Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tipping Their Hand

As the “Little Injuns that Could” continue to chug their way up the mountain despite the smoking engine and the dings and dents throughout their body, the Indians made a surprising move yesterday when they needed to make room for Jeanmar Gomez’s start against Oakland. While the idea that the Indians would either send Choo off to the DL (he’s out for a while with this side issue) or send the likes of Shelley Duncan or Jerad Head back down I-71 with the idea that either would return in 10 days, after the September 1st roster expansion date and after either had spent enough time in AAA in order to be recalled, the Indians instead sent their Opening Day 1B Matt MaTola off to Columbus.

While the move is entirely justified in terms of LaPorta’s performance, the timing of it is more than a little surprising as the Indians’ current offense resembles that of a AAA team as injuries have laid waste to the Tribe’s position players. At a time when it would seem that the Indians would need any able-bodied position player to be standing at the ready, they sent down LaPorta, who (not all that long ago) was a Top 30 prospect in all of baseball and was (as if you needed to be reminded of this) the BIG bat that came over in the CC deal from the Cream City.

Regardless of that pedigree and his inclusion in the Sabathia deal, there’s little question that LaPorta has “earned” this demotion, as I wrote this three weeks ago, suggesting as much:
In a position of power at 1B, LaPorta’s continued struggles at the plate and his second year of injuries perhaps affecting his performance at the plate may mean that the Indians may need to start considering some alternatives to the now-26-year-old LaPorta, who has a sub-.700 OPS in his first 245 MLB games. While the Indians are likely to re-evaluate LaPorta and the future of 1B, with the Tribe in the throes of a pennant race, waiting for the off-season may be imprudent.

Maybe that’s seems reactionary and maybe there is a rush to judgment (and I’ve been the one preaching patience and “finding out what we have in LaPorta” going back to the off-season), but LaPorta hitting HR off of mistake pitches a couple of times a week are hurting this Indians’ team that really can’t afford to take too many more punches.

Since that was written, Kipnis, Hafner, and Brantley all hit the DL (and that’s just on the offensive side of things, not to mention Choo, who is out for a couple of weeks with this side injury), with the Indians improbably absorbing these “punches” to stay relevant into September. My suggestion from the piece was to play Santana at 1B every day and for Marson to assume the full-time C duties and that looks to be the direction that the Tribe will take going forward.

If you want to continue with the “since that was written” tract, LaPorta has posted a .603 OPS in the 13 games “since that was written”, striking out 12 times in 41 plate appearance, actually striking out (not just making an out) more often than he got on base since August 10th. Maybe some of this is still injury-related and the argument can be made that he probably should have gone to Columbus on a rehab assignment after the ankle injury (I think I made that argument at one time) as since he has returned from the DL, he’s posted a .231 BA / .256 OBP / .372 SLG / .628 OPS line in 129 PA, striking out 32 times in those 129 PA…or about ¼ of the times he strode to the plate.

If you’ll remember, when LaPorta came off of the DL, the team was short-handed at the time back then and his return allowed some level of normalcy to set in for a team in need of an offensive spark. Certainly, LaPorta didn’t provide that spark (as you look at those numbers above again), and what’s striking about this demotion is that LaPorta heads down to Columbus when the team is even MORE short-handed offensively than they were when he came off of the DL in June, which brings us to this overwhelming feeling about this move, in that it would certainly seem to suggest that the Indians are not counting on Matt MaTola for much of anything, this year or beyond.

Maybe the argument can be made that the Indians are trying to send LaPorta a message, that nobody on the roster (regardless of prospect pedigree or what trade you were involved in) is above being demoted, but in light of their unprecedented need for offense right now and the fact that the Indians are…you know, IN A PENNANT RACE, his demotion speaks volumes about the faith that the have in LaPorta right now and how much (or how little) hope that they might have for LaPorta going forward.

Though LaPorta’s been under the microscope than probably any other current Indian in this space, you want a stunning fact?
Matt LaPorta’s career OPS coming into 2011 was .694 in 623 plate appearances.
In 349 plate appearances in 2011, he has a…yep, .694 OPS.

Lest you forget, MaTola turns 27 in January and now has a fairly consistent track record of posting a sub-.700 OPS (.694, to be exact) over 972 plate appearances in MLB. Those days of thinking that LaPorta was the “answer” at 1B (much less an upgrade over Garko and Broussard) seem like they were long, long ago.

For some perspective on where LaPorta has fallen in terms of standing within the organization, let’s remember again that when the Indians needed to send someone to Columbus for 10 days, they kept Jerad Head and Shelley Duncan on the team over Matt LaPorta. For all intents and purposes, they could have sent Lonnie Chisenhall down for 10 days given the way Hannahan is playing, but instead they dispatched LaPorta. Yes, the Indians need OF and LaPorta hasn’t played LF since he broke his toe in Fenway last year (which may be why he’s not playing LF anymore), but the fact that Head and Duncan – who are both older than LaPorta and are non-prospects (even if Duncan is a useful piece) and have options – start to bring into clearer focus how damning this move is in terms of the long-term future for LaPorta in Cleveland.

Even more than LaPorta going down instead of Head and Duncan is the idea that LaPorta would be sent down in the midst of a pennant race for this team, which has been making moves to maximize this roster for 2011 since they called up Alex White months ago. Seriously, if you think about the moves that the Tribe has made to make a push for 2011 (White’s call-up, Chiz and Kipnis call-up, Kosuke, the Ubaldo deal, Thome) all season long, you start to really get the idea of how much they consider LaPorta to be “helpful” to this team at this point. That said, nearly all of the moves that they’ve made all season have been just as much about the future as the present as they’ve started the adjustment period for guys like Kipnis and Chisenhall and added a top-of-the-rotation starter that helps today and tomorrow.

That brings us back to the idea of the “tomorrow” of Matt LaPorta as, to say this move brings more cloudiness to the horizon of his career as an Indian would be an understatement. His plate discipline is bad and getting worse and his reputation as a “mistake-pitch” hitter (and almost that exclusively) was being cemented as his offensive production looked to be more in line with a Futility Infielder than that of a Future Cornerstone. Though it is true that there is the possibility that injuries played a role and LaPorta just needs to get healthy, e hasn’t been able to stay healthy since he arrived to the organization, so why is there a belief that he’ll suddenly find a full season of health and productivity in 2012?

The short answer is that there isn’t any reason to think that, and I can’t think that LaPorta is being counted on to be the de facto 1B next year for the Tribe at this point, regardless of what trade he was involved in or how high hopes may have been for him at one time. At this point, the Indians (quite suddenly, at least publicly) look to be turning away from LaPorta as a viable option at 1B as, if he’s not going to be trusted to help THIS team (beset by injuries), what incarnation of the future Indians is he going to contribute mightily to?

The answer to that came with his demotion and it’s led to the speculating about the future of certain players that we’re used to doing this time of year…we’re just not used to doing it in the middle of a pennant race.

As for that speculation, one thought that immediately comes to mind in terms of exploring external options for 1B next year is that the “Thome money” earned at the gate that has started to come in (and figures to continue) could perhaps give the Indians some financial flexibility to add a 1B in the off-season. Whether or not the Indians will continue to draw at the level that they have recently (hence the “Thome money”), let’s remember what Terry Pluto wrote last weekend when he passed on that, “the Indians projected 1.3 million at the start of this season”. Right now, they’d be on pace to see between 1.7 million and 1.8 million people come through the turnstiles, with that number perhaps even going higher if the Thome Love Fest keeps playing and if the Indians can draw the casual fan down in the month of September in a pennant race…which seems odd to even write.

Let’s say that they draw 1.75 million by the end of the season (and that’s being pretty cautious) and realize that 1.75 million in attendance is about a 35% increase from their expected gate revenue. While I’m not saying that there’s your “found” Prince Fielder money (just forget that), what it might do is first-and-foremost allow the Indians to be pro-active in locking up their own players (that have proven themselves this year), then have additional funds to perhaps attempt to fill an organizational hole…and 1B certainly looks to be a hole.

Does that mean that you should go out and order a custom jersey with a “PUJOLS 5” or a “FIELDER 28” Tribe jersey for next year? Of course not, but remember how the Tribe really has $17.7M actually committed in payroll next year with decisions on Grady’s option (and I think they pick it up and try to get creative to add more years at lower money by picking up the option) and with arbitration coming for Choo, Perez, and Cabrera (again) as well as Masterson’s first year of arbitration eligibility?

Well, there’s a possibility that the Indians could approach Asdrubal with an offer similar to the contract that Troy Tulowitzi signed back in 2008 (not the 10-year deal he just inked) for 6-years and $31M just as they could go to Masterson with a deal similar to the ones that Jon Lester (5 years, $30M) and Clay Buchholz (4 years, $29.95M) recently signed to keep those two on The Reservation for the foreseeable future at set contract numbers. By locking those two up (and making the cursory call to Scott Boras…just to see what’s what), the Indians can lock down more of their new, burgeoning “core” for the foreseeable future.

However, it’s still worth noting that if they do agree to a long-term deal with Asdrubal or Masterson (or both…or more), the dollar amounts in those contracts generally ramp up as the years pass, meaning that the Indians still could have some financial flexibility for 2012 and 2013 to explore external options for 1B. In terms of those options, it’s a pretty top-heavy list and the 1B FA pickings start to thin out after Pujols and Fielder in terms of “sure things”, although the switch-hitting Lance Berkman is certainly intriguing, as are Mike Cuddyer and Carlos Pena, although those 1B will have no shortage of suitors.

Of course, the Indians have always been reticent to get into bidding wars with teams that have the ability to simply write off their mistake contracts and given that “reticence” in the FA market (although, remember this organization did add Millwood for 2005 for $7M), maybe they could go the trade route to add a 1B, even if it seems as if the Tribe fired off most of their trade ammunition. Perhaps they could move Rafael Perez and Cord Phelps for something moderately useful as for as much talk as there may be about how CHRIS Perez is about to get more expensive in arbitration, RAFAEL is actually further along in his arbitration years and is about to get more expensive…probably more expensive than he is actually worth. With Hagadone knocking on the door as another LH reliever to go with Sipp, Rafael would probably win the “Perez Most Likely to be Traded” contest for the off-season and Phelps certainly looks to be blocked in a couple of different ways in the organization.

Then again, I’m just spitballing here and wouldn’t expect any kind of “1B of the Future” to come from a trade centered around Rafael Perez and Cord Phelps and it’s worth mentioning that this is all worrying about tomorrow - something Tribe fans are used to in September - when today is more pressing and compelling in the form of a pennant race…which is certainly something Cleveland hasn’t become used to in the last decade.

For now, LaPorta is out of the Indians’ imminent plans in a move that could provide some insight as to what they plan on doing in the off-season. But the off-season is still a month (or hopefully more) away and things are getting exciting again on The Reservation, with thoughts that Grady may be returning and with the Indians doing to the Royals and A’s what they should have done to the Mariners. It is worth noting that after the A’s leave town, the Indians have 28 games left. Fourteen of those games come against the White Sox (8) and the Tigers (6), meaning that there could be some serious movement in the AL Central as all of these teams control their own destiny in their hands.

Lest anyone forget, the Tigers arrive on Monday and there’s still baseball left to be played as September is nearly upon us and a pennant race has remained on the North Coast. Regardless of what 1B in 2012 is going to look like, what’s happening in the here-and-now is unquestionably fun and the fun figures to continue with the hope that this is still only the opening act…

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Scratching, Clawing, and Limping on A Lazy Sunday

In light of all of these Thomecoming Festivities that have filled the corner of Carnegie and Ontario – which included the high socks of Friday night and the Thome bomb on Saturday night – it is important to note that the Indians are now a week away from Labor Day Weekend (with the Tigers coming to Cleveland on Labor Day) and still remain within spitting distance of the divisional lead. While some of the folks who flowered Thome with their adulation this weekend were apparently unaware that the Indians were in 2nd place (much less were still a team…with uniforms and everything), when all of the Thome hysteria settles down, the Indians need to make sure that they’re still squarely in the AL Central race…contributions of ol’ #25 or not.

Certainly, that task is a daunting one as the injuries mount and as the Tigers continue to rattle off victories (they’ve won 9 of their last 11), but the Indians have come back from their Motor City meltdown and the Mariners’ series to take the first two from the Royals (what was that again about the “soft underbelly of the schedule) and have the chance to continue to build momentum in anticipation of next weekend’s arrive of the Motor City Kitties to the North Coast…but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
That said, there’s plenty to get to, so let’s get off on a Lazy One…

Of course, it’s been said here far too many times, but if the Indians are going to stay in this AL Central race, they’re going to have to do it by outpitching their opponents and Ubaldo’s outing on Friday night (against the Royals…I know) showed that he is still capable of dominating an opponent as he finally commanded his fastball (something Zack Meisel astutely pointed out earlier in the week as a key to his success) and settled into the groove that most expected him to live in since he arrived from Colorado. Regardless of the opponent, if Jimenez can muster together some momentum from Friday night, the Indians’ chances of sticking around in the Central (much less overtaking the suddenly-can’t-lose Tigers) grow exponentially.

Back when Ubaldo was added, the idea that Jimenez and Masterson could front a rotation and provide some shutdown innings was the main selling point that Jimenez could be a “fit” in Cleveland. Yes, Jimenez’s contract plays a role, but the idea of adding Ubaldo was predicated on the idea that he’d combine with Masterson to form a 1-2 punch that would become the envy of the Central, with the rest of the rotation falling into place around those two. Now, with news that Josh Tomlin will hit the DL (in a move that stinks of inning suppression), the burden of having to carry the Tribe’s pitching staff becomes heavier on the shoulders of Jimenez and Masterson as the back end of the Indians’ rotation continues to filter through arms due to injury.

Certainly, Carmona’s performance since his…um, “fall” in Cincinnati has restored some level of confidence in him, but with Tomlin and Carrasco on the DL, the Indians are going to have to rely on the likes of Dave Huff and Zach McAllister and Jeanmar Gomez to hold down the fort by taking up perhaps more than one spot in the rotation, for at least the next couple of weeks. The necessary usage of those arms wasn’t unforeseen because of mounting inning counts for young pitchers like Tomlin and due to the sheer volume of games that are still yet to be played, but with Tomlin now officially out (for at least a couple of weeks…and these “elbow injuries” for Tomlin and Cookie terrify me, perhaps unnecessarily) the Indians are dipping into their depth to see if they can get some performances from pitchers that were ostensibly the 7th, 8th, and 9th options coming into the season.

When Tomlin hit the DL late this week, it meant that 80% of the Indians’ Opening Day rotation has spent time on the DL with two of those pitchers (Cookie and The Fury) having two trips to the Disabled List on the season. Additionally, let’s not forget that the first pitcher called up from Columbus (Alex White) also spent time on the DL prior to his being traded, so 5 of the top 6 starters in the organization (when the season started) have now all spent time on the DL. If the Indians reportedly had rotational depth that they could lean on, surely it is being tested and that figures to continue. Of course, Talbot is still in Columbus as an option (and, it should be noted, that he cleared waivers without being claimed…which puts the league-wide opinion of him into perspective), but the Indians are now operating with the steady Masterson at the top, the horrifyingly inconsistent and undeniably talented Jimenez and Carmona…and the final two spots being filled by pitchers that spent most of their time in 2011 as Clippers.

That’s how they’re going to go to have to go after the AL Central, unless Carrasco suddenly re-appears (and is effective) as Tomlin figures to miss a couple of starts at least – and he could be shut down for the season depending upon where the team sits when he’s eligible to come off of the DL, as could Cookie – and the last two starts for McAllister and Huff bring into focus the profound difference between success at the AAA level and even competence at the MLB level. Don’t take that to mean that the Indians are unquestionably sunk as Masterson, Jimenez, and Carmona could get into a groove with the Indians attempting to find the right arm for the right situation in the back-end-of-the-rotation, but the attrition in the rotation is hard to ignore.

To date, the Indians have had 10 separate pitchers start games and have three pitchers who have 25 starts or more. While every team generally dips into their pitching depth (the Tigers have four pitchers with 25 starts or more, for some context), the Indians are facing the injury bug in their rotation at the worst possible time.

However, it’s not just the rotation that is limping to the finish here, as the Indians’ DL is currently populated by Hafner, Sizemore, Brantley, and Kipnis with Choo having just arrived back and still experiencing soreness in his side that took him out of the game again last night and threatens his availability in the near-term. Amazingly, the only key players from the Opening Day roster that haven’t spent time on the DL this year are Asdrubal and Santana. You could include Hannahan, The OC, and Kearns if you’d like, but if you figure that Hannahan and The OC were supposed to be simply placeholders for The Chiz (who hasn’t been the same since getting hit in the face) and Kipnis (on the DL), the Indians have had to endure more than their fair share of injuries…and not just to bit players.

Since every team endures their fair share of injuries over 162 games, it is worth noting that the Indians have THREE players with more than 375 plate appearances on the season and one of those players (Brantley) is currently on the DL…and probably should have been on it sooner. The BLC’s 355 plate appearances place him 4th on the team – and he broke his thumb and missed 6 weeks of the season. Just behind Choo on the plate appearance leaderboard for the Tribe is Uncle Orlando (traded nearly a month ago), followed by Matt LaPorta, who spent time on the DL and is now (correctly) being used sparingly.

For some perspective on that, the Tigers have SIX players with more than 375 plate appearances, with Austin Jackson being the only among those six who doesn’t have an OPS over .800. What that means is that not only have the Tigers been healthy this season, but that they’ve been healthy where they NEED to be healthy as Miggy Cabrera leads the team in PA with 557, which is 19 fewer plate appearances than Hafner and Sizemore have COMBINED for this season. By the way, Hafner and Sizemore have 11 more combined plate appearances than Mauer and Morneau (who are both now healthy) on the year, who play for those “oh-so-injured-and-snakebitten” Twins.

Perhaps the caveat exists that Hafner and Sizemore (just to use them as the examples) were injury risks coming into the season, but the Tigers have received largely healthy seasons from the middle of their order hitters (Miggy, Vic, Jhonny, Boesch, and Avila) while the Indians have used Shelly Duncan as their cleanup hitter and have had their five best hitters (Asdrubal, Choo, Hafner, Sizemore, and Santana) in the lineup together FOURTEEN times, or about 11% of their games played to date.

With that knowledge, the fact that this team is team is still even close to the top of their division (although, in full disclosure, a .500 team is only close in the AL Central) is stunning and speaks to the resiliency of the club as they’ve continued to scratch and claw their way into relevance in the division. Interestingly, the only portion of their team that hasn’t been horribly affected by injury has been their bullpen and yet, for as healthy as their bullpen has been, there are cracks that are beginning to show in the foundation as the recent struggles of Chris Perez have certainly been reason to give pause to the idea that he should continue on as the closer.

With the role of “closer” more than any other “position” on a baseball team, emotion plays as large of a role in perception as any and while the whole “all that matters is getting those last three outs” philosophy is one that we’ve seen spouted by many, the even moderate effectiveness of Perez in the 9th inning has allowed the Indians’ relief corps to settle into roles that they have thrived in. Given what was seen on the North Coast in 2006 and 2008 know what a volatile 9th inning option can do to a bullpen, much less a team, and Perez’s performance (particularly in the 1st half of the year) afforded the Tribe bullpen some stability and allowed guys like Pestano, Sipp, Smith, and R. Perez to settle into the roles in which they’ve thrived.

That said, with Perez’s continued struggles cause more than a little worry. In his last 16 appearances prior to Saturday night, Perez had allowed runs in 7 of them as he had walked the same amount of hitters (8) as he had struck out and his ERA of 4.11 over those 16 appearances was actually probably lower than it should be due to his .239 BABIP over those 15 1/3 IP. While the small sample size alarm is blaring, it is worth noting that relievers really only deal in small sample sizes and, while I loathe the “Save” as an actual statistic, the notion of a “Blown Save” is pretty cut and dry in that a reliever comes in with a lead and blows it. That’s pretty easy to understand and doesn’t involve knowing whether the tying run ever makes it to the on-deck circle or any of the other absurd qualifications for a “Save”. The fact that he’s allowed runs in nearly half of his last 16 appearances, given that he’s generally starting an inning, well…that’s not good and with the stressful Perez appearances that are suddenly becoming the norm, perhaps a change should be in order.

With the small margin of error that the Indians are currently operating with, they need every aspect of their ballclub that they can control and maximize to be operating at full capacity and, as the last couple of weeks have started to unfortunately show, having Chris Perez at the back end of the bullpen may not be utilizing the assets in the bullpen in the best-possible manner. Admittedly, I know little of clubhouse dynamics and how certain players feed off of each other, but Perez (histrionics on the mound and Twitter presence considered) is far from the Indians’ “best” reliever right now and the growing sense that the already-tenuous Indians’ season could be adversely affected by his struggles is growing.

As a quick aside here, there was an interesting piece written by Tyler Kepner of the NYT on the Braves’ bullpen and how the components of that bullpen (best in MLB) came to be. Much of the focus is placed on the Braves’ 22-year-old closer Craig Kimbrel as Kepner writes that “Kimbrel, though, is otherworldly. He has struck out 41 percent of opposing hitters — 103 of 251 — and has averaged 14.56 strikeouts per nine innings. Only five pitchers have ever had a better ratio with at least 60 innings pitched.”

What does this have to do with the Indians or Chris Perez?
Well, if Kimbrel is “otherworldly”, what can be said of the performance of another rookie pitcher, this one toeing the slab for the Wahoo Warriors?

Allow me to point this out for a moment:
Craig Kimbrel 2011 – 14.56 K/9, 4.12 K/BB, 1.01 WHIP, .475 OPS against
Vinnie Pestano 2011 – 12.32 K/9, 3.58 K/BB, 1.09 WHIP, .583 OPS against

Are Kimbrel’s numbers better?
Sure, but Pestano has struck out 1 in 3 batters that he has faced this year (68 K, 204 batters faced) and if the better measures of a reliever are his ability to strike hitters out, limit baserunners either via hit or walk, and limit damage when hits are given up, what Pestano has done this year puts him among the elite in the AL:
Pestano’s K/9 – 12.32 (3rd among AL relievers with more than 40 IP)
Pestano’s WHIP – 1.09 (19th among AL relievers with more than 40 IP)
Pestano’s OPS against - .583 (14th lowest among AL relievers with more than 40 IP)

Now, compare those numbers and ranks to those that C. Perez has compiled:
C. Perez’s K/9 – 5.55 (55th among AL relievers with more than 40 IP)
C. Perez’s WHIP – 1.23 (31st among AL relievers with more than 40 IP)
C. Perez’s OPS against - .646 (29th lowest among AL relievers with more than 40 IP)

Now, it is worth noting here that Tony Sipp’s K/9 is 7.86 (29th highest among AL relievers), his WHIP is 0.99 (8th lowest among AL relievers) and Sipp’s OPS against is .595 (16th lowest among AL relievers) and Joe Smith is having a nice statistical year (.528 OPS against), but there seems to be this idea that there is a “closer mentality” thing at play here that somehow forces the Indians to stick with Perez as the closer because…well, because he’s been doing it since Kerry Wood left last year.

While the whole “closer mentality” thing is a bit overblown in my opinion (Joe Borowski’s “closer mentality” still gives me night sweats), is it absurd to think that Vinnie Pestano could come into the game in the 9th inning in MLB and have the same success that he’s had in the 7th and 8th innings?

Pestano is no stranger to the 9th inning as Pestano finished 43 of the 48 games he pitched as an Aero in Akron and he finished 20 of his 25 games for the K-Tribe in Kinston. Please note that I’m using “games finished” here and not saves as the idea that Pestano actually “closed” these games out is far more important than any “save situation” that was out of his control. All told, Pestano finished 136 of his 166 games in the Minors and while his success this year is a surprise (he is a 26-year-old 20th Round Draft Pick), if the Indians want to use their “best” reliever in the 9th inning, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Pestano is that “best” reliever.

Back in 2007, the Indians had their “best” reliever (Betancourt) pitching the 8th inning and most fans worried less about the 7th (R. Perez) and 8th (Betancourt) innings combined than they did about the 9th (Borowski) inning, but if Acta is going to stick to the somehow-universally-accepted idea that his “best” reliever should pitch the 9th inning (instead of using relievers based on hitters coming up in the lineup, regardless of inning), Pestano should probably supplant C. Perez as the 9th inning reliever.

At this point (and particularly with Choo’s side perhaps putting him out for a couple of games here…if not more), given the injuries that have decimated their lineup and thinned out their rotation, the Indians need to be capitalizing on every advantage they can take as they attempt to keep pace with the Tigers in the Central. While the rotation is going to be full of hopes and prayers and the lineup figures to be a patchwork combination of players until certain cogs can get healthy (if they can), the Indians’ bullpen could be a place that they make a move to solidify a portion of their roster that has become shaky in recent weeks.

Perhaps the Indians will keep their bullpen progression in the interest of stability, but the instability in the other aspects of the team may compel the Tribe to act to strengthen the team in any way possible. Given that the “strengthening” that is occurring in the rotation and the lineup amounts to internal options from Columbus being put in key situations when they’re either underprepared or ill-equipped for them at times, the Indians should continue to throw everything they have at this divisional race to see what sticks.

Somehow, the Indians are still in 2nd place in their division and have the opportunity to make one last push before the Tigers arrive on Labor Day. If they’re able to stay within striking distance for the next week or so, it will be because of the tenacity of the team (plus their upcoming schedule) as the Indians are keeping things together with gum and chicken wire as they approach the final month of the season.
That they’ve stuck around this long is a pleasant surprise, so maybe more pleasant surprises are still in store…

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thomecoming Weekend

Though the banners may be up reminding all alumni and while asterisks may be on High School football schedules around Northeast Ohio denoting the game that welcomes back all beloved graduates, the biggest Homecoming of the season arrives with its own name – a Thomecoming.

As Jim Thome waived his no-trade clause (and by now you know the speculation that he would exercise it to force his way to re-join ol’ Cholly), it paved the way for his return to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario to a team badly in need of any players, much less Hall-of-Fame players who built the beginning of their career to the adulation of the North Coast. His return is sure to be painted in flowery tones by the Indians’ broadcast teams as Thome’s standing within the organization was never in question, just the perception among fans regarding his departure…which amazingly came nine years ago.

While there is an inescapable feeling that the addition of Thome may represent a little of “too little, too late” in terms of divisional impact, the fact that the Indians continue to augment their depleted roster represents a pro-active philosophy that is both welcome and decidedly necessary in light of the injuries that have felled Tribesman. Regardless of the fact that the Indians are staring up at the Tigers as we approach the final week in August, the addition of Thome provides some middle-of-the-order thump (even if he’s not playing everyday) that’s been missing since Hafner’s foot issue sapped his power and production.

Certainly, the #25 jerseys will be in full effect this weekend at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario (and I think I still have a batting helmet that was a giveaway that says “T25” and may say “The Thomenator” somewhere in the mess of boxes that I just moved) as the nostalgia of “The Era of Champions” (the one that never produced an actual World Series Championship) will be bubbling up this weekend. The fans who ache for those halcyon days of nearly a decade-and-a-half ago have Thome “back where he belongs” as he will get to make whatever amends he needs to with the city, cementing his legacy as one of “our own” and ironing out any wrinkles that may have existed in terms of his standing as an all-time great in Cleveland.

As for the actual baseball side of the addition, Thome unquestionably improves the Tribe’s offense (though you or I might at this point) as the Indians attempt to muster enough offense to stay in the AL Central race. Presumably, Thome replaces Hafner in the lineup (and this is probably the sign that Hafner’s done for the year) and if you’ll remember the numbers that Hafner’s posted from July 8th until his placement on the DL, as he posted a .206 BA / .288 OBP / .313 SLG / .601 OPS.

While that timeframe is fairly arbitrary, it is worth noting that Thome himself re-emerged from an earlier stint on the DL and has posted a .254 BA / .347 OBP / .508 SLG / .855 OPS since the end of June and Thome has actually added 70 points to his OPS over the last month. Though Thome may not be able to play every day due to his age and the precautions that remain with his health, the alternative of LaPorta or Chisenhall spending time at DH certainly put into perspective what an upgrade adding Thome to the lineup really is.

Of course, news that Thome has re-emerged arrives with the idea that Mike Brantley may still be DL-bound and that The BLC is experiencing some soreness in his side, meaning that the Duncan-Carrera-Fukudome outfield that we all envisioned in Spring Training may actually come to pass…and not just for a short time. Truthfully, the prospect of that OF alignment brings into focus how decimated the Tribe is right now and the presence of Thome in the middle of the lineup may dull the pain of watching what currently occupies the Indians’ batting order right now, but he’s certainly not going to solve all of the problems.

That said, it’s possible that Choo and Kipnis get fully healthy and the most optimistic out there still put Sizemore’s return (this year) on the schedule, which starts to flesh out a lineup that looks more potent with Jim Thome playing the role previously held by Hafner – that of the thumping LH DH. For Thome, it’s a role that he’s played to some critical acclaim in the last few years for various teams in the Central and he now gets to play it on the stage that he made his name on.

Thome’s return certainly has all of the elements of the “feel-good”, “Prodigal’s son” stories that are out there now and I’m certainly going to enjoy watching Thome stride to home plate on Friday night – socks high, donning the script “Indians”, sheepishly grinning and saying all the right things to the adoring media before acknowledging the adoring masses, who will be happy to have their hero back.

Whether Thome can play the role of hero for the Indians (once again) remains to be seen, but his return to The Reservation is the latest in a long line of exciting and compelling developments during the 2011 season. If Thome can inject some life into a team, limping to the finish, and a town hungry to stay in this playoff hunt as long as possible, his return will be on par with his accomplishments prior to his departure.

Against all odds, Jim Thome is an Indian once more for a team that still has a chance to go to the playoffs…let the Thomecoming celebration commence.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tomahawks Slip-Sliding Away

If I may set the scene for what has transpired in what has felt like a very long six days for Tribe fans, I loaded up the Family Truckster with The DiaBride and the kids for a trip to Milwaukee to visit the in-laws and to enjoy some Fat Tires, Spotted Cow, and brats. En route to the Land of Beer and Cheese, we passed The Cell on Thursday night and pointed out to The DiaTot (pulling him away for a moment from “Mary Poppins”) that the Indians were actually playing the White Sox in the stadium as we passed it. After a brief (well…not brief) discussion about why we weren’t going into the stadium to watch the game, I settled in for the final stretch of the drive, thrilled about being able to listen to the Tribe-Pale Hose game all the way into Milwaukee as the Indians took the series finale in the Windy City to pull themselves to within 1 ½ games of the lead of the AL Central as they readied themselves for a trip to Detroit with the hopes that they could continue to make up ground against the divisional leaders.

That was less than a week away.

During my absence from the North Coast, the Indians have seen Kipnis, then Hafner, and soon Brantley hit the DL as Ubaldo Jimenez’s unquestionably disappointing performance on Sunday has allowed the instant analysts (the ones that deal is 140 characters or less) to categorize him as a bum while the Indians’ 1 ½ game deficit in the Central has mushroomed to a 6 ½ game deficit.
Again, in less than a week…

Regardless – and as it seems that I cannot leave Cleveland for fear of the bottom falling out while I’m gone – let’s get some Tomahawks in the air so we can at least get a look at something moving upward…

When I referenced the 2004 team in the middle of last week in terms of providing some context for how the two teams – both surprise contenders in mid-August – were not all that similar in terms of make-up and age, I certainly didn’t think that pointing out that “the 2004 team got to within 1 game of 1st place when they were 8 games over .500 on August 14th of that year, only to see the bottom fall out to the point that they were 16 games back and 6 games under .500 a little more than a month later” would prove to be prescient in terms of what was waiting for the 2011 club.

Lest you forget, that 2004 team had a series finale against the Twins in which they could have pulled even with the Twinkies by sweeping them in mid-August, but would lose the game 4-2 in 10 innings as the air would begin to go out of the balloon…quickly. It would be their 1st loss among the 16 losses in their next 20 games as they would go from one game back to ELEVEN games back before anyone really had a chance to even take a breath. They would eventually sputter to the end of the season to finish 80-82, exceeding pre-season expectations, but ultimately disappointing in terms of how quickly their divisional deficit grew on them until it became untenable.

Watching the Indians go against the M’s after being completely deflated in the Motor City, it’s hard not to think that a similar slide (and final record) is coming for the Tribe as the injuries on the offensive side have simply proven to be too much for this young, inconsistent, shallow team to overcome. Where there should be Hafner, Sizemore, Brantley, and Kipnis, we have Duncan (or LaPorta), Zeke, Fukudome, and Donald, meaning that nearly ½ o the Tribe lineup is made up of players whose role is best maximized as a bench option or as a bottom-of-the-order filler.

Remember, just about a week-and-a-half ago, with Choo coming off the DL and Kipnis tearing through the AL, the Indians had the look that they might actually be coming together as an offensive club as they held tough with Boston and Texas and won consecutive divisional series with the Twins and White Sox. Now, the offense that looked offensively competent enough to “hide” Lou Marson in the lineup now has Jack Hannahan back in the everyday mix (although Supermanahan has been a bright spot of late) to go along with a whole mess of players that started the season in Columbus and are trying to keep up in an AL Central race that the Tigers have grabbed by the throat in the last week.

The offense has disappeared (as Hafner, Kipnis, and an effective Brantley went away) and, with the exception of Justin Masterson and Carmona, the pitching has been…um, erratic as the starters have been unable to replicate their early success (Tomlin) or past success (Ubaldo…and read this from Jordan Bastian) while the back-end-of-the-bullpen has given away leads at the worst possible time of the season. While the thought that the starting pitching would carry this team down the stretch, the struggles of Ubaldo – and a scout recently told B-Pro’s John Perroto that, “Now you’re seeing why the Rockies were willing to move him. He has no command of his off-speed pitches, and his mechanics are a mess. This is going to be a long-term project for (pitching coach) Tim Belcher, and the Indians don’t have the luxury of time with where they are in the standings right now”…which is awesome – and the issues with Chris Perez have made it nearly impossible for the Tribe to overcome their offensive deficiencies as the team that has nearly zero margin for error is forced to rely on young players whose adjustments to MLB are going to result in more mistakes than this team can endure right now.

Unfortunately, the Indians have begun their probable slide down the standings that most have been waiting for since Memorial Day. Though we are only about a week-and-a-half from Labor Day, the naysayers will say “nay” and “I told you so”, but this Indians team scratched and clawed their way to stay in the AL Central race despite injuries that have affected this team from the beginning of the year to where we stand today.

Where we stand today is stepping up to the podium, ready to deliver the eulogy on an Indians’ season that resembled multiple rides in an amusement park throughout the course of the year. From the roller-coaster ups-and-downs to the Rotor-esque sticking around as the bottom seemed to drop out, the Indians seem to have finally started their final descent. While the last week has felt like the ride on the Demon Drop (and who know where the bottom is), it has been a fun ride.

Maybe the Indians have one last push left in them, but with the injuries taking their toll and with the young players being forced into positions that they may not quite be ready for, it may be time to get your tray table and your seat back to the upright and locked position as the ride that the Indians have been taking us on may finally be coming to an end…or at least some turbulence is on the horizon.


While there was much hullabaloo about the prospect of Jim Thome perhaps returning to the North Coast, let’s not forget that the whole idea that Thome would actually even fit on the Indians is the assumption that Hafner is done for the season. Since Thome was likely claimed by the White Sox (who leapfrogged the Tribe in the waiver claim line by losing on Tuesday night), the point is moot, but the more interesting aspect to look at in all of this is Hafner’s performance in the last few months and how his performance was obviously affected by not only that oblique injury that put him on the DL for a month earlier in the season, but by what we now hear was a lingering foot injury.

According to the Tribe’s Lonnie Soloff, Hafner’s foot injury apparently originally occurred on April 27th and while it’s been reported that he re-aggravated the injury on Sunday, anyone who has been watching him run the has seen him limping for the last few weeks (at least) and the numbers back up that something’s been amiss with him for a while. To wit, after the April 27th game, Hafner had a .342 BA / .393 OBP / .566 SLG / .959 OPS line and after sitting out a couple of games to rest the foot, he returned on May 3rd.

From that time until he was shelved this week, he compiled a .259 BA / .353 OBP / .405 SLG / .758 OPS over his last 61 games with those numbers being badly affected by his performance in the last two months. In fact, from the time that Hafner returned on May 3rd to the oblique strain in mid-May, he posted a .955 OPS in 11 games and continued on that torrid pace when he returned from the oblique strain injury, posting a 1.100 OPS in his first 16 games back from the DL until the first week of July. While most of those 16 games were against NL opponents, in which Hafner was not much more than a glorified PH, his presence in the lineup gave the Indians’ offense some teeth until he experienced a drop in production that affected the effectiveness of the Tribe lineup.

From July 8th until Hafner’s placement on the DL, he posted a .206 BA / .288 OBP / .313 SLG / .601 OPS over a 34-game stretch as the effects of his foot injury grew more noticeable as he hobbled around the bases and experienced a nearly-complete power outage in nearly ¼ of the season. As the days wore on and Hafner’s performance only worsened, it was obvious that he was attempting to play through pain, with the injury ultimately resulting in the DL stint that will likely end his season, with foot surgery probably thrown in for good measure and to erase any doubt that his 2011 is done.

What is perhaps most interesting about the effect of Hafner on the lineup is traceable to that early-season surge as, when Hafner hit the DL for his oblique strain, the Indians were 26-13. While everyone keeps pointing to that 30-15 start, perhaps a big portion of their early success is largely attributable to the presence of a (healthy) Hafner in the lineup and (perhaps just as importantly) a healthy Sizemore in the lineup with Hafner.

Lest anyone forget as we all wonder whether Grady’s coming back (this year or ever), Sizemore posted a .974 OPS in his first 18 games back with the Tribe and his early performance (particularly combined with that of Hafner) is what allowed the Indians to get out to their blazing start. Sure, there were other factors involved, but when Hafner and Sizemore were showing why they’re still probably the two most talented hitters on the team (when healthy…a big caveat), the Indians were building their lead in the AL Central, a lead they have only recently given up.

What does that mean for the future, in terms of decisions to be made with Sizemore and with Hafner seemingly snakebitten (again) by injuries?

Those are probably questions for another day, but when you realize that those two were paid more than 40% of a payroll that was lower than $50M (and go look at this new page and bookmark it…if you’re still bookmarking), you start to realize that one of the reasons that the Indians raced out to that early lead was the performances of Hafner, then Sizemore producing at the plate.

Since Sizemore injured himself (and I’m not even sure which injury I’m talking about because I can’t keep track) and since Hafner’s foot injury took him off track, the Indians have been not even treading water, but taking it on. The pitching kept them around for a while and the performances of Cabrera and (later) Santana held the offense together for a while, but without Sizemore, a fully healthy Hafner, and a fully healthy and productive Choo, the Indians were bound to start to falter, despite the reinforcements from Columbus…or maybe because of those reinforcements and who they were not.

The Indians, as an organization, cannot withstand the injuries that they have all season and simply soldier through them the way that others can. While I know that this isn’t telling any secrets and is preaching to the assembled choir, it is (as always) worth noting that of the top 10 teams in MLB (sorted by winning percentage), seven of them have payrolls of $90M or more and three of them have payrolls of $164M or more.

Is it a coincidence that those three teams (with the payrolls over $164M) have the best three records in baseball?

No, and it brings back into focus what the Indians are trying to do in terms of accumulating as much under-club-control, “affordable” talent as quickly as possible in an attempt to not just compete for a division, but for much more. To do that however, they need health and production from some key spots and, as the year wore on, they didn’t get it as injuries, inexperience, and attrition remained doggedly at the heels of the Indians with the last week feeling like it has finally caught up with the Tribe.


With all of that said, and attempting to keep some folks off of the 480 bridge (it is baseball and a pennant race in August after all), sometimes it is interesting to look back before looking forward and, with that in mind, this is what was written in this space on August 7th, as the Tigers were about to arrive into town:

Even if the Indians can play close to .500 baseball in these next 11 games, the teams that follow that trip around the AL Central are the Mariners, the Royals, the A’s, and the Royals once again…or 3 of the 4 teams with the worst record in all of the AL (the Orioles are the worst), meaning that the Indians still have an opportunity to tread water in a still-winnable division for a while, with a stretch of games coming at the end of the month and the beginning of September that they could use to catapult them into (or back into) control of the AL Central…where no team has a positive run differential into August.

This may be crazy to point out, but the Indians went 6-5 in those 11 divisional games and despite the fact that they started off their homestand by going 1-3 against the Mariners, the soft underbelly of the upcoming schedule may allow them to remain relevant a little longer…not much longer, but longer.

As difficult as it may be to envision on a day in which the Indians’ lineup included 5 players (Zeke, Cord, Duncan, Donald, and Chiz) who spent most of the year in Columbus, one player who probably SHOULD have gone to Columbus…or be in Columbus (LaPorta), and one player who made the team as a non-roster invitee in Spring Training (Hannahan), the Indians still actually have some time to make some hay against some teams that are probably on about equal footing as them right now as the Royals, the A’s, and the Royals (again, this time on the road) are next up on the schedule before the Tigers come to Cleveland on Labor Day.

Now the Tigers will face the Twins, Royals, and White Sox after they leave St. Pete and they have certainly taken advantage of the Indians’ struggles by going off on a tear of their own (they’ve won 9 of their last 12) to take control of the division, but we’ve seen the Tigers fall apart in years past down the stretch. Detroit still has the A’s and the Orioles on their schedule in addition to the AL Central heavy finish, but if the Indians can get some momentum on this homestand and in Kansas City, it’s possible that the Tigers arrive back to Cleveland on Labor Day with still something to play for and attempting to keep the Tribe at bay.

As improbable as that looks right now, how improbable was the idea that baseball would figure to be relevant in Cleveland on Labor Day when the season started?


This team has been overcoming obstacles all season long to remain relevant and while it is certainly hard to see them being able to overcome the injuries and the inconsistency that they’re getting right now, baseball’s a funny game. Whether the Indians’ fans will start laughing again this season remains to be seen or whether the Indians’ Front Office still is going to try to pull some rabbits from hats to keep this team viable (or get this team back to viable) as the Indians have made the final turn to come down the homestretch.

Against all odds, the lead horse is still within view, even if the distance between the two is growing with each stride. Whether this becomes a race to the finish or simply watching the Tigers pulling away from behind will bear out in the coming weeks, but the longshot underdog has caused some excitement around the first three turns.

How much is left in them – bruised and battered as they are – is what we’re about to find out…

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Lazy Sunday Before the Storm

Paul is off enjoying the majesty of Milwaukee this weekend, so I’m filling in on this Lazy Sunday here in the midst of the pursuit for the AL Central crown. Stop meKip_fired_up if you’ve heard this before, but it’s going to be a frantic race to the finish, as the Wahoo Warriors have 43 games in 41 days to close out the season. Battling Central Division foes, injuries, weather and now the schedule, if these Indians can end up with a better record than the Tigers and White Sox, they’ll have earned their playoff berth like few teams in recent memory. Will that crucible serve to harden their resolve and forge them for the playoffs? Or will it crush their spirit and leave them tantalizingly short of the postseason? We'll just have to wait and see, as we're getting a little ahead of ourselves here in mid-August, so on to all of the news that's fit to link...

The biggest news this weekend is that 2B Jason Kipnis has found himself on the 15 day DL, retroactive to August 14. Kipnis had missed a few games with general “left side soreness” that he had begun to feel even before his 5-5 game back on August 10. He was in the lineup and ready to play Friday night against the Tigers, but pulled his hamstring running in the outfield just a few minutes before the first pitch. Kipnis had provided a nice boost to a sagging Indians offense, hitting .279/.347/.603 with 6 HR, 4 2B and 11 RBI in his 18 games since replacing the inept Orlando Cabrera in the Indians lineup. He posted 41 total bases in those 18 games. Not to continue to defame Orlando Cabrera, but from June 2 until he was traded after July 30, the OC collected 43 total bases. So…yeah, Kipnis was a pretty significant upgrade for an offense that was in desperate need of an upgrade. To replace Kipnis on the 25-man roster, the Indians called up Luis Valbuena, who is distinctively Cabrera-esque at the plate. Jason Donald will likely get the majority of the playing time at 2B, and he’s been solid but unspectacular in the majors this year. So for those of you keeping score at home, that now makes Kipnis, Sizemore, Hafner, Choo, LaPorta, and Brantley who have missed time with injuries this year. I’m not normally one to complain about injuries, because they really are a part of the game, but this is just getting ridiculous.

Paulie C. himself did a great job capturing some of the challenges that the Indians will face down the stretch in this very space on Friday. It’s going to be a tough row to hoe, there’s no doubt about that. Before this season started, there was a lot of talk about the Indians farm system, and how it didn’t really have a lot of “elite” talent but did have a lot more depth than most systems around baseball. That depth is going to allow the Indians to weather the storm of September, because when rosters expand on September 1, there are plenty of options in the upper levels of the system that can step right in and contribute. Starting pitchers for the doubleheaders are an obvious need, so you’ll see guys like Jenmar Gomez and Zach McAllister get spot starts as needed. But the Indians will also need bullpen arms, so expect to see some/all of Josh Judy, Nick Hagadone, Zach Putnam and C.C. Lee. Zeke Carerra and Shelley Duncan will be up providing OF depth, and even when Kipnis comes back from injury Luis Valbuena and Cord Phelps will probably be around as utility infielders/pinch runners. The 2011 season is a great example of how a farm system feeds into a small market club to fill in for injuries (Sizemore/Choo), ineffectiveness (Orlando Cabrera) as well as providing depth down the stretch when the weather and schedule provide additional hurdles to clear. Would I rather the Indians play a more normal schedule down the stretch that would allow for regular rest? Of course. But Antonetti, Shapiro, Brad Grant and company have built a system through trades and the draft that puts the Indians in a much better position to weather the storm of this brutal schedule than most other teams around baseball. Will it push the Tribe to the postseason? Time will tell, but I’m a lot more confident right now than I would be if we had the Tigers or White Sox farm system to rely on.

Speaking of our Central Division foes, Adam Burke takes a unique look at the other four teams in the division, based on his dislike for each. I won’t spoil the end result for you, but he and I agree on the team we dislike the most. Ok, I’ll give you a hint…it’s the team that poses and postures after each HR, to the point where they’ve been involved in at least one bench clearing brawl this year because of opposing pitchers taking exception to being shown up after each round tripper. Also, their closer dances on the mound like an idiot after every save. And the team name rhymes with Retroit Ligers.

Baseball Prospectus continues to update their computer-generated playoff projections after each game, and going into Saturday the Indians were given a 13.7% chance of making it to baseball’s postseason. The Tigers have the best chance at 73.3%, but it’s interesting to note that the percentages changed a combined 10.9% after Friday night’s Tiger victory. One game shifting the percentages that much tells me that even the computer really doesn’t know what’s going on, and despite the 3 in 4 chance it currently gives the Motor City Kitties, this is still anyone’s division to step up an win. Well, anyone but the Twins and Royals, who have a combined 0.1% chance to make it to the promised land this season. I like checking BP’s odds from time to time, because this isn’t Keith Law doggedly adhering to his preseason prediction that the Indians won’t make the playoffs. The computer is what it is, and has no bias. It takes in the information it is given and spits out a result. So I much prefer that as a reality check over reading someone with their own preconceived notion for what the Indians are vs what they should be. Personally, I think it’s more along the lines of a 50/50 shot at this point, but I’m looking at it through Cleveland-tinted glasses so I probably can’t be trusted to be objective either. For the eternal optimists out there, MLB has given the Indians permission to begin the process for printing/selling postseason tickets, and the Indians have begun the process to allow fans to register for the postseason ticket lottery. Get in now while the getting is good.

Speaking of playoff percentages, Jordan Bastain sat down and did something that I’ve always hated, ever since I was a little kid. He did math. Just by playing the percentages, Bastain figures it will take the Indians going around 25-16 the rest of the way out to win the division. As a .512 team right now, they project to go more like 22-19. Bastain delves deeper in the math, looking at home/road winning %, as well as winning % against specific teams remaining on the schedule, and by his math the Indians are projected to end the season at 84-78, below the Tigers and out of the playoffs. Kudos to Bastain for taking the time to break all of that down, as there’s no way in Pittsburgh I’d have had the patience to do that. The bottom line is that the Indians are going to have to play at a clip much closer to their April/May edition than the June-August team that we’ve been watching of late.

Back in March, I openly advocated for David Huff to be the 5th starter on this team over Josh Tomlin. With every Tomlin start, that seemed like a worse and worse idea, one that I was hoping everyone forgot I ever had. Interestingly though, Huff seized the opportunity that was presented to him last month, and has pitched like he means to keep his rotation spot. With the small sample size alarm blaring in the background, allow me to present these numbers going into his Saturday start in Detroit: 17 2/3 IP, 1 ER, 15 K, 4 BB, 14 H. That’s good for an ERA+ of…wait for it…772. Admittedly, it has been just three starts for Huff, and he could easily go out there and throw a clunker his next time on the mound. But it is extremely encouraging to see the guy who struck out 37 and walked 34 in his 79 2/3 major league innings pitched in 2010 strike out almost a batter per inning and allow no more than a baserunner an inning here in 2011. Huff is still just 26 years old, is still probably the top lefty starter in the org, and could still be an important contributor for the Indians going forward. If you need a reminder that 26 is young, look no further than Cliff Lee, who didn’t truly breakout and become the dominant force of nature that he is today until 2008, at age 29. Not saying by any stretch that I expect Huff to follow Lee’s footsteps to the AL Cy Young award, but there are reasons for optimism here. Even with some regression looming, Huff can be expected to at the very least offer himself as an option for the #5 spot in the rotation for the foreseeable future.

LindorSpeaking of the future, the deadline for signing 2011 draft picks has come and gone, and we can finally close the book on this year’s edition of MLB’s Rule 4 Draft. I wrote a recap of the Indians draft,one in which they were able to sign 17 of their top 20 picks and 29 of 50 overall. They spent $8.2 million on the draft, and gave big bonuses to their top two picks in order to get them signed, sealed and delivered. They spent $6.3 million in signing 9 of their top 10 picks, which was 156% of the recommended slot spending for picks 1-10. That brings me to a question I’ve been getting a lot recently; is Francisco Lindor the #1 prospect in the organization right now? In short, yes. When you take out Kipnis and Chisenhall, both of whom will likely lose their prospect standing by the end of this regular season, here’s my current Indians top ten. I’m not going to lie, this was a tough list to put together, and it could change between now and March:

1. Francisco Lindor, SS: Gold glove potential in the field, above-average hit tool and could develop average power. Toolsy player who is a leader on the field and works hard off of it. Just 17 years old though, so is a ways off from making an impact at the major league level.

2. Dillon Howard, RHP: Howard is a young, projectable arm who already throws a “heavy” sinking fastball that gets up to the mid-90s on the radar gun. He’s a competitor on the mound, and could be a #2 pitcher in a playoff-caliber rotation.

3. Tony Wolters, SS: A teenager in a league where most players are coming out of college, Wolters started at shortstop in the New York Penn League all star game. A move to 2B might be in his future, but either way his bat will play.

4. Scott Barnes, LHP: I’m not going to ding him for a leg injury, since his arm is healthy and effective. Was having a breakout season in Columbus and should be ready to pitch by the beginning of next season. Top starting pitching prospect aside from Howard in the org, and he’s lefthanded.

5. LeVon Washington, OF: Washington has struggled with some nagging injuries and didn’t have a great season for low-A Lake County, but the tools are there. He was drawing Carl Crawford comps before this season, and he’s still just 19 years old. There’s still quite a bit to like here, despite the sub-.700 OPS this year.

6. Nick Weglarz, OF: One of the few power-hitting prospects in the upper levels of the org, Wegz just can’t stay healthy. But although it feels like he’s been around forever, the big Canadian is still just 23. He could play all year in Columbus next season and still be in line for a big league debut at age 25 in 2013. Guys with his size, power and patience don’t grow on trees.

7. C.C. Lee, RHP: Lee is at the top of an impressive stable of relief pitchers at the upper levels of the Indians system. He attacks hitters from a variety of arm angles with a mid-90s fastball and a nasty slider that can make righties look downright foolish. He’s struck out 92 hitters in 64 2/3 innings this year between Akron and Columbus.

8. Felix Sterling, RHP: Sterling is a 6’3”, 200lb power righty out of the Dominican Republic. He doesn’t turn 19 until March 2012, and is 2-3 with a 4.63 ERA in 5 starts for low-A Lake County. That puts him well ahead of the developmental curve, and his stuff should continue to improve as he gets older and stronger.

9. Nick Hagadone, LHP: The top lefhanded relief prospect in the system, Hagadone can get his fastball up to the high-90s. He’s thrown 64 1/3 innings this year between Akron and Columbus, and has recorded 71 strikeouts against just 21 walks. That’s a dramatic improvement from last year, when he walked 63 in 85 2/3 innings coming off Tommy John surgery.

10. Chun Chen, C: His defense will never be more than adequate, but his bat is solid and would be plus for a catcher at the major league level. After a breakout season in 2010 that saw him post a .924 OPS, he’s been good but not great for Akron this year, putting up a .265/.327/.456 line. Still just 22 though, Chen still has a bright future in the organization.

Just Missed: Cord Phelps, Zach McAllister, Zach Putnam, Rob Bryson, Jason Knapp, Ronny Rodriguez

The Indians farm system will garner reviews in 2012 similar to those prior to the ones that we saw prior to 2011; solid depth, but not much “elite” talent. Lindor and Howard both have a chance to be top-100 guys overall, but that’s probably it. But Brad Grant’s drafts since 2008 give plenty of reasons for optimism. Whether they become stars, trade chips for stars, solid regulars or even just affordable replacements, these will be the building blocks for the Indians teams of the future. Like it or not, Cleveland is not going to start signing other team’s dominant free agents to megadeals anytime soon. As the warden learned the hard way in Shawshank Redemption, salvation lies within…