Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Seasoning the Indians

Opening Day is as close as it can be (as are the reports of possible snow) and Indians’ fans everywhere are champing at the bit to get out of the gate. With time on your side until 3:00 on Friday afternoon, allow me to suggest some possible uses for your time. After you take a quick look into Anthony Castrovince’s efforts in suggesting At-Bat music for the Indians (with his usual Springsteen-centricity) while watching/listening to all of AC’s suggestions and after you’ve run through this video a couple of hundred times, allow me to present one more option to spend your time leading up to Friday’s first pitch, a season preview…as unorthodox as it may be.

It won’t tell you what players will win what awards or how the majority of the 2011 MLB season plays out. Instead, it will take you a bit deeper…into one prediction for the Indians’ season, circa 2011.

April 1st vs. White Sox, Opening Day
In what will become a recurring theme for the 2011 Indians, a Tribe victory over the White Sox is accomplished thanks largely to the contributions from Shin-Soo Choo, whose solo HR in the 3rd inning and 2-run 2B in the 7th inning constitute the only runs driven in by any Indians player in the 3-2 win over the White Sox. Choo’s heroics are not limited to the plate however, as he throws out Alexei Ramirez at home plate in the 8th inning, getting Tony Sipp out of the inning with the lead still intact. Chris Perez emerges from the Indians’ bullpen to notch the first of his 42 saves, closing out an excellent pitching performance from the Tribe, started by Carmona and continued by Sipp.

April 13th vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Orange County from California
Despite giving up 3 solo HR to Angels’ hitters, Carlos Carrasco secures a 5-3 victory for the Indians by going 8 strong innings, notching 11 strikeouts. Throughout the season, the longball will plague Carrasco, who is still able to build upon his strong finish to 2010. Despite leading the AL with 35 HR allowed, CarCar finishes the 2011 season with the best ERA among Tribe starters at 3.91, as he finishes the season with 172 strikeouts, the highest total for any Tribe pitcher since CC whiffed 209 in 2007.

April 23rd vs. Minnesota Twins
Replacing Jack Hannahan’s .258 OBP (but sterling defense) at 3B, Jason Donald returns from the wrist injury that sidelined him in Spring Training and makes his presence felt as he hits a 7th inning double that plates Orlando Cabrera, giving the Indians a 8-7 lead. The lead will be given away in the 8th inning as Rafael Perez’s early-season struggles result in a loss for the Tribe, who find themselves heading into the last week of April 9-12, “good” for 4th place in the AL Central.

April 26th vs. Kansas City Royals
As the Indians return from their second road trip of the season, they are joined by Grady Sizemore, fresh off of a week of rehab games in Akron. In his first game, Grady scares the home crowd as he lays out for a Billy Butler ball in the gap in the 4th inning. After securing the catch, Sizemore spends a few seconds on the ground as the assembled crowd waits in stunned silence. When he rises to his feet and jogs off of the field, the standing ovation begins and does not end until Sizemore crosses home plate after leading off the bottom of the 4th with a solo HR. Though Sizemore is unable to play every day for the first 3 months of the season, his defensive play is reminiscent of the Grady of old, even if his lack of power at the plate (particularly in the early going) is not.

May 6th vs. Oakland Athletics
Sitting on an ERA over 6.00 and a WHIP over 2.00, Mitch Talbot comes out of the game against the A’s in the 3rd inning after grabbing at his side with the Indians already trailing 6-0. After the game, Talbot will be placed on the 15-day DL with an abdominal strain which will plague him throughout the season as he spends much of the year bouncing between the last spot in the rotation, the DL, and rehab starts. With Talbot hitting the DL, the Indians make a surprise move and promote Zach McAllister to the big league rotation, on the strength of his dominant start in Columbus, instead of the assumed 6th and 7th starters in the organization, Dave Huff and Jeanmar Gomez, who will log a total of 3 starts for the Indians on the season…between them. The spot in the rotation owned by Talbot to start the season will remain in constant flux as Talbot, McCallister, and Corey Kluber log time in the rotation, with none of them experiencing sustained success and with Kluber’s stint being the most confidence-inspiring.

May 16th vs. Kansas City Royals
After largely sitting for two weeks since the return of Grady Sizemore despite a strong start in the first month during Sizemore’s absence, Travis Buck is inserted into the lineup as the everyday LF, replacing Mike Brantley, who is sent to AAA Columbus after compiling a .220 BA / .274 OBP / .324 SLG / .599 OPS over the first six weeks of the season. Buck responds by falling a triple short of the cycle as he begins to show that his early-season success was no mirage, stabilizing the lineup by settling into the #5 spot behind Santana. Buck will end the year ranked 3rd on the team both in HR with 25 and in OPS as he finishes the year with an .815 OPS to go along with 34 2B. Brantley remains in Columbus until the September call-ups, when he will continue to struggle to parlay his on-base success in AAA to the Big Leagues.

May 22nd vs. Cincinnati Reds
A Sunday afternoon game in Cleveland takes on historical significance as Josh Tomlin does not walk or strike out any batters, the 4th consecutive start in which he “achieves” this feat. In finishing his 4th consecutive game without a walk or a strikeout as a starter, Tomlin breaks the MLB record for consecutive games by a starting pitcher not walking one batter or striking one hitter out, surpassing the old mark of 3 consecutive starts held jointly by Sloppy Thurston and Bill Hubbell. Tomlin somehow gets through 6th innings, despite not missing many bats, with the Indians clinging to a 6-5 lead, a lead that will quickly evaporate as Frank Herrmann and Justin Germano give up a pair of runs each in the 7th and 8th innings as the Indians bullpen continues to struggle to get a lead to Chris Perez in the 9th inning. After the game, Acta doesn’t want to talk about the loss, instead talking up Tomlin’s strike-throwing ability and how the fact that he hadn’t walked a hitter in 4 straight games was the “big story” of the game. Acta fails to mention the astonishing lack of strikeouts or Tomlin’s 4.96 ERA through the first two months of the season, as his ERA fluctuates around the 5.00 mark throughout his time in the 2011 rotation.

June 1st vs. Toronto Blue Jays
No Blue Jays player reaches 2nd base as Fausto Carmona efficiently cruises to a complete game shutout in a 3-0 victory over Toronto. The game lowers his ERA to 3.78, thanks largely to AL-leading groundball percentage and (more importantly) a defensively sound infield behind him. The Indians turn 4 double plays on the day and Lou Marson throws out 3 would-be basestealers while going 2 for 4, pushing his OPS on the year over .700, compiled in the 15 starts he’s made in the team’s first 56 games. With the victory against the Blue Jays, the Indians run their record to 24-31, threatening to surpass the injury-riddled White Sox into 3rd place but undermined by a lack of production from the bottom 1/3 of their lineup, a shaky back-end of the rotation, and a still evolving middle relief corps.

June 12th vs. New York Yankees
The Indians complete an improbable 3-game sweep of the Evil Empire in the Bronx, with the final victory coming in a game started by former Yankee farmhand Zach McAllister (in what will represent the high point of his uneven MLB season) and with the sweep paced by Carlos Santana hitting 4 HR over the course of the weekend and driving in 11 runs in the 3-game series. While Indians’ fans are forced to remind Yankees’ fans (intent on using the “he’ll look good as in a Yankee uniform when Jorge retires” argument) that Santana remains under Cleveland’s control through the 2016 season. Santana’s production is assisted by him getting a couple of days off every week from behind the plate as The Axe Man’s 1B glove starts to get broken in by Memorial Day and with Santana serving as the club’s DH against tough LHP. This particular weekend’s HR outburst assists Santana in besting Buck and Choo for the club lead at season’s end as Santana will finish the year with 27 HR, eking out Choo’s 26 and Buck’s 25. Though Choo will top Santana in the OPS column (final OPS for Choo - .898, final OPS for The Axe Man - .881) in terms of individual accomplishments, the duo will combine to drive in nearly 30% of the teams’ total runs for the year, a fact that will not go unnoticed by All-Star Game voters.

June 22nd vs. Colorado Rockies
After an 0 for 4 day at the plate with two GIDP in an Indians’ 7-2 loss to the Rockies, Orlando Cabrera’s OPS drops below .600 and he is removed from the everyday lineup, replaced by Cord Phelps, who arrives from Columbus where he is outhitting both Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis while moving around the diamond as a Super-Utility player. In joining the parent club, Phelps will go back to playing his natural position of 2B while Orlando Cabrera slides over into the Utility IF role as Adam Everett finds his way off of the roster, having only batted 25 times in nearly 3 months as an Indian. While Phelps will represent a bit of a downgrade defensively from Cabrera, he will represent a significant upgrade from The OC (which isn’t difficult given Uncle Orlando’s struggles at the plate) and will finish the year with a .735 OPS.

July 1st vs. Cincinnati Reds
The Indians beat the Reds in the series opener 6-5 to improve their record to 40-43 as the Indians move as close to .500 as they’ve been since the first week in April. The victory is sealed by Matt LaPorta’s solo HR in the 8th inning which provides hope that LaPorta has finally figured it out, though the 3 K on the day for him certainly tempers too much enthusiasm. In a way, the game is a microcosm for LaPorta’s season as he shows some of the power that once made him one of MLB’s top hitting prospects, but his propensity for striking out and for long stretches of ineffectiveness that the Indians endure to see those glimpses of power make him the most maddeningly inconsistent player on a young team full of them. At the end of the year, LaPorta will finish with 21 HR and 75 RBI, but with only 24 2B and with an underwhelming .256 BA / .332 OBP / .425 SLG / .757 OPS final slash line. While LaPorta’s HR total gives the Indians four players with more than 20 HR (something they’ve done only 12 times in their history) and though the Indians remain publicly upbeat that LaPorta can still re-capture some of the shine on his apple, with LaPorta turning 27 in January of 2012, the realization starts to set in that LaPorta may never emerge as much more than a “placeholder” in the lineup and far from the fixture in the middle of the lineup that was predicted for him in July of 2008.

July 9th vs. Toronto Blue Jays
In a match-up pitting former top Philadelphia prospects Carlos Carrasco and Kyle Drabek, the Indians pound the Blue Jays 12-3 en route to their 4th consecutive win, pulling them over the .500 mark for the first time since Opening Day at 46-45. The Indians establish a lead early against Drabek as Santana, Buck, and Kearns go back-to-back-to-back, beginning a hit parade that will not end until Drabek is chased from the game and, it is learned after the game, all the way down to Syracuse as Drabek is demoted after giving up 7 runs in 2 1/3 innings. Conversely, Carrasco gives up 2 solo HR to Jose Bautista, but is able to go 7 innings giving up only 3 runs. Without the option of Chris Perez, having pitched in consecutive 3 games against the Yankees and in the first 2 games against the Jays, at the back end of the bullpen, the Indians rely on Vinnie Pestano in the 8th inning and Tony Sipp in the 9th inning as both young relievers have established themselves over the first half of the season as viable set-up options for Perez. After much movement in the Indians’ bullpen, the emergence of Pestano and Sipp in the 7th and 8th innings finally begins to settle what has been an unsettled, and unsettling, relief corps in front of Chris Perez.

All-Star Break
Though his teammates Carlos Santana and Shin-Soo Choo are off in the desert as members of the AL All-Star team (Choo being the final selection via the Internet voting…much of which is later traced back to South Korea), Asdrubal Cabrera has a nice couple of days himself despite not making the All-Star game. Fully healthy for the first half of the season, Cabrera’s OPS of .798 and sterling defense prompt the Indians to call a press conference to announce that they have inked their young SS to a 4-year contract with an option for a 5th year that buys out two (and possibly three) of Cabrera’s Free Agent years. In a humorous twist, Eduardo Perez introduces Cabrera at the press conference full of tongue-in-cheek jokes about HE was the person most responsible for bringing Asdrubal from the Mariners to Cleveland. Unlike Indians of the recent past who have signed extensions, Cabrera will remain healthy and actually improve as the season goes on, finishing the season with a .812 OPS and leading the team with 42 2B while finally showing the solid (and sometimes slick) glove that had been assumed of him (often incorrectly) since his acquisition from the Mariners.

July 20th vs. Minnesota Twins
After a game in which he gives up 14 hits while again not striking out any batters in 4 innings, Josh Tomlin is sent to AAA with the Indians now losers of 4 of their last 5 after being swept by the suddenly resurgent Twins in Minnesota. The game will represent the last start for Tomlin in Cleveland as he heads to Columbus, where he will begin his transition to a long reliever/middle relief option as the local writers (who love their underdog stories) decry the move despite Tomlin’s 5.35 ERA. Promoted to take Tomlin’s place in the rotation is 2009 1st Round Pick Alex White, who has recently caught fire in Columbus, going 7 innings or more in each of his last 6 starts and who will almost immediately establish himself as the Indians’ 3rd most consistent starter as he will finish the year with a respectable 4.39 ERA and a groundball percentage that justifies the Jake Westbrook comparisons. In a surprising move, the Indians promote 2010 1st Round Pick Drew Pomeranz from Akron (after just 2 starts there) to Columbus to take White’s spot in the Clippers’ rotation. To this point, Pomeranz has been absolutely dominant at every Minor-League stop he’s made, including striking out 15 in his second (and final) start as an Aero.

July 29th vs. Kansas City Royals
After driving in the game-winning run in the 9th inning, Jason Donald is called into Manny Acta’s office, where he is informed that he has just been traded to the Philadelphia Phillies along with RHP Chad Durbin. The Phillies, having learned that both Chase Utley and Brad Lidge will miss the remainder of the season earlier in the day and 5 games back of the Braves in the NL East, go into full-scale panic mode and begin to load up on both relievers and infielders to stabilize what have been the Achilles’ Heels of the team to this point. In exchange for Donald and Durbin (who has finally acquitted himself as a 7th inning option), the Indians receive power-hitting 1B/OF Jonathan Singleton, who is leading the Florida State League (High A) in both HR and OPS as a member of the Clearwater Thrashers. In meeting with the media to discuss the trade, Indians’ GM Chris Antonetti explained the rationale of the move as, “not a move that we really wanted to make as Donald has come on and stabilized 3B for us since he’s returned, both offensively and defensively, and Durbin has provided some much-needed veteran leadership in that bullpen. But the Phillies were looking for help and they obviously knew both of these guys. When we realized what they were offering us in Singleton, who is one of the most projectable power hitters in all of the Minor Leagues, we knew that it was a deal that was too good to pass up.” In corresponding moves, Columbus reliever Zach Putnam is called up to replace Durbin and a young 3B who has been blistering AAA pitching, particularly in the month of July (when he has posted an OPS of 1.345…with no errors) arrives in Cleveland to take the spot of Donald.
The Indians’ new 3B is referred to only as…The Chiz.

July 31st vs. Kansas City Royals
Just prior to the game against the cellar-dwelling Royals, the Indians trade LHP Rafael Perez to the Texas Rangers for a low level minor league RHP named David Perez. After struggling early in the season, Perez had found his rhythm (along with the rest of the bullpen) over the last six weeks and began to pitch in more meaningful situations after being relegated to the 5th and 6th innings for a short time in April and May. The Rangers, desperate for bullpen help to hold off the A’s in the AL West, make the move for Perez, who says nothing to the assembled press corps, ending his tenure with the Indians having never given an interview. In Perez’s place, the Indians promote LHP Nick Hagadone, who as acquitted himself nicely in a relief role, moving quickly from Akron to Columbus once he was told by the Indians to concentrate on refining a two-pitch mix, which improves his control greatly as he becomes the hard-throwing LH reliever that many envisioned when he was included in the Victor Martinez trade from the Red Sox.

August 4th vs. Boston Red Sox
Against his former teammates, Justin Masterson experiences his worst start of the season, in a summer full of them for the big RHP. The Red Sox batter him for 8 runs in 1 1/3 innings as JD Drew and David Ortiz go back-to-back on Masterson twice in the game en route to a 15-4 blowout as the Indians drop to 53-59 and back into sole possession of 4th place in the AL Central. Though he has struggled mightily throughout the season, sitting on an ERA of 5.15 at the beginning of August, Masterson has always maintained an optimistic outlook that better starts were just around the corner…that is, until now. After the game, Masterson uncharacteristically remains sullen after the game, rambling about how difficult this season has been for him and how this night was particularly difficult as he watched his former teammates run around the bases with little trouble against him. In the Red Sox clubhouse, Boston manager (and former Indians’ Front Office member) Terry Francona publicly questions the Indians’ strategy in keeping Masterson in the bullpen saying, “How long are they going to keep this experiment up with that kid? He’s got a Big-League arm, nobody’s questioning that…it’s just that they’re trying to make him something he’s not and they’re hurting Justin in the process.” While the Indians privately seethe that Francona would make such comments to the press and leave Masterson in the rotation for the rest of the year, his 5.35 ERA at the end of the season as he continued struggles with LH hitters and exorbitant BB numbers throughout the year portend that his September 25th start against the Twins will be the last time he starts a game for the Tribe, moving to a back-end-of-the-bullpen role in 2012.

August 18th vs. Chicago White Sox
The Indians win a 8-6 contest, paced by Travis Hafner getting on base all 5 times he steps to the plate, drawing 2 walks and hitting 3 singles as he will score every time he gets on base against the White Sox’ Mark Buerhle. Back on the play three days/off one day system that proved to be so effective in late 2010 after an extended DL stint in May caused by playing every day for the first two months, the 5 trips to 1st Base push Hafner’s OBP to .406, if only pushing his OPS to .809 as the power surges have been few and far between for Hafner. He will finish the season with 12 HR in only 110 games played as the Indians utilize a rotation mix of Shelley Duncan, Lou Marson, and Austin Kearns to make the production from their DH spot respectable, if not fear-inducing.

August 23rd vs. Seattle Mariners
After Mitch Talbot gives up 5 runs in the first 2 innings, the bullpen comes in to rescue the Indians from the jaws of defeat. As Zach Putnam, Nick Hagadone, Vinnie Pestano, and Tony Sipp hold the Mariners’ lineup scoreless through the 8th inning, the Indians chip away at the lead until they are able to score 2 runs in the bottom of the 8th inning via a 2-out Travis Buck triple that scores Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo to give the Indians a 6-5 lead heading into the top of the 9th. Indians’ closer Chris Perez comes out in the bottom of the 9th and strikes out all three hitters, the final hitter being none other than former Indian Chris Gimenez, who bestowed the nickname of “Pure Rage” upon the Indians’ young closer. After the game, when asked about the efforts of the Indians’ relievers, Gimenez tells the assembled press corps, “Look, I’ve been catching all of those guys for the last few years while I was with Cleveland and those bullpen arms are starting to arrive here for the Indians. After Mitch left, Wedgie said if we could grind out one more run, we might be able to put the game away. At the end of the day, we weren’t because those arms over there are pretty good and when that wild-haired, wild-eyed dude comes at you in the 9th, directing all of his rage into the strike zone…yeah, not many folks in Baseball are going to be able to do anything.”

August 31st vs. Oakland Athletics
Prior to the game with the A’s, the Indians announce that Grady Sizemore’s 2012 club option has been picked up for $9M with a 2-year extension added to it through 2014 for $11M guaranteed and a with a club option for 2015 for $8M with a $1M buyout. At the press conference, the Indians assert that Sizemore has continued to come back from his microfracture surgery and while he may never be the 30 HR/30 SB player that filled the #24 jersey in years past, that his performance in 2011, particularly after the All-Star Break when he has been able to play every day, gave them enough confidence to make the deal. The motivation for Sizemore comes obviously in the guarantee of the $9M in 2011, a number he would not get on the open market in the coming off-season, as he sacrifices some of his possible market value in the ensuing years for guaranteed money, now working on a three-year deal with a one year club option attached to it that would potentially keep Sizemore in Cleveland until he turned 32. Sizemore celebrates the signing by hitting a 2-run HR in the 6th inning, leading the Indians to victory as they run their record to 63-73, still sitting in 4th place in the AL Central. At the end of the year, Sizemore will finish with 16 HR and a .720 OPS, but he hits 11 of those 16 HR in the months of July, August, and September, compiling an .833 OPS after the All-Star Break.

September 7th vs. Detroit Tigers
In what is a glimpse into the future, Lonnie Chisenhall knocks Carlos Santana home with a game-winning double in the 7th inning to lead the Indians to a 4-3 victory over the Motor City Kitties. The double is Chisenhall’s third of the game as he will acquit himself quite nicely to MLB, stroking 14 doubles on the season despite playing only two months and swatting 6 HR in the 56 games he will play as an Indian en route to posting a .786 OPS for the Indians. While the other top position player prospect for the Indians, Jason Kipnis, remains in Columbus, hampered by injuries and blocked somewhat by the success of Cord Phelps as the Indians’ 2B, The Chiz becomes an immediate fan favorite in Cleveland as his presence supplies some teeth to the bottom third of the lineup and stabilizes 3B for the Indians for the first time since his mentor, Travis Fryman, retired after the 2002 season.

September 22nd vs. Chicago White Sox
Breaking a 5-game winning streak, the Indians fall to the White Sox 4-0, dropping the Tribe back into 4th place after their recent victories had pulled them even with Chicago for 3rd in the AL Central. The loss goes to RHP Corey Kluber, who finds himself in the rotation as a replacement for the shut-down Mitch Talbot, as Kluber goes 6 innings for the Tribe, allowing a 3-run HR to Paul Konerko in the 2nd, which would carry the Pale Hose to victory. Though Kluber rides the I-71 Shuttle for the majority of the year, he and Zach McAllister position themselves as possible starters for the 2012 Indians team by excelling in Columbus and holding their own, albeit inconsistently, for the parent club. Between Kluber and McAllister, Kluber seems to generate more excitement among the Tribe’s Front Office and coaching staff despite his struggles with control, as he tallies 52 strikeouts in 60 MLB innings and strikes out just more than a batter an inning in AAA.

September 28th vs. Detroit Tigers
The Indians fall in their final game of the 2011 season as they fall one game short of 80 wins, finishing the season at 79-83, placing them 4th in the AL Central. Despite the victory on the final day, the Tigers fall short of pushing Minnesota into a one-game playoff for the AL Central as the Twins defeat Kansas City on the final game of the season, finishing 93-69 besting the Tigers’ final record by one game.

In the bowels of Comerica Park after the game, Manny Acta cannot hide his enthusiasm and optimism for the team that takes up the locker room beside his office. Avoiding discussing any of the disappointing aspects of the season and the fact that the Indians fail to crack the .500 mark despite a late push, Acta trumpets the accomplishments of his young team and foresees even brighter days.

On the lineup, Acta beams while proclaiming, “Go take a look at the lineup that we had in there today…those are some pieces you build around. Cabrera, Choo, Santana, and Buck anchoring the middle of the order, with Grady around as he continues to work his way back. Throw Lonnie and Phelps in there with Kipnis still down in AAA and that’s the start of something special that I think our fans can now wrap their heads around.”

When questioned about the season-long inconsistency from the rotation, Acta agains turns the conversation to the brighter side saying, “Look at what Carmona, Carrasco, and White did down the stretch. Sure, we had some rough patches in there and we had some young guys taking their lumps throughout the season. But if you give me those three arms, I can build a rotation around that…and how about our boy Drew Pomeranz, throwing that no-hitter in the AAA playoffs? You think he’s far away?”

Acta takes the opportunity from a question about Masterson’s season-long struggles to turn the focus onto the bullpen saying, “With Pure Rage throwing like he did all year and Vinnie and Tony in front of him, guys like Putnam and Hagadone and even CC Lee getting a taste of some success in MLB this year, there’s some hard throwers back there. Maybe we see what Justin can do back there and put him in that mix. It’s really too early to think about right now…all I can tell you is that I’m excited about this team going forward”.

With that, Acta leans back and smiles, seemingly thinking of brighter days ahead…

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Lazy Sunday Drilling to the Core

Now entering the week in which baseball that matters will be played, the 2011 season is so close that the butterflies are fluttering for most baseball fans. Opening Day is finally this Friday and, though my general disdain for the Opening Day crowd is well-known (more people looking for a reason to party than to watch a baseball game) and given that I prefer Game #2, which includes “real” Tribe fans, the opportunity to attend Opening Day with The DiaBride and The DiaTot, will have me heading down to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario this Friday afternoon.

While I had to pass on the invitation to attend the Indians’ new Social Suite (which looks pretty great) for the Home Opener, the fact that I’ll be going down with my boy and my wife have me excited to head down there to enjoy all of this Feller hoopla will be occurring prior to the game and an actual…you know, Indians’ game has the juices flowing on this cold Sunday morning.

However, we are still about 5 days away from that first pitch being thrown and the analysis of the off-season and Spring Training being just that – analysis, with the questions that we’ve been asking for months now hopefully finding some answers as the days, weeks, and months roll on in 2011. That’s why this is always a bit of an odd time to think about (or write about) the Indians as most of the pieces that emerge at the end of Spring Training examine how the final roster spots will shake out as the arguments over the 23rd to 25th spots on the roster are overanalyzed to impossible levels.

As the shocking news that Buck AND Duncan have made the team (I know, buckle up…) may seem compelling at some level, there are far more important questions facing this team that are unrelated to the 5th OF, the backup catcher or the final three spots in the bullpen. Looking at any or all of those “battles” is all well and good, but the outcomes or the “winners” in those situations are going to have a slightly higher impact than you or I will on the win total for the Indians this season.

Rather, let’s take the opportunity to use this last Sunday prior to Opening Day to take a bigger picture of the situation in front of the Indians with a kind of a “where the Indians stand” as an organization and what is necessary for them to accomplish to show that there is, in fact, a light at the end of this dark tunnel that we’ve been traveling through for the better part of the last two years. Certainly, this isn’t the time to re-hash what happened from the beginning of the 2008 season to now (contracts were given out to players that regressed or were injured, poor drafting dried up the pipeline, and veterans were moved for younger players) as those topics have been beaten to death and the Tribe fans that are unable to move past the last two seasons are the same ones that still think that any lineup that doesn’t evoke memories of that 1995 batting order is substandard.

What every Spring is about is looking forward with some hope (and you should read this if you haven’t already from Jonathan Knight) – which is something that most Indians’ fans oddly have trouble doing, despite the fact that most of those same fans look forward to the NFL Draft more than any other day on the NFL calendar and are counting the ping-pong balls that they hope will lead them to Kyrie Irving or Derrick Williams – and there should be no shortage of hope on the North Coast. However, that hope is largely tied into the individual performances of particular players (who aren’t the 5th starter, the backup catcher, or the 5th OF) going forth this season, because the Indians are at the point in their developmental curve where the production (or lack thereof) from certain young players are going to tell us a good deal about the future of this franchise, both in the near-term and long-term.

To start off on that, Paul Swydan at Fangraphs had a very frank piece about the Indians in the context of Fangraphs’ rankings of each MLB franchise from bottom to top. Swydan looks very honestly at the strengths and weaknesses of the organization and while he’s not overwhelmingly positive about the outlook for the franchise, he does put forth some concepts very clearly in terms of what the Indians are trying to do this year and beyond:
The talent on hand still needs to make the jump from paper champions to producing on the field – something evidenced by the fact that they felt compelled to sign Orlando Cabrera to man second base this season – but you can see how the pieces of the puzzle should fit. The best way to compete long-term is to have a core group of players that mature at the same time, and this group of Indians fits that profile as well as you possibly can.
The Indians payroll has regressed to 2005 levels, and the ballpark might not be chock full of Tribe fanatics like it used to be, but there is promise there. The team on the field this year may not be good, but it is largely cost controlled, has more reinforcements that should arrive in the near-term, and the front office is smart enough to determine who among this group of players should be there long-term.

While the whole piece is worth a read, the two bolded sentences are what caught my eye as it represents about as good of a one-sentence-only explanation of the Indians’ strategy and the application of that strategy that I’ve seen. It shouldn’t be a new concept to you if you’ve been hanging around these parts and realize that the Indians made many of their trades with an eye at acquiring talent that would arrive and mature around the same time, with the idea of assembling a similar “core group of players” that they did from 2003 to 2005, when Victor, Hafner, Sizemore, CC, and Westbrook all emerged together to form the base for the 2007 team.

Of course, if that’s the plan, the question needs to be asked as we sit at the precipice of the 2011 season as to which of the current Indians (on the parent club or beneath) can make up this next “core group of players”?

The most obvious candidate was profiled by Hardball Talk’s Aaron Gleeman, who had some pretty glowing things to say about The Axe Man:
Because excellent plate discipline is such a big part of Santana’s game and not everyone appreciates the value of on-base percentage relative to, say, homers and RBIs, his numbers may not scream superstar. However, he’s capable of becoming an elite offensive catcher and is also no slouch defensively behind the plate, giving him MVP-caliber upside.

“MVP-caliber upside” is something that I’m not sure anyone would have asserted about Victor back in 2003 or 2004, yet Santana is universally lauded as “capable of becoming an elite offensive catcher” and his presence (plus the fact that keeping him in Columbus until July of last year keeps him under club control through the 2016 season) in the lineup for the coming years certainly constitutes his inclusion as one of the potential “core” players going forward for the current Tribe.

Past the obviousness of Santana, there is Choo (who remains under club control through 2013, despite every attempt by national writers and Jim Ingraham to ignore this and try to figure out when he’s going to get traded), who Gleeman calls, in a later piece, “one of MLB’s best, most underrated players” and probably Chris Perez (who had the 8th best ERA+ in MLB last year among players with 60 or more IP), even if the newly-minted closer still needs to prove that he can continue his dominance of the 9th inning as saves aren’t granted to anyone on the basis of hair, beard, Twitter presence, or self-confidence.

That would be three that would be obvious as cornerstones going forward for the Indians and having them in the middle of the lineup and at the back end of their bullpen is certainly a nice start. However, given the inexperience that Santana and Perez have at the MLB level, they still have quite a bit of proving to do over the course of the 2011 season and beyond to establish themselves as players that don’t just project as difference-makers, but who actually do make a difference between wins and losses.

In that column, they are not alone as the Indians’ roster is flush with players that may have some level of prospect pedigree but who need to prove that they are not just capable MLB players, but players who can contribute on a winning team. How that plays out is what bears watching this season as Swyden asserts in the aforementioned Fangraphs piece, “the team on the field this year may not be good, but it is largely cost controlled, has more reinforcements that should arrive in the near-term, and the front office is smart enough to determine who among this group of players should be there long-term.”

There are segments of the fanbase (and large ones at that) who would challenge the assertion about the intelligence of the Front Office, but in that piece in which Gleeman called The BLC “one of MLB’s best, most underrated players”, he finishes the piece with, “my guess is they’ll show some relatively modest improvement from last season’s 69 wins to somewhere in the mid-70s while having some very interesting decisions to make at the trading deadline.”

Since I’m going to dismiss the trading deadline decisions out of hand (as nobody seems to realize that Sizemore’s club option for 2012 becomes a player option if he’s traded, that Choo is under control for three more years, and that Carmona is working on a contract that includes club options for the next FOUR years), what if the Indians finished the season in the mid-70s in terms of wins?
Would that be a success or a failure of a season?

That’s a hard answer to come to, although that largely depends how they would come about that win total, in terms of contributions from particular players. Specifically, what contributions come from players who are ostensibly paid the league minimum and who are a few years away from even sniffing arbitration.

Speaking of those league-minimum salaried players, since this is the time of year that everyone moans and wails about the payroll of the team (and I wonder why, given the headlines coming from the PD), can we please remember how the tear-down and ramp-up of the Indians (by this very Front Office) happened from 2002 to 2005 as the Indians pared back payroll while they loaded up on cost-controlled, similarly-aged players that would…wait for it…arrive and mature together with the idea that they could peak as a playoff team?

Lest you forgot, just to look at that tear-down and the beginning of the ramp-up, here is the Team Record and Payroll from 2002 to 2004:
2002 – 74-88 / $78.9M
2003 – 68-94 / $48.5M
2004 – 80-82 / $34.3M

Very quickly, compare those to what we’ve seen the last two years (in terms of records and payrolls) and what this year’s payroll figures to settle in at:
2009 – 65-97 / $81.6M
2010 – 69-93 / $61.5M
2011 – ??-?? / $48.4M

Back in 2004, the Indians began to identify which of their league-minimum salaried players were worthy of receiving long-term contracts and began to lock those players up accordingly, buying out years of FA in exchange for financial security. As those players accumulated more service time and as their salary numbers escalated, the Indians have had sequentially higher payrolls, but that doesn’t mean that the team jumped from a $34M payroll to a $70M payroll as the team record improved.

To wit, that 2005 team that finished with 93 wins had a $41.5M payroll (or lower than this year’s projected payroll) and that 2007 team that was one game away from the World Series? It was a $61.7M payroll or about $200K more than last year’s 2010 team…seriously.

While it may seem like I’m getting sidetracked, it actually speaks to the strategy at hand here - load up on the youngsters, identify which ones are going to be “core” players and sign them to deals that buy up years of their FA. That’s what the Indians did in the early-to-mid-1990s, it’s what they did in the early-to-mid-2000s, and it’s what they’re attempting to do in the early-to-mid-2010s.

Back in 1993, nobody knew what Jim Thome or Manny Ramirez or Al Belle or Omar Vizquel were going to become just as nobody knew who Victor Martinez or CC Sabathia or Grady Sizemore would turn into when it was 2003. Sure, there were hopes and aspirations, but short of being able to look deeply into the future, any assertions of “sure” things were folly because of how much can go right or wrong with prospects in baseball. Perhaps Manny was a generational talent and CC was an obvious ace, but it took a while (for CC at least) to establish himself as a consistent presence for the Indians and the answer as to whether he was ever going to “figure it out” didn’t come quickly.

Not many people care to remember this while CC pitches for the Evil Empire, but if you combine the numbers for CC’s 2004 and 2005 seasons, you come to a 4.07 ERA (105 ERA+) as CC had not yet realized how to pitch, something that would come about around the middle of June of 2006 (he had a 4.18 ERA in mid-June of that year) and lead to his evolution into the dominant frontline starter.

Of course, it’s fair to ask whether there are players on the Indians’ roster that generate the kind of excitement that CC did back then?

Probably not (although Pomeranz is certainly generating some heavy breathing), but the point to injecting CC’s numbers from 2004 and 2005 in there is to assert that the answers aren’t going to come quickly for the current batch of Tribe youngsters, although 2011 should start to provide some answers. If we’re starting with Santana, Choo, and CF Perez as potential “core” members based on their 2010 performances, what the Indians need is for other players to emerge here as more than complementary parts and to show some sort of potential as elite players. If you’ll remember that mid-to-late-2000s team was built, the team that emerged in 2007 was ostensibly built was around a couple of elite players complemented by pieces and parts, young and old.

Arguments could be made with the pros and cons that Asdrubal could become a “core” player and an argument could be made that Asdrubal should have already established himself as more than a complementary piece, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued him. Perhaps 2011 is the year that he actually flashes the leather that earned him his “slick-fielding” reputation and can replicate the success that he enjoyed at the plate in 2009, but Cabrera (who, like Choo, is club-controlled THROUGH 2013…as it stands right now) is far from alone in having potential, if not consistent production.

The once high hopes for Matt MaTola have taken a considerable hit, something that hasn’t been lost on a couple of hacks as well as Terry Pluto, who all pointed out the importance of MaTola on this team going forward. Maybe MaTola shows why he was a universally well-regarded prospect when he was moved or maybe he moves into placeholder (or worse) territory. Honestly, you could go up and down the roster and see a glass half-full and a glass half-empty situation for most of these young players, just as easily as you can see the overflowing glass and the completely empty cup for guys like Carrasco and Masterson, just to name a couple.

But the only way that the answers will come on some of these guys is through their performance in MLB and, even then, there’s no guarantee that they become the cornerstones that the Indians hope so badly they will become. However, it’s important to remember that the 2004 team had an infield of Broussard, Belliard, Vizquel, and Blake with an outfield that included both Matt Lawton and Jody Gerut, so the emergence of players in 2011 doesn’t have to be unilateral and overwhelming.

Very simply, the Indians need one or two players to emerge as pillars of the lineup (other than Choo and Santana) this year to at least show that a bright future is ahead for the offense. Let’s all remember that Victor and Hafner established themselves in 2004 with Sizemore not arriving for a year after those two to form the troika that would pace the Tribe’s offense at its peak in the late-2000s.

With that knowledge, isn’t it more obvious that the Indians need a just a couple of other players (and it could come next year if you want to use the Sizemore 2005 comparison…ahem, The Chiz and Kipnis), as they could have two of the more effective hitters in MLB this year in the middle of their lineup. If you think that’s hyperbole, realize that in the Marcel Projections for the 2011 season, The BLC has the 11th highest projected wOBA with Santana not far behind with the 28th highest projected wOBA in all of MLB. Those are cornerstones that you could build a lineup around.

In the near-term Sizemore is a question mark as it is fairly obvious that the Indians will cut ties with Hafner when his contract runs out at the end of next season (if not earlier), but one (or both) of those players re-capturing some level of their past success would go a long way to an easier transition to seeing some of those players establish themselves into legitimate contributors for the next decade.

Already I can hear it – sure, Choo and Santana look great, but that mid-to-late-2000s team was built on starting pitching, and that just isn’t on this roster.

You’re not going to hear an argument here that those teams were built on a strong rotation, but the recent performances of CC and Lee have colored the memories of those players as those 2004 and 2005 teams emerged. The truth is that CC and Westbrook were the best starting pitchers of those teams as they matured and represented the only two “core” pitchers from 2004 to 2007. You could say that Lee was a “core” player from 2004 to 2007 if you’d like, but you’d be wrong as he posted a 4.76 ERA (92 ERA+) over those four seasons and really only had one excellent season among those four, a body of work that Westbrook (4.07 ERA, 108 ERA+ over 4 seasons) far outpaced over the same timeframe.

Regardless (and back to this team), the questions remain as to whether Carmona continue to rebound with Carrasco emerging going to be a pleasant (if inconsistently pleasant) surprise this year. If they’re able to do that it provides the Indians with some level of stability at the top of the rotation…but it’s just as easy to see Carmona hitting a plateau and CarCar being done in by home runs. Hope may exist that Masterson can evolve into a innings-eating middle-of-the-rotation starter, but fear is just as prevalent that he’s going to end up in the bullpen, even if it strengthens the back-end of a burgeoning bullpen.

In a piece on the Indians’ rotation from Anthony Castrovince, he takes a clear look at the Tribe starters going forward and this comparable for Al White caught my eye:
A more applicable expectation would be for him to emerge as a Jake Westbrook type who can give you a ton of quick innings and routinely deliver double-digit wins. While it's a little less sexy, there is, obviously, a lot of value in that type of talent.

As AC writes, there is “a lot of value in that type of talent” and if White projects as that groundball specialist who sits in the middle of the rotation, that proved to be an important role filled by Westbrook in the mid-to-late-2000s and as much as people want to see White as a 1st Rounder heading to the top of the rotation, if he could settle into a Jake Westbrook-type role going forward…the Indians would welcome it.

At this point however, it’s all projection with “answers” coming from opinions and not from actual MLB innings pitched…and you know what?
If the Indians come out of 2011 with Carmona, Carrasco, and White as potential “core” players, then 2011 is a rousing success, win-loss record be damned.

That being said, I’m not going to sit here and say that Player X or Player Y – position player or pitcher – is going to emerge in 2011 because the roster is flush with guys that could (operative word) accelerate their development and establish themselves, but who could just as easily get stuck in neutral or go in reverse. I’d love to say that C. Perez and Sipp are poised to lock down the 8th and 9th innings for the next few years, but I’ve learned enough about bullpens in the last few years to know that I know nothing about predicting the effectiveness of relievers.

All told, what the Indians need this season is a couple of players to emerge as legitimate “core” players and some level of advancement needs to be seen because, as Swydan adroitly pointed out in the Fangraphs piece, the Indians need “to make the jump from paper champions to producing on the field” which is something that group of young players did in the 2004 and 2005 seasons. While every fan remembers the tear-down of 2008 and, more acutely, 2009, the build-up has somehow slipped everyone’s mind and the evolution from a team that “featured” Broussard, Lawton, Jason Davis, and others into a 93-win team in 2005 came when the potential of certain players became legitimate production for those players.

Entering this season, that’s the thing to watch all year as the potential within this current group needs to become production that can be counted on going forward. Where it’s going to come from is anyone’s guess, but standing at the precipice of the 2011 season, we’re about to find out…starting this Friday.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Indians Interludes

As has been the custom in these parts for the past few years, a sure sign that the Indians’ season is not far off (and yes, that is Rocco Scotti belting it out at old Municipal) comes in the annual suggestions for At-Bat Music for the individual Indians’ players. The complete list of suggestions through the years can be accessed via last year’s piece, when I was joined in my song suggestions by Anthony Castrovince (which had a certain angle that should have come as no surprise to anyone who has read AC), who later provided the actual list of songs that players used as a form of introduction.

Since this has the possibility to get away from me, I’m going to keep it with players that are assumed to be in either the Opening Day lineup/rotation/bullpen or whose omission from the Opening Day lineup/rotation/bullpen is caused only by injury, with the idea that they’ll take the majority of PA at a particular position once healthy. Thus, as much as I’d like to include Cake’s “Sick of You” for a particular former 1st Round Pick and perennial 4th OF with a proclivity for circuitous routes to balls in the outfield and as much as I’d like to use a song titled “Schism” for Dave Huff, which puts what is between him and the organization into some proper context, those are not included in the following suggestions.

Additionally, I’m not even going to pile on Jensen Lewis in the body of the piece by suggesting (while providing the YouTube link) that he should use Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” because the opening lines to the song (“I used to rule the world / Seas would rise when I gave the word / Now in the morning I sleep alone / Sweep the streets I used to own”) lay out a pretty accurate portrayal of Lewis’ journey from 2007 and the last few months of 2008 – when he was the Indians’ closer – to clearing waivers and starting the season in Columbus.

Instead, for the purposes of (relative) brevity, I’ll simply go around the diamond (with the May 1st lineup, not the April 1st one), then into the assumed rotation and through the assumed bullpen…saving it all up for the big finish by “closing” it out strong.

So break out the pitch pipe and let the music fill the air…

Carlos Santana – “Welcome to the Terrordome”, Public Enemy
It is not lost on me that the Indians’ backstop shares a name with one of the more famous guitarists of all time (remember, I call him “The Axe Man”), but I’ll come clean and admit that I’ve been waiting for an absolute monster offensive prospect to emerge for the Indians to suggest this classic PE track. While the easy out is to suggest some clean guitar riff from the Tribe C’s namesake, Santana should be striding to the plate with a tone-setting beat and with the ferocity of Chuck D, welcoming everyone to the Terrordome.


Matt LaPorta – “How Soon is Now”, The Smiths
Matt MaTola turned 26 in January and, having played a total of 162 MLB games, simply has not yet shown that he is capable of the offensive production that was hoped for when he was the centerpiece of the CC deal 2 ½ years ago. While Morrissey never actually utters the words that serve as the title to The Smiths’ most popular tune, it certainly serves as a quick way to ask the question on everyone’s mind about MaTola. And if the title doesn’t convey feeling well enough, how about this verse: “When you say it’s going to happen “now” / well what exactly does that mean? / See I’ve already waited too long / and all my hope is gone”.
For LaPorta, 2011 may represent a last chance at saving that hope…


The OC – “Hold On”, Wilson Phillips
And now, this year’s winner of the “Ryan Garko Memorial Song” is…UNCLE ORLANDO! Bestowed annually upon the player who best personifies the “placeholder” status that Ryan Garko carried so well during his years as a Cleveland Indian, Cabrera has been selected to be accompanied by the harmonies of Wilson Phillips when striding to the plate. With Cord Phelps and Jason Kipnis perhaps joining the Indians at some point this year, the veteran (signed to a $1.3M deal that the Indians wouldn’t have too much trouble eating) just has to live by that mantra to “hold on for one more day”.


Asdrubal Cabrera – “Waiting for the Man”, Velvet Underground
Some time ago, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus asserted that if looking at Cabrera’s numbers in 2009 “doesn’t scream ‘future star’ to you, check your ears” and while Cabrera’s 2010 became a completely lost season, the idea that the “future star” potential is still there for Cabrera is one of the more promising aspects of the 2011 season. That said, Cabrera has to show in 2011 that he can be “the Man” both offensively and defensively to re-establish himself as a “future star” and until he can show that, we’ll keep “waiting”.


Jason Donald – “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”, AC/DC
Did anyone else notice last year that Donald’s uniform is perpetually dirty, either because he’s diving around the infield when nobody’s looking or simply pulling the old Little League trick (picking up some dirt and wiping it on your shirt to make it look like you’ve had an active game), and because of that, this anthem from the Australian rockers fits Donald. Oh, and he’s getting paid the league minimum…you know, “dirt cheap”.


Grady Sizemore – “Break on Through (To the Other Side)”, The Doors
We’ve seen Grady, the erstwhile superstar, and Grady, the hobbled shell of his former self. Now as he stands at the edge of his final year of guaranteed money, with the future of his career in the balance as he recovers from microfracture surgery, it certainly would be nice if Grady could “break on through (to the other side)”, even if it means a breakthrough into effectiveness, if not a glorious return to the AL’s elite.


The BLC – “Nightrain”, Guns N’ Roses
Sure, you could go with “Runnin’ with the Devil” from Van Halen in…um, honor of Choo’s agent of choice or “Train Kept a Rollin’” from Aersomith, but there is no better riff that I can think of to get across that SS Choo is “loaded like a freight train / flyin’ like an aeroplane” carrying the Tribe offense for “one more time tonight”.


Mike Brantley – “Rolling in the Deep”, Adele
The song begins with the soulful voice of Adele crying out that, “there’s a fire starting in my heart / reaching a fever pitch and it’s bring me out the dark” and for Brantley – who will turn 24 in mid-May and has yet to display that he projects as a legitimate everyday MLB player – let’s hope that Brantley’s about to come “out the dark” while he’s “rolling in the deep” recesses of the green grass at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.


Travis Hafner – “The Good Life”, Weezer
Umm…cue the lyrics because we would take this guy – used to be known as Pronk –back:
And I don’t wanna be an old man anymore
It’s been a year or two since I was out on the floor
Shaking booty, making sweet love all the night
It’s time I got back to the good life
It’s time I got back, it’s time I got back
And I don't even know how I got off the track
I wanna go back, yeah!


Fausto Carmona – “Tighten Up”, The Black Keys
Look past the unbelievably thunderous drumming from Patrick Carney or the ripping riffs and haunting vocals from Dan Carney and even look past that this duo is from Akron when realizing how perfect this is for Fausto. Just check these lines – “When I was young and moving fast / nothing slowed me down, oh, slowed me down / Now I let the others pass / because I’ve come around, oh, come around cause I’ve found” – and hope that maybe Fausto has “found” himself again.


Justin Masterson – “Mudfootball”, Jack Johnson
If there is a more laid-back, happy go-lucky player in MLB, I’d like to be introduced to him as every interview with Masterson involves a toothy smile, a “happy to be here” tone, and usually some intonation of how “blessed” he is to be where he is. Given his island roots (OK, he was just born in Jamaica and spent his formative years in Indiana and outside of Dayton), the musings of Jack Johnson over some guitar strums and some steel drums is a nice accompaniment for Masterson.


Carlos Carrasco – “Animal”, Neon Trees
The chorus to this ditty goes “Oh oh, I want some more…oh oh, what are you waiting for” and while the song obviously is not meant to be sung to a just-24-year-old Venezuelan RHP, what Carrasco was able to accomplish at the end of 2010 certainly makes the chorus applicable to what most Tribe fans would like to see out of CarCar this year – basically more of that. As for what he’s waiting for, let’s just hope its Kyle Drabek to be in MLB for an extended period of time as well so he can prove to the skeptics that he was the perennial top Phillies’ prospect for a reason.


Mitch Talbot – “Unleash the Fury”, Tom Green
Holding over from last year’s suggestions because I will not rest until this goes into heavy rotation at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario on the big screen, Tom Green intermittently strumming a guitar and screaming at Mitch to “Unleash the Fury” should be played on loop whenever Talbot takes the mound for the Tribe.


Josh Tomlin – “Tuff Enuff”, The Fabulous Thunderbirds
Long ago, a VHS tape called “Superstars” fused music and sports like never before and one of my favorite videos highlighted NBA players that were overlooked or undervalued because of their size or what they COULDN’T do on a basketball court. Since it ran in stark comparison to, say, the ‘Nique Wilkins video, the little guys’ video (which included Mark Price) spoke to the scrappy point guard that I saw in the mirror everyday as a 6th grader. Like the group of players in that video, Tomlin is an undervalued, often overlooked commodity who has done everything that the Indians have asked of him and finds himself still fighting for his 6” in MLB…which is the width of the pitching rubber at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, among other places.


Vinnie Pestano – “Running Down a Dream”, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
Of course, “Woke Up This Morning” (The Sopranos opening theme song) is the easy one here given Vincent William Pestano’s…um, heritage, but Pestano sprints in from the bullpen like he can’t wait to grab the ball. We all remember the last Indian to do that (John Rocker…in case you don’t remember) and how absurdly great his entrance to the field was, even if his pitching was memorable for all of the wrong reasons. For Pestano, the first guitar chord of the classic Tom Petty song should provide all the motivation for the 20th Round Draft Pick (hence the “dream” part) to get to the pitcher’s mound.


Frank Herrmann – “Paid in Full”, Eric B. & Rakim
A vastly underrated song from a largely forgotten duo from the late 80s/early 90s provides the walking music for Herrmann, who holds a degree in economics from Harvard and who once interned on Wall Street. While most of his Crimson classmates were off making hay in the world of high finance, there’s no question that Herrmann spent many nights on buses in the minor leagues just (as Rakim asserts), “Thinkin’ of a master plan / ‘Cuz ain’t nuthin’ but sweat inside my hand / So I dig deep in my pocket, all my money is spent…Thinkin’ how I could get some dead Presidents”. With an MLB salary likely in his sights, finally Herrmann will get some “dead Presidents”…just not via the route that most Harvard econ majors come about them.


Tony Sipp – “Voodoo Chile”, Jimi Hendrix
Since Sipp hails from Pascagoula, Mississippi and while “Born on the Bayou” by CCR is probably the more obvious selection here, I’m thinking that the opening riff of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” is better served to set the mood for a late-inning reliever. Considering that Sipp’s hometown is less than two hours from The Big Easy, I’ll parlay that “Voodoo” from N’Awlins into a killer introduction for the Indians’ burgeoning set-up man.


Rafael Perez – “Sound of Silence”, Simon and Garfunkel
To my knowledge, Perez has never given an interview to the assembled press corps and, while he may be more comfortable coming out of the bullpen to complete silence (or maybe the sound of crickets chirping), I’d prefer the soft singing of Paul and Art which, of course call to mind the classic Frank the Tank tranquilizer/fall in the pool scene from “Old School”.


Chris F. Perez – “Guerrilla Radio”, Rage Against the Machine
As much as I like my suggestion last year of “Black Betty” to continue the comparison between Kenny F. Powers and Chris F. Perez, the Indians’ closer NEEDS a song from the band that is so full of rage that it serves as the first word in the band’s name. This particular cut from the anger that is Rage finishes out with a stream of screaming
“Lights Out, Guerrilla Radio…turn that $#!+ up!”
Yeah, that’s an appropriate tone-setter for the onset of Pure Rage to start the 9th…

There you have it…
As always, sync up your iPods with the proper music listed so, if nothing else, you can make your own “walk-in” music for the players from the comfort of your home…or at least your mother’s basement.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Lazy Sunday at the Hot Corner…Again

The Madness of March is upon us and while I’m not going to be the guy to tell you that I had Richmond in the Sweet 16 (even if I just did, a move prompted by watching them thump my beloved Dayton Flyers in the A-10 Championship), no sports fan worth his salt can say that this isn’t the most enjoyable time of the year for sports. We all stay up late, watching teams that we’ve never seen or cared about before – but find ourselves cheering for because we picked them in a bracket – while spending our weekends teaching our 4-year-olds why a young man goes by the name “Jimmer”.

Obviously, I’m not immune to this Madness and given that The DiaBride’s family hails from The Cream City, I spent my Friday night at The Q cheering on MY Marquette Warriors (and yes, I’m aware that some refer to them as “Golden Eagles”) against the hated Xavier Musketeers (hey, I’m a UD grad…what do you expect) after battling through what was probably the largest non-St. Paddy’s Day or Opening Day crowd I’ve ever seen in downtown Cleveland. Speaking of Opening Day, we now sit less than two weeks away from the beginning of April and the beginning of the Tribe season and with that, let’s get loose on a Lazy Sunday…

The news of the week broke yesterday afternoon and it obviously concerns the never-ending soap opera that is 3B as a CT scan revealed a small crack in the bone of Jason Donald’s left hand, which will sideline him past Opening Day with the current plans putting him in rehab games in “early April”.
And like sands through the hourglass…

Though this obviously represents a tough break (pun intended) for Donald, who was thought to have a few months at 3B to himself, the conversation turns (once again) to the Opening Day 3B…just when that topic was supposed to have been put to bed. While that “Opening Day 3B” designation is largely a symbolic one (as Donald’s injury could only sideline him until mid-April or so, until you consider that this is the Indians), the options that seem to be there in Donald’s place comes down to Jack Hannahan and Luis Valbuena. I’m not counting Sonny Nix because…well, because he’s not a good 3B and has been playing 2B all Spring and I’m not including The Chiz because…well, I’ll get to that.

That said, if the legitimate options are Louie the Fifth and Hannahan, it’s actually more than possible that the Indians could carry both IF out of Goodyear with Valbuena’s ability to play multiple positions around the infield making him better suited to fill the utility role, one he may be filling for the majority of the year for the Tribe. If that’s the case with Valbuena as the Futility IF, that leaves us with Jack Hannahan and while the comparison has been made (poorly) that Jack Hannahan may be another Casey Blake, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here and realize that Hannahan, who is now 31, has posted these two lines at the two highest levels of competition:
Hannahan – MLB
.224 BA / .311 OBP/ .347 SLG in 981 PA in 290 games

Hannahan – AAA
.269 BA / .370 OBP / .412 SLG in 1,660 PA in 405 games

For a point of reference, when Casey Blake debuted with the Indians in 2003, he had accumulated these lines as a 29-year-old looking to break in with the Tribe:
Blake – MLB
.232 BA / .304 OBP / .339 SLG in 125 PA in 49 games

Blake – AAA
.290 BA / .373 OBP / .482 SLG in 1,880 PA in 440 games

Wait, you say…those MLB numbers look similar.
Well yes, until you see that Hannahan has put up those lines over 290 MLB games and Blake’s came in only 49 MLB games. The other BIG difference between the two comes in their AAA SLG as Blake had shown power in AAA (65 HR in 440 games) whereas Hannahan (37 career AAA HR in 405 games there) simply has not. If Blake was a surprise at the plate in 2003 (and thereafter), his AAA numbers showed that he had the ability to hit (particularly with some power), even if he hadn’t had the chance to show it in MLB on an extended basis. Hannahan, on the other hand, has had extensive opportunities in MLB to hold down a 3B job and simply hasn’t as his offensive numbers simply haven’t justified his inclusion in an everyday lineup.

That’s not to say that Hannahan is worthless as his glove has always been his calling card. Since defensive metrics (UZR, Zone Rating, dWAR) are still a work in progress and usually contradict each other, I’m not going to assert any measure of Hannahan’s ability in the field by citing those. Rather, I’ll point out that in the two seasons in which he was a full-time 3B for the Athletics, he was rated as the 4th best fielding 3B by John Dewan’s Fielding Bible voting in 2008, following that up with an 8th place finish in 2009.

Not bad, right?
Now remember how the Indians have a bunch of groundball pitchers with more coming and how the Tribe’s infield defense last years was positively abysmal?
Well, if we’re talking about a stop-gap to await the return for the previously thought-of “stop-gap” at 3B (Donald), the Indians should go with Hannahan out of the gate and hope that Donald’s hand heals quickly which would allow them to get back to the original infield alignment that was assumed when Spring Training started.

Already I can hear it – really, Jack Hannahan?
Not sure if you’ve heard about this guy that was tearing up the Cactus League…plays 3B, known simply as The Chiz?

Yes, I’m aware of The Chiz, but the argument from this space last weekend still holds true (despite the now-embarrassing level of attempted controversy by the city’s only remaining paper in terms of rabble-rousing on this Chisenhall thing), and it’s worth inserting this piece from MLB Trade Rumors on this whole delaying FA thing just to get the facts straight and to provide some MLB context:
The best recent example of a possible intentional free agency postponement is the Rays’ Evan Longoria, who started the ‘08 season at Triple-A and spent 13 days there before making his big league debut. He ended up accruing 170 days of service time in ‘08, two days short of a full year. Rays players were unhappy when Longoria was reassigned, but executive vice president Andrew Friedman said service time considerations were “virtually irrelevant” in their decision because the Rays expected to sign the third baseman long-term.
The Rays managed to lock Longoria up to an unprecedented contract less than a week after his debut. But in that contract, 2014 represents his first free agent year, when it would have been 2013 had he broken camp with the team. As it stands, Longoria gave the team club options on three free agent years. Had he been called up a few days earlier, the contract might only allow for options through 2015 instead of ‘16.

As a quick aside before getting to the bolded portion, does that quote that “service time considerations were ‘virtually irrelevant’ in their decision” sound familiar, in terms of what has been coming out of Chris Antonetti’s mouth recently with The Chiz talk?

Of course it does, but if you’re taking Antonetti at his word on that (or believe what Friedman said about Longoria), then you’re not understanding how this thing works. Seriously, what does anyone expect any MLB Front Office to say, given the outrage from the Players Union and even a likely disciplinary action that would ensue if Antonetti came out and explained the player control aspect of the decision with Chisenhall?

Nevertheless, what’s most interesting (other than that this was done by everyone’s darling right now in terms of how to run an MLB franchise – the Rays) is that last part which was admittedly bolded by me. Remember that bit last week about the Indians when I wrote that “if his final year of club control is 2017 and the Indians approach Chisenhall at some point in the next couple of years to give him guaranteed money while buying out FA years (as has been their modus operandi), those FA years start a year later and the Indians would be controlling a player like The Chiz even longer into his career”?
Yeah, that…

That being said, this isn’t to assert that Lonnie Chisenhall is Evan Longoria because he isn’t (and this is a great read from Tony Lastoria as he relays the views of an opposing scout on The Chiz and MANY others) and the likelihood of the Indians offering The Chiz “an unprecedented contract” less than a week after his debut is both non-existent and imprudent for the team. While The Chiz’s future certainly holds promise, the facts laid out here last week as to why he shouldn’t be the Opening Day 3B still hold true, even if it means a few weeks of Jack Hannahan until Jason Donald’s hand fully heals.

Yet, despite all of the logic and prudence that may exist with The Chiz not starting the season in Cleveland, don’t think that the drumbeat for a highly-touted prospect to be on the Opening Day roster is unique to Cleveland. As Craig Calcaterra points out at Hardball Talk, it’s happening out in San Francisco with Brandon Belt…and that’s just one instance that happened to catch my eye.

Of course, that “drumbeat” will only grow stronger as Opening Day approaches and with every PA by Jack Hannahan in April that doesn’t result in a base hit. Of course, service time and player control issues aside with The Chiz, Jordan Bastian nailed The Chiz situation (Donald or no Donald) earlier in the week when he asserted that, “anyone surprised by Chisenhall being cut hasn’t been paying attention. You don’t make an OD roster with no AAA experience & 27 spring ABs.”

That said, don’t mistake this call for The Chiz to start the season in Columbus as justification for keeping Chisenhall down in Columbus into July if he’s absolutely crushing the ball while Donald’s injury persists. There is a point in the season in which Chisenhall (hopefully) has proven his worth in Columbus (and remember, that’s not guaranteed) and the Indians should look at him as their best option for 3B, once service time and performance questions are out of the way.
Prudence and patience are admirable, obstinance is not…

Nevertheless, how this infield situation eventually plays out (and I’m not just talking into this June) is going to be extremely interesting to watch simply because of the sheer volume of legitimate options that seem to exist above the AA level. Earlier in the week, Antonetti was quoted on the infield options, putting this on the tape recorder:
“The way we look at it organizationally, it’s a good problem to have to have too many quality players, with too few positions. To the extent we can do that consistently, we’ll be in a really good place, organizationally. With respect to our Triple-A team and how that plays out, we’ll have to take some time in the next few weeks to determine the best alignment of players.”

His usage of “the next few weeks” is interesting to me as SO much emphasis is placed on Opening Day lineup/roster, it really pushes the big-picture into the background, as insane as that may sound. By that I mean that Indians’ fans are interested to see who’s playing where at the beginning of April as if it provides some glimpse into the future of the team more than any other point in the season when it does not.

You know what I’m interested to see?
What the infield looks like on the 4th of July or, better yet, at the end of the season, with the players sorting themselves out through their own performance instead of being sorted out by 27 Spring Training AB or projections or crusades in the local media to sell more papers or create controversy when none, in fact, exists. There’s a very real possibility that the infield by the end of the season could be Nick Johnson, Cord Phelps, Asdrubal, and Donald…how’s that sound?

While some of that would be seen as progress for guys like Cord Phelps or Jason Donald, the performances of no less than seven players (LaPorta, Kipnis, Phelps, Valbuena, Cabrera, Donald, and Chisenhall) who legitimately could assert themselves as potential long-term members of the Indians are going to affect what the Indians do in the infield alignment going forward. And you know how many people know how all of this is going to shake out as we sit here in mid-March?

None, as it could be so many different combinations of players (where does Phelps fit, what if Kipnis or The Chiz struggle, who gets hurt) by the end of the season that taking a guess is just throwing darts blindly at the board. Sure, I’d like to sit here and say that LaPorta, Kipnis, Cabrera, and The Chiz will be the infield at the end of the season with Donald and Phelps on the roster, meaning that the best-laid plans have gone off flawlessly, but the reality of MLB is that the only certainty about the future is its uncertainty, particularly with young players.

Some of these guys are going to establish themselves and others are going to fall off the radar, and that process is not just going to happen this year. Back in 2009, Luis Valbuena posted a .714 OPS as a 23-year-old middle infielder with 25 2B in just 103 games; today, Louie the Fifth is relegated to Utility IF or “stopgap” status less than two years later, despite being just turning 25 last November. Anyone want to check where Josh Barfield is these days?

While the Indians may point to an embarrassment of riches in terms of infielders the fact is that not everyone is going to pan out as expected and this injury to Jason Donald (and here is an absolute must-read from Andrew Humphries at LGT challenging the universally accepted narrative that the Indians were rooked in the CP Lee deal) is just another example of how out-of-control factors play a role in the development of certain players. Maybe Donald’s injury amounts to just a few weeks missed, but he certainly seems to have been walking under ladders with black cats in his path over the last few years.

That said, what the Indians have built up at the higher levels of their organization is finally some depth that allows them to fill their infield with internal options and as memories of Ronnie Belliard playing short RF and Aaron Boone whiffing his way out of Cleveland fill most of our heads, the notion that they could finally be past adding veterans to fill holes in the infield may be coming. While I realize that the previous statement is an odd one to make with The OC scheduled to be the Opening Day 2B and with “that pederast” Hannahan looking like the 3B, the idea that the Indians “could finally be past adding veterans to fill holes in the infield” hasn’t arrived just yet.

Sure, it may be coming sometime in July (after Hannahan’s tenure is but a memory and when Uncle Orlando moves on), but the infield depth in the organization is pretty obvious to the point that they can move onto Plan B or even Plan C at 2B and 3B throughout this season. It’s no secret that the infield has been a major problem for the Indians, but between Phelps, Donald, Kipnis, and The Chiz, they should be able to find a suitable 2B, 3B, and Utility IF (with Valbuena thrown in there as a wild card) for the next five to six years. All of these guys are pretty much slotted in for spots around the infield this year and beyond and, if the “Lesson of the 2004 Media Guide Cover” (with Milt Bradley, Jody Gerut, and Jason Davis) taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected with a young team. That 2004 team won 80 games with Milt Bradley in LA, with Jody Gerut posting the lowest OPS+ among regulars, and with Jason Davis pitching his way out of the Indians’ plans. What made up for those players’ struggles were contributions coming from what could have been considered unlikely sources when the 2004 season began.

As we sit here in mid-March, attempting to guess which of these players are going to play major roles in the next incarnation of what we hope will be a contending team, what’s past is prologue and there is a great line at the end of what was a pretty fair overview of the off-season at MLB Trade Rumors that stated that the Indians are “stocked at both the lower and upper levels of the minors” going further to say that, “this is a club that will get better in a hurry, even if 2011 is not the year.”

That may not be music to the ears of Clevelanders staring an NFL lockout in the face and with their NBA team setting records for ineptitude (and caring less while doing it), but pieces should start to emerge in 2011 as they did in 1993 and in 2004. While the emergence of those pieces may not immediately translate to winning, it should get the team closer to that goal. To reach that goal, the Indians need to start drawing some conclusions on their young players – based on MLB performance – and the infield situation this season provides a microcosm of the Indians’ future in terms of talented youngsters having a shot this season to insert themselves into the team’s future plans.

Which youngsters those are however, is anyone’s guess…

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jon & Paul Plus Baseball: What Will Mike Be Like?

Since the news out of Goodyear has slowed to a trickle in recent days – what with no updates as to whether Lonnie Chisenhall will be feeding the masses with fishes and loaves or if he’s merely turning water into wine – let’s take another diversion into the ol’ Jon & Paul Plus Baseball series. On today’s menu for Jon Steiner of WFNY and I is a player that DID make the Indians’ out of Spring Training last year, only to see his 2010 season speed downhill at an astonishing rate – Mike Brantley. Now 2 ½ years into his tenure as an Indian, Brantley enters 2011 as the de facto LF (after he takes some time in CF while Sizemore continues to rehab) and the question for Brantley now becomes what can be reasonably expected of him and whether that is good enough to put him among the potential “core” players going forward for the Tribe:
PAUL: For as much attention has been paid to many of the young Tribe players and the steps forward that they need to take this season to prove themselves as potential “core” players to the next incarnation of what many hope can be a contending team, Mike Brantley seems to be falling under the radar this Spring despite major red flags that flew up all around him in his extended time in MLB last season.

Given that Brantley turns 24 in mid-May and that (during the stretch of time at the end of the season in which he “improved” after his final call-up) he posted a .332 OBP in the last two months of the season, why I shouldn’t be concerned about the assumption that Brantley will eventually slide seamlessly into the top of the Indians’ batting order?

JON: I’m not sure “seamlessly” is the word I would use. Perhaps “forcibly inserted”?
I don’t believe that Michael Brantley is going to be a great player. I don’t even believe he’s a particularly great fielder: while his arm is certainly better than Grady’s and his reads are better than Trevor Crowe’s, that’s sort of damning with faint praise if you ask me.

No. Brantley won’t be great. But he can be good.
I wrote a piece months ago (feels like years, I promise) where I compared Brantley’s skills to those of Brett Gardner. Basically, both are speedsters whose value will be determined in three ways: (1) getting on base at a reasonably above average rate--let’s say .340 or higher; (2) stealing bases with a success rate of more than 75%; and (3) playing good defense in a corner OF spot.
Last season, Gardner did all of those things, and--believe or not--was the Yankees’ second most valuable position player.

I think when we expect Brantley to be Sizemore-redux, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. He doesn’t have the power, the range, or the OBP skill. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to be a valuable player though.

PAUL: I don’t think the Sizemore-redux is a hope held by any reasonable person given the obvious differences between the two, but the Brantley that you describe (and it’s not a description I disagree with) sounds closer to a “complementary piece” and his struggles since being elevated to MLB (and I know it’s early) don’t elicit confidence that he’s much more. Given LaPorta’s initial struggles, that’s kind of a frightening thought in terms of the CC return.

That said, realizing Gardner’s value last year, am I just under-emphasizing those kinds of contributions from a player? In this Brave New World that we find ourselves (post-steroid) in MLB, is a player like Brantley (or Gardner) more valuable than a cursory glance would suggest?

Of more immediate and specific interest, will Mike Brantley be more than bottom-of-the-lineup fodder or is there a chance that he develops into the legitimate lead-off hitter that many envisioned when he was tabbed at the PTBNL?

Make no mistake: the Brantley I described is an everyday player--steriod era or not. The question is whether he can ever reach that potential, and I think you’re right to question it.

We think (we don’t know) that Brantley is an average center fielder, which would make him a well above average left fielder. We also think (we don’t know) that he can be a good base stealer. That’s two of three. Unfortunately, those are the easy two.

The third component is going to be his ability to get on base. For a guy with absolutely no power, he’s going to have to get on base around 35% of the time to stick as a starter. The good news is that throughout the minors, his OBP was an incredible .388. The bad news is that we haven’t seen any of that plate discipline translate to the Big Leagues yet. The good news is he’s only 23--a long way from reaching his offensive peak. The bad news is that his OBP has gone down considerably every time he’s jumped a level: from .426 in rookie ball, to .406 in A, to .382 in AA, to .367 in AAA. The good news is that he seems a good, hardworking kid. The bad news is that the minors are littered with good, hardworking kids who just can’t cut it.

Is it possible that he never becomes anything better than a fourth OF? I think so. But if there’s ever a season to throw a guy against the wall just to see what sticks, 2011 will be it.

PAUL: Right, it’s all predicated on his ability to get on base and the one of the most promising aspects of Brantley’s skill set was that he walked more than he struck out in both AA and AAA. Thus far in his MLB career, he’s struck out almost twice as much as he’s walked in 100 MLB games…

Given that Brantley will turn 24 in a couple of months, as much as his continued development may be in there somewhere, there has to be a point when Brantley’s promise (OBP-wise) from the Minors starts to translate to some success in MLB. While 2011 represents a great time to give Brantley pretty much a whole season to figure that out, Brantley was otherworldly bad at the beginning of 2010 for the Indians. Even though it was only 9 games to start the season, he posted a .156 BA / .229 OBP / .188 SLG / .418 OPS that earned him a ticket back to Columbus.

But that was just 9 games, right?
Well, when he returned on the 4th of July, he proceeded to put up a .157 BA / .231 OBP / .214 SLG / .445 over the course of the month of July in 17 games. Again, only 17 games, but the performance was oddly similar and, if Brantley starts out the 2011 season similarly, how long does the team stick with a player – regardless of developmental hope – in their lineup?

JON: Yes. I’m going to be the guy to talk about the small sample size and the potential and the patience.

Part of that is because I think that 23 year olds still have a lot of room to improve, as a general rule. But part of that is because we don’t have someone breathing down Brantley’s neck at the moment to take his job away.

I would argue that there are two “viable” options who will, someday, be competing with Brantley for playing time.

The first is Nick Weglarz, of whom I’m particularly fond. He hits for power and gets on base. His problem has always been health, and until he can stay in the AAA lineup long enough to prove his mettle, he won’t really offer Brantley a challenge. It’s also worth noting that Weglarz and Brantley might play in the same outfield if a certain coffee-mug-toting center fielder were to move on sometime soon.

The second is Zeke Carrera, of whom I know you’re particularly fond. I’ll admit to not knowing much about Zeke, but I get the impression that he’s the only other legitimate option in CF that the Indians have. But here’s the thing: Carrera is the same age as Brantley, with slightly worse minor league numbers. If we think he’s going to succeed, shouldn’t we feel the same about Mike?

PAUL: Well said on “the potential and the patience” of Brantley and it’s beyond hypocritical of me (or anyone) to assert that a guy like Donald (or Carrasco or even Huff) deserves the benefit of the doubt or a long leash while Brantley would not.

You’re right in that there is no other player who figures obviously onto the 25-man that projects to be the OF that Brantley could be over the next 5 years (all under club control) for the Indians. Even if he’s able to simply come close to we saw out of him out of the final 2 months of the season (.292 BA / .332 OBP / .390 SLG / .721 OPS over 211 PA...and that’s an underwhelming body of work), it’s prudent for the Tribe to see if that represents a baseline for Brantley in MLB to improve upon. Just as importantly, they need to find out if that line (horrifyingly) represents his ceiling, or even if that is who he is.

The alternatives out of the gate are...well, Austin Kearns and Travis Buck and finding out what the Indians have in Brantley is far more important than giving PA to Kearns or Buck instead in the interest of an extra win or two in April or May. While the dismissive feelings towards Brantley that “maybe somebody else could do this better” - like Zeke - it becomes that question of whether the alternative is desirable because it represents an upgrade or because it’s simply an alternative.

This season is all about separating the wheat from the chaff and the performances of Brantley (in MLB), Wegz (in AAA and probably MLB), and Zeke (see Wegz) are going to go a long way to determining which player or players (if any) fills a role in this next incarnation of the Indians. Given Sizemore’s contract status, let’s hope that the decisions that the Indians have to make are based on solid performances that force their hand, not underwhelming ones that make them want to turn that hand in for different cards.