Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Lazy Sunday Riding the Coaster

Remember Thursday night?
When the Indians – in what was being called their biggest game of the year – stared down baseball’s best pitcher and their divisional rival and exploded in the 7th inning as the momentum of a season seemed to shift at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario?

Since then, the Indians have been outscored by a 23-5 margin by a team that had been outscored by 106 runs in their previous 98 games in the Twins…and they looked bad doing it.  Up and down…up and down, and as this team continues to astound (Thursday’s game against Verlander) and confound (Friday’s game with Tomlin likely punching his ticket to the bullpen or Columbus and Saturday’s debacle), the Indians find themselves trying to figure out what they’re going to do, with the full knowledge that making any significant upgrades isn’t going to magically turn this team into a cresting juggernaut, but with the pang of a feeling that this AL Central is still inherently flawed as the White Sox (with the tenuousness in their staff) and the Tigers (who always fail to impress when they play the Indians) still look “catchable” for the Tribe…as hard as it is to see this Indians team going on an extended run to catch/pass either or both.

With that said, let’s get loose on a Lazy One attempting to rationalize what’s going on here and what might be coming…

On the Indians: “Chris Antonetti has a tough decision to make in the next few days. Is he is a buyer or a seller? I know they are still close enough to be considered a contender, but I don’t see them as a playoff team, and I think it would be foolish for them to make another Ubaldo Jimenez-type trade this year.”

And while that looks elementary in these parts or to anyone who’s been paying attention, those three sentences really encapsulate what the Tribe is facing.  I certainly don’t think that they have the prospects to make “another Ubaldo Jimenez-type trade”, but I also don’t think that it should preclude them from looking to upgrade the team for 2012 and for beyond.  Apparently, that’s what they’ve been doing while they’ve been looking as everyone from Buster Olney on down has intimated that the Indians are looking for players that they would control past this season.

This represents a good bit of news, as it’s something that I intimated earlier in the week, when making a case for adding a Jason Vargas (good write-up at LGT on Vargas here) or a Paul Maholm in that they would immediately upgrade the Tribe’s rotation and either (or someone like them that is similarly controlled) would help past this year.  While I know that I’ve made my feelings well-known on adding a starting pitcher (and one that can hang around longer than the next couple of months), the recent performances of Tomlin and Lowe have put a greater sense of urgency on that…and I’m not just talking about for 2012.

Reason being is that if you look at the current group of players going forward (or who is assumed to be on the cusp of contributing…which is basically nobody save Lonnie coming back and some bullpen arms), the hole is in the rotation.  It was something that was fleshed out very clearly by Adam Van Arsdale of LGT, when he took a look at what the 2013 team could/should look like.  To see the likes of Kipnis, Choo, Cabrera, Santana, and Brantley leading the offense with Lonnie coming back makes me (somewhat) confident in the offense going forward, even if there are no obvious internal answers to the ongoing issue in LF (though I’m intrigued by this Fedroff “kid” – who is a not-all-that-young 25 – to see if they can catch him on a hot streak) or 1B.  But the rotation next year is Masterson, Ubaldo, and McAllister (he of the 14 games started…in his career) and a number of question marks…as if Ubaldo and McAllister aren’t still question marks.  Sure, you can say that Fauxberto has a $7M option for next year that’s still out there and Carlos Carrasco is supposed to be ready for the start of 2013, but if we’ve learned anything about counting on starting pitching depth…it’s to not count on any starting pitching depth.

While the offense garners the attention of the teeth-gnashers and the wailers, the rotation still sits 4th from the bottom of the AL in ERA (4.77) and the bullpen is still second from the bottom (4.09 ERA) and while the reason for those poor overall numbers are easily traceable to the back-end-of-the-rotation (particularly recently) and the front-end-of-the-bullpen, this team isn’t going to stick around – or run off a sustained winning streak – with the current pitching situation, particularly at the back-end-of-the-rotation.  Maybe that means that a guy like Corey Kluber comes up to replace Tomlin for his next start (if a trade isn’t consummated before Tuesday) with Fauxberto assuming Lowe’s spot in mid-August, but does that back-end-of-the-rotation garner much more optimism?

Realizing that I’ve been banging this drum (sometimes feeling lonely while doing it) for a while now, the struggles of the 2012 team were put into some terrific context against the 2011 version through 98 games earlier in the week by Jordan Bastian.  Though I’ll ask you to excuse the MASSIVE cut-and-paste, when legwork and research like this is done, it should be seen (nearly) in its entirety:
Cleveland’s offense has been nearly identical to the one pieced together at this point last season. The on-base is up and the slugging is up (the Tribe is drawing more walks and striking out less), but the team has scored the same amount of runs (425) and belted the same amount of home runs (90) through 98 games as it did in 2011.

That’s a problem. The offense was supposed to be improved — not the same. That said, the glaring difference between the Indians through 98 games this year and the Indians through 98 games last year rests within the team’s pitching staff.
Rotation (through 98 games)
2012: 36-42, 4.70 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 580.1 IP, 617 H, 368 K, 229 BB
2011: 36-36, 4.32 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 591.2 IP, 612 H, 379 K, 163 BB

Bullpen (through 98 games)
2012: 13-7, 4.09 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 294.2 IP, 250 H, 282 K, 114 BB
2011: 15-11, 3.39 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 281.1 IP, 252 H, 230 K, 103 BB
The rotation is averaging fewer innings per start, putting more pressure on the Tribe’s middle relievers. That’s why you see the spike in bullpen ERA. The rotation has also experienced a big jump in walks issued, creating more traffic and, naturally, more damage caused by the hits allowed.

Offense (through 98 games)
2012: .256/.332/.401, 90 HR, 178 2B, 406 RBI, 425 R, 628 K, 353 BB
2011: .249/.319/.393, 90 HR, 171 2B, 403 RBI, 425 R, 733 K, 311 BB

Record (through 98 games)
2012: 49-49 (-4.0 in ALC)
2011: 51-47 (-1.5 in ALC)
There are clear needs in the offense, but the Indians could also benefit from improved middle relief and starting pitching. Those are a lot of holes to fill before the Trade Deadline, and it’s unlikely that the team is able to address all three areas.
As for the pitching…

“Of course we need pitching help. Everybody knows that,” Acta said. “That’s a priority.”

Now, what’s most interesting to think about is that the 2012 offense is on par with the 2011 offense and the 2012 pitching has been worse than the 2011 offense through 98 games…or right around this time last year.

Anyone remember what the Indians added at this time last year?
They added pitching in Ubaldo and while the presence of Ubaldo has not had the type of impact that the Indians had hoped, to look at the recent past – in terms of the team identifying needs and moving pieces to upgrade the parent club – likely provides a clue as to what could be in store, if the Indians do still decide to make an addition.  Now, with some starting pitchers having already been dealt, it’s possible that the Indians still find that piece that slots into the rotation now and beyond.  While I don’t think that they have the prospects to net a James Shields from Tampa – or someone of his ilk – upgrading that back-end-of-the-rotation makes a run for the next couple of months more feasible and certainly sets the team up better going past this year.

Because going back to the idea that Acta calls the pitching a “priority” and remembering that earlier linked piece from LGT, projecting the 2013 team that Van Arsdale put together, that “priority” seems so much more pronounced to me, particularly when you consider that the quintet of Choo, Kipnis, Cabrera, Santana, and Brantley are all performing at a pretty high level.  If you think that’s hyperbole, consider that each of those five players are ranked in the top 49 in the AL in terms of OPS.  Only five teams (including the Tribe) have five or more players ranked in the top 50 in OPS with Texas, Chicago, and New York leading that list with 6 players in the top 50 in OPS in the AL and the Tribe and the Twins (!) topping the Tigers, the Angels, the Blue Jays, the Red Sox, among others that don’t boast that relative “depth” in their lineup.

That’s not to say that the Indians couldn’t use an upgrade in the lineup, as they certainly could, but for as much talk as there has been about the inability of the offense to produce consistently, the glaring hole in the back of the rotation – for today AND tomorrow – burns brighter than any for me.  And if the Indians are looking to make a move for a player that is not a rental player, adding a pitcher that could fit into the rotation to stabilize that rotation because this team simply won’t be able to even think about sniffing contention into August with Lowe and Tomlin going the way that they are right now.  Because “right now”, that duo has the 2nd and 4th worst ERA among starters in the AL in the past 30 days (and Ubaldo has the 6th worst) and for the Indians to go on the run that they’re going to have to, any effort to sustain a winning streak is going to be stopped by one of those two (or three) or both (or all three).

Reading that last bit about how dreadful the rotation has been and seeing these last couple of games in Minnesota, you might think that the case is slowly being laid out here to “sell” to attempt to re-load for another day.  But the two most desirable pieces to move would be Shin-Soo Choo and Chris Perez and while I think a case could be made to trade one (depending upon return), unless they Indians are netting a player that immediately steps into their lineup or rotation when they arrive, I can’t see how that could be taken as anything but a step-back for this team that still looks set up to compete in the coming years because (particularly in the case of Choo) as Castrovince noted, “the Indians would be extremely hard-pressed to replace the production provided by Choo, especially given their organizational outfield abyss. I’d imagine it would take a huge haul to prompt them to move him.”

And even if you’re talking about a “huge haul”, it starts to cloud this issue of “windows” and expectations of when (or even if) the Indians are setting themselves up to win.  Maybe that issue of “windows” has been clouded by the first couple of games in Minnesota and the Indians start to look to make a move, and try to move a player like Perez to see if the Giants (or someone else) would overpay for him. 

And, as a quick aside, if the Giants are foolhardy enough to give up Brandon Belt (a 24-year-old 1B who was recently mentioned as a “change-of-scenery” guy who doesn’t seem to be on Bruce Bochy’s Christmas Card list) or Gary Brown (an OF ranked one spot behind Lindor in Kevin Goldstein’s pre-2012 rankings and in AA) for Chris Perez, I’m all for it as the reasons to move Chris Perez aren’t hard to list – about to get more expensive via the continuation of arbitration, the volatility of reliever, the overvaluation of “closers”, etc. – without even getting into the whole idea to “sell high”.

But let’s be honest about the fact that the Indians are in the position that they are largely because of the work of Chris Perez (and, even more notably, Vinnie Pestano) in the back-end of their bullpen and I’d be more inclined to move a guy like Perez in the off-season, hopefully finding a situation similar to the one that allowed the Athletics to pry an everyday OF in Josh Reddick out of Boston for their closer.  Because if the Indians can continue to graduate these young arms into their bullpen, I don’t think there’s much question that Pestano could slide up that bullpen ladder with a scout telling B-Pro’s Perrotto that “I don’t know if people around baseball realize what a weapon he (Pestano)  is. He’s a lockdown eighth-inning guy, and I'm sure he could be a good closer if he got the chance.”

Whether that “chance” comes in the next week or in the next year remains to be seen and really, that’s a conversation for another day as the Indians are living day to day right now with the rumor mill spinning at full tilt and with the Tribe’s playoff outlook looking bleaker with each crushing loss.


Hyde said...

I've always thought Oakland had the right approach to closers--realizing that they aren't all that hard to find, and are inherently replaceable.

Thing is though, if the Indians decide to move Perez, they absolutely can't botch the deal. I worry when I see people talking about the "huge haul" it would take to trade Choo, since Mark Shapiro said something similar about Cliff Lee, before dealing him for a couple of bench guys, a damaged-goods "prospect," and Carlos Carrasco.

A team in the Indians' position--one that doesn't sign prime free agents and is at best ordinary when it comes to producing farm talent--can't afford to simply bat .500 on trades. It has to nail just about all of them.

I sure would like some explanation from Ontario & Carnegie as to why the Jimenez trade was ever made, since they clearly had no plan to follow it up--unless their plan was "hope Hafner and Grady get healthy."

Spills said...

After the debacle that was this weekend, I sent a text to my best man that the Indians had become sellers. He quickly agreed.

But after listening to the locals discuss what the hell the ChiSox are going to use for pitching down the stretch, I had a thought about a reason as to why the Sox always seem to overachieve over the previous 5-7 years.

Is it possible that the knowledge that their front office is not going to auction off their core, and is constantly throwing things against the wall to keep them in contention keeping the players from constantly worrying about the other show dropping? I mean, if you are Choo, how does this talk about being traded not have an effect on you and your teammates?

Realistically the team is only 5.5 games behind two very flawed teams with 60 games to go. All they need to do is get hot for an extended period of time, and they could run away with the division. The team has the talent, but they have yet to show any reason to believe that they would be able to put it all together for a month. Could it be that all of the trades over the past decade of well performing stars has created a culture that leads to players pressing and under-performing? And could it be argued that for all of KW's foolhardy moves on the south side, the confidence it has created in the clubhouse and in the community inspires better results than what the collected talent should actually offer?

I bring up the community, because even though the Sox started off the year with atrocious attendance, as the team has started winning, traffic has become a real bear for home games in the city. I was on a company outing last week, and 36,000+ showed up for a Wednesday 1pm game in 96 degree weather. I was amazed to see the huge crowds in the parking lot tailgating for a work day game against the garbage Twins who just swept our tribe out of Minneapolis.

Adam said...

I think at this point, you can see the writing on the wall that this season is a lost cause. What would be refreshing from both a fan’s standpoint and an organizational standpoint is to see some of these guys from Columbus make their way North and see what these guys can do. With the pitching staff such that it is (in total disarray), I see no reason why Kluber and Seddon shouldn’t get a shot in the rotation. Offensively, this Fedroff guy has to get a shot. I think we are into a transition area now, and what needs to happens is this team needs to start figuring things out for next year and the years to come. Trotting out over-the-hill veterans like Damon and Lowe is not part of the solution. It only blocks roster spots for people who may in fact be answers. Additionally, I don’t see where Kotchman and Duncan fit in to the future. There certainly is talent in AAA, but we need to see it. What good is it doing anyone for Fedroff, Kluber, Seddon, Canzler, etc. to languish in Columbus? Finally I’m totally on board with trading Chris Perez. His value could not be higher right now and you could rake in a couple of sweet prospects for him no doubt. I think everyone realizes that Pestano is better and is destined to be a closer at some point anyway.

MTF said...

I wish we had taken a flyer on Gaby Sanchez. He was cheap, as befits his 2012 results, but the Indians missed an opportunity here given how good he's been at the major league level in the past, his right-handedness and the fact that he would have been under our control at least one more season

MTF said...

For what its worth, and I think it's worth something potentially, MLB trade rumors says we picked up Lars Anderson (left handed first baseman/left fielder) from the Red Sox.

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