Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Lazy Sunday Out in Left Field

With June now in full swing, complete with Tee Ball games, neighborhood Happy Hours and the unbridled joy with (finally) finding GLBC’s The Wright Pils at my local Heinen’s, things are good on the North Coast as the Indians remain near the top of the AL Central.  Certainly glaring holes persist and continue to concern, but before getting into the “hole” on the Indians that gets the most attention, let’s take a quick look around the rest of the top of the AL Central and see  Detroit going under the microscope again, this time by Jay Jaffe of his new “Hit and Run” feature at SI (which is a new feature at that is worth a look) and a realization that the White Sox have been paced by three players on the wrong side of 30.  Though I’d never bet against Paul Konerko and the body of work he’s put up (good read here, even if it contains the words “Hawk” and “Harrelson” in the same sentence), it remains to be seen how they’d be able to handle an injury or two, particularly because their supporting cast (like the Tigers) is pretty non-supportive, with not much by way of reinforcements on the horizon.

And with that mention of “reinforcements” on the horizon, now is a good time to look at that aforementioned “hole” on the Indians that has generated more hand-wringing and hair-pulling since a “man” named Dellichaels patrolled the same hallowed ground those many years ago – LF.  Despite the fact that the offense hasn’t been the problem for the Indians (this has), since SO much focus has been placed on this “need” for a RH bat, with LF as the obvious spot for one, let’s spend a Lazy Sunday out in LF…

Seeing as how the question of “how did we get here” in LF is a rabbit hole I’ve already jumped through and since I have no intention of revisiting that cold, dark place that it led to where names like Trevor Crowe (currently in Akron) are mentioned, let’s take the opportunity to look forward.  Because “where we’re going” in terms of LF is much more interesting as we’re entering about a 6-week stretch that could determine what’s going to eventually going to happen in LF for the rest of the season.  The reason that 6-week timeframe is mentioned is because as Grady’s recovery hit (another) setback and with Damon looking better as of late (small sample size siren blaring) with Matt LaPorta (for whatever reason) on the parent club, the Trade Deadline at the end of July could serve as the endpoint to the stretch of games we’re embarking upon.

Since I’m not going to be the guy to hammer away at the “Buyers” or “Sellers” theme in mid-June in the interest of page clicks and realizing that there’s a LOT that can happen between now and then, while it didn’t seem like there was a lot of clarity on the Grady situation when Castrovince wrote this thoroughly depressing piece a while back, the news that he’s not even running right now calls into question whether he’s coming back…ever.  And that leaves us where we are, with Damon taking the majority of the reps in LF, Duncan as a RH bat off of the bench, and with LaPorta looking (once again) like the Matt LaPorta we’ve grown all too accustomed to over the last few years.

While many have (already) soured on Damon and were pleading for LaPorta to get a chance in Cleveland, it always reeked to me of the “Second-String QB” town that Cleveland has become in the past decade or so, with the argument that he “couldn’t be much worse” than Damon and/or Duncan (don’t get me started on people that are complaining about Cunningham’s presence on the roster as that’s baseball discourse at it’s lowest level) as a LF as justification to get another extended look at LaPorta in LF.  Now, with MaTola on the Indians and looking every bit as bad at the plate (just count how many off-speed pitches/curveballs he misses in between wristing fastballs JUST out of the infield) as he always has, the calls for LaPorta to get consistent playing time have diminished significantly…and in pretty short order.

Interestingly, what has been most telling about MaTola’s brief time with the Tribe – other than remembering what he looks like flailing at pitches down and away or grounding out meekly to SS on the 1st pitch of an AB or being out of position at 1B…all in the first game – was the language that was used by both LaPorta and the organization as it related to his call-up.  Though this was admittedly from a week ago, LaPorta’s words prior to last Sunday’s games was only the first sign of an obviously growing disconnect between player and organization.  Quoth LaPorta, to reporters on Sunday:
 “I’m up here hopefully to help contribute to this ballclub…If it’s two days, three days, a week -- doesn’t matter.
“I just need to have fun, play the game the way I know how and not worry about what [the media is] thinking, what somebody else is thinking or what a fan is thinking.  It’s been a problem that I’ve had to overcome. I can’t control what other people think. I’m not in control of somebody else’s happiness. If they want to be upset about my performance, sorry.”

Wait…“If they want to be upset about my performance, sorry”?
How does this suddenly fall at the feet of “you guys” (the media), “a fan” or “what somebody else is thinking” in terms of being disappointed with him, a 27-year-old failed power prospect with a career OPS under .700 in more than 1,000 plate appearances?

Let’s see…who did we miss here in terms of passively/aggressively finding people to blame – Ozzie Guillen for dubbing him “MaTola” (and please read this if you’re wondering where “MaTola” came from or want to read the most overtly dismissive soundbite from an opposing manager regarding one player) when he explained his reasoning to leave the RH Peavy in a game in April of 2010, instead of going to LHP Joe Thornton?  

Regardless, LaPorta knows where he stands in the organization (which isn’t very high) and almost seems resigned to the idea that he’ll make his way out of the Indians’ organization after the season because he “can’t control what other people think” and because he’s “not in control of somebody else’s happiness”.  Of course, he ignores the fact that he had over 1,000 PA as an Indian (Andy Marte had 858 PA for Cleveland) and has numbers that are basically akin to what David Dellucci did in his time on the North Coast…seriously, look at the numbers for LaPorta and Dellucci, as an Indian.

But if he’s ignoring it, don’t think that Acta was going to let this idea that LaPorta is an obvious upgrade to the roster is going to slip by his desk without throwing in his opinion on it, as he had this to say when MaTola was called up:
“At the beginning, his (AAA) numbers were a lot better at home than on the road, but the overall numbers are there…He’s been doing a good job. If you look at the amount of at-bats he’s had in [Class AAA] the last couple of years, the numbers are pretty good.
They felt that he was doing the right things over there. He was having success and hitting mistakes whenever [pitchers] made mistakes on him. We have to see that translate up here.”

And there – right there – is why I love Manny Acta.
He basically said that LaPorta’s AAA success came from “hitting mistakes whenever (pitchers) made mistakes on him” and that “we have to see that translate up here”, meaning that the organization doesn’t think that anything’s really changed with MaTola.  He was a mistake-ball hitter in MLB the last couple of years, continued to be a mistake-ball hitter in AAA (where there are more “mistakes” made by pitchers) this year and there’s no great confidence that he’s going to be anything more than that.  Ultimately, we’re still talking about a 27-year-old player with a slugging percentage UNDER .400 with 30 career HR in 270 games.  For a player that was supposed to be as close-to-MLB ready as he was purported to be (now almost FOUR years ago), that’s unbelievable.

Now, if fans want to continue to believe that LaPorta is “close to breaking out” or deserves one last chance to sink or swim as an Indian, they can have at it.  I’ll be pleased to know that the Indians are not similarly deluding themselves as an organization into believing that he is something that he is not.

So, if LaPorta isn’t the answer in LF (and he isn’t), than what is?
To date, Indians’ LF have posted a cumulative line of .184 BA / .286 OBP / .272 SLG / .588 OPS with only 9 XBH in 239 PA on the whole season.  That’s impossibly bad (plus an OBP higher than a SLG) and though the Nationals’ LF have a lower OPS, that XBH total is jarring to see past the quarter pole, particularly when Carlos Quentin just returned from the DL for San Diego and has 9 XBH in only 35 PA…but I’ll get to that.

That said, on this island of depression, what are the Indians to do if Grady isn’t coming back anytime soon, if Matt LaPorta is Matt LaPorta, if Shelley Duncan is a great RH bat off the bench and clubhouse presence but not an everyday player and if Johnny Damon has just recently started to look like an actual MLB player again?

For now, I think that you put Johnny Damon out there every day (fielding and throwing…um, “concerns” and all) to see if he’s able to settle into a groove.  You may be fighting back down the bile after reading that, but he’s looked better since coming back from paternity leave and he’s actually performed pretty well as of late (.976 OPS since May 27th…small sample size louder than ever), so I’d be inclined to see what he could do through the month of July.  Let’s not forget that Damon had a decent year last year for the Rays (16 HR, .744 OPS) and while much of that came as a DH, concerns that he’s simply chasing 3,000 have been allayed a little as he’s sitting on a BB% this year that would rank as the highest in his career if it were to remain steady.

Additionally, Damon was unquestionably rushed to the team (he’s played in all of 29 games so far) and – if this talk of him using the month of May as Spring Training are anywhere close to true – I’d let out the rope on him and see if his early June success can continue.  Damon’s 2011 rate stats compare favorably to those from LaPorta (similar HR%, lower K%, higher BB%) and Damon actually had a higher SLG (.418) than LaPorta did (.412) last year, so this talk of “power potential” for LaPorta is more than just a little overblown, at least in terms of thinking that he’s going to hit for more power than Damon in MLB on a consistent basis.

Yes, Damon’s defense is…um…“suspect” and he’s LH, but everyone remembers LaPorta in LF, right?  Do we need to be reminded of that, in the way that his recent “performance” at the plate since being recalled has brought back his 2011 plate appearances memories so vividly? 
Also, while some paint LaPorta as the RH bat that will solve all that ails the Indians against LHP (or at least help), remember this:
MaTola vs. LHP – career (269 PA)
.209 BA / .297 OBP / .319 SLG / .617 OPS

MaTola vs. RHP – career (750 PA)
.247 BA / .304 OBP / .420 SLG / .724 OPS

Other than seeing that LaPorta has actually hit RHP better than LHP in his career to date, this is shown here to point out that MaTola’s career OPS vs. LHP (.617) would rank him 8th when compared to how current Indians are faring against LHP this season, including behind Shelley Duncan.  So, as much as LaPorta may have mashed his way out of Columbus, my guess is that he’s going to find himself there soon enough as he is not an answer – short-or-long-term.

If it seems that I’m beating up LaPorta unnecessarily, I do so only because it needs to be pointed out that he is NOT a better option than Johnny Damon, who should be given a longer leash than what many fans want to give him because he still represents the best current option on the roster in LF, age considered.  Maybe that causes you to shudder a little bit (and we all know how we got here) and realizing he’s the best current option is certainly damning with faint praise, but this is the situation that the Indians find themselves in as it pertains to LF and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Indians keep Damon (with a sprinkling of Duncan) going until mid-to-late-July.  At that point, they can evaluate Damon’s contributions to date, see where Grady is (or is not) and perhaps explore the Trade Market. 

In terms of that Trade Market, since Buster Olney wrote this week that Carlos Quentin would be a “perfect fit” for the Indians, the Quentin idea is interesting (and one I alluded to a couple of weeks ago) as he’s played only 10 games and he’s already being mentioned as a Trade Candidate.  Sure, San Diego GM Josh Byrnes is saying all the right things publicly (“we’re still exploring signing him long-term”, “we need his bat in the middle of the lineup”, etc.), but the Padres are likely to move him at some point in the next month of so, with MLBTR putting forth that the could be one of the only “impact” bats available this Trading season…though he will not come cheap.  

In fact, the MLBTR piece provides a nice encapsulation of the Quentin situation and the dearth of power that could be available, driving up his price tag, quite nicely:
When GM Josh Byrnes acquired Quentin last December, he sent minor league left-hander Pedro Hernandez and right-hander Simon Castro, a former top-100 prospect, to the White Sox. The Padres may be able to acquire better prospects if Quentin’s knee holds up and his bat returns to form. As I mentioned before, there doesn’t seem to be much power on the trade market (Alfonso Soriano could probably be had, but he earns $18MM in 2013 and 2014, which makes things messy). And it could take a while for bats to become available because more teams than ever are within striking distance of a playoff berth.

Once Quentin plays enough to show he is healthy, Byrnes could make him available and wait for other teams to start making offers. The Indians, Orioles and Dodgers are among the teams that might have interest in adding a right-handed hitting outfielder with power in the next eight weeks. If Quentin is healthy the Padres may come out ahead this summer and trade him for better prospects than the ones they surrendered to acquire him.

Certainly, the Indians would be on the list of interested teams, but with Quentin coming off the DL and already having hit 5 HR, you’d have to think that his price tag is being driven up with each XBH.  Which brings us to the question of what young players the Indians would even have to trade for Quentin’s services?

In mid-May, it was suggested that it would take “more middle-infield depth in the high minors”, which the Indians actually have in players like Cord Phelps and Jason Donald.  Don’t take that to mean that Quentin could be had Phelps/Donald and Dave Huff and Trevor Crowe and…hmm, let’s see what other ancillary player can I think of that would not interest the Padres at all as I look (in jest) for the ESPN Trade Machine…

However, the Indians and Padres have been trade partners fairly recently, with the Friars being able to turn some of the Tribe’s young relievers (Mike Adams, Mujica, and Cory Burns…who is torching AAA bats right now) of the past into useful pieces.  Of course, the Padres have been able to turn LOTS of arms into useful relievers and you could certainly argue that the Indians simply wouldn’t have the chips to cash in for Quentin (even as a rental) that would be more attractive than offers from other teams.  But if the Padres are looking for middle infielders and/or power arms to fill in their bullpen, the Indians might (stress on that word) be able to perhaps find a match.  Don’t forget that Padres’ GM Josh Byrnes cut his teeth in Cleveland and that the Indians brought him in to find a position for him when he was fired in Arizona a few years back.  That may mean nothing in terms of a Quentin trade, but that relationship does exist, even if the Indians are going to have to sweeten any pot with more than just happy memories in Cleveland.

If it does come down to sweetening the pot for a guy like Quentin (who must have been the only Stanford guy NOT drafted by the Indians in the 2000s), I would think that any prospect not named Lindor would be fair game for me and I’d probably include that top layer of relievers (Barnes, Lee, etc.) with the exception of Hagadone because Quentin fills a need for now and for later.  Remember, Hafner’s money comes off of the books after this season, as does Grady’s, and there’s no guarantee that Carmona/Hernandez is going to be around in 2013, so the Indians could have the wherewithal to trade for Quentin with the idea that they’d offer him the contract that they should have offered to Willingham, filling a massive hole in LF and in their lineup in the process.

It was thought at the time Quentin was traded to the Padres that a stumbling block to the Indians acquiring him was the…um, contentious relationship between the Front Offices at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario and on the South Side.  Don’t think that the Indians wouldn’t love to slot Quentin into their lineup for purposes more than just his bat.  Certainly, he’s had injury issues in the past (he’s never played in more than 131 games in a season), so there would be cause for concern in the long-term for a now-29-year-old Quentin, but he would represent a pretty compelling option on the FA market after this season and being able to negotiate with him by acquiring him could cause the Indians to give up more than they’d usually be willing to give up for a two-month rental.

That all said (and delving into the Trade Market WAY more than I wanted to in mid-June), there’s a long way to go in this march and there’s a possibility that Johnny Damon has found his stroke once again or that Grady Sizemore’s body somehow stops betraying him and the Indians find themselves in the market for a starting pitcher instead of a RH bat for LF.  That’s what we saw occur last July and, while the results of that addition have been…um, underwhelming, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see a similar sequence of events if the Indians find themselves at or near the top of the AL Central come mid-to-late-July.

Then again, just staying at or near the top of the AL Central into mid-to-late-June is what should be the focus now as the starting pitching needs to start carrying their weight on this team, as much as all of our eyes keep finding their way back to LF over and over again.


Adam said...

Just a clarification. Cory Burns doesn't "torch" bats...he gets them to implode using a SNES Street Fighter-worthy delivery.

Al Ciammaichella said...

Yeah, it's very Nomo-esque. He told me that some of the Japanese guys were the inspiration for the delivery. The stuff itself is average, but plays up due to the deception in the delivery. Not sure if he'll be able to maintain the success against ML hitters once they've seen him a couple of times, but definitely has the chance to be an above-average reliever his first couple of times through the league.

Adam said...

I like the Quentin idea. I also think we need another starting pitcher especially if Masterson can't turn it around. I realize I'm getting ahead of myself talking postseason, but the idea of Jimenez, Masterson, Lowe, and Tomlin does not seem we could get deep into the postseason with that. While we're swapping with the Padres, maybe they could throw in Volquez? Don't know if we have the farm system to entice this trade. Just a thought.

MTF said...

What about Willingham himself?