Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tomahawks from the Mezz

Another day, another aspect of the team to turn a victory into a loss and I was there to witness the whole bloody mess from my perch in the Mezzanine with trusty Bob the Beer Guy nowhere to be found for the third straight game down there and me looking to drown my sorrows in some $7 beers.

Alas, let’s fire some Tomahawks from the Mezz the way that the new Progressive SUV in right-center field fire T-shirts (at least, I think they’re T-shirts) out of the car doors after an Indians’ HR…no, seriously – you have to see this thing that looks like it came straight off the “Transformers 2” set after a HR to believe it…and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Going into the 2009 season, one of the great mysteries was which Travis Hafner would appear in the Indians’ lineup and how frequently he would be able to appear in it, due to the lingering issues in his right shoulder. There were two “worst-case scenarios” with Hafner – one being that he had a clean bill of health, but was simply ineffective, and the other being that the underlying and mysterious issues in his shoulder would prevent him from contributing on anything close to an every day level.

While the first three weeks of the season seemed to answer the question of whether he could be an effective hitter, sore shoulder or not, as he posted a almost “Pronkian” line of .270 BA / .370 OBP / .540 SLG / .910 OPS, news that “shoulder soreness” has placed him on the 15-day DL could mean that the second “worst-case scenario” may be unfolding before our very eyes.

What does this “shoulder soreness” mean and why is he going back to see Dr. James Andrews after the Indians had stated that he essentially had a clean enough bill of health to break camp with the team and play for three weeks?

In the Indians’ cloak and dagger world of injury disclosure…who knows?
But if this “shoulder soreness” is what it sounds like, the Indians are facing the very real possibility that this right shoulder situation is a chronic condition that only rest seems to remedy, meaning that he’ll have to be coddled and managed almost as a part-time player so this “fatigue” and “soreness” doesn’t result in a 15-day DL stint every month or to from overexertion. Even if it is a “two-week” thing as The Atomic Wedgie hopes, this avenue to and from the DL could become a well-worn path for Hafner if his shoulder issue is something that’s not fixable and is simply something that the Indians will have to live with and manage.

I suppose you can wonder which is worse – a “healthy” Hafner who plays every day but can’t contribute too much at the plate or a “fragile” Hafner who is able to play 3 or 4 times a week and may or may not be a solid contributor in those sporadic starts?

Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic, but since you could make an argument that either option could fall under the “worse” category, the ramifications are pretty grim…particularly for a player guaranteed to make $37.5M over the next three years (not counting 2009) for the Tribe. For an ineffective everyday player or for an effective, but part-time player, any way you slice it, it’s not good news…

Regardless of the long-term effects on the Indians, what does the Tribe do now with Hafner’s spot on the 25-man roster?
Don’t you dare suggest this 14-man bullpen abomination…13 is too many, 14 is a joke.
In the short-term, the Indians will call David Dellucci up (sorry, folks, that’s what it’s going to be) to take the place of Hafner as a LH DH to play sporadically against RHP.

The lineup is probably going to have more than a few moving parts over the next four weeks until LaPorta gets the call up at the end of May/beginning of June as Garko and Shoppach are likely to see more time in that DH spot to the point that the breakdown will probably shake out like this:
C/1B – Vic the Stick
C/DH – Show Pack
1B/DH – Garko…Polo

Dellucci will likely be used as the DH against certain RHP or could be used as the LH complement to Shoppach in a DH platoon as Shoppach’s numbers against RHP this year have been underwhelming (.200 BA / .250 OBP / .333 SLG / .533 OPS), small sample size considered. Shoppach’s career OPS vs. RHP (.719) against his career OPS vs. LHP (.990) suggests that a happy balance may find some AB for The Looch for a few weeks while Shoppach can be put into positions in which he may be able to succeed and get back onto the roll that he rode throughout the second half of 2008.

Of course, a promotion of The Looch would mean that the Indians have 5 OF on the roster with two other players (DeRosa and Garko) who can also play OF, but you can’t really look at Dellucci as an OF anymore and this upcoming stint is more as a DH than anything else.

As unappealing as three or four weeks of Dellucci may be, in terms of him getting regular AB, you have to think that he’s fighting for his spot on this team as the reinforcements are going to be poised to emerge from Columbus in about a month and The Looch holds his own fate in his hands.

As for other roster moves, you want a little outside of the box thinking?
How about calling up Luis Valbuena?
Valbuena’s hitting at a .329 BA / .447 OBP / .529 SLG / .976 OPS clip in Columbus and would add some versatility to a lineup that sorely looks to be in need of it, in addition to finally adding a LH bat at the bottom of the lineup.

The idea would be to periodically give Valbuena some starts at 2B, move Cabrera to SS on those days and have Peralta either play some 3B or DH with DeRosa maybe taking some games in LF, moving Francisco to the 4th OF role.

It looks more confusing than it really is and what it really does is allow the Indians to play someone NOT named Tony Graffanino to utilize the versatility of DeRosa and give Peralta some time to himself…at a time when he certainly looks like he needs it.

The net effect of the move could be to move DeRosa into more of a super-utility role filling in for a slumping player. DeRosa could either stay at 3B with Cabrera and Valbuena to his left or could go to LF, assuming Peralta can handle 3B every so often and it wouldn’t throw off his already-fragile confidence, where he could at least take some AB as the LF and relegate Ben Francisco to more of the 4th OF role that his numbers suggest he is best suited for.
Don’t believe me that Frisco isn’t a viable everyday player?
Ben Francisco’s first 19 games in 2008
.365 BA / .397 OBP / .619 SLG / 1.016 OPS in 63 AB

Ben Francisco since those first 19 games
.247 BA / .317 OBP / .368 SLG / .685 OPS in 440 AB

Want some perspective on those last 440 AB by The Ben Francisco Treat?
Remember how everyone HATED how little production the Indians got from the LF platoon of Jason Michaels and David Dellucci, affectionately referred to as Dellichaels?
Dellichaels from 2006 to 2008
.252 BA / .314 OBP / .389 SLG / .702 OPS in 1,333 AB

But I digress…
Calling up a guy like Valbuena may be a move to see if shaking things up might put some life into the offense and could allow the Indians to utilize the versatility to play where the current hole exists, be it staying at 3B if Peralta continues to struggle or if LF if Francisco continues to struggle.

One issue that may prevent a move like this would be the thinking to keep Valbuena getting everyday AB in Columbus…but, last time I checked Tony Graffanino has started 6 of the 16 games he’s been an Indian and…well, he’s almost like the “nobody else is available” option – so I think that regular AB could be there for Valbuena. Maybe not every day AB, but enough to keep him busy.

Maybe that’s overthinking the whole mess or tinkering a little too much and not relying on a more patient, level-headed approach…but at least it would add some versatility and depth to an offense that is certainly in need of some.

Speaking of call-ups, if you’re still thinking that a LaPorta call-up is still happening before that magical date sometime at the end of May or beginning of June, here’s a little back-and-forth at LGT between Jay Levin, myself, and a few other savvy Tribe fans about why, ultimately, LaPorta being called up a month earlier than that date doesn’t make sense.

As much as we want it to make sense and as much as our heart tries to pull rank on our head…it just doesn’t make sense.

I’m not sure if anyone had a chance to make it to any of the Red Sox games, but having gone to two, let me just say this…yeah, the attendance this year…that’s going to be a problem and a developing story.

I know it’s the end of April, kids are in school, the weather is supposed to stink…but the Red Sox in town for their only series of the year, with Monday looking like mid-July and THAT’S the turnout.

It’s pretty telling when I can get off of the InnerBelt onto East 9th Street on both Monday and Wednesday (not even tapping my brakes once for traffic) at 6:45 PM for a 7:05 PM start, be in the parking garage at E. 9th and Bolivar less than 3 minutes later and be in the stadium a solid 10 minutes before the beginning of the game.

All I could think of as I passed over Carnegie on E. 9th (with no cop directing traffic because it simply wasn’t necessary) was what an emerging issue the attendance (or lack thereof) at these Indians’ games is going to be.

It could be a long, lonely summer at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario…especially for me in the Mezz if I can’t find Bob the Beer Guy soon as the other vendors in the Mezzanine don’t know the 3-inning pattern…you know, be there in the 1st, 4th, and 7th for my perfect game enjoyment.
What do you mean, you didn’t know about the 3-inning pattern?

Finally, to end on a lighter note, I know that a lot of people are planning on making the trip to Wrigley for that weekend series against the Erie Warriors on June 19th, 20th, and 21st. I have tix for all three games and am definitely attending Friday and Saturday with Sunday up in the air at this point as the Indians’ games are only part of the greater trip to Milwaukee for a week to hang with the in-laws.

Nevertheless, I floated the idea of some Tribe folk getting together on Saturday either before or after the game and our ol’ friend Cy Slapnicka took the proverbial bull by the horns and contacted Sheffield’s, a bar three blocks away from Wrigley (far enough to converse with people, but not too far) that serves Great Lakes Brewing Company’s finest.

Cy did ask, though, if we could get some sort of early head count so he can see if we could even get a space reserved or get some drink special, or just to let them know how much Dortmunder Gold they should be ordering.

So, long story short, if you’re making the trip that weekend, or live in Chicago and are just going to the game and would have an interest in something like this, just shoot me an e-mail at or put a comment down to express some interest and see if we can pull this thing off, considering we’re approaching it early enough…for once.

Also, maybe we can finally put that Facebook page to use and get some details on it once we figure out the time of the game and whether a pre-or post-game is more feasible for everyone who does express an interest.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Every Which Way

With Kerry Wood giving up a three-run jack to Jay Bay to ruin what was otherwise a wonderful night of tremendous baseball at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario on Monday night, I think it’s official – the Indians have lost games in every conceivable way in 2009…and the calendar has not yet flipped to May.

What’s disconcerting about that fact is that the Indians are not looking at one specific component of their team that is epically failing night in and night out; rather the blame is being shared by all three components of the team (rotation, bullpen, offense) with the wealth being spread pretty evenly. That is to say, if the starter does well, the bullpen or offense stink. If the offense puts up some runs, the starter is dreadful or the bullpen blows it.
Et cetera, et cetera…ad nauseam…

The team can't put together a complete game, despite the fact that the performances seem to be there from all three components (rotation, bullpen, offense)...just not on the same night. Does that mean that this is a “classic bad team”, as some prevailing thinkers seem to think, where the team simply isn’t talented or consistent enough to put together all the parts needed for the sustained winning needed to stay in any divisional race?

I suppose that’s a possibility, although it could be looked at in a very different manner in that maybe the way they’re losing isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the cylinders all seem to be working, just not all at once, particularly when you look at the different components of the team in certain time frames instead of on a game-by-game basis.

I know that I’ve already hit on this rebound by the rotation, but it’s important to look at this from a broader sense now that other aspects of the team seem to be crumbling:
Rotation’s First 8 outings
37 1/3 IP, 42 ER, 53 H, 18 BB, 31 K
10.12 ERA, 1.90 WHIP in 8 games with an average of approximately 4 2/3 IP per start

Rotation’s Last 13 outings
86 2/3 IP, 34 ER, 83 H, 30 BB, 45 K
3.53 ERA, 1.30 WHIP in 12 games with an average of approximately 6 2/3 IP per start

Considering that the 13-game stretch above includes a 2 inning, 7 ER effort from Reyes and a 5 inning, 5 ER effort from Pavano, you see that the rotation has shown significant signs of improvement, thanks to C.P. Lee remembering what he did in 2008 and to The Babyfaced Bulldog for his mind-boggling “ability” to induce GIDP.

If the rotation was the greatest concern going into the season, and the first week or so seemed to justify those fears, the leaps and bounds that the rotation has made (and rather quickly) are more than encouraging, particularly given that Lee, Carmona (whose last start finally looked like a replay of his 2008 may not be happening), and Laffey all look to be settling in at the top of the rotation.
With the calendar still reading “April”, isn’t that what we were looking for out of the rotation – at least a couple of pitchers establishing themselves while the back-end-of-the-rotation sorted itself out?

However, with the starters playing appreciably better, how has the team not taken off, given that the rotation is what was holding them back when the season started?

The answer is pretty simple…not too long after the rotation started to post Quality Starts and settled into some semblance of consistency, the other two components blew up. First up was the bullpen, whose struggles are well-documented and remain the great disappointment in the young season:
Bullpen in 2009
6.34 ERA – 26th out of 30 MLB teams
.916 OPS against – 30th out of 30 MLB teams
1.69 WHIP – 27th out of 30 MLB teams

While those stats don’t include Tuesday’s game, in which they were forced to clean up a Reyes mess and attempt to rein in the runaway locomotive that is the Red Sox offense, you get the idea on this. Think about the fact that two relievers in the bullpen have an ERA under 3.00 (Sipp and Chulk) and one reliever on the roster has a WHIP under 1.40 (Sipp)…and neither of those guys was on the team on Opening Day. Considering that Sipp’s only thrown 1 2/3 innings, what we’re watching is a epidemic in the bullpen of not being able to record outs with any consistency that is only finally finding a vaccine.

Of course, the bullpen may be finding some consistency with the excellent debut of Tony Sipp, the potential corrections being made by Rafael Perez, and the emergence of Rocky Betancourt, whose seemingly-high ERA is skewed by a Choo non-play in the Bronx. To this point, all the Indians have needed was some consistency from one or two pitchers out of the bullpen and it FINALLY started after the relief corps tried to give away last Wednesday’s game after Laffey’s brilliant start against KC.

In fact, from last Thursday’s victory to Kerry Wood’s 9th inning on Monday, here is what the Indians’ bullpen put forth over 5 games:
13 2/3 IP, 2 ER, 9 H, 4 BB, 14 K
That’s a 1.31 ERA, a 0.95 WHIP and a 3.5 K/BB ratio for a bullpen that looked to have finally turned it around. Yes, it’s still a work in progress (any bullpen is)…but positive signs are just that and should be recognized as such.

But still the Indians failed to put a winning streak together, despite an improved rotation and a settling bullpen…must mean that the offense fell apart, right?

Unfortunately, yes…as the offense’s ineptitude sabotaged the turnaround of the rotation, then the bullpen by putting up these numbers from the 22-4 rout to the mastery of Tim Wakefield’s knuckler on Monday:
.218 BA / .304 OBP / .321 SLG / .625 OPS with 5 HR, 27 BB, and 49 K in 8 games

That’s 2.5 runs a game when your starters have turned the corner and your bullpen is finally showing signs of life. That’s going to be an anchor for any team…and I don’t mean anchor in a good way.

Obviously, the Tuesday outburst helps, but it almost feeds into this notion of not putting together a complete game as the offense contributes on a night that another component of the team (on Tuesday, the rotation) makes sure that the team falls short of putting forth a complete game.

That’s what has been so frustrating about this team, in that every game seems to only present the team with another opportunity to see which aspect of the team will fall short of that nice, clean victory. Honestly, how many games this year have been those nice, relaxing experiences when the Indians build an early lead with an assist from a quality start then go to the bullpen come in to quietly put the game away?

Why is it that the rotation sabotaged the beginning of the season, only to right itself, then to see the bullpen give away leads while the offense pounded out runs?
Why is it now that the rotation has settled in, with the bullpen showing positive signs that the offense has disappeared?
When the pitching is there, the offense is not…
When the offense is there, some component of the pitching is not…

Is this a sign of a bad team, with too many holes to overcome on a nightly basis, or simply a team still attempting to put together all three components of the game, simply waiting for that extended run after everything comes together?

I still tend to believe the latter (although in full disclosure, I’ve been called a pie-eyed optimist more than once) only because the pieces all are there for the Indians to go on a sustained run to put them squarely in the mix in the AL Central. If the Indians get all three components running at full capacity, with the offense putting up consistent numbers on the scoreboard while the rotation contributes 6 quality innings, handing it over to the progression of relievers that finally seems to be developing, the Indians can very easily build some momentum towards working their way back into the race without much difficulty.

The standings tell us that they’ve played 21 games now and they are already looking at a mountain to climb to get back to .500 at that magical 40-game mark that is looked upon as a point in the season when legitimate evaluations can be made on individual players and changes made.

So if evaluations and changes aren’t imminent and the Indians seem only to need to put together a level of across-the-board consistency to put together a run, the question comes flying out – when is that run coming…and at what point does “relax, it’s early” start morphing into “it’s getting late”?

Right now, it’s a question without an answer…though that run would certainly be a welcome surprise as it would mean that the Indians would be winning games every conceivable way, instead of losing them.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lazy Sunday as Frustration Mounts

As Cleveland collectively wonders how “Massaquoi” will look on the back of a Browns’ jersey and how passing on Rey Maualuga will haunt them…oh, about twice a year when they face the Bungles, it’s time to get going on a Lazy Sunday on the other team who nobody can figure out…YOUR 6-12 Cleveland Indians:

If you think that frustration is creeping in for you on your couch, how about The Atomic Wedgie eschewing his tried-and-true post-game Wedgisms to unload this on what I can only picture as an unsuspecting press corps:
“What bothers me more than anything is we're not making good outs,” said manager Eric Wedge, referring to the offense. “Outside of a couple of guys, our approach has been very poor. It's something we pride ourselves on and work hard at it. There's just no excuse.
“Whatever the hell it is, we better figure out it pretty damn quick because I'm not going to sit around and watch what we've been watching.
“We're beyond all this. They aren't kids anymore.”

For a guy that is painfully careful about keeping an even keel and measures what he says about his team, this quote is about as candid and angry as you’re going to see Wedge publicly.

What does that translate to behind closed doors?
I don’t know, but let’s hope that a post-game buffet was being cleaned up by janitorial services at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario and not being enjoyed by a listless losing team.

Unfortunately, these days for the Indians, there hasn’t been one aspect of the team that can be consistently blamed for everything as each of the three components have already played the role of spoiler for the team. At the beginning of the year, it was the starting pitching…then it was the bullpen…now, it looks like the offense is stuck in neutral.

Yes, I think that this team will start firing on all cylinders as the talent is there, but it looks like it’s going to be a bumpy transition from the inconsistency of April to what we can only hope will be some semblance of continuity once June rolls around.

Speaking of continuity, Terry Pluto has a piece that hits on all of the spots in the rotation and how nearly every pitcher currently in the rotation has shown signs of coming around. I’m not quite as optimistic on Reyes as Pluto is as a fair share of his “ability to get out of jams” has to be chalked up to luck as much as it does “grit” and once that luck runs out, Reyes could be looking at some big numbers on the scoreboard at the end of some of these innings in which he’s getting into trouble. Reyes to me looks to be too “lucky” with his BABIP at .167 and has now walked more batters than he’s struck out, which is not a good thing; so I hope I’m wrong, but if Reyes falls off of that tightrope he’s been walking, it’s not going to be pretty.

Pluto also mentions that Jake Westbrook is still targeting June 12th as the return date to the rotation and, while it certainly would be a boon to the team to add a consistent starter like Westbrook to the rotation that early, the date does seem a little optimistic and I’d rather for Westbrook to come back as close to 100% as possible instead of him focusing on making his return on an arbitrary date like June 12th (the one year anniversary of his surgery) that holds significance only for him.

Finally, with Pluto, he touches on Matt LaPorta crushing the ball in AAA and how close to Cleveland he may be. After I wrote something similar in the last Tomahawks piece, I received an e-mail from astute reader Rich Schumacher, who pointed out that the Indians may be delaying LaPorta’s ascension to MLB because of the service time that he would accumulate by being called up now, which would allow him to enter arbitration a year earlier by being what’s called a “Super 2” player.

Essentially, what “Super 2” means is that if LaPorta accumulates 86 or more days of service time this year, he’ll be eligible for arbitration at the end of 2011 as opposed to being eligible for arbitration at the end of 2012 if he accumulates less than 86 days of service time.

If the Indians are, in fact, looking to limit that service time, the date that you’d be looking at to manage his service time and to keep him under club control, without going to arbitration would be (with a hat tip to Jay at LGT) at the end of the first week in June and technically on June 5th.

From a cost control standpoint and from a player control standpoint, this management of service time makes sense, but to me with a guy like LaPorta, who is already 24 years old and has proven that his bat is ready for MLB, this is almost over thinking the process. If you’re talking about managing a 21-year-old’s service time, that’s one thing, but with LaPorta, you’re keeping him under wraps when he’s a better option right now in LF because of concerns that you may have to pay him three years from now or holding onto him for another year and simply doing so because the best-case scenario (that LaPorta is a stud) is the only option that you can envision.

In case you were wondering, after another HR and a 3 for 3 night on Saturday, here’s LaPorta’s updated line for the season:
.404 BA / .447 OBP / .789 SLG / 1.266 OPS with 5 HR, 3 2B, and 2 3B in 16 games

If you want to promote a guy who’s seeing the ball well and riding a wave of confidence to improve the parent club, there’s your guy…service time issues considered.

Moving on, I’m not really interested in this created “story” about Cliff Lee possibly being traded as, if you’ve read the initial “article” that caused the firestorm, you’re aware that there’s nothing to the story other than wild speculation and citing sources “familiar with the organization”…which means what exactly?

The way it was picked up, though, by all of the “legitimate” media outlets was pretty sad, though, as anyone with an ounce of sense could read the original “article” (which I’m not going to link as that would only legitimize it in a sense and you can find it pretty easily if you haven’t already seen it) could know that the piece was just some guy sitting there thinking, “hey…maybe the Indians would trade Cliff Lee”, then getting some vanilla, anonymous quotes to “back up” his position, failing to mention that trading Lee (who has an affordable option for NEXT YEAR) now would be trading him at his lowest point of value since…well, I don’t know, since he was left off of the playoff roster in 2007?

Overall, it was “journalism” at it’s very worst and the fact that it was picked up by mainstream media sources (The PD’s dreadful “Starting Blocks linked it with a title of “Will the Cleveland Indians ‘pull a CC’ and trade Cliff Lee at midseason?”) is beyond embarrassing…for them, I mean.

Back to the sanity of solid journalistic work, the always spectacular Joe Posnanski goes “Around the Horn”, dissecting the idiocy of Brandon Phillips asserting that on-base percentage doesn’t really matter all that much as well as naming Grady Sizemore his AL MVP…after two weeks.
Time to make room on that trophy shelf, Grady…

Posnanski also regales us with the return of “Banny Log”, which chronicles the life and times of Royals’ pitcher Brian Bannister, who happens to be JoePos’ favorite player since Duane Kuiper and also happened to lock the Indians’ lineup down on Wednesday’s game just after being called up from AAA.

Vince Grzegorek at the terrific ‘64 and Counting has an interesting look at the Cavs’ run in the playoffs and the impact it may have on Indians’ attendance while said playoff run in going on. Vince does a good job of dissecting what an extended run into the playoffs by the Cavaliers (which I think we all assume to be nearly a given) could mean to the Indians and don’t think that the Indians aren’t wildly aware of said impact on their attendance and their revenue.

Moving on, while I know that I, in fact, have a Twitter feed (though I’m really not sure what that means), it seems that Matt LaPorta also does, though again, I’m not really sure what that means or why it is compelling to anyone.

The best thing that I can say about Twitter is that “The Soup” brilliantly lampooned the week that Twitter may have collectively “jumped the shark” in terms of overexposure to people who (like me) have no idea what it is, but think that it’s the hot, new thing to do.
Quoth Joel McHale, “It’s the digital Macarena”…

Apropos of nothing having too much to do with the Tribe (or Twitter), it seems that Milton Bradley believes that the Chicago media is trying to make him “snap”:
"I'm just not into negativity," he said. "I can see already I'm going to be that guy that since nothing else is going on in here, 'We're going to harp on Bradley all year and see if we can get him to snap.' I'm not going to go for it. You can't get a good story if I don't talk to [the media]. You'll make something up, like you always do."

"If I talk to you, you're going to make something up, and if I don't talk to you, you're going to make something up. So just go ahead and make something up and leave me out of it."

Yeah, this is not going to end well…
Not even close to the end of April (23 AB total) in the first year of a 3-year deal and already paranoia is prevailing with Milton?
Given that most Cubs’ fans saw the signing of Milton Bradley as the direct result of the Cubs’ trade of DeRosa to the Tribe (the thinking being that the DeRosa trade freed up payroll to add the switch-hitting GameBoy to a RH-heavy lineup), it’s going to make DeRosa’s return to Wrigley all the interesting in June as Cubs’ fans will be treated to what they had…while being reminded of what they now have.

Finally, I posted last week how unbelievable it was to sync up the FOX feed of the 22-4 rout in the Bronx with Hammy and Hegan on the radio (yes, that was just last Saturday), and my brother-in-law sent me this link to SportSync, a piece of equipment that may actually make such an accomplishment possible for every game without too much effort.

Now, if you’ll excuse me…I need to order my Brett Ratliff jersey so I can one day add it to the rag bin of jerseys graced with the words “COUCH”, “WYNN”, “McCOWN”, “FRYE”, “ANDERSON”, and “DORSEY”.

While I wait for it to arrive, I’ll hope that The Atomic Wedgie did more than put a burr under this team’s collective saddle and wake these guys up into playing a full game, with all aspects of the team contributing instead of watching 2/3 of the team set the team up for victory only to be sabotaged by that wayward other 1/3.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tomahawks On Their Way Up From The Cellar

As the Tribe finally wins a series against the AL Central leading (well, kind of) KC Royals, perhaps now would be a good time to release some Tomahawks as 80 degree weather is on the way to the North Coast, as are the first rung to climb on that AL Central ladder to the top…the 4th place Minnesota Twins.

And with that optimism setting the tone, release away:

After another good outing by Ant Reyes today, the Indians’ starters look as if they finally may have turned the corner…and not a moment too soon.
Want an indication of how important the turnaround in the Indians’ rotation has been?
First 8 outings (Team’s Record: 1-7)
37 1/3 IP, 42 ER, 53 H, 18 BB, 31 K
10.12 ERA, 1.90 WHIP in 8 games with an average of approximately 4 2/3 IP per start

Second 8 outings (Team’s Record: 5-3)
59 1/3 IP, 16 ER, 45 H, 22 BB, 28 K
2.42 ERA, 1.13 WHIP in 8 games with an average of approximately 7 1/3 IP per start

Obviously, the bullpen remains a concern and the struggles of ¡Fausto! (10 BB to 8 K in 14 IP) bear serious watching, but the rotation has shown signs of stability after what can charitably be described as a train wreck of a start to the season.
And that…well, that’s an awfully good thing to see finally rectify itself.

On the topic of the starting five, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the rotation when Scotty Lewis is ready to return from his DL stint as his spot was filled by Aaron Laffey, who has put together two excellent starts thus far, sporting the best ERA on the team for anybody not named Tony Sipp and being the first starter to throw a pitch in the 7th inning (much less finish the 7th) on Tuesday.

Given the volatile nature of the rotation to this point (although things certainly feel more settled as evidenced above), I can’t see how the Indians stand by their previous stance that SLewis will simply be handed his spot in the rotation once he’s healthy. To date, Laffey has been the Indians’ most consistent starter (yes, I know it is just two starts) and maybe I’m colored by my opinion that he’s probably the 3rd best starter in the organization right now in terms of MLB readiness and repertoire, but the idea of sending him down to Columbus after his appearances for the parent club to call up Scott Lewis doesn’t hold any water.

A much more palatable arrangement would be to send SLewis back to the rotation in Columbus once he’s healthy (call them “rehab starts”…I don’t care) to allow him to ease himself back into the mix and wait for the Indians’ rotation to have that glaring need (via injury or ineffectiveness) that is likely to come down the pike.

Realizing fully that the offense has not been this team’s problem (although the last two days have shades of Opening Day in Texas), let’s take a quick look at the OF on the team not named Grady and Big League:
The Ben Francisco Treat
.250 BA / .327 OBP / .409 SLG / .736 OPS with 1 HR and 4 RBI in 44 AB

Trevor Crowe
.179 BA / .258 OBP / .214 SLG / .472 OPS with 0 HR and 4 RBI in 28 AB

Yes, it’s only 15 games and real evaluations of players still seem awfully premature, but both of these guys have always looked a lot like 4th OF in terms of their versatility in the field and their shortcomings at the plate. The Frisco Kid continues to evoke a feeling of “meh” and Crowe’s MiLB mediocrity has translated like you think it would have to MLB…which is to say, not well.

Look, these two are both players who fill a role on a team (and while it may seem like it is wildly premature to say this), it’s just that it shouldn’t be a starting role. But…but…but…Francisco thrived in his debut month last year and Crowe just needs some time to adjust to MLB.

Fine, I’ll give you that Frisco had a nice debut and maybe Crowe needs to adjust to MLB, but neither of them are going to ever be any more than what they look like…4th OF.

If you don’t believe me, check out their career MiLB stats:
.291 BA / .356 OBP / .459 SLG / .815 OPS
Solid? Sure…but nothing that indicates that the now-27-year-old has that one skill that sets him apart, other than consistently being average.

.275 BA / .361 OBP / .394 SLG / .755 OPS
For a now-25-year-old whose OPS in the minors, by year, has been .653, .798, .694, .867, show me where the evidence is that he’s suddenly going to break this cycle of being an average hitter.

I’m not trying to discount either of these guys as MLB players as Frisco has some pop in his bat, but he’s a defensive liability without hitting enough to overcome that while Crowe has speed and is a solid defender with versatility, but he’s a slap hitter without a lot of power or outstanding on-base ability.

No, the reason this is relevant is that for the first time in a long time, measured mediocrity is not the ceiling the Indians are shooting for in LF. For the first time in a VERY long time, the Indians have a legitimate corner OF prospect on the cusp of the Majors, practically banging down the door in Columbus for someone to open it for him.
The Indians have Matt LaPorta.

Matt LaPorta, he of the .285 BA / .382 OBP / .577 SLG / .958 OPS career minor league line, is positively crushing AAA pitching.
How badly is LaPorta trying to hit his way off the Clippers?
.362 BA / .423 OBP / .660 SLG / 1.083 OPS with 3 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR and 9 RBI in 31 AB

And here’s where the alleged conundrum comes in – is the move really that necessary when the offense is playing as well as it is? It seems that the usage patterns for particular players are working as a whole, so wouldn’t this just be a move to make a move?

I suppose that’s valid on some level, but adding a guy like LaPorta (especially if he’s taking AB away from Frisco and Crowe) immediately improves an already very good lineup, allowing the Indians to put one guy in LF and being able to keep a guy like Crowe around for defensive purposes and pinch-running appearances ONLY (this cannot be stressed enough), thus strengthening the bench that already looks too thin in terms of versatility.

When the Indians netted LaPorta from the Brewers, he was purported to have a “near MLB-ready bat” and his performance in Columbus (yes, it’s only 13 games) has done nothing to dispel that notion. If the Indians were waiting to see how LaPorta reacted to his first taste of AAA pitching after scuffling down the stretch in AA after the CC deal, I’m pretty sure that they have their answer. The 24-year-old is proving that AAA is beneath him, just as he proved that AA was beneath him last year.

Is it too early?
For some perspective on early season call-ups, Evan Longoria got called up on April 12th in 2008, in time for the Rays’ 11th game of the season and Ryan Braun got called up on May 25th in 2007, in time for the Brew Crew’s 48th game of the season.

With the players ahead of LaPorta struggling (or at least doing their best imitation of a Replacement Level Player) and LaPorta obviously seeing the ball well in AAA, what reason is there not to bring him up soon?
How soon?
If I were a betting man, I'd put LaPorta’s ETA somewhere between those two dates from Longoria an Braun, which would put him in a Tribe uniform during the first week of May…or in about two weeks.

Yeah, he’s that impressive and the reasons to keep him there are get less compelling with each passing AB by Ben Francisco and Trevor Crowe for the Tribe and each AB by LaPorta in Columbus.

As a quick aside here, there’s been a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth over what the Indians do with The Looch when he completes his rehab assignment in Columbus. I think that the argument goes, “how could they call him up…he’s terrible…he’s a waste of money…they should just eat his contract and cut him…”

Most of which I think have quite a bit of merit, but let’s look at this rationally:
Dellucci is LH…
Nobody on the Indians’ bench is LH, unless you count the switch-hitting Crowe…
Most of the Indians that you would pinch-hit for are also RH…
Thus, the Indians need a LH option on their bench.

And as detestable as the idea may be, The Looch would be that LH option off the bench. Am I saying that he’s a GOOD LH option off of the bench?
No, but at least he’s LH and, frankly, on a team carrying too many pitchers in the bullpen and too many RH non-hitters on the bench, he can’t be much worse than the other pinch-hitting options.

OK, he can be worse, but maybe he can’t be MUCH worse…at least he wouldn’t get used that much.

Speaking of usage patterns, anyone notice that Trevor Crowe has more AB than Kelly Shoppach?
Sure, the “platoon” of Shoppach and Garko around Victor is supposed to depend on the pitcher and the match-up, but isn’t this the same Kelly Show Pack who posted the 10th best OPS in the AL from June 1st to the end of the year?

It’s not as if he’s struggling wildly (.799 OPS) or that he’s a defensive liability, so the answer as to why he’s not playing more must have something to do with the fact that the players who ostensibly block Kelly from every day playing time (Victor and, to a lesser degree, Garko…Polo) are both off to hot starts.
That is not a problem for Crowe in LF.

Who else has their Tony Sipp jersey en route?
Watching him go 1-2-3 in his appearance in relief of C.P. Lee on Wednesday (answering questions quickly as to how he’ll be used) was such an oasis in the desert of failure that is the bullpen that I’m irrationally enthusiastic about Sipp.

In fact, I’m already lining up potential endorsement deals for him…how about as a pitchman for Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Commodore Perry beer?
You know the one…it says “Don’t Give Up the Sip” on the label.

We all remember so fondly another young Indians’ reliever who became a pitchman for a local establishment serving up the cold ones, so why not Sipp and GLBC?
I know…it’s only one appearance.
Fine…I’ll hold off on the irrational exuberance…while WEARING my new Tony Sipp jersey and drinking my Commodore Perry!

Did you notice the Royals institute “The Shift” for Victor when he was batting LH against their RHP? You know the one…the one that everyone uses for Hafner, Thome, and Big Papi that moves the infield to the right side of 2B. While the wisdom of that strategy is questionable at best, given Victor’s ability to do…well, whatever he wants with a bat this year, are we just waiting for the time when “The Shift” gets employed on Grady and Choo?

According to my handy-dandy IA2K9, both Grady and Choo hit over 50% of the balls they struck last year to the right side of the field and given what each has done in the early going, I wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of defensive adjustments were made for the erstwhile MVP and for The BLC

On this week’s edition of “Smoke Signals”, Tony Lastoria and I were fortunate enough to be joined by beat writer Anthony Castrovince, who spoke at length about the life of a beat reporter and his experience in dealing with the Indians’ brass and their tendency to read from the same script, as well as taking us into what it was like to be in Arizona for ALL of Spring Training.

The interview (which hit on the bullpen, Lewis over Laffey in Goodyear, Carmona, among other topics) was an interesting look into the opinions of someone who sees this team every day, talks to this team every day, and remains attached to his BlackBerry everyday to stay on top of Indians information for you.

If you’re not getting your Indians news from AC at The Official Site or at CastroTurf…well, frankly that’s your loss because once you start reading him, every other Mainstream Media news source that you used to rely upon for you Indians’ fix (outside of Terry Pluto) just fades into oblivion.

Finally, if you’re going to be anywhere around Lakewood on Saturday (or just want to go to a fun party), is throwing a Draft Day Party at The Winking Lizard. Yours truly will be there, attempting to do the whole “Beers of The World” tour in one night.

No, I’m just kidding…but it is going to be a blast to pore over the minutia that is the NFL Draft Day and to convince ourselves that this…THIS…is the year that the Browns turn it all around and this…THIS…is the day that serves as the jumping point for the imminent renaissance of the Browns’ organization.

Maybe this is overselling it, but join me at the Lizard to celebrate for such an historic occasion…

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Plugging the Leaks

Now two and a half weeks into the season, with the Indians preparing to make up some ground at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario against the 1st place Kansas City Royals, the biggest disappointment of the young season, in terms of what was expected when the season started against what we’ve seen thus far, has been far and away the performance of the re-worked bullpen.

Obviously, the starting pitching has been more than concerning as no Indians’ starter has thrown a pitch in the 7th inning and the starters are averaging just over 5 innings per start, but isn’t this what we kind of expected out of the rotation? Wasn’t the sense that the rotation would evolve on the fly and experience some growing pains (some being very painful) in the process the prevailing notion coming out of Arizona?

To me, the starters looked to set up as a trial-and-error sequence, where the names and the arms changed until the right mix was found, hopefully before the season got out of hand. And while the season certainly hasn’t gotten out of hand, the starters are culpable for a good deal of the issues with this team as C.P. Lee and Fausto have thrown decently, but certainly not well and Pavano and Reyes have been an inconsistent and frustrating duo, whose leashes should start to tighten with a few rough outings, while Aaron Laffey attempts to make an impression in SLewis’ absence to make the case to stay topside. Among the five starters, the progression and the evolution is underway…but we knew that was coming.

Not so in the bullpen, where the Indians’ addition of Kerry Wood was supposed to settle the bullpen by immediately slotting the relievers below him on that “Ladder of Progression” into their roles as set-up relievers, mop-up guys, long men, and specialists. The idea was actually quite simple as the Indians’ two best relievers last year (Stomp Lewis and The Scarecrow, Rafael Perez) would alternate their roles in the 7th and 8th innings, depending upon the opposition’s lineup as the RH Lewis and the LH Perez could be used in tandem to maximize their effectiveness as the bridge to Wood in the 9th, depending upon the handedness of the scheduled hitters for the late innings.

The idea continued that, with Wood locking down the 9th and Lewis and Perez sharing duties in the 7th and the 8th, that Rafael Betancourt could re-build his confidence that eroded in 2008 in the 6th inning or as needed to work himself into a more meaningful role while Joe Smith would find work in strategic match-ups with tough RH hitters from the 6th inning on. With the track records of the pitchers involved, the idea wasn’t too much of a leap of faith as, past Wood, all four had two or three year track records that seemed to imply that their success could and would be sustained.

Unlike the rotation, the bullpen out of Goodyear looked pretty solid and pretty set in terms of who did what, and when:
9th – Wood
8th – Perez/Lewis
7th – Perez/Lewis
6th – Betancourt
ROOGY – Smith
Mop-Up – Kobayashi
Long Man – Jackson

As much confidence as that progression gave so many that the ugliness of the 2008 bullpen was safely behind us…well, look out:
2008 bullpen in April
4.54 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 6.99 K/9, 4.05 BB/9, 1.72 K/BB in 27 games

2009 bullpen in April
6.49 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, 6.49 K/9, 6.09 BB/9, 1.07 K/BB in 13 games

That’s right, kids…the 2009 bullpen has been statistically worse than the 2008 bullpen, who assisted in the sabotage of the season that we’re trying so hard to forget.

In fact, when you take Kerry Wood’s dominant performances out of this year’s numbers, the rest of the relievers have walked more batters (29 without Wood) than they’ve struck out (25 without Wood). This year’s bullpen has already given up 32 earned runs in 13 games, while last year’s incarnation gave up “only” 37 earned runs in 27 games.
Knowing what the 2008 bullpen did to the season, it doesn’t feel “too early” on the bullpen anymore, does it?

Unfortunately, the idea that the additions to the bullpen (Wood and Smith) coupled with the maturation and continued development of Lewis and Perez as set-up men would settle the bullpen simply hasn’t come to fruition. Look at those two links of results again and see how Kobayashi, like last year, has been among the Indians’ most effective relievers while the pitchers thought to be the back-end relievers when each season started dot the bottom of each links.

That is to say, the pitchers that struggled in April of last year were the assumed set-up man in Betancourt, who was striking a lot of people out (10.24 K/9), but giving up a lot of HR (3 in 9 2/3 IP) and Perez, who was walking a lot of people (6 BB in 12 IP) and giving up a lot of hits (14 H in 12 IP).
Sound familiar?

A cursory look at Jensen Lewis’ pitch mixture, strike to ball ratio, and hit percentage doesn’t reveal much other than that Lewis is giving up more fly balls than he ever has, although it’s really not THAT much more than his career averages. What has happened is that those fly balls have been depositing themselves in the bleachers of stadiums instead of in the gloves of his outfielders. There may be a correlation as to where Lewis has allowed HR, as 3 of the 4 HR against him have came in the notorious launching pads in Texas and NY, but against nearly half of the batters he’s faced (34), he’s either struck them out (8), walked them (4), or given up a HR (4). I’ve heard of Three True Outcomes, but that’s pretty ridiculous, even when you consider the small sample size.

All told, I think that Lewis will likely be in the mix throughout the season in the back-end of the bullpen and may just be pressing, just missing a few spots that have been costly, or may be overextended in terms of when and how he’s being used instead of being used strictly as a 7th or 8th inning set-up reliever.

As for Perez, obviously something has changed with Perez as a noted strike-thrower whose induction of swings-and-misses has not only seen a wild divergence in the number of walks he’s given up and the damage done when contact is made is positively horrifying.
Consider the slugging percentage against Perez over the last three years:
2007 - .292 SLG against
2008 - .353 SLG against
2009 - .630 SLG against
That’s not OBP against, that’s Slugging Percentage against, meaning that when opponents did get on base against Perez, it was usually via a single. If that doesn’t make sense to you, how about this:
2007 – 12 extra base hits allowed in 60 /23 IP
2008 – 17 extra base hits allowed in 76 1/3 IP
2009 – 4 extra base hits allowed in 7 IP

Now throw that on top of his walk totals and how different 2009 looks and you can see that there’s a serious problem:
2007 – 15 BB in 60 /23 IP
2008 – 23 BB in 76 1/3 IP
2009 – 9 BB in 7 IP

Yes, it’s 7 IP and, yes, Perez can still rebound from this dreadful start as he’s always struggled out of the gate. But what has always made Perez so effective – pounding the strike zone, minimizing BB, inducing weakly hit balls – seems to be completely reversed in this 2009 incarnation of The Scarecrow and that development throws the whole “Ladder of Progression” for these relievers into flux as his status as a late-inning reliever is simply not valid right now and the rest of the bullpen needs to adjust accordingly, however that may be.

What’s so concerning about that hole in the 7th and 8th innings, though, is that the Indians are inexplicably unable to find consistent success in any of their relievers outside of Wood. Even the guys who have looked good at times (Kobayashi, Smith, Betancourt) have been far from confidence-inspiring. With 8 relievers in the bullpen instead of the normal 7 (presumably because of the stretch of games without an off-day and the concerns in the rotation), you would think that somebody would be able to log some meaningfully effective innings for the bullpen.

But that hasn’t happened and the Indians have now played 13 games and to exacerbate the problem, beyond Wood and Smith, no reliever has a set “role” because of the issues in the back-end with Lewis and Perez and at that front-end with the starters not contributing enough innings to the cause. Certainly some of it can be traced to the starters and their short outings, but at the end of the day, the relievers (regardless of the inning) have to come in, protect leads or keep games close, and get batters out. To date, outside of Wood and Kobayashi (and to a lesser degree, Smith), that just simply hasn’t happened.

The difficulty, of course, with relievers is that their exposure to MLB hitters is so limited that to “work through” any issues generally need to occur in game situations, meaning that if the Indians believe that a pitcher like Perez simply needs to work out the kinks that he’ll do it for the Indians, but maybe in some lower pressure situations or in games in which the game’s outcome has already seemingly been decided.

Unfortunately, the problems go deeper than just Lewis and Perez, though, despite the fact that the failures of those two have been the most surprising and have affected the bullpen the most; so the question needs to be asked of whether help or new arms is anywhere to augment this bullpen and perhaps provide the Indians with a consistent reliever other than Wood?

If you’re going off of Shapiro’s quote from yesterday’s conference call (via Castro), it doesn’t look like they think so:
(On possible roster moves)
”We'd consider any move that would make our team better. No one at Columbus has made themselves a clear, better alternative to the guys up here. We need to balance the importance of making us better and understanding there's some urgency with also understanding the long schedule and respecting what players have done and giving them the opportunity to get on track.”

For the translation from ShapiroSpeak, that means that the alternatives in AAA may be better suited to stay in AAA to have them ready to step into a meaningful role once these bullpen roles (hopefully) shake out after the next couple of weeks. He’s saying that he doesn’t want to call a guy like Meloan or Sipp up and burn him out with overuse because of the struggles of guys with a track record of success that may simply need to work out the issues that they’re having against MLB hitters. To me, he’s saying that he still feels that the 8 guys that make up the bullpen are the best relievers in the organization right now. Maybe that “best” 8 or 7 changes in their eyes…but that day isn’t today.

Actually, if you do look deeper into what’s happening with the Columbus pen, the thought process does hold some merit. Probably the first reliever that we’ll see topside, John “Mayday” Meloan has a 1.20 WHIP, 8 K and 1 BB in 8 1/3 IP as a reliever in Columbus as he transitions back to the bullpen, but his outing on Monday night resulted in 3 ER in 2 IP. That’s just one outing though, right? Technically yes, but of the 9 hits that Meloan’s given up this year, 7 of them have been extra-base hits (6 2B, 1 HR), so when he gets hit…he gets hit hard. Don’t we already have that cause-and-effect (high K rate, high XBH rate) with Jensen Lewis going on?

The other impact young pitcher that would get a look, Tony Sipp, has performed fairly well in Columbus, notching 10 K in 7 IP, but he has 5 BB to go against those 10 K and, if we’re looking for a LHP that can walk people at an alarming rate – that position is currently filled. Sipp has experienced a good amount against LH hitters in the short time he’s been in Columbus, striking out 3 of the 10 LH hitters he’s faced, but the Indians see Sipp as more than just a LOOGY and calling him to Cleveland right now essentially slots him into that LOOGY role, which may stall his development as a reliever who is effective against both RH and LH hitters. Hitters aren’t hitting the ball hard against him (only 14% of balls struck off him are line drives) and he’s only given up one extra-base hit in his 7 IP.

But, like all of these guys in Cleveland, you’re talking about making judgments on 7 IP and 34 batters faced. If guys like Mayday Meloan and Sipp are legitimately going to contribute for the Indians this year as the bullpen continues to reveal itself, doesn’t it stand to reason that getting them steady work in Columbus, to allow them to work on things outside of the bright lights of an MLB stadium is preferred to throwing them into the smoldering fire that is the Indians’ bullpen right now?

I suppose if the Indians REALLY want to add an arm from within, one intriguing name would be LHP Rich Rundles, who has never been sold as anything more than a LOOGY. Assuming that Perez will get outings against LH and RH hitters to rectify himself and that Zachson is going to remain the long man, the Indians really are without a pitcher effective primarily against LH hitters. Into that void, Rundles could emerge given his numbers over the last two years against LH hitters in AAA:
2008 vs. LH hitters in Buffalo
1.01 WHIP, .165 BA Against, 42 K, 14 BB, 18 hits allowed in 123 LH batters faced

2007 vs. LH hitters in Buffalo
1.08 WHIP, .158 BA Against, 13 K, 1 BB, 6 hits allowed in 31 LH batters faced

He’s on the 40-man, and I guess he’d fill a hole - but does calling Rich Rundles up really feel like that “one move” that’s going to make this bullpen whole again?

No…and neither does calling up any of the other Chulkesque options in AAA, Matt Herges and Greg Aquino, who are a step below The Regrettable Chulk on the food chain…which is saying something. And, unless you’d like to report a Juan Salas sighting, that’s what you’re looking at for immediate in-house options for this team.

Could they make a trade for a bullpen arm, like the Cardinals who traded our dear old friend Brian Barton to the Braves for Blaine Boyer? I suppose, but at this point in the season, it’s not like teams are looking to jettison effective relievers with so many games in front of them.

Ultimately, the Indians almost have to play the cards in their hand right now as the track record on most of these relievers suggest that better results are possible, as difficult as that may be to believe now. What remains unbelievable is that the Indians, for the second straight April, have experienced what is nearly a bullpen-wide meltdown with relievers that they felt comfortable going into the season relying upon.

So, if these are the cards in their hand and they’re going to have to play them, what do the Indians do now?
First and foremost, I think you move Perez out of any situation to pitch in meaningful game situations and try to build his confidence back up gradually, maximizing his effectiveness by putting him into situations that he SHOULD be able to succeed without the pressure of the game being in the balance being at play.

Secondly, let’s summarily dismiss the idea that Kerry Wood should go more than one inning, regardless of how nice it would be to see that nastiness for more than three batters. It is still April and it is unwise to tempt fate at any time in a baseball season…much less April.

Beyond that, I think that the Indians have to balance past track record with current results and start to develop that “Ladder of Progression” in the bullpen based not only on who’s been there before, but also who’s succeeding now. If pressed to take a stab at it, I suppose this is how I'd build it:
9th – Wood
8th – Betancourt
7th – Lewis
6th – Kobayashi
ROOGY – Smith
Situational LHP – Perez
Mop-Up – Chulk
Long Man – Jackson

Of all of the pitchers with a track record of back-end success, Betancourt has been the most consistent performer despite his recent predilection for BB. He was victimized by Choo’s non-catch in New York (although he put himself in that jam with the walks) to see his ERA rise from 2.45 to 6.14, so if there’s going to be someone to get that “next first crack” at the 8th Innings, Senor Slo-Mo is probably the best in-house option.

Beyond him, I'd give Lewis and Kobayashi some work in the 6th and 7th innings with Smith complementing them accordingly to get RH hitters out. Perez needs to find work in games without meaning, while Chulk continues to mop-up and Zach Jackson stays at the ready for the imminent long man work that’s going to come.

Of course, even this alignment could go bad quickly the way that things are going, but if the Indians starters begin to go at least 6 innings and hand the lead to the bullpen, Monday’s off day should have given them sufficient time to slot these relievers into some semblance of a progression.

The way that the season is going for the bullpen, let’s hope that these relievers replace their gas cans with fire extinguishers to put out some fires on the mound before the bullpen, thought to be an area of relative strength entering the season, becomes the season’s undoing.

UPDATE – Obviously, less than an hour after I posted this, the Indians’ bullpen let up 6 runs in 2 IP to make a game out of what should have been a nice, relaxing evening at home. After the game, in which the Indians only needed 3 outs in the 8th to get the lead to Kerry Wood and were forced to use 3 pitchers to get the aforementioned 3 outs, the Indians optioned the Zach Attack to Columbus (mainly because he has options remaining) and called up Tony Sipp.

As I mentioned above, Sipp has always been seen as more than just a LOOGY and calling him up now could be a cause for concern in that it might slot him into that role instead of allowing him to develop as a reliever capable of getting out both LH and RH hitters. But, desperate times call for desperate measures, and after last night and the past 5 days or so, the Indians have no reason to slot Sipp into facing only LHP as he suddenly looks like as viable an option as there’s going to be in that bullpen.

Sipp struggled with his control in Columbus, but at this point, I wouldn’t have any problem putting him right into that 6th inning mix and seeing what he can do. It can’t be much worse than what we’ve seen.

Whether this is the move that settles the bullpen remains to be seen, but it’s pretty telling when the second guy called up from AAA before the end of April immediately looks like he could be one of your 4 best relievers on the team.

At this point, somebody (ANYBODY) needs to record outs in the 6th, 7th, or 8th innings with any regularity in front of Kerry Wood to make this bullpen work. Maybe it’s Sipp, maybe it isn’t…but the auditions for the bullpen are now fully on.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Lazy Sunday Spent Basking in the Glow

Let that sink in for a moment.
22-4! When is my shirt being printed for that? Um, scroll to the bottom of the link…

As the Yankees and the national media attempt to ignore the baseball being played in NEW Yankee Stadium (of which it seems Indians’ hitters may actually have the keys), there are actually some baseball games being played there and…well, it feels pretty good to say this – the Indians are pounding the Yankees into oblivion during what was simply supposed to be akin to a royal family dedicating a new palace in the Bronx.
First the 10-2 victory in the series opener, then…well, I don’t remember what happened on Friday (weird, I must have blocked that one out)…then THIS!

The only thing better than watching the Indians round the bases and make a mockery of the Yankee pitching staff on Saturday was the fact that I was (for the first time ever) able to sync up the Indians’ radio broadcast to a TV feed. Thus, while the Indians bashed their way around the Bronx and the FOX cameras were focused on Monument Park, Jeter, Girardi, Carl Pavano in a Tribe uni, and the concourse, I was treated to the mellifluous tones of Tom Hamilton and Mike Hegan laughing their way through this…well, laugher.

I’m not sure why I’ve never been able to pull this off before (and Lord knows I’ve tried), or if it was because the radio guys were on WMMS or if it was because the game was on FOX. Regardless, I was able to mute Buck and McCarver and listen instead to Hammy screaming about Cabrera’s Granny and Victor’s laser beam. Nobody does it better than Hamilton and when you have the moving pictures to go along with his moving descriptions, its poetry.

Does a lovely Spring afternoon get any better than that…no, seriously?
Now, of course, every game that I watch will be marred by me endlessly trying to sync up the Indians on TV with Hammy and Hegan while The DiaBride implores me to stop pausing and re-starting the game on DVR to no avail in an attempt to replicate my experience during the 22-4 game, which I’m sure will never happen to the perfection again that it did today.

It was a perfect storm…in more ways than one.
And with that, we’re off on a Lazy one:
Starting off where we normally do, Terry Pluto shares some quick thoughts on C.P. Lee and the 1st strike, SS Choo and his potential, and hitting on LaPorta, Brantley, and Huff in AAA. If you were to ask me which three players had the most potential in terms of impacting the Indians this season (perhaps as early as Memorial Day), I’d list the three Clippers that Pluto mentions as they line up quite neatly with the holes that either have already been revealed (Huff to the rotation) or to upgrade a position where mediocrity can be improved upon (LaPorta or Brantley to LF).

On that re-enforcements front, Castro reports that Atom Miller has experienced a setback…yes, another one…with his finger and as much as Miller would look like an upgrade over some (OK, most) of the relievers we’ve seen this year, there’s a certain point where anything the Indians get from Miller in terms of innings pitched for the parent club just has to be considered a blessing.

As for the writers looking at the Indians from somewhere other than the North Coast, the pieces are starting to come about the Indians’ early-season struggles (obviously written before the 22-4 game, because what bad could happen to a team that wins 22-4 against the mighty Yankees) and why they may portend a bad season on the North Coast. Not even linking the nonsense that came out recently about why a 1-6 start nearly guaranteed a bad season for the Indians (hey, let’s pick a random record after a random amount of games out of the air and get the guys at Elias Sports Bureau to do some research to cause some consternation in Cleveland), some in the national media see a long season for the Featherheads.

In a piece about early-season concerns having to do with performance, Buster Olney lists Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona as two players whose performances to date (it was written before either’s starts in New York) have been less than stellar, citing lack of command and problems throwing strikes as things to watch for each

Getting into the act, Ken Rosenthal weighs in on the effect that the Indians’ start may have on their already thin margin for error, given the economic uncertainties of the region and of MLB. The piece is interesting as it really runs the gamut of scenarios, from the positive:
“The more likely outcome — assuming Lee and right-hander Fausto Carmona return to top-of-the-rotation form — is that the Indians will spend the entire season cycling through other starters and staying close in a division that might require only 85 wins out of its champion”

Or if you prefer the half-empty glass, Rosenthal is pouring that one too:
“Another losing cycle, coupled with dwindling attendance, would lead to other trades or departures. Lee and catcher Victor Martinez are under club control through '10, shortstop Jhonny Peralta through '11, Sizemore through '12, designated hitter Travis Hafner through '13, Carmona through '14.”

Rosenthal essentially asserts that he has no idea what the Indians are going to do, but lays out the worst-case scenarios pretty vividly, a surprise when you consider that he wrote the piece (and used the word “rebuild” in the title) after the Indians had played 10 games.

And that, I think, is what’s most troubling to me about all of these doom and gloom pieces from people who seem to be standing over the Indians’ 2009 grave with a shovelful of dirt at the ready to toss it in after 12 games.
Yes, the first 12 games have not gone exactly as planned…
Yes, concerns are out there that need to be rectified…
This much we know and it becomes more difficult with each passing day to handle the growing knot in our collective stomachs, but Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus had a tremendous piece on this very notion when relaying a story of being a guest on a morning radio show, in which the hosts were annoyed that Sheehan’s answers to every “burning” question or concern was that it was simply too early to form any real or informed opinion:
You make worse decisions by overreacting to four games than you do by minimizing them…Baseball is about six months, not six days. Two starts mean nothing. Losing five out of six games is meaningless—every team in baseball will do that at some point during the season. It doesn't mean more just because you started that stretch at 0-0. I can go through a full season's worth of 35 PA stretches and find a whole bunch that look like .304/.448/.870. Saying Brandon Inge has a 1300 OPS "for the season" is factually correct, but functionally irrelevant. Getting excited about a "hot start" puts far too much credence in the idea that past performance predicts future results. A guy's career doesn't tell me what his next week will be, and his last week doesn't tell me much about his next 25.

Sheehan states the stance well and reminds us why, as difficult as it is to remove emotion or overreact to a bad stretch of baseball (particularly at the beginning of the season), that it actually does more harm than good.

Now don’t take this stance as an avenue to summarily dismiss the notion that the Indians look to have some flaws or as an excuse for me to simply go back to burying my head in the sand.

No, there are numerous reasons to show concern about this team and nearly all of them are related, directly or indirectly, to the starting rotation, which has justified the pre-season concerns.

Consider that no Indians’ starter has thrown a pitch in the 7th inning with 12 games now having been played…
Consider that Cliff Lee’s 3rd start of the season constituted the team’s 1st Quality Start (6 or more IP, 3 or less runs allowed) of the season…
Consider that Indians’ starters have thrown 17 1/3 more innings than the relievers in 12 games…

The result of those struggles in the rotation, then, have exacerbated the issues that suddenly have been revealed in the bullpen as the relievers are being asked to absorb an inordinate amount of innings and that important determination of “roles” in the bullpen (who pitches the 6th, who pitches the 7th, etc.) are still wildly up in the air as the relievers have been as inconsistent as the starters. The net effect of that uncertainty, then, has been a scramble to get the ball to Kerry Wood with a lead in the 9th as the two pitchers (Lewis and Perez) thought at the beginning of the season to be in the mix for the set-up roles have all experienced variant degrees of failure.

Rafael Perez has been unable to throw strikes, as his career strike percentage has been 67% of his pitches thrown going for strikes…until this year, when he’s thrown more balls than strikes, and as a result, his walk rate has jumped from 2.23 BB/9 in 2007 and a 2.72 BB/9 in 2008 to an astronomical 11.57 BB/9 in 2009.

Jensen Lewis has allowed earned runs in 3 of his 5 outings, usually victimized by the long ball (3 HR allowed in 6 1/3 IP) or by the fact that he’s one of the only relievers that the Indians even have a marginal amount of confidence in right now, leaving him vulnerable to overuse or to being left in for a batter too long because…well, there’s nobody else out there that generates the confidence that Stomp does, even if he’s not nearly as effective as he was in late 2008.

What happens, then, when your bullpen is overworked and no reliable middle-to-late-inning relievers emerge in front of Wood is a scenario that played out in Friday’s loss as the following reliever progression was utilized from the 6th inning on, with the Indians entering the 6th with a 5-3 lead:
6th (leading 5-3) – Zachson
6th (leading 5-4) – Joe Smith (to clean up The Zach Attack’s mess and get Jeter via the K)
7th (leading 5-4) – The Regrettable Chulk
8th (tied 5-5) – Stomp Lewis
So, up two runs against the Yankees, with 9 outs to record before Wood can come on, the Indians throw Zach Jackson and Vinnie Chulk to start innings in the Bronx?
That…THAT…is how unsure the Indians are in terms of what they’re going to get from their bullpen, in that Zach Jackson barely made this team out of Spring Training and Vinnie Chulk didn’t. Yet, less than two weeks into the season, the bullpen has been so overly taxed by the poor starting pitching and unable to sort itself out in terms of roles that the Indians felt their best available options to throw start the 6th and 7th innings against the Yankees were Zach Jackson and Vinnie Chulk.

You want a reason to be concerned?
There it is, and unfortunately it’s an issue that dominoes from the starters’ inability to pitch deep into games or hand the bullpen a lead, forcing the bullpen to evolve on the fly – which is never a good thing.

Because of the struggles of the pitching staff, which need to be rectified as evaluations become more valid with the passage of time and with the accumulation of a larger body of work for some of these players, the Indians’ offense may have to carry the team until the right mix of players can be found in the rotation and the bullpen as the offense is showing signs of boasting a strong and deep lineup, capable of keeping the Indians in most games (and hopefully in the AL Central race) until the pitching can sort itself out.

The offense, however, may be just strong and balanced enough to allow the pitching staff to sort itself out through trial and error…and no, I’m not just saying that because the Indians scored 22 runs yesterday (not sure how many more times I can mention that…but I’ll keep trying). The Indians’ offense has shown signs of being capable of sustained innings and of putting up quick runs on the board. Among those that have logged serious time, check out these numbers (and, yes, they’re colored by a 22-run outburst – but if you’re going to justifiably rip the pitching staff for the total body or work…it goes both ways) and totals through 12 games:
Sizemore - .991 OPS, 4 HR
DeRosa - .792 OPS, 3 HR
Martinez – 1.159 OPS, 4 HR
Hafner – 1.111 OPS, 4 HR
Peralta - .857 OPS, 0 HR
Choo - .887 OPS, 2 HR
Shoppach - .872 OPS, 1 HR
Garko - .786 OPS, 0 HR
Francisco - .654 OPS, 1 HR
Crowe - .619 OPS, 0 HR
Cabrera - .968 OPS, 1 HR
What, am I playing Baseball Simulator 1.000?

I know that the Joe Sheehan bit that I used to deflect criticism of the pitching and the slow start applies to the offense as well as, again, not much can really be gleaned from two weeks’ worth of games, but the offense looks to be as full of potential as the pitching staff seems to be full of potholes.

Maybe that’s what we’re in store for here, before the rotation shakes out (and it’s nice to see you two, Clifton and Fausto) and as the reliever roles evolve…maybe we’re looking at some shoot-outs with the offense trying to carry the team until the pitching can (hopefully) rectify itself. There’s no question that the concerns about certain offensive players that were closely held in the off-season (Hafner and Martinez’s health and power, Choo and Cabrera’s legitimacy based on their second halves of last year) are being answered in a positive manner.

With the way that the season has gone so far (and, admittedly, the games have been played in that Video Game park in Arlington and new Yankee Stadium, which looks to be just about on par with some of the newer launching pads), it might be time to buckle up and get ready for some 12-10 affairs that go 4 hours into the night.

It might not be pretty baseball, but until the Indians can find the right mix of pitchers to attain success on the mound, it may be time to saddle up the offense and ride it for a while.

Finally and apropos of nothing having to do with the Indians, one of my favorite writers (and fellow native South Euclidean), Joe Posnanski is going to be the keynote speaker at SABR’s Seymour Medal Conference at the Radisson Gateway Hotel on April 24th and 25th. If you’re not reading Posnanski, who is not a great sportswriter, but a great writer (don’t believe me…read this while looking at the breadth of what he writes about shown in the pictures above the post), you should start immediately and, if you’re available, here are the details to the Conference.

Pavano returns to The Bronx today…maybe the Indians can throw Yankeedom into full and complete meltdown mode by getting at Burnett early (and, while I would never wish harm upon another…maybe get hurt) and watching Pavano mow through a lineup at New Yankee Stadium the way he never did in the Old one while donning the pinstripes.

Regardless of the outcome, I’ll let you know when the 22-4 t-shirts are ready…
Until then, here’s an iconic image to complement the ol’ 22-0 scoreboard:

That’s just too good.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Super Party Pooper

Not much to add here, other than I'm not sure that this smile is going to come off my face for a while.

Can't wait for the tabloid covers tomorrow morning...
UPDATE - here's the NY Post cover:
I have to say I'm a little disappointed in this...where's the witty pun?
Where's the creativity?

Not sure about you, but it was a little easier to get up this morning, my coffee tasted just a little better this morning, the sun seems to be shining a little bit brighter today, and I'm just in one of those moods that accompanies the day after an Indians' win in the Bronx, particularly after all of that pomp and circumstance of the day that was ruined know...a baseball game.

Still smiling, looking for a winning streak.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tomahawks From the Bright Side

A win to bring the Tribe to within 3 Games of the AL Central leading Royals (yes, I’m kidding, I’m not really watching how many games back we are…at least not too closely), let’s roll out some tommies to get us all ready for Thursday’s tilt in the Bronx.

Let ‘em fly...

Before the I-480 bridge fills up with the Tribe 2-7 and headed for New York (which, apparently opening a new stadium…or something like that), take a quick look at the OPS thus far for the Indians’ regulars:
Hafner – 1.126
Martinez – 1.048
Choo – .917
Shoppach – .846
Garko – .813
Sizemore – .766
Cabrera – .762
Peralta – .705
DeRosa – .523
Francisco – .484

Yes, small sample sizing applies and, yes, this is not what these are going to look like at the end of the year – but what were the big concerns coming into this year?

Was it whether Hafner and Martinez would be able to rebound, particularly in the power categories, from their forgettable 2008 seasons?
The two have combined for 10 extra-base hits in their 64 AB…

What about whether Choo’s second half was a mirage, never to be duplicated?
He’s had 4 multi-hit games in 8 games played…

How would this convoluted platoon of Kelly Shoppach and Ryan Garko work out?
Combined .414 OBP / .424 SLG / .835 OPS with 2 HR in 3 fewer AB than Vic…

Is the team struggling with RISP and does it strike out too much (particularly with RISP)? Absolutely, but if you had told me that those numbers would come from those players (particularly Hafner) a week and a half into the season, I may just take a 2-7 record because that good news portends good things for the Indians’ offense.

Want more positives, how about Kerry Wood pitching as advertised in the 9th inning? After getting his first 6 outs of the season via the K, all Wood did to save the 2nd victory of the season was throw 7 pitches (6 of them were strikes) and log three outs. Yes, he gave up two hits, a walk, and a run (gasp) in his first appearance against the Rangers, but since then he’s notched 6 outs on 20 pitches, 3 via the strikeout.

Of course, with those positives come the negatives as the Indians’ bullpen outside of Wood has been spotty at best and Rafael Perez has been an unmitigated disaster, having allowed 7 hits and 6 walks in his 5 innings of work, which have resulted in 5 ER.

While Stomp Lewis’ meltdown today (although, really…what is he doing coming out for the 8th inning after that 7th?) couldn’t have come at a worse time as he has been one of the bright spots in the early going, what’s going to be interesting is how this bullpen starts to take shape. That is, obviously Wood is going to handle the 9th inning, but who comes in for the 7th or the 8th with a lead. Unfortunately the leads that the Indians have carried in those innings have been few and far between and the reliever that I honestly thought would be the most dominant outside of Wood was Perez…so scratch that in the short-term.

Right now, the best options look like Rocky Betancourt and Lewis to sit in front of Wood with Joe Smith’s usefulness as a ROOGY hopefully being used properly against RHP. Beyond those four that have been moderately successful and Perez (for whom a trip to the DL or to Columbus doesn’t sound like a bad idea), the rest of these guys (Kobayashi, The Zach Attack, The Regrettable Chulk) figure to be inning-eaters for the foreseeable future, if they remain on the roster. One name to watch (if re-enforcements…or at least better pitchers…are deemed to be a necessity) would be John “Mayday” Meloan, who has struck out 7 while allowing only 1 hit and walking only 1 in tossing 5 scoreless innings for the Clippers.

Of course, that whole idea that a bullpen progression to Wood for the save emerges all assumes a lead…which has not been easy to come by for the Tribe thus far as the starters have allowed a nearly impossible 23 runs in innings #1 and #2 in 9 games.

Then again, maybe The BabyFaced Bulldog (who, apparently had a little more than just hurt feelings after being sent down…which I actually like and hope that he uses it as that “chip on his shoulder” that has served him well in the past) and his solid start serve as the impetus for the rest of the rotation to follow suit. It certainly can’t get much worse, can it?

Nothing like your best start of the year coming from a guy on April 15th who didn’t break camp with the team, but that’s the evolution…baby.

Does everyone realize that, after Wednesday’s afternoon tilt in KC, the start times for the Indians next 4 games are 1:05 on Thursday, 1:05 on Friday, 3:40 on Saturday, and 1:05 on Sunday?

Fire up those DVR’s for the next two days and know that your evenings figure to be clear as watching the game on Fast-Forward, when you already know the final score, is actually a pretty liberating way to “watch” a game, free from the announcers, commercials, and all of the superfluous fluff that clogs up the game on TV.

I’m being told that a certain pitcher, for whom the slimming effects of pinstripes is simply not working, is going for the Evil Empire, so I just need to post this in advance of tomorrow’s christening of this “Cathedral” (at least that’s what the WWL calls it) in the Bronx.

All day, every day…
Today would be a pretty good time to re-discover that mojo, Clifton Phifer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Evolutionary Road

Given that the slow start to the Indians’ season has persisted, maybe it’s time to again take a “bigger picture” view of the evolution of a baseball team that takes place over the course of a season, despite the stomach acid gurgling in our stomachs with each Fausto BB or Tribe strikeout with runners on base. As fans, the pitch-by-pitch, game-by-game reaction to the events transpiring on the field is impossible to distance yourself from and as much as you try to will Jhonny not to swing at that curve low and away, it becomes a fruitless and frustrating endeavor to watch the team struggle.

But mounting frustration considered, and not evoking the “it’s early” card just yet, the Indians’ team that you see on the field every night in April is simply not the Indians’ team that you’re going to see when Memorial Day rolls around and THAT team (at the end of May) is not going to be the same team that you see in the dog days of August. It may seem elementary, but it’s an important concept to remember as we all wail and gnash our teeth with each loss…that this team does have the pieces available to improve as this evolution figures to begin. The Indians have depth in their higher levels of the minor leagues that figures to augment the 25-roster as it is currently constructed as the lineup, rotation, and bullpen evolves and improves throughout the course of the season.

While watching the Indians struggle to find their initial footing, realize that (while it is embarrassingly early to give serious thought to it) there are multiple options that exist in Columbus and Akron, with a good match in terms of which positions the higher-end prospects play and where deficiencies may emerge on the parent club. That is, the Indians’ AAA team began the season stocked with three LHP who would probably find a spot on most rotations in the Majors (don’t believe me, go look at some 5th starters around the league) and all will find some starts for the Indians this year as the season progresses. Additionally, Columbus is full of high-ceiling hitters off to solid starts (if anything can truly be gleaned from a week of action, regardless of level) that figure to essentially be slotting themselves for a call-up at some point to fill in the gaps that have yet to reveal themselves.

And, really, that’s what bears watching, while admittedly shielding your eyes from these losses – those gaps that figure to reveal themselves this season. Not over the course of 8 games (although Carl Pav-OH-NO’s first start tested that theory), but over the course of 20 games or 40 games. Along the path to the completion of those 20 or 40 games, there are going to be some surprises (Masa - bullpen assassin) just as there are going to be some disappointments (Rafael Perez - “WBCitis”) and the Indians’ ability to deal with and address those disappointments is what ultimately will decide how the season goes, not two weeks in April.

Everyone knows that rosters evolve over the course of a season, but look at the Opening Day Roster in 2007 vs. the team that ended that season on top of the Central:
Opening Day 2007 Lineup
Sizemore – CF
Nixon – RF
Hafner – DH
Martinez – C
Blake – 1B
Dellucci – LF
Peralta – SS
Barfield – 2B
Marte – 3B

Evolved 2007 Lineup
Sizemore – CF
Cabrera – 2B
Hafner – DH
Martinez – C
Garko – 1B
Peralta – SS
Lofton – LF
Gutierrez – RF
Blake – 3B
That’s four completely different players who not only found their way into the lineup, but two of them found themselves in the #2 and #5 spots in the lineup on a team that eventually ran away with the Central. The evolution of that team was not immediate or sudden, but rather simply took time to reveal itself as players assert themselves into the mix as others play their way out of said mix.

That evolution is probably already underway for the Indians this year, started with the news that The Babyfaced Bulldog will be taking SLewis’ spot in the rotation on Wednesday. With SLewis scheduled to come off of the DL in 2 to 4 weeks, we’re now looking at a 2 to 4 week audition between Laffey and Hot Carl to see whose spot in the rotation that SLewis figures to take, assuming he’s healthy in 2 to 4 weeks.

And the evolution is going to roll on all season long as injuries take some arms out of the bullpen or out of the lineup, or a player finds himself stapled to The Atomic Wedgie’s bench, or a player in Columbus simply forces himself into the conversation and into the immediate plans.

It’s a concept that’s not all that novel and it’s one that I discussed with Jay Levin from Let’s Go Tribe and Vince Grzegorek from Scene Magazine over cocktails on Monday. We were lamenting the issues in the rotation as Carmona (the key to the season, remember) walked the first two batters and Jay mentioned how he thought that the Indians’ 3rd and 4th best starters weren’t on this team yet, saying that he felt that Huff and Laffey would eventually emerge as the Indians’ middle-of-the-rotation when everything came to pass. Unable to disagree with the assertion, we concluded that this season is one in which very little is set in stone and how these jigsaw pieces and parts figure to be moved around until the picture becomes clear. What amalgamation of players ultimately makes up the rotation, the lineup, and the bullpen isn’t known here in mid-April, but the answers will come.

Of course, it raises the obvious question – why don’t the Indians just go with their “best” players out of Goodyear and why is this evolution always necessary?
Simply, because the results in Goodyear don’t guarantee anything and the way that the Indians design their team to emerge over the course of a season is to start their young players in the minors and have them work their way onto the 25-man roster instead of simply handing it to them. The strategy is oft-criticized and sometimes questionable, but the idea is that the team really doesn’t know what it’s going to get from a guy like Pavano. Statistical analysis and scouting reports aside, the idea is that the team can afford to throw Pavano out there every 5 days at the beginning of the season for a month or so and if he succeeds – great, the rotation gets a pleasant surprise. If he fails…well, the depth is still in place in AAA (where they’ve been slotting themselves with their performance as Clippers) to ascend to the parent club to assume that spot on the team. It’s no different than going with Ryan Garko or Ben Francisco instead of Matt LaPorta to start the season out. If Garko or Francisco shine in their opportunities to lay claim to an everyday job, all the better as it allows the Indians to use LaPorta to fill that other hole that’s going to show.

Certainly, some of these players on the parent club are on pretty short leashes despite answers that seem to be emerging, but it is still wildly early to say that Cabrera is a mess at the plate, just as it is to say that Hafner is back to being Pronk. Once more games have been completed, an honest and fair evaluation can be made on these players…but that’s not after having played 7 or 8 games, as disastrous as the results have been. To legitimately make a judgment on a player and his performance, a barrier like the 20-game mark or the 40-game mark serve as much better barometers for what the season holds…regardless of how obvious some things may seem and regardless of how painful it is to endure these growing pains.

The other question that arises, then, is how the Indians manage this massaging of the roster without allowing too many calendar days to pass if losses continue to mount. The answer to that really is tantamount to the whole discussion as the short leash that some of these guys may be on may be that 20-game mark…which is less than two weeks away, with the hopes that at the 20-game mark or the 40-game mark that the Indians won’t be absurdly behind in the Central race.

However, the caveat to that idea that the Indians can’t let this season get away from them as they figure to evolve is the mere fact that the AL Central simply isn’t good and that no team obviously stands head and shoulders above the rest that the Indians would have to “chase down” if they dig themselves too much of a whole. Really, if you look at the standings in the AL at this point (and, finally introducing it...“it’s early”), the East and the Central look like they’ve been turned upside down when you look at expectations (Boston and New York assumed to be the front-runners in the East, Minnesota and Cleveland thought to be the cream of the Central) versus where we stand today as those four aforementioned teams round out the last spots in their respective divisions.

The 162-game season takes time to establish a rhythm and a tone, just as players take time every season to put forth a body of work large enough to allow a fair evaluation. Reading too deeply into two or three weeks at any time in the season doesn’t give enough time to justifiably make an informed judgment, as difficult as that is with the daily disappointment that’s accompanied the beginning of the season.

Ultimately, the evolution of the configuration of this team is going to be a long and winding road this season and the Indians, early returns considered, have plenty of time and plenty of options to make this start forgettable, particularly in the Central…regardless of what that case of TUMS that just arrived at my back door tells me.