Saturday, May 31, 2008

Hopefully They Have A Phone Booth

News that Travis Hafner has hit the DL because of a right shoulder that has, apparently, bothered him all season (the only better question than “Isn’t this obviously why he hasn’t he been able to drive the ball?” is “Why are we finding out about this after Memorial Day, particularly if he’s been icing it after games in plain view of reporters?”) has set into motion a few roster moves and some likely lineup shuffling for the Tribe as the team tries to get fat on the sliding KC Royals to gain some momentum on a long road trip.

Hafner’s placement on the shelf opens up a spot for the BLC on the roster and allows the Indians to keep Michael Aubrey’s bat (and glove) on the parent club for a time. The additional appearance that Andy Marte will get some significant time at 3B because as Anthony Castrovince puts it, “Indians manager Eric Wedge has tried everything else…he might as well try Andy Marte” allows the rest of the situation to crystallize.

For the next few weeks, as Hafner tries to rest his shoulder, then tries to build his confidence back up playing against Hagerstown and Altoona instead of MLB pitching, the lineup should resemble something like this:
C - Martinez
1B - Aubrey
2B – Cabrera
SS - Peralta
3B - Marte
LF - Francisco
CF - Sizemore
RF - Choo/Gutierrez
DH - Garko/Dellucci

While that lineup is full of inexperience, the Indians’ defense improves greatly with Aubrey at 1B instead of Garko, Marte over Blake at 3B, and the removal of Dellucci from the defensive equation. The bench suddenly becomes a strength with Blake being used in the super-sub role that he’s been best suited for now for 3 years, good defenders on the bench in whomever is not being used in the RF platoon to go with Shoppach and Carroll, and a nice balance of LH and RH options.

Now, some may say that Hafner’s injury could lead to the Indians raising “the white flag on a season that keeps getting worse the deeper they get into it” (anyone else glad Hoynesie isn’t navigating this ship, given his eagerness to cry uncle this early, 5 games back in the Central), but Hafner’s OPS is sitting .010 higher than Casey Blake right now. Sure it would be great to have Pronk back and it would certainly make victories easier to come by, but this “Hafner” guy? He of the career .969 OPS vs. RHP who has posted a .660 OPS against those same RHP this year?
Let’s hope that he stays down in the sticks and sends his alter ego (you remember him, the ½ project, ½ donkey, all offensive terror) back up.

Truthfully, I can’t say that the lineup above is any worse without Hafner than what we’ve seen with him in it as Francisco figures to continue to get every opportunity to stay in the everyday lineup as Choo’s return won’t cost him any plate appearances because Dellucci can now move to DH vs. LHP as Garko will DH against RHP. Marte gets a chance to improve on Blake’s aforementioned .660 OPS at 3B and it looks like Blake will spell Garko at 1B from time to time in his super-sub role as Garko continues to scuffle. Gutierrez and Garko are slotted to face only LHP, while Dellucci and Choo would be slated to only match up against RHP.

Is it an ideal situation?
Certainly not, but if the move gets Hafner’s health and, more importantly, his confidence back, the team will be better off for it while having an opportunity to see what they have in some of these young players to find out if there are any real prospects in a group that is looking more and more suspect.

But back to the Hafner situation, if you figure that Hafner’s stint on the 15-day DL is retroactive to Monday (the first game he sat out), he would come off of the DL around the second week of June. That would likely be followed by a stretch of rehab starts in the sticks, which puts the team at an interesting part of the schedule as it pertains to Hafner. The Indians head out west on June 13th, playing the interleague portion of their schedule in NL West parks, which means that Hafner would be of no use to the Tribe for that 10-day stretch as the Indians would have no need for a DH. The result would be a longer rehab stint (where he can hopefully enter a phone booth some night in Classic Park or in downtown Akron and emerge as the superhero we all miss) that would keep the lineup as constructed above intact until late June. After their trip out West (where I’ll take in the Sunday game in Chavez Ravine, by the by), the team returns on June 24th (when the Giants come to town) which is when the team would figure to activate Hafner back to the 25-man.

Using that math and perusal of the schedule, the Indians would have a three-week stretch to evaluate where the likes of Aubrey, Cabrera, Marte, and Chootierrez (yeah, I just went there) are in their development before making a move with Hafner and affecting playing time. Remember that Aubrey, Cabrera, Francisco, and Garko all have options remaining that can be used as well as the fact that Dellucci may prove to be the redundancy on the lineup and could be moved to a team looking for a LH OF (Arizona, I’m looking at you) to clear space for Hafner.

All that being said, the Indians just gave Hafner about a month to rest his shoulder in an attempt to recover some semblance of his former self, then gave him an ideal stretch of the schedule (when he’s not needed as a DH) to remember what it’s like feasting on pitches thrown by the likes of the Erie Sea Wolves pitching staff.

It’s been real, Travis…now send Pronk back.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Bear Market in the Bullpen

Say what you will about the struggles of the Indians’ offense (and I’m pretty sure everyone has weighed in on that topic in some form or another this season), but the Tribe bats are showing signs of life, with 4.6 runs per game in the past week, good enough for 6th best in the AL. Spurring on this offensive “explosion” has been an increase in doubles (4th in the AL in the past week with 16) and HR (4th in the AL last week with 7), which is a sight for sore eyes as extra-base hits had become such a rare occurrence for this Punch and Judy offense of singles, walks, and HBP (1st in the AL in this category by more than 10 HBP with 35) that it was almost surprising to see the “power surge”.

The resurgence (term used loosely, but relatively speaking…it is) has been triggered by multiple players in the lineup getting warm at the same time in the past week. Most notably, Jhonny Peralta (.963 OPS, 3 HR), Grady Sizemore (.930 OPS, 4 SB), and Ben Francisco (.819 OPS, 4 2B) have been the pillars of the offense while Franklin Gutierrez (1.053 OPS in 13 AB) and Andy Marte (.833 OPS in 6 AB…which for him is a big sample size this year) have contributed in their limited appearances. Obviously that BIG hit remains elusive (team LOB in their last 4 losses – 9, 11, 13, and 8); but it’s starting to come around, Pepper…starting to come around.

With all of that being said, I’ll reiterate something that I’ve said here before – that is, the offense of the Indians (as offensive as it has been) doesn’t scare me as much as the continued struggles of the bullpen. Before asking if I’ve actually WATCHED the anemic offense squander opportunity after opportunity, allow me to explain – MLB hitters (even mediocre or struggling ones) are going to score in games. They’ll get hot or get lucky or string together a stretch of hits to cobble out some runs over the course of a season (even terrible offenses will score about 700 runs a season, or about 4.25 runs per game) just as a by-product of hitters facing poor pitchers at some point or a couple of players getting hot at the same time.

While a largely toothless offense is almost guaranteed some semblance of success over the long term, the volatility of relief pitchers can force a bullpen to go from bad to worse relatively quickly, with no sign of improvement. For whatever reason, numerous examples exist for a player being effective for one season followed by a season of difficulty (see Betancourt, Rafael) and vice versa. Really, while certain relievers can exceed expectations over the course of a season, it’s rare for a pitcher to simply get on a “hot streak” (like hitters might) once a pattern of ineffectiveness is apparent. It’s the reason that the makeup of bullpens, particularly the constant state of flux of middle relievers, change from one year to the next. A linchpin of one bullpen can become a dead weight for the next year’s incarnation and continued excellence in a bullpen is a rare commodity, particularly rare for a reliever to be dominant for a few years in a row. Unlike the nature of hitting, either you’ve got it or you don’t from year to year. There is very little “lucking” into a string of successful outings for a reliever and once that downhill trend is identified, it’s difficult for a pitcher to simply turn it around based on the frequency (or lack of frequency) that they are used.

With all of that knowledge of how bullpens are about as stable from year to year as Buzz Bissinger’s thoughts on the Interwebs, consider that the Indians’ 2007 bullpen posted these numbers:
3.73 ERA
1.33 WHIP
8.18 K/9
2.51 K/BB ratio
.254 Batting Average Against
.707 OPS Against
78% Saves Converted (49 of 63)
Outstanding stuff, to say the least – and certainly one of the main reasons the Indians separated down the stretch from the rest of the Central.

As for this year, shield your eyes because here are the numbers for the 2008 bullpen, consisting of essentially the same principals as the bullpen that performed so efficiently the previous year:
4.54 ERA
1.54 WHIP
7.44 K/9
1.95 K/BB ratio
.283 Batting Average Against
.800 OPS Against
50% Saves Converted (9 of 18)
Compared to the rest of the AL, the bullpen that was thought to be a strength of this team sits 2nd last in ERA (Texas – 4.90), 2nd last in WHIP (Detroit – 1.55), last in Batting Average Against, last in OPS against, 2nd last in saves (Detroit – 8), and tied for last (with Texas) in Saves Converted Percentage.

If the hitting has played below expectations, how does one characterize a bullpen, that was thought to potentially have three potential closers (Betancourt, Perez, and Lewis) not even pitching the 9th inning, that has so completely flopped?

Consider that the Indians have blown 14 leads this season (granted not all by the bullpen), and that their winning percentage when leading at the beginning of the 6th inning (.679 winning percentage) and the 7th inning (.783 winning percentage) pales in comparison to even the “lowly” Tigers’ bullpen when leading at the beginning of the 6th inning (.783 winning percentage) and the 7th inning (.826 winning percentage) and anyone can see that we have a problem.

I know that “if and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas”, BUT what if the percentage of saves they converted last year (78%) applied to the 18 save opportunities this year. Rather than having 9 saves in 18 opportunities, the team would have 14 saves in 18 opportunities – a 5 game swing makes the team 29-24 and sitting ½ game back of the White Sox…all this with the ulcer-inducing offense.

Would it be nice to magically fix the offense to start blowing teams out?
Sure, but realize that the combination of a low-scoring offense AND a bullpen prone to giving up leads is a recipe for disaster that any team would have difficulty in overcoming.
With that knowledge, what’s easier to find – a run-producing presence for the middle of the lineup or modestly effective pitchers who can get 3 outs every couple of days?
Yeah, I think so too.

So, what can or should be done to rescue this bullpen from itself?
Truthfully, I think that the start of the metamorphosis has already happened as the team has jettisoned Georgie GasCan and sent Jensen Lewis down to Buffalo to find those missing MPH. Additionally, The Atomic Wedgie has called Betancourt on the carpet for not throwing inside and will likely relegate him to a middle relief role until he shows that he will…and Brodzoski (The Close) hasn’t even been mentioned as he’s only thrown 6 of the 136 1/3 innings that relievers have tossed this year for the Tribe.

Right now is not the time to complain about JoeBo’s return and the resulting spike in Pepto sales or try to figure out how Jorge Julio could flame out so spectacularly, it’s time to find those relievers that are going to be “on” this year and dismiss the notion that some of these guys can work it out, because nothing (not even this offense) can take the spirit out of a team like blown games, surrendered by the bullpen. Much like last year, when Perez and Lewis were promoted to take positions in the bullpen, it’s time to see who can help…and fast!

The promotion of Scott Elarton, who (as much as it pains me to point out) did have a 2.45 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP working out of the Buffalo bullpen, and Eddie Mujica, who had posted a 1.46 ERA with 15 K in 14 1/3 IP over his last 10 appearances for the Bisons, represent a nice move in the right direction to take advantage of finding the pitcher that may “have it” (whatever “it” is) this year and slotting them accordingly in the bullpen. Most important to this approach, though, is to keep the open auditions going until the leaks in this ‘pen can be plugged by whomever.

More help is available internally (despite the continuation of Atom Miller’s finger problems, meaning he’s not coming to the rescue in Wainwrightesque fashion) as Rick Bauer has saved 14 games in Buffalo while posting a 1.61 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP while striking out 29 compared with 10 walks over 22 1/3 IP, LHP Rich Rundles has held LH hitters to a .171 Batting Average with 17 K in the 11 2/3 IP he’s gone against LH in AAA, and newly signed RHP Oneli Perez has struck out 8 of the 12 RH hitters he’s faced since joining the Bisons.

Are they small sample sizes we’re dealing with?
Absolutely, but that’s how it goes with relievers and it’s imperative that the Indians find the right mix of pitchers to lock down the middle and late innings of games, to protect what leads the offense may have been able to stake.

Further down the ladder, the Indians could try to replicate the success of Jensen Lewis last year by looking at Jeff Stevens (2.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 32 K to 9 BB in 26 2/3 IP) and Randy Newsom (14 saves with a 0.84 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP) in Akron if the options above them in the organization are unable to stabilize the struggling bullpen.

Regardless of who they use to do it or how they end up fixing the bullpen, the Indians need to find some effective options to protect the leads that are handed to them late in the game or to keep close games within striking distance in the off chance that the offense can mount a comeback. If they’re not, it doesn’t matter how well or poorly the offense is hitting…because the leads won’t last, the wins won’t come, and the 2008 Tribe will be done in by a bullpen that looks more and more like a pigpen.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

As Good As It Gets?

After spending a weekend away from Cleveland and only seeing the Tribe slip to 4 ½ games out of the lead from afar, The DiaBride and I lined up the babysitter and headed down for some good old fashioned American fun on Memorial Day – a baseball game with dollar dogs and fireworks. With the Indians scuffling as they had and with answers at a premium, I thought I’d just sit and enjoy the game, regardless of the outcome and revel in a beautiful night at the ballpark.

The game started innocently enough with Byrd working his way out of a jam, giving up only one run early after loading the bases with no outs and Dellucci evening the score with a 1st inning bomb. The Indians were hitting and playing good defense (thankfully, I was out of town for the Francisco “through the wickets play”, though being the glutton for punishment that I am I watched it on the replayed game on Monday afternoon) as the Tribe mounted scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity, only to come up that ONE hit short from breaking the game open. It would come, though, right? The law of averages almost dictated that somebody (ANYBODY) had to poke a seeing-eye single at some point to plate some runs.

But, alas, they didn’t…and as the frustration mounted over the amount of runners being left on base (they finished with 13 team LOB after stranding 11 runners on Sunday), an awful feeling crept into my head – the one I’ve been trying to avoid for about three weeks now. That nagging thought that I’ve buried in the deep recesses of my brain kept popping back again and again as the Indians squandered chance after chance and the crowd of 31,006 sat quietly, waiting to erupt.

After the 8th inning though, with runners on 2nd and 3rd and one out when Cabrera then Sizemore whiffed to go meekly into the night, the thought finally passed through my lips:
“What if this is as good as it gets?”

What if these players aren’t going to trend back to their career numbers?
What if platooning is not the answer to get some of these guys back into the groove?
What if the offensive deficiencies on the ballclub are just that – deficiencies, and not aberrations?
What if Pronk simply doesn’t exist anymore and Garko and Peralta never take that next step as hitters?
What if Grady is what he is, and doesn’t have that “next level” in him?
What if the toll on Victor’s body after years of catching have robbed him of his power, leaving him only with the quick hands of the OBP machine he seems to be?
What if the youngsters that we had high hopes for (Cabrera and Gutierrez) are nothing more than defensive specialists?
What if Francisco and Aubrey arrived from the minors hot, something that won’t last forever?

My head was spinning as the Tribe stranded two more in the 10th…all the analysis that this offense would perform at a league average level (which is all they need to do), all of the patience that I’ve been preaching that this team is built on pitching and a marginal offense was going to be undone by an offense that would struggle to be characterized as “marginal” on their best day…with no obvious answers or easy fixes.

The DiaBride saw my bewildered look, reminded me of the time (it was a school night for the sitter and it was creeping up on 11:00 PM) and convinced me to hit the road…which surprisingly didn’t take much convincing given the pit in my stomach. As we exited the park (around the area cordoned off for fireworks), the groans emanating from the park told us all we needed to know. Back at the car, Hamilton laid out the ugly turn of events and we drove home in a much more somber tone than we would have liked.

While I’m not ready to throw in the towel (did I mention my affinity for punishment and disappointment?), this team wide offensive mediocrity (if it can even be called mediocre) has reached the breaking point. The Indians began what looked like a favorable stretch of their schedule a few Fridays ago in Cincinnati, playing the Reds, the White Sox, and the Rangers to start it…and have responded by going 1-9 in their first 10 games of that stretch? Now they find themselves in the middle of the White Sox series, looking as helpless and toothless as they have for weeks, if not months, now offensively.

That nagging question that is now out there, like a word balloon in a comic strip, continues to hang in the air – what if this IS the Indians’ offense and that the in-house players are simply incapable of “grinding” through this or mounting any kind of semblance of an offense on a nightly basis? The question is a scary one, that’s growing sharper teeth with each passing day.

If this truly is “as good as it gets”, the Indians are going to find themselves buried in a hurry in an AL Central, regardless of what the calendar says, where the White Sox look ready for a run (thanks to continually playing the Tribe) and the Indians’ hitters looking more pathetic by the day.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Treat of a Lazy Sunday

The sun is shining, the weekend is a long one, my tickets for Monday night’s game are procured, and (most importantly) the Tribe is back in the win column, thanks to Mr. Ben Francisco putting the team squarely on his back (quick show of hands, who saw that string of words coming at any point this season). Isn’t it funny how a Tribe win makes food taste better and puts a little more bounce in your step? Bouncing around the room, it’s time for a Lazy One:

Thank goodness for the win (even one) as even the faithful are getting frustrated with Wedge’s in-game decisions and lineup construction…and the argument to the contrary is getting harder and harder to see.

In case you’re off of sports magazines as a whole, SI’s Ben Reiter checks in on the Tale of C.P. Lee, which was included in this week’s Bizarro Baseball issue.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times thinks that the AL Central is NOT a weak division based on the quality of the starting pitching in the division and intimates that the offensive struggles of the White Sox and Tribe are more of a result of excellent pitching as opposed to dreadful hitting. He includes some quotes from Garko that I hadn’t seen before using weather as a factor – “A big part of that is cold weather, and that's always going to favor the pitcher over the hitter. We've played in some miserable conditions, and we're all cold-weather cities, even though Minnesota has a dome. The pitching has been so good, and when you have pitching, you know you're going to be in every game.”
So…it’s the weather. God, I hope so.

On the offense, TSN’s Sean Deveney checks in with his thoughts on the Tribe’s offense…because you haven’t read anything about that yet, right?

Back to the Central, Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus (in a piece about the ChiSox) says that the eventual AL Central winner could be sitting on 88 to 89 wins, which would mean that the Indians will have to go 66-51 (or .564 baseball) through the balance of their season to get there.
Something to shoot for, Carl.

Ken Rosenthal checks in with a piece on Carlos Quentin and his availability over the winter. Watching Quentin ravage the Indians (relatively speaking) in Chicago, it makes the fact that the Indians did not make a bigger move for him over the off-season even more frustrating. If you’ll remember, Quentin was one of the targets in a piece I did…um, last November…to upgrade the OF. While the White Sox gave up a highly touted prospect, he was still a very young and raw player (whether you like it or not, Nick Weglarz is about as close as we get in our system to 1B Chris Carter) and the Indians’ inability to bring Quentin to the North Coast (or any of those other players, 7 of 15 of whom are on new teams this year…and include Quentin AND Josh Hamilton) certainly hurts given the production from the corners. On the same topic, Jon Heyman grades out the Winter Trades, listing the Hamilton and Quentin deals among the top four.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 on this (though that list of 15 was from NOVEMBER) and it’s not known what teams were asking for out of the Tribe organization, but Quentin (more so than the rest) feels like the one that was attainable and got away.

Terry Pluto has some thoughts on how to fix the Tribe offense, mentioning the popular Garret Atkins move as well as throwing Matt Holliday out there as an option. The Atkins interest makes more sense to me, given the fact that Andy Marte’s time with the Indians seems to be short and the closest the Indians come to a “3B of the Future” is Wes Hodges. I’d have to think that the Rockies, given where they play, would be wise to hold out for groundball-inducing Aaron Laffey in any exchange…and I’m loathe to let Laffey go with C.C. and Byrd gone after this year.

On the Holliday issue, here’s your “caveat emptor” on Matt Holliday and the Coors Field Effect. So before the cries go out that Matt Holliday would solve all of the problems on this team and that the Rockies MAY be looking to move him, remember that his performance away from Denver over the last four years is more reminiscent of Aubrey Huff than Albert Pujols.

From the “here’s how to fix the Indians’ offense” file, Paul Hoynes feels that sending Asdrubal down to AAA and calling up Josh Barfield is another answer, but (as I addressed in the last comments section) it rings hollow for me. Asdrubal’s OBP is actually .003 higher than Barfield’s last year while providing superior defense at both 2B and SS. Barfield, in Buffalo, has responded to having to “earn” his way back onto the team by posting a .247 BA /.289 OBP / .384 SLG / .673 OPS against AAA pitching. I have no question that Cabrera could benefit from more seasoning in AAA, but Barfield is not an upgrade and if we’re trying to put the best MLB team on the field every night, Cabrera represents that for the Tribe over Barfield.

By the way, can we finally debunk the notion that Kevin Kouzmanoff (referenced in Hoynes’ piece as a middle-of-the-order hitter) is the “one that got away” as he’s sitting on a .700 OPS in the National League with 5 walks against 41 K. Look at that K/BB ratio again (and realize that he’s whiffed more than Sizemore and Peralta this year) and tell me, with a straight face, that you miss him. Would he be playing over Casey Blake or Andy Marte? Who knows…at this point it looks like Casey Blake would be starting over George Brett and you or I would see plate appearances before Marte, but the continued characterization of Kouz as Mike Schmidt reincarnated is just bunk.

Apropos of nothing Tribe-related, my new favorite writer Joe Posnanski has the most clearly articulated piece on Derek Jeter that I could ever imagine, balancing the fact that Jeter IS a good player against the notion that Jeter is a once-in-a-lifetime player. Bravo, JoePo…bravo.

With the news that Fausto is DL-bound (learned via a text from T-Bone after spending the day ingloriously putting in the dock at my parents’ place in Chautauqua), let’s hope that he can figure out his mechanical difficulties before rushing back and revel in the fact that the Babyfaced Bulldog (Laffey, whose May ERA is lower than C.P. Lee’s April ERA was) will remain topside to strengthen his MLB resume.

Finally, let’s hold off on overanalysis as to why Scott Elarton is on the team (they needed a long man after Carmona’s short start and Julio and Lewis were spent), why Georgie GasCan is still on the team (he won’t be for much longer and Lewis has an option), and why Edward Mujica is on the team ahead of Rick Bauer (Mujica has had a nice stretch of innings recently, is already on the 40-man and has options while Bauer, who has pitched very well in Buffalo, would have to be added to the 40-man and would have to join the 25-man for good as he’d have to clear waivers if a quick roster move was made, which it will be with Westbrook and Choo coming to Cleveland soon). When Westbrook returns, one of them will head back down (does it matter who?) and when Choo returns, the Tribe will have to decide whether keeping two LH hitting OF who thrive against RHP (Choo and the Looch) is preferred over having the extra bullpen arm on the roster.

Enjoy the long weekend and let’s take a series today…please?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

An Entrée of Apathy

Since I, like everyone, am down in the dumps (and rightfully so) about the Indians’ lack of offense or any sign of a pulse as a team, I thought that I would turn over the reins for a day to serial poster Cy Slapnicka, an expatriate living in Chicago who attends Tribe games once a year at The Cell, then usually regales us with his gallows humor while praising all things Tribe and viciously mocking all things South Side. Because he fancies himself a bit of an amateur photog and gets to the games usually for batting practice, I thought that at least it would be good for some close pictures if not a story of a certain Chicagoan being “overserved” and screaming obscenities in the direction of Derek Shelton and/or anyone else who drew his ire. Based on last year’s account and with the way things were going, the stage was set for some epic ranting and vitriol.

With that in mind, The DiaBride and I went out for a lovely meal at Michael Symon’s LOLA, which is on the revitalized East 4th street if you haven’t been, to avoid watching the frustration of what seemed certain to be another Tribe loss and to celebrate another calendar year passing since my entry into this world. The meal, as expected, was fabulous as we pretended to be the judges on “The Iron Chef”, peppering each other with inane comments like, “I’m surprised to see salsa verde on top of my rib eye, but the sweetness and spice of the salsa verde perfectly complement the salt and fat of the meat” and, “Rosemary is not a spice I would have considered to make the fries as flavorful as they are…but it certainly works.”
Did I mention that we’re dorks?

A visit to the table from Symon to cap off the night seemed fitting as the food and wine had achieved their desired effects and we traipsed home to find the Indians (shockingly) up in the game 2-0 with both runs being scored by players that were Buffalo Bisons a very short time ago. But a run is a run is a run for this team, and is a bit of a cause for celebration. Since it seemed that Byrd had the game in hand, The DiaBride flipped to the finale of some karaoke contest that pits singers that would be put to shame at “Corky’s” in Lakewood on their karaoke night.

During commercials we flipped back and forth and the rout was, apparently, on for the South Siders as the bullpen imploded and the offense stayed in the fetal position for the remainder of the game. At the conclusion of the game, I grew excited for the blustery thoughts that were going to come out of the Windy City thanks to Cy Slapnicka having to sit through that abomination of a game. Quickly, he checked in, via his Blackberry:

I can't muster anything but these notes:
The bats even looked cold during BP.

Byrd made a special trip over to our section to give a little girl Sox fan a ball on the way in from his BP session before the game.

The players don't look like they even enjoy the game except Grady - zero passion.

They squandered a great opportunity when Vasquez fell apart with 2 bounced pitches, a near HR, and two doubles (including a hard one by Hafner). I kept thinking that would be the turning point for the bats, but…nothing.

When Dye went yard the 1st time, it felt like a 15 run home run. I have no idea why Wedge didn't have someone warming when Byrd fell apart.

Some Sox fans behind us almost got into a fight with each other (shocker), which a Sox fan behind us referred to it as "Sox on Sox" violence.

That's about it…and Hafner just looks totally overmatched.
Sorry man, it’s just depressing and I almost considered leaving after 7.

While I know that Cy was apologetic about not being able to summon much emotion, insight, or analysis from his time at the Cell, I think his comments basically sum up what most of us are feeling right now. I mean, one of the highlights of the game was Byrd coming over to the stands and giving a ball to some random girl during BP?

This is what it has come to (with me preferring to detail a meal rather than discuss, or even think about, the Tribe) when it should not be outlandish to think that the Tribe should be running away with the Central with their pitching?

It’s beyond frustrating to watch this team right now, beyond words to describe the annoyance of watching 1-2-3 inning after 1-2-3 inning with no sense of urgency, and heartbreaking to have the feeling that a one or two run deficit feels like, as Cy says, “a 15 run” mountain to climb, particularly with the way that the bullpen is going. To sit and lament one run…any run…given up by the pitchers for fear that the game is now lost is a feeling that I can’t ever remember. Watching the heart of this lineup in need of CPR and showing not even a flutter causes even me to question my sanity for continuing to tune into these games.

Analysis of the situation feels like an exercise in futility as the Indians continue to put forth the same dreadful plate appearances, continue to stick with their struggling veterans who “grind it out” while Jhonny Peralta is the player getting called out by the manager (over players struggling much more, in the field and at the plate) and Andy Marte languishes on the bench with no chance to see if he represents any kind of upgrade at 3B, and the pit looks bottomless right now for a team so full of pitching talent.

Of course, all of this could change with an offensive awakening and a nice run of victories…but that seems awfully hard to imagine watching this team play day in and day out. The disinterest that this team conveys on a regular basis is leading to an apathetic feeling among those that force themselves to endure the absurdity that is on display day after day. It’s getting to the point (if not past the point) that if this road to perdition continues, something has to change…something…anything…before it gets too late, even this early.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Doing the Splits

As the Tribe offense remains offensive since the thought a couple of weeks ago was that some of these players (one of these players?) would have to start progressing toward their career numbers, perhaps a new strategy is necessary as each passing lineup card looks like The Atomic Wedgie is grasping at straws and each game ends with the Indians’ offense still mired in their season-long slump. The offense, to this point, remains an all-or-nothing affair with 56 of the 183 runs scored to date (a whopping 30% of the year’s runs) coming in 11 of the 388 innings (just under 3%) that the team has batted in.

Without yet getting into the terrifying notion that perhaps this isn’t just a slump (I’m reminded of the Jack Nicholson line of “What if this is as good as it gets?” in the film by the same name), perhaps the solution lies in simply putting the existing hitters in positions that they can thrive in, carefully picking those spots, as opposed to simply trotting out the usual suspects and hoping for the best. With each passing game, it becomes apparent that at a certain point, no Indians’ hitter has “earned” any kind of right to be in the lineup every day based on anything but performance THIS year or even over the past few weeks (which incredibly does put Hafner in that category), so the time has come to use 2008 as the barometer for success for each of these players and plan accordingly.

Now, with 1/4 of the season in the books, approaching the 1/3 mark, the sample sizes are getting substantial enough (for some) to examine some trends and find out where hitters are succeeding and where they are failing, with the idea of maximizing optimal opportunities for them while putting them in positions in which they can thrive because not much more help is coming from within the organization, other than the BLC or maybe Barfield, that isn’t already here. As much as that elusive “big bat” remains on everyone’s mind, it is still mid-May and not too many teams are looking to shed an established hitter with so little of the season spoken for.

Realizing that the Indians are going to have to play with the hand that’s been dealt to them, what can be done to revive this slumbering offense? I know that you’re not going to want to hear this, but the answer for waking up some of these bats may be redistributing plate appearances based on whether the Indians are facing LHP or RHP…the platoon concept that everyone loves, right?

Whether or not you accept or even acknowledge the usefulness of the platoon or think that anything can be gleaned by looking at individual players’ splits (which is their performance versus RHP and LHP), the Indians’ brass has to figure out how to present a lineup card that at least poses the threat of putting some runs on the board. Obviously, some of these players have very limited plate appearances on which to base OPS, but something is better than nothing. With that in mind, how do the Indians’ current position players stack up in terms of OPS versus RHP and OPS versus LHP?

OPS versus RHP
Martinez - .647
Shoppach - .712
Garko - .660
Cabrera - .554
Carroll - .475
Peralta - .669
Blake - .762
Marte - .174
Dellucci - .705
Francisco - 1.039
Sizemore - .884
Gutierrez - .582
Hafner - .675

OPS versus LHP
Martinez - 1.033
Shoppach - .444
Garko - .994
Cabrera - .351
Carroll - .718
Peralta - .851
Blake - .376
Marte - .933
Dellucci - .200
Francisco - .750
Sizemore - .716
Gutierrez - .683
Hafner - .815
Right now, the only player (yes, that is a singular noun) posting an OPS over .700 against both RHP and LHP with more than 10 AB against both on this team is (yes, again, that is a singular verb)…wait for it…Grady Sizemore with his sparkling .716 OPS against LHP.

Nearly as shocking as the team wide struggles against RHP is the disparity on some of these guys from RHP to LHP:
Martinez - .386 higher versus LHP
Garko - .334 higher versus LHP
Cabrera - .203 higher versus RHP
Carroll - .243 higher versus LHP
Peralta - .182 higher versus LHP
Blake - .386 higher versus RHP
Dellucci - .505 higher versus RHP
Obviously, with a guy like Dellucci you have no expectations of him hitting LHP and don’t put him in that position, but maybe it’s time to employ that strategy for the rest of the lineup.

If Garko isn’t hitting RHP and the LH hitting Michael Aubrey is on the roster, what’s the harm in giving Aubrey plate appearances against RHP while he’s on the team? I know that Aubrey’s ticket to Buffalo when JoeBo returns is probably already punched, but why not keep Aubrey on the roster over little-used Craig Breslow as the offense may benefit more from an extra LH bat than the bullpen may from an extra LH arm?

If Cabrera is struggling against LHP (.351 OPS), give those plate appearances to Carroll every so often to improve the offense without sending Cabrera’s glove to Buffalo. Obviously, you’d like to keep Asdrubal on the field as much as possible, as well as not deterring any adjustments the young player is making to MLB; but with the way things going as they are, perhaps it’s better for him to build his confidence by succeeding in limited playing time to gain momentum as opposed to rolling downhill, as he seems to be doing now.

If Blake is posting a .376 OPS versus LHP, for the love of all that is holy, why is he still in the lineup against them? Given the success of Andy Marte throughout his minor league career against LHP, could he really be that much worse? I know that this subject has been beaten to death and that Andy Marte must have allowed somebody’s house pet out of the front door on his first day of house sitting (how else can you explain his absence in the lineup?), but Blake is posting a .376 OPS against LHP…that’s beyond dreadful.

If Gutierrez isn’t hitting RHP, why doesn’t Francisco become an everyday OF with Grady, switching between LF and RF, with GooLoochi (replacing the famous Dellichaels) alternating based on opposing pitchers? Frank the Tank’s defense should keep him in the mix and his upside garners some patience, but rather than letting him slip into the abyss, allow him to face only LHP to (like Cabrera) get some confidence back in his ability as a MLB hitter.

With all of that in mind, what should these lineups look like?
Versus LHP

Versus RHP

We’re basically talking about platooning 1B, 2B, 3B, and one OF position to try to take advantage of some desirable match-ups with the roster as it is currently constructed. That may seem like a lot of positions to be in flux and shared between players, but the production (or lack thereof) from those positions (save 1B, where Garko is sitting on a pretty big split) has been the difficulty in the lineup. The Indians actually have started to do this to a certain degree, if you look closely at the last week of games, but at this point it’s time to set some hard and fast rules to try to work some of these younger players in to see if the team can catch lightning in a bottle or to give the veterans every chance to succeed against those whom they are succeeding against this year. Blake, Dellucci, and Cabrera should never see LHP, just as Gutz should never see RHP and Garko should take a break from RHP to clear his head and get some semblance of power back for him.

The overall strategy here would be that, by putting players in situations that they are able to excel in, their confidence (which I think is sorely lacking given the team-wide “slump”) can improve to the point that the principals that are thought to be contributors for this team can get closer to that point, as opposed to sabotaging every run-scoring opportunity that seems to present itself.

Short of a surprising move this early in the season, the Indians are going to be playing the cards that have been dealt to them…maybe it’s time to start stacking the deck.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Lazy Sunday at the Salvage Yard

Never thought these words would cross my computer, but…um, Joe…how’s that arm feeling?

As I’ve said before, the offense doesn’t worry me as much as this bullpen sorting itself out does and while I don’t think that the return of Brodzoski (The Close) is going to solve much, I suppose it’s something. Sorry if I’m not going to touch on yesterday’s debacle at the GAB as I think I’ve seen that show before…about two years ago when the Tribe bullpen blew a lead in the 9th, ultimately done in by a Dunn game winner to RF.
Where’s the TUMS?

Time to throw Sandy Koufax out there today and see if the Indians can salvage a game in Cincinnati…and with that, we’re off:
Speaking of Koufax, everyone’s favorite “feel good” story of the year, The Tale of C.P. Lee did actually just feel pretty good after reading Jodie Valade’s piece in the PD. While being certainly one of the most vocal critics of the former Mr. Five and (f)Lee, it often is hard to remember that these guys are husbands, fathers, and human beings – subject to the same worries, disappointments, and struggles that we all face in our lives. Maybe I’m getting soft (and maybe this piece was just part of the whole “deal with the devil” thing that Cliffie’s benefiting from), but I’m glad to read a piece that offers perspective and background about an athlete in this town…written (for once) by a local journalist.

Sheldon Ocker reports that offensive is down league-wide, setting things up nicely for the depth and quality of starting pitching that the Indians possess. In a matter unrelated to Socker, interesting to note that the ABJ is providing links to the PD stories on the Tribe in the sidebar to the right on their Indians’ home page.

Scene Magazine’s “C-Notes” points out that Brodzoski (The Close)’s rehab appearance in Lake County happens to fall on $1 beer night…which is either incredible foresight or just dumb luck by someone in the Lake County promotions department. Lord knows I’ll need some suds every time I hear the words, “looks like Borowski’s warming in the pen” when (if?) he returns to “settle” the bullpen…I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.

In case you missed it, the Interwebs were full of trade rumor and innuendo with Ken Rosenthal floating a Matt Holliday to the Tribe thought balloon out there (by the way, check out Holliday’s career home vs. road splits to see the Coors Field effect…um, no thanks), as well as touching on the rumor-du-jour of Garrett Atkins to the Indians (something that Buster Olney speculated on as well). The evolution of these rumors is an interesting manifestation to dissect. It starts with a piece of speculation, usually by a person in the print media, that is exacerbated by the creative minds on the Internet using little basis for the continued speculation other than the expertise of running a Fantasy baseball team, until it is picked up by a desperate radio or TV host looking for ratings, who reports the item almost as fact.

Such a cycle occurred on this one, which is brutally exposed (in no uncertain terms) over at the LGT. It’s a fascinating transition from Olney’s submission or Rosenthal merely speculating that “The Indians need to inject offense. They might prefer to upgrade in their infield, but their production in both outfield corners is poor” to Paul Hoynes using it in his “Notes” column a day and a half later that, “There have also been rumors connecting them with Colorado Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins” which, was for some reason omitted from the online edition linked…but the paper in front of me from Saturday morning certainly includes that phrasing.

All of this rumor-mongering and idle speculation (although a storied pastime in any MLB season and fun at a certain level) is a pretty slippery slope, particularly in the digital age when many people have trouble filtering fact from fiction. I, for one, enjoy the imagined scenarios and conjecture to consider; but the problem lies in the way that people that are thought to be reliable “sources” frame these items. I find it interesting that some of the “mainstream media” often serve as the source for these rumors or perpetuate the fanning of the fire while a guy in his bathrobe in his parents’ basement (isn’t that what all bloggers are?) is the one who cuts through the muck to identify the origin and evolution of the nonsense to expose the absurdity of the whole affair while the guy in print (in this case Hoynes) just goes with it without exploring where it came from or if there’s anything behind it. Maybe now we know the reason that Tony Kornheiser thinks that newspapers aren’t dying. According to him, they’re already dead.

Also in the “dead” portion of a Lazy Sunday, it looks like is “dead” to the Sports Guy Bill Simmons, who apparently has finally had enough of the shell of its former self that ESPN has become. The news means that I have one less reason to hit as Simmons is one of the few writers I enjoy (when he doesn’t revert back to his Boston Sports Guy persona, as he is prone to do particularly with the Celtics’ season) from that site and one of the only reasons I go there outside of the easy-to-sort MLB stats page.

I’ve added a link in the Legends’ Corner, which will direct you to Joe Posnanski’s blog. He’s a man after my own heart, writing 500 words when 50 will do – but his writing is extremely entertaining and insightful. If you’re not familiar with him, he’s a Cleveland native who writes for the Kansas City Star (in addition to the blog) and has won the AP’s “Best Sports Columnist in America” in 2003 and 2005. My favorite post of his since I got turned on to him over the winter is his story regarding his interaction with Bob Costas, bringing his own unique self-examination and humanity to an experience that went a long way into the shaping of his career.

Finally, staying in the “Legends’ Corner”, the link Terry Pluto book “Dealing” (which has been revised and is now available in paperback) has been updated to lead you to the new edition. If you’ve not read the book and consider yourself a Tribe fan interested in how this current regime makes their decisions, it’s simply a must-read.

This week, I’ll take a look at some relievers who may be out there to help out the scuffling bullpen that I think has taken priority over the scuffling offense…for me, at least.
Well timed sports here today…Tribe at 1:15 PM, Cavs at 3:30 PM.
Let’s take two.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Jump to Hyperspace

It seems that the team that everyone loves to dismiss and find fault with (or maybe I just spent a little too much time listening to Sports Talk today…then again, 30 seconds is too long) has slowly but surely mounted a bit of a run here to capture a 1 ½ game lead in the AL Central. The formula that they’re using to win comes as no surprise with the starting pitching leading the way, in historic fashion, picking up the slack for an offense starting to show signs of life and an unsettled bullpen (can today serve as the moment of transition to Masa as the closer?) still trying to find its sea legs. But, as always, the starting pitching is the constant with no signs of a even a crack in their armor as the Indians approach a terrific opportunity over the next two months (thanks to whomever is making these absurd MLB schedules) to separate themselves from the AL Central and pad their lead by taking advantage of what lies ahead.

The next 53 games leading up to the All-Star Break in mid-July pits the Tribe against some teams that aren’t exactly counted as the elite of MLB at the quarter mark of the season. This particular two month stretch of opponents for the Tribe, listed in descending order and not in chronological order (with their records as of Thursday morning and respective totals in terms of runs and team ERA) based on amount of games played up to the “Midsummer Classic” are thus:
Chicago White Sox (19-20) – 9 games
Runs Scored per Game – 4.52
Team ERA – 3.70

Texas Rangers (20-22) – 7 games
Runs Scored per Game – 4.76
Team ERA – 4.73

Cincinnati Reds (18-23) – 6 games
Runs Scored per Game – 4.44
Team ERA – 4.71

Detroit Tigers (16-24) – 6 games
Runs Scored per Game – 4.55
Team ERA – 4.96

Minnesota Twins (20-19) – 6 games
Runs Scored per Game – 4.43
Team ERA – 4.24

Tampa Bay Rays (23-17) – 4 games
Runs Scored per Game – 4.53
Team ERA – 3.69

Kansas City Royals (18-21) – 3 games
Runs Scored per Game – 3.53
Team ERA – 4.19

San Diego Padres (15-26) – 3 games
Runs Scored per Game – 3.41
Team ERA – 4.25

Colorado Rockies (15-25) – 3 games
Runs Scored per Game – 4.27
Team ERA – 4.80

LA Dodgers (20-19) – 3 games
Runs Scored per Game – 4.95
Team ERA – 4.11

SF Giants (17-24) – 3 games
Runs Scored per Game – 3.49
Team ERA – 4.27

Looking at this schedule, it just feels like the Indians are Bruce Lee, slowly stepping into a circle populated by lesser men, taking on all opponents one by one, just waiting to vanquish them almost relishing the task at hand confident in his talent and the tools at his disposal.

Back to reality and before getting too in-depth on this two month stretch, how nice is it to see the DEEE-TROIT Tigers with the second worst record among these teams when we’re playing 7 of the bottom 8 teams in MLB, according to’s Power Rankings (which should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt as big as John Kruk’s pumpkin-sized head) as of May 9th, after hearing ad nauseum all off-season that the Tigers were going to challenge the 1927 Yankees in terms of offensive production and that their thin starting pitching (welcome to the AL, Dontrelle) and bullpen wouldn’t be a problem because their lineup boasted approximately 36 future Hall-of-Famers?

Hey, Dombrowski, how would Jair Juerrjens look in the rotation these days…or even Andrew Miller, who has put two terrific outings together for the Fish in the month of May? I know it’s awfully early to gloat, but I just don’t see an obvious solution to the Tigers’ pitching problems, particularly as each dreadful Verlander start passes (he’s given up less than 4 ER in exactly one of his eight starts to date) and The Gambler gets older (May 10th marked the halfway point of his 43rd year on Earth) that would save their season unless they start averaging about 10 runs a game.

But, I digress.
Back to the matter at hand, as over the next 53 games the Tribe will play teams that have a cumulative 184-240 record (a .434 winning percentage) while playing only three teams (among the 11) that have winning records to date. Less than ½ of the teams are scoring more runs than they are allowing (important to note that the Indians are averaging 4.25 runs a game while posting a team ERA of 3.32, which is the best ERA on this list and constitutes the best runs scored versus runs allowed per game differential on this list at 0.93 more runs scored per game than allowed) and the list looks to be populated with teams built on offense as opposed to pitching, which certainly plays into the Indians’ favor given the sterling performance of the Tribe starters over the past…well…over the whole season save a few early C.C. and Byrd starts.

MLB is full of parity this year, to be sure…but guess what?
If we can complain about how ridiculous the schedule looks regarding our season series in terms of entertainment (done with the Yankees and only six games remaining against the Angels with “only” 121 games left to play) or in terms of interleague play crushing what once were AL East division “rivals” for the Tribe (the aforementioned conclusion of the Yankees’ season series, four games left against the Red Sox, three games left with Toronto), we can also chirp about how great it will be to face a struggling AL Central in nearly ½ the games leading to the All-Star Break and avoiding the Diamondbacks while playing every other team in the relatively weak NL West.

It’s a flawed schedule, thanks to the continued belief in the League office that people in Cleveland are dying to see NL teams (but that’s a whole other topic) and some lack of foresight in terms of traveling and off-days. However, if the Indians stand to come into what could be perceived as an “easy” part of their schedule sitting on a 1 ½ game division lead in the Central without playing their best (or even close to their best) baseball, isn’t this two month stretch a perfect time to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the AL Central like a hot knife through soft butter? The fact that they are playing so many divisional games gives them the opportunity to not only rack up some wins, but to fill the loss ledger of their AL Central divisional counterparts at the same time to put this thing away early…because it is still early.

But this stretch gives the team an opportunity to make that jump to hyperspace and leave the rest of the division light years away…punch it, Chewy.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hitting the Quarter Pole

With the Indians approaching that magical 40-game mark that is so often referred to by Tribe brass as the 1st time in the season that they take a long look at the numbers and performances and seriously look at changes, it’s time to evaluate what’s gone right for the Tribe in the first quarter of the season (in splendid fashion), what’s gone wrong (which is pretty obvious, but bears revisiting with some new numbers), and what could be in store for the final 75% of the regular season:

What’s Gone Right
Yes, it’s the starting pitching coming at you in gobs as the statistics just keep getting better. How have the starters performed in May? After Byrd’s win on Tuesday night, they’ve cumulatively compiled a 1.49 ERA, averaging more than 7 innings per start with a WHIP of 1.08 over the team’s last 11 games, compiling 48 K to go against 18 BB (9 of them from Carmona). The crazy thing is that every night each of these pitchers seem to be playing a game of “Can You Top This?” as every starter is going deep into games, pounding the strike zone, minimizing baserunners, working out of jams, and basically carrying what is otherwise a very flawed team right now. If pitching carries the day, there’s little doubt that the Tribe has it in spades without a weak link emerging. If anything, the fact that Westbrook is ready to come off of the DL means that the Indians have to make a decision on sending Aaron Laffey down to Buffalo.

What has the Babyfaced Bulldog (Laffey) done since getting called up? Just post a 1.83 ERA with a 0.86 WHIP while watching opponents post a .192 SLUGGING PERCENTAGE against him. What does that mean? It means that nobody’s getting on base (low WHIP) against the Indians “depth” starter and when they are getting on base, they’re not getting much more than a single. In 19 2/3 IP, Laffey has given up one (ONE!) extra base hit, a double to Marco Scutaro of the Blue Jays. Laffey has done nothing but sparkle since his promotion and he’s (technically) the 6th starter in the organization! As obtuse as it may seem, it’s true that sending him down to Buffalo when Westbrook returns makes the most sense. With Carmona, Sabathia, and Lee (more on him in a moment) going like they are and with their track record, it’s absurd to even consider such a thing. The only other option would be to consider moving Paul Byrd to the bullpen, but he continues to get hitters out with his beguiling mix of deception and Crisco, so I couldn’t see the Indians sending a veteran like Byrd out to the bullpen after a performance like his 7+ innings against the A’s on Wednesday. In reality, as much as Laffey has done everything asked of him, sending him to Buffalo to continue to go every 5th day and wait for his next chance to throw some sinkers in Cleveland as these things strangely have a way of working themselves out…right, Fausto?

But enough conjecture about what’s coming, let’s get back to the glory that is the Tribe starters by focusing on the man who Lucifer apparently had a meet-and-greet with over the off-season…one Clifton Phifer Lee. In my season preview, I “predicted” (loose term) that Lee’s struggles from 2007 would continue and that he would be moved to the NL with Michaels for another arm and bullpen help. I’d like to now sit down with this heaping plate of crow before me and lay out some statistics for Lee for you as to see them altogether truly puts them in perspective:
7 games
53 2/3 IP
32 Hits Allowed
4 Walks Allowed
5 Runs Allowed
4 Earned Runs Allowed
44 Strikeouts
0.67 ERA
0.67 WHIP
.193 Batting Average Against
.220 Slugging Percentage Against

Truthfully, I don’t know how to paint a prettier picture with my words than to just sit and admire those numbers. The fact that they’re coming from a player that was sent down to the minors, left off of the postseason roster, got into a fight with the unquestioned leader of the team, doffed his cap to the booing home crowd, and was essentially written off by most (I know one…) last year is nothing short of astounding. Can he keep this up? History says no (there have only been 16 instances of a pitcher’s ERA finishing under 2.00 since 1969), but with each passing dominant start, it becomes harder to believe that he can’t just do whatever he wants out there.

Let’s be honest – if there’s one aspect of your team that you want to be going right, it’s starting pitching, and the Indians have quality coming out of their ears Regardless of what the offense isn’t doing and how unsettled the bullpen still seems to be, the starting pitching that the Indians are getting right now on a nightly basis leads me to still believe that the AL Central is theirs for the taking as no team in the Central (much less the AL, or even in all of MLB) can match the consistency that they get from their starters, allowing them to stay in games when their offense shows up, as well as when the offense goes MIA.

Would it be great if the starting pitching we’re getting was supplemented by a potent offense? Absolutely…but since it’s not, we’ll have to force ourselves to watch the deepest and most talented rotation in baseball.

What’s Gone Wrong
The offensive struggles of the team are well-documented as the entire team, with the exception of Grady Sizemore, is hitting less than what should marginally be expected based on their career benchmarks. The team ranks next to last in OPS in the AL (besting only the Tony Pena, Jr.-led Royals’ offense) and rank ahead of only the Nationals and Padres in all of MLB in terms of SLG, which means that the few times the Indians are able to make contact with the ball, there are very few extra-base hits (the lifeblood of the offensive rally) to go around. Unfortunately, it’s not getting any better as the Indians have posted an OBP of .276 in the first two weeks of May heading into the Oakland series and a collective SLG of .305 in that timeframe.

Do you want that collective absurdity in perspective?
Jason Bartlett, the Tampa Bay Rays SS who couldn’t hit enough to stay on the Twins (and his numbers are actually down from his time in Minnesota), is sitting on an OBP of .276 for the season with a season SLG of .295. So, for the first two weeks of the month, the Indians’ offense has been about as effective cumulatively-speaking, as nine Jason Bartletts. I know that the characterization is a bit broad, but the Indians’ offense is struggling so completely and the fact that the team has posted an OPS of .619 over the last week prior to the Tuesday’s game against the A’s (which includes the 18 runs scored in the first two games of the Blue Jays’ series) shows that this team is not close to coming out of their offensive funk.

Knowing that the problem is widespread, why is so much of the blame heaped on the struggles of Travis Hafner, whose OPS sits at .667 and who now occupies the #5 or #6 hole in the lineup? Essentially, the problem that trickles down from Hafner’s difficulties at the plate is that it throws the whole lineup into flux as the team has used 33 different batting orders in their 39 games. The effect of Hafner’s inability to anchor the lineup (as opposed to BEING an anchor in the lineup) is that Martinez is forced into the #4 hole, The Looch is thrown into the #3 hole, Peralta and Garko are forced to struggle ABOVE Hafner instead of allowing their problems to be worked out deeper in the lineup, and the maturation of Frank the Tank, The Ben Francisco Treat (who, after posting a .623 OPS in Buffalo, has batted ahead of Hafner in the lineup more times than he has followed him since his call-up from AAA), and Asdrubal are exposed as some of the run-producing burden that Hafner was thought to shoulder falls to the youngsters and so on and so on.

Does this team need Hafner to return to his 2005 and 2006 numbers?
It would be nice if it were to happen, but all this team needs Hafner to do is to develop some consistency and settle even around the .850 OPS, which would allow the rest of the lineup to settle and would form some sort of semblance of a middle of the order with Martinez. As obvious as it is, it bears mentioning that they can win without Pronk setting the tone from the middle of the lineup; it just won’t be as smooth or easy as it would be with him.

Now, for as much heat as the offense has taken and the frustration of watching a starting pitcher go nine scoreless innings, only to see a loss come about in the 10th, the 2008 bullpen has been nearly as guilty as the offense in squandering games for the Indians’ brilliant starting pitchers. The Indians have the worst save percentage in the AL, blowing 6 of 12 save opportunities, tying them at the bottom of the AL with the Tigers with a putrid 50% save percentage. And this is all with Brodzoski (The Close) only pitching 4 of the 97 2/3 innings that the Indians’ bullpen has logged so far this year. While JoeBo did blow 2 saves in his limited time on the Tribe, he certainly has not been alone in his struggles as Perez and Betancourt are both sporting WHIP’s over 1.50. The bullpen has had its bright spots with Masa Kobayashi acquitting himself nicely to MLB and Jensen Lewis having an excellent year, except for a weeklong stretch in mid-April; but the relievers as a whole seem to still be sorting themselves out in the new season.

Where Borowski fits when (or, I hope, rather if) he comes back remains a mystery as Wedge has said that he’ll be re-inserted as the closer and Betancourt hasn’t exactly evoked memories of his 2007 season that made it look like his ascension to the closer role was a foregone conclusion. Maybe Borowski comes back and (somehow) settles the bullpen by allowing the rest of the relievers to settle back into their roles by saving games with an arm full of bubble gum and chicken wire…stranger things have happened. Of course, he could just as easily find out in a bullpen session that the tank is simply empty (or he’s feeling bone on bone in his elbow or shoulder or wherever), leaving the Indians to sort out the back end of their bullpen before it blows too many games, working in concert with the anemic offense to sabotage the starting pitching to prevent the team from making a sustained run to distance themselves in the division. Whatever should happen, the bullpen remains a work in progress that needs to be settled, particularly with the small margin of error it figures to continue to work with if the offensive woes continue.

What Could Be In Store
With the knowledge that very few teams are running up the white flag this early in the season and are likely to be reticent to move any piece of value that would help the Indians immediately, it remains obvious that all internal options to remedy the Indians’ offense and fortify the bullpen need to be exhausted before any external move is made. The DFA and trade of Jason Michaels was a decent (if very minor) first step, but nobody thought that it would serve as the cure-all for the offense (it was simply a move that should have been made before the season, as insignificant as it was). Ben Francisco has played well in his brief time in Cleveland, but simply inserting him into the “Michaels” role surely isn’t going to fix everything. At this point, minor moves like that are really all that the Indians can do, offensively-speaking, until the principals of the lineup (hopefully) turn the corner.

One of those minor moves that looks to be nothing more than a pipe dream at this point is to see Andy Marte play even a few games a week at 3B instead of Casey Blake, who apparently has grown some deep roots at the Hot Corner. Let me start this by saying that I do think that Blake is a valuable piece of this team, but the valuable aspect of Blake (namely, his versatility) is not being utilized as his inclusion in the lineup nearly every day at 3B have turned him into strictly a 3B instead of the super-sub, capable of playing the OF or 1B, that best suits him at this point in his career. But, despite posting dreadful batting numbers and leading the team in errors (that one’s not even that close), he gets penciled into the lineup at the expense of the Indians at least finding out what they have in Marte and whether the youngster represents an upgrade over the known quantity that is Casey Blake.

But this is all really a lost cause at this point as if the Indians wanted to work Marte in during the first quarter of the season, it would have been too easy for Blake (if he HAS to be in the lineup every day as it seems) to spell a struggling Garko at 1B or take some AB from Michaels (before he was sent away) against LHP in LF. Since neither of those things has happened, we’re left to realize that Andy Marte will not see significant time in 2008 for the Indians and is pretty unlikely to be a member of the Tribe after this year.

For whatever reason, Marte remains chained to the bench as The Frisco Kid has more 3 more AB than Marte since being called up on May 7th, despite Marte being on the roster (I’m told to believe) since Opening Day. To me, I have no idea what went so completely soured the Indians on Marte and have yet to find a compelling argument that Marte should not be in the lineup, at the very least against LHP. The only fathomable explanation that I can come up with is that the proponents of Marte that existed in the Indians’ Front Office either are no longer banging the table for Marte or are no longer there to bang said table. If the latter is true, we can only assume that Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington was the cheerleader for the Marte camp in the organization and his departure for Pittsburgh has left Marte without many supporters and leaves the impression that Marte somehow ran over the dogs of EVERYONE in the Front Office simultaneously to fall so ridiculously out of favor in such a short amount of time, as just 13 months ago he was handed the 3B job out of Spring Training to “grow into it”.

Regardless of the rationale (or lack thereof) for Marte sitting, he’s not going to see the field anytime soon and if it is true that Huntington was the Marteniac in the Tribe Front Office, it’s time for Shapiro to lob a call to the Steel City to see if Huntington would like to be reunited with Marte. In my own flight of fancy, I'd love to see that conversation take place to at least get something of worth for Marte, and at no point should Jason Bay be mentioned. Matt Capps, however…

Speaking of Matt Capps (who, if you’re unaware, is an excellent and young closer for the Pirates), at this point I'd much rather see the Indians explore the trade market for a reliever as the value that may be available from other teams’ bullpens is going to be much more readily available and at a cheaper price than any position player that may hit the trade market. To me, the struggles of Betancourt are very real and my inclination to believe that JoeBo isn’t coming back (and if he is, it’s not going to be for long) leads me to the conclusion that another bullpen arm is needed. I think that some pieces are there with Kobayashi, Perez, Lewis, and Betancourt (in what I see evolving into a lesser role as his 2007 looks like it will go unmatched…and with good reason due to the brilliance of 2007), but unless the Indians suddenly move Atom Miller to the bullpen in Buffalo to ingratiate himself into the rhythm of being a reliever, I don’t see an impact arm that will augment the rotation enough to quell my concerns about the bullpen going forward.

If the Indians do decide to make a trade going down the stretch, the best candidates I can think of are Paul Byrd and Jeremy Sowers. With the Indians’ starting pitching depth, the only position of strength that the Indians can deal from is from their stable of starters. Byrd, obviously, is a FA after this year and would essentially serve as a rent-a-player for a team in need of pitching with the thought that Aaron Laffey’s ascension to the rotation would simply be moved up a year to replace Byrd now instead of the dawn of the 2009 season. Since Byrd is a FA (and is not as cheap as a younger player), the return for Byrd would not be great and the argument could certainly be made that Byrd’s value as the resident veteran is most appreciated down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs.

The more intriguing option could be Jeremy Sowers and it would have more to do with the development of the players in similar situations to Sowers coupled with the success he experienced in 2005 and his successful start to 2007. If the Indians feel that Sowers’ ceiling is essentially as a 5th starter and that more arms are ready to step into the pipeline to replace Sowers at that level of a 5th starter if he were to go, the market could be strong enough for a young LHP with a modicum of success at the MLB level to merit a move. It’s certainly possible that Sowers could be packaged with some lower-level minor leaguers or Andy Marte (because, again, it’s become abundantly clear that he’s not going to be here next year) to add a young bat or a young reliever to strengthen a weakness while not overwhelmingly weakening a strength.

Where the Season is Going
After the Oakland series, the Indians get into a part of their schedule (which I’ll get into more later in the week) that could really catapult them into a strong lead in the AL Central. Their starting pitching will keep them in every game (or at least it seems that way) and as long as the offense can cobble together a few runs a night and the bullpen can settle itself (with or without Brodzoski), the Indians stand in the enviable position of rattling off a winning streak to put some distance between themselves and their AL Central peers.

As frustrating as this team has been to watch as they scuffle along, it’s important to remember that the season is still not even one quarter of the way to the finish line and if the starting pitching remains the constant, the Indians remain poised to defend their AL Central crown as they’re only ½ game out of 1st in the Central playing with a non-existent offense and a still-evolving bullpen.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Lazy Sunday Turning It On

Don’t look now, but the Indians’ bats are waking up and the Tribe has reached the .500 mark by winning 4 of their last 5 against the Yanks and the Jays. I’m not sure why, but the 6-run 7th inning on Friday night, when the Tribe bats finally got to Doc Halladay and battered the Toronto bullpen, felt like a turning point as the ENTIRE offense seemed to be in on the action. Obviously, it continued on Saturday night while The Babyfaced Bulldog, Aaron Laffey, brought his ERA under 2.00 (ho-hum) as the Tribe offense finally turned the faucet to the “ON” position.
And with good feelings all around, let’s take a Lazy:

In case you missed the mini-controversy regarding Joba and The Looch (which sounds like a children’s show), the Indians took exception to Joba screaming and pumping his fist after striking out Dellucci with a 6-3 lead to end the 8th inning one day after Dellucci skied a HR off of Chamberlain for the go-ahead RBI on Tuesday. At issue is Chamberlain celebrating what was a pretty insignificant moment in the game, regardless of how he felt about it personally. If the bases are loaded and your team in clinging to a 1-run lead, some emotion off the mound is not unexpected (how many times has C.C. done it), but to pounce off the mound, pumping your fist when your team has a three-run lead with no runners on to end the 8th…it gets to be a bit much. Chamberlain’s excuse that, “That’s just who I am. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve ever done it” rings hollow as the fact remains that if Dellucci (or any other player, for that matter) had reacted like that in a similar situation (say, hitting an 8th inning HR to add a run for your team, which is already holding the lead) would be replayed over and over on game highlights and there’s little question that retaliation would be in order.

But Chamberlain skated on this for the most part (with one exception, as per “Tribe Fan in Yankeeland”), as the NY media is prone to do for their own and not realize the double standard when Manny Ramirez admires a meaningless 7th inning HR in Fenway against the Yankees later in the season. Manny’s explanation that “it’s just me being me” will come across as disingenuous and cocky as the NY media figures to pounce on him for “not playing the game the right way” and showing up a pitcher. When that happens (and it will with the Yankees’ pitching staff and the fact that Manny knows EXACTLY what he’s doing), remember Joba bouncing off the mound to celebrate an 8th inning strikeout with a 6-3 lead and realize that what comes around, goes around.

A result of this whole Joba controversy (among other things) is the fact that David Dellucci is quickly becoming one of my favorite players on this team. He does his job, he gives maximum effort, he does all the right things (remember when he defended Barfield at the plate last year against the Blue Jays’ catcher?), says all the right things (he had every right to call Joba out on this), and he has a beard that I wish I could sport. Lord knows I’ve been overtly critical of Dellucci, particularly last year when his performance was (to put it kindly) mediocre. But I’ve turned the corner on The Looch – he’s the kind of solid veteran presence that plays hard and leads by example that this team so sorely needs, and don't for a moment think that Dellucci calling out Joba in NY, with the throngs of media in front of him, was lost on a team that is still amazingly young.

And still, one of the players that draws most fans’ ire is Dellucci. But why is the city of Cleveland (a town purported to love the “working class guy”) so down on this type of player and so anxious (present company included) to assume that Dellucci’s days are numbered as the BLC figures to return from an elbow injury at some point in June? Is the “promise” of the BLC that much more enticing than the production that Dellucci is providing?

Is this just another instance of the backup QB being the most popular guy in town?
Perhaps, but it is important to realize that every championship team has this type of player and, more often than not, they’re loved more than the superstars and the more talented players. Remember the reception that Trot Nixon got when he returned to Boston last year? Did you know that the Yankees discourage anyone wearing #21 out of respect for Paul O’Neill? PAUL O’NEILL! These players weren’t among the best 4 position players on their respective championship teams, but the masses adored them for their attitude, their hustle, and their ability – however limited it may have been. But in Cleveland, we bemoan the inclusion of Dellucci in the lineup, decrying his mediocrity and not appreciating the role that he fills on a young team full of talent outside of himself.

Consider that with Michaels in the Steel City, only four Indians’ position players have more than 5 years of MLB service time (Dellucci, Blake, Carroll, and Hafner) with one of them being the futility IF and another being locked in a fight for his offensive existence. So, why the outcry that Dellucci is the weak link on this team when he simply fills his role as the LH hitter who hits RHP very well and plays a competent LF? Is he going to get tons of All-Star votes? Not unless the DiaBride is stuffing the ballot box, but it’s time for Indians’ fans to accept these types of players for what they are and appreciate them in the greater context of this team.

It’s easy to bitch and moan about that which we deem to be insufficient and much more difficult to get past an ugly defensive play or waving at a third strike. But role players like Dellucci are doing what they’re being asked to do – fill a role – and perhaps it’s time that we appreciate them for that and not wish that the All-Star at every position strategy was coming back...because it’s not.

Off the soapbox and back to the LS, if you’re missing the “Week in Review” from Jay Levin of the LGT, it’s a nice capsulation of the previous week and flattens out the ups and downs of the daily grind of a baseball season. Although last week’s is now almost a week old, it’s always worth the read.

In case you missed it, beat writer Anthony Castrovince (the only Tribe beat writer that I read) has started a blog called “CastroTurf” (permanent link added in “Friends of the Feather”), which is much more low-key and informal than his normal pieces for the official site. He already broke the Michaels designation and the Michaels to the Pirates news, so it looks to be a good place to hit for breaking Indians news, as well as appreciating Castrovince’s sense of humor and insight breakdown from the pre-game notes provided to the media.

Andy Call of The Rep thinks that Barry Zito’s struggles will have an adverse effect on C.C. getting a 7-year deal. In reality, common sense and self-restraint by baseball GM’s should have an adverse effect on C.C. getting anything longer than a 5-year deal, but Zito’s not helping C.C. with his struggles in the Bay Area.

Tom Mastny’s heading to Buffalo to get some regular work (he certainly wasn’t getting it in Cleveland) and Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News thinks that Josh Barfield’s heading topside. I tend to disagree and could see Michael Aubrey come west on I-90 (something that Minor League Guru Tony Lastoria called earlier in the week) to give Garko a bit of a break (he did also just take a pitch off his wrist last night) and to serve as a better defensive 1B with the Tribe scheduled to go to Cincinnati next weekend. Because of the myriad of injuries he’s endured, Aubrey is in his final option year, so it would behoove the Indians to take advantage of a healthy Aubrey and see what he’s capable of for the parent club before a decision is forced on the team next Spring in Goodyear without Aubrey ever having received a chance. By the way, Barfield still has an option year AFTER this year, so that could play a part in the decision as well.

Terry Pluto touches on topics covered here over the last week and month regarding the struggles of the entire offense, the possibility of Andy Marte playing, and the fact that the Indians’ starting pitching may be deep enough to deal from a strength to augment the offense.

Grady’s coming at you in full effect with Kenny Mayne, acknowledging (among other things) that he meets girls in “bookstores”. My buddy Dozer ran into Grady and a friend from high school last year at a Tremont “establishment” that is known for its staff being, um…easy on the eyes. As bar time hit, the patrons were asked to leave...except for Sizemore and his boy. When the wait staff was questioned as to why he could stay, the replay was “that’s Grady Sizemore…he’s not going anywhere”.
Ah…to be 25, obscenely talented, filthy rich, and a popular guy at “bookstores”.
‘Tis a charmed life.

Finally, with rain threatening our plans to spend Mother’s Day at the Tribe game (the DiaBride’s idea…I swear), enjoy some music that just feels like a sunny day on a beach.

It’s time for this team to start acting like Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes and not only separate themselves from the pack, but just leave the rest of the AL Central in their dust.
Happy Mothers’ Day!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Deep End of the Talent Pool

As frustrating as the Indians’ offense has been and as many teeth have been gnashed and walls damaged watching the Indians’ hitters flail away, let’s sit back and appreciate what we’re watching from the Indians’ pitching staff – which, as a baseball fan, is a truly amazing thing to witness from night to night.

Consider that since 13-2 loss at the hands of the Tigers on April 16th, the Indians have gone 11-8, despite scoring four runs or more in only 8 of those 19 games. We all know why this has happened (um…the pitching), but does everyone realize HOW good the Indians’ starters have been since that terrible outing by C.C. against the Motor City Kitties?

In the 125 1/3 IP that the starters have thrown over those 19 games (which means they’re averaging better than 6 IP per start), they’ve collectively posted an ERA of 2.73 and a WHIP of 1.10 while striking out more than three times the number of batters they’re walking. From top to bottom, the Indians’ rotation has completely shut down opponents with the weakest link actually coming from arguably their most talented player (not just pitcher) in Carmona, whose wildness has been saved by his general nastiness. They’ve been paced mainly by exceptional performances from Cliff Lee who, you may have heard by now, is the latest in a short line of pitchers to start a season at 6-0 with an ERA under his 0.81 ERA…all of whom preceding him went on to win the Cy Young. How does he look like a completely different pitcher now than he EVER has in his career? I don’t have a clue, but as long as Clifton Phifer Lee is OK with the knowledge that his soul is destined for the “Down” escalator when it comes to pass, I am too.

Beyond C.P., both Paul Byrd and Aaron Laffey have emerged as pitchers capable of twirling six to seven innings of dominant baseball through impeccable control and simply pitching to contact. The expected turnaround for C.C. that we have all been hoping to arrive has occurred as he’s posted a 2.21 ERA since the aforementioned mid-April night against the Tigers, and Fausto’s sinker getting him out of some self-made jams. All of this dominance has occurred while the pitcher who looked most dominant out of the gate (Westbrook) hasn’t pitched in 2 ½ weeks. The point is, from night to night, I almost pencil in the Indians starter for the night to go at least 6 innings while giving up less than 2 runs…and I’m generally neither off-base nor disappointed.

I know that this is something that I’ve harped on for quite some time, but the Indians’ grand scheme of consistently contending in the AL Central and the American League is to field a team designed to rely on strong starting pitching that goes as deep as possible to allow for the ups and downs of a MLB season. That has come to fruition here in the past few weeks as Jeremy Sowers, and then Laffey (in grand fashion, I might add) simply stepped into the Tribe rotation and proved to be more than competent starting options. The fact that both figure to be back in Buffalo when Jake returns from the DL (and can we say right now that with the way Laffey’s going, let’s make sure that Jake is COMPLETELY healthy before Laffey is sent back to devour wings at the Anchor Bar again) is quite a testament to the depth that the Indians have accumulated in their starting pitching.

But wait, you say, enjoy it while you can because if C.C. leaves and Byrd is allowed to fly away after the season, didn’t our “window of opportunity” just close…isn’t that what every national scribe is suggesting? Only if you think that Carmona (24, under club control through 2014), Lee (29, under club control through 2010), Westbrook (30, under club control through 2010) are incapable of anchoring the top of a rotation that will be augmented by Laffey for sure (23, under club control through 2013) and either Atom Miller (23, under club control through 2013) or Sowers (25, under club control through 2012) with more arms scheduled to emerge from Akron (David Huff, Chuck Lofgren, etc.) to serve as the depth going forward.

Remember the famous “waves of arms” comment that Shapiro said that the organization would be leaning on for contention as needs arose on the parent club? The performances of Sowers and Laffey served as quite a preview as to how this strategy figures to play out over the next few years…and there’s more down there (the team ERA of the Lake County Captains sits at 2.90 with a WHIP of 1.21 with most of the main pitchers being either 19 or 20 years old) to fill the pipeline.

It’s a simple philosophy that should serve this team pretty well year after year as hitting remains a volatile commodity (ask the Detroit Tigers, who have been shut out 6 times this season, twice as many times as the Indians) and solid and consistent pitching remains a constant, particularly when depth (and quality depth at that) exists for the organization.

Is it easy to get frustrated with the Indians’ offense and imagine what kind of roll this team would be on with any kind of sustained production from the lineup? Sure, and it makes for spirited discussion that tends to be emotional, but it’s more important to understand how this organization is set up through “The Plan” laid out so long ago – that starting pitching is designed to be the strength of the team with a competent offense and a bullpen that figures to evolve every year (just as it does for every MLB team) supporting it to put the Indians in contention to make the playoffs every year, with the ultimate idea that pitching wins in the playoffs carrying the day.

With the pitching going like it is (by the way, not to be outdone, the bullpen has posted a 2.52 ERA in the same 19-game timeframe), that offense that is designed to be “competent” needs to be merely that for the run of wins to begin.
Now, has this offense been “merely competent”?
Not right now…but the starting pitching is such a strength that it serves as the bedrock of the team, a role it should continue to fill as long as the pitchers simply move up the organizational ladder, regardless of what the offense is or isn’t doing.