Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Sound of Music

While the tradition has always been to celebrate the first full workout of Spring Training with a little ritual called “The Soundtrack of Life” (and a detailed explanation of which can be found here). Since sometimes life gets in the way of the best-laid plans, after a bit of a delay, I thought that Opening Day being just a few days away presented a nice opportunity to finally roll this out as the edges of the 25-man roster are finally reconciled.

If you’re not familiar with the concept (or didn’t feel like using the link above), simply take this as one man’s humble suggestions for what songs each Indian should bring with them to the plate or the mound down at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. If you’re interested in years past, here are the suggestions for 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009…and, to my knowledge, none of them to date have been used by any player at any time.

In determining who was “worthy” of such thought and work, guys like Jamey Wright and the like don’t interest me in as much that I don’t think that they’ll make huge contributions for 2010 (or at least I hope they don’t) and as much as I'd like to drop some obvious Carlos Santana (the guitarist) reference in for a certain stud catcher, I’m going to keep this limited to guys that look to have a chance to break camp with the team and project as more than just organizational filler.

As always the names of the songs link to the songs, whether it be in YouTube format or something called iLike, which I was not aware of. Regardless, without further ado…I present the 2010 Soundtrack of Life:
Asdrubal Cabrera
“Swagga Like Us” – T.I. and Jay-Z
If there would be one word to describe the way that Asdrubal carries himself around the diamond, the basepaths, and the batter box – I would choose “swagger”, or it’s familial relation, “swagga”. With Asdrubal sitting at the top of the lineup, this little ditty from some hip-hop heavyweights would project some confidence for the team right off the bat…because some early leads would be nice this season, given the fragile state of the rotation.

Grady Sizemore
“I’ll Be Your Man” – The Black Keys
Go ahead, get all of the picture-related suggestions out of your system…“Centerfold” by J. Geils, “Photograph” by Def Leppard, and so on and so forth. For me, I’ll go with the band that (hopefully) reminds Grady that something cool and soulful can still emerge from the North Coast. With Patrick Carney laying down the beat and Dan Auerbach growling out the lyrics, this duo from Akron continues to set the standard for blues-rock. The fact that they’re the biggest band to emerge from Northeast Ohio since…Devo(?) is not something to focus on here. That would be the riff, oh…and the fact that this is the theme song to HBO’s series “Hung”.
See, you didn’t think I'd leave that one alone, did you?

“No Leaf Clover” – Metallica
As Choo calmly strides to the plate, about to inflict the damage that we’ve come to expect, an apropos line would be James Hetfield screaming that “then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel, it’s just a freight train coming your way”.
American League, don’t be fooled by the subdued demeanor of the Indians’ RF, just get ready for the “freight train coming your way”.

Travis Hafner
“No Easy Way Out” – Robert Tepper
In Rocky IV, one of the defining moments of the movie occurs as Rocky goes for a night drive after Apollo has been killed in the ring, with flashes of Drago killing Apollo and Drago yelling at the Rock, as the soundtrack screams in the background. Watching the montage, you can’t help but think that Rocky has some unfinished business in front of him as he’s destined to avenge the recent events that have shaped his life and perhaps his legacy.
Everybody knows this scene, right…so, why is this relevant?

If I may make a suggestion to someone with some skills in creating videos (perhaps if they were employed at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario all the better), a montage should be made for Hafner to be played before every at-bat based loosely upon that very scene in which he looks around Jacobs Field, as images of him grounding out weakly to the pitcher or slamming his bat down in disgust are interspersed and accompanied by the same song that ultimately drove Rocky to Russia to train.

When (or is it “if”) Pronk returns in all of his glory, we can talk about a Hafner montage with “Burning Heart” or “Hearts on Fire” in the background, but in Hafner’s current situation, we’re going with “No Easy Way Out”.

Jhonny Peralta
“September” – Earth, Wind and Fire
Way back in Fall of 2007 (if anyone can still remember those halcyon days), the best player for the Indians happened to be one Mr. Jhonny Peralta, when he had 5 doubles and 2 HR in the 11 Indians’ playoff games. His 8 RBI in the ALCS against Boston is likely to represent the high point of Jhonny’ career as an Indian as his phenomenal 2005 season at the age of 23 looks to be just a tease in the entire body of work. Yes, I know that all the games were in October, but is there a more fitting way to say goodbye to Jhonny and to the feelings of that 2007 season than to sing along to Earth, Wind, and Fire as they sing…
“Say do you remember…dancing in September…never was a cloudy day…”

Matt LaPorta
“Spaceman” – The Killers
With the introduction of the term “LaPortaisms” into our greater vocabulary, I thought that a nod to another…um, “quirky” MLB player was in order as homage to Bill “Spaceman” Lee could provide LaPorta’s walk-out music. With LaPorta providing fodder like “Is it bad that I’m dehydrated in one leg?” and “It comes naturally. I just have to think about it”, LaPorta’s…um, quirkiness harkens back to the days of Bill “Spaceman” Lee uncorking beauties like “The only rule I got is if you slide, get up”, leading to The Killers providing the accompaniment for LaPorta, a suggestion that he actually may be interested in.

Luis Valbuena
“Chaconne de M. Couperin” – Louis Couperin
Since the only time that Roman Numerals are used anymore are in the designation of the Super Bowl, maybe now would be a good time to explain again that the nickname evolution for Valbuenan goes that Luis V. begat Louie the Fifth, or in some instances, Louie the Slugger. With the introduction of the French monarchy to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, the walking music would almost have to be something that recalled the indulgent days of Versailles, even if those days would come some 650 years after the real King Louis V.

Russell Branyan
“Money for Nothing” – Dire Straits
Not sure much explanation is needed here, other than to say that I don’t think that this music is going to be heard too frequently at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario this season, hence the song selection.

Lou Marson
“Use Somebody” – Kings of Leon
With Carlos Santana’s defense not-quite-ready-for-primetime, it would be nice if the Indians could “Use Somebody”. You know that they could “Use Somebody” to be used as a bridge to fill in until Santana’s ultimate ascension to the team.
Wait for it - “Somebody like…Lou”

Michael Brantley
“Rebirth of Slick” – Digable Planets
With the service time issue still hanging over his head, has Mike Brantley ever projected more than a care in the world over whether this whole thing would take care itself? Seeing Brantley come up last season and handle himself similarly, is it time to assume that Brantley preternatural maturity just be a by-product that he’s “Cool Like Dat”?

Andy Marte
“Hanginaround” – Counting Crows
Want to know which of the current Indians pre-date Marte, who received his first AB with Cleveland on Opening Day of 2006?
4 – Sizemore, Peralta, Hafner, and Westbrook.
“I’ve been bummin’ around this old town for way, way, way, way too looooooooong.”

Trevor Crowe
“Far Behind” – Candlebox
Turn back the page to 1994 when, as an impressionable youth, I was happy to pin my hopes on any “Next Big Thing” that came along in the grunge genre (or anything that came close to it), buying into the long-term potential of bands like Silverchair, Bush, Collective Soul, and of course, Candlebox. Fast-forward to a few weeks ago when a local station played Candlebox’s biggest hit, “Far Behind”. Hearing this remnant of the mid-1990s music scene, I found the song ill-suited for human ears and immediately embarrassed at the way that I could be so wrong about Candlebox, lo those many years ago. For whatever reason, this station kept the song in heavy rotation (yes, I know satellite radio and podcasts are the way to go) and every time that I heard the first few notes in the ensuing weeks, the song depressed me as it morphed into becoming emblematic of some of the misplaced hope and optimism of my youth.

Why is this relevant?
Trevor Crowe, the alleged “future lead-off hitter” whom Red Sox scouts once called “Ty Cobb” and who has since revealed himself to be…well, Trevor Crowe – he is my “Far Behind” of the Indians of the mid-to-late-2000s. That stretch of time when unreasonable hopes were pinned on lesser prospects because of draft placement and organizational hype is symbolized by one Trevor Crowe. The more I am reminded of this lesson in the context of the Indians and prospects, the better.
Just let me tell you about this Jason Kipnis kid…

Jake Westbrook
“Alive” – Pearl Jam
Want to know how many MLB pitchers have thrown more than the 34 2/3 innings that Westbrook has accumulated over the last two years?
562 MLB pitchers have thrown more innings than Westbrook (who ekes out Jason Davis’ two-year total by 2 outs), with 19 Indians among those 562, including Edward, seriously. Despite all this, Westbrook is still “Alive” and rumors of his demise look to be false as he is, by nearly all accounts, fully healthy and looks to be ready to contribute his middle-of-the-rotation production…albeit at the top-of-the-rotation.

Fausto Carmona
“Control” – Janet Jackson
Since it is tradition to include at least one song that appeared on the original “NBA Superstars” video, we’ll go with the song that signaled the dawn of a new day for Janet Jackson. Thus, not only is the time for the “dawn of a new day” overdue for the Faustastic One, and if the “Control” that he’s shown in Arizona is any indication, that day may finally be arriving.
Plus, “NBA Superstars”…Magic Johnson, how can you not like this?

Justin Masterson
“Come Find Yourself” – Fun Lovin’ Criminals
For the pitcher whose role (not roster spot) on the team would be the least defined going forward, a little self-evaluation may be in order. As much as I'd like to go with “Get In Where You Fit In” by Too $hort (on an album that I think I actually have somewhere), I’m going to guess that the son of a minister is Southwest Ohio is not a huge fan of Too $hort.

Dave Huff
“Plush” – Stone Temple Pilots
Not to go all Cliff Clavin here, but it’s…a…eh…little known fact that Dave Huff went to the same high school as Scott Weiland of STP and Velvet Revolver fame. While perhaps Huff could benefit from some Gaylord Perry “Vaseline”, I’m going with the classic STP anthem and “wait for tomorrow” on the potential of Huff in the rotation.

Mitch Talbot
Unleash the Fury scene from “Road Trip”
As much as I'd like to go with “Papered Up”, which is the song that Snoop Dogg performs in the movie “Old School” during Mitch-A-Palooza, I’m eschewing the song in the traditional sense here and going with just the intermittent strumming of Tom Green on a single guitar string, instructing the snake to “Unleash the Fury” on an unsuspecting rodent.

Aaron Laffey
“The Underdog” – Spoon
Those sad eyes, that baby face and his slight build almost cast Laffey as the role of the underdog, where he’s perpetually overlooked for something that is bigger, faster, and (hopefully) better. Heading into 2010, he seems to be filling that spot again as The Babyfaced Bulldog will start the season in the bullpen and while he may not stay there for long, guarantees have never come Laffey’s way with the Indians.

Chris Perez
“Black Betty” – Ram Jam
Yes, I know that the real theme song for “Eastbound and Down” is “Going Down” by Freddie King, but the closing credits of the pilot for the show has Kenny (um…Firetruckin’) Powers riding a jet ski to the beat and cymbals that set the tone for this classic. If CFP (that’s Chris…Firetruckin’ Perez) is going to endear himself to the 98.5 WNCX crowd that still looks forward to “Born to Run” at 5 PM every Friday (and really, who doesn’t despite the ironic lyrics being loved in Cleveland), then going with a rock anthem is the route to go. As much as I'd like to go with the extended version of The Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” because CFP went to the University of Miami, that still belongs to John Rocker – and I was sitting in the Mezz, watching him running maniacally out of the bullpen in his debut appearance to the adoring crowd, in what was possibly the greatest entrance I’ve ever seen. Additionally, let’s keep the Kenny Powers/John Rocker comparison to Chris Perez on the fictional side of the ledger.

Kerry Wood
“Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” – The Ramones
The day is coming (probably sometime in July) when the Indians are going to sit down with Wood and initiate the whole “it’s not you, it’s me” conversation as the inevitable break-up is coming. It shouldn’t be a surprise and it shouldn’t be unexpected as the only questions that still remain are whether Wood will be healthy enough to trade and which NL Central team (not based in Chicago) will acquire him at the Trading Deadline to twist the knife in the open wound of Cubs’ fans everywhere.

Rafael Perez
“Fistful of Steel” – Rage Against the Machine
A long time ago in what feels like a galaxy far, far away, Rafael Perez made up the ½ of the famous bullpen combination of “Fist of Iron”/“Fist of Steel” with Rafael Betancourt. Legend had it that the bullpen boasted “one fist of iron, the other of steel / if the right one don’t get you then the left one will”. If anything can be gleaned from Spring Training (it usually can’t), Rafael Perez as the “Fist of Steel” may be making his way back to the North Coast. While that may constitute wishful thinking, a bullpen without that “Fist of Steel” may not be that much different than the ones since that nickname was bestowed on The Two Rafaels in 2007.

Tony Sipp
“On the Vista” – Blakroc
While Sipp’s long-term importance to the Indians’ bullpen is obvious as a potential back-end of the bullpen LHP, his actual effectiveness may be somewhere off in the future or, “On the Vista” if you will. Plus, working in as many tunes by The Black Keys (and this is their collaboration with Mos Def) is obviously on the agenda.

Joe Smith
Sidewinder – Avenged Sevenfold
Joe Smith is a sidearming RHP so….yeah, I don’t know that much about Joe Smith either.

Finally, with the news that Jeremy Sowers has been optioned off of the 40-man roster, it likely prevents Sowers stepping out to what will heretofore be known as the “Ryan Garko Memorial Song”, (and Garko was just waived by the Mariners). That song would be, of course, “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips.
Sowers, like Garko before him, could not hold on for one more day and, thus things did not go his way.

Little different feel to a Lazy Sunday this weekend, so enjoy the tunage above and sync up your iPods with the proper music listed so, if nothing else, you can make your own “walk-in” music for the players from the comfort of your home…or at least your mother’s basement.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Lazy Sunday with the Roster Coming Into View

With a house full of in-laws for the big baptism this weekend, let’s get rolling right away on a Lazy Sunday before anyone figures out that I’m hammering away at a computer keyboard…

Much of the uncertainty regarding the fringes of the 25-man roster has focused on the “winner” of the back-end-of-the-rotation competition as Huff, Laffey, and Talbot continue to battle for the spots in the rotation. With Talbot now having already secured a spot in said rotation, I’d like to put in my order for some crow with some Sriracha sauce…though it is still March. The corresponding move of The Babyfaced Bulldog heading to the bullpen shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if you’ve been coming here regularly as the idea that a long man for this team would seem to be a pretty important role to fill to perhaps eat more than a few innings, particularly in the early going.

With Talbot in the rotation and Laffey headed off to the bullpen, the last spot in the rotation has now come down to Dave Huff now, quite suddenly, Los Carrasco. The inclusion of Carrasco comes as a bit of a surprise (though he has had a good camp) and frankly, I have trouble believing that Carrasco is seen as a legitimate option to break camp in the rotation. To me, his sudden inclusion is not much more than a veiled attempt to build Carrasco’s confidence and to put a sense of urgency in Huff’s push. In fact, I think that Terry Pluto probably has it right in the new “battle” between Huff and Carrasco when he writes, “hard to know if the Indians are serious about Carrasco making the rotation, or if this is designed to push Huff to throw more strikes early in the count.”

As the Opening Day rotation is finally coming into focus, and with all of the hand-wringing (admittedly done here) about which of these pitchers are going to fill out the back-end of that rotation, I thought it would be a nice time to introduce a piece from Marc Hulet at Fangraphs, who asserts that “Fifth Starters Don’t Exist”. While the “analysis” at Fangraphs can tend to overly weigh their own curious formulas and valuations and get bogged down in some newly created metrics, Hulet’s piece (and subsequent one…which is coming) has some fascinating numbers on how many teams in MLB realistically had five bona-fide starters throughout the course of the season.

Hulet’s research found the following regarding starting pitchers and 5-man rotations:
If we look back to the 2009 season, only two teams had five starters on their pitching staffs that made 24 or more starts: the Chicago Cubs and the Colorado Rockies.
• All 30 teams had at least one pitcher make 24 or more starts.
• Twenty-six teams had two pitchers make 24 or more starts.
• Then the number drops to 22 teams that had three pitchers make 24 or more starts.
• Then we hit a cliff. Only nine teams were able to rely on four pitchers to make 24 or more starts.

Think about that – less than a 1/3 of teams in MLB had 4 pitchers make 24 or more starts last season!

Obviously, the Indians weren’t one of those teams as Carmona was the only pitcher to log 24 starts, meaning that the 24 number may have been created to include the Indians in the “All 30 teams…” portion of the exercise. Considering that Ant Reyes, Tomo Ohka, Scott Lewis, and Zach Jackson combined for 16 starts last year or nearly 10% of the 2009 games, does anyone have trouble believing this idea that the back-end-of-the-rotation for most teams falls somewhere between “hope” and “prayer”?

Regardless, in light of Hulet’s findings, I find his proposal to this issue that he finds in teams always chasing that 5-man rotation (sometimes to the detriment of developing players or receiving value from overpaid veterans like Livan Hernandez or Sidney Ponson) even more fascinating as he takes the next step and presents “A New Approach to Fifth Starters”.

While the idea that the Indians are chasing that mythical 5-man rotation doesn’t apply to what we’re looking at for 2010, his “approach” does hold some merit in attempting to figure out which pitchers are going to start games for the Indians in 2010 as it goes a little something like this:
The best bet is to focus on securing four starters that can make 24 starts or more. In the fifth spot in the rotation, a three-man job-share could then be developed and it would break down like this:
1. A long reliever who would serve as the seventh arm in the ‘pen and be expected to make eight to 10 starts on the year. Ideally, this would be a proven veteran who could stick at the MLB level all season.
2. A pitching prospect that projects to be a fringe No. 3 or 4 with two or three minor league options remaining. He would be introduced to the Majors in this low-pressure role over the next two to three seasons before officially (hopefully) graduating to the role of a reliable third or fourth starter. In this role, the pitcher would need to make about 10 starts at the MLB level each season.
3. A minor league “veteran” pitcher (somewhere in the 25-30 year old range) who has been unable to stick in the Majors – and still has at least one minor league option left – and can be relied on to make at least five starts on the season.
So, to recap… This job-share plan is good because…
A) The inevitable pitching injuries will have a lesser (negative) impact
B) It will help train young pitchers for an eventual larger role
C) It’s cost efficient

While there is not a clean application of this for the Indians (and while the “best bet is to focus on securing four starters that can make 24 starts or more” leaves the Indians out at the first sentence), I think that the idea of concocting a witch’s brew of arms for the rotation does hold some merit in that it points out that there are certainly going to be games available for starting and innings out there for these guys to pitch.

Thus, if we’re looking at the 2010 Indians, who are really looking to fill out two of the final spots in the rotation and not just one and, they would seem to have fringe-MLB 6 arms that factor into the rotational mix this year, some more obviously than others.

While Hulet’s idea of a “veteran long reliever” may not necessarily apply to the Indians in the sense that the Indians are probably not going to give Jamey Wright 8-10 starts this year, they do have two guys who are out of options who would have to “stick at the MLB level all season” in Unleash the Fury, Mitch Talbot, and, to a lesser extent, Jeremy Sowers.

If we’re extrapolating out two rotation spots instead of one (as Hulet does), expecting Talbot and Sowers to combine for 16 to 20 starts is more than reasonable…assuming Talbot gets 15 to 19 of those starts.

Hulet’s criteria of “a pitching prospect that projects to be a fringe No. 3 or 4 with two or three minor league options remaining” to be “introduced to the Majors in this low-pressure role over the next two to three seasons before officially (hopefully) graduating to the role of a reliable third or fourth starter” could apply to either the tandem of Huff and Laffey or the duo of Carrasco and Rondon. For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll go with Carrasco and Rondon in that they’ll both be slowly introduced into the Indians’ rotation this year. While each (hopefully) has a higher ceiling than being a “fringe #3 or #4”, ingratiating each into the rotation win an eye past 2010 makes a lot of sense. Expecting them to combine for 10 starts this season is likely to be on the conservative side because of circumstances outside of those #4 and #5 spots, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

For the final criteria of “a minor league “veteran” pitcher (somewhere in the 25-30 year old range) who has been unable to stick in the Majors – and still has at least one minor league option left”, I'd put the likes of Huff and Laffey above this designation and I'd certainly expect them to start more than 10 games between the two of them, but it gets back to the idea that “back-end-of-the-rotation-by-committee” that offshoots from Hulet’s proposal is one that’s going to take place in Cleveland this summer. What Hulet asserts makes sense on a number of levels in that it allows the team to discern as much as possible about a number of different players (at a reasonable cost) and allows multiple arms to see starts in MLB.

Given that there is so much uncertainty around the back-end-of-the-rotation (as well as the front), as much attention is paid to who breaks camp with the team (again, admittedly by me), it’s more likely that the question of who starts the season in Cleveland or Columbus or in the rotation or in the bullpen is ancillary to the better discussion of how many starts and innings are each of these pitchers going to throw for the parent club.

Tony Lastoria and I touched on in this week’s “Smoke Signals”, but the starts and the innings are going to be there for these guys, regardless of who starts the season where and how the initial slotting of Talbot, Laffey, Huff, Carrasco, and Rondon plays out on April 5th. I don’t think that it’s much of a stretch to say that it’s going to be a veritable carousel at the back end of that rotation, not to mention a bullpen in which pitchers like Sipp and Smith and even Chris Perez retain options…and those are the guys guaranteed a spot out of Goodyear.

Back to that rotational mix, while the Indians are on record as saying that their top 3 is essentially set in stone, that tune is certain to change as the hills and valleys of the season present themselves. That is, if Westbrook gets traded or if Masterson is not able to improve his command or struggles against LH hitters or if Carmona shows that his Spring performance is just a mirage (breaking my heart in the process), the opportunities to start games are going to be there for the taking for the “losers” of the Spring Training battle or the pitchers that figure to start the season in Columbus.

While Masterson in the rotation and, most notably, Smith and Sipp in the bullpen may be guaranteed spots out of Goodyear, that means little on Memorial Day (or sooner) if any or all of them are struggling with options remaining and with plenty of other arms waiting for their turn in Columbus.

That being said, I’m all for a long leash for a couple of these guys (particularly in the rotation) in an attempt to give them consistent starts in MLB to see if they can be counted on for the rotation past 2010. Even with those long leashes for a couple of these guys, I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that there’s a possibility that we see 5 to 6 starters (I would probably exclude Sowers from that sextet that was used to flesh out the Fangraphs’ piece) get anywhere from 12 to 20 starts this year for the Tribe as they attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff not just at the back-end-of-the-rotation, but throughout the whole pitching staff.

Who gets closer to 12 starts and who gets closer to 20 starts will bear itself out based on results in Cleveland (and Columbus) instead of just in Goodyear. Regardless, with Laffey going to the bullpen and either Huff or Carrasco heading to Columbus, their role and standing in the organization is going to evolve throughout the season and the opportunity will be there for them (and others) to assert themselves in what is likely to be a constantly fluctuating pitching staff.

Moving on to the local fishwraps, Terry Pluto (and it nice to have him on the ground in Goodyear, where he combines with Castro to make all other outlets obsolete) had an interesting bullet-pointed column on Friday, in which he pointed out that Matt LaPorta has yet to play an inning in the OF this Spring.

Still thinking Rusty’s the Opening Day 1B?
I don’t (and neither does Shelly Ocker)…but I still don’t think that means that Brantley’s the Opening Day LF.
Not that I don’t WANT Brantley to be the Opening Day LF, I just don’t think that he is. Unless Manny Acta brings with him a new philosophy that he’s able to convince the organization otherwise, the strategy of the Indians (love it or hate it…and I probably know which one of those feelings apply) is to start the season with their young ‘uns in AAA, calling them up later in the season to replace the player that has proved to be the washed-up veteran. The clause in Austin Kearns’ contract (and the service time issue with Brantley) makes me think that Kearns will get the nod in LF over Brantley.

Maybe this is Juan Gone-Grady all over again, but I think the extra year of control over Brantley in six years (when he’s 28) means more to the Indians than two months to start the 2009 season with a 22-year-old Brantley.

Moving on, if you remember from last week (or even if you don’t), Fangraphs is running an organizational ranking rundown (with the Tigers, White Sox, and Royals all coming in within the bottom 1/3 of MLB) and YOUR Cleveland Indians have made their appearance on the list, which attempts to measure the talent on hand for each team and the talent in the pipeline.

Since I know you’ve been waiting breathlessly to find out where the Indians rank, according to Fangraphs, in MLB so I’ll delay the announcement no longer.
The Indians came in at…#13…cue the applause and the backslaps all around!

Obviously this is a wildly subjective ranking (and Fangraphs admits as much), but it is interesting to see a perspective in the context of how the team stacks up (in their eyes at least) against the rest of MLB, and not just at the MLB level.

While the piece evaluating the future talent is erroneous at times (asserting that “Choo might be a platoon player when looking back at the recent swaps for other teams’ minor-league talent) and laughable at others, the one evaluating the current talent is a nice, clean (if not overwhelmingly insightful) look at the MLB roster, and here’s the big finish from Dave Cameron at Fangraphs in the summary piece:
The core of the team is young and cheap, as the organization has quality players or high level prospects at nearly every position on the diamond. The rotation is a big question mark, but there are a quantity of arms to sort through with differing levels of potential.
The bullpen is full of young power arms who rack up strikeouts. Give this team a year to mature and figure out how many starters they need to add, and they could be a serious contender in the AL again. There’s that much young talent in place.

And, despite the backlash against the Indians front office for the lack of results, this is still one of the best run organizations in the game. They have a large enough payroll to win, especially considering how many below market contracts they’ll have on the team, and the farm system is deep enough to provide necessary trade chips for when the organization shifts into go-for-it mode.

Don’t sleep on the Indians – they’re on the verge of being good once again.

While I know that few people who read this are “sleeping on the Indians”, with Opening Day 8 days away, the question of where that “verge of being good once again” actually exists is where answers need to come in 2010.

The roster is starting to flesh itself out, with the final decisions on the last spot in the rotation (my guess – Huff), the last two spots in the bullpen (my guess – Jen Lewis and Jamey Wright), the Branyan fiasco (my guess – Branyan to DL, Brantley to AAA, Kearns in LF, LaPorta at 1B), and the remaining bench spots (my guess – Marte, Crowe, and Hernandez) coming later in the week. However, the turnover from the Opening Day roster to the roster at even Memorial Day could be pronounced and heavy while the Indians filter through their options (particularly in the rotation) as they attempt to answer more questions about the team going forward instead of creating more questions past 2010.

If that can be accomplished, with certain players asserting themselves into the club’s future plans (again, particularly in the rotation), 2010 could be viewed as a success, regardless of record, and as a jumping-off point for the Indians to be “good once again”.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tomahawks Where Hope Springs Eternal

Opening Day is only a week and a half away and with that in mind, let’s get some tomahawks in the air to catch up on the latest and greatest (comparatively speaking) from The Reservation as well as hitting on the activity of another certain AL Central team…

While the news of Joe Mauer re-upping with the Twins being met with nearly universal praise, there is a feeling about it that I just can’t shake. As much as I love the fact that Mauer is staying in his hometown of the Twin Cities from the perspective of a local prep star achieving greatness in his hometown, the risk associated with the Twins meting out a deal like this (which again, I LOVE from the standpoint of a player staying with the team that drafted and developed him) is too big to ignore in that a huge portion of the Twins’ overall payroll figures to be given out to one player for a better portion of the next decade.

When Mark Teixiera was inked to a contract similar to Mauer’s, his 2009 salary ($20M) contributed a little less than 10% of the overall Yankee payroll for 2009. If Joe Mauer is going to be paid $23M annually starting in 2011, how much of the overall Twins’ payroll do you think he will make up?

Yes, the Twins have more revenue streams now that they’re moving into a new ballpark and they HAD to sign Mauer, but the Twins’ highest payroll prior to the 2010 season over the past 10 years was $71.4M in 2007. Maybe Mauer’s signing signals the beginning of a brand new day in Minnesota, but short of the Twins bumping up their annual payroll to the $125M range, it’s more likely that the Twins will attempt to build a team, ostensibly around Mauer, surrounding him with the same cheap talent that they’ve come to rely on for years.

The bigger issue than that however, is that while some will point to the Mauer deal as proof that competitive balance is alive and well in perpetuity and a sign that it’s up to teams like the Twins to “pony up” the cash for their own stars, the opposite is true as the risk that the Twins are exposing themselves to is a burden that will never fall onto the shoulders of the large-market teams.

Despite everything that you will read to the contrary in the coverage of this deal, the Mauer deal only further highlights the disparity in MLB’s competitive balance as (God forbid) if something should happen to Joe Mauer, in terms of injury or effectiveness, the Twins will find themselves with an albatross around their necks through the 2018 season.
Let me repeat that - through the 2018 season.

By no means am I suggesting that this injury or regression is obviously in Mauer’s future, but just consider the Hafner deal that the Indians meted out in the middle of the 2007 season.

First, take a look at the statistics for each player in the three years leading up to their extensions:
Hafner 2004 – Age 27
.311 BA / .410 OBP / .583 SLG / .993 OPS with 41 2B, 28 HR and 109 RBI in 573 PA

Hafner 2005 – Age 28
.305 BA / .408 OBP / .595 SLG / 1.003 OPS with 42 2B, 33 HR, and 108 RBI in 578 PA

Hafner 2006 – Age 29
.308 BA / .439 OBP / .659 SLG / 1.097 OPS with 31 2B, 42 HR, and 117 RBI in 563 PA

Mauer 2007 – Age 24
.293 BA / .382 OBP / .426 SLG / .808 OPS with 27 2B, 7 HR, and 60 RBI in 471 PA

Mauer 2008 – Age 25

.328 BA / .413 OBP / .451 SLG / .864 OPS with 31 2B, 9 HR, and 85 RBI in 633 PA

Mauer 2009 – Age 26
.365 BA / .444 OBP / .587 SLG / 1.081 OPS with 30 2B, 28 HR, and 96 RBI in 606 PA

We all can see the age difference in the comparison and by no means am I suggesting that Joe Mauer and Travis Hafner are similar players as Mauer’s positional value as a catcher (for the time being) trumps the restrictions that Hafner being a DH places on the flexibility of the Indians. Further, Mauer’s prime years are still ahead of him while Hafner’s are obviously behind him…and perhaps already were when he signed his extension in 2007 in hindsight.

Also, by this is not an attempt to besmirch Joe Mauer as a baseball player, just to remind people that Hafner ranked in 2nd in OPS in the AL during the 2004 and 2005 seasons and topped all AL batters in terms of OPS for the 2006 season. So as much as Indians’ fans are quick to point to Hafner being on the current roster as a contractual mistake, the 3-year body of work was there to justify his extension, just not in hindsight. That extension (the one that weighs the Indians’ ability to be financially flexible on a number of levels), it should be noted was for 4 additional years of Hafner at a price of $57M additional to his previous contract, a paltry sum compared to the 8-year, $184M that the Twins just committed to Mauer.

The introduction of the Hafner comparison is simply to serve as a startling reminder that past performance does not guarantee future success. Realizing that Travis Hafner (circa 2007) and Joe Mauer (circa 2010) exist on different planes, there is compelling evidence to suggest that a significant drop-off is possible for Mauer because of the possibility of a major injury (he is a catcher and has caught 600 games, a milestone that Sandy Alomar did not hit until 1996, when he was a 30-year-old, 6 years removed from his Rookie of the Year season of 1990) or serious regression because of a lingering injury.

While all of MLB is flush in flowery tones and “this is right for baseball” talk, the cautionary tales of Travis Hafner and Mike Sweeney (lest anyone forget that Sweeney averaged a .931 OPS in the 4 years prior to his extension in KC, after which he never played more than 122 games in a season while earning $55M over 5 years) are what bears worth mentioning in the context of Mauer’s new contract. They need to be referenced not to douse the excitement for the Mauer family and fans of the Twins, but instead to point to specific instances in which small-market teams were “doing right” in extending their own productive players, only to regret the contracts not too long after the signatures were dry.

With the opening of Target Field and with the Mauer signing, the Twins seem to entering a new era of their existence, with a new ballpark and new revenue streams, allowing them to offer a player like Mauer a deal commensurate with his abilities. What comes with that however, is risk and while an extension to Mauer can certainly work out just as beautifully as everyone sees it today, it can just as quickly devolve into the organization-choking contracts that burdened the Royals and the Indians with Sweeney and Hafner, new revenue streams or not.

The risk has been assumed by the Twins and it’s a risk that the large-market teams could only assume if they committed 20% or more to one particular player on their roster, a preposterous proposal. How Mauer’s performance stacks up against his contract will go a long way in determining whether the Twins just opened the door to consistent contention in the AL Central or whether it will serve as an anchor to the organization to the depths of the division.

Quickly returning to the topic of Hafner, the topic du jour certainly seems to be that Pronk (or some facsimile of Pronk) has returned based on his Spring Training numbers (2 2B and 2 HR in 26 AB) and that may certainly be the case. However, I’ve played this “get-my-hopes-up” game too long (since about mid-2007) with Hafner’s shoulder and his inability to play (much less perform) in consecutive games prevents me from wholeheartedly buying into what some may be selling.

Look, I want to believe that the monster that put the numbers up at the top of the piece lurks somewhere within that #48 jersey, but I’ll wait until Hafner is playing in consecutive games, turning on fastballs and turning pitchers’ mistakes into Pronkville (if The Mezz still bears his nickname) souvenirs before declaring definitively that Pronk has returned.

The ball flies in the desert air and there’s only so much optimism (much less that of the type that has come back to bite me before) in me to go around…

In fact, since there’s only so much unfounded optimism and hope to go around, I might as well be forthright about why the idea that Pronk is back is relegated to the borders of my brain. Truth is, I’m in the process of emotionally vesting myself completely in the return of one Senor Fausto Carmona.

I know…I know, the same thing applies with Carmona, in that I’ve played the “get-up-my-hopes” game with Carmona probably more than I have with Hafner. However, if Spring Training is all about pitchers “catching up” to the hitters, explain to my irrational mind how Carmona is leading the Cactus League in ERA and flat-out dominated the Cubs’ regulars earlier in the week?

If you’re not on board on the “Fausto is Back” bus that I’m driving, let’s go to the quotes on record after Fausto went 6 scoreless innings, allowing only two hits and, most importantly, no walks…

Mike Redmond – “I can’t believe he was any better in ‘07 than he was today…Those last two innings, he took it to another level. He was phenomenal.”

Manny Acta – “That was great to see -- especially against the Cubs’ ‘A’ lineup…He didn’t even reach his pitch limit. That he could go six on 68 pitches tells you a lot.”

Lou Piniella – “The best Spring Training start I’ve seen here of any of the Spring Training pitchers who’ve faced us. He made it look relatively easy…hard sinker, pitched inside, had a nice breaking ball. He made it look easy. He was impressive.”

Redmond – “I know I’d much rather catch him than try to hit against him… [Cubs batters] weren't having a lot of fun. You could see him get more confidence with each inning. You could see him get stronger as the game went along.”

Redmond – “Today, nobody could go up there to take pitches. They had to swing, because he was pounding the strike zone.”

Sound like the same soundbytes that we heard from Victor and the rest of the merry band of 2007 Tribesman?

The final quote is obviously the most important quote among them all (and remember that Redmond was on that Minnesota team with Torii Hunter, who said that facing Carmona in 2007 “felt like being hung-over”), in that the issue that has arisen with Carmona since that 2007 season has been his sudden predilection for walks, a trend that reared its ugly head for him after the 2007 season.

While I attempt to temper my enthusiasm that some semblance of an effective pitcher has been found in the Arizona desert, let’s all remember that Carmona just turned 26 this past December (Trevor Crowe is a month older, by the by) and even if he never fully re-captures the dominance of his 2007 season (see how I’m tempering my enthusiasm), the prospect of having Carmona as an effective upper-portion-of-the-rotation starter goes longer in making this team competitive in a shorter timeframe than any other (mildly conceivable) possibility on the roster.

Again, let us not forget that the Indians still hold club options on Carmona through the 2014 season (during which he’d be paid $12M), when he’ll be all of 30 years old. If he’s even a middle-of-the-rotation innings-eater and no longer the ¡Fausto! that so famously could not be distracted by midges, the most questionable portion of the Indians in the short-and-long-term future can find an answer.

While we’re on the topic of promising signs this Spring, realizing that Spring Training stats are just that, how about the fact that after Monday’s tilt against the Cubs, the Indians led all MLB teams in Spring Training with 6.63 runs per game?

Sure, but the offense was supposed to be the strength of the team, right?
Well, consider that (after Monday’s game) the Indians’ pitching staff had the lowest ERA in Spring Training at 3.38, the lowest WHIP in Spring Training at 1.20, the lowest H/9 in Spring Training at 8.20, and the second lowest Batting Average Against in Spring Training at .241

Curiously, the team ranked 28th in K/9 among all MLB teams this Spring, meaning that the Indians aren’t blowing anybody away this Spring (OK, Masterson is with 13.94 K/9), but they’re minimizing damage done by compiling the second lowest BB/9 this Spring and, as a result of that, ranked 7th in K/BB.

Maybe this is all a desert mirage, or maybe this “revolutionary” virtue of pounding the strike zone currently being preached is finding some attentive ears. Regardless, it’s hard not to notice the BB/9 being put up by the “competitors” for the rotation:
Talbot – 0.79
Carmona – 1.38
Huff – 1.46
Masterson – 2.61
Westbrook – 2.84
Laffey – 3.38

Beyond those guys, Carrasco has compiled a 2.25 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP with 8 K and only 3 BB in his 12 Spring innings while Rondon did not allow a run in 5 2/3 innings, notching 5 K against 0 BB en route to a 0.88 WHIP before being cut late last week.

If those are your 8 top starting options for 2010 (sorry, Jeremy), maybe some surprises are coming in terms of the Rotation…or maybe it is not yet April and Spring Fever is running rampant on the North Coast.

In case you haven’t noticed (and judging by comment activity and activity on various Tribe forums…you haven’t), Austin Kearns has made a little bit of a push recently in Goodyear as he attempts to claim a spot on the 25-man roster out of Spring Training. With the likelihood that Rusty Branyan’s going to start the season on the DL growing (and with Tony Lastoria reporting that Mike Brantley’s likely to start the season in AAA and stay for “a month of two”, regardless of extenuating circumstances), it would certainly seem that LF would be there for the taking for Kearns at the outset of the season.

With Kearns starting to perform in Spring Training, throw this log on top of that fire as Jon-Paul Morosi at Fox Sports reports on the stipulations contained in the “minor-league” contracts signed by Kearns and Jamey Wright:
Two players competing for spots on the Indians’ Opening Day roster have “out” clauses in their contracts, but one club official said those provisions “will not have an impact” on the makeup of the team.

Right-hander Jamey Wright can ask for his release if he’s not on the major-league roster by April 2. Wright, who is competing for a bullpen spot, is 1-0 with a 1.17 ERA in five appearances this spring.

Outfielder Austin Kearns can make a similar request if the Indians don’t place him on their roster by April 3. Kearns has batted .250 in 11 games while making a bid for playing time in left field.

Um…so, Opening Day is April 5th, so both basically need to be on the MLB roster by Opening Day or they’re free to go wherever they wish. Given the Branyan injury and the Brantley service time “issue”, does anyone else get the feeling that Kearns is going to make this team and is likely to be the starting LF? You could believe the lead-in to Morosi’s snippet that “those provisions ‘will not have an impact’ on the makeup of the team”, but I have a hard time believing that given the injuries to Branyan and Wood (plus the service time management of Brantley) that so obviously open the door for those two players to make the club out of Goodyear.

If Brantley heads to Columbus and Branyan heads off to the DL, that would put Kearns in LF, LaPorta at 1B, Crowe as the 4th OF, and Andy Marte as the back-up 1B/3B to start the season…sound about right?

As for the other player mentioned by Morosi, you might as well as pencil Jamey Wright into one of the three spots now open in the bullpen, with Jensen Lewis likely getting another and either Aaron Laffey or Mitch Talbot getting the final spot.

Fully aware of the school of thought that exists that Laffey or Huff is better served starting the season in Columbus to “keep them stretched out” in case a starter is needed, I’m still of the belief that there’s going to be A LOT of innings for these long men to eat up, particularly in the early going, and having the cavalry (if you can really call these guys the “cavalry”) in the bullpen instead of in Columbus continues to make more sense to me. Regardless, all of these guys are going to get plenty of starts this year, but that’s a topic for another day.

Back to the “out clauses”, if Wright isn’t on the team on April 2nd (and there’s no reason for him not to now that Wood is injured and the Indians seem to be sitting on an abundance of opportunity in the bullpen), then he can explore options on his own and one would have to think that the Indians would give Wright the first shot at sticking with the parent club over players retaining options or without those “out clauses” in their Minor League deals.

Finally, it is worth noting that MLB Network has been running their “30 Clubs in 30 Days” series and on Wednesday night…YOUR Cleveland Indians went under the microscope.

In case you missed the first airing, the show will re-air on Thursday at 9:00AM, 11:00 AM, 1:00 PM and 3:00 PM on the MLB Network.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Lazy Sunday with the Future Creeping Closer

As my bracket has been shredded by the Madness of March and while Winter attempts to make one final pass over the North Coast, let’s get rolling right away on a Lazy Sunday to think of warm, sunny days at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario and of whether a certain team from Cleveland could fit into Cinderella’s slipper this summer.
And with that, we’re off…

The biggest news of the week obviously is the news that Kerry Wood will be missing 6 to 8 weeks because of an upper back injury. While this development causes the dominoes to fall in the bullpen, perhaps the most important factor in this injury news is that the vesting option in Wood’s contract (if he finishes 55 games in 2010, his 2011 option for $11 vests) is not going to be possible for Wood to reach, considering that he’s not going to be seeing action until May at the earliest, assuming he’s even healthy at that point and won’t need multiple rehab appearances to get back to the Indians.

Of course, the fact that his option is unlikely to vest could make Wood MORE attractive on the trade market come July as teams won’t have to entertain the possibility of acquiring an $11M commitment in 2011 if they traded for Wood to augment their 2010 bullpen. Of course, his attractiveness in July makes the assumption that he comes back healthy AND effective, which is no given as there exists a very real possibility that Wood attempts to come back too early to justify his contract or to put a body of work forward in what could be his Free Agency season that would make him attractive in the off-season, compromising his effectiveness as a late-inning reliever.

As a quick aside on Spring injuries and Free Agency seasons, did anyone catch that CP Lee has been sidelined with a “right abdominal strain”, which is supposed to set him back for a week?

Everyone remembers the last time Clifton Phifer battled this same injury in Spring Training, right?
It was 2007, the year that saw Lee rush back and never find his rhythm, causing a late-season demotion, the tip of the cap, and his exclusion from the postseason roster. Everyone knows that Lee’s pitching for a giant contract at the end of this season (likely with the name “Steinbrenner” somewhere in it), right?
This could get interesting up in the Pacific Northwest…

But I digress, back to Wood and the immediate impact on the team as the Indians immediately will slot Chris Perez (or CFP, which would be “Chris…um, Firetruckin’ Perez, as Nino at The Tribe Daily has taken to calling him because of Perez’s professed love of “Eastbound and Down”) into the role of closer in Wood’s absence. There was certainly a prevailing school of thought that Perez would be closing games for the Indians at some point in 2010…just not to start the season.

Perez has been thought of as a “Closer-of-the-Future”, even when a member of the Cardinals, and his 10.74 K/9 rate ranked 16th among all MLB pitchers with more than 40 IP last year (career MiLB K/9 rate of 12.0) showed why he was seen as a power pitcher with a bright future at the back end of the bullpen. However, the greatest strides that Perez made last season had little to do with the strikeout totals and more to do with his BB totals. As Andrew Simon adroitly points out in a 2010 preview for the Indians, “after the Indians acquired him in the middle of last season, Chris Perez cut his walks per nine innings from 5.7 to 3.2.” If you want something to watch with Perez once he toes the rubber in the 9th, his BB rate may be more telling than any other statistic as he walked an improbable 75 batters in 108 innings in the Minors and his success may be tied very neatly by his ability to limit the free pass.

However, the biggest effect of Wood’s injury does not have anything to do with Perez slotting into the closer role, but rather the way that Perez’s ascension to the role of closer pushes everyone else in the bullpen up that ladder of roles. With CFP out of the set-up role, that 8th inning now falls into the lap of either Rafael Perez (and his 1.89 WHIP and .899 OPS against from 2009), Tony Sipp (who has walked 6 and given up 5 hits, while striking out only 2 in his 5 innings of work this Spring), and Joe Smith (who has given up 7 hits and 5 runs in 5 innings this Spring and is better suited as a straight right-on-right reliever). Sorting out those arms in the 6th or 7th innings is a completely different animal from seeing these guys vie for the spot in the 8th inning, with the recent bullpen struggles in Cleveland bearing testament to that.

Essentially, this is the same reason that Minnesota should be worried with Joe Nathan likely to be out for the season, in that losing a 9th inning reliever forces pitchers who would normally slot into middle relief into the 7th inning and pushes arms that a team wouldn’t generally use late in a game with a lead into those very games. Of course, this could open up some opportunities for guys like Sipp or Rafael Perez to assert themselves as back-of-the-bullpen mainstays and could even open up meaningful spots in the bullpen for guys like Jesse Ray Todd or even Josh Judy earlier than expected, but in the short-term, it throws what looked to be a fairly pleasant progression in the bullpen into a bit of confusion.

All told, it looks like the “future” starts earlier than expected in the bullpen and the young arms will have more opportunities (particularly later in games) to show that they should be counted on for 2010 and beyond.

If the “future starts now” in the bullpen, what is to be made of the recent reports concerning 2B?

In the midst of some notes from Goodyear, Tony Lastoria reported that:
The real interesting story may come later in camp as I’m hearing if Mark Grudzielanek continues to play well and makes a run these last few weeks that Luis Valbuena may be the odd man out and be sent to Columbus to start the season. Even though the Indians have played him some at third base this spring, Grudzielanek is viewed strictly as a second baseman at the moment.

So…is the organization hedging on the idea that Louie V is the Opening Day 2B?
I found it interesting that Hoynes decided to do a piece on Louie the Fifth right after this nugget from Tony, with Hoynes writing that:
When spring training opened, Acta said Valbuena was his second baseman. Acta added that the Indians weren’t in the business of turning 24-year-old infielders into platoon players…“Valbuena has played well the whole camp,” Acta said. “He hasn't done anything to hurt his chances to be our everyday guy. We like Grudzielanek and Rodriguez has done well. We’ve got two weeks to go, but Louie has done everything we’ve asked him to do…He’s had some good at-bats against left-handed pitchers. He has done nothing to change our minds.”

The “we aren’t in the business of turning 24-year-old infielders into platoon players” comment from Acta is still a highlight of the Spring for me (if only because it represents such a departure from managerial comments in years past), but let’s not pretend that there aren’t issues with Valbuena’s ability to hit LHP. While he only has 48 MLB plate appearances against LHP in MLB (even though he’s played in 121 MLB games), consider what Valbuena’s splits looked like in the Minors:
2005 vs. LHP - .624 OPS
2005 vs. RHP - .808 OPS

2006 vs. LHP - .748 OPS
2006 vs. RHP - .738 OPS

2007 vs. LHP - .510 OPS
2007 vs. RHP - .795 OPS

2008 vs. LHP - .717 OPS
2008 vs. RHP - .843 OPS

In 2009, he only had 78 AB in Columbus, so the samples are just too small to develop any kind of opinion in his AAA time last year; but those numbers account for 441 plate appearances against LHP and 1,230 against RHP, so the disparity in those numbers (except for 2006) do cause some pause in terms of Valbuena’s ability to hit LHP if he’s only show proficient in doing so in one of the last 5 years.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d still prefer to see Valbuena get everyday AB from the beginning of the season to see how he adjusts to playing everyday (against RHP and LHP) in MLB. Looming over the whole “splits” concern, there is the service time issue and, while I know that people don’t want to hear about that and want to throw the young guys out there now and allow them to sink or swim on their own, Valbuena (with 1 year and 12 days of MLB service time) needs to spend some time in the Minors to…here it comes…manage his service time to push off his first year of arbitration and of Free Agency.

That being said, I think that there is an easy solution to this service time issue that doesn’t include thinking about a season starting with Grudzielanek and Branyan (although Terry Pluto reports that the Indians “have to be concerned” about Rusty’s back…even if they’re not saying so publicly) on the right side of the infield to start the season. Quite simply, the Indians can start the season with Valbuena in MLB and demote him at some point in the season for a month or so. They can blame the demotion on the aforementioned struggles against LHP (regardless of what he’s doing in MLB) and simply call up Jason Donald (who would, like Valbuena, be playing 2B every day) to take his place, while Valbuena’s service time issue is rectified. In that scenario, the Indians get to see a body of work put forth by both Louie the Fifth and Donald while ensuing that Valbuena’s service time issue is fixed.

Regardless of the machinations in the bullpen and in the lineup, the big issues are still in the rotation as outlined by Ryan Richards (usually of the LGT), who wrote a great piece for The Hardball Times. In it, he is right to assert that “by this time next year, the Indians will have taken a big step forward if they have only a couple spots in the rotation to fill, instead of having to fill the entire rotation” and absolutely nails the major issue staring the Indians in the face as 2010 dawns:
The absence of starting pitching throughout the organization was what largely led to last year’s mid-season trades of Lee and Martinez, and while the Indians now have some depth thanks to those deals, they don’t yet have a credible rotation. The three pitchers who are expected to head the staff (Jake Westbrook, Justin Masterson, and Fausto Carmona) all have serious flaws, and in most rotations would be classified as back-end projects. Westbrook hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors in almost two seasons, Carmona was a disaster in 2009, and Masterson is still transitioning from the bullpen. Again, that’s the top of the rotation.

As a quick aside, here’s a little snippet about one of the guys at the top of the rotation from Nick Cafardo’s Sunday Baseball Notes column in the Boston Globe:
Looking for a good trade-deadline pitching option? Westbrook will be Cleveland’s Opening Day starter after spending the last two seasons recuperating from Tommy John surgery. Westbrook, 32, won 44 games from 2004-06 and will earn $11 million in the final year of a three-year, $33 million deal. He has had a strong spring training and looks to be healthy.

As for the back of the rotation (and it will be interesting to see how the Wood injury affects the Indians’ decision on who starts the season in the rotation and if one of the pitchers starts the season in the bullpen), here’s an interesting little quote from Acta concerning Spring Training results against what the coaching staff may be looking for in terms of performance:
“Talbot wasn’t as sharp as he was the last time, but he did make pitches when he had to. Too bad he ran out of pitches,” Acta said, alluding to Talbot having reached his pitch limit by the time he struck out Corey Brown for the first out in the fourth.
“Huff stayed aggressive and continued to pound the strike zone,” Acta added, discounting the home runs off the lefty by Kevin Kouzmanoff and Matt Carson.

Acta said this after “Unleash the Fury”, Mitch Talbot, went 3 1/3 scoreless innings on Saturday and Dave Huff gave up 3 earned runs in 4 innings, also on Saturday. How much of this is empty quotes or motivational tactics or even the truth remains to be seen, but it’s a lesson to not look too closely at Spring Training numbers or even quotes in an attempt to read the tea leaves.

Back to the piece on issues facing the Indians, here’s a piece on the Detroit pitching staff from Rob Neyer at ESPN, reacting to the rumors that Dontrelle Willis may be working his way back into the Tigers’ rotation:
* Max Scherzer averaged fewer than six innings per start in the National League last season;

* Jeremy Bonderman is 14-14 with a 4.96 ERA over the last three seasons;

* Nate Robertson is 18-27 with a 5.52 ERA over the last three seasons; and

* Dontrelle Willis is ... well, you know about Dontrelle Willis.

They say Eddie Bonine's in the rotation mix, too.

If you choose whichever three of those you like, and add them to Verlander and Rick Porcello, do you think you’ve got the rotation of a contending team? All those bad contracts -- Willis and Bonderman and Robertson, but also Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen -- eventually had to roost, and it looks like this is the Year of the Chicken.

To go further with the topic of the Central, Fangraphs has been running a countdown of organizations from #30 to #1 with Dave Cameron of Fangraphs explaining the evaluation process thusly:
Having a chance of winning it all this year is great. Having a great farm system is great. Having a forward thinking management staff is great. But by themselves, none of those things are enough to earn a high grade overall. We’re really trying to highlight the balance between winning now and winning in the future. There will be teams that are high on the list because of how good they may be in 2011 or 2012, while teams that are better in 2010 will be behind them. It’s not just a short term thing, and these aren’t projected order of finish for 2010. It’s our perspective on the total health of where each team is, relative to their peers, going forward.

The countdown has only made it to #21 and it is more than informative as they’ve analyzed both current and future talent for each team. You may find it interesting that 3 of the teams in the Central rank among the bottom 10 ranked to date…and none of those three teams in the bottom 10 are the Indians:
Detroit Tigers - #21
You can’t build a long term winner through free agency alone, and the Tigers are now paying the price for some of the contracts they’ve handed out in years past. They’re attempting to rebuild the core of the team while also contending, but from my perspective, it looks like they’re not going to get maximum results from either effort. The effect – an older team with lots of future question marks that isn’t quite good enough to win in 2010. That’s not a great spot to be in.

Chicago White Sox - #24
But while this is not a bad team, neither is it a good team, and the future doesn’t look especially bright...With the Twins moving into a new park that should increase their revenues, the division will only get more challenging, and the White Sox are in danger of getting left behind. 2010 is going to be a critical year this team. With some breaks, they could challenge for a playoff spot, but they also need to continue to add young talent to the organization. Trying to do both at the same time is not easy.

Kansas City Royals - #29

The Royals are behind the curve, and they’ve got a lot of catching up to do before they can contend again. Moore may believe in his process, but he shouldn’t. The Royals are bad now, they’re going to be bad next year, and they’ll be bad until someone injects some new thought into that front office.

Take all that for what it’s worth (and the Indians could easily show up as #20 on the list, not too far removed from the rest of their AL Central brothers), but the analysis on both the White Sox and Tigers attempting to simultaneously compete and add young talent does bring to mind those Indians’ teams of the early 2000s. Back then, the Indians thought that they could have their cake and eat it too as they attempted to contend and rebuild at the same time. We all know how that worked out for them in that it just delayed the “tear-down” that began with the Colon deal, so how the newest “tear-down” plays out should be begin to have answers in 2010.

To that end, in case you haven’t seen it, there’s an even-handed and (dare I say) optimistic season preview for the Indians at CBS that gets into the whole “managing the cycles” speech that we’ve been hearing for a while now.

Past that “old news” here’s a bit that I haven’t seen elsewhere that gets to that point of contention vs. rebuilding, which is a quote attributed to Sandy, talking about the team today compared to the teams of the early 90s, when he arrived in Cleveland:
“I think the amount of talent we have here now is a little more we had back then,” Alomar, now the team’s first-base coach, says of those early-‘90s Indians. “We had some talent then, but there was no mix of veteran players. Now there's Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Jake Westbrook. There are a few front-line players.
“Back in ‘90, ‘91 and ‘92, it took a little while until Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser came. That’s when everything got put together and we were really good.
‘When John Hart felt guys were ready to compete, that’s when he brought in Murray, Martinez, Hershiser, Tony Pena.”

At first blush, it looks like an extremely positive comment until you see the years that Alomar references. The records of the three teams that he mentions were:
1990 – 77-85
1991 – 57-105
1992 – 76-86

As long as Alomar’s not talking about the 1991 season (his second with the club…and did you know that he only averaged 70 games a year from 1991 to 1995?), when the Indians lost 105 games, I think I’m OK with the comparison. It should be noted that in 1993, the team went 76-86 again just before the break-out (if interrupted) 2004 season, so while Alomar’s words look great in that “the amount of talent we have here now is a little more than we had back then”, putting it in the proper context and timeframe is important.

Is the team destined for a couple of 76 to 77 win seasons before (hopefully) breaking out into contention, or is the team only a few steps away from that break-out?

With Wood on the shelf, Branyan still yet to play in a Cactus League game and the roster finally rounding into shape, the future may be starting sooner than previously thought on the North Coast…and that may not be such a bad thing.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Tomahawks Springing Up

Arriving home from work and finding my season ticket package sitting in a FedEx box in the front door, the excitement for the 2010 season finally started to bubble to the surface. With that in mind and since there finally seems that enough time has elapsed in Spring Training to adequately make some judgments, perhaps now would be a time to Spring for some Tomahawks…

While I haven’t been able to watch many of the games (work and all) on TV, in the one that I did catch, Jhonny Peralta looked noticeably heavier than he has in years past. Maybe it was just how he looked at a particular moment (and that “moment” can be seen here after he hit a HR and it’s when he’s rounding second), but Jhonny looks to have put on a few pounds.

If he has, maybe some of that has to do with the fact that he no longer is under the guise that he’s a SS (on the Indians at least), but Peralta’s added tonnage could mean a couple of things. Either he’s bulked up and is serious about making a valiant return in 2009 (with the knowledge that this is essentially a Free Agency year for him) in as much that wants to re-assert himself as an above-average MLB player…or he’s just let himself go in the off-season.

Here’s hoping for the former because as much as guys like LaPorta and Brantley and Santana are fun and exciting and new, the return of a guy like Peralta (v.2005 not v.2009) goes much further in the current Indians team sniffing a record close to .500 than much of development by the young guys. Additionally, since Peralta is unlikely to be in the team’s plans past this year, his success (particularly in the early going…which has never been his strong suit) may make him more appealing to a team looking for a RH bat come July.

Following this “battle” for the back of the rotation, is anyone else noticing that it looks as if all of the “participants” (sans Sowers) could make the 25-man roster out of Goodyear?

If the Indians decide to fill one of their bullpen spots with long man, you’re talking about Huff, Laffey and Talbot “battling” for those last two rotation spots and a spot perhaps being open in the bullpen for the “loser”. It is important to remember that we’re just talking about initial roles here in that the situation could come about that two of these guys are in the rotation on Opening Day and one is in the bullpen as the long man…for the time being.

Seeing as how the fact that somebody is the 5th starter out of Goodyear doesn’t mean that they’ll be the 5th starter on Memorial Day...ahem, Scotty Lewis…this whole “battle” could be much ado about nothing in terms of all of these guys seeing significant inning workloads. In terms of expected workloads, it is worth pointing out again that Mitch Talbot threw 68 1/3 total innings in 2009 and the assumption that he would be able to ramp that number up to be even double that may preclude him from overuse.

Given that there looks to be quite a few innings that are going to be consumed by that long man/“loser” of the rotation (if that’s where the Indians decide to put him), it really just comes down to who gets the ball on a more consistent basis. Seeing as how 3 of the 4 spots in the rotation will be filled by RH pitchers (Masterson, Westbrook, Carmona), it may make some sense to start the season with Laffey as the long man, in that he would then provide a LH long man to balance out what would then be 4 of the 5 RH arms in the rotation (if you add Talbot to that mix above) if he’s called on in relief.

Personally, I'd prefer to see Laffey get a first shot at the rotation if only because he performed well in 2009 (while being moved in and out of the rotation) over his first 20 appearances (3.36 ERA, .689 OPS against in 96 1/3 innings) until his final 5 starts of the season, which were unquestionably awful (8.53 ERA, 1.057 OPS against in 25 1/3 innings), sabotaged his season totals.

Regardless of how it all shakes out, the innings are going to be there for Huff, Laffey, and Talbot (even if they decide to send one of them to Columbus…which I hope they don’t as I think that Huff and Laffey have little left to prove in AAA and the “depth” could come from a long man just as it could from Columbus) in the early going as the inevitability of Sowers starting the season on the DL looks pretty firm. If (or is it when) Sowers comes off of the DL and comes back after some rehab starts, he can either sub for whichever of the three is struggling. There also exists the possibility that the Indians simply attempt to slip a healthy Sowers through waivers at a time when most teams are trying to make sense of their own 25-man witches’ brew.

With Sowers out of the mix to start the season, the troika of Huff, Talbot, and Laffey all could ostensibly have a spot on the 25-man roster with plenty of innings to go around.

If one of those three is going to start the season in the bullpen and Acta is on record saying that 5 spots in the bullpen are claimed (by Wood, Perez y Perez, Sipp, and Smith), that would mean that the 6th or 7th spot (depending on how you look at it) is still open. The main “competitors” look to be Jensen Lewis, Jamey Wright, Saul Rivera, and Hector Ambriz.

Realizing that little to no stock should be placed in Spring Training stats, here are the Spring lines, through Wednesday’s games for each:
4 games, 5.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 K, 1 BB

4 games, 5.0 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 4 K, 2 BB

4 games, 4.0 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 3 K, 1 BB

2 games, 2.0 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 K, 3 BB

There you go…figure out which one of these guys should make the team.

By the way, Lewis still has options and Wright and Rivera are on Minor-League deals, so none of them have to break camp with the parent club to stay in the organization. That designation falls to Ambriz, who is actually still around after the day when most Rule 5 picks were returned or deals were worked out for them to remain with the team that drafted them, evidenced by the Lofgren-for-Aguilar move.

Who “wins” this battle?
If I had to venture an early guess, it’s Jamey Wright with the Indians working out some deal to keep Ambriz around in the system so they can send him down to the Minors in an attempt to make him a reliever.

Why Jamey Wright?
I suppose it has something to do with that idea that this spot in the bullpen is essentially going to be a mop-up role and Wright’s pitched 240 1/3 innings over the last 3 years in 160 games (only 9 of which were starts), meaning that it’s a role to which he’s had some recent experience in. Other than that reason, I suppose it really doesn’t matter all that much. I guess I'd rather see Jensen Lewis getting regular work in Columbus to see if he can re-capture that 2007 velocity. By starting Lewis there (with Saul Rivera), he can perhaps be the first option to arrive when somebody in the bullpen gets hurt or needs to be sent out, perhaps in a more meaningful role.

Ultimately, you’re talking about an innings-eater who will be pitching between the 5th and 7th innings in games in which the Indians are losing by a considerable margin. Eventually, I'd like to see those innings go to guys like Jesse Ray Todd (10.97 K/9 in 2009), Josh Judy (11.68 K/9 in 2009), or even the newly-acquired Omar Aguilar (11.6 K/9 in 2009) so the Indians can start to get some of these high K-rate relievers into the mix in 2010 to see how some of these arms translate to an MLB bullpen.

That “translation” is a long way away though, and if Jamey Wright and Saul Rivera cycle through the bullpen this year so guys like Joe Smith and Tony Sipp aren’t forced to unnecessarily eat innings in blow-outs, that 6th or 7th bullpen spot is not real high on the priority list of “things to watch” this Spring.

Suffice it to say, but the imminent return of Rusty Branyan does not look nearly as imminent as it once did. Between the mish-mash of reports and quotes, it sounds like Branyan will be given every opportunity to get healthy and stake his “claim” to 1B. However, there exists the very real possibility that he’s going to start the season on the DL, perhaps for an extended stay.

While most would take that as an obvious prelude to the Indians going back to the LaPorta at 1B, Brantley in LF arrangement, consider this recent quote from Shapiro:
“LaPorta’s a guy that, age-wise, profile-wise and experience-wise, is ready to compete at the big league level. Regardless of what adjustments he has to make, he has to be up here in order to get better. Michael Brantley is a different story. He’s 22 years old, he had a solid but not special Triple-A season, and he had 100 good plate appearances up here, whatever that means. He does have an approach on the field that’s above his chronological age. That being said, there’s benefits to him being here and there’s benefits to him being finished in the Minor Leagues. We’re not going to make a decision off a Spring Training performance for anybody.”

The most pertinent (and dismissive) portion was admittedly bolded by me, but do you still think that Brantley’s the obvious choice to make the team if Branyan’s back acts up after reading Shapiro go out of his way to mention that and as it sounds like minds are already made up if they’re “not going to make a decision off a Spring Training performance for anybody”?

This could certainly something to watch this Spring if Branyan’s back does put him on the DL and if the team is intent on managing Brantley’s service time. That is, if Branyan starts the season on the DL and the Indians are THAT committed to keeping Brantley’s service clock in check (although he can always be sent down later), that would mean that the likes of Andy Marte or Trevor Crowe assumes the AB that were designed to go to Branyan.

Obviously, the easy fix is to start Brantley in LF and LaPorta at 1B if Branyan starts the season on the DL…but why make things easy?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Six-to-Seven Year…Pitch

Moving on in this comparative look to see how closely the 2010 season could parallel the 2004 season, we turn our attention to the area of the team that looks the shakiest at the outset of 2010 – the rotation. One could argue that the 2010 offense stacks up positively in comparison to the 2004 version and since interest (not to mention expectations) is subterranean entering the 2010 season while the 2004 season was viewed with some optimism for the future, so the rotation must be the difference.

The pitching (particularly the rotation) was the great separator between the two incarnations of the Indians, right…right?

Um…I guess you could say that the 2004 pitching staff eventually got to that point of “separation”, but want to know what the Starting Rotation was out of the gate for the 2004 season?
CC Sabathia
Jason Davis
Cliff Lee
Jeff D’Amico
Jason Stanford

No, seriously…
D’Amico (who had been released by the Pirates at the end of the 2003 season) started games until mid-May, when he gave way to Chad Durbin (yes…that Chad Durbin), who stuck around for a couple of starts before getting replaced by Joey Dawley (wait…who?) until the Indians finally found the “answer” for their rotational woes in Scott Elarton, whom they claimed off of waivers from Colorado in mid-June.

Not exactly the settled rotation that we all reminisce about now, was it?
Consider that Jason Stanford started two games before Durbin entered the rotation for 1 start, eventually giving way to Jake Westbrook, who emerged on a white horse from the bullpen. In their first 53 games, 13 of the games were started by Jeff D’Amico, Chad Durbin, Jason Stanford, of Joey Dawley. In the first third of the 2004 season, 25% of the games were started by one of that quartet of largely forgettable pitchers.

Eventually, the Indians settled in with a quintet of (in order of effectiveness in 2004) Westbrook, Sabathia, Elarton, Lee and Davis; but that didn’t occur until late June and, even then, did not proceed to the end of the season without a serious regression in the last third of the year by Lee and a demotion for Jason Davis with some late-season starts for Kaz Tadano, Kyle Denney, and Francisco Cruceta. When it was all said and done, the Indians’ best starter of the season (Westbrook) started the season in the bullpen and the third-best starter of the season (Elarton) was cut by the Colorado Rockies in late May of 2004.

This was not a set rotation going into 2004 and the evolution to that rotation was neither an easy nor linear path upwards. Rather, the 2004 rotation matured from one with many question marks and attempted career resuscitations to one that was able to provide the baseline for the stability of the 2005 rotation and beyond. Seeing as how the 2010 rotation looks to be just as full of young question marks and attempted career resuscitations, let’s keep going on this comparison on the principals of the 2004 team and those that look to be the main contributors for the 2010 season.

For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll keep it with the aforementioned five as much as I'd like to include the “merits” of a 28-year old D’Amico (who would never pitch in MLB after the Indians released him in late June of 2004), a 26-year-old Durbin (who had just been cut loose by the Royals after posting an ERA+ of 81 over 270 2/3 MLB IP), a 27-year-old Stanford (with 50 career MLB innings to his credit prior to 2004), and a 32-year old Dawley (with a total of 7 1/3 MLB IP on his resume prior to 2004), we’ll keep that information contained in this sentence.

In matching up these pitchers (since it’s not as clean as comparing Asdrubal to Omar in terms of positional analysis), I attempted to place similar ages and/or performances together, if only to get a sense of comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges. Grouping a 23-year-old CC in 2004 to a 30-year-old Westbrook in 2010 because both are the presumed Opening Day starters goes against the logic of the comparison, so the groupings may seem oddly placed, but they are done so with some thought behind them.

CC Sabathia’s career numbers prior to 2004 season
4.12 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 1.85 K/BB in 588 IP

Justin Masterson’s career numbers prior to 2010 season
3.97 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 1.87 K/BB in 217 2/3 IP

This is not quite a fair comparison as most of Masterson’s innings in MLB have come out of the bullpen and CC was still just 23 during the 2004 season. However, since CC is shoved down our throats by the national media (who think that the Yankees are so brilliant for having him front their rotation) as the finished product that he now is, it’s easy to forget the growing pains that took place as The Hefty Lefty evolved into The aCCe. It certainly didn’t happen in 2004 as Sabathia tallied a total line of 4.12 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 1.93 K/BB in 188 IP, hardly top-of-the-rotation numbers. With Sabathia, the potential was always there, just not always the production or the consistency. From the game in which he threw out of the wind-up with the bases loaded against the Yankees (hello, bases-clearing single) to his atrocious record in Oakland, Sabathia never really reached his potential as a consistent performer until the last two months of the 2005 season. Don’t get me wrong – Sabathia’s accomplishments prior to those last two months of the 2005 season were impressive, particularly given his age. But the great leap forward that he took at the end of 2005 took him from a potential top-of-the-rotation starter (career ERA+ going into the 2006 season – 106) to the actual top-of-the-rotation starter that he’s been since then (ERA+ from 2006 through last season – 140).

What does all of that mean for Masterson?
That he’s going to continue to go through his growing pains and while he was never has universally well-regarded as Sabathia (CC was Baseball America’s #7 prospect in MLB prior to the 2001 season) and there is more than a little disparity in the ages (Masterson will be 25 this year), I don’t think that anyone’s expecting Masterson to turn into what Sabathia has. Masterson’s MiLB totals (3.79 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 3.27 K/BB) don’t look too bad in comparison to those of Sabathia (3.43 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 2.39 K/BB)...that is until you put the totals into the proper context of age and level of advancement. Perhaps a guy like Rondon (#17 on The Hardball Times’ top prospect list), who just turned 22 and has MiLB numbers that come close to CC’s (3.92 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 4.23 K/9) is a better comparison in that he provides the young, high-upside arm like Sabathia did back then.

However, we’re talking specifically about 2004 and 2010 here and Sabathia is a pretty unique case having compiled 588 MLB innings before turning 23 with every expectation that he would eventually be an ace. Maybe that’s the biggest difference here, in terms of expectations for results. Even if it is, Sabathia was still an oversized riddle when the 2004 season began, still overly prone to bad innings, and still more potential than performance.

Scott Elarton’s career numbers prior to 2004 season
5.03 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 1.84 K/BB in 558 IP

Jake Westbrook’s career numbers prior to 2010 season
4.31 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 4.9 K/9, 1.78 K/BB in 1,070 1/3 IP

If we’re talking about the “veteran presence” on a pitching staff, Elarton was two years older than anyone else among the 5 pitchers that saw the majority of the starts in 2004. Elarton was waived from a Colorado team that lost 94 games and finished last in the NL in team ERA at 5.54. Elarton did his part in contributing to that dreadful ERA in Colorado, posting a 9.00 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, 1.15 K/BB line in 41 1/3 IP with an improbable 6 losses in 8 games started for the Rockies before being released.

Elarton was claimed off of waivers in mid-June and inexplicably became the team’s third-best starter posting a line of a 4.53 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 1.90 K/BB in 117 1/3 IP as a member of the Indians’ starting rotation. Little was expected of Elarton and he performed admirably for the Indians, eating innings in 2004 and 2005 until he was replaced at the back-end of the rotation with the ill-fated Jason Johnson experiment. While little was expected of Elarton, he contributed those much-needed innings to a young rotation, a role that Westbrook can hopefully duplicate.

Though expectations were low for Elarton, they were there because of his recent performance in Colorado and because Elarton was still coming off of a lost 2002 season in which Elarton missed the entire season because of major shoulder surgery. In fact, from 2001 to 2003, Elarton threw only 184 1/3 MLB innings in those three years, posting an ERA+ of 70 in the process. That inning output puts the number of innings that Westbrook has thrown in the last three years (186 2/3 MLB innings from 2007 to 2009) into some perspective in that the Indians are once again looking to resurrect a once-promising career, though Elarton pre-shoulder surgery and Westbrook pre-TJ surgery are completely different animals.

In 2004, the Indians benefited from the pleasant surprise of Scott Elarton and would be happy to do the same with Jake Westbrook. Obviously, the major difference is that the Indians are pegging a still-unproven-as-healthy-and-effective Westbrook as their Opening Day starter, an issue that never faced the 2004 team.

Jason Davis’s career numbers prior to 2004 season

4.45 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 4.8 K/9, 1.88 K/BB in 180 IP

Fausto Carmona’s career numbers prior to 2010 season
4.69 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 5.6 K/9, 1.43 K/BB in 535 2/3 IP

This is the strangest coupling of the group, placed together by virtue of each being big, hard-throwing RHP with control issues. While Carmona unquestionably comes in with the longer track record, remember that Davis was the assumed #2 starter on this team and, at the age of 24, the idea that he could sit behind the LHP Sabathia still held merit to some in the organization…the guy was on the cover of the Media Guide for goodness sakes.

With a decent 2003 in his back pocket, Davis regressed severely in 2004 when, at the age of 24, he posted a line of a 5.51 ERA, 1.74 WHIP, 5.7 K/9, 1.41 K/BB in 114 1/3 IP. He was eventually demoted to Buffalo and again, remember that he was pegged as the #2 starter out of Spring Training for a team that won eventually 80 games. Some of the reason for Davis’ struggles can be placed on his rapid ascent through the system as he never pitched in AAA until he was demoted from the parent club in 2004 after logging nearly 300 career MLB innings. Davis was always the bewitching arm in the system who, “if he could ever figure it out”, could really take off and establish himself in the rotation. That step would never come for Davis, who would eventually bounce around to Seattle, then Pittsburgh, finishing 2009 in the Pirates’ organization as he posted a 6.06 ERA and a 1.73 WHIP for AAA Indianapolis.

While Davis looked like the “could-be” in the 2004 rotation, Carmona is the “at one point was” in the 2010 rotation, where the Indians look to recapture the pitcher that dominated the league in 2007. If we’re going off of the idea that Carmona needs to get physically back, the recent quote from Shapiro that his “demeanor is good” and “physically he’s better than last year, but that’s not enough” certainly doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that 2010 is the year for Carmona to turn his once-promising career around.

Carmona’s already done his stint in the Minors as Davis did in 2004. Whether he begins the bounce around MLB after the 2011 season, as Davis began in the 2007 season, should have a clearer answer at the end of 2010.

Cliff Lee’s career numbers prior to 2004 season

3.30 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 1.79 K/BB in 62 2/3 IP

Dave Huff’s career numbers prior to 2010 season

5.61 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 4.6 K/9, 1.59 K/BB in 128 1/3 IP

Yes, CP Lee’s numbers look great…until you see that he accumulated them in 62 2/3 IP and that his 2004 line (as a 25-year-old) was a 5.43 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 1.99 K/BB in 179 IP. Admittedly, I’ve already made this comparison in a piece a couple of months ago, but just to frame it again in the context of getting a full look at 2004 Cliff Lee vs. 2010 Dave Huff (who turns 26 in August), here it is again to fit into this comparison…

Cliff Lee was born in August of 1978 and Dave Huff was born in August of 1984, meaning that the comparable seasons of age and development for the two are Lee’s 2003 (9 starts, 52 1/3 IP) and Huff’s 2009 (numbers shown above as they represent Huff’s body of work to date).

Is that to intimate that Dave Huff is Clifton Phifer Lee (the Cy Young Award winner, not the “simply Cliff Lee” guy who didn’t make the 2007 post-season roster) just waiting to break out?

Of course not, but since the two of them seem to have traveled very similar development paths in terms of age and level throughout their MiLB career, compare the cumulative numbers for the two pitchers put up over their MiLB careers in the upper levels, specifically AA and AAA:
Lee – AA in 120 IP
3.22 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 3.76 K/BB

Huff – AA in 65 2/3 IP
1.92 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 4.43 K/BB

Lee – AAA in 147 IP

3.48 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.8 BB/9, 1.81 K/BB

Huff – AAA in 120 IP
3.45 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 3.65 K/BB

Again, none of this is meant to intimate that Dave Huff is a couple years away from winning a Cy Young here…mainly because something that is still unexplained happened to Cliff Lee prior to the 2008 season. Rather, the idea is that Dave Huff could realistically project to be what most of us saw Cliff Lee as back in 2004 and 2005 – a middle-of-the-rotation LHP who can contribute (at a low salary for a while) quality innings to a still-maturing club.

The road to becoming that middle-of-the-rotation LHP is not a linear or a clean path (not sure if you remember who got demoted and left off of the playoff roster in 2007), but Huff has the MiLB resume and the pedigree that portend that 2010 could be the year that he separates himself from the pack of “soft-tossing lefties” with whom he’s often grouped.

Jake Westbrook’s career numbers prior to the 2004 season
5.23 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 4.6 K/9, 1.35 K/BB in 246 IP

Aaron Laffey’s career numbers prior to 2010 season
4.39 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 4.3 K/9, 1.27 K/BB in 264 2/3 IP

Making his second appearance on this list (and being the only duplicate from 2004 to 2010 in the rotation, a nearly unfathomable feat), we see once again how Westbrook’s 2004 season came as a complete surprise as he compiled a line of 3.38 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 4.8 K/9, 1.90 K/BB at the age of 26 after starting the 2004 season in the bullpen. That stint in the bullpen lasted for all of 3 appearances as Westbrook famously relieved Jeff D’Amico (who was unable to record an out) against the Tigers and threw 7 perfect innings, never to return to the bullpen as he threw a complete game 2-hitter in his first 2004 start.

Prior to that 2004 season, Westbrook had appeared in 71 games and only 34 of them as a starter, posting an ERA+ of 85 with the line above representing his compiled career numbers. Prior to the 2010 season, Laffey has thrown in 50 games, starting 44 of them as his only use out of the bullpen came last season. In those 50 games, Laffey has posted an ERA+ of 98 and while he may not have the 1st Round Pedigree that Westbrook did (though Westbrook was traded three times as a Minor Leaguer from Colorado to Montreal to New York to Cleveland), his numbers stand up comparatively to Westbrook. Again, I know I made this comparison before with Laffey and Westbrook in that aforementioned piece but to once again put the comparison in this context…

This is what Jake Westbrook did in 2003 (the year in which he bounced around between the rotation and the bullpen) as a 25-year-old in those instances when he did start games:
4.64 ERA and 1.54 WHIP with peripherals of 3.9 K/9, 0.94 K/BB in 118 1/3 IP

Now, compare that to Laffey’s line as a starter looked like in 2009 as a 24-year-old when he…wait for it…bounced around between the rotation and the bullpen:
4.53 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP with peripherals of 4.1 K/9, 0.94 K/BB in 109 1/3 IP
Frighteningly similar peripherals, no?

Once Westbrook took the opportunity to start every fifth day, he ran with it, putting up a line befitting of a middle-of-the-rotation starter from 2004 to 2007 in 121 starts to this tune:
4.07 ERA, 107 ERA+, 1.34 WHIP, 2.6 BB/9, 5.0 K/9, 1.93 K/BB

What can Laffey do being handed the ball every 5th day, without a break?
Can he be a Jake Westbrook, circa 2004 to 2007?

Sure the odds are against it, and maybe the presence of Mitch Talbot prevents the opportunity, but stranger things happened in the 2004 season that snowballed into the 2005 and 2007 seasons of contention, so watching it all play out should generate some interesting subplots this season in the rotation.

Among those sub-plots and in the context of examining the events and the performances that shaped the evolution of the 2004 rotation, the questions come pouring out for a largely-unproven 2010 staff…
Where is the surprise going to come from?
Where is the disappointment going to come from?
Who is this year’s Jason Davis?
Who is this year’s Scott Elarton?
Do any of these pitchers have a chance at becoming a top-of-the-rotation horse?

In hindsight, the easy conclusion to arrive at is that the Indians had two future Cy Young winners and a middle-of-the-rotation innings eater on that 2004 staff cutting their teeth in MLB. Seeing as how Sabathia, Lee, and Westbrook will earn a total of $43M in salary in 2010 alone from their current employers, it is now obvious that the Indians’ pitching staff did contain some promise, if unfulfilled to that point.

That idea of the unfulfilled promise in 2004 is the important one here as Sabathia was still a 23-year-old trying to find some consistency, Lee was a young LHP still adjusting to MLB having logged only 62 2/3 MLB innings prior to 2004, and Westbrook was just beginning the transition from long man/spot-starter to middle-of-the-rotation cog.

Don’t forget that the Indians signed Millwood and Byrd to complement these three and thought that Carmona and Atom Miller would eventually graduate into the starting rotation.

Comparably, if the Indians can get two or three of the arms that figure in prominently in the 2010 mix, it goes a long way towards settling the rotation and allowing the Indians to perhaps use the same blueprint of adding a veteran arm in FA (like Millwood and Byrd) while the young arms (Rondon, Carrasco, Hagadone, and White being the closest), shake themselves out on the farm.

Some of those arms could end up in the bullpen, but the idea that the Indians’ 2004 rotation was an obvious strength of the team is revisionist at best when you consider that 60% of the Opening Day rotation would throw 193 total MLB innings after that season as Davis threw 166 2/3 innings and Stanford would throw 26 1/13 innings after 2004…D’Amico would throw none.

Was there potential there and were some of the ceilings (notably Sabathia) much higher?
No question, but looking back at the 2004 rotation on the basis of the track records to that point of the players thought to fill out that rotation show that the 2004 rotation was as full of question marks and inconsistent performers, both young and old, as the 2010 rotation looks to be.

Some members of the 2004 rotation used the innings available to them to establish themselves as pillars of the rotation for the teams in 2005 and beyond and 2010 will tell if any of the assumed members of the 2010 rotation can do the same.