Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Lazy Sunday with the Head and the Heart

Clocks have sprung forward, 60 degree days are upon us (albeit briefly), and the Madness of March is at our doorstep. What that means in baseball terms is that Opening Day is not far away and as Spring Training continues in Goodyear for the Indians, our insatiable appetite for images, descriptions and box scores are at the “fever pitch” state. Despite this, while the anticipation is building for the 2012 season, it is tempered this early in Spring Training by the knowledge that nothing of note is really happening under the Arizona sun, even if the constant barrage of “information” from Goodyear has you thinking otherwise.

By that I mean that stories and scores and stats come flying at us all day long from Goodyear, but generally those stories revolve around “Player X looking for a turnaround” or “Player Y is looking to build momentum from last year” or “Player Z looking for an opportunity”. In all of these stories (and this is no slight on the reporters in Goodyear as…well, this is what Spring Training is every year), there is hope and warm fuzzies and “ifs” and “maybes” that rule the day. The reason for this is that everybody knows that very little of what happens in Spring Training affects regular season performance and nobody knows at this point what the regular season will bring…even the most astute observer.

That doesn’t make us feel any less warm or any less hopeful when we read these stories about how “Ubaldo is looking for a turnaround” (and you could plug Choo, Brantley, and Lowe into that first group) or “Kotchman is looking to build momentum from last year” (include Hannahan, Santana, Kipnis, Cabrera, Pestano, etc. in this group) or “Duncan is looking for an opportunity” (put Donald, the bevy of 5th starter candidates, and any other young player in here) because they’re necessary to thaw us out from a long winter. It’s just that their hopeful tones and the intimation that everything’s going to break right for every player in camp needs to be accompanied by some perspective or the occasional grain of salt. While our heart hopes for all of these things to break just right for all of these players in Goodyear, our head tells us that…well, that’s just not how baseball works. With that said, let’s get loose on a Lazy One, attempting to provide some perspective on one of those aforementioned story lines that pit the heart against the head, and the one that figures to play out all Spring and perhaps in June…

That story line pertains to one D. Shelley Duncan and his ascension into the conversation as an everyday LF in light of the Sizemore injury, with his “case” being strengthened by a solid start to Spring Training. You could argue that too much e-ink has been spilled on Duncan this Spring, just since the team arrived in Goodyear, but the Grady injury and the uncertain timeframe for his return has put Duncan front and center in most discussions involving the Indians as, while most of the camp “battles” involve ancillary parts of the roster, Duncan’s role could be greatly increased in Sizemore’s absence. And it seems that some people are just fine with that, as after a recent power output, Jordan Bastian tweeted, “Just give the guy the dang job” in regards to Duncan and LF. While I know that Bastian is dealing in a 140-character world and it sounds more like something you’d say to the guy next to you at the barstool after such an event instead of ACTUALLY thinking that Bastian’s in the press box during the first couple of games in Spring Training, throwing up his hands, proclaiming that “IT’S OVER…DUNCAN WINS THE LF JOB” with every well-struck Duncan ball, it struck me in the way that the idea that Duncan’s viability as the everyday LF – for what could be a significant part of the season – is what is starting to gain some steam here.
And, fair or not, that doesn’t sit well with me…

It didn’t sit well with me when I saw Bastian’s tweet, as it began a little tête-à-tête between yours truly and Bastian (even inspiring a synopsis piece of said tête-à-tête from Jon Steiner, who inserted his own thoughts) about the viability of Shelley Duncan as the everyday LF to start the season. Bastian expanded on his feelings a bit a short time later and that piece (which makes the case for Duncan) should be read in full. It is true that Duncan rising from the ashes of an NRI last year to possibly be the everyday LF is a great story (there are those tugs on the heartstrings), and far be it from me to be the wet blanket on this, but this coronation of Duncan as THE LF (in early March) in light of the absence of Grady is premature at best and short-sighted at worst.

Don’t confuse this as a screed against Shelley Duncan as a player or even as the best option that’s in camp right now, because he probably is. Maybe that sounds like a complete contradiction to what I just wrote, but the question becomes what the Indians are going to do in Grady’s absence (however long that might be) and Duncan looks like a large part of the answer. Sure, maybe Aaron Cunningham or one of the NRI’s (Spilborghs, Pie, Lewis) impress enough this Spring to catapult Duncan, but unless the Indians make a move (and, remember, I think that they should…and don’t take that to mean NOW as camps still need to shake out and if they’re going to add someone, it’s coming much later), Duncan seems to figure pretty prominently in the Indians’ LF plans.

But based on what?
Has he started out strongly in Goodyear?
Absolutely, and that’s great. But let’s remember what can be taken from Spring Training stats…which is not much, with Andrew Clayman putting the hard numbers together in an entertaining and insightful piece, as we all fondly remember Springs put forth by Travis Buck and Jason Dubois, then recalling how those Springs translated into Summers.

Which brings us all back to Shelley’s hot start in Goodyear and how a solid start and a great September (along with the Grady injury) have catapulted him into actual conversations about how the Indians should just “give the guy the dang job”. All of which brings me back to something that I wrote before Christmas on the Indians’ need for a fall-back plan for if (when) Grady or another OF went down in 2012.
It goes a little something like this:
Let’s not forget what Shelley Duncan’s career line was from the start of his career in 2007 through September 2, 2011:
.234 BA / .308 OBP / .413 SLG / .721 OPS with 23 HR and 24 2B in 582 PA

Of course, we all know that Duncan went on a tear in those last 3 weeks of the season, posting a .981 OPS in his final 87 PA in 24 games, stroking 7 HR in those 24 games. But which player do you think is closer to the real Shelley Duncan…the one that posted a .721 OPS in 205 games to start his career or the one that posted a .981 OPS in his last 24 games of 2011?

Truthfully, Duncan’s career line up to that little hot streak in September isn’t all that dissimilar to what Matt LaPorta did in 2011 (.247 BA / .299 OBP / .412 OBP / .711 OPS), with LaPorta being a full 5 years younger than Duncan and people (present company included) can’t wait to move on from MaTola at 1B, so the idea that Duncan represents something on par with what was/is available on the FA market or via trade makes sense how?

Don’t take this to mean that Duncan is without value as he’s a RH bat that can be used (and here’s the key word) sporadically as a pinch-hitter or occasional starter against a tough LH starting pitcher. A role that is larger for him is akin to simply going back to the idea that LaPorta will become a player that he has not shown to be.

Is this to say that LaPorta is part of the answer for the Indians at 1B in 2012?
Absolutely not, as he’s destined for Columbus…and with good reason. Rather, it’s an attempt at providing some perspective on counting on Shelley Duncan to be any kind of platoon-mate or deserving of more than an occasional start or a stint as a PH for this 2012 team. Essentially, it’s a way to point out that if Duncan is part of a Plan A at 1B or Plan B in the OF if (when) Grady gets hurt…yeah, that’s bad planning on the part of the Indians as a fundamental failure to upgrade from even Shelley Duncan.

That “fundamental failure to upgrade from even Shelley Duncan” transpired before our very eyes (although the Indians’ pursuit of Willingham, then Beltran AFTER Grady was signed is telling in terms of conveying that they knew that they needed to upgrade) and maybe that’s why this movement is building steam that Duncan should be handed LF for a while to see what he can do. Again, what is that based on?

Maybe this movement is gaining steam because of Shelley’s likability as he’s easy to root for as he emotes a certain level of frustration/enjoyment that we’d like to see more out of professional athletes. Whether he’s coming out of the dugout like a mad man to protect his teammates, expressing surprise after making spectacular catches or even signing autographs for young Red Sox fans that read, “RED SOX SUCK!, Shelley Duncan”, Duncan is an easy guy to get behind and to wish good things for. But just because he snaps a bat over his knee after striking out instead of looking beaten down and confused the way that Matt LaPorta does after whiffing doesn’t change the fact that both players struck out.

Perhaps there is something to this idea that Duncan just needs regular playing time to thrive, and there have been many to point out how well Duncan performed over the course of the final month in 2011, once he was given regular playing time, let’s remember how small of a sample size that really is and how the player that NOBODY wants to see in Cleveland this year actually started out the year on a pace that was somewhat on par with what Duncan did in September:
LaPorta’s start – first 25 games of 2011
.274 BA / .351 OBP / .512 SLG / .862 OPS with 6 2B, 1 3B, 4 HR in 97 PA

Duncan’s finish – final 24 games of 2011
.273 BA / .345 OBP / .636 SLG / .981 OPS with 7 2B, 7 HR in 87 PA

Let me be clear on this – PLEASE don’t take this as an intimation that the Indians should just go with Matt LaPorta because he can show promise over the course of a month as well, but let’s remember that LaPorta is 26 when he’s doing that while Duncan is 31 and LaPorta’s doing that in April and May against what could be considered better competition than that which Duncan faced in September. Maybe that means nothing in terms of competition and maybe Duncan’s power potential was just starting to show itself in September of 2011, but there are a number of players who thrive over the course of a month or half of a season, who never replicate that success.

Without boring you with another trip down “Karim Garcia Lane” (that was done in November), let’s remember that Kelly Shoppach was one of the best hitters in the AL in the 2nd half of 2008 (better than A-Rod and Miggy that year post-All-Star Break), and ended the year with an .865 OPS as a 28-year-old. In case you lost track of Kelly, he’s posted a .625 OPS since leaving Cleveland and has yet to replicate the success that he enjoyed for those few magical months in 2008. Maybe that’s unfair to Duncan as it needs to be noted that the other player that surprisingly thrived in the 2nd half of the 2008 season was Choo, who took full advantage of his regular playing time to post terrific seasons from that point through the 2010 season.

Maybe you want to argue that this has the look of an opportunity that can be seized by a player that has largely been a career minor-leaguer/role player to this point, the way that Casey Blake took advantage of opportunity in 2003 and similar to how Jack Hannahan made the most of his situation last year. That may be true and Duncan could certainly come out gangbusters in 2012 as the starting LF, but let’s remember that the Tribe team that Blake was trying to break into had won 78 games in 2002 and would lose 94 games in Blake’s 1st year as an Indian. Similarly, Hannahan was entering a situation where the Indians had just lost 97 games in 2009 and 93 games in 2010 as they were unquestionably still attempting to build a core for the team. Compare those situations to the one facing the Tribe in 2012, with the Ubaldo trade signaling the “window” of opportunity, when the Indians need to maximize every chance they have to take advantage of the assembled talent that they have before players have the option of leaving via FA.

This isn’t meant to be a total downer on a Sunday morning, but context is needed here as the fact that Duncan looks like the best option feels like more of an indictment of the group as a whole more than it feels like an endorsement of Duncan in particular as an erstwhile LF. Reading what Acta has said about Duncan, you get the sense that the Indians feel the same way:
“We already know what we’ve got in Shelley…We’re going to see all the other guys that we don’t know and at the end of camp we’ll decide whether he’s going to be the guy, or somebody else. But we dont need to be running him out there every day just to try to win that job. We’ve seen him. We need to see the other guys and find out.”

That…um, that’s not a ringing endorsement for Duncan and you would think that if the Indians were satisfied with Duncan as an option without Grady in the picture, they wouldn’t have gone after Willingham or Beltran AFTER Grady was signed and Manny Acta wouldn’t be saying things like this.

That all said, I’ll be the first to admit that Duncan looks like the best option at this point in camp (though some of that is because I’ve never seen Cunningham or Spilborghs or any of the other guys play on a regular basis), but I’ll go back to this idea that it isn’t as if the Indians need to find a different LF RIGHT NOW applicable as camps are going to be continuing for the better part of another month and “logjams” in other camps may not be apparent yet. Admittedly, a lot of this goes back to when Grady is legitimately expected to return (and that doesn’t seem all that clear yet), as if Sizemore is expected to come back (and keep your “scheduled setbacks” comment to yourself) in mid-May or June, then a month or so of Shelley Duncan/Aaron Cunningham becomes a little more palatable. But if Sizemore’s going to be out for a while, they need to start looking to add something that inspires more confidence as an everyday player than Shelley Duncan.

In my heart, I want Shelley Duncan to have the chance that’s eluded him to this stage of his baseball career…but my head tells me otherwise as a month of excellence to end last year and a hot start in Goodyear shouldn’t change a body of work that provides a much more comprehensive picture of Duncan. Given the Indians’ comments (Acta saying that they know what they have in Duncan…while not giving him the job) and their actions (loading up on OF all off-season and continuing to scan the external options), it would seem that they’re pretty aware of this reality as well.


MTF said...

Paul, I agree with you on Duncan but lets not minimize his run last season in the process. It wasn't four weeks, it was the whole second half of the season (though he was out of the line-up for much of July). Still, he hit well all through those few games in July and then through August and September as well.

Paul Cousineau said...

I will grant you that Duncan was good from about July 4th on and you're right. That said, it doesn't change my stance on this, just as I don't think it does yours.

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