Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tomahawks Turning the Page

On the heels of the Indians winning three in a row (with Kerry Wood saving all three games) and the team winning games that they’ve made a habit of losing all season long, let’s get the Tomahawks out there so as not to jinx this newfound “success”.
And with that, they’re in the air as long as a Matt MaTola bomb to CF…

With Russell Branyan off to re-join the Mariners as M’s GM Jack Z is given the benefit of the doubt once again in national coverage (despite the fact that the team he put together to contend in 2010 is not much closer to the top of the AL West than the Indians are in the AL Central), an interesting thought occurred to me – with Branyan gone, who becomes the Whipping Boy and Public Enemy #1 of Indians’ fans? That is, Branyan’s mere presence on the roster made stomachs turn for some as the feeling that he was blocking Matt LaPorta at 1B and that he represented a unnecessary veteran signing for an organization with a history of such unnecessary veteran signings.

For some, Branyan fell right in line with the likes Dellichaels (David and Jason), Oldberto Hernandez, and Jason Johnson – all of whom spent their time on the whipping post for fans and media alike. Of course, Branyan hit well in his brief time with the Tribe, posting the 3rd highest OPS on the team, but he became a lightning rod for criticism as the poster boy for all that was wrong with the Indians’ manner of bringing in veterans to play in front of prospects.

If you’ll remember, Casey Blake spent most of his career in Cleveland reviled as “just a guy” and as Wedge’s Wichita State buddy as intimations that he had some sort of incriminating photos of Indians’ brass represented the only reason that Blake remained in the lineup. While Blake was largely under-appreciated as an Indian, the feelings about him came not as a result of his play as much as the perception that he represented something disappointing about the organization. The same could be said of Branyan coming to “represent” all that is wrong in the offices of Carnegie and Ontario, as he spent his 3 (most recent) months as an Indian with writers constantly questioning what he was doing on the roster and remaining firmly in the cross-hairs of the fanbase.

That all being said, with Branyan now gone to the Pacific Northwest, who assumes that place on the mantle, as the subject of public derision. Which Indians’ player will induce the most profanity or eye-rolls or general contempt?

Will it revert back to Peralta, with the idea that he (like no other) represents that unfulfilled potential that was never realized from 2005 to 2010?

Maybe for a little while, but even if they can’t move Peralta via a trade (and other than the Padres, I fail to see a contender for whom Jhonny represents an upgrade at 3B), he’s not long for Cleveland. Similarly, Kerry Wood or even Jake Westbrook (who has largely been given the benefit of the doubt in terms of fan reaction to his contract) aren’t here for much longer to be pointed to as massive contract mistakes. Sure, Hafner’s going to be floating around for a while as a “massive contract mistake”, but the feelings for him range closer to pity than anger.

Perhaps it becomes a player like Trevor Crowe or Dave Huff as they become roster reminders of the struggles of the Indians’ recent draft history. Or maybe one of the recently acquired young players becomes that whipping boy, as the symbol for the failure to bring in real talent for the likes of Sabathia and Lee (MaTola...I’m looking at you if you need some motivation) or maybe the Indians will give the fans what they “need” this coming off-season in terms of a new sacrificial lamb.

Make no mistake, Cleveland fans do “need” that player upon whom they heap their unhappiness – the player who represents all that is wrong with the team and whose mere presence serves as a reminder of organizational shortcomings. Branyan is gone, as is Derek Anderson, with Mo Williams possibly on their heels out of town.

Whichever Indian assumes the role of whipping boy that is now off of Branyan’s shoulders will reveal itself on sports talk radio and online message boards and in the local fishwraps over the coming months, it’s a target that's been worn by many before and will be worn by many after.

As a quick aside on the Branyan trade, Ken Rosenthal has this little bit from an MLB GM, which sound about right in terms of evaluating the trade:
“They aren’t real good prospects, but they aren’t nothing, either,” one rival GM said. Other executives shared that opinion, and one said that his team viewed Diaz as a decent prospect.

Regardless of whether those two are just organizational fodder and depth or something more (and I tend to think the former), does anyone else love the fact that the AAA OF that the Indians acquired has a first name of “Ezequial”?

Making the assumption that it’s pronounced like “Ezekial”, how does this guy (assuming he ever makes it to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario) not use some sort of reference to the Samuel L. Jackson monologue from “Pulp Fiction”, during which he recites Ezekial 25:17?

Is it premature to simply refer to him as “Zeke” Carrera?
Yes, these are the things that clutter my head...

With the small sample size sirens ringing as loudly as possible and me attempting to rein in my excitement for The Axe Man, it bears mentioning of where Santana’s performance to date at the plate puts him in the context of MLB leaders with at least 60 PA.
Why 60...because Santana had 64 going into Tuesday’s game:
OPS+: 221 (1st)
OPS: 1.179 (1st)
OBP: .453 (3rd)
SLG: .725 (1st)
XBH%: 18.8% (1st)
K/BB: 0.50 (1st)
AB/HR: 12.8 (3rd)

Too soon...too much hype?
Probably, but let me point this out:
Jason Heyward – Through First 63 PA in 2010
.269 BA / .397 OBP / .558 SLG / .955 OPS with 3 2B, 4 HR, 16 RBI, 10 BB and 19 K

Carlos Santana – Through First 64 PA in 2010
.333 BA / .453 OBP / .725 SLG / 1.179 OPS with 8 2B, 4 HR, 14 RBI, 12 BB and 6 K

Remember the hype that surrounded Heyward’s start, dubbing him the “J-Hey Kid” and proclaiming him as the next superstar in baseball?

Yes, Heyward is 20 and Santana is 24 but Heyward is also an OF while Santana is a C, meaning that the positional value of The Axe Man’s weapon at the plate makes him infinitely more valuable than a slugging OF. Whether he can keep up this absurd pace (or anything close to it) remains to be seen, but in a lost season, it’s certainly become a fun development to follow.

On the topic of Santana, allow me to put on my rose-colored glasses here, but is anyone else seeing a top-to-middle-of-the-order that genuinely elicits excitement built around Santana and Choo? Throw in a healthy Cabrera above them, and you can start to see how the pieces could start to come together among the assumed top 5 in the lineup for 2011. Sizemore and his health are still a HUGE wild card here and Hafner’s going to be in the mix somewhere (here are the numbers for Hafner’s last 41 games....272 BA / .387 OBP / .456 SLG / .843 OPS with 8 2B and 5 HR), but the Indians actually have the makings of a potent lineup somewhere in there.

Of course, much still has to go right for those projected contributors to form a dynamic, run-scoring offense and when you look at those presumed 5 (Santana, Choo, Cabrera, Sizemore, and Hafner), there is one obvious missing element – a RH bat. Sure, Santana is a switch-hitter as is Cabrera, but looking at those 5, you start to realize how important the development of Matt LaPorta is to augment those 5 in the lineup to not only break up the LH bats, but also to provide the power that he was supposed to arrive with from Milwaukee.

Obviously, this is wildly premature, but the 6 players likely figure into the top 6 slots of the lineup for 2010 (Santana, LaPorta, Cabrera, Sizemore, Choo, and Hafner) could go a long way by the end of the season (well…except Sizemore) to establishing some stability in the lineup going forward into 2011. If those 6 can gain some momentum, the final three positions of 2B, 3B, and LF/CF (depending upon where Sizemore ends up playing) can involve breaking in the likes of Donald/Valbuena, Goedert (and eventually The Chiz), and Brantley/Crowe/Carrera in the bottom third of the order in an attempt to flesh out the whole lineup.

Given what we’ve seen all season, does that seem wildly optimistic?
Sure, but that glimmer of positivity was something that was awfully hard to see in the first half of 2010…

As for the future and those positions that could still be up in the air, there was suddenly a lot of conjecture about that LF/CF position with the idea that Mike Brantley will follow Matt LaPorta up to Cleveland, with AC laying out Brantley’s case for a promotion thusly:
Brantley has hit and scored in each of his last six games, batting .464 (13-for-28) with three doubles, a homer, eight RBIs and eight runs. In 21 June games, Brantley is batting .352 (31-for-88) with four doubles, a triple, two homers, 13 RBIs and 14 runs scored while walking 10 times against just eight strikeouts. Consider that before June, Brantley had just six extra-base hits in about a month and a half of action with the Clippers. That lack of power was the biggest knock against him, and he’s addressing it.

It remains to be seen if Brantley can sustain that clip and calling him up after a good month can be taken as either counter-productive to his development (as he’s finally hitting the ball for power in AAA and could fall into bad habits against MLB pitching) or as rewarding him for working on improving a particular aspect of his approach.

As for who’s going to be moving out to make room for Brantley, a case can be made that Trevor Crowe could be sent back to Columbus although the remainder of this season seems tailor-made to see if Crowe can stick as a cheap, 4th OF option for the next couple of years.

Thus, the only other logical step would be that Austin Kearns is not too far behind Branyan heading out of Cleveland. Much of the talk has surrounded Kearns heading to Boston, but given the fact that Kearns can play all 3 OF positions, that he’s cheap, and that he’s had a successful 2010 season (even if he’s struggled recently), there should be a market that might be a step below where it was for Mark DeRosa at this time last year. Plenty of teams could use a versatile OF and a teams like the Padres (cumulative OPS of their LF - .572) and Braves (cumulative OPS of their LF - .636) could use a major improvement in LF, just as the Phillies could likely benefit from giving Raul Ibanez a break in LF (and with their 3B, Placido Polanco, heading to the DL, can anyone say “package deal”?); so the suitors out there for Kearns shouldn’t be lacking.

What he brings back is another story as Kearns looks like a natural fit for the Red Sox (and wouldn’t it be interesting if Lou Marson is involved in a deal like that with Victor hitting the DL, although this idea that Santana could see some time at 1B next year could be a signal that the Indians aren’t done with Tofu Lou just yet), but the Indians can move Kearns now to maximize their return without salary remaining on his contract being an issue the way that it is for players like Westbrook, Wood, and Peralta.

Regardless of when it happens, it’s likely that Kearns is not long for the North Coast and Mike Brantley will ascend to replace him, looking to improve on the .416 OPS he compiled in his brief time with the Indians to start the season. While it is encouraging that the Indians feel that Brantley is ready for the everyday lineup in Cleveland, it is worth mentioning that his career line in AAA is .282 BA / .362 OBP / .376 SLG / .738 OPS over what has now been 790 plate appearances a step away from MLB.

Perhaps the “light has gone on” for Brantley (now 23 years old) and maybe the Indians are right to promote him while he’s going good, but Brantley still has a .231 BA / .278 OBP / .231 SLG / .509 OPS against LHP this year in AAA and June represents the first month all season that he’s had an OPS over .740 (his June OPS is .914) after doing so only in July (.764) and August (.783) of last year.

The Indians are certainly not flush with other options for LF, so it remains to be seen if Brantley’s recent hot streak in AAA is just that (a hot streak) or a decided shift in his approach. When he does return to Cleveland and when Jason Donald’s wrist allows him to get back into the game, the lineup will look closer to what most thought it would look like this year. The return of Asdrubal Cabrera will only make that “projected” lineup closer to reality as the Indians attempt to finally work in this talented youth en masse to a lineup that is showing signs of life.

The page is starting to turn at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario and, after reading the words on the previous pages that made up the first half of 2010, the page turn was certainly needed.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Lazy Sunday Off the Bus

After having been saved from watching the Indians fall further and further away from even sniffing respectability by being out of town all week, a Sunday morning after an all day drive from Wisconsin is a welcome respite from the traffic in Chicago and travelling with two young boys. While I was away, the Indians, continued to mire in this ugly state of limbo that’s been on hand since the Sizemore/Cabrera injuries, as the Indians attempt to walk the balance beam by “showcasing the veterans” and working in the young players who, with the exception of Santana, simply aren’t taking the opportunity and running with it. If the Indians have been trying to walk that aforementioned balance beam, the result in the first half of the season has been that they’ve put a product on the field that has given the feeling of straddling the balance beam…and I don’t mean in the good way, more of the painful variety.

This state of limbo, where players that have no future in Cleveland have not yet fully given way to players who are supposed to have a future in Cleveland is what we’ve been waiting for all year to finally come to an end as the strategy of treading water until the veterans would be moved and the prospects would arrive en masse has eluded us thus far. Of course the beginning of that “strategy” possibly changing occurred late last night as the Mariners inexplicably acquired Rusty Branyan, giving up AAA OF Ezequial Carrera and Single-A SS Juan Diaz. Just a day after Paul Hoynes asserted that the Indians might be looking to finally make some moves, referencing the fact that the Indians turned Benuardo (that’s Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez to the uninformed) into The BLC and Asdrubal, the Indians move another limited 1B/DH to the Emerald City for a AAA OF and a younger middle infielder.

While the comparisons to Choo and Cabrera should end there, the move was made obviously to make room for Matt MaTola to FINALLY perhaps get some consistent AB as an Indian, something that has eluded him since entering the organization, at least for the parent club. LaPorta’s struggles in Cleveland qualify as one of the greater disappointments of the early season (though he was given no favors in the way that the Indians bounced him around the lineup and sat him regularly) and he returns to Cleveland hoping to continue the success he found in his (albeit brief time) in Columbus.

As for what was ailing MaTola in the early going, according to Terry Pluto, “when he was playing with a bad hip and turf toe (both requiring surgery), he stopped using his legs to power his swing -- swinging mostly with his arms. After he was healthy, the bad habit remained, robbing him of power. He has returned to his original swing.”

We’re now nearly two full years removed from the Sabathia deal in which LaPorta was purported to be the “near-MLB ready bat” and he now returns looking to finally make good on those projections…or at least show some signs that he is capable of being the middle-of-the-order hitter that this team sorely lacks. That being said, I’m not sure when this revelation on MaTola’s swing was made and it could certainly be argued that MaTola could have possibly made adjustments in Cleveland, but he was able to regain confidence (and hopefully his power stroke) in 68 AB in Columbus, so any lineup that doesn’t include “1B – LaPorta” from this point on in the season is akin to gross negligence on the part of the Indians.

LaPorta should be playing 1B every day from now on and “The Curious Case of Russell Branyan” ends without much fanfare as his inclusion on the team to begin with was odd (other than it being insurance against LaPorta’s injuries…the extent of which are still not really knows and to provide some pop in what was obviously a power-starved lineup) and he heads back to Seattle to play for a team that is as far away from the top of their division as the Indians are.

In terms of the players coming to the Indians, Carrera is a 23-year-old who likely projects as a fringy CF/4th OF because of his speed (27 SB in 2009, 28 SB in 2008) and his high-OBP, with a career MiLB OBP of .374, including an OBP of .441 last year in AA, where he actually won the Southern League batting title by hitting .337. John Sickels put him as the #12 prospect on the M’s farm, with the description of a “speed demon, hits for average, draws walks, good glove, no power, future reserve outfielder but a useful one”. Just to put a bow on it, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus lists him as the 14th best prospect, including this money line on Carrera – “he’s a tiny, speedy outfielder who led the Double-A Southern League in batting and on-base percentage, but he has less power than my cat.”

While not knowing Kevin Goldstein’s cat, Carrera likely slots into the Trevor Crowe/Mike Brantley mix to see if the Indians can get two of the three of them to fill the LF (or CF, depending on this microfracture surgery that Sizemore underwent) and 4th OF roles for the foreseeable future.

As for Diaz, he comes to the Indians as a 21-year-old SS who will go to Kinston as the Indians continue their obsession with middle infielders developed by Seattle. He was named to the All-Star team in the California League, if anything can be gleaned from that. Overall, his numbers for 2010 are promising (.295 BA / .345 OBP / .433 SLG / .779 OPS), particularly for a young middle infielder, but at this point he simply enters into a organizational need at SS, evidenced by the presence of Andy Hernandez, Brian Bixler, and most recently Sonny Nix.

Maybe the two prospects the Indians received turn into something as even Rob Neyer doesn’t seem that dismissive of the return:
In addition to that promising young outfielder (Carrera), the infielder (Diaz) isn’t exactly chopped liver, either; he wasn’t listed among the Mariners’ notable prospects this spring, but he’s only 21, has been solid for two straight seasons in the California League, and seems to have at least a moderately decent shot at someday making the majors.

But just moderately. And Carrera, who played well enough last year in Double-A to establish himself as a decent prospect, is hitting .268/.339/.315 this year in Triple-A. He’s 23 with room to grow, but didn’t figure to beat Ichiro Suzuki or Franklin Gutierrez or even Michael Saunders out of a job anytime soon.

Where they eventually fit will come out in the wash over the next few years as this move was made nearly exclusively to get a now-healthy (body and confidence, apparently) Matt LaPorta back into the mix. While it can be argued that his inclusion in “the mix” should have come from Opening Day, the extent of his injuries have never fully been revealed and Branyan essentially came in the form of a lottery ticket of sorts, as the Indians hoped that Branyan would hit well enough that the prospects they would eventually receive from would be worth 3 months of Branyan providing the insurance against LaPorta’s injuries and putting some pop (albeit intermittently) into the lineup.

What happens next is anyone’s guess on the trade front as the timing of the Branyan deal was made to get LaPorta up to Cleveland now, with the sense of urgency of getting a young player onto the parent club simply not as compelling in LF (where Kearns will be dealt), 3B (where the Indians will hope to find a landing spot for Jhonny), or in the rotation (with Westbrook probably going once all of the bigger names find new addresses). It’s likely that Kearns is the next one to go, perhaps after the All-Star Break as the Indians will begin to filter in more of the names that we’ve heard about in trade hauls over the past few years.

As Buster Olney points out, “Kearns is owed approximately $417K the rest of the season” and while he’s struggled in recent months (while remaining in the middle of the order because no better alternative exists), some team will look for Kearns as a cheap bench option. While that may not merit much by way of a return, let’s all remember that at this time last year, Mark DeRosa was moved to St. Louis, netting the Indians a player that immediately factored into the back end of their bullpen in Chris Perez with him projecting as a Future Closer, regardless of how the “WAR-obsessed” FanGraphs staff may see it.

What’s going to be interesting to see is what kind of return the Indians get for the likes of Kearns and others as last year the obvious emphasis was on adding arms, arms, and more arms. As much as the Indians would probably like to continue to add arms (as their organizational failure to build even a league-average bullpen from year to year continues to baffle), they’re no longer sitting on what could be perceived as big trading chips the way that they were in 2008 and 2009.

To that end, maybe I’m the only one still interested in this, but I’m fascinated by what the Mariners are going to get for CP Lee, with an answer perhaps even coming soon as per Rosenthal…although their acquisition of Branyan certainly muddies those waters:
A number of other teams, however, could enter the mix, attracted by Lee’s relatively low salary and the idea that the acquisition cost should be less than what the Indians received for him last season, when he was a year and two months away from free agency.

The Phillies obtained Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco for four young players – catcher Lou Marson, infielder Jason Donald and pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp.

Of the four, Knapp had the highest ceiling, and he has yet to pitch this season after undergoing shoulder surgery last September. None of the other three projects as an impact player. Only Donald is currently in the majors.

The Indians actually might have fared better in their return for half a season of Sabathia the previous year, landing outfielders Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley as part of their four-player package from the Brewers.

That idea that Lee’s “acquisition cost should be less than what the Indians received for him last season, when he was a year and two months away from free agency” certainly looks to be tested in terms of what he’s doing (again) this season and will again give us names against which we can compare the Carrasco/Donald/Marson/Knapp package in perpetuity.

Moving on, in the midst of all of this change and coming upheaval, I found two pieces particularly striking as they represent the stability that the Indians value in their organization and present some “big-picture” ideas from the Indians, something that has been awfully hard to see in the early going of 2010 as prospects disappointed and lineups induced nausea.

The first comes by way of John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus, who reports that Manny Acta’s sunny outlook on the future of the organization remains unchanged, despite compelling evidence from the first half of 2010:
“There are a lot of things to feel good about here,” Acta said. “Our record isn’t as good as we hoped it would be and that’s disappointing. If you look at the big picture, though, look at the organization as a whole, there are good things happening.”
The Indians will continue to look to the future, as they have three starting pitchers 26 or younger in Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, and Mitch Talbot, a closer-in-waiting in 24-year-old Chris Perez, and a young middle-infield combination of second baseman Luis Valbuena and shortstop Jason Donald. Acta also talks excitedly about many of the Indians’ prospects in the upper levels of the farm system, including first baseman Beau Mills, second baseman Jason Kipnis, third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, outfielder Nick Weglarz, right-handed starters Carlos Carrasco and Hector Rondon, and left-hander Nick Hagadone. Furthermore, Acta believes two players who were in the Indians’ Opening Day lineup before being sent to Columbus, first baseman/outfielder Matt LaPorta and outfielder Michael Brantley, will eventually return to the majors and play big roles.

While these types of pieces always present the “glass-half full” outlook (although Perrotto throws in some sobering facts in his asides) or , if you prefer, the “head-in-the-sand” outlook, I find it fascinating that the likes of Talbot, Valbuena, and Beau Mills (arrest not even taken into consideration) are thrown in there with the legitimately real reasons to be optimistic like CF Perez and The Chiz.

The second piece that explores the offices above Acta comes from Albert Lyu at Full Count Pitch, who did an exhaustive piece on GM-in-waiting Chris Antonetti and the DiamondView system that the Indians have had in place as far back as the Bartolo Colon deal in 2002. The piece is informative and attempts to rationalize the role that DiamondView plays in the Indians’ decision-making process:
While DiamondView provides an objective look at players, Chris Antonetti and the Indians maintain that DiamondView is only one tool in the front office toolbox. Antonetti may rely on the business side of him when valuing objective evidence and technology, but he also understands that a team of 25 players that look great on a laptop does not necessarily translate into a winning ballclub. Not only does the organization want the best analysts to provide research, but also the best scouts to provide opinions and the best medical personnel to provide diagnoses. In nearly all cases, the Indians’ scouting department has more of an impact on the front office’s decisions than recommendations made solely on information that DiamondView provides. DiamondView is, after all, just a powerful tool that allows the management to gather information quickly in order to make informed and balanced personnel decisions.

In the end, however, the value of objective analysis in baseball is undeniable, especially with the declining economy, escalating salaries, and the rapidly approaching deadline of the current labor agreement set to expire after the 2011 season. Among the low payroll organizations, the Indians have remained a stable and statistically-informed organization, armed with several full-time statistcal analysts in addition to a deep scouting department.

The enlightening piece gives a bit of a glimpse into how the Indians make decisions and how they weigh particular variables when coming to those decisions. While it sheds no great light on how the Indians got to where they currently reside at the bottom of the AL Central, it’s likely that it played a role in the decision to not only sign Rusty Branyan, but also to trade him for the two former Mariners that now find themselves in the organization.

The trading season has started and the Indians should begin to more closely resemble the team that most of us thought we would see in the rebuilding/reloading/whatever season of 2010 in the coming weeks. That won’t make the “experience” of the first half of the season look any better in the rear view mirror, but hopefully it will represent the idea that the ugliness of the first half of the season is right there…in the rear view mirror.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

After spending a lovely Thursday afternoon watching some baseball (not involving the Indians) as the Brewers completed a three-game sweep of the Twins here in Milwaukee, one aspect of the game was particularly striking to me in the context of following the Indians. No, it wasn’t that Yovani Gallardo was perfect through 5 or that the AL Central leading Twins looked eminently beatable all series, unable to match the Brewers in NL baseball strategy.
No, one thing stood out…35,898.

That was the attendance for a Thursday afternoon game in Milwaukee on the first day of SummerFest (and if you don’t know what that is, Google it) for a team that went into the game with a 31-40 record, 9 games out of the NL Central race. The Brewers won the game, their 4th in a row, raising their record to 32-40, not quite good enough to lift their projected loss total for the year above 90 as they’re now on pace for a 72-90 season.

And yet, 35,898 came to see it at 1:00 on a weekday.
Thing is, that attendance number is no great surprise in Southeast Wisconsin as the Brewers are averaging 34,833, good for 10th highest in MLB. What’s worth noting here as the immediate response that “yeah, well the Brewers are good and have been good” is that the Brewers finished 80-82 last season and are now two years removed from their only 90-win season since 1993, when they went 90-72 in 2008, making it to the NL Playoffs as the Wild Card before bowing out in the LDS.

What’s so interesting about this in the context of the Indians and their recent history?
Let me move the years around to get these records lined up, but here’s where I’m going with this:
Indians 2005: 93-69
Average Attendance: 24,861

Brewers 2006: 75-87
Average Attendance: 28,835

Indians 2006: 78-84
Average Attendance: 24,666

Brewers 2007: 83-79
Average Attendance: 35,421

Indians 2007: 96-86 (lost in ALCS)
Average Attendance: 28,448

Brewers 2008: 90-72 (lost in NLDS)
Average Attendance: 37,882

Indians 2008: 81-81
Average Attendance: 27,122

Brewers 2009: 80-82
Average Attendance: 37,499

Indians 2009: 65-97
Average Attendance: 22,492

Brewers 2010: 72-90 (projected)
Average Attendance: 34,833

This is not pointed out as any sort of referendum on why individual Indians’ fans didn’t cause the appreciable bump in attendance that was enjoyed in Milwaukee, only to point out that two small-market teams who experienced success in the latter part of the 2000s have had wildly divergent results at their box office.

The Brewers saw a HUGE increase in attendance on the heels of a 75-87 season in 2006, bringing in 25% more fans to the ballpark for a team that would ultimately finish 83-79 in 2007. The Indians experienced no such bump after their 2005 season (93-69) and actually saw a lower average of fans in 2006 for a team that would finish 78-84.

The oft-repeated refrain in response to why the Indians were never able to capture the excitement of the town was because of their inconsistency from season to season and their inability to remain in contention. However, looking at the Brewers’ record on the heels of their 2008 playoff season, it shows that the Milwaukee team was just as disappointing on the field, with those disappointments simply not making their way to the box office as they did in Cleveland. Additionally, two years removed from the playoff appearance, the Brewers have continued to draw despite a slow start and despite some particularly soul-crushing losses in early 2010.

That all being said, extenuating factors unquestionably play a role as the late-2000 Brewers represent the first baseball contender for a city in 25 years while the Indians’ fans are still largely playing the “show-me” game after the sustained success of the champion-free “Era of Champions” of the late 1990s. To date, the Brewers have been more pro-active than the Indians, firing their manager in the midst of a playoff hunt and trading for Sabathia to spur that playoff hunt. Additionally, the Indians traded their reigning Cy Young Award winners in consecutive years in 2008 and 2009, a fate that has not yet occurred in the Cream City.

Maybe that day is coming for the Brewers, who have yet to conduct a full-scale fire sale as the Indians have for the past two years. However, it is worth mentioning that every fan I spoke to felt that the Brewers should be trading Corey Hart and Prince Fielder this year (2 of the only 3 good hitters on the team) because of “baseball economics”. None of them seemed to project that trades of Hart or Fielder would lessen their desire to come to the ballpark in 2011 or beyond.

So what gives in Cleveland?
How did the Indians not get an appreciable bump in attendance after the 2005 season and the 2007 season the way that the Brewers did by hovering around .500 for most of the time and putting forth one playoff season?

Of course, it’s easy to say that the contempt for the ownership and the Front Office has kept people away, but we’re not talking about 2010, where the team slides below rock bottom with each passing day. What factors contributed to the Indians simply not capturing the hearts of a city back in 2005 and 2007 while the Brewers team, with 2 over .500 seasons in the past 5 years has been able to do so may remain unanswered in perpetuity. Maybe the Brewers slide down that slippery small-market slope to the bottom of the mountain once again, joining their former AL East counterparts from Cleveland. Maybe the attendance numbers will drop just as precipitously in Milwaukee once the known names make their way out of town for faceless prospects.

On a Thursday afternoon, making my way through the tailgaters outside of Miller Park, all decked out in Brewers gear, ready to root on a team that sat 9 games back, that startling drop in attendance is hard to see. Even with trades that will affect their offensive output on the horizon and with one good starting pitcher and a bullpen that calls to mind those of the Indians of the past few years, the people keep coming.

As the brats and the beer flowed freely and while that spigot never really got going at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario over the last 5 years, it doesn’t look to be turning off any time soon in Milwaukee.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Starting Anew

The dominoes have started to fall in the Indians’ rotation as Dave Huff is on his way to Columbus with Joe Smith on his way to the Indians to replace him on the 25-man roster in the short term before Aaron Laffey will re-emerge from Columbus on Friday to take Huff’s spot in the rotation. With Laffey’s Friday start, it will represent the first time that the Indians will start a pitcher that was not in their Opening Day rotation, a surprising development given the uncertain nature of the rotation all Winter and through Spring Training. Before getting into the roster machinations, how about a quick aside, where we count how many pitchers started a game by mid-June of 2009:
CP Lee
Fausto Carmona
Carl Pavano
Scott Lewis
Anthony Reyes
Aaron Laffey
Jeremy Sowers
Dave Huff
Zach Jackson
Tomo Ohka

That’s 10 pitchers that had started games for the Tribe before mid-June of last year and the fact that only 2 of those guys have started games for the Indians (Laffey hasn’t yet) as they near the halfway point means something in the long haul, but I digress…

Back to the matter at hand as it seems that Aaron Laffey gets the nod over Carlos Carrasco for the first shot to break back into the rotation. While some consideration may have been given to the likes of Pino and Tomlin, the only real candidates really were Laffey and Carrasco, with Laffey finally getting the nod, likely on the basis of his relative success as a starter in MLB and because of his left-handedness (the other 4 remaining starters are all RH, as is Carrasco). The move is unsurprising as Laffey’s put together a decent resume as a starter, compiling a 4.42 ERA (102 ERA+) in 252 1/3 IP over 44 starts as an Indian. His peripheral numbers always look shaky, in terms of not striking many guys out and having a tendency to nibble when starting games in the last few years for the parent club.

Laffey’s success comes when he’s throwing strikes and the puzzling thing to me about Laffey’s ascension to the Indians’ rotation is that throwing strikes is precisely what Laffey did NOT do after his demotion to Columbus, as he walked 15 batters in only 20 1/3 IP. Yes, I’m the same guy who said to give Laffey a long rope in the rotation to start the year…just like I did for Huff (ahem), but after seeing Laffey thrive (for a while at least) in the bullpen to start the season, I’m not so sure that Laffey’s aggressiveness when he’s coming out of the bullpen isn’t the best spot for him. Lest anyone forget, Laffey was one of the only reliable relievers out of the bullpen to start the season, despite the variety of roles he was used in (long man, LOOGY, set-up man, mop-up duty) and was sitting on an ERA of 2.37 in mid-May after 15 games, relying on a high groundball rate (60%) to get himself, and usually the Indians, out of trouble.

Seemingly out of the money for now is Carrasco, whose uneven year in AAA has shown a somewhat muted ability to post solid strikeout-to-walk numbers (65 K to 27 BB in 79 IP), and a year that has been undermined by Carrasco’s inability to avoid giving up the longball, now a whopping 12 HR allowed in 79 IP and 13 games, which is nearly an HR allowed per game. Carrasco has now thrown 273 1/3 innings in AAA and you would have thought that Huff’s demotion certainly merited a chance to see if Carrasco could benefit from a change of scenery or even just to see what he could do in an extended stay in the Indians’ rotation because…well, because Carrasco is SUPPOSED to figure into the Indians’ rotation past 2010 and bringing him up in mid-to-late June allows the Indians the opportunity to legitimately see what he can do against competition that doesn’t include September call-ups.

Maybe Carrasco hasn’t necessarily “earned” that chance, but if we’re talking about 2010 performance in AAA, neither has Laffey.

That all being said and being very aware that Huff was in an obvious need of a break from MLB hitters – and how he returns from AAA is going to be telling as to whether he can locate his fastball against MLB hitters the way that CP Lee eventually did or if his command will relegate him to the land of Sowersia…and, believe it or not, I’m still inclined to believe that he’s not destined to live on a AAAA island with Jeremy – have you noticed that there’s another LHP that could use a similar break on the Indians?

I speak, of course, of Tony Sipp.
Since Sipp’s Waterloo in the Bronx (nearly a month ago now), he’s allowed 16 H, 15 ER, and 7 BB in only 3 2/3 IP while giving up 5 HR (!) and striking out only 5 hitters among the 35 that he faced. Since that game, opposing hitters have posted an astonishing 2.066 OPS and while one can say that the small sample size rule applies here, realize that he’s thrown in 9 games and has allowed at least a baserunner in every game. Prior to that meltdown that caused Sipp’s precipitous decline, he had posted an ERA of 1.40, striking out more than a batter an inning, while posting a WHIP of 1.03 and limiting opposing hitters to a .510 OPS. He’s also the same guy with a career Minor League ERA of 2.80, with a career Minor League WHIP of 1.08 while posting a 11.7 K/9 rate on the farm. So, Tony Sipp (not unlike Dave Huff…though there is compelling evidence otherwise) is not a lost cause – just maybe a lost sheep.

The last month has revealed that Huff and Sipp need to go to Columbus to re-discover what made them prospects in the first place – namely their command and their ability to locate their fastballs and throw strikes. Of course, Sipp’s demotion may be the corresponding move to get Laffey on the 25-man roster, which would keep Joe Smith around, but if you want a novel idea – bring both Laffey and Carrasco up…

No, I’m serious. If you’re asking me to make a decision as to who should replace Huff, I’m going with Carrasco even if it means 5 RHP as the Indians are strictly in development phase and giving Carrasco an opportunity could answer some questions about him that aren’t going to come in AAA. Additionally, I’d like to see the Indians promote Laffey to return to the place that he experienced the most success in 2010 – as a reliever on the parent club. If you haven’t noticed, the LHP in the Indians’ bullpen are vying to see which can bring the bigger gasoline can with them out to the mound and if Sipp is the guy that’s going to be going down to make room for Laffey, that would mean that the only LHP coming out of the bullpen is one Rafael Perez.

It is worth noting that, in his last 14 games, Perez has posted an ERA of 1.46, struck out 7 and walked only 2 (although he has given up 12 hits in that stretch) and has given up 2 extra-base hits since the beginning of May over 20 games and 75 batters faced. However, Perez is still the guy that’s given up more earned runs (51) over the last two years than struck batters out (47). He’s given up more than a hit an inning over the last two years and has posted a WHIP of 1.91 since the beginning of 2009.

Yes, I understand how starters are more valuable than relievers and “wasting” Laffey in a bullpen role when he could be starting games may not be the best utilization of a limited talent base. However, I still don’t think that Perez is going anywhere soon, as the fact that he’s being used in semi-meaningful situations is more telling than you might think. Not sure if you remember this, but the Indians’ first LHP that is currently pitching out of the bullpen in the Minors (other than Jeremy Sowers…and he doesn’t count) is in A-ball.

Does Laffey deserve a shot at starting in Cleveland, given his overall body of work as a starting pitcher for the Indians? That case can certainly be made (and, again, I was the one that made it), but the aggressiveness that Laffey brings out of the bullpen may be the determining factor in where he ends up helping this team in the long haul.

Perhaps he eventually ends up there and Carrasco will find himself in the Indians’ rotation once Jake Westbrook is moved meaning that there will be plenty of opportunities for these players in the rotation. Just as possible is the idea that I’m at the point where I want to see an Indians’ rotation and bullpen that’s going to be closer to the way it COULD be constructed in 2011 and beyond (a season like this will do that), but promoting Carrasco to take Huff’s spot in the rotation and sliding Laffey into Sipp’s spot in the bullpen (and don’t ask me who would go down to accommodate all these moves…maybe Joe Smith goes back down) could answer substantial questions about where both Carrasco and Laffey fit. The case can be made that answering whether Laffey fits into the rotational mix past this year also remains unanswered, but the Indians need to start cycling through some of these arms that project past 2010 in the second half of the season and finding out if Carlos Carrasco is anywhere close to being ready for a MLB rotation spot and seeing if Aaron Laffey can thrive out of the bullpen, as he did to start 2010, could represent a nice start.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Lazy Father’s Day Sunday

Coming to you live from the satellite office that is the in-laws’ house in Wisconsin, it would seem that we’re just waiting for the news that Dave Huff is heading to Columbus from Pittsburgh in a drive that is actually quite nice this time of year. As for the corresponding move, you would have to guess that Carrasco and Laffey are the first two options and neither has exactly forced the Indians’ hand in “not being able to keep them out of Cleveland”…which just goes along with the whole vibe of the 2010 season. In his last 5 starts, Carrasco has a 4.37 ERA, a 1.14 WHIP and 32 K to just 6 BB in 35 IP while Laffey has a 3.98 ERA, a 1.77 WHIP and 9 K to a whopping 15 BB in 20 1/3 IP since joining the Clippers’ rotation. If I had to venture a guess, I’d give the edge to Carrasco, although “edge” is a relative term here when we’re talking about a pitcher who’s given up 10 HR in 77 1/3 innings in AAA.

Regardless of who will be coming up to replace the all-but-departed Huff, let’s get going on a Lazy Sunday so I can get downstairs to enjoy the breakfast strata that is filling the house with aromatic goodness and while my Bloody Mary awaits…

Leading off with one of the only reasons to still be reading about these Indians, Anthony Castrovince has a great Inbox as usual, in which he rationalizes how to judge a “rebuilding” process:
Right now, the Indians are utilizing a lineup simultaneously geared toward development and contention, but that figures to change. Calling up top prospect Carlos Santana last week was an important step. Going forward, this club needs to find meaningful opportunities for Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley in the everyday lineup. That could/should mean moving Russell Branyan and/or Austin Kearns, as neither of those guys fits into the Tribe's long-range plans.
The Indians still have a wealth of unresolved issues in the outlook for their future rotation. Fausto Carmona has shaken off the instability he had shown the last two years, and Mitch Talbot has been a pleasant surprise in the No. 5 spot. It’s a little more difficult to be sold on David Huff and Justin Masterson, though Masterson’s last three outings, particularly his brilliant effort against Boston last week, are encouraging.
We’re seeing the Indians attempt to construct a homegrown bullpen that will eventually revolve around Chris Perez, who figures to take over the closing duties in 2011, if not sooner. Frank Herrmann has stepped up of late, but little has been reliable in the 'pen this year.

Ultimately, what you want to see this season is reason to believe that the next wave of talent is going to be able to contribute on a consistent and meaningful basis at this level. Thus far, the Tribe has been hit and miss in that department in 2010.

You want a couple of sentences that can sum up the 2010 season to date?
That last paragraph is the money shot and brings the whole 2010 season into focus in terms of the veterans and the youngsters and what has transpired to date. Some youngsters were given opportunities (albeit limited) and struggled, while other youngsters have been given a longer leash and…well, struggled. If you’re looking for pleasant surprises or even young players that figure in past 2010 that have met or exceeded expectations, the list is confined to Carmona, Talbot, CF Perez, and Santana (small sample size considered) as definites and Masterson, Donald, and…well, that’s about it for even the maybes.

The hope would be that the vision PAST 2010 is what starts to reveal itself here in the final 90+ games of the season and that the likes of LaPorta and Brantley can do what Santana has been able to accomplish in short order – to prove that they belong in the Indians future AND current plans. While looking at that list above of which players have been pleasant surprises (or potential pleasant surprises), it is comforting that 3 of the players are starting pitchers, one is a closer and two represent up-the-middle-of-the-diamond talent, which figures to be augmented if and when Cabrera and Sizemore regain their health and (ideally) their effectiveness.

That being said, the periphery of the roster (and that “periphery” is not that far removed from any semblance of a “core”) seems wide open for a multitude of players to assert themselves into that mix of being future AND current options. We know names like LaPorta and Brantley and some of the starting pitchers in AAA, who have disappointed to date. However, even outside of that group, opportunity would seem to be there for some young players (although we thought the same thing going into the season and look where we stand today...almost in July) who may have fallen through the cracks in their journey to MLB. What that says about the Indians’ organization and their ability to draft or sign and develop legitimately impact talent is up to you, but the second half of 2010 could represent a perfect opportunity for the Indians to give an opportunity to some younger names that we may have heard about some time ago in an attempt to determine the level of production capable from any and all internal options before augmenting the organization.

On that topic, Adam Van Arsdale has a tremendous piece at LGT regarding “sorting through the detritus” of the Indians’ farm system that is simply too good not to read. It effectively analyzes which of the older “prospects” could potentially contribute, and which ones should legitimately have a chance at doing so.

One of the names that stands out to me (and I know that Tony Lastoria hit on this in his Minor Happenings) from Van Arsdale’s piece is Jared Goedert. Remember that whole question of who's going to play 3B once Peralta gets traded…um, what about Jared Goedert?

This is not breaking any new ground as I think that the aforementioned Mr. Van Arsdale has essentially made this comparison at some point over the last couple of weeks at LGT, but Jared Goedert’s 2010 season calls to mind another older “prospect” who thrived in AA and AAA in a particular season and was able to parlay that success into a solid MLB career. I speak, of course, of Mr. K2…no, not the one who flipped over the handlebars of his crotch rocket:
2006 – Kevin Kouzmanoff (Age 24)
AA - .389 BA / .449 OBP / .660 SLG / 1.109 OPS with 15 HR, 19 2B in 276 PA
AAA - .353 BA / .409 OBP / .647 SLG / 1.056 OPS with 7 HR, 9 2B in 115 PA
Cumulative - .379 BA / .437 OBP / .656 SLG / 1.093 OPS with 22 HR, 28 2B in 391 PA

2010 – Jared Goedert (Age 25)
AA - .325 BA / .382 OBP / .540 SLG / .922 OPS with 7 HR, 14 2B in 186 PA
AAA - .391 BA / .429 OBP / .804 SLG / 1.233 OPS with 4 HR, 7 2B in 49 PA
Cumulative - .340 BA / .391 OBP / .598 SLG / .990 OPS with 11 HR, 21 2B in 235 PA

Just to put a bow on this, Kouzmanoff was a 6th Round Pick in 2003, who actually was promoted to MLB in that same 2006 season, never to return to the Minors and Goedert was a 9th round pick back in 2006, meaning that Goedert’s prospect path has not been as linear as that of Kouzmanoff. To that end, certainly the continued success of K2 in the Minors (.975 OPS in 2005, .910 OPS in 2004) is not something that Goedert can claim (.657 OPS in 2009, .709 OPS in 2008), although Goedert did burst onto the scene in his first full season in the organization, when he posted a 1.020 cumulative OPS as a 22-year-old in 2007 in Lake County and Kinston.

When Peralta gets moved (not if), it’s possible that the Indians give 3B to Andy Marte or some platoon of Andy Marte and Luis Valbuena. As I shudder at the latter possibility, let’s realize that it’s entirely possible that the Indians use the remainder of the 2010 season to see what they have in guys like Goedert and Josh Rodriguez. We’re already seeing it somewhat with Trevor Crowe (and color me unimpressed) in terms of the Indians giving some of these guys who have been labeled as “prospects” at one time or another and give them an extended look at MLB, whether it be Crowe trying to prove that he’s even a suitable 4th OF or giving Goedert a chance to serve as the bridge between Peralta and The Chiz.

Moving on, Mitch Talbot is getting some run as a legit AL ROY candidate, with SI.com’s Cliff Corcoran listing him as #3 on his ballot right now, saying (among other things) that:
Talbot is playing with fire with his miniscule strikeout rate, but has gotten by thus far with an excess of infield pop ups and double plays and some luck on balls in play, the last of which runs counter to his team's poor defensive showing thus far. Correction is coming, but I can no longer deny his performance to this point.

I’ve been saying it for a while, but I don’t know how he’s doing it and the last Indians’ rookie who started strong out of the gates (one Mr. Jeremy Sowers, circa 2006) with poor peripherals eventually had his “correction” come with a vengeance. I’m not saying that a similar fate awaits The Fury, but whether he’s able to keep up his current level of success will be an interesting subplot for the rest of the season.

As for the other subplot in the rotation that figures to play out in the next 5 weeks or so, the inclusion of Fausto Carmona on every list of “available” starting pitchers at the Trade Deadline nationally has continued to raise eyebrows. To date, I have always scoffed at the notion that the 2010 season is the time to trade Carmona as he’s still working his way back from the no-man’s land in which he has resided for the past two years. That being said, David at the terrific SABR Tribe site put forth the best case that I’ve seen for trading Fausto Carmona in that it’s well-researched, wildly logical, and certainly gives pause to the idea that holding onto Carmona is the best path for the Indians to take.

While the piece raises some excellent points, the reason that I would balk in considering a trade of Carmona to be the most prudent path to take for the Indians is one that he himself mentions in the piece when he discusses Carmona’s walks. He says that Carmona’s “walk rate has lowered each month the season so there is some logical optimism in thinking that his improvements are not only legitimate but will even continue to progress” and that’s where I think that the Indians need to let Carmona’s “recovery” play out. After his performances recently, I think that he’s closer to coming back than many people are giving him credit for (and it’s folly to think that he’d recapture v.2007 immediately) and after nursing the wounded animal back to health, it behooves the Indians to find out if Carmona can recover a level close to his 2007 form.

What is lost sometimes when looking at a total body of work for a season is the improvements, however incremental, that a player is making. Carmona, who was literally “lost in the desert” out in Arizona last year has put together a 3.21 ERA in his last 7 starts, but more importantly has struck out 33 and walked 13 (6 of those coming in one start) in 47 1/3 IP. His groundball rate over those last 7 starts is 65% and his K rate is 6.97 K/9 with a K/BB rate of 2.53.
Want to know what those numbers were in 2007?
2007 GB rate – 54%
2007 K rate – 5.7
2007 K/BB rate – 2.25

Obviously, those improvements from even his 2007 peripherals come in just his last 7 starts and 7 starts is not enough to draw conclusions, but one of those 7 starts included a 2 K, 6 BB “performance” and in his last 2 starts, he’s struck out 14 and walked only 1.

Ultimately, Carmona’s career (in Cleveland or elsewhere) could be a roller-coaster ride rising to the peaks of v.2007 and falling to the valleys of v2008/v.2009 throughout the course of the season. However, with his performance finally trending in the right direction and with the club-friendly contract that he has (he’s guaranteed just $6.1M next year with club options for $7M in 2011, $9M in 2012, and $12M in 2013…and compare those numbers to what’s been paid to Westbrook since 2007), I would prefer to keep him around to see if he can front a rotation and set the tone for some young arms around him.

Perhaps some of that is still emotional (and we all know how well emotional attachments work out in the realm of following the Indians) as the idea that Fausto – the pitcher that made Torii Hunter feel hung-over, the one that pitched his way through the midges to plow through the Yankees – could be coming back to his former self is too much for me to divorce myself from as this guy, who bounced off of the mound in Game 2 of the ALDS is not one I’m ready to give up on.

An interesting corollary to the handing of Carmona and the potential trading of him is that what the Indians decide to do with Carmona is going to tip their hand in terms of how close the Front Office thinks this team is to legitimately contending. If they move him (and Westbrook, assuming they do), they go down to a rotation devoid of many MLB starts, much less MLB success. That, to me, would signal that they don’t think that they're close and they’re willing to throw in the towel for 2011 and probably 2012. Certainly, that’s a conclusion that they could draw (they did it when they decided to move CP Lee and Vic, deciding that the 2010 team would not be a contender with or without Lee and El Capitan), but the manner in which the affordable – and club-controlled – contract of Carmona goes so far out into the future is going to be telling as to how the Indians’ Front Office realistically views the timeframe for this “rebuilding/reloading/whatever” that’s currently underway.

What that timeframe for this current build-up is may reveal itself in the coming weeks with the Trading Deadline inching closer. Until then, it’s time to kick back on a Father’s Day, enjoy some baseball on the XM, some golf on the TV, all while having the drink in my hand replenished by somebody throughout the course of the day…in an ideal world, of course.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Axe Man Cometh

To date, I’ve held off on any great pronouncement trumpeting the arrival of Carlos Santana as there have been enough of those to go around and I prefer to take on the angles that generally aren’t covered by the mainstream media, among other places. Yes, we got him for just Lacey Cake and yes, he looks a lot like El Capitan (right down to the number on his back). Yes, the way that he wears his Indians’ uniform is the sloppiest since Jelly Belliard and yes, he shares a name with a well-known guitarist.
These things we’ve known for quite some time...

However, now that he’s arrived and since we can put away the Major League Equivalent calculator, we’re finally able to watch Santana face MLB pitching and fill the batter’s box from both sides. The obvious first impression is that he has looked the part of a stud hitter, posting some of the better AB against Cy Strasburg and more than holding his own since his arrival. After Thursday’s game, he’s posted a batting line to date of .272 BA / .385 OBP / .546 SLG / .931 OPS. So even with the small sample size alarms going off as loudly as they can, yeah…his bat has been as good as advertised.

Santana’s presence in the lineup has revealed two things about him, things that we’ve heard about him since he arrived in the organization – that he has a tremendous batting eye and that, when he finds his pitch to hit, he makes solid contact and drives the ball. While the translations from Minor League numbers are still on the fuzzy side, perhaps it’s better to take a look at Santana’s tendencies at the plate to see if his batting eye and his ability to pick a pitch to put a good swing out have arrived with him from the Minors.

Even in the early going, his numbers have borne much of what we’ve heard about him out as he’s walked in 15.4% of his plate appearances, outpacing every Indians’ regular in that category (the two league leaders in the AL who have enough plate appearances to qualify are Justin Morneau and Kevin Youkilis, who have each walked in 17% of their plate appearances) and he has struck out in only 7.7% of his plate appearances, just twice in his first 26 PA. On a team like the Indians, where swings and misses are common (every Tribe player with more than 150 plate appearances has struck out at least 17% of the time), Santana’s selectivity is a welcome respite. This particular percentage may be unsustainable (you’ll see why below), but the more important thing to note here is that Santana’s percentage of strikeouts to walks (right now, it’s 2 K to 4 BB) is the one to watch and be impressed by.

Additionally, on a team that is sorely lacking in the power department in terms of extra-base hits, Santana’s 4 extra-base hits in just 26 plate appearances (and it should have been 5 had he not slid over 2B on Wednesday night) put him at an extra-base % of 15.4%, infinitesimal sample size duly noted. To go further on that, Santana has 5 hits in 6 games and 4 of those 6 hits are for extra bases (3 2B and a HR...and again, it should have been 5 of 6 after Wednesday night), meaning that the book on Santana – that he drives the ball when he finds his pitch to hit – has carried through in his first week in MLB.

While it remains to be seen if The Axe Man can continue this early success (and really, we’re just talking about 6 games here), the important point to make is that these numbers are simply a continuation from what Santana has been accomplishing over the past two years in the Minors.
Just check these out...
Percentage of Walks per Plate Appearance (MLB League Average: 8.9%)
2010 – Cleveland: 15.4% (4 BB in 26 PA)
2010 – Columbus: 18.3% (45 BB in 246 PA)
2009 – Akron: 16.8% (90 BB in 535 PA)

Percentage of Strikeouts per Plate Appearance (MLB League Average: 17.4%)
2010 – Cleveland: 7.7% (2 K in 26 PA)
2010 – Columbus: 15.8% (39 K in 246 PA)
2009 – Akron: 15.5% (83 K in 535 PA)

Ratio of Strikeouts to Walks (MLB League Average: 1.95)
2010 – Cleveland: 0.50 (2 K to 4 BB)
2010 – Columbus: 0.86 (39 K to 45 BB)
2009 – Akron: 0.92 (83 K to 90 BB)

Percentage of Extra Base Hits for All Plate Appearances (MLB League Average: 7.8%)
2010 – Cleveland: 15.4% (4 XBH in 26 PA)
2010 – Columbus: 11.3% (28 XBH in 246 PA)
2009 – Akron: 10.3% (55 XBH in 535 PA)

Percentage of Base Hits for Extra Bases (MLB League Average: 34%)
2010 – Cleveland: 67% (4 XBH among 6 H)
2010 – Columbus: 45.2% (28 XBH among 62 H)
2009 – Akron: 44.4% (55 XBH among 124 H)

Other than a preternaturally low K rate and the absurdly high percentage of extra base hits among all hits in the early going, what he’s been doing in his first week in Cleveland falls pretty much in line with what he's done in Columbus and Akron. While the mistake is to assume that Santana can simply continue this torrid pace of hitting that he's enjoyed for the past 1 ½ years, the realization that adjustments will be made to him may scale back some of these numbers in the short-term. However, the track record is there for him in the Minors to excel at a level that he’s sustained since the beginning of 2008 (and his 2008 cumulative numbers fall in line with those above) so his adjustment period at the plate will be interesting to watch...assuming there is one.

Of course, the “alleged” reason that Santana stayed down in the Minors until mid-June was that his defense and his handling of a pitching staff needed tweaking. All of that may be true to some degree (and the disappointments abound on the Clippers’ pitching staff as evidence to back it up), but him staying in Columbus was an issue with the Indians ability to control Santana for an extra year and delay his arbitration years by keeping him in AAA. This is old news, I know, but to listen to the Mainstream Media and even the Indians’ broadcasters, who ignore this point and attempt to crucify the organization for keeping Santana down “when he was clearly ready” means that those people simply aren’t paying attention to the fact that the Indians aren’t the only team employing this strategy as Strasburg and Stanton arrived for the Nationals and Marlins, nearly simultaneously to Santana.

Off that soapbox, what can be made of Santana’s defense and handling of the pitching staff to date?
Outside of getting plowed over by Adam Dunn because he was wandering around home plate on Sunday, Santana has certainly looked like he’s holding his own back there. He’s thrown out 2 of the 6 runners who have attempted to steal on him, keeping with the percentages that he’s put forth for the past two seasons in the Minors as he had thrown out 23% of would-be basestealers in Columbus this year, after gunning down 30% in Akron last year.

As for handling the pitching staff, the staff's ERA pitching to Santana is 5.20, striking out 27 and walking only 9 in the first 5 games that Santana’s been behind the dish. What those numbers mean is anyone’s guess and is just as dependent on who’s pitching (Tony Sipp, please pick up the white courtesy phone) as who’s catching at this point. All of the defensive idiosyncrasies will bear themselves out over the course of this season and the coming seasons; but for now, he has the opportunity to learn in MLB, with a number of pitchers that he figures to receive for the foreseeable future.

Carlos Santana has arrived and his first week has shown that he is indeed a special talent, capable of making a significant impact for the Indians as he begins his career as The Axe Man in the Rock and Roll Capital of the World.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tomahawks A.S. (After Strasburg)

Is there a way for us to adjust our calendar to re-classify everything that happened before Sunday as “Before Strasburg” and everything hereafter as “After Strasburg” because the way that the media, both local and national, handled Sunday's game, you would have thought that Strasburg was going to wear flowing white robes and sandals to the mound instead of a uniform and cleats. None of this is Strasburg's fault obviously, and I appreciate an exciting prospect story probably more than anyone, but the 24/7 media (particularly one that calls Bristol home) has a way of overexposing these kind of events to the point that it becomes difficult to be excited because you're being TOLD to be excited instead of just letting your own emotions take hold.

That said, I had butterflies driving on the Inner Belt on Sunday afternoon heading down to the game and couldn't wait to see Cy Strasburg myself. Before getting into this Strasburg thing however, let's get some Tomahawks in the air to see if we can get them to land on that spot on the mound that the Indians' ground crew should somehow name after Steve Strasburg.

Get 'em in the air...

As the local media takes their swipes at the Indians for only being able to draw people to the ballpark to see an opposing pitcher, perhaps something has been missed in terms of placing the proper context of the 2010 season against recent seasons. Much has swirled around that this is rock-bottom and that THIS is the worst Indians' team people have seen in X amount of years and that the talent on this team simply isn't there as it has been in years past.

Check this...
Cleveland Indians After 62 Games
2010: 25-37 (10.5 games back)
2009: 27-35 (7.0 games back)
2008: 28-34 (7.5 games back)

No, seriously.
As much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth that's been happening, the current Indians are 2 games worse at this point than the 2009 team and 3 games worse than the 2008 team. Lest you forget, both of those teams had reigning Cy Young Award winners and each season started with the expectation that the Indians would compete for, if not win, the AL Central title and more.

The 2008 team was 62 games removed from the 2007 ALCS, with CC and Lee in their rotation and was 28-34 at this point. That 2009 team that had added Kerry Wood and Mark DeRosa in the off-season to make one last push at it was 27-35 at this point.
This team, with few expectations and disappointment everywhere on the roster is 25-37.

That's not brought up to point out how the current team is overachieving (they're not) or to assert that there's more much more talent on the 2010 club than they're getting credit for (there's some, but it's still a roster in flux); rather, it's meant to point out how absolutely soul-crushing the starts for last two years have been for this team and how those two records shown above from 2008 and 2009 are the VERY reason that this team is where it is today.

Is it at rock-bottom?
It depends on your definition, but more importantly, your feelings on 2010 reveal how you contextualize disappointment in a team. Perhaps 2010 is the low point or brings to a head the failures of the last two years with the team on the field being the constant reminder. However, in the context of what was expected in 2008 and 2009 against what transpired on the field, 2010 ranks pretty far down in the category of disappointment. This season has arrived as a result of the previous two years and the performances of the players acquired over the past two years (plus those already in the system, both in the Majors and the Minors) will determine how quickly (or slowly) this team makes it back to some level of contention. Regardless of that timeframe, to characterize 2010 as the ultimate disappointment and as the worst year in recent memory does not put the horrifying disappointments (and the dominoes that fell as a result of those disappointments) into proper perspective.

Has watching the 2010 team been difficult to watch?
At times...absolutely, but certainly no more difficult than watching teams that were built to win RIGHT NOW lose game after game (for a myriad of reasons) and sink lower in the standings, as the Indians did in 2008 and 2009. When things went wrong to start the last two years, the idea that the team would turn it around because of the talent on hand lent some level of optimism for near-term success and while that optimism may be further out in the distance, I would say that the Indians acted decisively to make major changes to their roster (whether you agree with them or not) instead of simply trying to squeeze one last bit of success (however unlikely it seemed) out of a team that hadn't won consistently in two years. Whether anything positive comes out of that decisiveness remains to be seen, but to say that 2010 is as bad as it gets comes only if you're blocking out what happened over the past two Aprils, Mays, and Junes.

At the end of the day, it becomes about expectations versus results – 2008 and 2009 were wildly more disappointing (and should have been more difficult to watch) because MLB-proven talent and mature players were losing at the same clip that the young talent on hand in 2010 is putting forth – and whether that makes you feel better or worse about 2010 depends upon how you contextualize your disappointment in the team.

Back to the hot topic of the weekend, despite spending Sunday roasting in the hot Cleveland sun (which are not three words you see strung together too often) and me forgetting that a day in the bleachers at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario regularly turns my skin red, the pain on the tops of my knees and top of my head (where a proud community of hair once resided) is a small price to pay to watch Steve Strasburg in Cleveland in the Tribe Social Deck.

My brother and I arrived down there about 12:30 (for the 1:00 game) and proceeded to Will Call, where our tix were waiting for us...with tickets for what must have been about 2,000 other people. After a Colt McCoy sighting (by the way, he's my size, plus about 25 lbs...and I'm 5'10”, $1.50 soaking wet), the marvelous Rob Campbell of the Indians located our tix for us and we made our way into the Social Deck area in the bleachers.

Upon arrival, we grabbed some Summer Shandys (Shandies?) and staked out a spot with my friend Craig Calcaterra of Circling the Bases, Joel Hammond of Crain's Cleveland, and Ed Carroll of Deep Left Field. Craig has already posted a terrific blow-by-blow of the game (to which I would like to say...“this”) as he details the excitement over “Strasmas”, including the guy behind us who was heckling Josh Willingham, Adam Dunn accidentally lowering the boom on The Axe Man, and Strasburg's issues with the mound.

Going to the game, I wondered how the home crowd would treat Strasburg if he started mowing down hitters at a Kerry Woodsian clip, not quite sure if Indians' “fans” would be cheering him on to strike out Indians' hitters or if there would be that feeling of dread/excitement that was prevalent in the Galarraga Non-Perfect game. The question was never answered as the Indians worked up his pitch count with Hafner and Santana putting up solid AB against Jesus Strasburg and the rest of the lineup looking like...well, like the Pirates did in Strasburg's debut. By the time the grounds crew came out the second time (this time not carrying the giant watering can that they had used the first time), the crowd had turned on Strasburg for delaying the game and acting, some perceived, as a prima donna, particularly because the second visit from the grounds crew came after consecutive walks.

By the time that Strasburg had left, Trevor Crowe essentially put any thought of the Indians keeping it close out of the question by taking the worst route to a ball that I've ever seen by a MLB player (and we had the perfect view, so that is not hyperbole) in person as his unsurprising defensive deficiencies led to the opening of the dam, with Tony Sipp making sure the spigot remained on for the Nats until the end of the game.

All told, Strasburg was impressive with his lighting up of the radar gun and his “drop off the table” curveball, but the most enjoyable part of the day (which was purported to have the potential to be “history in the making”) was watching baseball with friends who like baseball on a warm summer afternoon on the North Coast.

Steve Strasburg or no Steve Strasburg, I'll take that any time I can...

Speaking of warm summer days, while I'm not sure that anyone even cares about this, the race to be named “Beer for the Summer” has been whittled down to three. After having dinner last weekend at Fat Head's in North Olmsted and enjoying some fine pilsners, I decided that a pilsner would be a suitable choice for the summer months.

One of the pilsners that I enjoyed at Fat Head's (Sunshine Pils by Troeg's) immediately vaulted to the top of the list, but I enjoyed a couple of Lagunitas Pils' throughout the course of the weekend and located some Victory Prima Pils on a trip to Heinen's on Sunday, so the race is on between those three for the vaunted (?) spot in one man's quest for the ultimate summer beer, circa 2010.

Having located a local source for each, let the games begin...

Moving on to more relevant matters, with the recent promotion of OF Jordan Henry to Akron, that means that three of the 2009 draft picks have already made it to AA, almost exactly a year after each was drafted. Henry joins Jason Kipnis (2nd Round), who has played 2 games in Akron and Alex White (1st Round) who has started 4 games for the Aeros already. Henry (7th Round) figures to make his debut soon and will likely join Kipnis (now a 2B) up the middle of the diamond to back Alex White (1.47 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 19 K, 13 BB in 30 2/3 IP over his first 4 starts in Akron) for the rest of the summer at Canal Park.

Obviously, these guys were all college players and Kipnis (23), Henry (22), and White (21) are still just getting their feet wet in AA, but it continues the trend of the Indians pushing their prospects up the organizational ladder much more quickly than they had in the past.

It would seem that the Indians are loading up, as much as possible, their top two farm teams to line these players up (while competing at a “high” level of competition) for Cleveland. While some people don't want to hear about prospects and “what could be”, with the influx of talent that has come from outside of the organization because of trades, it is positive to see players drafted by the Indians as recently as last year move so quickly through the organization to ascend to the upper levels.

Speaking of prospects (and it seems like I have a lot recently), since the Cliff Lee trade talks are going to dominate the national coverage for a while, let's revisit the CP-to-Philly move one more time as SI.com's Jon Heymann puts a bow on it when he talks about how Clifton Phifer is going to be traded at some point in the next 6 weeks:
Lee's value is pretty well set, having been traded twice in the past 12 months. In July 2009, the Indians dealt him to the Phillies for four solid-to-good good prospects and last December the Phils sent him to Seattle for three prospects of similar ilk. The value of top-flight prospects is so high now that last year the Red Sox turned down a straight-up offer of Lee-for Clay Buchholz, even before Buchholz raised his worth by being Boston's most consistent starter early this season.

This is not to make another assertion that it's too early to judge the Lee deal for the Indians, but rafter to rebuff the idea that the Indians are merely given free reign over the selection of prospects, even it it does involve 1 ½ years of the reigning Cy Young Award winner. According to Heymann (and it was reported other places at the time), “turned down a straight-up offer of Lee-for Clay Buchholz” and the Indians likely entertained various packages before deciding to accept the offer on the table for Lee and shipping CP to Philly.

That being said, now that we're “After Strasburg” and before the real Trading Season starts, the Indians look to finish out their homestand on a high note as they attempt to slow the suddenly resurgent Mets down while showcasing one Jake Westbrook to the Mets' brass on Thursday night.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pitching In On a Lazy Sunday

As I ready myself for Steve Strasburg’s visit to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario today, let’s get going on this Lazy Sunday with the hope that some Carlos Santana jerseys will join this collection of jerseys at the Merchandise shops…with a hat tip to Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk (who will be joining me today on the Tribe Social Deck aka “Mom’s Basement”) this afternoon. While much of the national focus is going to be on Strasburg and whether he’s going to throw a perfect game or a no-hitter or strike out all 27 hitters, perhaps we’ll take the opportunity to talk about pitchers...except it will be about the ones that don the Chief.

And with that, we’re off…
While this 4-game winning streak may be coloring my outlook a little bit and as absurd as it sounds when looking at the Indians’ overall record, the Indians’ pitching staff has emerged as a great source for optimism for the Erie Warriors. The old news is that Tampa Bay cast-off “The Fury” has an ERA of 3.59 in mid-June (good for 23rd best in the AL) with a WHIP of 1.35 (good for 35th in the AL) in his rookie year and even him performing at some level below that, the Indians may have found a middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation cog for the team (at a reasonable cost) for the foreseeable future. While Talbot is a nice story and certainly is a player to root for, the greater development has been among the two players in the rotation who legitimately project as top-of-the-rotation arms – Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson.

Just to reiterate, we are just in mid-June here, but it would seem that the Indians are seeing the emergence of two potential dominant front-of-the-rotation RHP. While this would seem to be premature to label Justin Masterson as such (more on him in a minute), let’s realize that after Carmona’s performance last night (in which he faced one batter above the minimum throwing not to Mike Redmond, but to his assumed batterymate for the next 5 years or so), his ERA has dipped to 3.23 (13th in the AL) and his WHIP has dropped to 1.24 (22nd in the AL) and he’s trending in the right direction, posting a 2.72 ERA with 30 K to 18 BB over his last 8 starts.

Most impressive about Carmona’s rebirth is the manner in which he’s dominating opposing batters, using an economy of pitches to induce soft contact (his 13.1% Line Drive Percentage is 3rd lowest in the AL) and inducing ground balls at a 55.5% clip (4th in the AL, behind leader Justin Masterson) which is still below his 2007 level of inducing ground balls on 64.3% of the balls put in play against him, which was the highest GB% in AL. Perhaps The Faustastic One (the one from 2007) never fully re-emerges, but Fausto Carmona – the more composed, more efficient, more complete pitcher that has been on display this season – remains a pitcher capable of fronting a rotation, something that he has the capability to do in Cleveland through the 2014 season.

Then there is the curious case of Justin Masterson…
As he morphs back and forth, Jekyll and Hyde style from Justin Consistent (say it out loud to realize what I’m getting at here) or Justin Credible, he remains an enigma. While the debate over whether he belongs in the rotation or bullpen is going to rage for some time (with the people “ahead” in the argument being the ones who can clearly back up their position by his most recent start – so the “keep him in the rotation” crowd is ahead), his success is largely determined by his ability to throw his fastball for strikes. This is not ground-breaking stuff (for anyone), but the fact that he really throws 3 pitches effectively means that his success (or lack thereof) is largely dependent on his ability to throw his fastball for strikes, setting up his sinker and his slider.

While that may be true of most pitchers, compare the data from Masterson’s start against the Red Sox this week to a game against the Orioles on May 14th, when he gave up 6 ER, 8 H, and 5 BB in 5 1/3 IP:
Vs. BOS (6-9-10)
Sinker – 55 thrown / 34 strikes (61.8%) / 4 swinging strikes (7.27%)
4-seam fastball – 37 thrown / 27 strikes (72.97%) / 3 swinging strikes (8.11%)
Slider – 18 thrown / 14 strikes (77.78%) / 3 swinging strikes (16.67%)

Vs. BAL (5-14-10)

Sinker – 31 thrown / 19 strikes (61.29%) / 2 swinging strikes (6.45%)
4-seam fastball – 39 thrown / 20 strikes (51.28%) / 0 swinging strikes (0%)
Slider – 29 thrown / 19 strikes (65.52%) / 6 swinging strikes (20.69%)
Change-Up – 8 thrown / 4 strikes (50%) / 1 swinging strike (12.5%)

The numbers for the sinker and the slider are remarkably similar, but the big difference is Masterson’s ability to throw that fastball for strikes. When he does, as he did against the Red Sox (nearly 75% of the time), he’s effective and can utilize his secondary pitches more than when he’s not throwing that fastball consistently for strikes, with the Orioles game (just over 50% of his fastballs were strikes) being the obvious example.

Maybe the Indians did find a mechanical flaw in Justin Credible’s delivery and tweaked it (and we sure are hearing a lot of “he’s staying on top of the ball”) that have contributed to his newfound success (1.69 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, .551 OPS against in his last three starts), something that will continue. If they have, the Indians have the potential to have two big, RH arms at the top of their rotation, inducing ground balls at an absurd rate and flummoxing opposing batters. Whether Masterson is able to continue his success in the rotation remains to be seen, but his last three starts show why the Indians are so willing to give him that long leash in the rotation as his repertoire has the ability to dominate good lineups (like the Red Sox, whose lineup included 5 LH hitters when he mowed his way through them), but the ability to repeat that success seems to be tied to his ability to repeat his delivery.

That being said, he remains a favorite among the statheads as he racks up the K’s and the groundball outs when he’s on (and FanGraphs goes in-depth as to how good he really was against the Red Sox, going so far as to wonder who had a better outing during the week – Masterson or...wait for it, Strasburg. No, seriously), so the Indians have the “opportunity” of a lost season to see if he can find the consistency that has eluded him in the rotation.

Watching Carmona and Masterson assert themselves over the last two months (Carmona) and two weeks (for Justin Credible) brings something that reader Kevin Holz wrote into focus. He wrote, “is it just me or are you placing more emphasis on seeing Masterson or Carmona continue to develop (or re-develop in Fausto’s case) than on anything else. If those two guys can develop into top of the rotation homeboys then that seems infinitely more important than a simple W.”

In this lost season of 2010, where development and looking past 2010 has become the focus, Kevin is absolutely right. As frustrating as a Rafael Perez outing might be or as much venom has been thrown in the direction of Rusty Branyan, there is no greater need for this team going forward than legitimate top-of-the-rotation arms. If Carmona and Masterson can assert themselves as such (and each has the repertoire to do it), then 2010 becomes a season that provides the bedrock for the organization, with both Carmona and Masterson under club control through 2014.

Masterson dominating his former team brings an interesting sidebar to the 2010 season as the trades of last July have been analyzed, re-analyzed, and condemned in some circles, that it is easy to brush aside a performance like that of Masterson. In fact, the Victor deal has taken a back seat this year as there has been SO much talk about evaluating the Lee deal, be it to label Jason Donald a “future Utility IF” (and I’d like a word with anyone who thinks that about Donnie Baseball) or bemoan the fact that Lou Marson is already destined for a back-up position (not realizing that he’s already trade bait, seeing as how he currently ranks 3rd in MLB by gunning down 38% of would be base stealers...a stat that I’m sure is not lost on the Red Sox), or point to Carlos Carrasco’s inconsistency (although his last outing had him going 8 IP giving up 0 ER and 3 H with 9 K) while pointing out that Jason Knapp has yet to throw a pitch in the Cleveland organization, that the haul of Masterson, Nick Hagadone, and Bryan Price often gets overlooked.

Before getting into those other two, can we just acknowledge that Lee’s going to get traded again?
When he does, there will be specific players that will have been moved for him with 1 ½ years remaining on his deal, 1 year remaining on his deal, and ½ year remaining on his deal, plus whatever draft picks his acquiring team will get when Lee leaves via FA to go to the Bronx (if they’re not the acquiring team). Thus, we’ll be able to stack up what the Indians got for him against what the Phillies got for him and what the Mariners get for him into eternity

This is brought up to point out that it is still far too early to judge the Lee deal (as much as everyone wants to), particularly in the context of the fact that he’s about to join his 4th team in one calendar year. However, it is equally early to judge the Martinez deal...although that trade seems to be bearing some immediate fruit.

Beyond Masterson, the Indians received the much-ballyhooed Nick Hagadone, who has now ascended to Akron and has put up cumulative 2010 numbers of a 2.86 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP with 57 K to 38 BB in 50 2/3 IP. While his control remains somewhat of an issue, he is a LH power pitcher that projects either to the front of the rotation or the back end of the bullpen. While projections are just dreams and wishes (paging Atom Miller), Hagadone has gained the attention of scouts by still averaging nearly a K per inning since his promotion to AA. How quickly he moves in the system will remain a point of interest as he is 24 years old and fills an obvious void in the organization as a LH power arm.

Hagadone’s journey and possible destination is well-noted and well-documented, while the same can’t be said for the 3rd pitcher involved in the Martinez deal – Bryan Price. I’m not sure how many people realize this, but Price was the highest draft selection among the three pitchers acquired (#45 overall to Hagadone’s #55 overall and Masterson's #71 overall) with the biggest signing bonus among the 3 pitchers.

Currently, he sits in the bullpen in Akron and has struck out 30 hitters while walking just 5 in the 25 innings that he’s worked for the Aeros. This is his first real venture into the bullpen as the Red Sox worked him almost exclusively as a starter in 2009 and the Indians have shown a sudden prescience for converting some of these MiLB starters to relievers in the hopes of FINALLY building a home-grown (and effective) bullpen, so don’t be surprised if Bryan Price’s name starts being bandied about as a legitimate bullpen option, perhaps as early as late this year.

All told, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that the Indians have all 3 of these pitchers on their staff (in some capacity) in 2011, a year-and-a-half after the Victor trade. All of them being strikeout pitchers (something that was lacking in the organization previously, if you hadn't noticed), all of them under club control for the next 4 to 6 years (or longer, depending upon when Hagadone and Price arrive), and all of them being 25-years-old or younger means that the Indians did add projectable high-level arms into their organization that was lacking them. Whether any or all of them make an impact remains to be seen, but the return from the Martinez trade plays a large role in the whole “Layers of Arms” (not to be confused with the now-defunct “Waves of Arms” strategy) that the Indians have taken in all of these trades over the last 2+ years.

Regardless, the jury is still out on both the Lee and Martinez rades and will remain out, regardless of how quickly anybody wants to deride it or chalk it up to malfeasance. If you remember, by the end of 2004 – 2 ½ years after Colon was dealt – the Indians had “enjoyed” an OPS of .556 from Brandon Phillips in 136 MLB games, a 4.88 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP from Cliff Lee in 44 starts, and had received 159 plate appearances from Grady Sizemore.

Again, that was 2 ½ years AFTER Bartolo Colon was dealt and the Indians’ return for Colon looked like it was lacking in a return on investment. Is this pointed out to justify the Sabathia deal, or the Lee deal, or the Martinez deal? Absolutely not, it’s meant simply to put the timeframe of evaluating these trades into the proper context by reminding everyone of the Colon deal, which looks fabulous in hindsight but lacked immediate results...or even results 2 ½ years after the fact.

Speaking of trades (and ones that are probably coming), in case you were wondering how seriously the Indians should consider retaining Jake Westbrook through the end of the season with the rationale being that even if he leaves, they’ll still get some draft pick compensation, realize that Westbrook is not currently designated as even a Type B Free Agent (due to his injuries limiting his past few years) and the Indians would not receive any draft pick compensation (as of right now) if Westbrook were to stay with the team through the season and leave via Free Agency this Fall/Winter.

That could be subject to change, but while the Cardinals seem to have filled their need for a starter as they inked Jeff Suppan (although it remains to be seen how that will work out), it will be interesting to see how aggressive the Indians get with their veteran players as, you may not remember this, but Mark DeRosa was dealt on June 27th of last year, so if you think that the Indians are going to wait to make moves here, you’re mistaken...

Speaking of DeRosa, does anyone else marvel that the Indians were able to turn 3 months of him into what looks like their Future Closer (who probably should be their Present Closer) in Chris F. Perez and into Jess Todd, who is now sitting on an ERA of 3.58 in Columbus after a rough start to the year, striking out more than a batter an inning in AAA?

For years, the Indians were lambasted for “not developing a homegrown closer” or for not “being able to promote legitimate relief arms” (neither of which are incorrect) and now the Indians seem to be sitting on a bounty of them, largely because of making trades like the DeRosa one that netted them what looks to be a “homegrown closer” (kind of) and a potentially legitimate relief arm less than a year after the DeRosa deal.

While the Blake deal has been getting so much attention this week (and rightfully so as I prepare myself to see “The Axe Man” in person for the first time this afternoon), but the DeRosa deal could go down as an equally impressive heist.

How many of those can be pulled off in the next 6 weeks or so will be interesting to watch as Austin Kearns is sure to generate some interest (even if Terry Pluto tells us that the Indians are interested in keeping him) and should be moved in the next 6 weeks, despite my earlier assertions that he should be retained. Additionally, if the Angels are in the market for a 1B (and their DH situation has been awful as well all season), I happen to know a guy that The DiaTot (adamantly) refers to as “Muscle” Branyan who might fit the bill. They may not simply want a rent-a-player, but to that I would add that…wait for it…don’t forget about Branyan’s 2011 club option. Anaheim, we’ll be expecting a call…

Regardless of how the Trading Season shakes up, during a week in which the White Flag has gone up over the South Side of Chicago (and do you think that they're regretting trading those prospects for Peavy now), it now seems apparent that 3 teams in the AL Central are in the midst of rebuilds, and the Indians’ effort actually looks to be ahead of the not-yet-started process in Chicago and the interminable “Process” in Kansas City.

On the topic of Kansas City, here’s a fantastic piece by Rob Neyer on how watching what the Royals do over the next 6 weeks will be the most telling actions/non-actions that their Front Office can do:
So what should the Royals do? Podsednik’s played decently this season. At third base (Gordon’s old position), Alberto Callaspo has played decently. In right field, David DeJesus has played better than decently. Here's the thing, though: If the Royals are somehow competitive in 2012, none of those guys will be significant contributors; their value will probably never be higher than it is today (or in a few weeks, when contending teams are a little more eager to make deals).

The interesting line to me is “if the Royals are somehow competitive in 2012, none of these guys will be significant contributors”, which can be applied to the likes of Branyan, Kearns, Westbrook, Wood, and Peralta. What the Indians’ Front Office has shown (unlike the Royals in recent years) is that they’re unafraid to make decisions that are wildly unpopular and that weaken the team in the short term because the long term vision is in place.

While that “long term vision” still looks a little fuzzy at times in a season like this one, which has certainly felt like rock-bottom more than a few times, on a day like today when Carlos Santana is sitting in the #3 hole against Cy Strasburg, with some of the young talent already on hand in Cleveland (most notably Choo and Donald) and more on the way when these veterans are moved (when LaPorta, Brantley, and perhaps more pitching), that “long term vision” starts to come into focus.

Of course, I may just be excited about the prospect of an afternoon spent under the summer sun watching Carlos Santana face off against Cy Strasburg in mid-June, drunk with the “momentum” of a 4-game winning streak…