Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Reflective Lazy Sunday

After dropping 9 of their last 11 with their starting pitcher on his way to the hospital (for what would turn out to be precautionary tests, thankfully), the Indians’ Saturday fate looked grim, not an unsurprising fact given that the combined salaries for the Indians’ lineup (approximately $8.4M) represented just a little over a quarter over what the Yankees’ 3B will earn ($32M) and a just over a third over what their the Bombers’ starting pitcher for the game will earn ($23M) this season.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the loss column as the Indians’ youngsters battered Sabathia for 5 runs in 6 IP and overcame some dreadful pitching from the bullpen from Aaron Laffey (way to make your case for the rotation, Bulldog) to eventually take more shine off of Justin Chamberlain’s apple (without the help of midges) en route to a 13-10 victory.

It was the kind of game that makes a season like the one that the Indians are currently in the middle of marginally better, where the future looks brighter than it has in weeks. With extra-base hits coming off of the bats of Lou Marson (finally looking comfortable at the plate…just in time to head to AAA), Jason Donald (4 doubles, 1 HR in his last 5 games), and Matt MaTola (who actually looked like he wasn’t limping for the first time going around the bases), the offensive future looks a little clearer…even if it was just for a day.

That being said, since there’s really not that much that is news-worthy about the Indians in the here-and-now (and thank goodness that Huff has received a clean bill of health), perhaps we’ll go a different direction on this Laziest of Sundays, what with tomorrow being Memorial Day and with me about to load up the Family Truckster for a couple of days up in Lake Chautauqua.

Sure, there are some interesting things out there regarding the trade market (and the Trading Deadline is 2 months away so…get ready for 8 weeks of this excitement) with Jayson Stark saying that the Blue Jays are scouting Fausto (which could just be a team trying to find a under-club-control, youngish starter that they could get on the cheap) and with Ken Rosenthal listing out some possible destinations for Tribesman, in an interesting piece that projects that Philly might be interested in both Wood AND Westbrook, that the Indians might have an interest in keeping Westbrook around (something I still haven’t really considered and thus don’t really have an opinion on), as well as reporting that:
The team is willing to include cash in a trade to land better prospects, just as it did in the Casey Blake-for-Carlos Santana deal in ’08. The high salaries of Wood and Westbrook increase the likelihood of such exchanges.

This last bit of news is good to hear, though I’ll be interested to see how that plays out as attendance is still abysmal into July and as apathy reigns supreme on the North Coast regarding the team. All told, there’s going to be PLENTY of time to dissect which teams might have an interest in Wood, Westbrook, Kearns, Branyan, Peralta, and Grudzielanek as well as 2 months of performance by each of those players to (hopefully) build up trade value.

Additionally, there’s going to be quite a bit of time to assess the trades that have already taken place, and’s Jon Heymann has an interesting nugget when discussing Cliff Lee’s trade value:
He’s been traded twice in the past year already, and while the acquiring teams unloaded a total of seven decent or better prospects, even Lee couldn’t bring an upper echelon prospect such as Clay Buchholz last year, a straight-up request that was flat rejected. “Teams are placing significant value on their young players,” one AL GM said.

Regardless of how that makes you feel about Lou Marson, Donnie Baseball (an attempt at finding a nickname for Jason Donald) and the like, let’s go in a different direction this week as the most interesting work on the web this week come from some of our favorite writers, both of whom happen to be Cleveland natives.

While most of the analysis and reporting this week covers ground that’s been tread over for the past year in this very space (is Fausto back?, should Masterson be a reliever?, what’s wrong with LaPorta?, etc.), let’s all get on the couch to examine our psyche here as we seem to be sitting at Ground Zero (Saturday’s game still considered) of another rebuild/reload/whatever with no guarantee that it will be any more successful (or even as successful) as the one that just finished.

As the team operates with the odds stacked against the Tribe, and in an environment in which they need to be both lucky and smart (by the by, here’s a great piece from a Padres’ minority owner that explains the situation both rationally and in easy-to-understand language that should be required reading for anyone that’s quick to simply bash the Indians for this precipitous fall), we follow and support the team with the knowledge that the players that we’re currently placing our hopes in for that next window of contention won’t be around once they hit Free Agency.

It’s a cycle that I’m already preparing The DiaTot for, as much as the notion makes my stomach turn. To his credit, he’s already made the statement that once Grady’s not on the Indians anymore, he’ll just pick another Indians’ player to be his favorite…which suggests a greater grasp of the current climate in MLB than most paying customers at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

On top of those built-in disadvantages for the Indians within MLB, which played a part in the deconstruction of the team (along with the pipeline of talent running dry, key injuries, and crucial mistakes made in FA), most of us Indians’ fans bear the cross of being sports fans, in general, from Cleveland, an identity that is coming into clearer focus as a certain native Northeast Ohioan holds the city hostage.

It’s an identity that was articulated recently in an incredible piece at Deadspin from native Clevelander Scott Raab, who normally plies his craft for Esquire (and here’s something he wrote about Shaq that just appeared in my mailbox), as he examines his relationship with Cleveland sports, crystallized in the context of his “repentance”:
…Being a lifelong Indians fan transcends any of the whining from Wrigley Field or, once upon a time, Red Sox Nation. Pussies. For most of my life, the Indians had neither stars nor hope—only agony. With apologies to Bernard Malamud, to be a Cleveland fan is to suffer, and to suffer is to be a Cleveland fan.
One of the worst parts of being a devoted fan of any crappy team, in any sport, is the sense that you’re truly only rooting for the laundry, that the players in the uniform bearing the name of your town don’t care half as much as you do. Nor should they. They may be men playing a boy’s game, but they’re also men at work at a job defined by its naked difficulty. Their every act is literally numbered, and those numbers—and, in a fan’s eyes, the players themselves—are public property. Ultimately, though, they owe us nothing beyond their best effort.

And us? I don't know that fans owe players much of anything. Then again, I'm from Cleveland: I've been suffering all my life. I always figured that since I bought my tickets with my mother’s hard-earned money, I was entitled to do pretty much whatever I wanted at the games. And though I realize now how wrong I was, that’s merely an intellectual construct that still gets swept away by the flood of feeling that defines my fandom. If you put me, Jose Mesa, and John Elway in a room with a loaded gun, I’m the only one who’s walking out alive.

While Raab paints a pretty accurate picture of what my life has been like as a Cleveland fan “rooting for the laundry” (or at least attempting to do so), native South Euclidean Joe Posnanski presents another angle of Cleveland fandom in a piece about being wrong from Slate in an interview with fellow native Clevelander Kathryn Schulz:
What I have found about Cleveland fans—and certainly it’s been true of me—is that at some point you know you’re going be wrong, so you try to play tricks with yourself. You say, “Well, I know they’re going to lose today,” in an effort to be wrong in the other direction. The expectation level of a Cleveland fan is so filled with heartbreak that at some point you just try to turn the thing in your favor. But in Cleveland, it never works, because if you say “I know they’re going to lose today,” you are going to be right, and there’s no joy at all in that kind of rightness.

Certainly, both of these pieces have a bit of the doom-and-gloom feel that I try to avoid here, but what’s amazing is that Raab accurately describes the feeling that most Clevelanders are feeling about the Indians, particularly after watching our former aCCe take some time off from counting his money to take on the Indians yesterday (“to suffer is to be a Cleveland fan”) and Posnanski nails what we’re seeing play out this summer, as the city seems to be steeling itself that LeBron James is going to leave.

As Posnanski says, “you try to play tricks with yourself” by almost projecting the worst that can happen so you’re prepared if (or is it when) that worst-case-scenario emerges. If you don’t think that’s what happening with LeBron, then you haven’t heard the arguments that “he’s never won anything here” or that “he gave up on the team” as people are steeling themselves against disappointment. You expect the worst and if something good happens, you’re ecstatic about it. But if the worst-case scenario comes to fruition…well, you’ve mentally prepared yourself for it.

Truthfully, I’ve always tried to avoid that thinking with the Indians, whether it be the irrational excitement that I have for Jason Donald or my hope against hope that Fausto v.2007 lurks somewhere under that hat (you know, the one with the sticker still on the underside of the brim)…and those are the things that I feel in a down year.

Regardless, that optimism and that hope has a tendency to set myself up for some monumental disappointment, even if you just put it in the context of Game 5 of the 2007 ALCS, when I met friends at Local Heroes before the game and (since most of us were in college in 1995 and 1997 and had never experienced being in Cleveland for a World Series) vowed that we meet up after the game (presupposing a victory and a WS berth) to celebrate together as we had never done in the past.

Well, we all know what happened in Game 5 and thereafter, but I was with one of those friends at a wedding recently and we were reminiscing about that night…something that we had always avoided. Since we never met up after the game, I told him about the absolutely silent Rapid ride from Tower City to the West Side that The DiaBride and I endured in a packed Rapid car. Despite 2 games remaining in the series (and the Indians still up 3-2), the worry was palpable, even for a pie-eyed optimist like me.

My friend told me that he left the ballpark that night knowing that the ALCS was over, that CC was going to be traded the following year, and that the Indians’ opportunity had been missed. While some of that may be embellished (he’s not that prescient, regardless of what he says), it goes back to that point that Posnanski makes as we’re programmed to expect the worst…which is often what happens to us, if you’ll remember the FOX graphic – “At Least You Still Have LeBron” – as CC and Lee squared off in Game 1 of the World Series.

Now, with the Indians at the bottom of the AL Central and in light of the consternation across the Gateway Plaza, I am reminded of a piece that I wrote back in the late summer of 2007, when the Cavs were headed to the NBA Finals and the Indians were steamrolling their way to the playoffs:
The Cleveland sports teams are trending upwards and they’re doing it together. This ascent is not automatic nor is it immediate. Growing pains and disappointment promise to litter the road. But, for once, the road represents an ascent, not a descent into the mediocrity and indifference, to which we’ve grown accustomed.

None of the Cleveland teams are taking that “one last chance” or trying to slip through the closing window, as we saw the Pistons attempt and are currently watching the Yankees struggle to do. They’re all on the rise (to borrow from the Cavaliers' playoff motto) and show no signs of taking a precipitous, unexpected tumble back to mediocrity.

Now, less than 3 years later, it looks myopic and absurd in light of what’s happened since then and what looks to be happening. What’s happened since that time (at least in terms of the Indians) was encapsulated recently by Eric Wedge, who told The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington last week that “Key guys got hurt and then there was the economics of it all. If we could have kept it together, I still believe we could have been one helluva team. It's just tough to ride that all out in that market.”

While that description of what transpired represents a cursory look at everything that went wrong (and having probably gone too far in depth into what did go wrong already), we find ourselves about to go into June watching a bad baseball team with no guarantee that the current group of youngsters are going to congeal and mature simultaneously, which represents the hope. Thus, fully realizing the flaws within the game and our inherent “Cleveland-ness”, what are we doing here?

The Indians are in a rebuilding/reloading/whatever year and while this regime proved that they are able to build a contender quickly (go look at the makeup of the 2003 team, then the 2005 and 2007 teams), they’ve also proven that the house of cards that they built in short order can come down just as quickly, if not quicker.

If we’re at the 2002/2003 stage with this current team and contention is a few years off (and that certainly looks to be the case now), what is it that brings me back to watch this team and let it occupy so much of my time?

This may be a topic that’s been discussed, but in the context of the last month of Indians’ baseball in particular, why do I allow myself to love a team that operates within the confines of an imbalanced system, one in which they’re unlikely to ever consistently produce a contender?

Because it is baseball and, more accurately, because it is Indians’ baseball.
Because looking at that 2003 team and the 2005 team gives one pause in terms of what can happen when young talent congeals and puts a team on the winning track in short order. That’s not to say that the turnaround will be identical, but it does throw water on the argument that the Indians are on the verge of another 40-year walk through the desert that some people seem to think.

Yes, “to suffer is to be a Cleveland fan” and my college friends (not from Cleveland) deride me for bringing up my sons as fans of the Indians, leading them into a life that promises to be full of heartbreak and disappointment. Most Clevelanders will play that “worst-case scenario” game that Posnanski describes so as not to put their hearts into it, for fear of more heartache, but I refuse to fall into that chasm. Perhaps it is because I haven’t yet experienced the full force of Cleveland sports yet (though it certainly feels like it) that I haven’t grown jaded and skeptical…but I just don’t see the enjoyment in that approach to following sports.

Ultimately, it is just a game and a pleasant diversion and it is “rooting for laundry”, but I want to have that moment of “I went through the tough times” if this thing ever turns into a championship. I want to see that light at the end of the tunnel and I want it to shine brightly upon my face. Whether that means that I go irrationally looking for it, getting there is half the fun and I’d rather pick up my half-full glass and enjoy a game that was meant to be enjoyed, as difficult as that is in the current economic environment and with the events on the North Coast of the past 2+ years.

A game like Saturday brings into perfect focus why following Indians’ baseball remains a part of my life. It may just be the little victories that look hollow in hindsight (and please click on that link, if only for the pictures), but it makes the light of hope burn bright, even if that light is only a flicker.

This season was coming (and more like it may be on its heels) and a season like this causes some reflection as to why we Indians’ fans subject ourselves to this suffering, why we set ourselves up for the pending disappointment and heartbreak.

For someone like me, who got inexplicably hooked on baseball rooting for Pat Tabler, Brook Jacoby, and Cory Snyder, when Sports Illustrated cruelly gave me my first dose of hope that was destined to be dashed, that answer isn’t that hard. For others, it may not be that easy and the 2010 season certainly looks to be the one that will test the mettle (and the patience) of the greater fanbase.

However, on a Sunday morning, with the sun shining on the North Coast on a holiday weekend and with the Erie Warriors having defeated their former aCCe in the Bronx because of the contributions of some of the youngsters who may (or may not) play a role in what is hoped to be the next contender on the shores of Lake Erie, let’s take a moment to simply enjoy being Indians’ fans (as difficult as that my be at certain times this season) having knocked off the big, bad Yankees.

The rest of the season figures to be painful and the next couple of seasons may follow suit; but for a day, things are sunnier in Wahooland and, really, isn’t that why we keep coming back as Clevelanders, as baseball fans, to this game that we all love?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wobbly Tomahawks

Remember a couple of weeks ago, when the Indians took 2 of 3 from Kansas City and it was thought (prematurely, I might add) that they might be able to fatten up on some of the bottom-feeders of MLB prior to the team heading off for the Bronx?

From that time, the team has gone 4-9 (and that includes taking 2 of 3 in Baltimore) against the Orioles, Royals, Rays, Reds, and White Sox, lost their starting SS for 2 months, their starting CF for who knows how long (more on that in a minute), and are about to head to Yankee Stadium for a 4-game set.

All told, things are not looking good for the Erie Warriors and brighter days don’t look to be on the horizon…and with the events of the last week firmly establishing the Indians’ current place in the MLB pecking order (and it’s not looking down at anyone), let’s get those Tomahawks in the air…

In case you haven’t noticed (and The DiaTot has, when he asks me every morning how Grady’s knee is feeling), the cloak-and-dagger culture around Indians’ injuries continues as most indications are that Sizemore’s “knee injury” could be something much larger and could have been something that’s been lingering since the beginning of the season.

Leading off, we’ll go to the essential source for all things Indians, Mr. Anthony Castrovince:
Grady Sizemore has consulted with the Indians' team doctors regarding the left knee injury that has landed him on the 15-day disabled list. This week, he's getting a second opinion. And a third.

Sizemore is visiting doctors in Vail, Colo., and New York this week to determine the best course of action with regard to treatment of the deep bone bruise he suffered in the knee. Head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff told reporters last week that surgical intervention is a possibility.

The Indians are mum on how long they expect to be without Sizemore's services, though obviously his timetable is directly tied to whether or not he has the surgery.

When this new information hit, the immediate comparison was made nationally to the situation currently underway in Queens with their shelved CF, Carlos Beltran. Looking a little further into this, it’s easy to see why as here’s an excerpt from a story from the New York Daily News earlier this month in which Beltran talks about the surgery that took place in mid-January:
Since his January arthroscopic surgery on the troublesome right knee, the date for Beltran to begin running has been pushed back several times. Unable to do certain rehab exercises without severe pain, Beltran visited Dr. Richard Steadman - the Vail, Colo., physician who performed his January procedure - on April 20.
"(Steadman) said the bone bruise in the tibia was the same (right below his right kneecap). He said that was the (bruise) causing me to feel that pain. And I probably will need to play with (the brace) until my knee recuperates from everything. If I feel comfortable and I feel like it doesn't harm my knee - it will be good protection, probably."

Everyone notice where Sizemore is getting tests this week?
Now do you notice where Beltran had the surgery in January?
Everyone notice the use of the word “bruise” in the context of impending surgery for both?

This may be a shot in the dark, but I don’t think that Sizemore being in Vail with a “bruise” that could require surgery after Beltran had surgery in Vail because a “bruise” caused him to feel pain is any coincidence. Maybe the team is just covering all of the bases on this one, but since we’re talking about the Indians and injuries, here’s the math on the worst-case scenario – Beltran had the surgery in January and is still not able to run on the knee 4 months later…see where I’m going here if Sizemore’s visiting the same doctor?

To go even further on this, Sweet Pete Gammons provides more information in the context of a piece as to how Miggy Cabrera and Grady have taken disparate paths in the past few years:
Diving back into the first-base bag, he severely damaged his kneecap, and there is question precisely what is the extent of the damage. If, as some fear, there is serious cartilage damage, Sizemore could be out for the season, this after a star-crossed 2009 in which he was limited to 109 games and ended up having operations on his left elbow and for a hernia.
But back in April, Sizemore hurt that left knee diving back into second base. Doctors assured him that there was no structural damage, so Grady went right back to flying around center field. He didn't complain that he wasn't at full strength when the season opened and that the knee was bothering him. He thus was hitting .211 with 35 strikeouts and nine walks in 33 games.

See that part that Gammons mentions about the kneecap, the same place that Beltran identifies as where his “bruise” was?

I’m not sure if all of this news makes me feel better or worse about the future of Grady Sizemore, given that it would certainly explain his dreadful start and debunks the notion that his talent had simply left him, but it also means that Grady (as we once knew him) may be a long way off from ever returning to form…if that happens at all.

Perhaps it’s the Clevelander in me, but I’m just gripping for the worst, that he’s out for the season and that they “hope” that the surgery solves things so he’s ready for 2011. If that were to happen, let’s hope that the Sizemore knee doesn’t join the Hafner shoulder in body parts that make the early-to-mid-2010s painful for more than just said injured players.

We’re now a week away from the beginning of June, which has been pointed to all year as the timeframe for Carlos Santana’s promotion to the parent club. While Lou Marson has improved as of late, it has been known that Santana would be promoted once his service clock was managed to give the Indians an extra year of control of him. Thus, the announcement is coming soon that Marson will give way to Santana and while the “Chuck Norris is scared of ‘Los Santana” sites may not pop-up en masse, it should generate a little bit of buzz (and improvement) for a team in need of both.

Maybe I’m just getting antsy waiting for the move, but I have a feeling that the Marson-Santana swap-out isn’t the only move that’s going to be made by the club in the next week or two. While it’s easy to say “Trade X” or “Fire Y” or “Get a New Owner” (because that’s the tenor on the North Coast, at least among Indians “fans”), here are the realistic moves that are likely to be made:
Masterson to AAA, Laffey to rotation
Since the idea that Masterson could end up in the bullpen (and the first two months has done nothing to change that), it may be finally time to pull the plug on the Justin-as-starter experiment and send him down to AAA (he has two options remaining) to clear his head, tweak whatever has gone wrong in his delivery, and get him accustomed (once again) to pitching out of the bullpen. I suppose the Indians could just slide Masterson into the Indians’ bullpen, but watching him over the last few weeks, it’s obvious that there are mechanical issues that need to be fixed, and those repairs are better suited for Columbus. Don’t get me wrong, Masterson still projects as the nasty back-end-of-the-bullpen arm that he was in Boston, it just looks more like he could be a match-up/Jeff Nelson type reliever, where the Indians will have to pick their spots to limit his exposure to LH hitters.

As for the corresponding move, while I'd be more inclined to leave Laffey in the bullpen given the way he’s pitched to date as a reliever (while he’s eating up innings) and given the…um, still-unsettled situation in the rotation (read: Huff, Dave), there should be a point when Laffey is given an opportunity to seize in the rotation and this would represent a time as good as any. Certainly, a case could be made for ‘Los Carrasco to essentially see what he’s able to contribute at the MLB level, there’s a very good possibility that Huff is not far off from a trip to Columbus himself, meaning that Carrasco would be the next man in line for a shot at the rotation.

Sizemore to 60-day DL, opening up a 40-man roster spot for a utility IF, Louie the Fifth to AAA
As noted above, I’m just fearing the worst on this and am already conceding that Sizemore is about to join Cabrera on the 60-day DL. If that happens, the Indians should use the open roster spot to promote a Utility IF from Columbus (and really, I don’t care who that is) so the Indians can send Valbuena to Columbus for the everyday AB that he needs. With the injury to Cabrera, this demotion likely was put off for Louie, but if the Indians are going to continue to use him in a quasi-utility role, with Donald at SS and Grudzielanek at 2B, it would benefit Valbuena to get down to Columbus in an attempt to recapture the momentum that his career had.

By no means has Valbuena earned the right to play regularly at 2B in the early going, and perhaps he ultimately projects as that utility IF for the Indians, but to slot him into that role now, where he’s suffering through every AB for the parent club is hindering his development.

Rafael Perez to DFA-land, promotion of Frank Herrmann to bullpen
Having worn my arm down banging this drum, I think that the tipping point for Perez is not far off where the Indians decide to cut ties with him and give another organizational arm a shot. Sure, the case could be made for Jensen Lewis (2.08 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 9 K, 1 BB in 8 2/3 IP in Columbus) or, to a lesser degree, Joe Smith (3.09 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 11 K, 6 BB in 11 2/3 IP in Columbus) as both are on the 40-man roster, as is Jess Todd (3.80 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 25 K, 4 BB in 21 1/3 IP in Columbus) and all of them have had a taste (or more) of MLB hitters.

However, if Perez’s DFA (and it’s going to happen) opens up a roster spot, why not give it to a player who, like Perez, is a former starter in the Minors who has thrived since his move to the bullpen, particularly this year. To date, Herrmann has a 0.37 ERA, a 0.90 WHIP with 17 K and 7 BB in 24 1/3 IP and while he may not boast the gaudy K numbers that a guy like Ambriz did in Columbus (Ambriz struck out 15 hitters in 8 IP while a member of the Clippers), there has to be something said for the Indians trying to find lightning-in-a-bottle when it comes to identifying potential relievers going forward and riding the hot hand (which Herrmann currently possesses) is certainly a strategy that has worked for them in the past, as it did in 2007 with the aforementioned Jenny Lewis and Rafael Perez.

Will Herrmann come in and prove himself to be a viable reliever?
Who knows, but there’s going to be plenty of opportunities when Masterson potentially comes to Columbus for a bit (and that may happen before a Perez DFA), Jamey Wright finds his way off of the roster or when Kerry Wood is traded, much less when injuries or ineffectiveness hit one of these relievers who retain options, so Todd and Lewis and Smiff will all get their chance again once more to lay claim to a bullpen spot past 2010…and really, that’s what this season is all about at this point.

Regardless of whether these exact moves occur, expect a lot of movement in the next couple of weeks as the roster will start to take shape to set up the trades that are coming, but also to set up the 25-man roster for the second half of the season

Speaking of the “trades that are coming”, while it would seem that the Indians have an obvious in-house replacement for many of the veterans that figure to be moved this summer, there does seem to be one exception:
1B – Branyan to LaPorta
2B – Grudzielanek to Donald/Valbuena (when Cabrera returns)
LF – Kearns to Brantley (depending upon Grady’s health)
SP – Westbrook to Carrasco, Laffey, Tomlin, Pino, maybe even Rondon
CL – Wood to Perez/Sipp/Masterson
3B – Peralta to…Marte? Louie the Fifth?

Seriously, while a compelling case can be made for replacements for 1B, 2B, LF, the rotation, and the back-end of the bullpen, the obvious replacement for the day when (not if) Peralta is moved isn’t apparent.

What are the options?
Well, there’s Marte (more on him in a moment), but the guys who have played 3B in Columbus this year are…wait for it…Brian Bixler, Brian Buscher, Chris Gimenez, and Jerad Head. With Wes Hodges a full-time 1B now and with The Chiz on the shelf in AA (non-prospects Jared Goedert and Josh Rodriguez have filled in for him), any one have any better ideas?

Certainly, Marte’s name is in the mix, although even the public comments on Marte are less than glowing and the Indians certainly seem resigned to the fact that Marte is not much more than a RH bat off of the bench. In fact, it will be interesting to see how Marte is handled once he returns from the DL as Kearns isn’t going anywhere (for now) and the Indians may need to keep Shelley Duncan around as a backup corner outfielder if Sizemroe’s injury is serious.

Regardless, I don’t think that the organization is sold on Marte (fair or not) even as a stop-gap and I wouldn’t be surprised if June and July includes some deals for players in other organization may need a change of scenery and a long leash to see if their potential can come to any sort of fruition.

With that in mind, what about 25-year-old 3B Brandon Wood, who may be on the outs in Southern California?
Yes, he’s been terrible this season for the Angels…
Yes, he’s out of options and actually just hit the DL with a hip flexor, which buys the Angels a little more time on him, given that he’ll go out on a rehab start…

However, Wood was a Top-20 prospect for 3 straight years and the Angels don’t seem too likely to give him a full year of AB to see if that potential can be realized. Perhaps this is akin to nothing more than giving Andy Marte another look, but Wood dominated at AAA (cumulative OPS of .902, hitting more than 20 HR in fewer than 120 games each year) while being blocked by Chone Figgins in Anaheim for the last couple of years and the Indians are in need of a bridge between Peralta and Chisenhall…so why not Wood?

Wood certainly seems to fit that profile of a player needing a fresh start and the Indians may be the team to give Wood the opportunity to get consistent AB at 3B to see if he can be much more than a can’t-miss prospect that missed.

The roster machinations are about to start in earnest and, while some are going to equate them to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, the moves are going to start coming that set this team up for 2011 and beyond.

Some of those moves are going to make 2010 even less palatable than it already is, but the time to start separating the wheat from the chaff in terms of the prospects that have been acquired in the past two years, as well as the ones developed by the Indians, has come. Finally, “service clocks” fade into the distance and the roster should start resembling the way it’s supposed to look going into the future instead of resembling this land in-between hell and limbo.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Turning Over on a Lazy Sunday

After spending a birthday weekend spent enjoying Tribe games (regardless of the result, there’s still nothing like going to the ballpark on a summer evening), a trip to the West Side Market, and attempting to figure out the intricacies of my new Roku (which, if you subscribe to looks like almost too much of a natural not to have), let’s get going on a Lazy Sunday so I can stack up my Netflix queue with movies that I can now watch immediately (in my TV) thanks to Roku…

Is anyone else a little taken aback by being bludgeoned over the head with the idea that the Reds, in town for this contrived “Ohio Cup” hold the keys to the “blueprint” that the Indians should be following?

Everyone realizes that the Reds’ last winning season was 1999, that they’ve had 3 winning teams since 1991, 1 playoff appearance in the last 20 seasons, and no playoff series wins in the same timeframe, right?

Yeah…let’s follow that blueprint because they’re 7 games over .500 in a weak NL Central at the end of May. I can’t wait for the next 7 years of losing seasons so we can follow that same blueprint of finding young talent and trying to add some veterans to the mix in an attempt to win…you know, because that isn’t exactly what happened here in 2005 and 2007.

Every season presents a new small-market team that “has figured it out” for pundits to point to and ask why every small-market team can’t win. It’s akin to saying “don’t the Rays have it all figured out” after the Rays spent 10 consecutive years with more than 90 losses and with as many 90-win seasons as the Indians in the past 4 years.

Is that to say that the Rays aren’t trending in the right direction?
Absolutely not (though I’m not as sold on the Reds pointing up), but rather that back in 2005 and 2007, the Indians were the team that everyone pointed to as having the blueprint and for having “figured it all out”. Now, just 2 ¼ seasons removed from being 1 game away from the World Series, the Indians find themselves back at the beginning, attempting to bring their young talent to the Big Leagues, a fate that could easily befall the Reds or the Rays or any other example of that small-market team that currently has it “figured out”, which may turn out to be as short-lived as what we saw in Cleveland.

In case you didn’t notice, two of the young, small-market “teams on the cusp” back in 2007 and 2008 (Milwaukee and Arizona) sit below .500 as they are forced to face the very same realities that the Indians encountered over the last two seasons.

This has been beaten to death all off-season and throughout the first few months of the season, but the windows of opportunity for small-market teams are narrow and are shrinking in the current economic structure in MLB. It would seem that, for most small-to-mid-market teams, either they’re climbing up the mountain or they’re coming down – there is no treading water that amounts to anything in MLB, other than unnecessarily wearing oneself out.

With the 2010 season going as it is, is there any doubt now that the Indians have been coming down since the beginning of the 2008 season and, while there’s plenty of blame to go around for that, I bring it up in the context of hearing a local sports-talk radio host (I know, I should listen at my own risk) asserting that this team lacked a plan and that, had the Indians not traded Lee and Martinez, the product would not be nearly so reprehensible and perhaps the Indians could be…you know, winning some games this year.

Want to know something?
Last July, I thought that moving Lee and Martinez last year was a mistake because it essentially punted on the 2010 season, one in which I thought the Indians could re-group, hope for a couple of “breaks” and shorten that timeframe between contention, if not eliminate it altogether.

So what do we know now?
This team wasn’t a “break” or two away from contending and the tear-down was coming. Could the Indians have held onto these guys for another year to see if that lightning in a bottle was coming? I suppose so, but the Indians said that they didn’t think that they could contend in 2010 with Lee and Martinez while keeping the rest of the roster intact and while that rationale was questioned by many (including me), how is that decision looking today?

Does anyone doubt that, had the Indians held onto Lee and Martinez for 2010, that we would be suffering through not only the “Summer of LeBron” but a malcontent in Lee, throwing teammates under the bus on a bad team and likely requesting a trade?

In the context of the Fire Sale that took place last summer and just to debunk this idea that the Indians’ 2010 would be appreciably different had they held onto some of these players, let’s take a look at what the Indians who were traded in the 2009 calendar year have put forth with their new teams:
Victor Martinez – Age 31
.255 BA / .305 OBP / 431 SLG / .736 OPS with 9 2B, 6 HR in 164 PA
While he’s improved as of late, if you haven’t heard the wailing from Beantown, Victor ranks 21st in OPS among the 32 catchers in MLB with 75 or more plate appearances and his OBP is .022 points higher than one Louis Marson…but we’ll get to that.

Kelly Shoppach – Age 30
.250 BA / .333 OBP / .375 SLG / .708 OPS with 1 2B, 0 HR in 9 PA
Shoppach went on the DL in early April with a knee injury and has yet to return to the Rays’ lineup, although whether he returns to steady AB remains to be seen, given the early success of John Jaso.

Mark DeRosa – Age 35
.194 BA / .279 OBP / .258 SLG / .537 OPS with 3 2B, 1 HR in 104 PA
DeRosa went on the DL in early May with a wrist injury and has yet to return to the Giants’ lineup, as the Giants hope that his post-DL numbers are in stark contrast to his pre-DL numbers.

Ryan Garko – Age 29
.091 BA / .167 OBP / .091 SLG / .258 OPS with 0 2B, 0 HR in 38 PA
Garko was outrighted off of the Rangers’ 40-man roster last Tuesday, cleared waivers, and will now be plying his craft in Oklahoma City. That’s right, Garko went unclaimed by all 30 MLB teams and now finds himself in the Rangers’ organization (which has Justin Smoak and Chris Davis as viable 1B options) as a now-29-year-old player.

Ben Francisco – Age 28
.200 BA / .259 OBP / .240 SLG / .499 OPS with 1 2B, 0 HR in 28 PA
The Ben Francisco Treat has started 4 games for the Phillies in 2010 and doesn’t look to be in line for much more playing time as the Phillies are using The Frisco Kid in the role that suits him best, that of a 4th OF who receives sporadic playing time.

Cliff Lee – Age 31
3.44 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, .614 OPS against with 32 K, 1 BB in 36 2/3 IP
WOW…just, WOW! 32 K and 1 BB in 36 2/3 IP as he just waits for the Yankees to add enough zeroes (and years) to their offer so he can replace Andy Pettitte in their rotation. Of course, the Mariners actually had a worse record than the Indians as of Friday and are further out of the AL West race than the Indians are of the Central, so it’s possible that we’ll be able to see what kind of return CP Lee would bring at 3 different points over the course of a year if Seattle parts with him, and it certainly looks that way right now.

Carl Pavano – Age 34
4.11 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, .725 OPS against with 36 K, 7 BB in 50 1/3 IP
You read that right…7 BB in 50 1/3 IP for Hot Carl as it would seem that the BB totals for Lee and Pavano over 80 some innings look like a quick outing for Justin Masterson or Dave Huff.

Rafael Betancourt – Age 35
6.28 ERA, 1.67 WHIP, .845 OPS against with 17 K, 3 BB in 14 1/3 IP
Betancourt remains a late-inning option for the Rox, despite giving up earned runs in 6 of his 15 appearances to date. He’s allowed more than a hit an inning and his low BB numbers are the only thing that’s preventing that WHIP from approaching Rafael Perez territory.

Obviously, injuries color some of this as Lee missed the first month of the season and DeRosa (who, truth be told, was a FA at the end of 2009, like Pavano and Betancourt) and Shoppach have been injured and/or shelved for a good portion of the year, but if anyone’s suggesting that putting these guys back on the Indians’ roster makes them a contender in 2010…well, they’re wrong.

As easy as it would be to say that adding CP Lee and Victor to the current roster “puts the Indians in the mix” for the AL Central or even the Wild Card, the 2009 team had both of those players going at full capacity and the team still scuffled out of the gate. Jumping to the assumption that a healthy Lee and a healthy Westbrook combined with a now-effective Carmona would have given this team a chance to contend is to overlook the main issue facing the current Indians team – the offense.

Would the presence of Martinez have helped that?
To a degree (although he’s finding out that being a slow starter in Boston is a completely different animal than being one in Cleveland), but even swapping Marson’s bat out for Vic’s stick wouldn’t put this team on par with the Twins, particularly given that the veterans that the Indians thought would carry the offensive load in 2010 have either been ineffective, injured or both.

Thus, in hindsight (even if we’re not even to the quarter-pole of the season) were the Indians correct to punt on 2010, given the talent on hand?

At this point, it looks that way (and is a stunning indictment of the lack of talent on the team two years removed from an ALCS appearance if you INCLUDE these guys in the mix), so the question (premature as it may be) becomes whether the Indians were able to maximize their return on these players, most notably Lee and Martinez.

To that end, let’s take a look at what the youngsters acquired in 2009 that have made it to the parent club (and there are 6 already) have put forth in the early going, and take note of the ages against those listed above:
Lou Marson – Age 24
.209 BA / .280 OBP / .253 SLG / .533 OPS with 4 2B, 0 HR in 102 PA
Not to wear my Pollyanna dress too tight, but in the last 3 weeks, Marson has a line of .281 BA / .349 OBP / .351 SLG / .700 OPS which isn’t going to set anyone’s world on fire, but for a 23-year-old catcher who was thought to be a high OBP/low-SLG guy when the Indians acquired him….that’s what he looks like. Of course, his time as the Indians’ starting catcher (and possibly his time within the organization) is already running out, so if his function was to be Josh Bard to Carlos Santana’s Victor Martinez, he got the job done. Not necessarily well…but done nonetheless.

Jason Donald – Age 25
.167 BA / .211 OBP / .167 SLG / .377 OPS against with 0 2B, 0 HR in 19 PA
To draw much of a conclusion on Donald on the basis of what he’s done so far in MLB is folly (but that’s the whole point of this) although he has looked the part and his numbers in AAA (.277 BA / .396 OBP / .423 SLG / .820 OPS) suggest that he’s ready for his close-up with the parent club.

Mitch Talbot – Age 26
3.88 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, .748 OPS against with 20 K, 24 BB in 53 1/3 IP
Unleashing his own peculiar brand of Fury upon the AL, baffling hitters (and me) as to how he’s actually succeeding with more BB than K. Through a quarter of the 2010 season, Mitch Talbot has a lower ERA and a lower WHIP than Felix Hernandez…seriously.
Excuse me while I go eat this crow.

Justin Masterson – Age 25
5.65 ERA, 1.81 WHIP, .832 OPS against with 46 K, 24 BB in 43 IP
Yes, Masterson has been one of the most frustrating players on the Indians in the early going as we continue to hope (against hope…and probably logic) that he’s much more than what the Red Sox had him pegged as – which is a late-inning reliever. He’s still striking out more than a hitter an inning (though he’s walking more than one hitter every two innings) and the “stuff” seems to be there (whatever that means) so perhaps he’s most emblematic of this Indians’ team – young, talented (though the talent level is not yet fully known), struggling to find his way, and impossibly frustrating.

Chris Perez – Age 24
1.84 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, .648 OPS against with 13 K, 8 BB in 14 2/3 IP
Regarded as the “Closer of the Future” (and maybe the present depending upon whether Kerry Wood recovered his glove from the 3B Field Boxes on Wednesday, Perez has shown to have the electric (if erratic) repertoire that the Indians have lacked for such a long time among their young relievers. While it remains to be seen if C.F. Perez can keep his emotions in check and his walks to a minimum, Perez misses bats and has proven to be among the most promising bullpen arms under the age of 25 in recent memory.

Thus, even taking a glass half-empty view of this, the Indians have a member of the middle-to-back-end of their rotation, two back-end of the bullpen arms, their likely 2B of the future, and a player who is likely to get moved in the off-season whose presence delayed Carlos Santana’s arbitration clock for trades consummated less than a year ago.

While the feeling may persist that the Indians should have received more for the reigning Cy Young Award winner and El Capitan (among others) and that may certainly be a valid concern going forward, realize that the Rangers traded Mark Teixiera in 2007 to the Braves in what is looking like an absolute heist for Texas as they acquired SS Elvis Andrus, closer Neftali Feliz, SP Matt Harrison, and “C” Jarrod Saltalamachia.

Why is it important to bring that up?
Remember, the Rangers made that trade in mid-2007 and are just now getting the kind of contributions from trading 1 ½ years of their best player to the Braves that have allowed them to sit atop the AL West. It would seem that the Indians took a different tact in their deals with the Phillies and the Red Sox, opting for prospects who were further along in their development, but perhaps without the upside of a Feliz or an Andrus.

Whether that will prove to be a sound strategy or another nail in the organization’s coffin, the 6 players who have already arrived topside from the 2009 deals only represent a portion of the acquired talent when you go down a little further in the organization, presented without comment as we have only the numbers to look at and not much more:
Carlos Carrasco – Age 23 (AAA)
4.12 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, .834 OPS against with 31 K, 19 BB in 39 1/3 IP

Yohan Pino – Age 26 (AAA)
4.96 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, .789 OPS against with 38 K, 14 BB in 45 1/3 IP

Jess Todd – Age 24 (AAA)
3.54 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, .716 OPS against with 23 K, 8 BB in 20 1/3 IP

Bryan Price – Age 23 (AA)
4.80 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, .805 OPS against with 19 K, 3 BB in 15 IP

Scott Barnes – Age 22 (AA)
6.17 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, .754 OPS against with 36 K, 22 BB in 35 IP

Connor Graham – Age 24 (AA)
5.57 ERA, 2.14 WHIP, .906 OPS against with 13 K, 17 BB in 21 IP

Nick Hagadone – Age 24 (A+)
2.79 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, .632 OPS against with 32 K, 22 BB in 29 IP

Do you notice that these are ALL pitchers, with only one of them (Hagadone) below AA with the likelihood that he’s going to find himself following 2010 1st Round Pick Alex White to Akron in short order?

Back to the deals of the 2009 season, and the Lee deal in particular, since it is still WILDLY premature to tag any particular player (or the deal as a whole) as a “bust”, take a look at the two Phillies’ prospects that most people who saw the Indians’ return for Lee and identified as the ones that the Indians were wrong to not demand from Philly, Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor. Lest you forget, Drabek and Taylor were moved to Toronto for Halladay, with Taylor making his way into the A’s organization. Regardless, here’s how each has fared in the early going with their new teams:
Kyle Drabek – Age 22 (AA)
3.06 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, .684 OPS against with 45 K, 21 BB in 47 IP

Michael Taylor – Age 24 (AAA)
.232 BA / .290 OBP / .408 SLG / .698 OPS with 8 2B, 2 HR in 138 PA

Just for some perspective, here are the lines for Carrasco and Donald…and please take note of the ages and levels, particularly for Drabek and Carrasco:
Carlos Carrasco – Age 23 (AAA)
4.12 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, .834 OPS against with 31 K, 19 BB in 39 1/3 IP

Jason Donald – Age 25 (AAA)
.277 BA / .396 OBP / .423 SLG / .820 OPS with 10 2B, 2 HR in 165 PA

In case you were wondering, among the 3 players that the Phillies received for Lee from the Mariners, two are above high-A ball (Phillipe Aumont and Tyson Gillies) and Aumont is currently sporting a 5.94 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP in AA Reading while Gillies has put forth an OPS of .642 at AA.

Is that pointed out to assert the prospects received from Seattle are inadequate or that Michael Taylor will never be a good MLB player because he’s started slowly or that Carrasco is a better prospect than Drabek because of age and level, or vice versa because of performance?

Absolutely not…because it’s TOO EARLY to tell on these young players.
And that’s perhaps the point of this long-winded dissertation as the Indians are caught in this waiting game, as they wait for these prospects to first be ready for MLB, then to adjust to MLB with the hopes that they eventually thrive in MLB.

While it’s easy to look at the current team on the field and put forth the idea that the Indians lack a plan and point out that the team looks dreadful and how horrific the Lee deal (in particular) looks because “Marson’s a bum and Carrasco’s a 4A pitcher”, let’s take a step back and realize that we’re still not even a year removed from these deals.

If you want to complain about the organization, have at it…because there’s plenty to complain about in terms of drafting their own players to complement the players they’ve been able to acquire via trades and the couple of trades (notably the Frank the Tank deal as Louie the Fifth should be joining Joe Smiff in AAA) that do look bad with a little more time to ruminate on them, not to mention what looks like a misuse of talent that was on hand in 2007 or thereabouts.

However, with the events of the past week (the injuries, the horrific play on the field), everyone seems to think that it’s time to blow it up and that the product on the field merits such a blow-up. However, the detonation already happened over the past two years and we’re about to see whether some of the players that came over in those deals are able to play roles in what the Indians hope is the next incarnation of a contender, just as they did from 2002 to 2004, when the seeds were sewn for the (albeit brief) window of contention that followed.

We’re back at Ground Zero (or still on our way down to it), a spot that every small-market team occupies from time to time, sometimes for a long time. The length of the stay at the bottom of the chasm is going to be determined by the performance of the players acquired over the last two years and whether they are able to mature and congeal as a team the way that the team did in 2004 and 2005. While those days may be some time off, let’s realize that the Indians are back to the beginning stages of attempting to build this up from the ground up again.

Whether you want to look at it as the Indians sleeping in the bed that they’ve made for themselves or if you see it as the Indians proactively trying “manage the cycles” of contention and non-contention as aggressively as possible to shorten the timeframe between those cycles will likely bear itself out. The answers aren’t going to come quickly or obviously, but what’s being seen on the field these days is the result of the actions taken in the last two years, for better or worse.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tomahawks Breaking Bad

Fresh off of a 4-4 road trip and about to welcome the Royals, the not-as-good-as-their-record Reds, and the somehow-behind-the-Indians-in-the-standings White Sox to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, the Indians say goodbye to two of their best players (one of their best players who was actually playing well this year and the one who has an OPS .008 higher than AJ Pierzynski), suddenly destined for stints on the DL.

Say it with me here…“ah, 2010 Indians baseball”, and while attempting to choke down the bile that has accompanied those 3 words, let’s release some mid-week Tomahawks:

Obviously, the news of the week revolves around the former Tribe shortstop exacting some measure of revenge on the current Tribe shortstop for taking “his” position (yes, I’m kidding…I think) and Grady heading off to the 15-day DL with a deep bone bruise. So, let’s put on the stethoscopes and the scrubs and immerse ourselves in some medical intrigue and the accompanying fallout.

While a nasty rumor has floated around that characterizes Asdrubal’s injury as potentially season-ending (and I suppose anything is possible), I’ll rely on Will Carroll at Baseball Prospectus to lay out a timeframe while he also addresses the other Tribe player who could have been hurting more than we know:
Cabrera should be out until about the All-Star break, but shouldn’t have any long-term consequences. As a lot of young kids can tell you, arm bones heal pretty cleanly. I am curious to watch the timing on this with a lot of the interesting research on bone stimulation coming out of the Cleveland Clinic. The Indians are all about the bones right now, as Sizemore had an MRI to see what his problem is. His knee was thought to be just bruised, but he has had severe pain and some inflammation. He’d had some minor issues with this same knee back in April, so there may be some connection or we could be seeing some underlying pattern that suggests a problem.

Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t remember ever hearing that Sizemore had “minor issues with this same knee back in April” and this idea that an “underlying pattern” could “suggest a problem” just gave me the shivers, as does the intimation that surgery is possible for Sizemore, which is no small procedure given that it would take place in the knee.

Regardless of the results of the MRI for Sizemore, perhaps he can benefit from the 15-day DL stint to rest his body and his mind and if this is a lingering issue (Acta was on the pre-game radio broadcast saying that Sizemore injured it in Los Angeles in the final days of Spring Training), then perhaps an explanation for his slow start (to be charitable) finds an answer. As both Cabrera and Sizemore hit the DL, it would certainly seem that we have an answer to that question from earlier in the week as to “how are the Indians going to work the young guys in” as opportunities and plate appearances seem to be there for the taking all around the diamond.

The obvious beneficiaries of Cabrera’s injury are Jason Donald, whose timeframe for promotion was accelerated as he now takes over at his natural position of SS for about 2 months, and Louie V, who lives to fight another day in the Indians’ lineup despite not really doing much on the field for the parent club this season to merit his stay in Cleveland. Of course, the pessimist would say that Cabrera’s injury screws up the management of Valbuena’s service time issue which was about to be rectified when he was sent down in favor of Donald, but if Valbuena continues to perform as he has (even with a long leash considered), he’s going to find himself in Columbus for that service clock maintenance/wake-up call soon enough.

Certainly, nobody is suggesting that Donald (who is actually 14 months OLDER than Cabrera and has played 98 games above AA) is going to come in and save a listless offense or even replace Cabrera’s presence in the lineup, even if Cabrera was struggling in terms of comparing them to his 2009 season. Rather, Jason Donald has now been handed the opportunity to play for 2 months, likely without respite, for the parent club and is probably going to be paired (intermittently) with Luis Valbuena in the middle of the diamond. During the course of Cabrera’s rehab then, the Indians will have the opportunity to evaluate both Donald and Louie the Fifth in a convoluted “battle” to see which of the players remains in the lineup as the 2B when Cabrera returns.

Is there a chance that Donald going to go all Chase Utley on the Indians here, as a late-blooming middle infielder who came up through the Phillies organization?

I suppose in a happy, dream-filled world, I could make the comparison as Utley’s career totals in MiLB (.282 BA / .357 OBP / .465 SLG / .822 OPS IN 1,877 PA) compare with those that Donald has accumulated (.284 BA / .371 OBP / .434 SLG / .806 OPS in 1,694 PA) to date in the Minors. Utley also made his first extended appearance in MLB as a 25-year-old in a year in which he had 144 AAA plate appearances, whereas Donald is a 25-year-old hitting MLB for the first time after logging 165 AAA plate appearances.

Is this pie-in-the-sky thinking and simply thinking of a best-case scenario while pointing out what could be largely coincidental similarities?

No question, as Utley has outperformed his MiLB line for each of the last 6 years in Philly (posting an OPS over .900 every year), but Donald’s going to get the opportunity in 2010 to see if he can become a legitimate option at 2B going forward for this team. That doesn’t presuppose that he’ll suddenly become Chase Utley (however the transition to the one we see know in Philly happened from a prospect who cracked the Baseball America Top 100 prospect list once…at #89), only that if he puts up average offensive numbers from the middle-of-the-infield while playing above-average defense for the next two months, you can likely pencil him in as the Indians’ starting 2B for the next 4 to 5 years at a position that has largely been a long-term problem (other than Asdrubal playing out of position there) since the trade of Roberto Alomar.

As for Grady’s injury, the Indians have already made the corresponding move to bring Shelly Duncan up from AAA. While the move is confusing in that Duncan does not exactly fit into the future of the team, my guess is that the promotion of Crowe for Marte and Duncan for Sizemore essentially balance each other out as Crowe will take the place of Grady in the lineup and Duncan will take the place of unused RH bat off of the bench until Marte is ready to return from the DL.

Not that anybody asked, but if it were up to me, I'd promote Brantley to play CF (and I do think that he gets the call if Sizemore undergoes surgery as they try to avoid the yo-yo game with Brantley from Columbus and Cleveland) and play the mildly-resurgent Matt MaTola (.838 OPS in his last 7 games) in LF. The benefits would be two-fold, to get both Brantley and MaTola some needed MLB AB, but more importantly so we’re not subjected to Crowe’s defensive deficiencies in CF (and he cost the Indians the game on Monday by misplaying both Crawford’s triple AND breaking back on Blalock’s single before diving for it unsuccessfully), much less hoping that Crowe is able to go on some Ben Francisco-esque hot start to build up the hopes of Indians’ fans that Crowe is anything more than a “poor man’s Ben Francisco” which, if you think about it means that he’s a “poor man’s 4th OF”.

Lest anyone forget, Crowe is a 26-year-old OF (15 months older than Grady) whose cumulative OPS by level above A ball are .636 (OPS in A-ball), .724 (OPS in AA), and .761 (OPS in AAA); so while he may look the part and provide some athleticism and speed for the team, athleticism and speed without ability or instincts will take a player only so far. Nevertheless, Crowe will get the opportunity to show that everything that he has done in the Indians’ organization is an aberration and that he belongs on the 40-man roster as much more than a fill-in.

Even before these injuries, it appeared that the plate appearances are going to be there for these young guys to assert themselves into the mix for 2010 and beyond. Now, with these injuries presenting more opportunities (and with Carlos Santana just hammering away at that MLB door), the rest of the season looks to be shaping up to be an audition of sorts for a lot of young players.

How do they balance all of those youngsters with attempting to win, or at least generating some interest at the box office (although that ship may have already sailed) at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario?
I suppose we’re about to find out…

In terms of this development and attempting to win, if you remember the hypothetical question from last Sunday on playing time and developing young players, Joe Posnanski has a similar piece on in which he asserts that the built-in “advantage” that small-market teams have over teams (he uses the Royals as the example) with higher revenues is time to allow players develop:
Well, the big thing is to know that while, sure, you want to win, the goal must be bigger than that. You are building a team to win down the road. Everything -- and I mean EVERYTHING -- must be pointed in that direction. Every break you take, every move you make, every smile you fake, every bond you break should have 2011 and 2012 and 2013 in consideration. And with time, you can do things. If you have some young and reasonably talented players, you can give them opportunities to learn and grow at the Major League level. If you have prospects you are not quite sure about you can FIND OUT what they have inside.
But it seems to me that if they are going to be about developing young players, they actually have to DEVELOP YOUNG PLAYERS. No, nobody wants to go through another 90-100 loss season. But the Royals are going to lose those games anyway. The question is: What will they get out of all those losses? What will they get out of this season?

This is certainly the intent of the thought process from last Sunday (and the comments by Acta that they did have a laid out plan in terms of working these young players in is comforting), and if you want to see the manner in which this “treatise” applies to the Indians (or at least a realistic application of it in the here and now for the Tribe), Steve Buffum tackles the whole Indians’ roster and who should and should not be seeing the field at the present time. Going through Buffum’s assessment, I can’t say that I could make a compelling argument against any of his assertions in terms of where playing time should be allotted.

That being said (and back to the Posnanski “treatise”, as Buffum calls it), I think that the fundamental truth that Posnanski ignores is the idea that this “time” and development is certainly well and good, but that the seeds of that development don’t always bear the fruit all at the same time to make winning feasible.

That is, the endgame of successful development needs to happen in such a perfect timeframe for these small-market teams that it also becomes nearly impossible. As the Indians have proven (in the not-too-distant-past), not only does this development of talent need to occur in the small markets over “time”, but it has to occur up and down the lineup and throughout the pitching staff simultaneously to close the talent gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in MLB in any given year, much less consistently.

If you think that the situation that occurred in Cleveland from 2007 to 2009 was the aberration or the result of faulty leadership (and truthfully, some of it was), take a look at what Dave Cameron at Fangraphs wrote about the situation unfolding in Milwaukee:
With 124 games to play, assuming that they’ll need to win 92 games to give themselves a good chance of winning the NL Central or the Wild Card, they would have to play .621 baseball the rest of the way to make that happen.
Realistically, the playoff chances for the Brewers appear slim for 2010, and with that reality staring them in the face, it’s probably time for them to put Prince Fielder on the trading block.
It’s not the outcome that Milwaukee had in mind when they put this roster together, and they do have enough talent to right the ship and get back to a winning record, but they are far enough back in the NL Central where its getting to be time to change directions. Six weeks of bad baseball can sink a season, and in the case of the Brewers, it probably has.

Where have I seen that situation unfold before, where “six weeks of bad baseball can sink a season” causing a team with limited resources and with their best players staring Free Agency in the face to confront very harsh realities and perhaps attempt to fight another day?
That’s right…I remember now.

And it’s not just the situation in Cleveland and Milwaukee, which DID develop and acquire young talent that DID mature and succeed together. As great of a story as Tampa is these days, the Yankees likely have already made Carl Crawford pinstriped jerseys to sell in the team shops in the Bronx and Carlos Pena will likely find himself elsewhere next year as well. As stocked as the Rays’ farm system is purported to be (and 10 years of Top 5 picks SHOULD do that) and as great as their young pitching looks, all that needs to happen is a couple of bad breaks and the Rays are back to this state of limbo that most small-market teams encounter as they hope that Desmond Jennings can succeed in short order and hope that their starting pitching holds up and isn’t done in by a bullpen or any other extenuating circumstances or before David Price (only signed through 2012) and Matt Garza (signed through 2013) find themselves inking contracts too large for the Rays to legitimately consider or before they’re considered trade bait 1 ½ years before Free Agency as Fielder may be.

Those “extenuating circumstances” deep-sixed the Indians’ intentions of contending in 2008 and 2009 and are threatening the talented squad in small-market Milwaukee. Whether Tampa’s next on the list of teams to follow the slow ascent and quick descent remains to be seen, but the “blueprint” is there, as are the system-imposed limitations that lead to following that “blueprint”.

Attempting to lighten the mood, since we’re nearing that “magical” 40-game mark at which teams often say that they can start to get a sense of the team that they have, how about a quick look at what was thought to the be the weakness of the team going into the season – the starting pitching.

April Numbers for Starters
Carmona – 4.05 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 15 K, 14 BB in 33 1/3 IP
Westbrook – 5.53 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 18 K, 13 BB in 27 2/3 IP
Talbot – 2.05 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7 K, 11 BB in 26 1/3 IP
Huff – 4.10 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 11 K, 10 BB in 26 1/3 IP
Masterson – 5.68 ERA, 1.95 WHIP, 24 K, 11 BB in 19 IP

May Numbers for Starters to date
Carmona – 2.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 11 K, 7 BB in 18 IP
Westbrook – 2.41 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 13 K, 8 BB in 18 2/3 IP
Talbot – 4.71 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 12 K, 10 BB in 21 IP
Huff – 7.47 ERA, 2.04 WHIP, 5 K, 6 BB in 15 2/3 IP
Masterson – 5.63 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, 22 K, 13 BB in 24 IP

What does all of that mean?
If I would have said at the beginning of the season that the Indians would have three legitimately even-average starting pitchers on a semi-consistent basis at the 40-game mark, how surprised would you have been?

If I would have said that two of those three legitimately even-average starters would be Carmona and Talbot, how long would it have taken for me to peel you off of the floor?
As frustrating as it is to go watch Masterson and Huff completely come off the rails as starters, it can’t overwhelm the pleasure in seeing Carmona hold opposing hitters to a .630 OPS or when he strikes out 7 in 6 2/3 on Monday night (in a game he should have won) against the Rays. Nor can it cast a gray cloud over the unexpected sunshine inexplicably coming from “The Fury” as he continues to pitch well despite all the numbers (and the eye test) that say that he simply shouldn’t be doing as well as he is. Westbrook’s days are numbered in Cleveland, but the way that he’s pitching (and doesn’t it feel strange to root for some of these guys so their trade value is peaking in July) should net the Indians more than what they could have expected in return for him when the season started.

While the inclination and the knee-jerk reaction would be to send Huff off to AAA and Masterson off to the bullpen, I hate to be the one to break this to you but the Indians aren’t going to contend in 2010 for the Central or the Wild Card and giving these guys a long leash (even if it means that they hang themselves with it) is the prudent path to follow.

They tell me that patience is a virtue and, as Cleveland fans, ours has certainly been tested. However, this Indians’ season is built on development and answering questions about players in this organization going forward. That development and those answers aren’t going to come without ugliness and dark days, so until the light at the end of the tunnel becomes visible (and it isn’t yet), we’re left with a young team that’s about to get younger and less experienced due to injury/injuries.

How the young players adjust to those opportunities in 2010 are going to go a long way in determining where the Indians find themselves in this new age of development, whether the players struggle (as Marson, Valbuena, MaTola, Huff, and Masterson have) or whether they thrive (as Talbot, Sipp, and…well) will give the Indians a better idea as to when contention (and by that I mean legitimate contention) is plausible.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Lazy Sunday Balancing Act

With the DiaBride off visiting her sister and our new niece in Wisconsin for the weekend, it’s been a boys’ weekend here on the North Coast, full of take-out pizza, tee-ball, grilled cheeses from Melt, and a birthday party that actually included pony rides…all while trying to forget the ugliness of the end of the Cavaliers’ season. The attention will be diverted today by watching some friends finish the 10K downtown, so since we’re off to cheer them on at the finish line, let’s get off on a Lazy One…

While you wouldn’t know it from any sports coverage (national or local) there is a pro sports team from Cleveland playing these days and if you’ve been watching, you’re aware how disjointed and cobbled together the Indians have looked over the past few weeks as the youngsters have continued to struggle to adjust to MLB and (much more importantly) the likes of Sizemore and Hafner have remained decidedly ineffective. Due to the ineptitude of the offense all season, the makeup of the lineup has changed decidedly in the past couple of weeks as the veterans signed to deals (both minor league and Major League) in the off-season are finding themselves on the field with startling frequency.

The inclusion of players like Kearns, Branyan, and Grudzielanek (mainly) was a topic recently broached by Manny Acta, who addressed the issue of playing time, development, and trying to win games:
“It’s a tough balancing act because you owe it to the rest of the team and you owe it to the fans and the franchise to try and win on an everyday basis, but you can’t lose track of the big picture. You want to try and find the other pieces that are going to go along with Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo for the long ride here. You still have to try and develop those guys.”
“As we’ve said over and over these kids are going to get a legit opportunity to see if they’re going to be part of the supporting cast. If the other [veterans] click the way they’ve been clicking, it makes life easier for us. I believe on any given day, any player can help you win a ballgame. You come to the ballpark every day hoping it’s going to be Marson or LaPorta or Valbuena and not that it’s always going to be Choo, Sizemore, Hafner, Branyan and Cabrera and Kearns.”
“It’s tough because you want to win and I believe we can win,” Acta said. “But you don’t want to lose the focus of building a [winning] team that is going to be here for years to come. There is a very fine line between winning two or three more games at the end of the year by playing a guy who is probably not going to be here next year [or] playing a guy who is going to be part of the future.”

Those comments are particularly interesting in the context of Wednesday’s game against the Royals (a win, by the way), in which the number of Indians’ players in the lineup for both teams that were younger than 27 was…wait for it…one. Asdrubal Cabrera (24 years old), was the only Indian in the starting lineup for a team that finished 65-97 at the bottom of the Central last year. Sure Sizemore and Choo are only 27, but 5 of the 9 players in the lineup were 30 or older…this in a rebuilding/reloading/whatever year.

While the game was a bit of a yawner (unsurprisingly and not helped by two rain delays), it brought under the hot glare of attention this advanced state of limbo that has afflicted a number of teams in MLB, unsure whether to go full bore into an attempt at rebuilding (or whatever it’s being called) mode, or whether to lean on some veteran presence in the lineup (in Wednesday’s case, steaming heaps of “veteran presence”) in an attempt to win games in the here and now, with less of an eye towards the future.

That brings up a fundamental question as a team like the Indians unquestionably needs to break in their young players with an eye past 2010, but does that “breaking-in” process do more damage as the youngsters struggle and the team slips further into ignominy, a slide that can be tempered (somewhat) by inserting the likes of Kearns, Branyan, and Redmond into the mix to buy goodwill, some local attention, and perhaps even wins?

In the Indians’ case, the early season experiments of giving jobs out of Spring Training to Luis Valbuena, Matt MaTola, Lou Marson, and Mike Brantley have resulted in OPS+ of 64 (Valbuena), 45 (LaPorta), 44 (Marson), and 19 (Brantley) in 292 cumulative plate appearances. That strategy certainly seems to have recently given way to increased playing time for Austin Kearns (162 OPS+), Rusty Branyan (127 OPS+), and Mark Grudzielanek (81 OPS+) as the Indians attempt to actually start winning some games…perhaps at the cost of development and flattening out the learning curve for players that do realistically figure into their plans past this year.

It becomes a greater question however for a team like the Indians that is unlikely to be players in the Free Agent market (the one that includes elite players and not all players) year after year and that have very little chance of retaining their own players, assuming they do excel, once those established players reach FA, compete in the here and now while keeping an eye to the future.

If the Front Office decides to flip some “Go Young” switch that exists in the Teams’ Offices, the growing pains will certainly begin and the possibility exists that players like LaPorta and Brantley never match the production of Kearns and Branyan. In the present however, players like Kearns and Branyan are performing and helping their teams win games…infrequently as it may be.

Whether the development of young players as they adjust to MLB and attempt to get their sea legs under them is compromised in the process of infrequently winning these games becomes the great debate as to how to build a team capable of contending in the uneven competitive structure of MLB. Certainly, drafting and development (or lack thereof in the case of the Indians’ in recent history, whose talent has largely been acquired via trade) plays a role in teams facing this quandary, but in the current financial climate in MLB, how do small-market teams play this balancing act between youth being the only thing on the menu, going through those requisite growing pains and attempting to win games to keep fans interested, if the better chance of winning comes with players that don’t figure into their future?

Perhaps this issue comes about by the organization’s own doing, but the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is growing in MLB and teams that are fighting upstream to begin with in the revenue race often find themselves in this death spiral that was on display on Wednesday night in Kansas City. How the Indians can pull themselves out of that vortex (and they did as recently as 2004) will be the interesting theme to watch this season and there’s going to be no shortage of opinions of how to improve the team both for the short-term and the long-term.

To that end (and off of the soapbox for a moment), some compelling lineup suggestions were recently asserted by Steve Buffum (of TCF) when sitting in Rob Neyer’s chair at ESPN that could provide some ointment for the rash that is the Indians’ offense.

Reading through Acta’s comments from an interview with Baseball Prospectus’ David Laurila and looking at that idea that development and contention are mutually exclusive ideas, it would seem that the Indians had a plan coming in regarding how AB were going to be distributed, so whether any of this out-of-the-box thinking (as logical as it may be) suggested by Buffum will take hold:
MA: Here, it’s fantastic. We’re pretty much on the same page. We talk almost on a daily basis, but it’s not exactly about what I’m doing managing. Before the season starts, we put a plan together and we know who we’re going to try to give a certain amount of at-bats to, and who we want to be out there, or not out there, and also what we have coming from the minor leagues. The plan is pretty much in order, so unless I feel like I need to make a drastic adjustment or something, I don’t need to communicate it to our baseball people.

DL: If you make a move—for whatever reason—that is counter to what data shows might have been a better option, do you get a call from Mark Shapiro or assistant GM Chris Antonetti after the game, asking why?

MA: No, not at all. These guys, they let me work; they’re not that way. They’re not hands-on when it comes to that kind of stuff and that’s something that I make sure of wherever I go. I’m not going to have to put up with stuff like anyone making up a lineup for me, anybody calling me about a player, or anything like that. I think here, they did all their research, and they’re very thorough on what they do with the interviews and stuff to have a feel of how I’m going to do things.

Interestingly, Baseball Prospectus also had Mark Shapiro sit down for a Q & A that largely focused on how the Indians went about their managerial search, but he did have some interesting comments in the context of hiring Manny Acta because he understood the place that the Indians found themselves and how Acta was familiar with the situation, in Cleveland, both in terms of personnel and market:
He was educated to our situation and he saw positives here, whereas a lot of people around us, in our market, see the negatives here. Manny saw the positive attributes here, and I don‘t think you can overlook that positive energy. This game has so much inherent negative built in, and this market has a lot of negative energy in it right now, so that positive energy was important.

While the “inherent negative built in” to the game isn’t something that could be misunderstood by anyone who’s been paying attention (here, at least) all off-season, the comment about the “negative energy” in “this market” can be taken a number of ways. Whether it be the perception among fans that the Indians are a flawed organization, from top-to-bottom with no discernible sign of changing course, or whether it speaks to the manner in which the team has been raked over the coals by the majority of the local media for dismantling the team over the past two years, blissfully ignoring the financial realities that caused that dismantling…along with the horrific starts, of course.

Of course, the other possibility in terms of the “negative energy” in “this market” came to light in a recent web chat when Pete Gammons told WEEI in a recent interview (as he was discussing the disinterest in Tampa, despite a winning team) that the financial situation for the Indians is dire because of the struggles of the city:
And Cleveland is a serious concern now, too, because they have no Fortune 500 companies left and 30 percent of the households in greater Cleveland have left in the last two years. The economy there is absolutely dead. What might save the Indians is if LeBron [James] leaves, because we all know it is a football town, but if you have the Browns and LeBron there isn’t enough money to support three teams. A lot of people doubt that.

While Gammons is embellishing a little bit to prove his point, as Greater Cleveland has 7 Fortune 500 companies and Akron has two more, anyone whose spent a minute of time in downtown Cleveland in the past few years knows that these concerns are not entirely unfounded. The Indians are last in attendance in MLB (and not by a small margin) and interest in the team is at the lowest levels in recent memory.

Where this all goes (in terms of both the city and the organization) is fodder for a whole year’s worth of conjecture and analysis, but the 2010 season could be more than just the “balancing act” that Acta references as he discusses who plays and how often. While the future of one team in Cleveland is largely reliant on the decision of a 25-year-old (whose potential final game in a Cavaliers’ uniform was brilliantly summarized by native South Euclidean here), the future of the team that occupies the stadium across Gateway Plaza may be done in by the growing chasm in team revenue, one that may only grow wider as the city that the Indians call home slips further into the abyss.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tomahawks on the Move

As the North Coast reels from the latest failure to bring a championship to Cleveland (with a vicious thunderstorm rolling in, as if on cue, after the game ended), perhaps I was the only one who was struck by the similarities to the last unsuccessful attempt to win the city’s first title since 1964.

A Cleveland team, with championship aspirations, is done in by a more experienced team from Boston, their hopes dashed by a series of questionable coaching strategies and by their best player simply failing to show up when the team needed him most. That best player, in both instances, stared Free Agency in the face after the series (though Sabathia was under contract for 2008) and the sense that the opportunity lost would represent the last opportunity in some time prevailed.

For the sake of the Cavaliers (and all of Cleveland), let’s hope that the team does not suffer the same cataclysmic decline that has occurred since the 2007 ALCS for the team, as pieces and parts are moved quickly, that they call their Gateway brethren. While we hold out that hope heading into the summer, let’s release some Tomahawks about that “other” team that calls Gateway home because…well, because that’s what we do here…

Since the Royals are apparently the cure for what ails the Indians, perhaps the schedule-makers could do the Erie Warriors next year and front-load some series with Kansas City so the Tribe can be seen as getting off on the same way that Detroit did this year, playing the Royals in 6 of their first 9 games. If you’re wondering, the Tigers started the season 6-3 and are 13-12 since, so opponents do have something to do with how the AL Central standing look to date.

That’s not to say that the Indians are getting CRUSHED by a tough early season schedule. Rather, that these things balance themselves out over the course of the months of the baseball season and the Indians chance to peek at respectability may be coming.

The Tribe is playing 8 of their next 13 at home and while their home record is not exactly reminiscent of UCLA Basketball in the 1970s, their opponents in those 13 games could be telling as to how the remainder of the first half of the season progresses.

After starting out in Baltimore to play the worst team in the AL (11-24), they make their way for a quick 2-game series in Tampa everyone’s new example of a small market team “doing things the right way”, the Rays. After those games, the team heads back to the North Coast to face these very same Royals for 2 games, followed by three-game homestands against the and the “could-be-a-mirage” 19-15 Reds (who have a negative run differential and have swept BOTH the Pirates and Astros in the early going) and the 4th place White Sox, who have actually allowed more runs per game than the Indians.

This is not to assert that the Indians are suddenly going to find themselves neck and neck with the Twins for the Central, but a quick look around .500 wouldn’t hurt in the next 13 games before they head out to the Bronx for the final series of the month.

Since the team is 13-19 now, if the team ends Memorial Day around 23-26 (that would be 10-7 from now until the end of May…which may be a tall order even considering who they’re playing) or thereabouts, then May will have been a smashing success (relatively speaking) as the moves that figure to take place that first week in June figure to galvanize (again, relatively speaking) the fan base.

Speaking of moves that will take place in that first week of June (and I mainly refer to the Santana promotion), my guess would be that a couple of moves are coming before Memorial Day. The first would figure to be the promotion of Saul Rivera, who has an out clause in his contract if he isn’t on the Tribe roster by Saturday and has a 0.56 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP in 16 IP in Columbus to date. Yes, he’s struck out only 9 and walked 7 in those 16 IP (which shows that he may be the beneficiary of some luck as a Clipper), but he did post a 3.72 ERA and an ERA+ of 115 in 215 games and 237 1/3 IP as a member of the Nationals’ bullpen from 2006 to 2008.

Is that an exciting addition, given that he’s now a 32-year-old RH reliever who gave up more than a hit per inning pitched last year in the NL?

Certainly not, but the Indians are still struggling to find that right mix of relievers (past Sipp and Laffey) that can rely on to contribute meaningful innings out of the bullpen with some consistency (even if it just means pitching multiple innings while the team is losing) and if 6 weeks is devoted to finding out if Saul Rivera has anything left in the tank to get out MLB hitters.

A case could certainly be made that Frank Herrmann should get a look before Rivera (same ERA, same WHIP, more K, fewer BB), but the terms of Rivera’s contract give him an out if he’s not an Indian by Saturday and Herrmann isn’t even on the 40-man roster, meaning that his option clock hasn’t even started.

Additionally, there would certainly seem to be an open spot for Rivera to test his mettle against MLB hitters as the clock struck midnight long ago on Rafael Perez and the pumpkin act that he’s been taking out to the mound no longer needs to be seen in Cleveland. The time to DFA Perez has come and gone and come again and there may be some thought that a team will claim Perez and rehabilitate him as a viable reliever, but that thought process was once applied to Fernando Cabrera (who was historically a highly-thought of arm, unlike Perez who appeared out of nowhere in 2006 to contribute) and countless other bullpen arms who eventually end up bouncing around the Minors after experiencing success (as wildly surprising and enjoyable as it was in 2007) in MLB, a success that eludes them into eternity.

The other move that is probably being considered (other than the Donald to SS, Louie V. to Columbus…which will be done soon and for more reasons than just performance as Valbuena’s service time could be managed by spending some time in AAA) would have to be to take a look at Dave Huff making his way back to Columbus as his 2010 season has come off of the rails.

Since his complete game, Huff has posted a 7.77 ERA a 2.00 WHIP and has compiled 10 BB and 8 K in his last 22 IP over 4 starts. That…that’s not the results you want to see out of 25-year-old former 1st Round Pick.

That all being said, while I think that consideration will be paid to sending Huff down to AAA in an attempt to build his confidence back up, I don’t see the corresponding move that makes a lot of sense. Maybe the Tribe moves Aaron Laffey into the rotation and puts Rivera in the bullpen (saving Perez once again), but to me, Aaron Laffey has adjusted nicely to his role in the bullpen (as undefined as his actual “role” might be) and given that he’s one of the more dependable relievers out there, I’m inclined to let him continue that odyssey in the bullpen. Maybe the Indians start stretching Laffey out to slide back into the rotation, but at this point in the season, I would leave Laffey in the bullpen until Huff has been given a chance to attempt to apply some of the “fire-lighting” points from Acta to his next few outings.

Past the idea that Laffey is most valuable to this team in the bullpen (currently, not necessarily all season), the starters in Columbus are not compelling the Indians to make a decision by forcing their way into the rotational conversation. With Carrasco struggling with inconsistency and Rondon headed to the DL with a strained forearm, the most obvious replacement for Huff in the rotation would be Yohan Pino, for whom a 40-man move would have to be made to add to the mix. That’s not to say that some 40-man maneuvering is a bad thing, but I’m not ready for a Huff-for-Pino exchange…yet.

That’s not to say that Huff should be trotted out there in perpetuity regardless of results and while he could perhaps benefit from the boost to his confidence that facing AAA hitters would give him, I would continue to keep him on that long leash as a starter to see how he performs with regular turns in the rotation for a longer timeframe than 6 starts before deeming him unworthy of a rotation spot when no obvious answer exists.

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating – in 2010, the focus is on development and casting an eye to the future. Perhaps Huff doesn’t ultimately project as a legitimate MLB starter (much the same way that Masterson looks like the will end up in the bullpen), but if there was ever a year to dole out the innings to form a more complete answer based on a larger amount of data, this is the year.

That doesn’t necessarily bode well for the attempted peek at respectability by the end of May mentioned above, but finding out where guys like Huff or Masterson fit in this organization going forward is more important than reaching .500 by Memorial Day.

Doing both (finding out where some of these guys fit AND reaching .500 by Memorial Day) would be nice, but if you think that’s possible…you haven’t been watching the games.

Beneath Cleveland, I like the way that the Indians are being aggressive with some of their arms to challenge them at higher levels or moving them into roles into which they ultimately project. In case you missed it, Zach Putnam moved from the rotation to the bullpen in Akron, where he could be fast-tracked to help the parent club in short order. Additionally, Joe Gardner has been promoted from Lake County to Kinston on the strength of striking out 38 hitters in 25 IP. Gardner actually notched as many strikeouts as walks and hits allowed in Lake County.

Putnam was a 5th Round Pick in 2008 and Gardner was a 3rd Round Pick just last year, so as the Indians start to press the fast-forward button on some of their more talented arms, whether it be transitioning to the bullpen or jumping levels early in the season, it would certainly seem that the organizational philosophy of seeing how many guys can be kept as starters is starting to evolve as is the previously followed blueprint that pitchers should spend the majority of a season at one level.

The thing to watch going forward would be to see how quickly the Tribe moves some of the more highly-touted arms like Nick Hagadone and Alex White, both of whom are finding success in Kinston and are both a little too old for the league. Perhaps the Putnam and Gardner moves are a sign that the Indians are being more aggressive in the promotion and development of their arms, attempting to stock the upper levels with the most talented arms as quickly as possible, whether those arms project as starters or relievers.

With the Indians these days, it’s all about projection and development, but in the here-and-now, we have a summer that promises to be full of “will he stay or will he go” on the North Coast and the continued growing pains of a young team in a city that could be as far away from a legitimate championship contender in the last 20 years.