Thursday, January 29, 2009

Arizona Dreamin’ – Doing the Bull Dance…Feelin’ It

Being simply no longer surprised or dismayed by another significant dropping of whiteness upon us (it is Cleveland and it is January after all), it’s definitely time to take another look forward to the land of cacti and sun…Arizona and Spring Training for YOUR Cleveland Indians, which is now only about two weeks away.

Having looked at the part of the team that looks to have the most question marks entering 2009 with the rotation, it’s time to cast an eye towards the part of the team that has consistently contained the most question marks (at least in even-numbered years) for the Tribe – the bullpen. On the surface, though, the bullpen looks to contain infinitely fewer question marks compared to the rotation as it stands here in January. Whereas the Indians seemed to have addressed the questions in the back-end-of-the-rotation by compiling a number of arms (Reyes, Pavano, Laffey, Sowers, Huff, Lewis) and hoping that three spots can be filled in some manner by some combination of said arms, the Indians’ approach to handling their bullpen needs this off-season represents a much more focused strategy, one (very frankly) that they haven’t employed too often in off-seasons of the past under the Shapiro/Antonetti regime.

That is, in the past, the Indians have always employed the idea that they could resurrect an arm from the trash heap to go with their young arms with the hope that it would all blend together to forge a successful bullpen (sound familiar when you look at spots #3 to #5 in the 2009 rotation?) as the arms sorted themselves out. It became a crapshoot every year, wondering who was going to emerge as an effective reliever, who was going to fall off, and who would assert themselves squarely into the progression of arms that The Atomic Wedgie utilizes for the 6th inning on.

During the implementation of that strategy, the Indians saw relievers resurrect their careers as guys like Bob Howry, Bob Wickman, and Brodzoski v.2007 (yes, he did lead the AL in saves…look it up) rediscovered past successes or squeezed every last bit out of their arms. But, just as frequent were the players that ultimately proved that there was nothing left (Guillermo Mota, Danny Graves, Bobby Hernandez, Jorge Julio, etc.) once they got to Cleveland, assuming they even made it to Cleveland (Keith Foulke, I’m looking in your direction)…and that’s just the veterans. For every Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez, who has logged innings with some consistency over the course of a couple of years, players like Fernando Cabrera, Jason Davis, and Tom Mastny showed flashes of effectiveness, but eventually found their way out of the organization due to inconsistency.

Coming off the 2008 season, though, something changed in the Indians’ line of thinking pertaining to bullpens. Whether it was the amount of money the team was spending on pallets of the Pepto-Bismal and TUMS that were necessary to get through the 6th through 9th innings every night or whether it was the realization that the bullpen effectively deep-sixed the 2008 season (along with a few other factors, for sure), the Indians decided that they would eschew the idea that adding a couple of fair-to-middling arms to the mix of Lewis, Perez, Betancourt, and Kobayashi could result in an effective pen (remember the odd-even year thing) and take their chances and added two in-their-prime relievers to the bullpen, one very significantly having the potential to end the 9th inning woes.

When the Indians ended their 2008 season, they very specifically identified their needs as a bona-fide closer and another bullpen arm to lengthen the quality of the depth of the bullpen down to the reserves in AAA. While some rolled their eyes and prepared for a Jason Isringhausen or Brandon Lyon signing, as well as preparing themselves for the possibility that Donnelly or Rincon would inexplicably be kept around, the Indians moved quickly at the Winter Meetings by first inking an elite closer in Kerry Wood to the back-end of the bullpen, then pulling the trigger on the Franky Gutz deal that netted them a young, reliable reliever in Joe Smith to settle into the middle tier of relievers.

When the dust settled and the Indians’ brass returned from Las Vegas, the bullpen had gone from having the look of “I hope some of these young guys can take the next step to settle the bullpen” to “If these young guys take the next step, look out for a potentially dominant bullpen”. As the Indians welcomed their new arms into the fold, the top 6 names in the bullpen began to take shape, on paper at least:
Closer – Wood
Set-Up – Perez
Set-Up – Lewis
Middle-to-Late Relief – Betancourt
Middle-to-Late Relief – Smith
Middle Relief – Kobayashi

Still today, that progression looks to be how they will essentially go into Spring Training, with the idea that Wood’s presence allows the rest of the bullpen to slot accordingly in front of him. Because with Wood, the Indians finally have that 9th inning pitcher that makes opponents hope that they can get a lead against the relievers in the 6th, 7th, or 8th inning because the 9th inning is no longer the place that hitters can lick their chops for the likes of Sticky Wickman or JoeBo.
Don’t know what I mean?
How often, when the Indians are losing to the Twins, do you say to yourself, “well, the Tribe’s going to have to get even or ahead before the 9th because when Joe Nathan comes on…it’s over”?
Same thing…replace “Twins” and “Nathan” with “Red Sox” and “Papelbon” or “Royals” and “Soria” or even “Yankees” and “Rivera”…you know exactly what I’m talking about and how we’ve all longed for the day when the Indians could boast a similarly skilled closer, capable of missing bats, consistently going 1-2-3, and just locking it up in the 9th.
How’s this sound in terms of “locking it up”?
11.40 K/9 (7th in MLB among pitchers with more than 60 IP)
4.67 K/BB (9th in MLB among pitchers with more than 60 IP)
1.09 WHIP (19th in MLB among pitchers with more than 60 IP)
2.28 Defense Independent ERA (4th in MLB among pitchers with more than 60 IP)

This could go on and on, but know that the Indians haven’t had a pitcher like Wood at the back-end of their bullpen since Joe Table’s heyday and (knocking firmly on wood…ba dum bum) assuming he stays healthy, his mere presence and reputation in the 9th inning go a long way to stabilizing the bullpen from the back going forward.

Figuring to be the two principal pitchers tasked with handing Wood a lead, Perez and Lewis look to build on their success over the last two seasons as Perez has compiled a career ERA of 2.89, a career WHIP of 1.09, a career ERA+ of 156, and has 163 K to 44 BB in 149 1/3 innings over his 135 appearances over the last three seasons. Perez, with that track record, has established himself as a legitimate set-up man, capable of getting swings and misses and being equally effective against hitters from both sides of the plate (LHP - .519 career OPS against, RHP - .654 career OPS against). Meanwhile, Lewis got past some initial difficulties in 2008 to show that his 2007 performance (2.15 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 214 ERA+) wasn’t a flash in the pan as he saved all 13 save opportunities presented to him, compiling a 2.49 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP and 22 K to 7 BB in the 25 1/3 innings over his last 24 appearances.

Again, going back to the Wood signing, what the domino effect of slotting Wood into the 9th inning did was allow the Indians to use Perez and Lewis in the 7th or 8th innings and allow the likes of Rocky Betancourt to work his way back into the progression of relievers and the likes of Joe Smith into the progression of relievers without asking either to take the ball in the 7th or 8th inning from Day 1. This cannot be underestimated as Betancourt is coming off a disastrous season, during which he saw his numbers drop not just a little bit from his Herculean 2007 season (312 ERA+…312!), but saw them drop to the point that he wasn’t even a moderately effective or average reliever in 2008. After giving up only 4 HR and walking only 9 batters in 2007 over 79 1/3 innings, Betancourt reached those milestones in 25 IP (for 4 HR) and 27 IP (for the 9 BB). While it was thought that Rocky could be a closer-in-waiting or that he provided insurance against Borowski’s imminent meltdown, he started the season by posting a 7.00 ERA, a 1.69 WHIP, and a .950 OPS against in his first 27 appearances. To put that in perspective, the much-maligned (and rightly so) 2008 season put forth by Joe Borowski really wasn’t that far off of Betancourt’s numbers as Brodzoski (The Close) compiled a 7.56 ERA, a 1.92 WHIP, and a .978 OPS against in his 18 outings for the Tribe.

Given that Betancourt fell off the cliff like he did, then, to simply put him back into the mix as a viable 7th inning option for 2009 looked to be tantamount to playing Russian roulette as an organization because at this point, nobody knows what Betancourt figures to contribute. Certainly it won’t be his brilliant 2007 (or could it?) or his forgettable 2008 (again, or could it?)…maybe it’s somewhere around his three seasons previous to 2007, when the Indians could mark him down for 55 to 70 innings, an ERA between 3.00 and 4.00, a WHIP between 1.20 and 1.40 - essentially a solid reliever that can help the bullpen in some capacity. Maybe more will come from him, maybe the Indians expect more from him…at this point, I don’t. Regardless of whether he ever recaptures his 2007 stuff, I’ll take the reliever that Betancourt was from 2004 to 2006 in the 6th inning of a rock-solid bullpen any day.

As for the other middle-to-late inning alternative allowed to slide down the ladder because of the Wood signing (which was done before he was even an Indian, I know), Joe Smith is afforded the luxury of adapting to a new league, a new team, and a new set of hitters without the pressure of doing so as a primary or secondary set-up man (which he really was in New York, entering the game in the 7th inning or later in 68 of his 82 appearances) because of the quality present in the Indians’ 2009 bullpen. His 2008 numbers, in only his second season in MLB, portend good things for Smith as he posted a 3.55 ERA, a 1.30 WHIP, and a 118 ERA+ in 63 1/3 IP in those 82 appearances. To put that in perspective in terms of the 2008 Tribe bullpen, only Rafael Perez posted a better ERA+ as a regular Indian reliever last year, besting Smith’s 118 ERA+ with a 126 ERA+.

Smith comes to the Indians as somewhat of a ROOGY (the right-handed cousin of the Left-handed One Out GuY), allowing RH hitters to compile only a .589 OPS against him in 210 plate appearances, while struggling against LH hitters in the 61 times the Mets allowed him to face them, as LH hitters posted a .903 OPS against Smith in 2008. It will be interesting to see how Wedge and Willis use Smith as his body of work to this point seems to indicate that he’s best suited to face RH hitters almost exclusively, so they may try to either work him into a comfort zone by facing batters from both sides of the plate earlier in a game to see if he projects as more than a straight ROOGY or they can simply use him as he was used effectively in New York, shutting down opposing RH batters at any point in the game. Realistically, he doesn’t figure to be much more than a one-to-two batter pitcher, but on a team that looks to be strong in the bullpen, it’s a luxury that the Indians can afford.

Concerning the last pitcher thought to be guaranteed a spot in the bullpen out of Goodyear, Masa Kobayashi showed in 2008 that he can be effective out of the bullpen…until something happens. From the Season Opener to the first week in June, Kobayashi posted a 2.61 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP, and 22 K to 5 BB while limiting opposing hitters to a .591 OPS against in 31 IP over 28 appearances.
Looks good, right?
Well…then…something…happened. Something inexplicably bad, something that took Kobayashi from a potential closer to a player not guaranteed much more than a short leash this season. From his 29th appearance to his last (a total of…29 games), Kobayashi compiled a 6.93 ERA, a 1.86 WHIP, and only 13 K to 9 BB while allowing hitters to tee off on him to the tune of a .936 OPS against in 24 2/3 IP. Maybe it had something to do with workload, maybe there was an unreported injury, maybe it had something to do with age – whatever it was, the Indians should either REALLY limit his workload or ride him hard and fast while he’s effective, then cut ties with him sometime around (just throwing this number out there) the 32nd inning he pitches. I don’t doubt that Kobayashi will break camp with the team, if only because most of the candidates for the 7th bullpen spot retain options, but I don’t expect him to finish the season on the team, given what we saw last year. Even if the Indians limit his inning count, if he appears for an inning twice a week for 15 weeks from the time the season starts (a pretty light workload), he’s at 30 IP in the first week in July. That’s before the All-Star Break and, if the second half of 2008 is any indication, I’m not sure I expect Kobayashi to last even that long, particularly if “protecting” his workload could result in the Indians essentially going with a 6-man bullpen.

If we’re assuming that those six pitchers are locked into the bullpen out of Goodyear (with the obvious caveat that injury and ineffectiveness is sure to have the players that take up those top six spots fluctuate a bit), let’s get into the only real question facing the Indians this Spring pertaining to their bullpen – who comes out of Arizona as the 7th member of the bullpen?

The names out there are familiar to Tribe fans because their names have become verbs (“we got Mujica’d last night”), because we’ve heard about them for what feels like 10 years now as “can’t miss” (Atom Miller, blazing his way back into the mix), because 2009 represents a chance for them to put themselves back on the bullpen map after an ill-advised decision to attempt to start again (Mayday Meloan, the stud RHP from LA), or because they offer what the bullpen seems to be short on (LOOGY Rich Rundles). Regardless of how they’re familiar to you, each represents a different avenue that the Indians can take with that 7th spot as each brings a different skill-set and a different story to the table.

If you’re talking strictly from a roster management standpoint, the obvious choice for the 7th spot is Mujica, out of options and at risk of being plucked up by another organization if he doesn’t make the team out of Goodyear. If you would have asked me when 2008 ended if Mujica would be in the 2009 bullpen in some capacity, I would have unequivocally said that he would. But after watching the Indians allow Nasty Boy Tom Mastny to head to the Far East and watching them load up on arms, while making the full-time commitment to Miller in the bullpen, I’m not so sure that his days aren’t numbered. He famously thrust himself into the Indians’ plans with a 2006 season, during which he dominated AA and AAA (1.56 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 46 K to 14 BB in 52 IP as a 22-year-old) and experienced success for the Indians that same year when given the opportunity, posting a 2.95 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP with 12 K and 0 BB in 18 1/3 IP for the parent club. But since then, Mujica has been inconsistent at best both in AAA and for the Indians as his forgettable 2007 (5.12 ERA, 1.17 WHIP in Buffalo, 8.31 ERA, 1.61 WHIP for Cleveland) gave way to his 2008 season which can best be described as a roller coaster…which is to say, up and down. Lest anyone forget, for a 10-game stretch in 2008, Mujica put up 12 straight scoreless innings, allowing only 6 base runners, none of whom reached on an extra-base hit.

Unfortunately for Eddie Moo, though, sandwiched around that brilliant stretch was a period of time that saw him pitch 12 innings in 9 games, giving up 9 runs, 5 2B, and 3 HR and another period over 17 games (17 2/3 innings) giving up 20 runs and 11 extra-base hits. With all of that said, maybe the Indians give him the first crack out of Spring Training of eating some innings or allowing the youngsters (namely Miller and Meloan) to sort themselves out in Columbus, but the talk about young Miller forcing his way into the plans right out of Goodyear could leave Mujica as the odd man out, options or no options.

As for young Atom Miller, his talent has never been questioned and his performance in the Dominican Winter League (where his fastball was allegedly touching 96 MPH to 98 MPH) was described by one scout thusly, “I mean, he was carving these guys up…a nasty slider, too. Attacked hitters. Threw strikes. If he stays healthy, he’s going to be something to reckon with down the road.”
There’s that Atomic caveat – “if he stays healthy” – one that we’ve grown all too familiar with since his breakout season in 2006 in Akron that put his ascent on hold…apparently until now. Miller’s move full-time to the bullpen looks to be a way to get the talented 24-year-old onto the Indians, not giving up on the idea that he can perhaps move back to the rotation at some point down the road if he can prove that he can stay healthy (think Adam Wainwright). But for now, the bullpen looks to be where he fits for 2009 and early returns have been more than encouraging to the point that many “in the know” have pegged Miller as the odds-on favorite to break camp with the Tribe as that 7th reliever in the bullpen. I know it’s been said before (fairly recently), but it bears repeating that if he does make the 25-man out of Goodyear that his talent should be what determines where he pitches as opposed to simply slotting him at the bottom of the bullpen ladder. That is, if Miller’s dominant in Arizona, the Indians should give him a crack at that 6th inning role right away along with Betancourt and Smith, ahead of Masa. If Miller thrives, the Indians shouldn’t hesitate to utilize his talent (that is, that fastball and slider) as high up the bullpen ladder as his performance merits.

At this point, the kid gloves should be off of Miller to some extent to see what the young fireballer can do and the results, not the fear of what could happen, should dictate where he ends up. If it’s in the mix with Lewis and Perez as set-up guys, or even above them setting up another hard-throwing Texan who has seen his share of injury concerns, so be it.

If Miller is trying to recapture some of the momentum he had from 2006, Mayday Meloan figures to go into camp trying to rediscover the unbridled success he had as a reliever in the Dodgers’ organization before he was inexplicably moved to the AAA Las Vegas rotation in 2008, prior to coming to Cleveland as part of the Casey Blake deal. While the Indians hope that Miller’s talent translates to the bullpen, they simply hope that Meloan’s obvious talent can translate BACK to the bullpen as the numbers that he put up in the Dodgers’ organization speak to a high level of performance out of the bullpen:
2006 – Age 21 at A & AA
1.90 ERA, 0.83 WHIP with 91 K and 16 BB in 52 IP
2007 – Age 22 at AA & AAA
2.03 ERA, 0.95 WHIP with 91 K and 27 BB in 66 2/3 IP
Now, after the Dodgers’ ill-fated attempt to make him a starter (for whatever reason), Mayday is back in the bullpen, where he will attempt to get back into the rhythm and the routine of a reliever. Meloan’s overall body of work as a reliever are probably just as impressive as Miller’s numbers, but working himself back into the role of a reliever may mean that the Indians start Meloan in AAA to get steady work out of the bullpen with the idea that he factors very heavily into the 2009 bullpen (perhaps just as much as Atom Miller, without the current fanfare)…just not out of Goodyear.

While Mujica, Miller, and Meloan represent RH options for a bullpen that looks largely RH, if the Indians decide to keep another LHP out of Goodyear not named Raffy Perez, Rich Rundles almost certainly becomes that 7th reliever. While Perez cannot be considered a LOOGY (due to his success against both LH and RH hitters), Rundles’ numbers project him as a LHP who thrives against LH hitter (.165 Batting Average Against, 1.01 WHIP, 11.44 K/9 against LH hitters in AAA last year) while seeing his overall numbers drop, though not precipitously against RH hitters (.260 Batting Average Against, 1.50 WHIP, 7.66 K/9 against RH hitters in AAA in 2008). Obviously the Indians aren’t afraid to carry pitchers who specialize in facing one type of batter (see Smith, Joe), so Rundles could certainly find a place on this bullpen if the Indians feel that they’re too RH-heavy. At this point, though, Rundles looks to be a depth option for Columbus with the idea that the Indians will continue to develop him as a potential LOOGY down the road – probably wearing a Tribe uniform at some point in 2009, just not out of the gate.

Those four look to be the main competition for the 7th spot with the rest of the bullpen depth either looking to simply stay healthy to get back into the serious discussions as an option for the Tribe (like the unquestionably talented Tony Sipp, who threw only 33 2/3 innings last year after missing all of 2007) or someone still trying to work into the mix as an option even if a similarly skilled player was just acquired for the parent club (like Randy Newsom, a potential ROOGY suddenly “blocked” by Joe Smith) or basically being roster fodder for the Spring Training camp (Matt Herges, Greg Aquino, Kirk Saarloos, Vinnie Chulk, and Jack Cassel) with the idea that if the Indians have these veteran arms if they need them while not counting on any to contribute significantly.

The other direction they could go would be to keep Zach Jackson around as a long man/spot starter, but with Jackson now having another option, the Indians can send him to Columbus to be ready to do just that without having to worry about losing him to waivers out of Goodyear to do so. Jackson, as I said in the rotation piece, probably factors into the 2009 pitching staff as a fill-in type of arm as not much can really be expected of him in terms of long-term performance based on his track record, but his availability and versatility mean that he’ll log some innings for the Tribe, either out of the bullpen to eat innings or for a spot start to preserve rest for the rotation.

All told, the Indians’ approach to their bullpen, which in years past could be best described as “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” took a turn this off-season as the Indians added legitimate relievers (Wood and Smith) in their prime to their in-house mix of Lewis, Perez, Betancourt, and (to a lesser extent Kobayashi) while FINALLY having some young, high-ceiling power arms (namely Miller and Meloan) that figure to augment the veteran mix as the season moves on. The bullpen figures to be a constantly evolving entity (as it is every year) with players moving up and down the ladder of progression that Wedge employs to fit his relievers into set “roles”.

The bullpen as it figures to break camp from Goodyear to the bullpen as it likely looks in the middle of the season to the way that it will be constituted for what is hopefully a stretch run for the playoffs should have a lot of moving parts that will flow in and out of it. The addition of Wood, though, and the prospect of young relievers either entering their prime (Perez and Lewis) or thrusting themselves into the mix (Miller and Meloan) gives the Indians what looks to be a deep and somewhat settled pen that should only grow more talented and deeper as 2009 rolls on.

EDIT: For another comprehensive look at how some of the principals who figure into the 2009 look up against one another, be sure to check out APV’s analysis over at the LGT.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Remembering Herb

With all of the excitement around February 12th approaching and the knowledge that the 2009 season won’t be far behind, I was reminded earlier this week by longtime reader (if not serial poster) Tim Harrison that the Indians are likely to honor Herb Score in some capacity this season with what will likely be a commemorative patch.

While Joe Posnanski put into words better than I what Herb meant to generations of Indians fans at the time of his passing, Tim sent me a patch that he had come up with that beautifully illustrates Herb’s contributions to the organizations from his debut in 1955 to the last call at the mike in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series.

The complexity of the design appeals to me as many of the patches that are done are simply too small or obscure to know what’s being honored, but with this one combining the #27 (to commemorate his achievements as a player) and the microphone (to recognize his contributions as a broadcaster) leaves no doubt as to who it honors.

It’s a much more beautifully illustrative tribute than the simple initials that so many patches have evolved into by incorporating what Score provided us in his long and illustrious career as an Indian – memories on the mound and in the booth.

When sending it to me, Tim mentioned that his favorite commemorative patch was the Olin/Crews patch from 1993 with the arrow and the star in the baseball in that it said something more than just listing simple initials. To me, Tim’s design succeeds in the same way and, while the Indians surely have already designed one and submitted it to MLB for approval to be used this year, I’ll use Tim’s design on the sidebar all year as a reminder of an Indian lost.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lazy Sunday Hitting All the Bases

Creeping closer to Spring Training as the snow continues to fall on the North Coast (with a wonderful sheet of ice under the newest layer of white fluff), let’s warm our bones by rolling right into a Lazy one:

Terry Pluto has a column that focuses on how two key players for 2009, Fausto (and is that picture to the right still the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, if only for the memories) and Hafner, may be on the road to recovering their past success. He reports that the Indians have found a “small flaw in Carmona’s delivery” which will hopefully improve the command that left him in 2008. Though some could spend thousands of words on the rotation (overly verbose, me?), I think it goes without saying that Carmona could be the key to the Indians’ 2009 season as Lee is assumed to be a solid pillar in the rotation (even if his 2008 Cy Young-worthy campaign is not replicated) and questions abound for starters #3 to #5 as the Indians will try to recognize and utilize the pitchers that best fill those spots earlier rather than later (not that you asked, but I see Laffey, Reyes, and Huff as the three pitchers who fill out the rotation for the bulk of the season) in 2009.

But the wild card remains Carmona as an effective Carmona gives the Indians two potential aces to head the rotation and, while it’s not exactly “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” because the candidates for the back-end aren’t exactly slouches, it puts less pressure on the back-end-of-the-rotation guys to perform at a level higher than perhaps what they’re capable of at this point in their careers. On the flip side, a Carmona who continues to struggle with command and spends the season correcting whatever mechanical flaw has invaded his delivery means that the serious question marks in the rotation start right behind Lee.

As for the other player of note that Pluto addresses in terms of bounce back seasons, he asserts that the Indians, when talking about Carlos Quentin as a possible trade target last off-season, said that Quentin’s numbers would improve in 2008 wherever he played because of the shoulder surgery that he had after the 2007 season. Why is this relevant? Because, according to the Indians, it’s similar to the shoulder surgery that Hafner went through a few months back and in case you forgot how Quentin burst onto the AL after a couple of lousy years in Arizona when he didn’t have a lot of power (where have I seen that recently), he was the leader in MVP field when he decided to punch a bat.

As a quick aside here, Pluto points out later in his piece how the Browns are missing the boat by not making any of their new employees available to the media and by starving their fans, hungry for any morsel of information about the Browns. In comparison, after reading the “information” that came out of the Indians’ Winter Press Tour, does anyone else think that the Indians are pretty aware that putting something (ANYTHING) out there for their fans in even the slowest of times is a way to stay front-and-center in the minds of their fans? Unfortunately for the Indians, the Browns’ fans will continue to seek out anything that they can find and mindlessly flock to fill CB Stadium every Sunday while the Indians figure to struggle to meet their attendance projections despite an off-season that resulted in a team that many are calling the prohibitive favorite in the AL Central…whatever that means in January.

But I digress,
Back to the Winter Press Tour, apparently something of value CAN come out of it and not just the canned responses to the obligatory “how do you feel” or “how do you think the team’s going to do this year” questions. Leave it to Castro to muddle through the muck to summarize the items of interest from the past two weeks.

Going through the notable entries, Castrovince asserts that Dellucci’s going to be on a “short leash”, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, though I'd be very surprised if he didn’t at least break camp on the 25-man if only to let the Columbus OF sort itself out for a couple of weeks/months. Also pertaining to players on the fringe, he sees Barfield as the likely 25th player on the roster, which again shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise as Andy Marte’s ticket out of the organization seems to have been stamped and Barfield represents a player earning the league minimum who possesses some speed that can sit on the bench without blocking a real prospect (Valbuena) by playing 2B at all in Columbus.

On the bullpen, AC says that Atom Miller has to be considered the leader in the clubhouse saying that “If he's healthy and throwing well in camp, it's hard to imagine the Indians using an option on him to send him to Triple-A.” I don’t doubt that bringing Miller north may be a course of action that they’re considering, particularly because reports out of the Dominican League had him buzz-sawing through hitters with 98 MPH heat and a wicked 89 MPH splitter, but let’s all hope that Miller (assuming he’s that 7th bullpen arm) isn’t used like the 7th relievers out of the pen in the past. That is, if Miller is going to be on the 25-man roster on Opening Day, his talent should be what determines where he pitches as opposed to simply slotting him at the bottom of the bullpen ladder because it’s assumed that the progression goes Wood, Lewis, Perez, Betancourt, Smith, and Kobayashi from one to six.

Ideally, Miller’s performance in the Spring should dictate where he slots in the pen and if he’s dominating hitters in Goodyear like reports from the Dominican Winter League purported him to be, there’s no reason that the Indians should have him leapfrog immediately over Masa in the bullpen ladder and be on par with Betancourt and Smith in terms of where he slots. If Miller’s dominant in Arizona, give him a crack at that 6th inning role right away instead of putting him into that 7th reliever role that we saw Mujica and Mastny flounder in, where The Atomic Wedgie’s usage patterns are erratic at best.

Finally, Castro relays that Mike Brantley is “as mature a 21-year-old as you'll ever meet”, a notion that struck me as well when Tony Lastoria and I were lucky enough to welcome Brantley and his agent Josh Kusnick to the radio show some time ago. I don’t know about you, but the 21-year-old version of myself was not the most impressive or mature person that you would meet and Brantley’s poise at a young age, not to mention the fact that he doesn’t turn 22 until May and figures to start the season in AAA, speaks to a self-confidence (not a cockiness) that the special players often exhibit.

On the topic of Brantley, Tony Lastoria mentioned on this week’s show (during which we welcomed RHP Frank Herrmann) that he met Brantley at an event in Lake County and says that Brantley is about 6’2” or 6’3” and a “rock-solid” 200 lbs (which, ironically, is what Grady’s measurements are purported to be), attempting to put to rest any idea that Brantley is simply a slap-hitting speed guy that sits at the top of the lineup with no power. His stature and the fact that he’s still a 21-year-old growing into his body give some validity to Brantley’s comments during our interview a few months ago that scouts had told him that a comp for him was Garrett Anderson…which, at the time, I scoffed at. Certainly appearances are just that, but the on-base skills have always been there for Brantley (.399 career minor-league OBP) and he walked twice as much as he struck out last year in AA Huntsville, so it will be interesting to see if his power grows as his body matures and he moves himself further up the ladder.

Obviously, Brantley’s ability to hit for extra-base hits in AAA will go a long way to determining where he projects to be as a hitter, but know that Garrett Anderson had 42 extra-base hits as a 21-year-old in AAA in 1993 before becoming a fixture in the Angels’ lineup for the next 13 years, so if Brantley shows an ability to drive the ball in Columbus (now that he’s completely healthy and not hampered by the ankle injury that robbed him of some power in the 2nd half of 2008), it could portend good things for the PTBNL in the CC deal.

While we’re talking prospects and Mike Brantley, Keith Law’s Top 10 prospect list for the Indians came out this week (via the LGT, which also links that Law has the Indians possessing the 5th best farm system in MLB) and Brantley is not listed among Law’s Top 10. Law puts 5 Indians’ prospects in his Top 66 overall (including “why-did-the-Dodgers-trade-him-for-Lacey-Cake Carlos Santana” at #13 in all of baseball) and has some interesting comments regarding where he thinks his #27 prospect overall, Matt LaPorta, will end up (that would be in the middle of the lineup because of his “ready for the majors now” bat and at 1B because of speed, or lack thereof) going forward. Law is also high on the two young pitchers who could perhaps contribute mightily to the parent club this year, with Atom Miller (#58 overall) potentially becoming a pillar in the bullpen and with Dave Huff (#66 overall) factoring into the rotation mix for sure at some point in 2009.

These rankings (many of which are also linked at the above LGT link) always come off as a bit arbitrary and are certainly very subjective, a topic that Tony and I touched on in this past week’s show as I asked him how exactly he ranks these guys. Because if you haven’t noticed, Tony has been ranking the Indians’ prospects from #100 (!!!) and will be working his way to #1 on his website and is in the process of publishing a book with all 100 Top Prospects along with 30 more “bonus” scouting reports…because 100 simply wasn’t enough. If you’re interested in the book, it’s an absurdly exhaustive resource that probably takes you deeper into the Indians’ organization than you ever thought you would go. Regardless, information on how to purchase the book, as well as Tony’s rankings (I think he’s down to about #70 or so these days) can be found at his website.

To me, these prospect rankings are good reference points but I look at them in a little bit of a different way as I usually focus on the parent club quite a bit more than the farm. I often look at these players in terms of when they’re likely to surface in Cleveland and, in turn, who among each group excites me the most in terms of how much they’ll help. For instance, among the Indians’ farmhands, I see Dave Huff and Atom Miller making the biggest impact, in that order, on the Indians in 2009, with the possibility that LaPorta, Valbuena, Brantley, and Gimenez may help at some point, but more likely that they’ll contribute to the Indians in 2010. Everyone else below them may show up on the 25-man roster, but I’m not enthused about them the way that a guy like Huff excites me. If you’re talking about a 2010 list, I’m probably optimistic that Carlos Santana, LaPorta, Brantley, and Valbuena make an impact, again in that order. The rest of the guys that figure to start in Akron or below, to me at least, are fun to imagine who they might become (like a Carlos Rivero), but there’s just too much that can happen between now and…let’s say 2012 for me to really get excited about them.

For now, I’ll figure to worry about the 2012 lineup and rotation another day as a nap is in order, thanks to The DiaperTribe’s new favorite time of the day to play with his old man…that would be a little before 5:00 AM. And after an evening that only furthers my obsession with the new Indigo Imp Brewery’s products (which you need to find on the shelf of your local Heinen’s and try if you’re on the North Coast), I need a nap if only to dream of “the crack of the bat…the roar of the crowd…catch the fun, it’s here everyone!”
It’s getting closer…

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Arizona Dreamin’ – Starting It Off

Since the Spring Training Countdown Clock tells me that Pitchers and Catchers report less than three weeks from now, I thought that this would be as good a time as any to get into some of the different issues that figure to be sorted out in Goodyear for the 2009 season. Unless you REALLY have an interest in the WBC rosters (and as long as no Indians’ pitchers are on said roster, I don’t) or want to deeply examine why the prospect of Garko running around in the outfield makes me think of John Belushi as a Decathlete plugging “Little Chocolate Donuts”, there’s not a lot that figures to be happening on the Reservation between now and February 12th, outside of the wildly entertaining Winter Press Tour.

Thus, to pass my time until February 12th (get here already!), I thought that I would try to break down the different aspects of the Tribe roster in a series of pieces and get into some of the questions facing the Tribe that will hopefully find an answer before the team heads East from Goodyear to Arlington for the Season Opener against the Rangers on April 6th. Starting out the series, let’s get right into what looks to be the area of the team that is probably the most important part of the team, but also arrives to Arizona with the most question marks around it – the starting rotation as a whole and, more in depth as to how the middle-to-back-end of the rotation looks to be filled out by the candidates to fill out the rotation to start the season. Obviously, there’s a lot of folks who plan on attending that middle-to-back-of-the-rotation party, but how about we start with a little bit on some things to watch in Spring Training for the pitchers that figure into the top two slots in the rotation, whose importance cannot be underestimated given the question marks behind them.

Starting at the top, Cliff Lee’s 2008 remains the great (and wonderful) mystery of the season as he elevated himself from presumed back-end-of-the-rotation fodder to winning the Cy Young. While his 2008 seemed to come out of nowhere as his numbers had all declined to some degree from his 2004 and 2005 seasons to the point that him getting the 5th spot out of Winter Haven last year was no sure thing (remember this one?), there’s no debate that Lee’s season was a revelation, as he outperformed every pitcher in the AL by attacking hitters, getting ahead in counts, and looking to be in total control with every pitch. His success can be traced to his ability to spot his fastball and limit baserunners, which resulted in his ability to get strikeouts to rise, without compromising the amount of hitters he walked.

To that end, it will be interesting with Lee this Spring to watch his K rate to see that he’s striking batters out with the consistency that he did last year, after seeing it drop for a couple of previous years, and watching to see that he’s keeping with the low BB rate that helped his tremendous 2008 season. If he can keep up the tremendous ratio of K to BB as he did in 2008, or at least show the similar signs in Spring Training that mean that he’s still attacking hitters with his fastball and throwing strikes with location. If he is, there’s no reason to believe that 2008 simply will be remembered as the year that Cliff turned the corner into an elite pitcher, and not the aberration that some believe it to be.

With Carmona, you’re really looking at a total body of work that started with the mostly forgettable 2006 season that saw him get into one whale of a groove when he entered the bullpen (0.95 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 26 K, 7 BB over 28 1/3 IP in his first 22 games as a reliever) until the wheels famously came off when he was given the chance to close. He followed that off with his breakthrough 2007 as a starter, when he was statistically one of the top five pitchers in baseball, only to come back with his downright disappointing 2008 season, during which his 0.83 K/BB ratio (that would be more BB than K) didn’t…um, rank real high in terms of MLB pitchers and puts in perspective how “off” he was all season.

Anyone else feel like they’re riding the Blue Streak or the old Big Dipper on this one…up, down, up, down…
So this should be an “up” year, which means the third consecutive Cy Young for the Tribe, right?
It’s pretty hard to predict what to expect with him as when he’s on, he’s essentially unhittable (one more drink before last call, Torii?) but when he’s off, he allows things to domino on him in terms of allowing baserunners by giving up consecutive walks and hits. Let’s just say that if he stays healthy, that’s step one, which hopefully leads to him finding more success as he attempts to iron out the mechanical problems that allowed batters to simply sit on his sinker and wait for him to throw strikes. But if you’re looking something to watch in Spring Training for Carmona, watch his walk totals as the number of walks he gave up in 2007 (2.55 per 9 innings) more than doubled in 2008 (5.22 per 9 innings) to see if he’s hitting the strike zone consistently and if he’s forcing hitters to swing at his sinker by throwing it for a strike. Additionally, watch the pitch count for him as the number of pitches that it took him to get through an inning in 2007 (14.59 on average) saw an uptick in 2008 (to 16.8 on average). While 14.59 to 16.80 isn’t a huge jump, realize that Carmona’s sinker is designed to initiate grounders and is meant to be swung at and put into play, so the more pitches that he throws, the more that it means that hitters are simply sitting back, waiting for him to throw strikes.

Past those top two, there are players assumed to be starters in the rotation, if only because of their lack of options (Reyes) or a guarantee from the GM (Pavano), assuming health and some semblance of effectiveness in Goodyear. For the 5th spot then, the Indians look to have a gaggle of LHP who will be vying to break camp with the parent club and not simply fill out the Columbus rotation and wait for their chance.

For the pitcher that could be assumed to be the de facto #3 starter entering Goodyear, it must be asked - will the real Anthony Reyes please stand up? A hotshot prospect that turned into a suspect over the course of a few years, The Man with the Flat Brim came to Cleveland and put up some phenomenal numbers, posting a 1.83 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP, over 6 starts for the Tribe. While he didn’t miss many bats (only 15 K in 39 1/3 IP, admittedly a small sample size) for the Tribe, he did go through the St. Louis system as a strikeout pitcher of sorts, striking out 136 batters in 128 2/3 IP for AAA Memphis as a 23-year-old in 2005. After that season, Reyes famously ascended to the Majors in time for the Cards’ 2006 WS victory before, perhaps more famously, butting heads with St. Louis Pitching Coach Dave Duncan on what type of pitcher Reyes should be. Whether getting out from under Duncan is a good thing in the long-term remains to be seen, but the early results in his time with Carl Willis portend good things for 2009. If you buy into projections at all (and, if you do, B-Pro’s book should be out by Valentine’s Day), know that the Bill James projection for Reyes in 2009 (3.88 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and 135 K to 53 BB in 168 IP) has him re-capturing the magic that seemed to leave him in 2006. If those numbers shake out, or even come close to shaking out, Reyes slots very nicely as the #3 starter that can go a long way to settling the middle of the rotation and serving as the bridge between the top two in front of him and the bevy of LHP behind him.

After Reyes in terms of pitchers who, assuming health and with the expectation that they don’t spike themselves in Goodyear, look to have a spot in the rotation going into Spring Training, Carl Pavano is the veteran reclamation project whose signing has received probably more attention than it truly deserves. If he can truly be counted on to stay healthy and, if healthy, effective will be one of the Spring’s more intriguing developments. I’m interested to see how the Indians handle his inning load in Arizona – if they’re going to treat him with kid gloves with the idea that they want him to stay healthy of if they’re going to throw him out there with the rest of the pack and see what he has left in the tank. Beyond that, obviously his performance will be closely monitored and it will be interesting to see what the Indians do if he’s obviously struggling in Spring Training. That is, if Pavano goes out this Spring and just gets blown up in every outing, will the Indians eat their $1.5M gamble and let the youngsters slot themselves for one more spot or do they give Pavano a few shots in the regular season before the cord is cut?
Of course, Pavano could make all of these points moot and just pretend that the year is 2004 again and become a fixture in the rotation right out of the gate.
As for me…I’m not going to hold my breath for that to happen.

If Reyes and Pavano are assumed to have spots in the rotation to begin the season, there really is only one spot left in the rotation for the likes of Laffey, Sowers, Huff, and Jackson to battle it out for. Out of those names, probably the leader at the starting gate for the 5th spot is Laffey, who has thrived at every level that he’s pitched at (save his time in Buffalo last year when arm discomfort compromised his effectiveness) and his performance after being promoted to the Indians last May. How much has the still-23-year-old Laffey dominated the minors? Take out his 2008 in Buffalo, during which he experienced arm issues, and his minor league statistics are pretty impressive - 3.38 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP over 583 2/3 IP. Unlike some of the other pitchers in the mix, Laffey has experienced a modicum of success in MLB over the course of two seasons now, enough that the Tribe coaching staff may have a level of confidence in that they know what to expect from him after the last two years, over which he’s posted an MLB line of a 4.34 ERA (104 ERA+) and a 1.40 WHIP. Not exactly top-of-the-rotation stuff, but if that’s what the Indians are getting out of their 5th starter (or perhaps 4th, dependent on how this all shakes out), they could do quite a bit worse. With Laffey, maybe his ceiling is as a 4th or 5th starter, but if he’s 4th or 5th starter right now who can eat innings and post respectable numbers from that spot, it’s worth giving the Babyfaced Bulldog the first crack at showing he belongs out of Goodyear.

In the interest of full disclosure, if we’re talking about a LHP who has shown that he can thrive in the minors, and has experienced success in the Bigs, Jeremy Sowers fits the bill as well as Laffey. Sowers has a minor-league career line of a 2.50 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP over 413 2/3 IP, with a tremendous 2008 in Buffalo that saw him post a 2.08 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP with 43 K and 17 BB in 60 2/3 IP. Upon that unbridled minor-league success, throw the second half of his 2006 season (3.57 ERA, 1.19 WHIP over 88 1/3 IP in 14 starts) that remains etched in everyone’s memory to some extent as he showed flashes of brilliance, even if nobody could figure out how he was achieving the results he was. Since that run of innings in 2006, though, Sowers hasn’t been able to find MLB success, compiling a 5.88 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP for the Tribe over the last two years. The question needs to be asked as to why Jeremy Sowers has not been able to replicate his 2006 success and why is he able to dominate AAA hitting, only to see MLB hitters tee off on him? I don’t know…and truthfully, some small part of me wants to believe that Sowers can come back to something close to his 2006 success or that he can finally translate his minor-league success to the Bigs. But at this point, it’s going to take quite a bit of convincing for me not to believe that Sowers is not unlike that AAAA position player who thrives against AAA competition but is unable to translate that success to a prolonged MLB career.

If Laffey is the leader at the gate in this field, Dave Huff is the definite dark horse as Huff proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can be successful in AAA with the type of performance in his 16 starts in Buffalo (particularly the 81 K to 15 BB in his 80 1/3 AAA innings) that would translate to success in MLB. Based purely on potential and statistics that portend MLB success, Huff has a leg up on the rest of the candidates with his ability to miss bats and his varied and effective pitch repertoire, which revolves around his ability to spot his fastball and using his change-up to complement his fastball. An X-factor with Huff is that he only pitched 146 1/3 innings in AA and AAA last year after being limited to 59 2/3 innings in 2007. Limiting innings in MLB, particularly for young pitchers, is something that the Indians have always been very cognizant of and limiting Huff’s innings may be in the Indians’ minds when deciding which LHP is going to break camp in the rotation. Huff isn’t likely to throw more than 150 or 160 innings this year and where he throws those innings remains to be seen as is Huff is going to be on an inning limit for the season, so do the Indians want Huff to throw most of those in Columbus? Finally, unlike the rest of the candidates, however, is not on the Indians’ 40-man roster and would have to be added – which would be an easy hurdle to clear if Huff forces his way onto the team out of Goodyear.

As for the long shot in the starting gate, the idea that Zach Jackson figured onto the 25-man roster out of Goodyear as it was (incorrectly, it turns out) assumed that he was out of options. The thought was that Zachson could fill the role of the long man/spot starter out of the gate to allow the rest of the bullpen to settle in Cleveland and Columbus and to give the Indians the luxury of having a pitcher whose workload and frequency of work was not one that they had to closely monitor. With the extra option however, it’s pretty obvious that Jackson at this point will fill that role…just not on the 25-man roster. He looks like a depth starter who is likely to shuttle back and forth between Columbus and Cleveland if he’s called to do so. It’s likely that a number of these other pitchers slot ahead of Jackson in terms of long-term viability in the rotation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a spot start at some point in 2009, if only because he’s already on the 40-man and a scheduled start for him in Columbus may coincide with a need in the big-league rotation. The thought that Jackson could fill the role of a long man for the Tribe in 2009, able to eat innings and pitch without the promise of regular appearances went by the wayside a bit in the past few weeks as the Indians loaded up on veteran depth to go along with their high-ceiling young prospects. At this point in his career, he’ll turn 26 in May without any real MLB success (career MLB ERA of 5.49, career MLB WHIP of 1.52) or a minor-league track record (career MiLB ERA of 4.62, career MiLB WHIP of 1.43) that would project that he just hasn’t been able to turn the corner in MLB, so it’s getting late soon for The Zach Attack to show that he’s a legitimate option in a legitimate rotation and not just the spot starter/long man that he looks to be right now.

When it comes to breaking down the rotation going into Spring Training, Arizona may give us a peek as to whether the Indians can reasonably expect Lee v.2008 and Carmona v.2007 to anchor their rotation and let the rest of the starters sort themselves out. If either is close to as good as they have been, the Indians’ rotation could boast one of the top pitchers in the AL. If both can come close to replicating their successful seasons of the past, the Indians will have arguably the best 1-2 punch in MLB, not just the AL.

Past those two, if Reyes and Pavano are healthy and don’t completely implode in Goodyear, both are going to be breaking Spring Training in the rotation. Where they slot in the rotation really doesn’t matter that much to me as if both are healthy and even moderately effective into…let’s say May, then the Indians will be thrilled with them in the middle of their rotation.

As for the rest of the candidates going for the 5th spot, I would think that the spot is Laffey’s to lose at this point as he had the most success in MLB in recent years and the fact that the all of these guys all have options remaining means that they can all be stashed in Columbus to sort themselves out and to allow the Indians to mix-and-match and dip into their depth to find the hot hand as the season progresses.

Lots of questions face all of these candidates and the idea that Jake Westbrook returns to the rotation in July still seems to be out there as a bit of a wild card in the deck. How much can reasonably expected out of Westbrook remains to be seen (if, in fact, he even comes back that early and is ready to pitch in MLB), but the 2009 rotation looks to be a pretty fluid situation, Jake or no Jake, where the Indians may be seeing their rotation evolve from the Season Opener all the way into the Fall, depending upon the performances of the individual pitchers. It’s always possible that a guy like Scott Lewis emerges to jump ahead of everyone, but to me most of these guys that don’t get the 5th spot (Lewis included) simply serve as the depth that figures to be leaned on to find the right mix of pitchers to fill out the rotation.

The rotation is likely to play a big role in what the 2009 Indians do, and some of the questions that need to be answered to ensure that the rotation remains a pillar of this team (or at least close to it) figure to find some answers in Goodyear.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lazy Sunday With a View From Pluto

More snow is falling as another Sunday is upon us and before we try to avert our eyes from the AFC Championship Game, let’s get rolling with another Lazy Lazy:

In what was the biggest news of the week (at least to me), Tony Lastoria and I were lucky enough to have Terry Pluto join us on this past week’s edition of “Smoke Signals”, which turned out to be not only an exciting moment for me (given that Pluto, to me, is the crème de la crème of Northeast Ohio writers), but also tremendously enlightening on a myriad of topics. The audio can be listened to here in a podcast, but if you don’t have a spare hour, here are some of the high points:

He doesn’t think that the Pavano signing represents much more than a lottery ticket for the Indians, in that they might get lucky with it, but it’s not something they should count on to “pay the mortgage”. Pluto thinks that Pavano will be on a pretty tight leash and won’t continue to get starts, regardless of performance, into June if he’s obviously a shell of what he was in 2004. He thinks that the rest of the names past Lee and Carmona in the rotation represent just as big in terms of question marks as Carl Pavano, saying that the youngsters (Laffey, Huff, Sowers, etc.) are all far from sure things and putting Pavano in the mix goes along the idea that another arm is better than just going with the youngsters and hoping for the best. To Pluto, how the two at the top of the rotation perform and how the youngsters emerge to fill out the rotation remains the key to the 2009 season.

In a discussion about how particular pitchers work well with particular catchers (with Pluto lending some tremendous insight as to why this may be), I pointed out that Wedge had said in an interview on WTAM that Shoppach was likely to always catch Lee and that Victor was likely to always catch Carmona because of the way that those two batteries clicked (something Pluto expands on with some fascinating numbers with in today’s PD). The conversation then turned to whether the Indians “missed the boat” on trading Shoppach at what could be his peak value and Pluto pointed out that as much as he read about that possibility in our blogs that he NEVER heard a rumor regarding the Indians trading Kelly Shoppach in any sense all off-season. He said that he had the discussion with Paul Hoynes as to whether Hoynes ever heard Shoppach’s name mentioned in trade talks and neither could come up with one legitimate rumor that they heard involving Mr. Show Pack. Pluto said that the reason that he had heard for this is that many teams feel that they have a good young catcher (like Matt Wieters in Baltimore) with whom that team felt comfortable going forward, meaning that the demand for Kelly may not have been what it was thought to be here. Additionally, Terry pointed out that whether or not this is the “peak” of Kelly’s trade value, there will always be a team (regardless of what Shoppach does from this point forward) that will look to Kelly’s 2008 season and see enough potential there for the Indians to find an interested party (see Gutierrez, Franklin Delano).

Quoth Pluto – “I will be stunned…I will grow hair, if this guy has more than 500 AB.” Because of the arthritis and injuries that have been sustained in Hafner’s shoulder, Terry thinks that it would be a “disservice” to Hafner to give him 500 or more AB because maximizing Hafner’s effectiveness in 2009 may be accomplished by minimizing his playing time and the amount of strain that he puts on that perpetually troublesome shoulder. Pluto points out that Hafner’s shoulder trouble goes back as far as his days with the Rangers (which is one of the reasons the Indians were able to acquire him for a pittance), and that playing Hafner without giving him shoulder time off to rest on a regular basis is only going to further weaken the shoulder.

Pluto says that he put a phone call into Mark Shapiro last season when he was writing the article (he thinks it was in May…which sounds about right) writing off the 2008 season because of how bad the bullpen was. Shapiro’s off-the-record response of “well, I’m not going to disagree enormously with you…although I think it’s a little early” went further when Pluto told him that he had a bad bullpen, to which Shapiro responded, “yeah…tell me about it.” Pluto thinks that the depth of the arms in the bullpen will prevent that conversation from happening again in 2009 and asserts that The Atomic Wedgie was the driving force behind going after Kerry Wood to settle that back end of the bullpen (something he touched on in a piece earlier this week) and allow the team (as well as the fans) to not dread the 9th inning in 2009 as they have in years past.

While the Indians would never come out and say it (for fear of taking anything away from Casey Blake, whom they still hold in high regard), Pluto says that the Indians feel that DeRosa is a significant step-up from Blake at 3B because of DeRosa having more range than Blake at the hot corner. In Pluto’s mind, he still would have put DeRosa at 2B, if only to allow Asdrubal to slot over to SS, but points out that the infield arrangement, as it looks today, is “written in pencil”. When I asserted that the players who figure to start the season in Columbus could have a large impact on where Peralta eventually ends up, Pluto mentioned that he’s been underwhelmed by Wes Hodges the couple of times that he’s seen him and that the Indians are high on Valbuena’s ability to hit and that he figures to play an adequate 2B.

Overall, it was a thrill for me to talk to a writer whose opinion and style I respect so much and find it amazing the way that Pluto has an ability to put things in proper perspective, pointing out that the baseball season is enough of a crapshoot that nobody knows what’s going to happen with a team from year to year and all the Indians attempt to do is put multiple contingency plans (without the fear to initiate said plans) in place for those unseen events. If you didn’t come away from the podcast feeling awfully good about what has been done this off-season and what 2009 could become, well…go back to drinking your perpetually half-empty glass.

One of the things that I mentioned in the show was the video from Peter Gammons that referenced the strength of the Indians’ farm system at the upper levels, which includes an absurdly awkward introduction by Karl Ravech.

If you’re looking for more optimism regarding what the Indians have done in comparison to the rest of the AL Central, here’s a piece from The Sporting News. Speaking of TSN, is anyone else on this Sporting News Daily service that basically delivers a Sports Page to your in-box every morning? It’s an interesting concept (while not holding a candle to Google Reader), though it’s awfully long to sort through in the AM.

Back to the off-seasons in the AL Central, it’s true that the Indians’ off-season does look pretty strong, particularly compared to the rest of the Central. But remember that the folks in Motown were clearing space in their trophy case after netting Miggy Cabrera last year (despite the fact that their pitching, which was their downfall, remained a question mark), so being the assumed front-runner in January is a tad bit different than being the actual front-runner in August.

As for what can happen for the Tribe in 2009, here’s a little bit from Castro, quoting Wedge saying that we may see Garko and Barfield perhaps getting some reps in…the OUTFIELD!?!
Is this the moment when you know that the team is making alternate plans at your primary position (Cabrera, DeRosa, Carroll, and Valbuena ahead of Josh at 2B with Victor probably getting a lot of time at 1B this year and more talent at 1B in the minors), when they give you an OF glove?

Shapiro: So, I’m not seeing where Garko’s going to get a lot of playing time at 1B.
Wedge: Hmm…well, it’s not like we’re going to put him back behind the plate and I suppose he’s done enough in the Bigs that we’re not going to send him down. What do you think?
Shapiro: Let’s give him a chance in LF and see if he can force his way into those plans.
Wedge (fighting diabolical laughter): OK…

Somewhere, Ben Broussard is strumming his guitar, laughing, remembering the “good old days” when he patrolled LF at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

On the topic of Garko and Barfield perhaps being involved in the outfield in some sense (and let’s just say that the day that Garko is in LF in a game for the Indians will be a dark day because it means that A LOT has gone wrong in 2009) and the assertion by The Atomic Wedgie that Mark DeRosa will see some time in the outfield, is anyone else noticing the name that has yet to pass through the Indians’ brass lips when it comes to the OF arrangement?
Umm…one Mr. Dave Dellucci?

Not that I’m upset that he’s not being counted on for much of anything, given his performance since becoming an Indian, but does anyone else sense that the Indians are ready to eat The Looch’s contract and go in another direction at some point this year?
The silence regarding Dellucci’s role in 2009 is deafening.

Moving on, Paul Hoynes has some interesting tidbits in today’s piece (done in an entirely more informative format than usual), including reporting that Brad Penny wanted to go to Boston and would have demanded more than the $5M that the Red Sox gave him to come to Cleveland as well as reporting that the Indians did kick the tires on Jon Garland, but found his demands for a multiyear deal less than appealing.

On that topic, take a look at the remaining FA that are still out on the market (notably starters like Sheets, Looper, Oliver Perez, Pettitte, Wolf, etc.) and realize that Spring Training is now less than a month away. Or how about guys like Bobby Abreu, Orlando Cabrera, Joe Crede, Juan Cruz, Adam Dunn, Orlando Hudson (something Rosenthal hits on), Brandon Lyon, and a certain guy named Manny still being out there?
It’s a brave new world out there…

As for the movement by the Indians, they continue to add these arms to the bullpen (Aquino, Saarloos, Vinnie Chulk, Jack Cassel, Matt Herges), most of whom spent time on some MLB roster in 2008. Granted, most of them had varied degrees of success, if you can even say success with most of them given their ERA+ last year (Aquino-36, Saarloos-74, Chulk-91, Cassel-75, Herges-91), but let’s throw it all up against the wall and see what sticks, no?

The nice thing about seeing these names signed is knowing that none of them are being counted on, in any sense of the word, to contribute to the parent club in 2009 and anything that the Indians may be able to squeeze out of them (with their reputation as a place to go for pitchers to stay healthy and rediscover effectiveness) is icing on the cake.

Speaking of relievers, remember when the JJ Putz-to-New York deal went down, how I thought that some of the subtext could be that the Indians’ willingness to get Franklin Gutierrez in on the three-way deal is what helped make it happen? Jon-Paul Morosi of the Detroit Free Press (who is a very good beat writer, by the by) sheds some light onto those shadows, saying that the Mariners did want to hold out for a CF in the deal and that the Tigers’ Matt Joyce was not what they were looking for. After the Rays rebuffed the M’s and the Mets in an attempt to include Fernando Perez on the deal (because, as it turns out, BJ Upton has shoulder issues), the two teams turned to the Tribe to get the M’s their CF in Frank the Tank.

Just fantastic to keep Putz out of Motown, made better by Morosi’s closing paragraph:
“The Tigers, meanwhile, traded Joyce to Tampa Bay for hard-throwing starter Edwin Jackson. But they did not leave the winter meetings with a closer. And they are still looking for one today.”
I know burns…and that was a burn.

Finally, a big thanks to t-bone for replacing all of the Bisons’ links with Clippers’ links and for, most importantly, putting the Countdown Clock on the main page, particularly as I ready myself for what looks like another day spent with my Toro.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Columbus Day

While the 25-man roster looks to be ostensibly set in mid-January with the signing of Carl Pavano and the assumption that (if healthy) he’ll be in the Indians’ rotation, there are still a few minor questions that look to be answered in Spring Training (who is the 5th starter, who gets the 7th bullpen position, who is the 12th position player) – but you’re talking about the back end of the roster with those positions as the bulk of the Indians’ 25-man roster is in focus. Beyond the mere 25 players that figure to make up the roster coming out of Goodyear, though, the flexibility of said players figures to make 2009 a little more interesting in terms of figuring out who fits where and how everyone fits. Beyond that, then the Indians have depth in Columbus at AAA that could serve as the cavalry to fill holes created by ineffectiveness or injury not unlike the 2007 reinforcements that helped the team to the ALCS.

On the parent club, the Indians have a couple of players who have a multiple positions where they can eventually fit (like Victor at C or 1B) and have a few players who are fighting to become fixtures in the Indians’ plans going forward and not just placeholders until something better arrives (Garko, Francisco) from AAA. To put it in tangible terms, it looks like the Indians are set at CF, RF, DH (God and Dr. James Andrews willing), 2B, SS, and 3B in their lineup with the assumption being that those positions will be filled by everyday players that have a body of work that justifies their inclusion in nearly every lineup card that The Atomic Wedgie fills out. The other 3 positions, however, are in a bit of a state of flux as Garko’s 2008 (does everyone know that before his torrid 14-game stretch to end the season, he had posted a line of .252 BA / .327 OBP / .360 SLG / .687 OPS over 502 plate appearances, which is impossibly bad…particularly for a 1B with limited defensive range) figures to have him on a pretty short leash, which affects both C and 1B and the final 80 games that Ben Francisco played in for 2008 saw him posting a .246 BA / .325 OBP / .416 SLG / .741 OPS over 331 plate appearances, which means that the Indians could very easily move around some pieces and parts in the outfield if he comes out of the gate in 2009 struggling the way he did to end 2008.

First and foremost, C and 1B figure to be affected by the performance of Garko out of the gate as the Indians (very obviously) need to find AB for Kelly Shoppach and their oft-stated stance that “Victor is our Catcher” could go by the wayside pretty quickly if Garko is struggling while Kelly is searching for plate appearances. The short term strategy could be that the Indians will start the season with some sort of plan for Kelly to play maybe 2 or 3 out of every 5 games (perhaps matching up with Cliff Lee’s starts as Chris Kreitzer of Tribe Times Online asserts from his experience at the Town Hall meeting on Tuesday), allowing Victor to move up to 1B and moving Garko to the bench. If, however, Garko is unable to re-capture the success (moderate at that) of his 2006 and 2007 campaigns (or at least raised his OBP to respectable levels), the Indians should not hesitate to make a much more permanent switch of giving Victor more time at 1B and Kelly more time behind the dish. It’s not outside of the realm of possibility that Garko could even be sent to Columbus, as he does still retain an option, but he would be joining a pretty crowded 1B situation there (more on that in a bit) and would likely stay topside to provide some insurance (albeit minimum coverage) against Hafner’s injury or give Hafner a day off now and then.

As for other options in LF, this is where it gets a little interesting as it’s HIGHLY unlikely that the player that the Indians figure to carry as the “4th OF” out of Goodyear (The Looch) is going to figure into the Indians’ 2009 plans too seriously. If, then, Francisco struggles out of the gate to provide even league-average offense and his defensive circus act continues in LF, what do the Indians do?

The answer is likely to come out of one of the 3 OF that figure to start 2009 patrolling the Columbus outfield – Matt LaPorta, Trevor Crowe, and Michael Brantley. Though Crowe is the only one of the three on the 40-man roster, if Francisco struggles and one of these three (more notably LaPorta and Crowe given their age and advancement, though they’d have to be added to the 40-man) starts the year on a tear in Columbus, the Indians shouldn’t be afraid to cut ties with Dellucci and promote whomever merits the promotion, move Francisco into the 4th OF role and strengthen the lineup in terms of quality and depth (particularly if LaPorta’s the guy) by jettisoning Dellucci and adding a bat ready to ascend to MLB, slotting Francisco into a role that may suit him better than that of an everyday OF.

The beauty of the AAA OF situation is that any of the three Clippers’ OF could make a move into the Indians’ 2009 plans, but looking further at (what is admittedly an educated guess) the Columbus position players, check out how many of these names you recognize and how the dreadful 2008 AAA non-prospect roster (where 9 of the 11 players who had 200 or more AB were 26 or older) was in comparison to this:
C – Wyatt Torregas
1B – Jordan Brown
2B – Luis Valbuena
SS – Andy Cannizaro
3B – Wes Hodges
OF – Matt LaPorta
OF – Michael Brantley
OF – Trevor Crowe
Utility – Chris Gimenez
1B/DH – Michael Aubrey
2B – Josh Barfield
OF – Warm Body
With the exception of Cannizaro (who was signed to be the Bisons’ SS last year), Aubrey (who cleared waivers and may or may not be on this team), and the Warm Body, most of these guys still project as prospects and potential MLB players in some capacity.

Even Barfield, still just 26 and with some measure of success in MLB, is a better option than some of the roster fodder that was seen in Buffalo last year. And, really with Barfield, he may end up on the parent club as the 13th spot among position players looked to perhaps come down to Barfield and Marte with Shapiro pretty much throwing Marte out the window with this comment, “at this point, in all honesty, it’s tough road for Andy. Barring an injury, it’s hard to see him as a fit on our club.”

Not unlike 2007, when the Indians used their farm system to fortify the team for the stretch run and use it for depth effectively, the AAA team figures to be full of players fighting for position to get the attention of the Indians and slot themselves into a pecking order for promotion in 2009 or 2010.

By the same token, the pitching staff in Columbus figures to be absolutely loaded with talented arms, and could look like this depending on who breaks camp with the Tribe (for my guess, I’m putting Laffey in the 5th starter role behind Reyes and Pavano and have Mujica getting the 7th bullpen spot), which again is full of talented youngsters, nearly all of whom are still considered prospects:
Dave Huff
Scott Lewis
Jeremy Sowers
Zach Jackson
Tomo Ohka

Atom Miller
John Meloan
Tony Sipp
Rich Rundles
Randy Newsom
Greg Aquino
Kirk Saarloos

Quite a change from the John Halama, Jeff Harris, Jeff Weaver, Matt Ginter, Brian Slocum starters in AAA last year with Rick Bauer closing, no?

Depending upon what happens in Spring Training and what decisions are made, there are 4 of those starters that I wouldn’t have too much of a problem filling the #5 spot in the rotation at some point in 2009 (sorry, Tomo) and think that the top 3 names in the Columbus bullpen (health willing) are probably legitimate back-end of the bullpen options going forward in Cleveland with Rundles and Newsom projecting as bullpen specialists (LOOGY and ROOGY, respectively) that can find a role on the team as early as 2009 depending upon the health and effectiveness of the players ahead of them.

What this all means is that the days of Matt Ginter starting with Juan Rincon and Brendan Donnelly coming in to relieve him are hopefully over as the names that figure into the mix as depth options for 2009 are legitimately considered part of this team’s future and how they perform in Columbus should determine how they arrive to Cleveland to fill the holes that are sure to present themselves as the season progresses.

Luckily, the Columbus players will sort themselves out a couple of hours away on I-71 with the promise that STO will be airing games this season so fans can see for themselves what a Dave Huff start looks like or what Atom Miller looks like as a reliever or how the three OF who could find their way up I-71 at some point this season look at the plate and on the field before they make it to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

The road between Progressive Field and Huntington Park figures to traveled regularly by more than just Indians’ fans this year, with the players available in Columbus this year will hopefully serve as the depth that the Indians may need as 2009 wears on.

In a wildly unrelated programming note, don’t forget that Terry Pluto will join Tony Lastoria and I for this Thursday’s edition of “Smoke Signals”, which will start at 9:30 PM here and will be available as a podcast as soon as the show is complete.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Lazy Sunday Looking for Spring

Having hopefully concocted the proper mixture of 32 parts gasoline to 1 part oil (as Toro suggests) for the snowblower for the last time on a weekend spent ostensibly indoors as the City of Cleveland plows made it to my street at…oh, about 10:30 PM last night, it’s time to launch off into a Lazy Sunday, if only to break up the monotony of snow removal from various driveways and sidewalks in my neighborhood.
Nevertheless, we’re off:

Starting off where we often do, Terry Pluto gets our appetites whetted for Spring Training with some news and notes on players like Ben Francisco and Anthony Reyes, noting how those two players are players whose 2009 seasons could go in a variety of directions as their respective careers (to date) have been up and down. Either could work his way into the long-term plans of the team with a strong 2009, but both could just as easily become roster fodder with a poor 2009.

Pluto also has some quotes from Shapiro on Hafner’s health and how the team scored the 6th most runs in baseball without Hafner and Victor and how the return of Pronk (or even some variation of the monster that wore the #48 jersey for a few years) can propel the team to having “an elite offense”.

More Shapiro comments come on Aaron Laffey and how Pluto asserts that “Shapiro feels strongly about Aaron Laffey claiming a spot in the rotation.” It’ easy to forget what Aaron Laffey did in 2008 because of the way his season fizzled away, but in his first 14 starts for the parent club last year, Laffey posted a 3.45 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP with a .696 OPS against. He lasted 5 innings or more in all 14 starts with a stretch of 21 consecutive scoreless innings mixed in while essentially replacing Jake Westbrook in the rotation with what could be perceived as Westbrook at his very best – inducing grounders, minimizing damage, and attacking hitters.

To me, as 2009 rolls forward, the presence of Laffey and Dave Huff in the rotation may have a greater impact than any of the other candidates for the back-end of the rotation. It’s conceivable that Reyes stays healthy and becomes a middle-of-the-rotation starter, and less conceivable that Pavano does (in terms of health and effectiveness), but it’s easy to forget that Laffey doesn’t turn 24 until mid-April and has a career 3.47 ERA in the minors with a career minor-league WHIP of 1.28. At his tender age (a full year younger than Huff, who also excites me) and with 143 career MLB innings under his belt, Laffey could become that steady middle-of-the-rotation presence that we all know Jake Westbrook to be – perhaps as early as this year.

Back to the addition to the rotation, Hot Carl Pavano, Castro has an interesting bit as to how the team settled on Pavano as the “veteran” that they were looking for, saying that, “the Indians plucked Pavano out of a discount bin of starters trying to revive their careers after major injuries. The Tribe also looked at Mark Mulder, Kris Benson, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon before ultimately deciding Pavano had the best combination of performance upside and the sheer physical ability to take the mound early and often this season.”

Whether or not that’s the case remains to be seen as this Pavano signing comes with a giant grain of salt with me (as would the signing of any of those other names above) simply because of the health issues and because there’s no guarantee that Pavano will somehow become anything close to the pitcher he was in 2004 (his only really great year) after so many arm troubles.

After getting a number of e-mails from people who thought I was overly hard on the Pavano signing and who thought that the Pavano deal was exactly the kind of deal the Indians should have been targeting, let me say this (and if you feel like you’re reading it for the 2nd time, it is mainly what I put up in the comments section a couple of days back) – I didn’t mean to throw cold water on the Hot Stove with my piece on Pavano, it’s just that I’m kind of indifferent to this deal as it I just don't see Pavano staying healthy, given that he hasn't been since 2004. What I was trying to project was that Pavano just looks like another question mark to me and doesn't really make me feel any better about the state of the rotation.

Certainly it's a low-risk option and maybe he does have something to prove, I just don't see Pavano adding much more to the rotation than the hope that he'll miraculously return to his 2004 form after too many injuries to even count.

I think a lot of people see the name “Carl Pavano”, know that he was (for at least a season) one of the better pitchers in baseball, know that the Yankees gave him all of that money, and get excited for Kevin Millwood redux when the two scenarios are very different. All I was trying to point out was that he simply hasn’t been able to stay healthy and that one season was now a full four years ago.

It's not that I HATE the deal, it's just that I don't love it the way that I do the Wood, DeRosa, Smith, and Valbuena acquisitions and don't think it does anything to settle what still looks to be a questionable back of the rotation. There’s no question that the off-season has been a wild success, in terms of addressing issues, but I don’t put the Pavano signing in the “plus” side of the ledger with the rest of those additions just yet.

Moving on to other potential moves, with John Smoltz heading to Boston, could the Indians and Red Sox be getting back into talks that could result in Kelly Shoppach returning to Boston to fill their need at Catcher. The logic goes that the Red Sox adding Smoltz and Penny to their rotation results in some of their young arms (notbably Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson) potentially being trade bait to add that catcher.

If you’re wondering what the thought in Boston is, look no further than Sweet Pete Gammons himself, who when asked about the Red Sox finding a starting catcher, says that “there's a difference between wish list and realistic wish list, but right now, they seem to be focused on Miguel Montero from Arizona, with Saltalamacchia in Texas a possibility. Early in the fall, they tried to make a run at Russell Martin of the Dodgers and Mike Napoli of the Angels, but without success.”
I missed the inclusion of Kelly Shoppach’s name there.

Additionally, Tony Massarotti is still thinking that Jason Varitek will re-sign with the Red Sox or that Jarold Saltalamachia is still the target if they go the trade route to add their starting Catcher.

While the roster looks about set on January 11th, there’s still quite a bit can happen in the next month for the Indians and for most other teams that will affect their needs going into the season. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 25-man roster goes through a few changes as the season progresses as a lot of the players that figure into the 2009 mix retain options and flexibility in terms of what positions they can play. Additionally, the AAA team looks to be pretty loaded with high-ceiling players who could very easily force their way onto the big league club if an opportunity presents itself. The 25-man roster in 2009 could be a very fluid entity as players go from Cleveland to Columbus and back and positions sort themselves out in the proper way – on the field.

Elsewhere, The Zach Attack (which I’m happy to see Castro has picked up) has a 4th option to use because of some MLB roster rule that I’m not going to pretend to understand. It’s a nice development as it gives the Indians more flexibility in filling out the 7th spot in the bullpen. If you’re looking at the top 6 of Wood, Lewis, Perez, Betancourt, Smith, and Kobayashi, the candidates for the 7th member of the bullpen out of Spring Training would stand to be Jackson, Mujica, and Rundles.

The effect that Jackson’t extra option has is that the Indians now have the option to either keep Mujica (who is out of options) to see if he can ever find some semblance of consistency and effectiveness to turn into a bona-fide bullpen option. If they don’t feel that he can, Jackson can take the role of a long man out of the bullpen or Rundles can become the 2nd lefty in the pen (as Jackson doesn’t count as a LOOGY like Rundles does, given that LHB have a .899 OPS against him in his time in MLB).

While it’s possible that the Indians could go with one of their high-ceiling flamethrowers out of the gate, breaking camp with Atom Miller of John Meloan as the 7th reliever, I’d prefer if those guys started the season in Columbus, only to allow the Indians’ bullpen to sort itself out independent of them, allowing either to get steady work in Columbus to build confidence and a routine instead of being used sporadically in the bullpen the way that the 7th man usually is by Wedge, which may hinder their development. Obviously, either is preferable to having the likes of Kobayashi or Mujica in the bullpen as the season progresses, but I’d prefer those guys to start the season in AAA to adjust to a full season of being a reliever again (in the case of Meloan) or ever (in the case of Miller). After either (or both) forces his way into the plans of the team, the Indians can make a move – but to just put either in that Mujica/Mastny role that we know doesn’t get steady work just slows down their development as back-end-of-the-bullpen options.

Around the AL Central, Joe Posnanski has a piece that should make you fall to you knees and thank whomever you thank when things like this are revealed to you regarding the track record of Royals’ GM Dayton Moore when it comes to the FA market in light of the Willie Bloomquist signing.

In case you missed it, Tony and I were happy to welcome Jeff Stevens, Chris Archer, and John Gaub (who you may recognize as the 3 players dealt for Mark DeRosa) in Thursday’s episode of “Smoke Signals”. It was fascinating to hear from the players’ perspective how this whole process works and how they leave the Indians/join the Cubs with mixed emotions.

In a GIANT bit of news, Tony and I will be happy to welcome Terry Pluto (yes, that one) for the show this week with more details to come as well as a link later in the week to serve as a reminder.

And finally, courtesy of poster Andrew in the comments section, here’s Episode 1 of The DietTribe via itunes. If you haven’t visited the comments board lately…well, that’s on you because there’s some great thoughts over there:


Looking outside at the mounds of snow, just keep repeating to yourself that Spring Training is coming, Spring Training is coming, Spring Training is coming…

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Idling Into Cleveland

After the Indians filled their holes in the bullpen and in the infield (for the short and long term) with a sizzle, it seems that the off-season will end with a bit of a fizzle as the Tribe has signed Carl Pavano to the 2009 rotation mix on a one-year, incentive-laden deal that guarantees Pavano $1.5M with $5.3M additionally available if certain incentives are reached, ostensibly ending the Indians’ off-season. The rationale behind the Pavano deal is that adding him to the rotation gives them some depth in the rotation, allowing Pavano to be a candidate to fill one of the three spots in the rotation behind Lee and Carmona. Since a number of the candidates for those 3 spots still have options (notably Laffey, Sowers, Huff, and Lewis), it would stand to reason that Pavano (who was dubbed “American Idle” by the brutal New York tabloids), even if remotely healthy or effective, will given a spot out of Spring Training to sit in the #3 or #4 hole in the rotation.

A low risk signing with potential to pull that “Kevin Millwood Miracle” of 2005 out of the hat again, right?

I guess, but this move doesn’t really do much for me as Pavano has really only had two good years (OK, one very good and one decent) in his 11 MLB seasons. While both of those years were his final two in Florida (during which he complied a cumulative line of 3.61 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 5.78 K/9, 2.08 BB/9, 2.76 K/BB, which is certainly an impressive performance), that was in 2003 and 2004. He’s only pitched 145 2/3 innings since then over the last 4 years, and has pitched more than 140 innings only twice (those two final years in Florida) in his 11-year career.

When healthy, Pavano’s a good middle-of-the-rotation starter…except that he hasn’t been healthy in four full seasons now. I suppose if Pavano somehow finds a way to stay healthy, he’s another arm to throw into the mix, but his performance (when allegedly healthy) in 2008 doesn’t exactly scream that he’s turned a corner as a pitcher or that he’ll re-discover his 2004 form. He’s never been a big strikeout pitcher or had dominant stuff, so he’s a decent middle-of-the rotation option…if healthy (which, if I have failed to mention it, is no certainty).

It’s true that the Indians are buying low on him, like Millwood, and giving him the opportunity to pitch his way into a bigger contract and back into legitimacy, right?

Maybe, but prior to Millwood signing his reclamation contract with the Indians (for $7M guaranteed, if you’ll remember), he had put up 200+ innings 4 out of his 7 full years in MLB (the lowest inning total being 121) and had put up inordinately better numbers year after year than Pavano, who seems to still be living off the 2004 (which looks to be the aberration when looking at Pavano’s body of work) that netted him his payday in the Bronx.

Maybe Pavano, out of the bright lights of the big city, can re-capture some semblance of the career that derailed in 2004. I’m not that optimistic that he can, given his varied and illustrious injury history and the fact that his career and reputation have been built on one admittedly fantastic season. Shapiro’s saying all of the right things about his health and his hunger, but the Indians are protected against him being injured or being ineffective enough to be cut loose as the incentives in the contract are pretty straightforward as “Pavano gets $100,000 each for reaching 18, 20 and 22 starts, $200,000 each for reaching 24, 26 and 28 starts, $250,000 for 30 starts, $300,000 for 32 starts, $350,000 each for 33 and 34 starts and $400,000 for 35 starts. He gets $100,000 each for reaching 130, 140 and 150 innings pitched, $150,000 each for 160 and 170 innings, $200,000 for 180, $250,000 for 190, $250,000 for 200, $300,000 for 215, $400,000 for 225 and $500,000 for 235.”

He’s had 24 starts twice in his 11-year career and has reached 140 innings only twice, so he’s going to have to come ROARING back into shape for most of those incentives to kick in. Being very optimistic, let’s say he has 23 starts and 130 IP – his salary bumps from $1.5M guaranteed goes to $1.9M guaranteed.

Overall, the signing itself and adding Pavano doesn’t do much for me other than to know that there’s another arm to add to the rotation mix to perhaps eat some innings until Jake Westbrook returns from injury (hopefully) in the middle of the season. Realistically, a healthy Pavano, is better than simply giving innings to Jeremy Sowers and it adds the depth that the Indians love, where they can go 7 or 8 starters deep, with the top of the AAA rotation serving as insurance against injury or ineffectiveness. It certainly sets up an interesting battle for the 5th spot in the rotation (remember, Reyes is out of options) as Laffey, Sowers, Huff, Zach Jackson (who does have an option left) and Scott Lewis all fight NOT to go to Columbus.

But (while I never wanted to remember or invoke this name ever again) let’s all say right now that the “Lesson of Jason Johnson” should be in full effect with Pavano. That is, if Pavano is not healthy, or is obviously ineffective, while the talented youngsters that now figure to start the season in AAA (notably, Dave Huff) prove that they’re further along than AAA (and Huff may have already proved that in his 16 starts in Buffalo last year), he should be on an awfully short leash and that this low-risk contract should be one that the Indians are not afraid to eat early and admit a mistake before it’s…I don’t know mid-June or so.

More interesting to me than simply adding Pavano is what the signing means in the long-term as it’s likely that this is the last move that the Indians make this off-season as they’ve now added to their bullpen, their infield, and their rotation. Unless Pavano was added to create more depth to allow one of the young LHP to be part of a package for a surer thing in the rotation, this looks to be the 2009 Indians, which brings some things to light.

First off, for the first time in what seems like a long time, the rotation figures to go into Spring Training with a lot of “ifs” around each of the principals that figure to make up the rotation:
What if Cliff Lee shows that 2008 IS NOT who he is as a pitcher?
What if Fausto Carmona shows that 2008 IS who he is as a pitcher?
What if Carl Pavano can’t stay healthy or has had injuries take their toll on his effectiveness?
What if the injuries that shut down Anthony Reyes and Aaron Laffey rear their ugly head again in 2009?
What if the Aaron Laffey we saw when he was promoted is nothing more than a Sowersesque mirage?
What if Jeremy Sowers’ career descent cannot find a bottom?
What if the young pitchers like Huff and Lewis fail to take that next step?

For an organization that has been designed to be built on strong starting pitching, that’s a lot of variables at play to fill out the top 5 spots in the rotation. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by knowing who would be getting the majority of the starts during the season when the team got to Spring Training as far back as 2005, but the middle-to-back of the rotation still looks to be built on sand to me, Pavano or no Pavano.

Going further than that, the Pavano signing removes, for the most part, the thought of trading Kelly Shoppach for a middle-of-the-rotation starter as Pavano is designed to fill that need. What that means to me is that concerns about the health of Hafner and Martinez and the long-term production of Garko are significant enough that the Indians don’t want to part with their insurance policy against another lost or poor year by any of them. Because, on the surface, everyday AB don’t look to be there for Shoppach (despite him earning them in 2008) as the Indians’ oft-stated stance is that Victor is the catcher, which would mean that Garko remains the de facto 1B. If Hafner is supposed to be healthy for 2009, how does this not suddenly look like a part-time position for Shoppach or maybe some sort of platoon with Garko, when Shoppach far outperformed Garko in 2008?

The Indians claim that they can find regular AB for all four players at three positions, but I’m just not seeing how that’s going to happen with one of these players being out of the lineup every game. How they’re going to balance it out remains to be seen (if, in fact, no more moves are coming) and it will be interesting to see how Shoppach performs in 2009, whether this off-season will come to represent his peak value or if 2008 was simply an appetizer for the main course that Show Pack has in store in 2009.

As an aside, this essentially means is that I can stop writing the piece that I was working on suggesting why Ricky Nolasco (FLA), Wandy Rodriguez (HOU), and Mike Pelfrey (NYM) would all be attractive trade candidates for the Indians to target in that their team would be in need of a catcher and each of them represented tangible upgrades (a few years away from FA) over the in-house back-end-of-the-rotation candidates.

Regardless, the Pavano signing looks to be it this off-season…so without further ado ladies and gentleman, YOUR 2009 Cleveland Indians!