’s obvious that a demotion of any kind isn’t going to be accepted by Uncle Orlando. So at this point, I’d have no problem going with Cord Phelps at 2B every single day with Hannahan at 3B and with Everett as the Utility IF. Please spare me the “clubhouse presence” argument with The OC as his reaction to Phelps’ promotion and the trial at 3B have revealed more about his “presence” than anything else was going to and if you want to know why I think that Phelps represents an upgrade over Orlando RIGHT NOW, consider that Bobby Phelps has 3 extra-base hits in his 31 plate appearances to date in 10 games played. Meanwhile, Orlando Cabrera has 3 extra-base hits in his last 24 games played, which spans 80 plate appearances…seriously.

While some laughable outlets were ready to pull the plug on Phelps (being sufficiently eviscerated for it) after 11 AB, the fact is that Phelps has earned a chance to play every day in MLB and the 2011 performance of Orlando Cabrera shouldn’t prevent him from doing so. As for The OC playing at 3B, other than saving my eyes and blood pressure as I watch him look helpless at listless at the hot corner, I’d rather see Adam Everett (or even maybe a healthy Jason Donald soon) playing there from time to time if Jack Hannahan is REALLY going to be playing 1B every so often…which I don’t think is necessary either.

The reason I don’t think that Hannahan needs to be playing 1B at all is that I like Marson at C and Santana at 1B while LaPorta’s shelved…and truthfully maybe beyond that. Though Marson has his warts (he hasn’t hit RHP all year), his defense and handling of the pitching staff has been tremendous and just as unimpressive as MaTola was before his injury, Marson’s filling in as the “everyday” catcher has been nearly as impressive.

Truthfully, if Marson and MaTola are both going to represent less-than-stellar offensive options in 2011, I’d take Marson’s defensive abilities (and Santana actually looks pretty good at 1B) over the “stylings” of LaPorta at 1B. As much as I’d love to give LaPorta a wide berth to adjust to MLB pitching based on his prospect pedigree, the fact of the matter is that he posted a .192 BA / .222 OBP / .308 SLG / .530 OPS in the 22 games prior to his injury. While that is just 22 games, LaPorta’s inability to get on base (he has a .309 OBP) and his continued…um, transgressions in the field make me wonder if a rehab stint in AAA might do his head and his confidence some good.

Obviously, AAA pitching is a completely different animal than MLB pitching but LaPorta looked so lost both at the plate and in the field in the month prior to his injury that it might be better for all parties to have LaPorta spend some time in Columbus to see if he can regain some confidence or at least re-learn how to use the lower half of his body when he swings.

The beneficiary of that arrangement would be Marson, who has battered LHP (1.011 OPS vs. LHP) while being flummoxed by RHP (.393 OPS vs. RHP) this year. With the Small Sample Size Siren blaring and realizing that I have already called for Orlando Cabrera to never face a RHP again, Marson’s career splits aren’t nearly that pronounced (although his career OPS vs. RHP is only .532) and his defense and handling of the pitching staff are such that I’d be much more comfortable with Marson in the everyday lineup (warts and all) over many other options…a healthy LaPorta included.

Interestingly, the struggles of LaPorta and Santana in the early going are probably a pretty big reason why the Indians have a new hitting coach. While some misinterpreted Acta’s comments a couple of weeks ago that some players on the team were too talented to go through these prolonged slumps as the manager calling out his team, it’s now pretty apparent that Acta was actually calling out his own hitting coach. Truthfully, I don’t really know what to make of the Nunnally firing as hitting coaches and pitching coaches (most obviously) are often lightning rods for both praise and criticism, deserved or not. Remember how Carl Willis was crucified for Lee’s 2007 and Carmona’s 2008 but was given very little credit for Carmona’s 2007 and Lee’s 2008?

As much criticism as these coaches take, they’re not the ones standing in the batter’s box or toeing the slab and they’re at the mercy of performances that they can only control to such a degree. Was Nunnally responsible for Asdrubal’s tremendous hitting so far…what about Choo’s struggles?

Perhaps the firing was the result of a build-up of frustration between Nunnally and Acta or maybe one unknown singular event or disagreement and nobody outside of the locker room or Front Office really has much of an idea and Acta explained his reasoning for the move to B-Pro’s John Perrotto thusly:
“We’ve been scuffling for a while, and we feel we needed a new voice…We underachieved a little last year, and it’s been going on for a month or so this year. We thought it was an appropriate time to do it. It wasn’t easy. It was the toughest day I’ve had in my two years as the manager here. But it was something we felt needed to be done.”

That’s the first time I’ve heard anyone in the organization say that the team “underachieved” last year, but I think some of that goes back to the failure of LaPorta to develop into a consistent hitter (including in 2010) and the fact that Santana seemed to fall off in terms of power and production after his blistering start last year. Interestingly, a scout had this to say B-Pro’s Perrotto on Santana prior to Nunnally’s firing:
“I’m kind of at a loss to explain why he (Santana) hasn’t hit better. He has good at-bats, and he takes walks. I think he’s real close to breaking out and having a real big second half. He’s swinging the bat better than his stats would indicate.”
Do you think that perhaps the Indians thought the same thing or that their own scouts were saying that something was amiss with Santana’s approach…other than the famous toe tap?

That said, how much control did Nunnally really have when his star pupil and personal reclamation project – Travis Hafner – go down to that oblique injury, laying waste to the whole lineup?

Whether Hafner’s absence sent the team into a psychological funk or if the lineup REALLY needs Hafner that much, his impact is stunning, even if you just look at what the three best hitters on the team have done from last Friday (Hafner’s return) through Wednesday night’s game:
The Axe Man - .421 BA / .520 OBP / .947 SLG / 1.467 OPS with 3 HR in 25 PA
The BLC - .350 BA / .480 OBP / .400 SLG / .880 OPS
Hafner - .294 BA / .429 OBP / .706 SLG / 1.134 OPS with 2 HR in 21 PA
You’ll see that I didn’t include any HR numbers for Choo and while that isn’t that disconcerting that he didn’t hit a HR in a 6-game stretch, did anyone know that Choo still hasn’t hit a HR since May 13th and has only that one HR since April 29th?

Of course, those are just 6 games and you can only glean so much from that, but Hafner’s presence is apparently huge (as they head off to play 9 games without in the lineup) and when he was missing, the team struggled at the plate, resulting in Nunnally finding himself on the wrong side of the ax. Whether the change in hitting coaches will make that much of a difference remains to be seen, but given that new hitting coach Bruce Fields was the Minor-League Hitting Coordinator prior to his promotion, you can bet that he knows quite a bit about what makes Carlos Santana and Mike Brantley and Cord Phelps and (hopefully) Matt LaPorta successful as the young, ballyhooed position players that are on the Indians right now need to continue to develop for the Indians to remain viably in the AL Central race.

As the Indians head out West to see if they can continue their success against the NL without their best hitter in the lineup remains to be seen. What will be seen around these parts is the Blonde Bombshell cans making their way out of the fridge…

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Up In Arms

As the Indians’ grip of Interleague play loosens, it has become more and more apparent that the Indians’ season is going to be paced by the success (or lack thereof) of their starting rotation. Certainly, the offense picking up the pace is a welcome respite from the ineffectiveness that was on display for the better part of a month and regardless of who the hitting coach is (and raise your hand if you saw that one coming, Bueller…Bueller…), the Indians’ rotation holds the key to keeping the team in enough games to allow their uneven and inconsistent offense to find its footing.

Over the course of three days, the Indians’ rotation was on display at its best and most promising as Carlos Carrasco mowed his way through the Pirates’ lineup, lending optimism for the present and the future…a feeling that was hard to find on Monday night after Fausto Carmona was bullied by the Rockies en route to another question-inducing loss for Carmona. In the matter of three days, the Indians saw their “ace” of the future perhaps become the “ace” of the present, then had to sit and watch the pitcher who was once thought to be the “ace” of the rotation devolve into little more than a shell of his former self and deeper and deeper into the abyss.

That said (and attempting to start on the Bright Side of Life), while the recent success of Carlos Carrasco has been both unexpected and welcome, does everyone realize what he’s put together in his last three outings, as he’s twirled some beauties against the Twins, the Yankees, and the Pirates?

If you want to say it’s the Twins and the Pirates, that’s fine…as long as you acknowledge that the Twins are 14-3 in May and that the Pirates are actively poking the .500 mark while accepting that Carrasco shut down the Yankee lineup in the 1-0 victory. Regardless, here is what Carrasco has done over his last three starts, with the inclusion of a 3-game line from another pitcher (whose name you may recognize) providing some proper perspective:
Cookie Carrasco – 21 2/3 IP
0.42 ERA, 2.07 FIP, 7.06 K/9, 2.08 BB/9, 0.78 WHIP, .399 OPS against

CP Lee – 24 IP
0.38 ERA, 1.82 FIP, 7.88 K/9, 1.88 BB/9, 0.75 WHIP, .370 OPS against

Yeah, really…
Now Please don’t take that comparison as an assertion that Carlos Carrasco is as good as Cliff Lee or that the two are on equal footing as those compilations are over the course of three starts, not three years. Going further than that, it was just a couple of weeks ago that I was comparing Carrasco to Kyle Drabek and now here’s a comparison between Carrasco and…gulp, CP Lee.

Regardless, it speaks to the rarified airspace that Carrasco is currently cruising in as he’s been as good as anyone in MLB over his last three starts. In fact, if you want to expand the timeframe into the month of June, Carrasco still has the 9th lowest OPS against among all MLB starters in the month at .510 OPS against.

Is this sustainable for Cookie?
Probably not at this level…as you have to remember that he’s only 24 and still adjusting to MLB (his ERA+ on the season is still 98), although he’s succeeding in a sustainable manner as his groundball percentage (63.8%) for the month of June is the highest in the AL and the confidence and fire that he’s shown on the mound certainly feel like he’s growing into a viable MLB starter, at the very least, with his ceiling certainly rising.

Carrasco is going to be up and down this season, just as any young pitcher is but seeing the heights to which Carrasco has climbed this month starts to give a peek into what could be with Cookie, particularly considering his youth. That youth is what is important to keep in mind here as (just to throw some more context out there) when Cliff Lee was 24 years old, he threw more innings in AAA than he did in MLB in 2004.

While it is true that LHP generally tend to develop slower as pitchers – all of which is the reason that there is so much excitement for the 23-year-old LHP Scott Barnes who, in his last 6 starts in AAA has posted a 1.80 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and (this is the important part) 44 K in 35 IP as he’s looking to more than just a PTBNL – Carrasco is thriving with less than 150 IP under his belt, meaning that the maturation that was often thought to be unattainable for him to harness his raw talent may actually be within his grasp.

Obviously, Carrasco is going to have his days when he looks like a 24-year-old with less than 150 MLB IP under his belt, but the Indians unquestionably have a building block in their rotation and – this is important – he is a young pitcher whose workload has been built up to the point that he should be under no great inning restrictions this year. By that I mean that Carrasco threw 173 1/3 innings in 2009 between the Minors and MLB and tossed 201 2/3 innings last year between Cleveland and Columbus. To this point, he’s toed the slab for 79 innings, meaning that the Indians shouldn’t have to worry about keeping inning counts down for Carrasco – which could be a major factor in the team’s ability to stay in the AL Central race.

With Carrasco pitching like he is with every one of his 4 pitches being among the most effective among AL starters this month, it’s easy to see the Indians hanging around in the AL Central race because of their young starting pitching, with the young arm acquired for a past Cy Young Award winner leading the way.

On the flip side of things (and invoking the name of the pitcher who finished 4th in the Cy Young vote after the 2007 season), Fausto Carmona could not be more of a trainwreck right now as Monday night’s game showed all too clearly why Carmona remains a wrecking ball wrapped in an enigma. Looking past the sweating…um, issue that I’ve addressed in this space before – and check out that picture sent to me by my TCF colleague Nino Colla of the sweat actually flying off his head while wearing a baseball hat that generally…you know, contains sweat – and into the crux of what has become an ongoing problem with Carmona, here’s what Fausto’s manager and catcher had to say after the implosion.

First Acta:
“He just dug his own grave, basically…He lost his focus. I can’t say anything but that.”

Then Marson:
“That inning killed him. I thought he was going to roll…It was frustrating. You get those first two guys out on five pitches -- two quick outs -- and then a two-out walk and everything broke loose.”

If you were to write a book about Fausto Carmona’s 2011 season, I would assert that Marson’s line - “And Everything Broke Loose” - would be a pretty good title for what has happened with pretty much all of Carmona’s starts…and particularly recently. Just when you think he’s about to shift into cruise control and mow through some batters, showing the talent that he DOES possess, he allows a snowball to turn into an avalanche and before you know it, he’s buried.

This was pointed out a few weeks ago with Carmona, but if you think that things “break loose” for Carmona once guys get on base…your eyes don’t deceive you as his performance with the bases empty and with runners – any amount of runners on base – is nothing short of stunning.
Carmona – 2011
.623 OPS Against with Bases Empty in 248 PA
1.057 OPS Against with Runners On in 176 PA
Want some perspective on that?
One hitter in MLB has an OPS over 1.057 and it’s Jose Bautista, who seems to be playing Baseball Simulator 1.000 out there as he’s sitting on a 1.133 OPS. That said, the player with the second highest OPS in MLB is Prince Fielder, who currently holds a 1.031 OPS. Conversely, Seattle SS Brendan Ryan has a .622 OPS, “good” for 146th among qualified MLB hitters.

So…if I may step up to my “Jump to Conclusions” map, with the bases empty, hitters are about as effective as Brendan Ryan against Fausto. Once a base is filled with a runner, the hitter has performed at a level somewhere between Jose Bautista and Prince Fielder against Carmona.

To say that things “break loose” on Fausto does not quite to justice to what happens to Carmona on the mound with runners on, if you just look at some of these numbers:
Runner on 1st only – 1.153 OPS Against
Runner on 3rd only – 1.205 OPS Against
Runners on 2nd and 3rd – 1.027 OPS Against
Bases Loaded – 1.767 OPS Against

While that last number (OPS Against with Bases Loaded) is the result of only 12 Plate Appearances, in the 12 times that Carmona has faced a hitter with the bases loaded this year, he’s given up 7 hits, 4 of which were doubles. So, in one out of every 3 times Carmona has faced a hitter with the bases loaded, that batter hit a double.
Excuse me while I sit down to properly process that...

What all of this means is that Carmona simply can’t pitch out of trouble and while a majority of that issue is between his ears, that is both settling and disturbing. It’s settling because it lends credence to the idea that Carmona’s problems are not physical and dismisses the idea that he’s lacking in actual talent. What makes it all the more disturbing is that this mental “block” that Carmona has exhibited with runners on base doesn’t seem to be one that can be easily fixed nor does it seem to be one that is improving. All told, Carmona’s ERA over his last 8 starts is 8.87 and opponents have posted a .961 OPS against him in the 44 2/3 innings and for a team whose divisional lead has evaporated and who needs to be fighting for every inch that they can claim in this divisional race, the inclusion of Carmona in the rotation gets harder to justify with each passing start.

What to do with him becomes the greater question as the Indians simply cannot afford to trot Carmona out there every 5th day, knowing that the avalanche is gaining momentum at the top of the mountain, waiting to bury Carmona. Obviously, he’s out of options so they can’t simply option him without exposing him to waivers and the idea of moving him into the bullpen means that the team can only really use him in VERY specific spots as a reliever as the role of long man wouldn’t seem to suit him because…you know, he stinks with guys on base and long men usually come into games with men on base.

So what do the Indians do with Carmona?
As was suggested on Monday night’s Smoke Signals, maybe the Indians skip Carmona a couple of times in the rotation since they have days off coming up in an attempt to get his head right. Going back to what Acta said after Monday’s game, it certainly sounds like they’re going to try to ride it out with Fausto and see if he can overcome his mental issues to work his way back to the success that his talent makes him capable of:
“This guy threw 210 innings for us last year -- good ones…It’s not as easy as it looks. This is not fantasy baseball. You can’t just get rid of him and bring somebody else over here. He’s one of our guys. He’s got good stuff.
“We just have to continue to work with him and throw him out there every five days.”

You can almost hear the frustration dripping off of even Acta’s words as the Indians seem to be close to the end of their rope with Carmona, knowing that the talent is there even if the execution is not.

What that means for his future with the team (particularly as they attempt to keep pace with the Tigers and keep the White Sox and now the Twins at bay) remains to be seen. No longer is the question whether Fausto’s option for 2012 will be picked up by the team, the question that starts to grow louder with each passing start for a team that still finds themselves in the middle of a playoff race is if Fausto makes it into August with the team.

Perhaps nothing is to be gleaned from two games which seemed to display “what could be” and “what may never be again”, but whether Carmona is able to right himself – and how the Indians handle the situation if he is unable to – is as important to the success of the Indians as the sustained performance of Carrasco down the stretch. While the answers to which direction the seasons for Carmona and Carrasco will reveal themselves over the course of the coming months, those revelations figure to lend more than a glimpse as to whether the Indians can stay in the AL Central race.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Lazy Sunday at A Crossroads

If the 40-game mark is the time at which pronouncements about teams are generally accepted as the “this is your team” stance starts to hold water and the All-Star Break represents a quasi-midpoint of the season, what can the performance of a team up to Father’s Day tell us?

For the Tribe, the path they’ve treaded since that 40-game mark to today has been treacherous and, frankly, a little disconcerting, but on June 19th, the Indians are once again alone in 1st place in the AL Central, all of this despite their recent performance that had effectively cleared out the bandwagon. While it’s true that the lead they built has evaporated as they’ve been caught in the Central (with more teams closer behind them…though no closer than the rest of the divisions) and the Indians find themselves at a crossroads for this season. Where they go from this crossroads in the next few weeks is going to determine if the path that they start down is the one going up or if they’re going to continue on the downward path that they’ve been on for a couple of weeks now. Perhaps that’s what Father’s Day is – far enough away from the quarter-pole but not quite to the midway point – when the tone of the season is really set.

The Indians have existed in two incarnations already in this season – the bulldozer of a team that leapt out of the gate to post the best record in baseball and the one that resembled a broken-down machine, spitting out smoke and making all sorts of objectionable noises over the better course of two weeks – but with 3 ½ months still left to play, the Indians still have time to pull themselves out of this tailspin and assert themselves firmly back into the flawed AL Central race…if they haven’t already. Certainly, the idea that this team is going to be able to pull up from the crash course that seemed to have been set for them looked foolish at this time last week, with the mountains looming larger on the horizon, but let’s take this Sunday to gain some perspective about where they’ve been and perhaps where they’re going…

Lest anyone forget, it was talked about ad nauseum prior to the Reds’ weekend series in Cleveland about how the Indians were about to be tested by the “tough” section of their schedule that would show if the Indians were legitimate contenders or pretenders. When Cincinnati arrived to Cleveland, the Tribe was 26-15 with a commanding lead in the AL Central. Since that time, Hafner hit the DL (and has since returned), their starting pitching showed some chinks in their armor (or seem to not be wearing any armor at all in the case of Fausto), and their offense wholly disappeared.

However, since the start of that Reds’ series, the Tribe has gone 12-16 and while the recent past has been most discouraging and a 12-16 performance isn’t going to put them squarely in too many divisional races (particularly with the “brand” of 11-16 baseball they’ve been playing)…the Indians are still sitting on top of their division. Maybe you want to throw the “not for long” on that last sentence, but if you are what your record says you are, the Indians are still the team with the 3rd best winning percentage in the AL.

Given the recent history of slow starts for the team, maybe this is an odd feeling that we’re having since the Tribe usually starts slow and comes on in the 2nd half, meaning that we’re just not used to sitting atop the mountain early on, then sliding down it…slowly or quickly. Like the Twins of this year, we’re used to digging a DEEP hole, then attempting to slowly crawl out of it. Instead, the Indians are attempting to dig their heels in to prevent the slippage in the standings and where that leaves us is a place that Adam Van Arsdale at LGT summed up pretty nicely:
We probably do not have the talent to be the steamroller of a team we were for the season’s first 50 games, but that stretch should give us all confidence that we have more talent than the last 20 games. We are probably somewhere in the middle. But where that puts us right now is in the middle of a pennant race even if it is still only June.

Not to belabor this point, but the Indians are in the AL Central race in mid-June and while some may have expected it, perhaps it’s time to put aside expectations coming into the season and start to deal with the records that show up everyday in newspapers and websites everywhere perhaps meaning more than what was expected of a particular team (or teams) nearly three months ago. The team is still in control of a pennant race and while it looks to be more of a “race” now than it did when it one horse (the Tribe) leading the pack back in May, the Indians still do have some pieces and parts that could keep them in this race longer than most currently anticipate.

Perhaps the recent performance of the team has colored the perception to a darker shade of blue, but haven’t these things all happened in the first 2 ½ months?

Masterson (3.18 ERA) and Carrasco (3.87 ERA) have shown signs that they can front a rotation…
C. Perez, Sipp, and Pestano look like they can hold down the back of a bullpen…
Asdrubal looks to finally coming into his own as a SS…
Mike Brantley has shown glimpses of the OBP machine he was purported to be…
If you’re keeping score, that’s a team with young power pitchers at the front of the rotation and the back of the bullpen with strength up the middle of the diamond…

Realizing that this is a somewhat-tired question, if I would have told you on Opening Day that those things would bear out over the first 2 ½ months of the season, you would take it…right?

Past those bright spots, there are secondary signs of hope as Josh Tomlin continues to give the Indians quality outings nearly every time he goes out. No, he may not be front-end-of-the-rotation material, but he and Talbot have shown enough promise that it’s not hard to see them sitting at the back-end-of-the-rotation for the remainder of the year, if not beyond.

On Tomlin, just to digress for a moment, remember how nobody can quite figure out how Josh Tomlin (who now has a 3.93 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP on the year) is able to do what he’s doing?
Interestingly, Tomlin was included in an article on the cut fastball in a recent print edition of SI where the piece (and this is Albert Chen of SI…not me) asserted that the cutter, “is why virtual unknowns such as Cleveland’s Josh Tomlin…are blooming into All-Stars”. While that “All-Star” assertion may be a little aggressive, opponents are hitting .213 off of Tomlin’s cutter (sorry, I can’t find an OPS against for it), which he has thrown for 23.3% of his pitches. In a description of his repertoire, a PD piece from a couple of months ago mentioned “a cut fastball that rides in on left-handed hitters and down on righties”, among Tomlin’s other offerings.

Past his “strike-throwing mentality” and “moxie” and “grit”, could it be that Tomlin has a pitch that is difficult for hitters to square up, meaning that they often struggle to make solid contact, resulting in Tomlin’s success because of the effectiveness of that cutter to both RH and LH hitters?

Regardless (and moving on from this little digression on Tomlin), the Indians’ pitching has been the strength of the team to date, something that most did not expect coming into the season. Perhaps that is why acceptance of the pitching staff’s success has been so slow (well…that, and the occasional Fausto implosion), but the Indians’ pitching staff has a cumulative 3.98 ERA on the year and a good portion of that can be traced to the success of the bullpen, which has the 2nd best ERA in the AL at 3.23 in 2011. That shouldn’t minimize the performance of the rotation however, as the starters not named Fausto or Jeanmar have combined for a 3.85 ERA in 55 starts and, while the exclusion of a few pitchers is some deep-tissue massaging, the pitching for the Tribe has paced their success and figures to continue to do so.

If the Indians’ pitching can keep performing at their current level, the Indians have a chance to stabilize and regain their footing during the next few weeks which (and this is not hyperbole) are going to determine how the 2011 Indians season will be remembered. The reason that isn’t an exaggeration is that the Indians have now removed themselves from the “gauntlet” portion of their schedule (although the upcoming schedule isn’t full of cupcakes either) and with Hafner now fully healthy – if largely unavailable in NL parks, other than to pinch-hit – it’s time for the Indians to establish what type of team they really are, with the two victories against Pittsburgh providing a reminder of how this Indians’ team was winning games for the better part of 2 ½ months.

Are they the early-season “steamroller”?
Probably not, but they’re also not the team that’s been lying down in front of steamrollers for the past three weeks either…

So, who are these Indians?
The answer is not going to come in one weekend against the Pirates, in one fell swoop, or even in one swing of the bat as the official start of summer comes on Tuesday and the time has arrived for the Indians to recognize the opportunity in front of them (re: the Central division) and start to make a push to at least stay in the divisional race.

It goes without saying that their ability to stay in the race is going to be dictated by their offensive production and while some have declared Hafner’s return as the elixir to cure what ails them, the reality is that the Indians need more than just Hafner (or Asdrubal) to make this offense productive once more. It’s been written and said far too many times, but until some combination of Santana, Choo, Sizemore, and Hafner gets going, this team is going to struggle to score runs.

Though Hafner has just returned, the other troika upon whom the production of the offense is built to rely has been the reason for the Indians’ slide in June. While that’s certainly not revealing anything too mind-blowing, check out the OPS for the trio in June:
Santana - .695 OPS in June
Sizemore - .627 OPS in June
Choo - .550 OPS in June
In the past two games, it’s been apparent what the offense can look like with that trio getting on base in 14 of their 21 plate appearances in the first two games of the Pirates’ series (which included 3 XBH for them), but that needs to be the rule and not the exception.

Perhaps the return of Hafner takes some pressure off of those players (and Santana certainly seems to like a lineup with Hafner in it as his OPS when Hafner was on the DL was .604 and his OPS with Hafner in the lineup is now .827), but the Indians are only going to go as far as that quartet takes them as the rest of the lineup is too full of holes or one-dimensional (or no-dimensional) players elsewhere to overcome the struggles of those four. Asdrubal and Brantley are still coming into their own as players and the ceilings for those two are appreciably lower than the ones that exist for Hafner, Sizemore, Santana, and Choo. As fun as it is to see his development and maturation as a hitter, Asdrubal isn’t the middle-of-the-order presence that those players were, either in the distant past (Hafner and Sizemore), the not-too-distant-past (Choo) or could be in the near future (Santana) and Cabrera wasn’t/isn’t going to put this team on his back for the whole season to carry them to much more than a couple of wins.

For the Indians, they have to hope that two or three of that quartet of Hafner, Sizemore, Santana, and Choo gets going at the same time because THAT is what is going to pull the team out of its offensive doldrums. Who’s to say when (or if) that time is going to come, but the unfortunate nature of that truth is that the only path to find out when (or if) that quartet is going to start producing is to be patient with them.

As much as the sports-talk radio crowd (or worse) may want to send Santana or Choo off to Columbus (and, yes…I don’t need to be told that Choo is out of options, but the idea that he should be sent to AAA has actually emerged as an “option”) or want Sizemore to be sent far away from Cleveland because of his K totals, the Indians’ success is predicated on the performance of their four (potentially) best offensive players.

In terms of the rest of the lineup around them, a little tinkering would be nice if only to maximize the performance of the supporting cast and while I have no issue with SuperMannahan continuing to stride to the plate every night (because his glove is that good), the team (or at least the manager) should get serious about platooning The OC and Bobby Phelps. While I understand the whole “play the veterans while the team is struggling” idea in theory, when the veterans are contributing to those struggles, a course of action needs to be taken.

By “course of action needs to be taken”, allow me to point out that 144 players in the AL have more than 75 plate appearances against RHP. Among those 144, Uncle Orlando has the 6th lowest OPS vs. RHP at .497…yes, FOUR NINETY SEVEN. And yet, The OC continues to face off against RHP for the Tribe as they attempt to “look for an offensive spark”. Truthfully, I don’t care if Bobby Phelps looks terrible at the plate as he is facing MLB pitching for the first time and judging him on 19 plate appearances is grossly undeserving and it is worth pointing out that in those 19 plate appearances, Bobby Phelps has 3 BB. That amount (3 BB) is 3 BB fewer than Orlando Cabrera has accumulated in…wait for it…keep waiting…219 MORE plate appearances on the year.

Maybe The OC doesn’t like the idea of a platoon and maybe the team is scared that his inevitable pouting will affect team chemistry, but Uncle Orlando is terrible against RHP and Orlando should be part of a 2B rotation that allows Phelps to face RHP (and Phelps had a .935 OPS vs. RHP in AAA) and begins to filter Phelps into the infield rotation.

Speaking of the infield, Matt MaTola (yes, he’s MaTola again) will now be out of the everyday lineup for a time after the ankle injury and truthfully, maybe that’s not such a bad thing as (though I’m trying to preach patience with LaPorta) he had posted a .456 OPS in the last 14 days and a .585 OPS in his last 25 games. LaPorta had not hit an extra-base hit that wasn’t a HR since May 16th (a stretch of 25 games) and he hit only 4 HR in that stretch, meaning that he didn’t hit a 2B in 90 plate appearances…which is actually pretty stunning.

Regardless, with MaTola out for the foreseeable future, the hope would be that some amalgamation of Santana, Marson, and Buck will handle C and 1B in his short absence. While you may cringe at the idea of calling Buck back up, the idea that Santana should rotate between 1B and C depending upon the starting pitcher holds water (particularly with no DH in NL parks) as Marson should really only face LHP (he has a .327 OPS vs. RHP) at this point and, if you’re looking for a “platoon” partner for Marson, Buck is as good as any that the Tribe as if you realize that his .661 OPS vs. RHP is underwhelming but represents a higher OPS vs. RHP than Duncan.

Maybe Nick Johnson becomes an option as that platoon “partner” with Marson (and interestingly Johnson has 24 AB vs. RHP and only 3 vs. LHP in the 9 games he’s played in this year), but he’s only played in those 9 games and if we saw how off Sizemore’s timing was as he did his “rehab” stint (poorly) with the Indians, I’d let Johnson continue to get his timing back in Columbus give Buck a chance to play 1B against RHP and offer the Indians some OF flexibility not named Austin Kearns. If Johnson can stay healthy (and I cannot stress how big of an IF that is), he could represent a viable option to replace MaTola, even if Johnson would be another LH hitter in a sea of them. But that’s getting a little too deep into “maybe” and “what could be” as the Indians’ immediate future is likely to dictate the rest of their season.

However, with the direction of the season in the balance and with feelings that the Indians’ bottoming out over the last three weeks is just a harbinger of things to come, sometimes in the depths of our sorrows, it’s easy to forget the big picture view here. For a quick reminder of that, Peter Pattakos (who runs Cleveland Frowns) has a great piece that is available in the newest issue of Scene.

Pattakos’ piece in Scene, which includes the words “downright Lincolnesque” in terms of the Dolans’ admission that the team would contend every “four or five years”, a quote that has been met with equal parts derision and disdain, is a fascinating read as it takes a couple of steps back from where the Indians are on June 19th of 2011 and where they are in the grander scheme as an organization:
Even in the midst of a precipitous decline that’s all but erased the euphoria of their record-setting start, the Indians’ proximity to first place in the American League’s Central Division is still more than a nice surprise.
And most important, here we are on the early side of “four or five years” since the Tribe last contended, with just about every significant contributor on this year’s team signed up for next season as well. An uphill battle isn’t completely hopeless, competence is good, and predictably consistent competence is even better. As much as we might want the Indians to more enthusiastically embrace the role of small-market standard-bearer, and for the Dolans to take more of an activist role against baseball’s tilted playing field, “as good as it gets” is still something, and we’re getting it. Especially here, especially now, that’s pretty damn good.

The whole piece from Pattakos is worth your time as it takes a quick glimpse at that small market/large market that is particularly apropos with the Pirates in town and that has been the favorite dead horse to beat around these parts in an attempt to find a “solution”.

As for the “solution” to what currently ails the Indians, the only thing that they can attempt to do is get back to what won them games at the beginning of the season – strong starting pitching, lockdown bullpen, and enough offense. Sitting here on a glorious Father’s Day afternoon, the Indians are at that point in the season in which they can go one of two directions, with the weathervane figuring to move over the next couple of weeks to let us know which way the wind is blowing.

Two nights against the Pirates doesn’t mean that the Indians have re-discovered that formula, but it does mean that they aren’t incapable of recapturing it. After the last three weeks, that’s a welcome change of direction…