Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Tomahawks Hitting on More Cylinders

Though the recent slide by the Indians has had some in town using “trapdoor” more regularly while invoking last year’s team and using words like “other”, “shoe”, “dropping”, the Indians remain 1 ½ back of the White Sox and haven’t fallen as far out of the AL Central race as the Tigers (6 GB), the Royals (6.5 GB) and the Twins (10 GB) have in a division in which they may only have to be “better enough”.  Certainly, their performance after sweeping the Tigers at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario (which feels like a LONG time ago) has raised more red flags than we can count, but let’s realize that in their last 16 games, the Indians have gone 7-9.  Interestingly, they’ve gone 4-0 against the Tigers and 3-9 against the Marlins, the Royals, and the moribund Twins (all at home) as their rotation has spun out of control and as they sustained injuries to key spots in their lineup. 

Don’t take that to mean that everything is just fine on The Reservation as the season will be determined by how quickly (or slowly) the Indians’ rotation (and particularly Masterson and Ubaldo) can find some semblance of stability and the frequency in which Smith, Pestano, and Perez are being used could come back to bite the Tribe down the stretch.  However, things don’t look much rosier in Motown (Jackson still hurting, Fister back to the DL, Avila now to the DL, Raburn to the Minors, etc.) and the Twins don’t look to be rebounding anytime soon…like any time in the next decade or so, so the Indians may just have to keep pace for a while in the AL Central.

While “keeping pace” and being “better enough” may not quicken the pulse (nor does the fact that 60% of the Indians’ current rotation has an ERA that is 5.00 or higher…with Gomez creeping in that direction as well), the AL Central is an eminently winnable division, recent White Sox hot streak or not.  Though I’m not going to point to Ubaldo’s start on Monday night as a possible turning point back up the ladder (fool me once, shame on you…) as I’ll wait for about a month of effective starts before assuming that Ubaldo is “back” in any sense of the word, the Indians are attempting to get back to their winning ways as they embark on this road trip, trying to figure out where their season is going.

While the pitching is really what needs to get figured out, the attention figures to continue to be turned to LF; but since that’s a topic for another (Sun)day, let’s get some Tomahawks in the air…

Lost in this mess of a pitching rotation over the last couple of weeks has been the performance of some young Indians at the plate and no player has taken greater advantage of the opportunity in front of him more than Lou Marson.  Yes, Lonnie Chisenhall has arrived (not sure if that should be in capital letters or not) and thrived to this point, but after Santana’s concussion and after his own health issues, Marson has started to look like a player that could provide some contributions beyond the normal “backup C” role that so many seem inclined to simply slot him into.

While it’s difficult to believe, given that the Indians should have been resting Hafner more consistently and limiting Kotchman’s exposure to LHP, Marson had only TWENTY-THREE plate appearances in the 1st 30 games of the season and he (quite predictably) looked bad during those sporadic AB, posting a .053 BA / .217 OBP / .105 SLG / .323 OPS line, leading many to use him as an “offensive” punch line  Since that time, he’s played in 13 of the last 22 Tribe games as he has seen his playing time increase significantly in recent weeks (outside of his mouth issue), responding positively to the point that he’s hit to the tune of .321 BA / .406 OBP / .464 SLG / .871 OPS and actually has the second highest OPS on the team over the last 30 days, coming in behind only a splendidly resurgent Choo.

Yes, Marson is still struggling against RHP (.429 OPS this year) and hammering LHP (.941 OPS this year), but the Indians need to continue to keep Marson behind the plate as Santana continues to shake off the after-effects of this concussion.  Maybe you say that Santana’s already been cleared to play, but concussions are scary things (see Morneau, Justin) as they affect a baseball player’s ability to play every day and Santana as a catcher would be more at risk to taking a foul ball of the mask and shelving the Indians’ young backstop longer than he would need to be.

Maybe the Indians want to get Santana right back behind the plate to get his confidence back up, but I’d prefer to essentially slot Santana at DH for a while or maybe put him at 1B against LHP (because Kotchman really can’t hit LHP) and play Marson every day at C while the DH spot is ostensibly open because of Hafner’s absence.  In a short time, Marson (who is younger than every position player on the roster save Chiz, Kipnis, and Brantley) has shown that he may be more valuable than just as a straight back-up catcher.  While Santana’s defense is unquestionably improved this season, protecting Santana and finding out what the Indians have in Marson (who was the 43rd best prospect in MLB going into 2009, according to, and #66 according to BA that same year) could be a nice by-product of the Hafner injury, particularly going forward, if you figure that Kotchman is a one-year “band-aid” at 1B and that Hafner doesn’t figure to come back next year, meaning that Santana could slot into one of those spots eventually with a viable Marson (if he proves to be such) asserting himself as a catcher with excellent defensive skills who holds his own offensively.

Perhaps the Indians’ long-term answer at 1B lies somewhere in Laser Lou’s…(gasp) bat.

While Marson has been a pleasure to watch over the past week, he hasn’t been the hottest young Indians’ hitter or even the hottest young Indians’ hitter acquired for a Cy Young Award winner.  That distinction belongs to…no, not the guy who doesn’t seem real pleased with the organization or anyone else, with the manager being less than optimistic about his long-term viability.  It belongs to one Mike Brantley and, though I’ve been more than a little hard on Brantley and the enthusiasm generated by his approach and swing while most ignored his largely transparent production to date, I’m more than happy to point out that Brantley has been on a tear as of late.

To say nothing of his defense in CF recently (and I thought his catch on Sunday was as impressive as the HR robbery in Chicago), over the last 23 games, he’s posted a line of .348 BA / .376 OBP / .483 SLG / .859 OPS with TEN XBH (8 2B, 2 3B) in his last 93 PA.  He’s also stolen 7 bases in that stretch, looking more like the high-OBP, speed player that he was projected to be than he ever really has.  Some of that has been paced by a .389 BABIP (and I don’t expect him to continue to keep up this pace), but Brantley has started to emerge as a consistently viable hitter, something that you would only be able to project a few weeks ago.  Really, over the last couple of weeks, he’s hit at a pace closer to what the elite in the AL have done (and look at Kipnis in the Top 10 on that list) and while I’m not going to suggest that production like that is sustainable for Brantley, it certainly represents a positive direction.

Obviously, it’s up to Brantley to sustain some level of success (and again, I don’t expect him to keep up this pace), but it is worth mentioning that Brantley is tied for 7th in the AL with 16 doubles.  Not to overplay the “on pace” game here, but with the season essentially 1/3 of the way over, Brantley is “on pace” for 48 2B on the season.  If he were, in fact, to tally that many two-baggers, it would tie him for 13th most hit in a single season by an Indian and would be only the 4th player since 1940 (Belle in 1995, Ronnie Belliard in 2004, and Grady in 2006) to notch 45 or more doubles.  Also, his 9 SB now ranks him tied for 8th in the AL in SB (behind league leader Jason Kipnis) and, if we’re going to continue the “on pace for” exercise, there is a possibility that he finishes the year with 30 SB (remember, he’s stolen 7 in his last 23 games), a number that only Grady has reached (in 2007 and 2008) since Roberto Alomar left.

Maybe this is just a tease with Brantley or maybe we’re actually turning promise and potential turn into production.  If it’s the latter, it certainly comes at a welcome time as the Indians are going to have to be firing on all cylinders offensively until (?) their starting rotation is able to turn things around.

Over Memorial Day, I spent the weekend in Milwaukee (the “Best Bar City in America” – or so says my most recent issue of Esquire, which includes my friend Vince Grzegorek’s write-up of the Velvet Tango Room) helping my in-laws move into a condo…well, in between attempting to load up on Fat Tire and Spotted Cow with my brother-in-law.  While there, I was perusing the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel sports section and saw this advertisement at the bottom of one of the pages of sports page, hyping Brewers’ C Jonathan Lucroy as a “Rising Star”.  Keep in mind, this was before his wife dropped a piece of luggage on his hand that will put him out of commission for a while and at the time, the Brewers were 20-26.  Regardless, this “Home is Where a Rising Star Is” push seemed a little optimistic to me, in light of the fact that Lucroy had a .674 career OPS coming into the season.  Certainly, he was off to a hot start this year (.969 OPS in the first ¼ of the season) before breaking his hand in the aforementioned freak luggage accident, but it got me to thinking about the manner in which the Brewers’ market their team to the fans. 
Lucroy out to a fast start?
Run an ad calling him a rising star…

Though I don’t want to make this an attendance-driven issue, realize that Milwaukee is a smaller market than Cleveland and is 9th in the league in attendance, drawing TWICE what the Indians do in average attendance per game.  Sure, they made the playoffs last year and they made it back in 2008 and their aggressiveness in acquiring players (CC, Grienke, Marcum, Aramis) has certainly kept their town’s focus on them, but the Brewers go out of their way to promote individual players – from Ryan Braun all the way to Jonathan Lucroy.

Compare that to the Indians, whose advertising push seems to be stuck somewhere between nostalgia (Baerga bobblehead) and pleading the fans to get out to the ballpark without using their most marketable assets – their young players, some of whom are perhaps burgeoning stars.  While I’ll admit that the Indians have given away replica jerseys for Masterson and Perez this year and the area around Progressive Field is covered in banners touting individual players, the fact that I see more than just a few “KIPNIS 22” jerseys at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario these days suggest to me that some fans are getting excited about these players and giving them an organizational marketing push seems to be in order.  Realizing that the “What If”campaign strikes a nerve among a certain segment of the fanbase, in this age of INTENSE coverage of players and storylines by a certain 4-letter network (that still somehow dictates the narrative) on the East Coast, it might be time to put these players into the local spotlight.

Of course, I understand the double-edged sword of promoting the name on the back of the jersey over the name on the front of the jersey (think Victor sitting in front of his locker crying), but between Santana, Kipnis, Asdrubal, and The Chiz, the Indians have the makings of an infield that could be among MLB’s elite…regardless of who’s playing 1B.  And each of those players is under club control through 2014, at least with Santana, Kipnis, and The Chiz all under club control THROUGH 2017.  So it’s not as if any of these guys are about to go the way of each star we’ve seen since Al Belle (either via FA or trade) in 1996.

Maybe the Indians are just waiting for these guys to fully develop into established, bona-fide stars, but it would seem that Santana, Cabrera, and Kipnis are well on their way to being among the elite players at their positions at their respective positions.  Unfortunately, without the reminder of how well these players are playing and without them getting the marketing push that they should, fans continue to focus on what the team is not (LF) instead of what the team looks to be and could be going forward.  Certainly, the Brewers didn’t have an ad campaign prior to the season that would come close to calling Lucroy a “Rising Star”, but (injury or not) they promoted one of their own in an effort to familiarize their fanbase with a player that was out to a hot start.

With the starts that some of the Indians are out to, maybe it’s time to start seeing those faces gracing the promotional material with the focus being on those players instead of a tug of nostalgia or simply a hopeful feeling.

Finally, I hope that you’ve enjoyed Al’s coverage as much as I have in terms of the 2012 Draft and while I don’t get into it nearly as much as many Tribe fans do, I will suggest that we avoid the whole “wait, they drafted who…AWWWW” mentality until we actually see what these guys can do.  Some believe that Tyler Naquin is Trevor Crowe v.2.0 (please no) while others want to envision him as Jacoby Ellsbury (10 HR in 259 Minor League games) and since I’m not going to pretend to know if he’s either or somewhere between, let’s see how this shakes out.

It looks like they took some high upside players in the rounds after Naquin and I’m not all that convinced that the Indians didn’t think that Naquin was a player that has a nice hitting stroke that may not generate a ton of HR (the Tribe’s current RF has 70 career HR in 8 seasons…and I’m OK with him) but has other tools (strong arm) that harkens back to a time when…well, when people weren’t supplementing themselves and that may translate to MLB pretty cleanly.  Certainly, I’m not suggesting that the Indians just drafted a guy like Dwight Evans – strong arm, tall, lanky, good on-base skills, perhaps late-developing power – but let’s see how Naquin looks against some players that are his age or a little older than him on the Farm before really coming up with an opinion on him. 

Over the last few years, I’ve developed a bit of an idea that I want to see a player succeed at AA (at a young age) before getting REALLY excited about him (although Lindor is challenging this) because the distance between Akron and Cleveland is much longer than a quick trip up I-77.  With that in mind, let’s wait and see what Naquin or any of these guys look like and enjoy the hard work and terrific analysis that Al does in breaking these guys down in easy-to-understand concepts while avoiding the temptation to get too high or too low on these guys…way too early.


KY said...

I picked up Lucroy on my weekly fantasy team the day before his injury. Had to play the entire week with no production in the C spot....did you happen to catch a Brewers game while you were in Milwaukee? Would be interested to see what you thought of Miller Park if you did.

Paul Cousineau said...

We usually hit up at least one game at Miller Park every summer when we go, though our weekend was full of moving boxes, so we missed them this time.

Miller Park is fun in terms of all of the tailgating and the atmosphere. The only thing I don't like is the stagnancy of the air when they close the roof. It just feels too still and sterile in there, though the fans certainly make the game enjoyable.

Adam said...

Regarding Brantley's BABIP....with his skill-set and hitting approach, Brantley is the kind of guy who should be a high BABIP guy. His speed, coupled with his low flyball rate, should give him consistently elevated BABIPs if he is making solid contact. You can see this in his minor league numbers where he regularly put up BABIP numbers in the .330-.370 range ('06/'07 in low-A, '08 in AA, '09 in Cleveland, '10 in AAA). His problem up till now has been that somewhere in the process of adjusting to major league hitters he stopped doing that. I don't think he'll be a .380 hitter, but like Choo, I think putting up a high BABIP number is not a de facto sign of good luck for a hitter like Brantley.