Sunday, September 09, 2012

A Lazy Sunday on Folding “Aces”

While those that are still watching the Indians’ season play out find themselves either looking for reasons to hope for the future, for the Tribe to play the role of spoiler, or have already gone into full-blown “fantanking” mode (in the one sport in which draft position does not greatly impact immediate performance…in most cases), the manner in which this team fell apart over the course of better than a month still has most of the North Coast shell-shocked.  The team went from competitive, entertaining, and compelling to dreadful, unwatchable, and embarrassing in the amount of time that some people take summer vacations as the descent was swift and the collapse was complete.

With soon-to-be-ex-Indians’ closer Chris Perez dominating the (Indians) news this week, I find it unusual that a couple of months ago he was laying into the fans for not buying into this pre-collapse team – that was in 1st place at the time – because people weren’t believing that the team’s success was real…while not supporting them at the turnstiles.  Now that the collapse is complete, he has moved the periscope to set his targets on the people that constructed that same team that he wanted everyone to buy into just a few months ago.  As the wind blows and as the targets move, so do the shots that come out of Perez’s barrel.  That’s not to say that what Perez said (or has said) is fundamentally incorrect, but for as much as his comments have seemed like “someone look at me or listen to me…please” moments, because of the timing of his comments, they were largely ignored on the grand scale because of the start of the Browns’ season garnering so much (unfounded, according to Perez) attention on the North Coast and because of the death of Art Modell occupying people’s minds.

Regardless, though everyone wants to focus on what Perez said (which contains elements of truth, if overly reductive elements of those truths presented in the reactionary tone that feeds sports talk radio and 140-character “thoughts”), whether he should have said it (um…no, probably not as I’m not sure what it accomplished, other than attempting to draw more attention to HIM), whether the manager should have put a muzzle on him long ago (certainly, and more so now given this report that he threw said manager and teammates under the bus in a conversation with Antonetti as we wait to see how THAT plays in the locker room) and why he said it (and I’m in the camp of “this is who he is, willing to cast aspersions on anyone and everyone with no outside agenda” over the “he’s angling for a trade that was already going to happen” bloc), the article in which he was quoted was actually an interesting piece about small-market teams and how they’re able to (every once in a while) compete with the big boys.

In case you ignored the rest of the Jon-Paul Morosi piece where C. Perez firebombed the owner’s box and Front Office, it was essentially about how small-market teams are competing with the high-payroll teams this season.  Now, this piece gets written every year around this time with the designated small-market team of “how to do things right” changing from year to year, but what struck me was that it echoed something that’s been written here for the better part of a couple of months – that PITCHING is the separator here.  And, more than that, young starting pitching that is affordable and under club control for multiple years is how these small-market teams are able to compete with the teams that may have bigger payrolls, but are unable to match the young talent in the rotation.  If you want proof that pitching is the separator this year (and it really is every year), everyone realizes that the Indians’ team OPS of .705 puts them right between Oakland’s team OPS of .707 and Tampa’s team OPS of .702, right?

So while Perez’s vitriol may have received all of the attention, this comment (in the same Morosi piece) from the Indians’ manager on the success of the A’s struck me as Manny Acta stated the obvious (but needed to be said) truth on small-market teams’ ability to compete and contend.  
“Very impressed — especially with their pitching staff…Pitching is everything. People know that, but a lot of times they lose perspective on how really important pitching is. Those guys made some really good decisions on those trades they made.

“They stocked up a lot of good arms. I know they gave up some huge talent during the offseason, (and) people were wondering how they could do that. But they got some good value out of those trades. They got guys who were ready to contribute at the big-league level right away, and it worked for them.”

Realizing that this is not ground-breaking stuff and that I KEEP coming back to this pitching well, remember back at the beginning of the season, when the rotation was thought to perhaps even be a STRENGTH of this team?

Unfortunately, as LF and 1B and the failure of Grady to play even an inning became the bane of everyone’s existence, the starting pitching failed them, then failed them again and the performance of the rotation was horribly complicit in the freefall that happened to a team that was in contention when the All-Star break arrived.  To that end, Paul Hoynes passed along some interesting information on the nuts-and-bolts of the breakdown in a piece that posits that the Tribe was playing “Zombie Baseball” that is noteworthy for the compilation of ugliness that Hoynes puts on paper. 

A scout from another big-league team, who saw Zombie Baseball at its height, said…“I think they also have to make major changes in their pitching program. I didn’t see any adjustments being made. They brought Ubaldo [Jimenez] over there to be an ace and now he’s a No. 5. What’s going on with that?”

Talk away about how Ubaldo was on the decline when the Indians acquired him from Colorado, but he was a 27-year-old with 137 starts under his belt with a career 3.77 ERA PLAYING FOR COLORADO when the Indians acquired him and what’s happened to him since that day more than 13 months ago pretty effectively mirrors how the Indians’ organization has done more than just fall on hard times.

To be clear here, even 13 months later, I still think the Ubaldo trade was a good idea as a concept, in that the Indians recognized that they needed a top-of-the-rotation starter to theoretically pair with Masterson to make a playoff push in 2011 and have a legitimate chance in any playoff series if they did make the playoffs last year.  The fact that he was under club control through 2013 (and maybe 2014 because of the player option) made even more sense and the Indians acted boldly and aggressively to add a pitcher whose presence was supposed to settle the top of the rotation, or at least add that “stopper” that was so obviously lacking for the Indians.

That concept of adding that frontline starter didn’t translate to reality however as Ubaldo now has a 5.44 ERA as an Indian with a HR/9 rate that is double what he had when with Colorado and, unfortunately for the Tribe, his numbers (the start against Detroit Wednesday included) aren’t trending in the right direction.  By that I mean that Ubaldo’s actually getting worse as we’re moving forward.  And that may lead you to the conclusion that they chose the wrong horse to bet on, but the words of that scout are impossible to ignore, that “they brought Ubaldo [Jimenez] over there to be an ace and now he’s a No. 5. What’s going on with that?”

In terms of pure numbers, though the All-Star is a largely arbitrary date in time, check out what he’s done since arriving to Cleveland:
Indians 2011
5.10 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 8.50 K/9, 3.72 BB/9, and 2.29 K/BB in 65 1/3 IP

Indians First Half 2012
4.50 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 6.77 K/9, 5.10 BB/9, and 1.32 K/BB in 102 1/3 IP

Indians Second Half 2012
7.43 ERA, 1.77 WHIP, 8.64 K/9, 4.10 BB/9 and 2.10 K/BB in 59 1/3 IP

After some cause for optimism early in the year, Jimenez has been an unmitigated mess in the recent past and while he’s still getting strikeouts, he’s allowed nearly two baserunners per inning pitched over his last 11 starts and has now let up NEARLY A RUN AN INNING for the better part of two months’ worth of pitching.

Just to put those atrocities in the proper context, Ubaldo’s 7.43 ERA is the second-highest (Houston’s Dallas Keuchel’s ERA is worse) number for any pitcher in MLB that has thrown more than 40 innings since the Midsummer Classic.  His 1.79 WHIP since the All-Star game is only “bested” by a couple of Toronto starters (Henderson Alvarez and Ricky Romero) and Atlanta’s Tommy Hansen among MLB pitchers with more than 40 innings pitched.

That…that’s not acceptable for a mid-season call-up, much less a pitcher that was purported to be a front-end-of-the-rotation starter when he was added to FRONT THIS ROTATION for a couple of years.  Maybe his issues are all related to mechanics (remember this from May?), but I can’t shake what a scout told Perrotto, that I mentioned here a couple of weeks ago:
Indians right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez: “It seems like most of the time he wants to be anywhere in the world but on the mound. He doesn’t give 100 percent very often. He’s become an embarrassment to himself with his lack of focus and effort.”

Look, maybe the Rockies knew he was damaged goods or that he was a head case or that his mechanics were simply unsustainable over the long haul, but the idea that the Indians gave up their top two pitching prospects for him doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers me to see a pitcher that had success in MLB (he pitched 851 innings for the Rockies) simply fall off a cliff upon arrival in Cleveland.  Because even if you invoke TINSTAAPP or posit that Pomeranz and White are ultimately flawed as starters and are destined for the bullpen at best and the Indians knew it and looked to “sell high” on each, the way that Jimenez has pitched as an Indian doesn’t generate much confidence that the organization is going to develop, much less sustain, pitching excellence, given Ubaldo’s demise.

And that demise and that “lack of focus and effort” is what’s most troubling, particularly considering what a scout told Perrotto in a piece that came out this week, with Perrotto passing along these words on Justin Masterson (the other purported “ace”) that…um, don’t elicit a lot of hope:
Indians right-hander Justin Masterson: “I can’t figure this guy out. He’ll be lights out one time and you think he’s ready to turn into a legitimate No.1. The next time, he either gets hit hard or walks the park. The ability is there, so you question the focus.”

If you’ve watched Masterson at all…does that sound wrong, in terms of him being “lights out one time”, then either getting “hit hard” or “walk(ing) the park”?

To put some numbers on that observation, Masterson has allowed 6 or more earned runs in EIGHT of his 29 starts and has allowed fewer than 3 runs in FIFTEEN of those starts.  So, he’s either very bad or very good and certainly that may be a result of his mechanics or his “stuff” playing from one day to the next, but Masterson is as frustrating as Ubaldo in his inability to find the consistency to put this team on his back every fifth day.

And if you want to know what has killed this team this year, it is that inconsistency from the two players that were being counted on to front their rotation.  Because when Masterson (4.84 ERA) and Ubaldo (5.58 ERA) rank in the bottom 10 among pitchers with more than 160 IP (meaning that they’ve been in a team’s rotation all year)…yeah, that’s going to sink these team – as it was put together – regardless of what Chris Perez thinks should have been done in the off-season.

Looking forward, that’s what becomes so disconcerting about this team, in that these two players – who have had MLB success and were being counted on to front the rotation – are the same two players that (right now) look to be at the top of the 2013 Tribe rotation and if the Indians’ manager (for now) reiterated his previous quote from the Morosi article to Hoynes that “this game is all about pitching,” where does that leave the Indians?

Because that quote from the scout in Hoynes’ear, the one that opines that “they also have to make major changes in their pitching program…I didn’t see any adjustments being made” rings in my ears.  It sticks because the Indians did make a concerted effort to add arms – at every level – when they cleared the decks from 2008 to 2010 and if we’re throwing in what other scouts told John Perrotto about Masterson (“question the focus”) and Ubaldo (“lack of focus and effort”), there are some major concerns brewing here about getting talent to translate to effectiveness. 

Because for as much as I want to believe that Masterson and Ubaldo are just…one…tweak…away from recapturing their effectiveness (and here’s an interesting piece on Ruben Niebla that lays out pretty clear paths for each to perhaps find success again), to think that the duo of Masterson and Ubaldo are going to be augmented by McAllister and Kluber to form a legitimate rotation for 2013 feels like wishful thinking.  That’s not to say that “wishful thinking” is in short supply here, as Al passed along this report on Cookie Carrasco’s appearance for Akron earlier in the week:
Carlos Carrasco started for the Aeros, and if this outing was any indication of what we’re going to see out of the former top prospect, look out. Carrasco retired the side in order on 11 pitches (7 strikes), inducing a bunt groundout, striking out a batter and getting a deep flyout to CF for the final out of the inning. Carrasco sat consistently between 95-97 MPH with his fastball, touching 98 and 99 once each. His curveball wasn’t too sharp, but it was effective enough against the AA competition, especially considering the speed differential between the 87 MPH offering and his high-90’s heat. In case you’re wondering, I asked the Baysox staff in the pressbox if the radar gun here is juiced, and they all said that it is a pretty accurate gun. If I had to describe Carrasco’s outing in one word, that word would be ‘electric’. It’s just one inning, but in a season when Indians fans need to take any good news they can get, it was a darn good inning. Carrasco will likely play winterball this offseason and then return to the Indians rotation out of the gate next year.

Though that has me pulling my old Billy Mumphrey act (becoming “a cockeyed optimist”), the fear is that unless the Indians are able to harness that undeniable talent and “stuff” from Carrasco going forward, we’re left with what we’ve seen from the rotation this year, with pitchers regressing…or worse.  And the reason for those regressions is what needs to be sorted out – and in short order – as the Indians are only going to go as far as their starting pitching takes them.  The seasons taking place in Oakland and Tampa (most notably) are jarring reminders of that, and how (or if) the Indians are able to piece together a cohesive and effective starting rotation is going to determine how far they go each and every year.

Their manager, who presided over the most memorable freefall in recent history, came out of the other side of said freefall spouting (to anyone who would listen) that “this game is all about pitching” and the Indians ability/inability to acquire and/or develop talent in starting pitching…then making the necessary adjustments to maximize said talent is the challenge facing this organization. 

Whether that means better people acquiring those arms or making those adjustments (or perhaps both) is the question that needs to be answered in a hurry as the Indians seem to have talent in their starting pitching ranks, just not talent that’s been effective in the recent past…


Cleveland Fan said...

Even though we have no pitching, and pitching is the key, I would still strongly consider trading U-bad-o. He has a club friendly contract, which should help his value somewhat, and has had past success. I have no faith in the Indian's ability to "fix him," so I'm in favor of moving him. Some team is going to look at him and feel that they are smart enough to fix what ever is wrong with him. You posted a link earlier in the season of a scout with video that he claimed showed exactly was wrong with him. It just seems to me that the time has come to say we're done with this and move on. I know it won't happen because they gave up 2 no. 1's etc for him, and We'll fix him ourselves..... If Drew and Alex don't ever amount to anything great for the Rockies but maybe an Average MLB pitcher, then what does that say that hasn't already been said about our drafting? If they do trade him do we have any confidence they will get the right players in return?

MTF said...

Wait- trade Ubaldo? Who would want him? I thought I just read a week or two ago that he's the second worst pitcher in the league right now. The Indians may pick up his option but, at this stage, that's probably because the alternatives are worse.

David said...

I guess the one thing the Tribe has going for them heading into the off season is the flexibility to make some moves. Even taking a systematic approach, use the salary gained through losing Hafner and Grady to upgrade the offense, and bring in some young arms by trading some key pieces to teams that might need what we have to give...if the brass really do believe that pitching is everything then the focus should be on acquisition, with a view to contention in 2 to 3 if only we could convince them to let you select the players Paul!

Paul Cousineau said...

As much as I'd like to think that another team would believe that it could "fix" Ubaldo, I think he's our problem to "fix" for the foreseeable future.

That flexibility is going to be the big thing to watch because they could make some bold trades - and even add payroll in executing them - because the decks are almost completely cleared. As for me picking the players...well, you don't want that, as evidenced by my Gaby Sanchez target this past off-season.

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