Friday, April 29, 2011


Where were you when you realized that this Indians team was for real?

Wherever you were when you saw Carlos Santana's Grand Slam tonight is your answer...

Welcome to the Happy Hunting Ground!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tomahawks Saying Hello and Goodbye

While we all enjoy this “battle” among the top teams in the AL Central (hey, look at the standings), as the Indians ready themselves to play 16 of their next 26 games at home, the 3-game losing “streak” is now just a memory with two straight victories. With the Indians’ offense once again hitting their stride and with the realization that Josh Tomlin could be Paul Byrd v.2.0, the Indians have now won 9 in a row at home and, as we creep closer and closer to May, the feeling starts to grow that this isn’t a mirage we’re watching at all.

With that, let’s get some Tomahawks up in the air…

Though the news that CarCar is bound to join The Fury on the DL certainly puts a damper on the Indians returning home (and to their winning ways), the intimation that the Indians are considering bringing Al White up to replace Carrasco in the rotation instead of Dave Huff shows that the Indians have perhaps switched gears in terms of the way that they’re approaching the season. By that I mean that the Indians of the recent past would have gone with the obvious replacement – the one on the 40-man roster who had options to burn – rather than adding a young player to the 40-man roster, burn the first option, and start an arbitration clock in April.

Some of that has been predicated by the success (or lack thereof) of the teams of the last few years, but the fact that Al White could be starting a game less than 2 years after he was drafted out of UNC feels like a step forward for an organization that needs to keep taking them. While it is still possible that Dave Huff gets the call to replace Los Carrasco, The fact that they lined up White’s next scheduled turn to come on Saturday (when Carrasco was next scheduled to start) may perhaps tip the Indians’ hand as to what they’re planning to do.

If they do, in fact, call White up, the hope would be that White will parlay his success in AAA to make a quick transition to MLB. While he’s only thrown 23 2/3 innings in AAA in his career, White’s numbers in AAA actually dwarf those put forth in his stops in AA and A-ball. During his 2010 in Kinston and Akron, White posted a 2.45 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP while whiffing 7 hitters per 9 innings and walking 2.7 hitters per 9 innings. Thus far in 2011, White has improved his ERA (1.90 this year) his WHIP (1.01 WHIP) and – this is the important part – improved his K rate (10.6 K/9 this year) while lowering his BB rate (1.9 BB/9). After being pegged by many as a reliever waiting to happen, White’s secondary stuff has developed to the point that he’s more than a 2-pitch pitcher…and perhaps even a viable one in MLB.

It remains to be seen what the Indians do on Saturday as they still could promote Huff (who is on the 40-man and does have options remaining), but the mere mention of White represents more than just a possible change in organizational philosophy. Additionally, having a player like White (Baseball America’s #47 ranked player prior to this season) at the ready to perhaps make an impact and not just fill a hole could be a major step that this organization is taking.

By that I mean that no longer do the likes of Aaron Laffey, Jerry Sowers, Dave Huff, Ben Francisco, Chris Gimenez, and Jordan Brown represent the homegrown “cavalry” arriving from the Minors to augment the parent club. The Indians have a number of upper-level prospects that could be impact players at the MLB level, from White to The Chiz to Kipnis, all the way down to Drew Pomz, that could be arriving to Cleveland to join this burgeoning group of players already on the Indians.

The lead rider of that “new” cavalry may arrive on Saturday…

Going into the season, my thought on Grady Sizemore’s recovery focused on WHICH Sizemore returned to the Tribe, not WHEN he donned the #24 again for the Indians. Well, if early returns are any indication, the “generational talent”, that SI cover boy is back…and how.

After Tuesday’s game, Sizemore’s OPS stood at 1.332 while he has shown obvious effects from the microfracture surgery on the basepaths or in the field. Anyone who saw him tearing around 2B on Tuesday, contemplating a triple with a sudden stop thrown in for good measure, or diving for a fly ball in front of him on Wednesday as if it were 2006 realizes that the restrictions on Grady’s knee don’t seem to be discernable to the “eye test”.

Of course, there are “use” restrictions as Sizemore has been given days off to keep him healthy, but here’s what a scout told John Perrotto of B-Pro about Sizemore:
“He’s finally healthy for the first time in two years, and he’s back to being the dynamic player he was before he got hurt. He’s given that a club a lift, no question about it, not just with his production, but from a morale standpoint. They are playing with confidence, and I really think part of that stems from knowing he’s batting leadoff and playing center field.”

Lest anyone forget, Sizemore’s average year from 2005 to 2008 (when he was that “dynamic player) and when he was fully healthy, was an .868 OPS, 42 2B, 9 3B, 28 HR, and 30 SB. Watching him out there now, the extra-base hit machine that Sizemore was when he was the motor that made the Tribe offense go in the mid-to-late-2000s certainly seems to be back.

Not many people realize this, but back in 2006, Sizemore posted 92 extra-base hits, a number that has only been topped by Pujols’ 93 XBH in 2009 since that time. Now, Grady has TEN extra-base hits in his first NINE games back and while that pace is unsustainable (there have only been 15 instances of a player topping 100 XBH in a single season), to see Sizemore driving the ball with authority and flying around the basepaths provides some hope that this start is a harbinger of things to come.

What Sizemore (who doesn’t turn 29 until August) is doing now is providing a glimpse of the player that he was becoming, before injuries derailed his promising career. Now, back on track, Sizemore’s back to being the motor that makes the Tribe offense go although how much a burden his knee can carry may determine how far the team ultimately goes in 2011.

Speaking of pleasant surprises, with Jack Hannahan (somehow) living up to the moniker bestowed upon him by’s Jordan Bastian of “Supermanahan”, and as Donald goes through more injury issues while The Chiz’s performance in AAA showing why the Indians were right to not take him north with the parent club, it would seem that Hannahan will find himself in the everyday lineup for the next few weeks…at least. His defense has been as advertised and his bat has been surprisingly (and perhaps unsustainably) solid to the point that he has contributed to the point that there doesn’t seem to be an issue with keeping Hannahan as the placeholder at 3B until Donald gets fully healthy and is able to contribute or until The Chiz forces the issue by righting his ship as a Clipper. Of course, it is here that I note that his current OPS of .872 is more than 200 points higher than his career OPS (.658) coming into the season, with 290 MLB games played to compile that lower OPS.

However, while Hannahan has been a pleasant surprise and a welcome addition, the other veteran added to the infield mix has (for some) reached the end of his usefulness, at least as an everyday player, as Orlando Cabrera now sits with a .279 OBP (69th among 88 AL qualified hitters), which is positively atrocious and, when combined with his .354 SLG (55th among 88 AL qualified hitters), makes him a liability in the lineup.

Realizing that his bases-clearing double in Wednesday’s game was a significant moment in the game, realize that The OC is the ONLY Tribe regular with a negative WAR (as calculated by Fangraphs…and Hannahan is first, with a large portion of that coming from Hannahan’s defensive prowess) as he’s underwhelmed both at the plate and in the field. While the prevailing narrative on Uncle Orlando is that he’s provided veteran leadership and a steady glove at 2B, the fact is that The OC ranks at or near the bottom of most of the defensive metrics among regular 2B. While defensive metrics remain (to me at least) a work in progress, Orly’s defense at 2B hasn’t passed the eye test either as his range is…um, limited and he has had trouble going to his left.

For as much as Cabrera is being credited with having a positive influence on some of the younger players (notably Asdrubal), I would assert that I don’t have a problem with Uncle Orlando espousing some of his veteran leadership on a young team. What I do have a problem with is him doing that in the everyday lineup, and particularly in the 6th spot. While I generally abhor the whole “where should he hit?” discussion, Cabrera is an absolute offensive abyss and the fact that he’s “protecting” a rejuvenated Hafner is laughable.

That being said, I don’t even think that simply dropping Cabrera in the lineup is the answer as the real solution is demoting him to the Utility IF role, where he can remain to impart wisdom on the young players on an everyday basis without sabotaging inning after inning at the plate while waving at groundballs to his left in the field

As for who would replace Cabrera at 2B, it’s time to see Cord Phelps in Cleveland. While it goes against the organization’s current philosophy of moving infielders all over the diamond to positions that ARE NOT their natural positions, calling Phelps (a “natural” 2B) to take over for Cabrera at 2B could represent a major offensive upgrade while not removing Uncle Orlando from the 25-man roster. The player that would be removed would be Adam Everett who would clear waivers (without a problem) and head to Columbus to serve as the AAA SS.

Realizing that this is a scenario that I suggested just two weeks ago, the idea that the Indians should keep Cabrera in the lineup into mid-May or so to see if he can right himself has now passed because THIS is who Uncle Orlando is as an MLB player at this point in his career. From 2008 to 2010, The OC posted this line in 444 games:
.277 BA / .319 OBP / .373 SLG / .692 OPS

So far this year, Uncle Orlando has put forth this line in his first 21 games:
.256 BA / .279 OBP / .354 SLG / .633 OPS

Lest you think that Cabrera is suddenly going to improve on his offensive numbers…he won’t. This is who he is and with Phelps absolutely crushing the ball in AAA (.968 OPS) and getting on base at an absurd 46.8% rate that has upped his career AAA OBP to .405, the Indians should remove The OC from the everyday lineup, move him to the Utility IF spot, and call Phelps up to play 2B everyday to give him an extended look in Cleveland before Jason Kipnis and The Chiz arrive to take over 2B and 3B…assuming Phelps and Hannahan are ever willing to concede those positions.

Though Cabrera has represented a black hole in the lineup to this point, he still sits with the 3rd worst OPS on the team among regulars, besting the lines put forth thus far by…wait for it…Choo and Santana. While Santana’s struggles remain understandable to a degree as he still is adjusting to MLB, Choo’s slow start is surprising, if only for how long he’s scuffled at the plate.

While his 3-run HR on Tuesday provided some hope that he may be coming out of his doldrums, the fact is that he had 95 plate appearances through Tuesday night and his .623 OPS put up during that PA have him ranked 63rd in the AL among the 88 qualified hitters, just below KC’s Kila Ka’aihue.

Though the “it’s still early, Choo will be fine” rhetoric is still valid, the performance of Choo from now through the end of the year bears watching as he and his agent have unquestionably decided to approach his years of arbitration eligibility on a year-to-year basis, with his paycheck reflecting his performance on the field to that point. With Choo’s OPS at .623 (and his BA at .221 with just 5 extra-base hits in 22 games), there is a very real chance that Choo’s end of the year numbers – which are what the arbitration panel focuses on – may be greatly affected by his start, regardless of how he performs from now through Game #162.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let’s assume that Choo has accumulated about 15% of his season AB in the first month. To this point, he’s posted a .221 BA / .274 OBP / .349 SLG / .623 OPS, which falls well below his line from the last few years. That hitting line, since 2008 has been a phenomenal one to see compiled as The BLC’s cumulative line from 2008 to 201 has been .302 BA / .397 OBP / .500 SLG / .897 OPS.

What would Choo have to put forth in the final 85% of this season to reach that production, given the hole that he’s put himself into with his early struggles?

Excuse me while I pull out my calculator, but it would take an OBP of .424 from this point on for Choo to come close to that .397 OBP that he put forth over a 3-year timeframe. Maybe that’s possible, but that’s getting on base more than 42% of the time over a 5-month stretch. As for his SLG, The BLC would have to post a Slugging Percentage of .540 to finish the 2011 season with a SLG at that .500 number that he compiled from 2008 to 2010.

Again, perhaps Choo has a .964 OPS in him for the rest of the season to come close to the bar that he set (so high) from 2008 to 2010, but he’s going to have to be lights-out from here on out to put forth numbers on par with, much less exceed, what he’s done to this point in his career. Now, given the arbitration situation with Choo (and Boras), it will be interesting to see what happens if Choo continues to struggle through May, digging himself a deeper hole in terms of compiling the 2011 totals that will be used in the arbitration process.

Am I rooting for that hole to get deeper for The BLC?
Of course not, as I’d love to see Choo put up a .900 OPS for the year (as a prolonged stretch at the top of the AL Central is easier to see with Choo producing), but given what he’d have to put forth from this point on to justify the arbitration number that is likely floating around in Scott Boras’ head, it’s going to be a statistical evolution that bears watching, particularly over the next month or so.

Finally, as the Indians look to separate themselves further in the AL Central, it is worth noting that the Indians have now been in 1st place for 20 consecutive days this season, a prolonged stretch of time perched atop the Central that they’ve accomplished only one other time (from mid-August to the end of the season in 2007) since the beginning of the 2002 season.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Reveling in Relevance on A Lazy Sunday

With the Indians sitting on a two game losing “streak”, resulting from a bullpen meltdown and the staff ace looking like the lost soul that he was on Opening Day, the doubt has begun to creep in again, hasn’t it? When everything seems to be going so right (as it had for the first three weeks of the season), the ebb and the flow of an MLB season is an easy thing to forget in that any team is going to go through their hot streaks and their down stretches simply because of the length of the season and the nature of the game.

However, if we’re not supposed to get excited about the hot start because “it’s too early” (and it still is), the team struggling in a couple of games shouldn’t force any grand pronouncement that the bottom is about to fall out of any team at any one time. There’s plenty still to come and as the Easter eggs that were all over the house have been found and as the sugar rush of Easter morning is upon my boys, let’s take a quick break from the Easter holiday to get loose on a Lazy One…

By now you know that national analysts and publications are weighing en masse to the Tribe’s start, from Rob Neyer providing an appetizer of sorts to Jay Jaffe of B-Pro serving up something that can stick to your bones, going into the deep recesses of the Indians start while providing the best takeaway line at the end of his piece, writing that, “Given all of that, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Indians can contend, and at the very least, it appears they may be about to emerge from the doldrums. That alone would make this a positive season in Cleveland; anything else would be just gravy.”

That conclusion by Jaffe (which provides the proper context for the 2011 season) comes at the end of an article that is better than most of these pieces on the Indians, with the Cliffs’ Notes version of nearly all of these articles going something like this:
“Can the Indians keep this up?
They’re a great story given what’s happened to the Indians and Cleveland in the past few years and surely they’re in for some regression, but it’s possible that their starting pitching has turned a corner and their bullpen looks solid. There’s no way that the current offensive contributors can keep this up, but Choo and Santana aren’t hitting yet, so when they do, we’ll see how the Indians’ season takes shape. Certainly, they’re not this good, but the other teams in the AL Central are all flawed so MAYBE the Indians can stay in the pennant race.”

Doesn’t that read like every national piece that you’ve read on the Indians in the past week?
By no means am I saying that the analysis is faulty (though I would caution all of these writers to be careful out on that limb that the Indians won’t have a .650 winning percentage on the year), but it points to the idea that nobody really knows what’s coming for the Indians, as much as Keith Law may want to justify his pre-season feelings on the Erie Warriors with a healthy dose of cold water for the North Coast.

Their start has been a tremendous surprise on the North Coast, where nearly everything has gone right as the rest of the AL Central teams find themselves in unenviable positions. The attention that the Tribe received is appreciated, in that it represents a departure from what’s been seen in the past few years (and Selig says Pujols in StL is “good for baseball”, which I never heard about CC in Cleveland) about the Tribe, but no analyst or publication is certain about whether the Indians will simply represent a “nice” early season story or if the current team has staying power.

While it would be nice to point to the Indians having the second-best run differential in the AL, the third-best run differential in all of MLB and say “THERE…there is your proof that they’re going to sustain this”, it’s still throwing darts. According to Baseball Reference’s “Simple Rating System”, which takes run differential and strength of schedule into account, the Indians, the Indians have the best SRS in the young season and Baseball Prospectus gives them a 20% shot of making the playoffs (yeah, I just went there…in April), but is that anything more than just exciting at this point?

Truthfully, I don’t know and neither does anyone else…
That said, what was exciting this week was to open my current edition of Sports Illustrated (an island of unparalleled sports writing in the ocean with the 4-letter “name”) and see a piece on The BLC from Albert Chen. The entire story is worth your time as it explores Choo’s odyssey from South Korea, through the M’s farm system, past his Tommy John surgery in 2007 (boy, would he have looked nice on that 2007 Tribe team in FR), into his current status as a bona-fide superstar in MLB, if an oft-overlooked one.

Only once does Chen devolve into the “small-market, downtrodden franchise” narrative that has carried the day since the 2008 season and Chen’s authorship of the article reminded me of another time that Chen was tasked with telling the story of a team from the North Coast, one that represented a “surprise” to MLB during the 2005 season. You remember the piece…the one that accompanied this group of players, so full of wide-eyed talent (and you’ll notice that there are no pitchers there, despite the presence of two future Cy Young Award winners on the staff as that 2005 offense was bursting with potential) with their future in front of them.

Regardless, take a look at this little snippet from that and realize that this is from September of 2005:
With the majors’ 26th-highest payroll at $41.5 million ($14 million less than the famously low-budget A’s), the Indians have ascended to the wild-card lead so suddenly and unexpectedly that even their own fans, it seems, haven’t noticed. Although they are poised to advance to the postseason for the first time in four years, the Indians rank 25th in attendance. “It’s been the best sports season in Cleveland that no one saw,” one team official groaned last Friday night, when only 26,078 fans (half its capacity) turned out at Jacobs Field to see the Tribe beat 2004 AL Cy Young winner Johan Santana for the first time in 19 tries.
In June 2002, seven months after taking over a team that had won six AL Central titles in the last seven years, general manager Mark Shapiro set about dismantling it…Reporters criticized the rookie G.M. for tearing apart a perennial contender, and fans called radio talk shows comparing Shapiro to reviled former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell.

Fast-forward three years. The rebuilt Indians have risen as contenders again, not only for this year but well beyond.

That 2005 team had the “26th-highest payroll at $41.5 million” and it is worth noting here that the 2011 team has the…wait for it…26th-highest payroll in MLB at $49.1M. But that’s not the compelling point of the team, nor is the fact that Ben Broussard (who would be traded for…again, wait for it…Shin-Soo Choo) is quoted throughout the piece.

Rather, the interesting thing is that it takes a look at where the Indians came from in 2002 (when Colon was dealt) and how their GM was criticized for “tearing apart a perennial contender”. Then with the benefit of being able to “fast-forward three years”, Chen asserts that the “rebuilt Indians have risen as contenders again, not only for this year but well beyond”. Of course, we all know how that story ended with the Indians contending really only in that 2005 season, then again in 2007 as they were done in by slow starts, regressions from key players, injuries to key players, and a pipeline from the farm system that was producing only dust and cobwebs.

But it’s fascinating to read that piece again and realize how bright the future of the team seemed in those halcyon September days in 2005. Even more so how it provides some context to the current group of Indians, who just a season-and-a-half after the soul-crushing trade of their (second) ace, as the Indians are back on the national radar and playing at a surprisingly high level, particularly for such a young team.

It’s important to note that the 2005 piece was written in September and that the love for the Indians is coming merely in April, but that doesn’t make reading about that former SI cover boy, one Grady Sizemore, any less enjoyable whether the keystrokes are being delivered by Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, who wrote that, “What can be said unequivocally: Sizemore, longtime Cleveland Indians cynosure, onetime Sports Illustrated cover boy and sometime superstar, looks a lot more like the player who made more than 700 plate appearances four years in a row than the schlump of 2010 crippled by that stupid knee” or Pete Gammons, who writes of Sizemore that, “Because he is such an unusual person and player, and because the Indians and Cleveland deserve good fortune, everyone in the game roots for Sizemore to make it back.”

While you may have had to look up “cynosure” from the Passan piece and realize that the rest of the AL Central (if not the entire AL) may not be rooting for Sizemore “to make it back” given that he was a truly elite talent from 2005 to 2008, there’s no question that the good feelings are flowing in Cleveland, recent two-game “losing streak” considered.

Which brings us back to that 2005 piece from SI, as Chen wrote that, “The rebuilt Indians have risen as contenders again, not only for this year but well beyond” and while it may seem presumptive to assume the same about the current group of Indians, what the first month of the season has shown is that the current group of Indians is decidedly talented. Perhaps many of the players fall into the Ben Broussard/Jason Davis/Fernando Cabrera category eventually, but there seems to be enough young talent at the parent club (and just beneath it) to think that this first month of the 2011 season may be a harbinger of things to come for Cleveland, even if they won’t “come” THIS season.

Remember, that group of players from 2005 were almost the same team that was within one game of 1st place in the AL Central in mid-August of 2004, only to go 17-27 from that point forward, finishing 80-82. Perhaps a similar fate awaits the 2011 club, but looking at the current group, it’s hard not to look at how long everyone is under club control and see a bright future, even as Scott Boras plots The BLC’s exit from Cleveland…due to the fact that he’s under club control for this season AND next season AND the season after that.

Regardless, here’s a breakdown of Indians’ players and their LAST year of club control. For this little breakdown, I’m only including players currently on the parent club and those that likely figure into the long-term future of the team, regardless of the fact that they may remain under club control for the next few years, so…sorry, Justin Germano and Jack Hannahan. Also, I’m not including the veterans that are currently working off of one-year deals, and I’m going to assume that all available club options will be picked up, even if that may be unlikely in certain cases:
Under Club Control Through 2012
Grady Sizemore

Under Club Control Through 2013

Travis Hafner
SS Choo
Asdrubal Cabrera
Rafael Perez
Joe Smith

Under Club Control Through 2014
Fausto Carmona
Justin Masterson
Chris Perez

Under Club Control Through 2015

Tony Sipp
Matt LaPorta
Mitch Talbot
Lou Marson

Under Club Control Through 2016
Mike Brantley
Carlos Santana
Carlos Carrasco
Jason Donald
Josh Tomlin

Think back now to 2005 and how the future seemed limitless with that stable of players in the fold for the coming years. The same rationale should exist for this group of players, even if the first month of the season only serves as a tease for what could be and is more likely an indication what is probably coming in the future.

The Indians have no notable FA after this year as they do retain that club option on Sizemore and as I’ve written before, it’s possible that they pick up Sizemore’s option for 2012 in exchange for a couple of years added onto his current deal, just as I could see them extending Asdrubal or Masterson this year or after the season to keep their burgeoning “core” together longer, much in the same way that they inked the principal players of the mid-to-late-2000s (and CC, Lee, Victor, Sizemore, and Peralta were all signed to deals that bought out FA years before the Hafner and Westbrook deals) to keep a group of players together for an assumed extended run.

Certainly, Choo’s going year-to-year with Boras as his agent and, as has been addressed here before, if he’s willing to eschew the financial security of a long-term deal to be paid commensurately with his previous years’ production, the Indians should simply go with it and hope that Choo DOES earn quite a bit of money, because it means that he’s still producing at an elite level. To this point in the 2011 season, The BLC hasn’t done that this team is winning WITHOUT Choo and while a productive BLC certainly makes consistent winning easier to fathom, it does seem that the team may be talented enough around him to win games, with or without elite production from him.

But that’s a discussion for two full years from now and for now, Choo’s appearance in my mailbox means that the Indians are relevant again…and not just on the local sports scene. While the pieces will continue to come out regarding whether or not this Indians’ team is “for real”, complete with the “I told you so” rhetoric and “color me surprised” articles coming from all corners, perhaps it’s time to do something that we’re unaccustomed to doing on the North Coast – live in the moment.

Revel in the relevance of this Indians team and enjoy the evolution of another group of talented young players maturing and evolving as a group. Maybe there won’t be an SI photo shoot this September with a bunch of guys looking like they’re sitting in a Portrait Innovations and maybe this quick start does turn out to be a mere mirage. However, it’s just as possible that this is the beginning of something special and as much as a two game “losing streak” has some gripping and lowering expectations, the team that the Indians have been in the early season has not come about because of “flukes” or merely fortuitous bounces. The Indians have won games through solid fundamental baseball, strong starting pitching, a lockdown bullpen, and an effective lineup that has scored the 2nd most runs in the AL…without contributions from the middle of their lineup.

The 2011 season could go a number of ways and, with the Indians now having the attention of the nation and (hopefully) their own region, they still have a lot of baseball to prove that they’re not a fluke and that there is some gold in ‘dem ‘dere hills and not just pyrite that has everyone unnecessarily excited.
Regardless of the outcome, now comes the fun part…finding out.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Core Building Exercises

With the Indians still sitting in 1st place, winning games that they have no business winning (Monday) or somehow remaining in games that look like lost causes until the final at-bat (Tuesday), the opinions on whether the Indians’ success is sustainable has been the hottest topic to hit the North Coast since a certain athlete sat in a Boys and Girls Club in Connecticut. While the current vibe is unquestionably positive about the Tribe – regardless of what the future months may hold – it is stunning to look at the makeup of this team, off to such a hot start and to remember from whence they came.

Since every national (and local) publication that piled on the Indians for their off-season, questioning the intentions of ownership and the competency of the Front Office, has had to begrudgingly acknowledge that the Indians have some pieces and parts that could keep them in contention, let’s all remember that it has now been just over a season-and-a-half since those horrible couple of days in late July of 2009, when Victor sat crying in front of his locker, consoling his son while CP Lee could hardly contain his glee in TV interviews about being with a contender in Philadelphia as the hope that the success from 2007 would lead to something flitted away.

That was 21 months ago and in those months, the Indians hit rock bottom (seemingly digging for new bottoms a couple of times along the way), scraped along the bottom for about a year until about the All-Star Break last year, then began to swim slowly and largely unnoticed upwards. With the performance of the first couple weeks of the season, there is a sense that the Indians’ struggle against the current has not been in vain and the early hot streak has the look of a salmon, leaping from the water in the midst of swim upstream – with a kind of a “remember us?” feel to it.

With this hot start though, it’s fair to ask how the Indians got here, and to that end my TCF colleague Andrew Clayman has penned an interesting piece regarding the manner in which the current Indians were built, comparing them to their partners in the penthouse (for now) of the AL Central, the KC Royals. The whole piece is worth your time as it is extremely well-researched as Clayman attempts to quantify how the current Indians came to be, going much further than simply rehashing the draft failures of the better part of a decade that are already well-known. His takeaway thought on the manner in which the Indians have been built is a particularly interesting one as he asks, “did Shapiro and Co. manage to clean up the mess of their draft failures by trading away the old core for a new one?”
Just to carry that thought further, did they really do it this quickly?

With a lineup, rotation, and bullpen full of players that made their way into the organization in a manner OTHER than the draft, is it possible that “The Plan” (v2.0) to add similarly-aged, similarly-controlled players into the organization has already started to come to fruition, just two-and-a-half-seasons after the decision to trade CC and, to a lesser degree, Casey Blake?

While so much focus is placed on the trades of CC, Clifton Phifer, and El Capitan (and I’ll get to that) in terms of the Indians adding potential building blocks, since Blake’s name has been evoked, it is worth noting that the Indians’ current #2 through #4 hitters came about in trades for Eduardo Perez, Ben Broussard, and Lacey Cake.

Read that again and add Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese on the list if you want to include the Tribe’s #5 hitter and how he found his way to the North Coast. For all of the high-profile trades that the Indians have been involved in, they made silk out of sows’ ears in each of those trades, and the middle-of-the-order is a daily reminder of that.

Just to expand on how impressive that is, Eduardo Perez had all of 102 plate appearances for the Mariners (.545 OPS in those PA) before retiring after that 2006 season while Ben Broussard strode to the plate only 530 more times (.695 OPS in those PA) after being traded by the Indians that same season. The Indians have their #2 and #3 hitters to show for those two trades in July of 2006. Going further, Casey Blake has been the most successful of the trio that was moved for the Indians’ middle-of-the-order as he’s posted a .779 OPS over the last 4 seasons in LA, but the Indians traded him when he was 34 years old and they netted one of the best young hitting prospects in baseball (2011 numbers considered) from a premium defensive position.

However, for as many accolades as the Indians have received for netting The Axe Man for a 34-year-old infielder, everyone realizes that Mark DeRosa has played in a total of 102 games (posting a cumulative .669 OPS in 381 plate appearances in 2+ years) since being traded by the Indians in the middle of 2008, right?

Meanwhile, the main player acquired for DeRosa (the other is Jess Todd) has become enough of a force on the local landscape that T-shirts are being printed with his likeness (and how could you not order one of these) with all of the attention certainly well-deserved. If you think that C. Perez – he of the wild hair, the braggadocios Twitter account, and the direct path from the mound towards home after every pitch – is just “sound and fury, signifying nothing”, realize that since the beginning of last season, Pure Rage has a 1.54 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP and has struck out nearly a batter an inning en route to 29 saves. Chris F. Perez hasn’t allowed an earned run since August 6th of last year, when he allowed 2 earned runs. Those 2 earned runs are the only ones that he’s allowed since the end of June last year.

Let me re-state that in different terms so it isn’t lost on anyone – in his last 41 1/3 IP over his last 40 games, Chris Perez has allowed 2 earned runs. That’s a 0.43 ERA for a 25-year-old that the Indians control THROUGH the 2014 season…all for ½ of a season of Mark DeRosa.

While you may not have realized what those players (E. Perez, Broussard, Blake, DeRosa) did after leaving Cleveland, the knowledge that the Indians committed some grand larceny in those deals is pretty well-known. Without delving into the fact that Kelly Shoppach has played in all of 75 games since being traded to the Rays (with 6 HR and a .641 OPS since the trade from Cleveland) or any of the other trades that have netted the Indians a roster full of other teams’ prospects that are winning, suffice it to say that the Tribe has found success identifying when a player is close to the end of his usefulness, and flipping said player for a young player with some potential.

But seeing as how we all know that the Indians were proficient in these deals, realize that those trades may have brought a middle of the order to the North Coast while settling the back end of the bullpen, the trades of CC, Lee, and Victor are the ones that have received the most attention. On those deals, Chris Antonetti had this to say to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, “if you look back at the deals we made in 2008 and 2009, we made them because we weren’t competitive. If we had been the team we wanted to be in 2008, we wouldn’t have traded CC [Sabathia].”

As much as people wail and gnash over those trades, the Indians made those moves because they weren’t winning enough to justify keeping those guys around, particularly CC in 2008. While the trades of Lee and Victor were/are much maligned locally, the current 1st place Indians boast 40% of their rotation from those moves, with more players likely to arrive in Cleveland – be it in the coming months or coming years.

If you’ll remember, the major complaint about those moves is that the Tribe didn’t receive MLB-ready starters that could fit in the top of their rotation. Remember all of the howling that the Indians didn’t extract Clay Buchholz from New England for either CP Lee or Victor?

Here is how two former Red Sox farmhands have performed since the beginning of August of last year up to, but not including, Wednesday’s game:
Justin Masterson
2.45 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.29 K/BB in 77 IP

Clay Buchholz
2.97 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 1.57 K/BB in 75 2/3 IP

Certainly, the 2010 numbers that Buchholz put up put Masterson’s season last year to shame, but if Masterson turned this imaginary corner in the second half of last year, these numbers – particularly sustained over 75+ innings – are hard to ignore. Figure that Buchholz is actually 7 months older than Masterson and one can’t help but get even more excited about Justin Credible.

But Masterson was just one component of the Victor deal as LHP Nick Hagadone now has 10 K in 8 2/3 scoreless innings while hitting the mid-90s on the gun in AA Akron and it may not be too long before he ascends to the parent club to take a place in the bullpen, perhaps providing ANOTHER power arm for the back-end, which is suddenly quite full of them. The third player netted from Boston (Bryan Price) has struggled in the early going this year, but could join Hagadone in the Indians’ bullpen if he gets on track, again perhaps even this year.

Those are just bullpen arms though – fungible commodities that can be found late in the draft, as Tony Sipp and Vinnie Pestano were – the real value that needs to be found is in the starting rotation, right?

That’s where we get back to these trades as we get to the most derided trade that was consummated by the Tribe, as Lee was dealt for a quartet of Phillies’ Minor Leaguers, one of whom just happens to be sitting in the Indians’ rotation, just a season-and-a-half after the trade, in Carlos Carrasco. While CarCar has been inconsistent in the early going this year and remains a largely unknown commodity, realize that there are 20 pitchers in MLB that are 24 or younger that have thrown more than 15 innings this year and Carrasco’s 4.85 ERA puts him 13th among that group, just below most people’s AL Rookie of the Year pick, Tampa Bay’s Jeremy Hellickson.

Certainly CarCar has endured his fair share of deplorable innings, but he’s shown the repertoire that you’d like to see out of a 24-year-old RH starter as over his last 3 starts, he’s posted a 3.26 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP while striking out 15 and walking just 6 in the 19 1/3 innings in those 3 starts. He’s also given up only 1 HR in his first 26 innings pitched on the year after giving up 16 HR in 25 starts in Columbus last year. While he’s far from a finished product, he is still just 24 years old and with Marson filling a role for the Tribe (and quite adequately) and with Jason Donald not far away from likely returning to the Indians, the Lee deal will likely have netted 3 players on the 25-man roster less than 2 years after the trade was completed, with the possibility of Hagadone joining the club this year making it plausible that 5 players on the 25-man roster (20% of a young and promising ballclub) came over in the Victor and Lee deals.

Of course, Jason Knapp remains the great wild card in the Lee deal, but if you’re looking for the quick return from the Clifton Phifer trade, you need only to look to the pitching rubber every 5th day to see what could be, in Carrasco, a top-to-middle-of-the-rotation starter emerging as the months pass.

As for the final big trade from the past few years that received much derision heading into the season, how about the fact that LaPorta’s OPS for the year is now sitting at .827, with a 140 OPS+, two cumulative numbers that put him 3rd on the team among regulars in both categories. Now, does the guy look like Pedro Cerrano on certain pitches, flailing away or (even worse) like Willie Mays Hayes on others, with the ol’ “excuse me” grounders that inch through the infield?

You’d have to be blind not to see those discouraging signs from LaPorta, but over his last 12 games, MaTola has a .957 OPS and his batting eye has been more in line with what he put forth in MiLB. While on the farm, his OBP – .386 OBP in AA, .400 OBP in AAA – was one the most attractive things about LaPorta, and that discerning batting eye finally seems to be translating to MLB.

After posting modest BB% numbers his first two years in Cleveland, LaPorta has walked in 13.3% of his plate appearances, highest among Tribe regulars and 18th highest in all of MLB. Given LaPorta’s OBP in MiLB and his ability to draw a walk in 2011, perhaps the expectations for LaPorta need to be adjusted to realize that this guy may be content to sit and wait for his pitch, in the hopes that he can drive it. Perhaps he is only able to drive mistake fastballs as his line drive percentage is atrocious (12.2% - 80th of the 95 qualified MLB hitters), which explains how LaPorta either drives the ball with authority or simply squibs the ball around the diamond. Maybe he’s a mistake-ball hitter, which allowed him to post giant AAA numbers and why he’s able to make an impact from time to time in MLB.

As nice as it would be to be able to see LaPorta as the RH power bat that we all envisioned back in July of 2008, there’s a good possibility that MaTola is merely Pete O’Brien or Paul Sorrento – a solid, if unspectacular, bat. Maybe he evolves into more, but even if we’re talking about that “solid, if unspectacular, bat” some context is in order in terms of listing the cavalcade of 1B since Thome left after the 2002 season with Ben Broussard, Ryan Garko, Victor Martinez, and Casey Blake being the most notable names.

However, over the course of nearly a decade that quintet spent time at 1B along with the likes of Shane Spencer, Lou Merloni, Josh Phelps Jose Hernandez, Eduardo Perez, Chris Gomez, Mike Aubrey, Andy Gonzalez, Chris Gimenez, Andy Marte, Niuman Romero, Jordan Brown, and of course, Rusty Branyan.
Hell, there was somebody named Jeff Liefer who started 4 games at 1B for the 2005 Indians!

But in 9 years, they’ve had THAT many players man 1B and even if Matt MaTola is Pete O’Brien or Paul Sorrento, he has the ability to be a contributor on a winning team. Maybe LaPorta doesn’t ever provide the level of contribution that we would have expected – or hoped for – when he was the centerpiece of the CC deal, but a solid contributor (under club control through 2015) provides some stability to a position that’s been badly in need of it.

Even if MaTola “only” ends up being that solid bat at 1B, the second player netted for CC has made strides enough this year that it’s not difficult to see Mike Brantley as the PTBNL who provides the needed justification for the deal with the Brewers. Right now, Brantley’s .400 OBP ranks him 14th in the AL in that category and while you can certainly point to his .370 BABIP, 10th highest in the AL, as evidence that his success may be unsustainable. However, Brantley’s BABIP in 2009 in Cleveland was .376 and his BABIP in AAA last year was .342, so it’s possible that Brantley is one of those odd instances of a player who is able to generate more hits when he puts the ball in play than others.

While it is unlikely that Brantley ever turns into much of a power threat (his OBP is higher than his SLG this year), if the game is shifting from a game of power to a game of speed, slotting Brantley into the lineup (wherever, I don’t really care) and into the OF for the next five years or so means that the Indians could have the stability that they haven’t had in LF for quite some time…I don’t think you need me to list the players that have plied their craft in LF over the last decade.

Regardless of whether the early-season success of the Tribe is sustainable, the contributions from players – young, promising, highly-regarded prospects – acquired via trades have unquestionably provided some much-needed hope for a franchise that had become derided for everything that they had been unable to do. Now perhaps we’re seeing what they HAVE been able to do, as they’ve filled roles up and down the roster via trade with the answer to Clayman’s question as to whether “Shapiro and Co. managed to clean up the mess of their draft failures by trading away the old core for a new one” starting to find some answers. Certainly, the hit rate has not been 100% (Yohan Pino, the arm acquired for Carl Pavano was just sold to the Blue Jays) on moving veterans for youngsters over the past two-and-a-half years, but with the performance of a young team early in this season (and with Victor Martinez hitting the DL in Detroit serving as a reminder of the “luck” that has befallen the Indians since 2008), one can’t help but notice that the pieces that are supposed to serve as the cornerstones for the next incarnation of the Indians are starting to emerge.

After watching the earth scorched for the better part of two-and-a-half seasons, with Indians fans watching the barren ground, waiting for something to emerge, the performance of the Indians in the early going has provided the hope that the seeds sewn have not only taken root, but that they’ve broken through and are on their way up.

How much the team continues to grow over the course of the year remains to be seen, but after the last few seasons feeling like an extended winter, in terms of hopelessness and bitter cold, it is nice to finally feel the warmth of winning while a garden grows again in Cleveland.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Pitching In On A Lazy Sunday

After spending an extended afternoon in the Tribe Social Suite yesterday to watch the Indians take the second in a row from the O’s (whose fast start actually does look like a mirage), the good vibrations are flowing on the North Coast and the Tribe is hitting all of the high notes – and I don’t mean just because Castrovince did the dirty work for us compiling the Indians’ ACTUAL at-bat music. The music coming from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is like nothing we’ve heard (to start a season, at least) since 2007 and while I’ll stop short of predicting that this summer will follow along the same lines as that one, it sure is fun to see the parallels.

So as the news that Grady is officially returning (hey, Travis Buck has an option) percolates and gives some sense that it perhaps really could feel like 2007 again, we’re off on a Lazy One…

With the Indians now sitting at 10-4, tied with the (gasp) Royals for (gasp) 1st place in the AL Central, the question has to start to come out as to when the “it’s too early” line reaches its expiration date. Certainly 14 games out of 162 is still a small percentage of a baseball season, but the Indians’ victories in the past two games have looked eerily close to the wins during the 8-game winning streak – paced by excellent starting pitching, getting ahead due to timely hitting, and closing out the game with bullpen progression that is developing an air of dominance.

After losing two, winning eight, and losing two, the Indians seem to be putting together another winning streak and one has to start wondering if this who the Indians are as a team and who they will be throughout the 2011 season. Even without consistent contributions from Santana and Choo (though the last couple of games show signs of a ship being righted), the Indians have scored the 3rd most runs in the AL, paced by their young SS, one Asdrubal Cabrera, about whom a scout told B-Pro’s John Perrotto, “He’s really cutting the bat loose and learning that he has some pop. He used to be content just to punch the ball through the infield, but you can see him really growing and gaining confidence as a hitter.”

To go straight to the horse’s mouth, Asdrubal told CBS Sportsline’s Scott Miller that, “I feel more strong” and with an OPS still over .900 after two weeks and no signs of slowing down (plus some dramatically improved defense), Asdrubal has started to show that the signs of hope that once existed for his ceiling may not be in vain, with a greater commitment to conditioning obvious and with the injuries that plagued him in the past. But for as exciting as Asdrubal’s start has been, it pales in comparison that of the rotation.

Just two Saturdays ago (after Game #2), I was out at a Bachelor Party in which one of my buddies asked me if I thought that the starting pitching would be consistent enough for the Indians to compete this year. After having just witnessed the team give up 23 runs in the first two games, started by the pitchers that I had the most hope for (Carmona and Carrasco) coming into the season, my answer came back a resounding “no” as the disclaimer from Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections about the Tribe pitchers (and you should read it if you haven’t, particularly with the benefit of hindsight) flitted around in my head.

In my heart, I wanted to be optimistic that Carmona would improve on his 2011 season, even if he wouldn’t be approaching Fausto v.2007 status, and I wanted to be hopeful that Carrasco and Masterson would show enough bright spots that they at least represented some hope for the future of the rotation. Maybe it was the doom-and-gloom pieces that I couldn’t avoid leading up to the season or maybe it was just that Cleveland mentality that if something could go wrong it would with these guys. After two games, I was ready to dismiss the Tribe starters, this despite writing about why there was hope for the pitching staff back in February, based on the second half of last year and the pedigree of some of the arms in the rotation.

But then something funny happened on the way to the bottom as Masterson threw a beauty in the series finale against the Pale Hose and Tomlin and Talbot followed suit against the Sawx. Carmona and Carrasco kept the good vibes going and Masterson whiffed 9 in his second start. Suddenly, before you knew it, the rotation was clicking on all cylinders to the point that the expectation was a 7-inning outing, perhaps allowing 1 or 2 runs. If you think that’s hyperbole, here is what the individual Indians’ starters have done over the last 12 games, since that Game #2 turning point:
1.23 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, .460 OPS against, 10 K and 5 BB in 14 IP

2.77 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, .618 OPS against, 11 K and 5 BB in 13 IP

1.33 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, .503 OPS against, 12 K and 4 BB in 20 1/3 IP

2.75 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, .564 OPS against, 11 K and 6 BB in 19 2/3 IP

1.46 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, .569 OPS against, 11 K and 5 BB in 12 1/3 IP

Realizing that taking 2 games out of 14 is not quite fair, those numbers are cumulative over 12 straight games with Carrasco and Tomlin’s ERA being the only ones over 2.00. Additionally, those numbers for Just Incredible (say it), Tomlin, and The Fury represent their season totals thus far, all of whom have kept opponents below a .575 OPS against through their first few starts.

Obviously, nobody is here to assert that this is what the Indians’ pitchers are going to do all year as the 1954 pitching staff’s legacy is going to be threatened and Anthony Castrovince has a great lines in a piece that you should probably read all of, when he says that “two and a half turns does not a rotation make,” going further to point out that “the starters will come back down to earth a bit”.

That’s absolutely true, but it begs the question that even if the “starters come back down to earth a bit”, given what we’ve seen, what does that mean for expected ERA at the end of the season? Could guys like Carmona and Masterson finish in the low-to-mid-3.00’s, or could Carrasco finish with an ERA in the high-3.00’s, or could Talbot and Tomlin even end the 2011 campaign in the low-to-mid-4.00’s?

Maybe that’s putting the cart before the horse and jumping to conclusions based on “two and a half turns” in the rotation, but’s Joe Sheehan has an interesting piece delving into the fast start for the Indians, specifically looking at the improved K/BB numbers for the starters, concluding that “these numbers reflect a change in skills that has shown up on the scoreboard”. If we’re talking about a “change in skills” for these pitchers, one that started in the 2nd half of last year and that has continued through the first two weeks of the season, what’s to stop it from continuing?

Maybe not at this high level, but remember how the Indians’ pitching staff posted a 3.89 ERA after the All-Star Break last year (4th in the AL)…yeah, maybe these first two weeks have shown that it wasn’t a fluke. To wit, going into Saturday’s game, the Indians’ pitching staff had a 3.34 ERA, good for 5th in the AL and the amazing thing about looking at that number is realizing that the starters have posted a 3.44 ERA (6th in the AL) and the relievers have posted a 3.09 ERA (3rd in the AL), meaning that the pitching staff has not been simply carried by a particular portion in the early going, as success has been realized throughout the staff.

Speaking of success “throughout the staff”, for as exciting as it has been to watch the Indians’ starters thrive, everyone realizes that the run given up by Vinnie Pestano in Saturday’s game is the FIRST EARNED RUN given up by the four arms that ostensibly make up the back end of the bullpen, right?

With Pestano allowing a run on Saturday, the quartet of Pestano, R. Perez, Sipp, and CF Perez have now thrown 24 innings between them and have allowed that one run while tallying 19 cumulative K and 8 cumulative BB in those 24 IP and while allowing just 7 hits on the season…between the four of them in two weeks.

Could it be that this strategy of stockpiling arms – and power ones at that – has ALREADY paid off for the Indians? Certainly, it looked like the Indians would have the arms to compete in the AL Central, but this year?

With Carmona and Masterson throwing their heavy sinkers, Talbot and Carrasco posting high K numbers by changing speeds, and Tomlin doing…well, whatever it is that Josh Tomlin does to succeed in MLB (he now has a career 4.18 ERA in 92 2/3 MLB IP), the Indians rotation looks as solid and as deep as it has in years, and not just full of “could-bes” and “what-ifs”, but with players that are producing.

But that whole “stockpiling arms” thing that the Indians set out to do when they moved so many of their veterans in the last 2 years…yeah, that still holds up as the player acquired for Ryan Garko (23-year-old LHP Scott Barnes) has 17 K in 11 IP in Akron, while LHP Nick Hagadone (from the Victor deal) has transitioned cleanly to the bullpen, holding AA hitters to a .211 OPS against while whiffing 6 in 6 IP…and those are just two instances as Gio Soto (acquired for Peralta) and Corey Kluber (acquired for Westbrook) have impressed in the early going as well.

But it isn’t just the young arms that entered the organization via trade that are thriving as (you may have heard by now) Drew Pomeranz has struck out 17 of the 37 hitters he’s faced in his first two starts in Kinston (landing him #1 on Baseball America’s initial Prospect Hot Sheet) while Al White has a 1.64 ERA in Columbus, striking out 13 in his first 11 innings for the Clippers, limiting AAA hitters to a .568 OPS against.

The success for the arms in the system has been nearly universal and while it was assumed that guys like White and Josh Judy and Bryce Stowell would eventually emerge from AAA to augment the parent club that may have been in need, the success of the Indians’ pitching staff is allowing the Tribe to create those…dare I even say this…Waves of Arms that they can use to overcome the injury and attrition that comes along with any young pitching talent.

Perhaps instead of small ripples arriving on the shores of Lake Erie, the Indians will be able to look off onto the horizon and expect guys like White, Pomeranz, Joe Gardner, Barnes, and Corey Kluber to arrive to the rotation and players like Hagadone, Cory Burns, Judy, Bryan Price, CC Lee and others to arrive to do exactly what Tony Sipp and Vinnie Pestano are doing for the parent club.

While it’s too easy to get ahead of ourselves in dreaming on these arms, let’s keep it to the parent club in terms of the here and now and, in light of the pitching that they’re getting and the hot star that they’re on, the logical question that sits in the back of everyone’s head is whether it is going to be enough for this year for the Indians to contend?

Have the Indians shortened up the timeframe for this “Rebuild/Reload/Whatever” to the point that they’re legitimate contenders just a year-and-a-half after the Victor and Lee deals?

While obviously it is still early (and yes, that still applies to answer the question from above), just looking around the AL Central, it’s hard not to see the Indians sticking around in this divisional race. Even if Joe Mauer’s leg soreness is not serious (and is now a bad time to mention that he’s just NOW in the first year of his 7-year, $184M deal), with the Twins’ pitching staff underwhelming from Liriano through the bullpen to Nathan, some warts are showing in the Twin Cities. On the South Side, Jerry Reinsdorf said before the season that the White Sox will have to draw 2.6 to 2.8 million people to break even – they currently rank 20th in attendance in the AL – with their slow start likely not helping the team’s short-term or long-term chances as Ozzie Guillen throws his entire bullpen under the bus on what seems to be a nightly basis. Despite their recent climb back to respectability, the Tigers already look old and thin in the rotation…because they are. As for the Royals – well, we’re about to get a first-hand look at then at the beginning of the week.

Regardless of what is happening in the rest of the AL Central – and for some reason, I take great joy in other teams’ bullpen implosions and have shades of “shoulder debridement” talk hearing this Mauer injury – the Indians are likely to go as far as their starting pitching takes them and with the way they’ve pitched from the third game of the season to today, contention doesn’t look too unrealistic as the Indians have started the 2011 season on the right foot…thanks to their starters.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tomahawks Moving Forward

Despite dropping the final two games in Orange County (by a total of three runs), the Indians are set to return to the North Coast 8-4 after winning 4 of their 6 games on the Left Coast swing. While you can already hear the chorus for the two losses in a row that the Tribe’s fast start is merely a mirage, that this is unsustainable, and that they’re destined to have their numbers come down, excuse me while I enjoy the first couple of weeks of baseball with my team looking as good as it’s looked since the second half of 2008.

In the recent road trip, the Indians’ starters posted a 2.16 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP in 6 games, averaging just under 7 IP per start, striking out 34 batters and walking only 14 as a unit. Up and down the rotation, the Indians’ starters seemed to be playing a game of “can you top this” and the result is the Indians coming back to Cleveland for a Friday game in which they’ll start the game perched atop the AL Central.

Obviously, we all know that the Indians’ won’t win 2 out of every 3 games all season long, and you’ve seen the national media jump on the Tribe story, full of perfectly reasonable caveats, but I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the back-end of the Indians’ bullpen simply won’t let up a run this year or that Asdrubal Cabrera is going to lead the league in HR or SLG. Instead of using those specific instances to assert that the Indians’ time at the top of the Central won’t be long, let’s simply start to believe that this is a better team than most realized when the season started and they’ve been inching forward for some time now.

Going further than that, this success (while overwhelmingly exciting) isn’t likely to continue at this pace, but it also isn’t coming completely out of the blue as it would have if the Indians had lost 50 of their last 80 games, which they did not. Actually, realizing that the All-Star Break is an arbitrary day on the MLB calendar, consider what the Indians have done since July 13th of last year.

Heading into the All-Star Break last year, the Indians were 34-54. Since that time, they’re 43-42 and if you want a better gauge as to where they are in that “developmental curve”, how about comparing what they’ve done since the All-Star Break of last year to today, in the context of the AL Central:
Post-All-Star Break of 2010
MIN – 52-32
CHI – 46-41
CLE – 43-42
DET – 37-50
KC – 34-60

The Indians have been a .500 team since that time and given the depths from which they emerged in the second half of 2009 and the first half of 2010, doesn’t that constitute a pretty big step forward?

Given that the average age of the players on the Indians is 27.8 years (4th youngest in MLB, and would be younger if not for The OC and Everett), the Indians are playing with a group of younger players that have started 2011 on a winning note and who have played better than .500 baseball since the All-Star Break of last year.

Going into Wednesday’s game, the Indians had the 4th best run differential in MLB (behind the Rangers, the Phillies, and the Reds…3 playoff teams from last year) in the young season and while the question on everyone’s mind seems to be whether they can sustain this, the better question would be what’s more fun than finding out.

Over the last 85 games, the Indians have won more games than they have lost as the cornerstones figure to emerge this season (if inconsistently, as evidenced by the early-season struggles of The Axe Man and The BLC), and we’re having fun with our heads in the clouds…for a change.

With that said, let’s get some Tomahawks up in the air, amongst those same clouds…

While there was this increasingly pervasive thought that the Indians would never lose again (OK, that’s stretching it…but that streak sure was fun), the disappointment of the win streak ending has to be tempered by who the Indians were facing on Tuesday night. To say that Dan Haren was on is obviously an understatement (he pitched a one-hitter), but while Haren may not be the household name that other elite pitchers are in MLB, consider that since the beginning of the 2008 season, Haren has a cumulative 1.11 WHIP. Here is where he ranks among pitchers with more than 600 IP over the last 3+ seasons:
Halladay – 1.07 WHIP
Haren – 1.11 WHIP
Lee – 1.13 WHIP
Oswalt – 1.14 WHIP
Sabathia – 1.15 WHIP
Lincecum – 1.16 WHIP
Other than noticing that 3 of those guys are in the Philly rotation (and Hamels is 7th on this list), isn’t it amazing that Haren (the same age as CC) just doesn’t get the publicity that the other pitchers on this list do?

Given what he did on Tuesday night, that could change this year and Dan Haren may have to clear some space in his trophy room if Tuesday night is any indication as to what Haren’s going to be bringing to the mound this year. Truthfully, I’m not sure that many teams in MLB would have gotten to Haren last night and while the naysayers will say “nay” and the wailers and gnashers of teeth will do just that, the Indians were beat by a great pitcher at the top of his game.

The fact that they kept it close, with Carmona showing that his Opening Day outing looks to be the exception, not the rule, actually elicits more confidence than a typical 1-hitter might for a particular team.

With the success of the Indians capturing imaginations across the North Coast (I gave a complete stranger the ol’ nod and smile in Heinen’s this weekend because he was wearing Tribe gear), there seems to already be quite a bit of talk regarding how the roster is going to be affected when the players currently on rehab assignments in Akron and Columbus are able to return to the parent club. Obviously, the day is coming (soon) when some roster shuffling is going to happen and while the Indians may look like a well-oiled machine right now, let’s realize that the players that are coming off of rehab assignments (Grady, Donald, Smith) figure more obviously into the teams’ future plans than the players they’ll be replacing on the 25-man roster.

That may seem obvious, but a good start can start to color some opinions on players and cloud the idea that some of the players that are contributing right now (and contributing at a high level) represent little more than placeholders or roster fodder, something that did not change over the first 10 games, W-L record considered.

What is interesting is that the lower expectations out of the gate for guys like Hannahan or The OC or Adam Everett make them immediate favorites as they’ve outperformed the level of production expected for them when they were signed. While that’s all well and good (and makes for some exciting baseball), the Indians shouldn’t change course based on a hot streak (or on the basis of one or a couple of games) if better options exist and ones that figure to be more than mere placeholders.

That said, the Indians are winning baseball games by playing very sound fundamental baseball and if what Hannahan and Cabrera are doing (particularly in the field) is contributing to that, they shouldn’t rush to change that course. If Jason Donald needs to spend the next couple of weeks getting fully healthy or if Grady Sizemore is not yet 100%, then the Indians should not force these guys back to the parent club if they would be better served getting steady work and easing slowly up the ladder instead of racing up to the Indians, perhaps prematurely.

If you want to know what pieces are eventually going to be moved where, John Perrotto from B-Pro had this prediction on the movement of players when Donald and Sizemore return:
Infielder Adam Everett and outfielder Travis Buck are the most likely players to lose their roster spots when center fielder Grady Sizemore and infielder Jason Donald (finger) end their rehab assignments at Double-A Akron and are activated from the disabled list. Sizemore will play center field when he returns, and Michael Brantley will shift to left.

That sounds about right with Everett (and the OF situation analysis is forthcoming) as Donald would go back to being the everyday 3B and Hannahan would slot into the Utility role (he played 37 games at 2B last year in AAA and The OC would be the back-up SS) for the time being. While the cries that “Supermanahan” has earned more than that will echo, I’d say that Hannahan has certainly lived up to his billing as a top-notch fielder and should be given everyday reps at 3B until Donald is legitimately ready. Once that happens though, it’s time for Hannahan to step aside because, as wonderful as Hannahan’s glovework has been all season long, he has proven why he was available as a Minor League FA this off-season at the plate.

Consider if you will what Jack Hannahan has put forth at the plate in the 9 games from Game #2 through now:
.172 BA / .273 OBP / .310 SLG / .583 OPS in 33 plate appearances

Certainly, it’s just 33 plate appearances, but here’s Hannahan’s career MLB line going into the 2011 season:
.224 BA / .311 OBP / .347 SLG / .658 OPS in 981 plate appearances

So, is Jack Hannahan better at the plate than he has been in the last 9 games he’s played in?
Probably…but at 31 years old, probably not much better.

That’s not to minimize the contributions of Hannahan in the early going as he’s flashed the leather that he was expected to flash, but let’s not make the broad (and incorrect) assumption that Hannahan suddenly “figured something out” to the point that he’s more than what he is.

To that end, as exciting as all of this is and as warm and fuzzy as it is to talk think about the play that ended the Red Sox series in terms of baseball acumen, Adam Everett is still Adam Everett and the Indians shouldn’t be thinking about keeping Jason Donald in AAA because of Adam Everett or Jack Hannahan. In fact, the likelihood that Everett finds his way off of the roster heads to AAA to be the SS is strong, as I have trouble believing that any team is going to point to Everett’s limited playing time with the Indians this season (with a career 67 OPS+ coming into the season) and decide that Everett represents that upgrade they need at the Utility IF position.

When Everett was signed, the thought was that he was infield depth who would likely spend much of the season in Columbus. A fast start by the Indians shouldn’t change that, nor should it change the fact that Jason Donald should the everyday 3B when he’s healthy with Hannahan moving to Utility IF, as high as the “pleasant surprise” factor might be with Hannahan in the early going, and with Everett shuffling off down I-71.

As for the situation with Sizemore returning, this one gets a little more interesting as the performance of Travis Buck (who made the team because of Sizemore not being available) in Spring Training had the Indians’ radio team panting that the Tribe had just found the next Jayson Werth. In the early going, Buck’s success in Arizona has not translated to regular season success, though he certainly hasn’t seen much regular playing time to get into much of a rhythm.

If the assumption is that Kearns is sticking around as the RH 4th OF, the question revolves around keeping Buck (and his potential) around because he is out of options or whether Duncan (with his RH power bat) around, despite him still having one more option. At this point, Duncan makes more sense on the roster (RH power) than Buck, given that Brantley and Kearns can both play all 3 OF positions, but the question that the Indians have to answer is whether Buck would clear waivers if he was outrighted off of the 40-man roster or if some offensively-starved team would scoop him up, on the strength of his past in Oakland and his strong Spring Training.

Unlike with Everett (who would almost unquestionably clear waivers and head to Columbus), Buck represents a reclamation project that the Indians would probably like to keep around as insurance against injuries/regressions by any of the OF or even LaPorta. But by keeping him on the roster instead of Duncan, he almost certainly wouldn’t see regular playing time with Sizemore, Brantley, Choo, and Kearns all ahead of him in the pecking order.

To that end, keeping Duncan around as a RH bat to complement Hafner at DH and as a RH power option off of the bench makes more sense, but his option makes it easy for the team to send him down to stash him away as insurance down the road.

If the Indians think they can sneak Buck through waivers, I’d rather send him down to AAA to play everyday with the hopes that he’d be a more legitimate everyday option if something were to happen on the parent club. However, I think that some team would take a flier on Buck and that’s why I think that the team will send Duncan to AAA (for no other reason than that option remaining) with the idea that he’ll make it back up to Cleveland at some point later in the year.

As for Sizemore’s return, as anxious as everyone is to slot him back into the lineup (and batting order discussion doesn’t really interest me), how about letting the guy get his sea legs under him in the Minors for a while before pushing him back, perhaps prematurely. Obviously, Sizemore wants to come back and Acta wants a player of Sizemore’s caliber on the team, but the team might be better served allowing Sizemore to get fully comfortable playing consecutive days in the Minors (even if it means waiting until the end of the month) instead of bringing him up to the parent club, only to watch him sit or – even worse – struggle.

As I’ve said before, I’m not interested in WHEN Sizemore returns, I’m interested in WHICH Sizemore returns, because getting him back two weeks earlier than expected doesn’t make sense if you’re getting him back at a reduced level of production. Waiting for him to be ready to legitimately contribute and attempting to replicate some level of success that he’s had in the past – that is worth waiting for…

The final player that figures to come off of a rehab assignment in the next week or so is RHP Joe Smith and, with the Indians’ bullpen being a strength of the team in the early going, it again gets difficult to determine which player finds himself out of luck with Smith’s return. While a case could be made already for Chad Durbin in the early going (one made more compelling by Wednesday’s loss) or even Justin Germano, the two relievers that have options that figure most obviously into this “decision” are Vinnie Pestano and Frank Herrmann. Given how Pestano has been used – as the RH set-up man, used in high leverage situations pretty regularly – it seems to be pretty obvious that Herrmann will be the one drawing the short straw as he has those options remaining and could go down to get more regular work (or perhaps work on his secondary stuff) as the arms in Columbus slot themselves to arrive to the parent club.

Perhaps an argument could be made that the Indians shouldn’t change anything with Smith returning, given the success of the bullpen thus far and given Smith’s underwhelming tenure as an Indian. However, if there is one thing that Joe Smith does well, it is get RH hitters out…well, actually that’s the only thing that he does well. While I’m not ready to trumpet the return of Joe Smith as a reason to celebrate, the make-up of the set-up men in the Tribe bullpen make Smith’s (one) ability rather valuable.

By that I mean that because Smith gets RH hitters out, with the Indians using Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp in the late innings, Smith could be used as a one or two batter pitcher against tough RH bats that could complement either Perez or Smith in the middle of one of their innings, assuming Acta continues to play the match-up game so perfectly.

Given the arms that figure to slot themselves in Columbus (and below), Joe Smith may go the way of Jensen Lewis at some point in 2011…but isn’t that kind of what the Indians have been trying to accomplish for the better part of a decade now – developing productive arms from within that actually perform well when they reach Cleveland?

Looking at all of these possible moves and how some of the decisions to move a player or players off of a winning team seem “difficult”, isn’t it nice to be talking like this, how to fit in guys that are proving their worth to the MLB club and how we’re talking about “who can be sent out” rather than the “who can we call up” game that we’ve played for the past couple of years?

In terms of the “who can we call up” question that should never be ignored, the performance of Cord Phelps is starting to look like one that the Indians aren’t going to be able to ignore. In case you haven’t noticed, Phelps is off to a hot start in Columbus, posting a 1.317 OPS over the first 5 games this year for the Clippers and while some of that can be chalked up to Cord being hot, here are Phelps’ cumulative numbers in AAA from 2010 and this year:
.328 BA / .399 OBP / .534 SLG / .932 OPS in 302 plate appearances over 72 games

While that still isn’t a full half-season in AAA and dwarfs any numbers that Phelps put up in the lower levels of the Minor Leagues, given that Phelps just turned 24 back in January (Kipnis turned 24 in April), it’s time to start giving some serious thought to Phelps as an option for the infield.

Watching the performance of Phelps in AAA (and realizing that he was there last year), I’m starting to think that Phelps gets a chance before either Kipnis or The Chiz. Some of that will obviously be tied to the performance of The OC, who is still the same player that had a has a cumulative OPS+ of 83 since 2008 over 1,975 PA and 444 games, and could always slot into the Utility role if his offense falls off, but Phelps could assert himself as a compelling option for the infield in 2011 – one not named Kipnis or Chisenhall.

Of course, that’s not to diminish the impact that Uncle Orlando has had on the young Indians or to dismiss The OC outright as a valuable player on this team, but the Indians need to continue to fold their young players in this still mixing batter. Certainly, the improved defense has been a revelation and the Indians shouldn’t sacrifice that completely in the interests of looking forward if (or is it when) Orlando Cabrera falters at the plate.

Truthfully, after spending the off-season railing against poor defense, I realize that it’s disingenuous to dismiss The OC (and Hannahan) on the basis of their offensive limitations (even if they have yet to rear their ugly heads), but the Indians need to continue to foster the development of the players that figure prominently into the next couple of years, particularly if they’ve excelled at the upper levels, which Phelps certainly has.

Finally, the Indians return to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario on Friday and I’ll be reveling in the majesty of attending the Saturday afternoon baseball (an casualty of TV) with my 4-year-old and 30,000 of my closest friends.
Hey, we’re on a roll…why get off of it now?