Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tomahawks Looking for Solid Ground

Though the injuries have descended upon the Indians like locusts (providing ammo for the “waiting for the other shoe to drop” crowd), it seems that while the Tribe lineup has been decimated by injuries, the pitching staff is the one that’s struggling and sending the team into a tailspin.  All of the good feelings generated by the Tigers’ sweep suddenly feel like they came a long time ago as concerns about the “front” of the Indians’ rotation are reaching a fever pitch and the manner in which the Tribe’s pitchers were battered on the South Side and by the Royals in the final two games of the most recent series certainly give pause to the idea that the Indians are in the driver’s seat in the Central.

That said, what the last week has shown us is the ebbs and flows that occur every baseball season and provides a reminder that the teams in the AL Central (and particularly that top trio) are going to be moving up and down the top of the standings in the division.  The last one that’s going to be standing probably remaining atop at the end of the season is likely coming as a result of the in-division record and the ability to take advantage of the games against the moribund Twins and the (still) pitching-challenged Royals.

So as we get ready for those moribund Twins and look for answers, let’s get some Tomahawks in the air…

News of Travis Hafner’s broke earlier today and while it is unquestionably disappointing, it was not altogether unexpected.  The nature of the injury seems to be one in line with Hafner’s injuries as of late (at least since the shoulder injury) in terms of them simply pointing to a body breaking down or not being able to handle the rigors of playing baseball (or at least hitting a baseball) everyday.  Hafner was a nice story to begin the year (as he was last year), but use – and perhaps overuse – proved to be his undoing…again.

About a month ago, I posited that the Indians should be cautious with their usage of Hafner as “the idea that this may be the final season in which Hafner is able to do this (even sporadically) in an Indians’ uniform, protecting Hafner for the length of the season will only lengthen the odds of the Indians’ continuing to compete in the AL Central”, suggesting that the Indians sit Hafner a couple of times a week (perhaps against LHP) to keep him healthy as long as possible.  Certainly, the struggles of Marson and Donald (the two players suggested to take PA away against LHP) at the plate may have played a role in keeping Hafner in the everyday lineup, but the knee injury that will keep him out for 4 to 6 weeks (and it might be more than that…given his history) certainly looks like something that may have been building for a while. 

In terms of how the Indians attempt to replace Hafner in the lineup, most seem (still) eager to call up “he who shall not be named in this space”, despite a .794 OPS in the month of May in AAA and the fact that the Tribe spent more than $9M in the off-season at the two spots he would conceivably play.  While it may just be a matter of time before MaTola arrives in Cleveland (bringing joy to…well, I’m not sure to who) at some point, it’s only going to come by way of attrition and injury.  And I don’t think the Hafner injury is that point.

Most of that is based on the fact that the Indians need a back-up SS on their roster and since Jason Donald has a case of the “yips” in Columbus and Lonnie Chisenhall hasn’t played since 2008 in Mahoning Valley with Hannahan (who did actually play SS last year) on the DL, it would seem that Juan Diaz is going to stick around on this roster for a little longer.  Show of hands as to who saw that coming when the season started…

So, if the Tribe needs to keep a back-up SS on the roster and adding Scotty Barnes (who I’m irrationally excited about) actually gets the bullpen back to “full strength” in terms of the number of relievers, then you’re back to idea that the current roster/bench is about what it’s going to look like, save a sudden revelation that Chisenhall or Jose Lopez is a suitable back-up SS.  Thus, I’d be more inclined to give the lion’s share of Hafner’s AB to Jose Lopez and allow him to be the de facto DH, moving around the infield (1B, 2B, 3B) to give some players some time off when needed.

For as much as everyone is DEAD-SET on finding a RH bat, the performance of Lopez (only 28…allegedly) and the fact that he has a track record of success in MLB (if not one that is consistent) would put him at the top of the list of players that I’d like to see more of.  Maybe you work in a Shelley Duncan here and there, but Lopez (6 XBH in the 16 games he’s played since being recalled) would be the preferred “replacement” for Hafner in the lineup…at least for a while.  As long as Lopez isn’t going to be expected to be a clean-up hitter (and the “return” of Choo in the past few weeks, plus Kipnis’ development and the idea that Asdrubal and Santana should both be fully back soon means that he won’t be leaned on as heavily as he’s been in recent days), he could actually be a nice fit for this roster going forward in terms of providing versatility and offense.

Then again, the offense hasn’t been that much of a problem recently, the pitching has…but I’ll get to that.

As for the other injury that looks to be lingering (as Asdrubal is already back and Santana could be back soon), though it came as a surprise that Jack Hannahan’s CALF is what took him to the DL, he finds himself shelved and – after some nice spot duty by Jose Lopez – the Lonnie Baseball Era may be upon us at the Hot Corner in Cleveland.  The Chiz, who was the youngest regular in Columbus by TWO years, has arrived and it certainly looks like he has arrived for good.  Certainly, he has to perform to stay at 3B for the long-term, but after years and years (and years and…yes, years) of hearing about Lonnie Chisenhall as he worked his way up through the Indians’ system, it seems as if the Indians are ready to place him in the everyday lineup for the duration of the season.

To say that this is an exciting development is an understatement, with The Chiz’s first at-bat HR only stoking the fires of that excitement as the Indians “infield of the future” moves a little closer to the “infield of the present”.  While I’m not going to pretend to know who is going to be at 1B in that “infield of the future” (nor will I waste much time thinking about it right now), Lonnie’s arrival doesn’t make it hard to envision Kipnis, Santana, Cabrera, and now Chisenhall making up the middle of this order – perhaps in the near future – with Choo and maybe Brantley around them and a (hopefully) Hafner chipping in where he can…if healthy.

Before the season, this was written about what was so exciting about Chisenhall and Kipnis standing at the precipice of being everyday contributors and we’ve already started to see what Kipnis is capable of as he’s leading the team in HR and SB (not to mention R, H, TB, and 3B), bursting onto the scene and producing right away.  Maybe Chisenhall has a steeper learning curve, but (as I said before) age is important with Lonnie Baseball.  He’s 23 and was thriving in AAA, which is an ENTIRELY different thing than being 27/28 and blasting AAA pitching, taking the challenge of being sent down after Spring Training (despite vehement objections from…ahem, some places) to post an .893 OPS, the highest OPS he’s ever posted in MiLB and forcing his way into the team’s plans instead of being reached for, the way that he was when he was promoted last year.

In terms of what can be reasonably expected from Lonnie, the Travis Fryman comparison has always held water for me as he looks like a hitter that should hit about 15 to 25 HR as he ages, with his BA likely to sit in the .275 range with an OPS that hovers around .800 or so.  Going back to what a rival scout said in the MLB preview edition of SI, “It’s not like Lonnie Chisenhall is George Brett, but a lefthanded-hitting third baseman is really a valuable commodity. He uses the whole field, and he’s got some pop. Hitting .280 or .300 and playing third—that’s a nice package.”  Looking at how 3B around the league are faring this year, it’s a “nice package” indeed, and it’s a package that we’re (presumably) going to be seeing on a regular basis…

Now, you may be asking how Chisenhall simply takes over Hannahan’s position when Supermanahan has been the least of the Indians’ problems all season, but Terry Pluto (who gets this stuff from the Indians) wrote this on Monday:
This is not about dumping the 32-year-old Hannahan. But he is best suited as a part-time player. He had back trouble last season, this spring and again this year. He also had a calf injury last year and again this year.  These are not major injuries, but the Indians correctly believe his best long-term role could be starting a few days a week -- and being a defensive replacement at third in other games.

To me, this is the best use of assets here (something that I’ve been advocating since back in February) and whether or not Hannahan can suitably be a backup SS remains to be seen (12 career innings in MLB as a SS, 11 total games as a SS in MiLB), but it’s not hard to imagine Hannahan and Lopez moving around the infield (and DH) to give Kipnis, Chisenhall, and Kotchman breaks as well as allowing the Indians to rest Hafner when (if?) he gets healthy to strengthen the team’s starting lineup AND bench.  So rather than railing about how some 27 or 28 year old player should replace this bench player or that bench player, the Indians are looking to improve by moving a player like Chisenhall into the starting lineup and slotting Hannahan into a role that he can be most useful, strengthening the team as a whole.

Certainly, it’s up to Chisenhall to prove that he belongs and to show that the fact that he’s wearing #8 instead of Kipnis (as The Chiz won a “gentleman’s bet” with Kipper by making it to MLB first and staking a claim on the number each wanted) is based on production and not just promise.  For years, we’ve heard about Chisenhall’s “promise” and have envisioned him solving the ongoing 3B issue the same way that Kipnis was supposed to (and has) locked down another infield position.  With The Chiz’s promotion to the Indians on Memorial Day – with the Indians at the top of the division and looking to improve while attempting to get healthy – this move doesn’t feel like “throwing kitchen sinks” the way that promoting Chisenhall did last year.

This feels like the natural progression of a player, and infield, and a team into a new era of baseball…and one that we’ve been waiting on for a while.

In terms of waiting, how about still waiting for a start from a member of the Indians’ rotation that feels like it’s going to stop the bleeding right now?

Since the end of Detroit series, here is the cumulative line for Tribe starters, including Jeanmar’s outing today against the Royals:
6 games
28 IP
37 ER
46 H
9 BB
In case you need me to do the math, that’s an 11.89 ERA and a 1.96 WHIP from your starting rotation in the last two series while averaging less than 5 IP per start.  So while everyone thinks that the shoe on a downward slope has been caused by these injuries, the issue has been with the starting rotation.  While Lowe and Gomez started the season strong, they’ve come back to Earth their last couple of starts and with the “front” of the rotation performing like it has (all season long), it’s going to take one or more of these pitchers getting into (or back into) a groove to keep this Indians’ team in contention, injuries to the lineup or not.

Really, the “front” of the rotation is just killing the Indians right now as we all know that Ubaldo and Masterson have had…um, issues all season long.  But, as is often stated in this space, context is important when looking at players and – with that in mind and with the knowledge that there are 52 “qualified” starters in the AL, here is the ugliness with context provided as we are now past the quarter-pole of the season:
Ubaldo – 5.79 ERA (50th of 52 qualified AL starters)
Masterson – 5.14 ERA (40th of 52 qualified AL starters)

Ubaldo – 6.75 BB/9 (52nd of 52 qualified AL starters)
Masterson – 4.48 BB/9 (46th of 52 qualified AL starters)

Ubaldo – 0.79 K/BB (52nd of 52 qualified AL starters)
Masterson – 1.47 K/BB (47th of 52 qualified AL starters)

Ubaldo – 1.79 WHIP (51st of 52 qualified AL starters)
Masterson – 1.49 WHIP (41st of 52 qualified AL starters)

Now it should be noted that Derek Lowe appears near the bottom of the lists for K/BB and WHIP, most notably, and both Ubaldo and Masterson have a BABIP under .300, so it’s not as if they’ve been “unlucky” in compiling these marks.  And with both of these pitchers, who look like such a mess mechanically, they’re kind of reaching a tipping point.  Of course, that depends upon who you ask:
Q: Hey, Hoynsie: Watching Ubaldo Jimenez pitch is trying, to say the least. At what point do they sit him down and give someone else a try? I know our current minor-league pitchers haven't done enough to earn a promotion, but what happens when Josh Tomlin is healthy or Roberto Hernandez/Fausto Carmona comes back?
Honestly, Zach McAllister has pitched better than Jimenez, so if we are trying to win this season he is the better option, statistically speaking. -- Matt Adam, Chicago.

A: Hey, Mike: Jimenez isn't going anywhere. He's a five-game winner and is making strides on the mechanical adjustments he's been making in his delivery with the help of pitching coach Scott Radinsky.  With Tomlin scheduled to come off the disabled list and pitch Monday, McAllister was optioned to Class AAA Columbus on Friday.

Now this is really just nonsense (bold added by me in the nonsensical spot) or at least the rationale for Jimenez not “going anywhere” as the fact that he’s the “five-game winner” was actually invoked for a pitcher that finds himself at the bottom of too many statistical categories to count (though not “wins” apparently) and against whom batters have posted an .823 OPS against.  What to do with Ubaldo is a MAJOR issue right now as it’s difficult to stay in a race on a wing and a prayer every 5 games and the fact that I looked up to see if he’s ever pitched out of the bullpen (he did once in his rookie season in 2006) is indicative of how far the bottom has fallen out on this thing.

For whatever reason, there is more hope for Masterson, though with each passing start there is a growing sense that his 2011 season is all too similar to Fausto’s 2007 season – reliant on one (admittedly nasty) pitch that hitters may have figured out how to either lay off or handle his sinker.  Regardless of whether Masterson can recapture the success that he found last year, the idea that the Indians have two “aces” at the front of their rotation seems like it was a thought a long time ago (and it was a thought here) and feels a lot like wishful thinking right now.

Regardless of what happens with the lineup or with these injuries, if the Indians are going to hang in this divisional race, they’re going to need something that resembles stability from either Ubaldo or Masterson – as stability from both feels a long way off – and with the way that each is currently going, that feels like a tall order.

Finally, with that all said and with the good feelings from the Detroit series seemingly up in smoke, let’s see if the Indians can get right (and healthy) with the Twins in town before heading out on the road…which is where they will be spending most of their June.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Memorial Lazy Sunday

Paulie C. is doing husband duty in Milliewaukquae this weekend, and I’m actually back on the North Coast for a wedding and headed down to watch the Tribe take on the Royals in a Memorial Day special tomorrow, so we’re going to get a little crazy with the Lazy One this week. Before anything else though, I’d like to salute our men and women serving in our armed forces around the world, and especially those who never got to make the trip home, from 1776 to today. Memorial Day is an important holiday, one in which we really should take time to be thankful for those who fought and died so that we can grill, drink beer and play cornhole at backyard BBQ’s around this great country on a long weekend. So if you’re reading this in English, do the right thing and thank a solider. Living so close to our nation’s capital, I drive by Arlington National Cemetery on a somewhat regular basis, and the gravity of that hallowed ground should give us all pause this weekend as we remember those who came before us. With that public service announcement out of the way, let’s get on to a Lazy Sunday that was penned by yours truly a couple days in advance…so if it’s breaking news you’re after, afraid that’s not what we’re here for today.

Late this week, reports started coming out that the closerformerly known as Leo Nunez, who was found to actually be a setup man names JuanCarlos Oviedo, has “received a pardon” by the State Department to receive avisa to return to the U.S. Every time I see reporting on this or the Roberto Hernandez/Fausto Carmona story, I get increasingly frustrated by the mis-reporting on situation, so I’m going to try and break it down here once and for all. For those who aren’t aware, in my “real” life I work for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Washington D.C. area. As such, I have a little bit of experience dealing with this sort of thing, so I’m going to lend my expertise to try and let you all know what these guys are really up against and what still needs to happen for them to come back to the U.S. I will caveat this by saying that immigration issues are not my main area of expertise, but I do know a thing or two about the matter at hand.

First, Oviedo and Hernandez need to be issued a waiver of inadmissibility by the Department of Homeland Security. This is likely the “pardon” that is being referenced in the (clearly poorly sourced) ESPN article. It is not granted by State, it is granted by DHS. Both Oviedo and Hernandez committed crimes when they entered the U.S. using false names and with false documentation, so even if State Department were to issue their visas under their true names, without this waiver they would be inadmissible to the U.S. and denied entry when they arrive. This waiver is far from automatic, and if this were a random citizen of the Dominican Republic who deceived the U.S. government to fraudulently enter and work in the States, it would likely never be issued. However, Oviedo purportedly has something the U.S. and Dominican governments want; names of others involved. From the beginning, it was clear that Oviedo was going to roll, and roll hard. I’m not suggesting that he’s going to give up established major leaguers who have similar identity fraud issues (although that is certainly possible), but he can at least provide names of individuals in the Dominican Republic who are involved in the fraudulent procurement of documents to gain U.S. visas. Every time something like this happens, it’s a black eye for baseball, the U.S. government, and the Dominican government. They want to stamp this out at the source, and for good reason. The issue with Hernandez is that he allegedly paid for the identity of another person in his hometown and isn’t part of a broader network, so he might not even have names to give. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “the U.S. legal system can be a hard place for those with nothing to offer.” If there’s no incentive to grant Hernandez the waiver, there’s a distinct possibility that he NEVER gets the wavier and spends the rest of his life in the DomRep. I doubt this happens, as Hernandez has been on a speaking tour of youth baseball camps in his home country and has been a good soldier since the news broke, but the possibility remains. At the very least, Oviedo has more leverage than Hernandez and will be taken care of first. He’s been waiting since September for a break in his case, and it seems like it took about 8 months for the waiver to come through (if it in fact has).

Second, once the waiver has been issued, Department of State has to issue the visa. This in and of itself is no small matter, as anyone who has applied for a passport can attest to. Oviedo and Hernandez both made DoS look stupid once, they’re not going to let anything go by this time around without exhaustive research to show that THIS TIME they really are who they say they are. It’s possible that State will rely on the Dominican authorities and accept the new documentation that Ociedo and Hernandez provide, but more likely that they’ll want to do some of their own checks before approving any visas. If either man slips up with his story and is found to be lying (again), game over. So while the actual visa issuance will be easier than acquiring the waiver, it’s by no means a rubber stamp. So when you read that Hernandez’s agent is optimistic that this will be taken care of soon, take that optimism with a grain of salt. His camp will of course try and put the best spin possible on any news, but I still think we’re a long way from home with this one. Even when the waiver has been granted and the visa has been issued, both Oviedo and Hernandez will be suspended by MLB when they return to the U.S. Bottom line here is that there’s no guarantee that Hernandez will pitch for the Indians in 2012.

I will forever have a soft spot in my heart for Fausto/Roberto after attending the 2007 “Canadian Soldiers” game against the hated Yankees in Jacobs Field. His ability to remain focused under both intense pressure and a borderline biblical plague of gnats was something that I’ll never forget. It is the single greatest live sporting event that I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been to a lot of them. Hernandez threw nine glorious innings that night, and ended his evening with a 3-2 strikeout of Alex Rodriguez with the go-ahead run on second base. He held the mighty Yankee offense in check long enough for the midges to do their work, unnerving a previously unflappable Joba Chamberlain to the point where he went walk, wild pitch, HBP, wild pitch to allow the tying run to score. Hafner finished off the game with a 2-out RBI single in the 11th, but Carnandez was the hero of the day. What happened to that pitcher, I’ll never know. Maybe it was the stress of assuming another man’s identity. Maybe it was the lack of conditioning and mental toughness. Maybe he’ll come back to the U.S. free and clear of the secret that was weighing down his conscience and become the “Fausto” of old. But maybe it was just a flash in the pan, the planets aligning for one special season, never to be seen again. Either way, it’s still likely going to be a while before we find out.

On that cheery note, let’s move on to another of my specialties, the Indians farm system. This seems as good a place as any to remind everyone that I do an (almost) daily update on the goings-on in the system on the Cleveland Fan’s “Hitting the Fan” section. One of those updateslast week was the result of my conversations with an NL scout who covers the Indians, and we had a very interesting conversation. He had some good things to say about Francisco, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, as well as some not so good things about Felix Sterling and Jesus Aguilar. Conversations like this with scouts are essential for getting an expert, impartial view of players in the organization, as my own eyes are not nearly as trained as these nor as impartial. The player I’d like to focus on today for you is Francisco Lindor, last year’s 1st round draft pick.

Lindor is just 18 years old, playing in the full-season Midwest League. He won’t turn 19 until November, and is younger than most of his contemporaries in the league. Despite being just 18 and in his 1st real taste of professional baseball, Lindor is hitting a solid .298/.349/.449 in what is traditionally known as the most difficult league for hitters in all of minor league baseball. Lindor has hit 4 HR, 3 3B, 9 2B, driven in 19 runs and stolen 11 bases in 14 attempts. Lindor has actually slumped DOWN to those numbers, going just 3 for 25 in his last 6 games. In addition to his excellent numbers at the plate, Lindor projects to be a Gold Glove caliber shortstop, something that can be said about only 3 or 4 players in all of minor league baseball right now. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Lindor as the 35th prospect in baseball before the season started, and in his updated top-25, Lindor moved all the way up to 17. The scout I talked to raved about Lindor, saying that he was a “can’t miss” guy, and one of the best SS prospects he’s seen in a long time. And again, he’s still just 18 years old. For whatever drafting failures the Indians have experienced over the last decade (of which there are many), the club hit a home run with the Lindor pick. Law and other “experts” had the Indians drafting a safe college arm like Georgia Tech’s Jed Bradley, but the team took the high upside prepster Lindor. That being said, there weresome people who tied the Indians to Lindor before the draft. The Indians drafting has been much better since the Lonnie Chisenhall draft back in 2008, something that is going to have to stay consistent for the club to compete long-term. Taking a guy who’s a potential top-10 overall prospect in all of baseball with the 8th overall pick last year is a good sign that the trend will continue.

Back to the big club, as Ben Lindbergh over at BaseballProspectus took a look at this year’s 1st place Indians team in relation tolast year’s 1st place Indians team. He briefly explains what happened to last year’s squad that doomed them in the long run, and wonders (much as we are all wondering) if the history is set to repeat itself. He points out that the Indians offense has the 2nd lowest K rate and the highest walk rate in baseball right now. To give you an idea of how patient Indians hitters have been this year, their 11.2% walk rate would be the highest in baseball since the Mariners finished with a 12% rate back in 2000. Besides the obvious advantage of getting a guy on base, all of these walks help to run up pitch counts and get into opposing bullpens faster than most teams. Combining the high walk rate with a low K rate means that not only are the Indians putting the ball in play, but they’re staying patient and taking their free passes when given.

The obvious warts, as Lindbergh points out, are in the starting rotation where Uknowwho has been an unmitigated disaster, 5-2 record notwithstanding. While the offense has the best K/BB ratio in the game, the pitching staff has the worst. However, a whopping 49% of the balls opposing hitters do put into play are on the ground, 2nd in baseball behind the Blue Jays. When you consider that 99% of those 49% end up in the glove of one Casey Kotchman (.294/.355/.426 in the month of May!), you begin to understand why a premium defensive first baseman was such an important acquisition this offseason. Success from a groundball pitching staff is not sustainable without above-average defense from your infield, and the Indians have Gold Glove caliber defenders at three positions around the diamond, and at least an average defender at 2B in Jason Kipnis. The danger here is if more of those groundballs turn into line drives and fly balls, and those fly balls turn into home runs (I’m looking at you, Little Cowboy).

So that leaves the obvious question; does Lindbergh and the crack staff at Baseball Prospectus think the Indians have staying power this season? Or is this just another mirage in the desert akin to last year? I’ll let him tell you:
Despite their lackluster play, the Tigers—whom the Indians came from behind to beat last night—remain the real threat. Even if the Indians’ 9-2 record in one-run games regresses and Detroit outplays them from now on, as PECOTA expects, Cleveland’s current five-game cushion gives them a good chance of outlasting the Tigers’ attack. Our playoffs odds put the Indians’ chances of holding on to claim the Central at just a tick over 50 percent. At the same point last season, we gave them only a 40 percent chance, sensing an inferior team hidden behind a superior record. Thanks to the additional wild card team in 2012, the Indians’ odds of qualifying for the playoffs without winning the division are nearly three times higher than they were at the 43-game mark last season, bringing their overall odds of post-season play to approximately 60 percent.
Through their first 43 games, the 2012 Indians haven’t been quite as good as Cleveland’s ill-fated 2011 team. But from game 44 on, they’ll be better. And they might just be better enough.
The 2012 Indians…better enough. Not quite the “What If?” campaign, but if the Better Enough Indians are better enough to make it to the playoffs, I’ll take it. And remember, that article was penned before the Masterson and the Indians took down the mighty Verlander in the series finale on Thursday, securing the series sweep and a 6-game lead in the division. It’s still only May, but June starts this week, and the Indians just might be Better Enough this year. Regardless, it’s going to be a heck of a ride while we find out, and I’m ready to buckle up and enjoy it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tomahawks on the Warpath

After the hullaballoo caused by the Indians’ closer, it’s nice to see the focus turn (somewhat) back to baseball as the Tigers’ series that so many have pointed to on a referendum for the team (so far, so good) and the fans (well…) has now arrived.  So before getting to some relevant baseball topics, I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the comments made by Chris Perez last weekend, as much as I think they were overblown in our ESPN-ified, overly polarized world where there is suddenly only black and white in an argument and there are staged shouting matches to “articulate” those two points of view.

Certainly, the Perez comments and the reactions to them (with the local 11 PM news leading with it on Monday night with the requisite comments from some local sports talk radio host, sporting his obligatory slicked-back hair, goatee, and ignorance) fleshed out this idea that in this narcissistic society that we live in, everyone has an opinion and nobody’s wrong with the volume of the argument made meaning more than the strength of said argument. 

In terms of what Perez said, his comments didn’t elicit the guttural response for me that it did for most.  Some of the things that he said were pretty spot on (and read the whole text here, paying particular attention to the “negativity” portion) and they aren’t that different than what’s been written here and in other places attempting to rationalize why this town hasn’t gotten behind this team.  Other things he said were unquestionably tone-deaf and likely were just portions of a rant that may not have been all that thought out or polished, like when he takes his Ivan Drago-esque stance that the team plays only for themselves and not for anyone else or his invocation of Philadelphia as a “fun” place to play, despite Philly fans’ deserved reputation as boorish while ignoring the inherent market differences between Cleveland and Philadelphia, affecting both organizations’ ability to retain players.  Though his comments jumped from one topic to another, I think that what he ultimately did was hold up a mirror in front of the Cleveland sports fan – questioning why (or why not) they feel the things that they do as it pertains to their sports teams – and while many may not have liked what he said, there were elements of truth to it and he unquestionably put himself in the crosshairs.  

Being at the game on Tuesday, it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see the reaction of the assembled crowd (which I was told included about 13,000 people that actually went through the turnstiles, not paid attendance…and it is here that I note that the Clippers drew 10,100 for their Monday night game in Columbus) when he was greeted with a standing ovation during his run out of the bullpen as the folks who were at the game are likely the folks who are usually at the games (other than the 4,000 or so Tigers’ fans on Tuesday) and Perez articulated what many of those diehard fans (who do attend games and have been attending games) have been feeling/saying about this team and this town for a while.

As for where it goes from here for Perez, as long as he continues to perform, it will fade into the background for him and the way that he’s perceived locally.  However, if things go bad for him at some point, this will get thrown back in his face as the “experts” who work in the 140-character medium and who spout their vitriol online and on the airwaves will have one more reason to be bitter or cynical about a game that we’re all supposed enjoy and a team that we all SHOULD be enjoying.

Sitting at the game on Tuesday, it was pointed out to me that the top of the Indians’ order (Choo, Cabrera, Hafner, and Santana) was netted for the Indians for Benuardo, Einar Diaz, Ryan Drese, and Casey Blake.  After a weekend/beginning of the week in which we heard/read endlessly about the way that the Indians traded two consecutive Cy Young Award winners and how the fans are upset that the Indians hold their annual Fire Sale where they get rid of their best players, I thought a little perspective was in order.  This isn’t meant to justify the CC or Lee deals, nor will it EVER mention Matt MaTola as an option for the current team as any kind of upgrade (as that’s idiocy), but let’s remember that the Indians have really had 4 seasons since the Colon deal in which they traded players (of varying degrees of note) in July of 2002 and perhaps it is instructive to look at those years of trading as a whole instead of analyzing individual trades.

Since I’m only talking mainly about 2006, 2008, and 2009 (since 2010 just kind of cleared the decks of the remaining flotsam and jetsam), I’ll briefly remind everyone that the Indians netted Travis Hafner (and Aaron Myette) for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese back in December of 2002 and regardless of what you think of Hafner now (and I happen to be excited to have him back, even at a lesser percentage of his former self while believing that he needs to be rested more), that’s still grand larceny.

Again, though fans have used the “Annual Fire Sale” rhetoric as part of the explanation of why they’re “down” on the Indians, since 2002, the Tribe has really only parted with players of note in four seasons.  Maybe four Julys out of nine is too many (though it has sped up TWO rebuilds in that time) and certainly some of those Julys were impossibly painful, but let’s take a look at the players (of note) traded in those three Julys and the players that arrived on the North Coast in those deals, taking a holistic approach to those four Trading Deadlines.

For the purposes of brevity (not my strong suit), I’m only including the major trades and omitted some of the throw-ins (Shawn Nottingham will not be found here and if you know what trade he was involved in…well, there’s something for you somewhere), including mainly players that you remember playing for the Tribe or as part of trades coming to Cleveland:
Bob Wickman
Ben Broussard
Ronnie Belliard
Eduardo Perez

Shin-Soo Choo
Asdrubal Cabrera
Hector Luna
Max Ramirez
So, that’s trading the team’s closer, 2B, and 1B platoon – players all scheduled to be FA at the end of that 2006 season – for what would become the team’s future SS and RF.  Remember, Ramirez was traded for Kenny Lofton the following year, so…um, yeah, that was a good season at the Trading Post.

CC Sabathia
Casey Blake

Carlos Santana
Mike Brantley
Matt LaPorta
Rob Bryson
Obviously, here’s where the hand-wringing begins and much (if not all) of it is caused by the performance to date by a certain 27-year-old in Columbus (who is likely to stay in Columbus), but if you’re talking about what the team netted that summer in deals, they got an All-Star catcher in Santana (now signed through 2017) and a starting OF in Brantley.  Even if Brantley’s career numbers have underwhelmed (and the fact that everyone loves his “pedigree” and “swing” despite his actual “production” still confuses me), remember that it was reported by the LA Daily news that Frank McCourt nixed a deal that would have sent CC, Blake, and Carroll (the last of those two would end up in Chavez Ravine eventually) for a package that could have included Matt Kemp (seriously, go click on that link…and this one that shows the whole LA Daily News article, no longer in their archives) or perhaps even Kemp and Santana.  But the deal didn’t happen and the CC trade has ended up as a major failure, even if the moves that the team made in 2008 resulted in nearly ¼ of their lineup for the foreseeable future in Santana and Brantley.

Cliff Lee
Victor Martinez
Mark DeRosa
Rafael Betancourt
Ryan Garko
Ben Francisco

Justin Masterson
Chris Perez
Nick Hagadone
Carlos Carrasco
Jason Donald
Lou Marson
Bryan Price
Scott Barnes
Connor Graham
Jason Knapp
Since most people forget that Carlos Carrasco was the best Indians’ pitcher in the months of May and June last year and since there is much consternation still (most deserved) for the Cliff Lee trade not bearing more fruit, look at this list and think about if Carrasco were healthy for this season as that “received” list would include 40% of the rotation and what looks to be the back-end-of-the-bullpen for a couple of years.  Of course, Carrasco is not healthy and yes, the Lee deal has been underwhelming (just as every deal involving Lee has been as the three players the Phillies received for him at the end of 2009 all remain in the Minors and the package the Mariners netted for him have all underwhelmed, particularly the “centerpiece” Justin Smoak), but the Indians spent this July loading up on needed arms and seem to have hit on some (Masterson, Hagadone), missed on others (Knapp), with the jury still out on even more (Carrasco, Barnes, Price).  Certainly, I’m not going to revisit this Cliff Lee deal every couple of months (nor do I know what other deals were on the table for the Tribe and note that Kyle Drabek is still walking nearly 6 hitters per 9 innings this year with Domonic Brown STILL in AAA for the Phillies), but to look at the total return for these players – rather than looking at individual deals – does provide some perspective as to how this current Tribe team has been built…even with the hits and misses at the Trading Post. 

Now if you want to include 2010 that completely cleared the decks, here’s what you had:
Jake Westbrook
Kerry Wood
Jhonny Peralta
Austin Kearns
Russell Branyan

Zach McAllister
Corey Kluber
Giovanni Soto
Zeke Carrera
Juan Diaz
It’s still a little early to pass judgment on a lot of these deals, since they happened less than two years ago, even if McAllister has ascended to the starting rotation for the parent club already and Soto looks to be a keeper in Akron.  Regardless of what happens with that 2010 “crop” of players, the Indians netted a middle of the order (Choo, Cabrera, Santana) as well an everyday OF in Brantley, a young arm that topped last year’s rotation in Masterson, and back-end-of-the-bullpen pieces in Perez and Hagadone with the trades made in 2006, 2008, and 2009.

Of course we well all wish that LaPorta is something that he is not (despite the claims from people who want to see him NOW…the same people that wanted him gone all of last year) and Cookie Carrasco’s injury puts a major damper on the Lee deal as Marson and Donald continue to struggle to hit and Knapp is…well, somewhere I guess.  But complaining about ONE specific trade or railing against THIS specific player misses the forest for the trees as the Indians cleared the decks (a couple of times) and, through some hits and misses, they’ve assembled a team that looks to be poised to take us into a fun summer of contention and complaining about what the Indians are NOT instead of what they may be is (while decidedly a “Cleveland” thing to do) to avoid what’s taking shape this season with this Indians’ team.

As for as their probable competition for a summer of contention, as much as the Tigers were essentially handed the AL Central crown as soon as they added Prince Fielder, seeing the team (as presently constructed), anyone else feeling a lot better about the Indians’ chances to stick around in this race, or even stay in the driver’s seat?

Though it was known going into the season, it is striking how top-heavy the Tigers really are and how they are unable to execute the little things (like applying tags, making simple defensive plays, etc.) that good teams are able to do.  Maybe they still just press down the accelerator at some point, but the way that most of their team is playing right now, that’s hard to see.  Granted, it was hard to see last year at this time as well, but Jonah Keri at Grantland nailed it earlier in the week:
Justin Verlander seems to throw one-hitters every other day, so let’s talk about a factor playing a much bigger role in the Tigers’ year-to-date record: The horrible failure of their supporting cast. It’s been unbelievably awful. Ryan Raburn has been arguably the worst hitter in baseball, at .144/.213/.216. Ramon Santiago’s at .184/.254/.250. Brennan Boesch is hitting .239 with a .271 OBP. Alex Avila hit a 42-hopper through a drawn-in infield Sunday, cashing the eventual winning run and snapping a 4-for-40 slump; he’s hitting .221 with a .299 OBP. 

Certainly, Verlander is scary and Miggy and Prince are formidable in the middle of their lineup, but those guys have to perform at almost an otherworldly level to carry the rest of the team as they’re playing right now.

Seriously, their Opening Day lineup featured Boesch in the 2nd spot, Delmon Young hitting 5th, and Ryan Rayburn hitting 6th.  None of those players have an OPS over .700 and it looks as if Alex Avila may have turned back into a pumpkin after his Cinderella 2011 season while Jhonny Peralta (2 HR) looks much more like the Jhonny Peralta that we all grew to know and…well, just know for the last couple of years.

Austin Jackson, Prince, and Miggy will certainly score runs, but with their defensive deficiencies and with the absolute black holes in their lineup outside of that trio, it’s easy to see why national writers are starting to scale back on this idea that the AL Central is simply the property of the Tigers, as the Indians now have the highest current percent chance of making the playoffs, as calculated by both ESPN and Baseball Prospectus.

It may be…well, May, but the tide may have turned in the AL Central or at least may be turning…

Finally, as “wins” are often cited to measure the worth of a pitcher, I will point out that Tuesday’s victory over the Tigers gave Ubaldo his 5th win of the season in the Indians first 42 games.  Thus, they’ve played about 26% of their season which (and you see where I’m going with this) means that Ubaldo – he of the 5.02 ERA and 1.71 WHIP with more walks that strikeouts – is “on pace” for a 20-win season.
Still think “wins” are an accurate measure of a pitcher’s value?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Winning the Summer on A Lazy Sunday

Earlier this weekend, I was taking in my 5-year-old’s game of “soccer” when another one of the parents noticed my Tribe hat (this glorious beauty) and sidled up to me.  He nodded to my hat and asked me, “the Tribe still in 1st place”?

Noting his head-to-toe Browns’ gear and the tone/phrasing of the question (as if to express astonishment at the current standings while intimating in six words that it simply will not last), I answered as briefly and quickly as I could, coming back with the old “yep”, while feigning interest in the “action” on the field as the scrum of kids surrounding a soccer ball moved slowly back and forth.  He immediately fired back with a “won’t last”, prompting me to blurt out (against my better judgment) that it was about ¼ of the way into the season and that it was almost Memorial Day.

Sensing that I was actually an Indians’ fan, he pounced on me with the best sports-talk radio caller voice he could muster, looking me up and down and spitting out “doesn’t matter who’s in 1st place on Memorial Day…talk to me when they’re in 1st place in October”.

Still kicking myself for even engaging in this “discussion” and tasting the bile in my mouth while my ears turned warm, I decided to take the higher road on it, yelling to him as he walked away, “sounds good…we’ll talk then”.  As I soothed myself with the reality that this “fan” has a summer staring him in the face where he’s going to be poring over reports of how players threw a ball or caught a ball while wearing shorts and a helmet while I immerse myself in the glory of a baseball season, the tête-à-tête stuck with me.   Getting past the notion that this “discussion” generated such hostility in this Cleveland sports fan (who seemed to be anxious to prove to me that the Indians couldn’t keep winning) on a pleasant Saturday morning and how absurd that really is, I don’t think that the point of view that this “fan” had is all that unique to Clevelanders as they relate to the Tribe and their start this year.

They know the Indians are in 1st place and – whether it’s because that kid from Akron broke their collective hearts before taking his talents (and apparent shortcomings) to South Beach or because they are still upset about the CC or Lee trades (not that Sabathia and Clifton Phifer were universally adored while here as people constantly railed against CC’s weight and only really took to Lee late in his 2008 Cy Young campaign) or because they’re too busy convincing themselves that THIS is the NFL Draft where their beloved Browns actually got things right – they’re just waiting for the bottom to fall out of this Tribe team.  For whatever reason, they’re kind of hoping for it, so they can say “I told you so” in September or October if the Indians aren’t able to maintain their 1st place lead throughout the summer

And since I’m past the point of this point of view enraging me (it is sports after all and the current blissful state of my life precludes me from really getting THAT upset about this stuff), so I’m just saddened and confused by the whole segment of Clevelanders that can’t really enjoy success from one of their sports teams, even if that success turns out to be fleeting.  While I’m more and more of the opinion that this Tribe success isn’t going to be fleeting this year – with the offensive pieces starting to come together, a solid bullpen, and a rotation that could (yes, I said COULD) get into a groove that would make this team all that more competitive – to know that people are missing out on the maturation of a young, exciting team just makes me sad.

It makes me sad because as people wait for the other shoe to drop or wait to espouse their “told ya so” attitude on those of us that are enjoying this, they’re missing a pair of games like the ones that the Indians just completed against the Mariners.  After watching Carlos Santana race around 3rd base and fly into home like Superman, scoring from 2nd after one of the oddest plays you’ll ever see, then seeing the Indians come back (twice) on Thursday to beat The Atomic Wedgie and his Mariners (who are 1-4 against the Indians and…ahem…5-1 against the Tigers), you started to get the sense that something special might be building. 
But still people continue to be skeptical…

And that’s fine in the grand scheme of things as anyone can do or believe what they want to but earlier in the week, I heard Terry Pluto on the radio, discussing the lack of interest and support in the Indians to date, saying that the Indians are always going to struggle to draw to begin the year.  While I think that there is a good deal of validity to something that Pluto’s co-worker at the PD pointed out, Pluto’s rationale for the lukewarm interest to start every season centers on the idea that the Indians never “win the Winter”, which means that they don’t generate optimism or excitement in the off-season that carries into the beginning of the season.  He posited that some of that was due to not having something like the NFL Draft or the NBA Draft Lottery that creates built-in excitement that the team doesn’t even really have to work for as ANYONE that the Cavs or Browns (in particular) draft is going to generate more excitement than anything that the Indians could ever do or would ever do in the off-season. 
Some of that is the idea that hope springs eternal in Cleveland, except for the Indians.  

There is some validity to this I think, in that every winter we hear what the Indians AREN’T doing or HAVEN’T done and even when the moves that they’ve made work out early in the season (or whenever, really), the Indians are only partially extolled for their decisions.  The juxtaposition of the Marlins being in town – a team that unquestionably “won the Winter” – should not be overlooked here as the Indians’ offseason ran in stark contrast to what we saw down in Miami, with the Marlins’ Winter drawing headlines and capturing the imagination in a way that the Indians are likely never to replicate.  Yet, of all the off-season additions between the two teams, Derek Lowe has performed the best and while that may or may not last, it is worth noting that the Marlins’ big additions (Reyes, Bell, and Buehrle) have all failed to live up to expectations.

The Marlins’ season hasn’t come off the rails (already) like the Angels (the other team that “won the winter”) has as the Marlins are hanging around in the NL East and will likely stick in the NL East race as well as staying relevant in the NL Wild Card race.  But for all of their additions (Reyes, Bell, Buehrle, Kearns…just seeing if you were paying attention), the impact of those players hasn’t been as profound as what Derek Lowe has (good piece on perspective with Lowe) done so far.  Maybe that won’t continue with Lowe and maybe people will continue to harp away that they didn’t add Beltran (though they did make an offer that was “very close” to what the Cardinals offered) or Carlos Pena (despite that they reportedly offered $8M to him, or $750K more than he signed for to return to Tampa), even if neither of those players seem very interested in coming to the North Coast.

Maybe Willingham is the “one that got away” (and he has to be wondering why in the world the Twins signed him) even if it would have meant overpaying for him to net his services.  As I wrote after Willingham and Cuddyer signed, “the 3-year, $21M deal for the Twins feels like less of a ‘gamble’ than most and looked palatable for the Tribe, particularly with Hafner coming off of the books after this season” and Willingham’s early production has justified his contract for now.  It may be different when that 3rd year rolls around (and maybe the Twins dangle him at some point as they obviously need a talent infusion), but the Indians made the decision to pass on offering that 3rd guaranteed year.

While fools like me offered options like Gaby Sanchez (ahem, .562 OPS) and Marlon Byrd (um, .475 OPS) as potential trade targets because the thinness of the offense scared me, the Indians decided to rely on the contributions of the two players that they DID extend this Winter (how do the Santana and Asdrubal extensions look right now…talk about “winning the Winter”) as well as attempting to upgrade their roster with limited cost and risk.

Maybe that strategy ultimately catches up to them (and don’t take that to mean that I wouldn’t love a bat in LF or 1B…still), but the Indians are still in 1st place as we approach Memorial Day.  Additionally, given that the team did allegedly make a significant offer to Beltran (the link from Hoynes above tells me so) and that they offered Pena $8M, then settled for Kotchman at $3M, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this team makes additions as they deem them to be necessary going forward.  They showed the level of aggressiveness in acquiring Ubaldo last year that fans had always pined for and while the performance of Ubaldo has been…um, uneven…maybe improving, the Indians’ current Front Office has shown some chutzpah and willingness to assume risk that could continue.

Regardless of whether that comes to pass or not (and, again, it’s fun to be on the “Buy” side of the Trading Deadline, even if that is a solid two months away), if you look at thte moves that they’ve made recently, you get the idea that (with some notable exceptions) maybe this team knows what they’re doing and while every move that they’ve made isn’t going to be universally successful (and here is proof that this team makes a lot of sense in their utilization of players or at least is able to articulate it), but they’ve added Derek Lowe and Jack Hannahan (most notably) in the past two off-seasons without much given up and without high price tags attached to them.  Those under-the-radar additions have had an impact in augmenting the group of youngsters acquired via trades and the draft to the point that the Indians’ rebuild has taken less than 4 years. 
Ask the folks in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, or Kansas City if that’s impressive…

To see this team mature and to know it was built, with Choo, Cabrera, and Santana coming in trades for Broussard, Eduardo, and Blake and with young players (Kipnis, Gomez, nearly all of the relievers) arriving to MLB and thriving cannot help but inspire confidence and excitement.  Yet, people are still obsessing over what the Indians didn’t do or lamenting the recent past or the players that are no longer here instead of focusing on what they’re doing…you know, during the season, on the field.

Maybe people are still upset about the descent from 2007 to the depths of 2010, but the Joe Carter bobblehead giveaway is interesting to use as context as most people generally remember Carter for the Alomar/Baerga trade than anything he did as an Indian…and it is here that I note that he had a career .781 OPS as an Indian (3,493 PA), a little below the .787 OPS that Casey Blake posted in his time (3,358 PA) as an Indian.  Though his inclusion on the SI cover (with the White Knight) remains a seminal moment of my childhood and I can still picture a PD illustration after he won the RBI title in the 1986 season, Carter isn’t remembered by many for his contributions on the field, but rather what his contributions for the Tribe led to.  While my Joe Carter Starting Lineup figure now graces the bookshelf in my boys’ bedroom (next to my old Greg Swindell one), he is more commonly associated with the trade that brought the first couple of pieces of that 1990s run (Sandy and Carlos) to the North Coast.

What people often fail to remember is that the Indians didn’t reach the 80-win mark in ANY of the first 4 years (1990 season through 1993 season) that Sandy and Baerga were on the Indians.  The 1994 season is when the team (obviously) took off in the strike-shortened season, with Sandy (whose poster hung in my brother’s bedroom, before the Indians were actually good) and Carlos in their fifth full seasons in MLB.  Those dark days early in the duo’s career were followed by the brightest times we’ve ever experienced as a franchise and Carter is remembered for playing a role in that, even if it took over 5 years (the trade happened in 1989) for that to materialize.

But that’s all that people remember now – the winning – and the role that Sandy and Carlos played in it with a constant nod to Carter for…well, for being the player that was traded that started (eventually) those halcyon days and those winning ways at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Maybe winning is really the balm for it all and the Indians not “winning” in 2007 and not “winning” Winter after Winter has taken it’s toll on a fanbase that looks increasingly disinterested and embarrasses a town that has always prided itself on alleged sports passion.  Regardless of what’s coming, there is little debate that after not “winning the Winter”, the Indians have unquestionably “won” the Spring. 

Whether they’re able to continue their “winning” ways into the Summer and the Fall, only time will tell…

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tomahawks From the Top

As we all say thank goodness for the Twins (who are now 73-125 since they got swept out of the 2010 ALDS) to save us from ourselves after the close to the Red Sox series that had everyone running to the 480 bridge while echoing the chorus that “THIS TEAM CAN’T HIT LHP” narrative with the brilliant inclusion of Batting Average vs. LHP as the provided “proof”, it’s time to dispel some inaccuracies, use some comparisons, and look to the future for this Indians team. 

Starting with this whole vs. LHP “issue”, everyone realizes that the Indians have the 9th highest OPS vs. LHP in AL, the 8th highest wOBA vs. LHP in the AL (above the Tigers), and have the highest BB rate vs. LHP in all of baseball.  A juggernaut vs. LHP they are not (there are 14 AL teams)…but check out those links and see that while the Indians’ performance against LHP leaves much to be desired, it has been fairly middle-of-the-road compared to the league and placed in the proper context.  If you want to continue to use Batting Average (which is not a completely useless stat, just one that shouldn’t be used as a stand-alone stat), that’s fine, but the fact that we’ve evolved past back-of-the-baseball card analysis elsewhere (and OPS and wOBA are pretty easy stats to understand and pretty useful) means that we need to look past this Batting Average vs. LHP “issue”.

Saying “they’re not the worst” may feel like a flimsy argument, but we knew going into the season that this team was going to be LH-heavy.  Of course, a RH bat in there would look great, but Acta nailed the situation (probably after being badgered about this whole LH thing again) this past weekend, saying “no one is sitting here saying that Choo, Brantley, Kipnis are platoon players. They were going to play against righties and lefties, regardless of our situation. . . . Should we trade Choo and Kipnis for right-handed hitters?” 
Full disclosure that I was behind the idea of Brantley as a platoon player…but point made.

The Indians are hitting RH pitching fairly well (.754 OPS, 5th in MLB), but the fact that their OPS vs. LHP ranks 16th in all of MLB starts to dispel this notion that they’re unquestionably the WORST team in MLB vs. LHP as there are actually two teams (the White Sox – with RH Paul Konerko – and the Nationals) below the .600 OPS line vs. LHP.

Yes, a RH 1B or RH LF (and don’t you say his name because I’m getting to him while not mentioning his name because of the moratorium) would work in the middle of the lineup, but as I hope against hope that Mike Brantley has actually figured out this “hitting” thing (and I could care less WHERE he hits as long as he IS hitting, although his May OPS of .697 isn’t that much different than his April OPS of .677) and gladly welcome my Big League Choo back with open arms (1.050 OPS in the last week), I’m going to ignore this vs, LHP “issue” until someone can provide some compelling evidence that this team CANNOT hit LHP…and evidence that doesn’t rely solely on Batting Average.

With that off my chest (for now), let’s get some Tomahawks in the air…

In the wake of the Derek Lowe complete game shutout, some have started to compare this 2012 team’s start to the one from just a year ago, positing that this year’s incarnation is lacking in the starting pitching department to date since Lowe is carrying this pitching staff.  While I’m not going to disagree with that as Masterson or (gulp) Ubaldo getting on track makes season-long contention that much more possible, it is worth comparing the start to the last two seasons for the rotations, in terms of expectations and early returns.  That is to say that the early outings for Masterson and Ubaldo have been…um, uneven and that the middle-to-back-end of the rotation (mainly Lowe and Jeanmar) have kept the Indians atop the Central to date. 

But if you remember back to last May, isn’t that kind of what happened last year too?
Lest you forget, this was the rotation that broke camp last year…in this order:

Yes, Jeanmar had worked his way into the mix in April and Al White made his first appearance at the end of April, but once Talbot got healthy, that was the rotation into July for a team that was sitting at the top of the AL Central for much of that time.  Seriously, Mitch Talbot – who not even a year later is pitching for the SAMSUNG LIONS in the KOREAN LEAGUE – logged eleven starts for the team before the All-Star Break and would end the year unleashing his own particular brand of “Fury” with the 5th most starts (12) on a team that would finish 80-82.

Sure, you say…but Masterson had a great 2011 season and Tomlin had a great 1st half while Carrasco showed the type of promise that makes his injury all the more painful now.  That’s all true, but GOING into 2011, who saw that coming from Masterson or Tomlin?

Essentially, in the first couple of months of the 2011 season we saw the middle-to-back-end of the rotation become the top and the top of the rotation slip into inconsistency, making them much less effective than the pitchers that they were thought to be ahead of in the rotation when 2011 started.
Now, think of this year…

Already, we’ve seen the 3rd starter (Lowe) vault into the position of being the Tribe’s best starter (just as Masterson did last year) and we’ve seen Jeanmar throw solidly in the first month-and-a-half of the season, just as Tomlin did last year.  Yes, Masterson and Ubaldo have been overwhelming disappointments, but the 2012 rotation is getting the same kind of surprise production from arms that weren’t being counted on as front-of-the-rotation pitchers in the early going. 

Just to put some hard numbers to this, compare where the Opening Day rotation stood around this time last year and where this year’s incarnation does:
2011 Staff through mid-to-late May in order of Opening Day Rotation
Carmona/Hernandez – 4.76 ERA on May 19, 2011
Carrasco – 5.16 ERA on May 22, 2011
Masterson – 2.52 ERA on May 18, 2011
Tomlin – 2.56 ERA on May 16, 2011
Talbot – 5.87 ERA on May 25, 2011

2012 Staff through May 15th in order of Opening Day Rotation
Masterson – 5.40 ERA
Ubaldo – 5.18 ERA
Lowe – 2.05 ERA
Tomlin – 4.67 ERA
Jeanmar – 3.75 ERA

Disappointment at the top and pleasant surprises in the middle-to-back in both groupings…

Two pitchers with an ERA over 5.00 on each staff, one close to 5.00 and two “surprises” to lead the staff made up your FIRST-PLACE rotation for the 2011 team at this time last year and similar production from (strangely) similar spots in the rotation for the 2012 Tribe.  While you can certainly say that the way that the 2011 rotation was unable to sustain their success provides a foreboding feeling for this group going forward, the success of Derek Lowe provides hope that the Indians can straighten out their “top 2” (or at least Masterson) this year. 

If you’ll remember, the Tribe targeted Lowe VERY early in the off-season, fleecing the Braves by trading only a minor-league arm (who is still in AA) for him AND having the Braves pay $10M of his $15M salary in 2012.  He was targeted because the Indians saw something in his mechanics that was easily “fixable” and, if “fixed”, could result in a return to effectiveness for him.  It has been an achievement in scouting and coaching (wait…by the Indians and their Polo Shirt Mafia Front Office, who spend all their time poring over spreadsheets?) and, given that the Indians were able to identify and correct Lowe’s issues, it provides some hope that they can identify and (perhaps) improve a pitcher like Masterson or even…gulp, Ubaldo.

Sure, Ubaldo may be too far gone (because he looks it) or he may not be as receptive as an eager-to-prove-himself Lowe was when he arrived in Cleveland, but the Indians (obviously) targeted Jimenez last July with the idea that they could “fix” him as they seem to have with Lowe.  “Fixing” Ubaldo may never materialize and he may become Fausto v.2.0, in terms of frustration and unfulfilled talent.  But remember that the 2011 Indians contended on the strength of their rotation, with the lion’s share of the contributions coming from unforeseen sources. 

Now that Zach McAllister has arrived for a while (and it’s easy to forget that both he and Jeanmar are only 24 years old) and the Indians’ rotation could have some moving pieces here.  While I’m not sure if a DL stint is in the offing for Ubaldo (and I think they’ve almost suggested to him that he’s injured, if only because Acta says he asks him SO much if he’s healthy) if his mechanics remain messy, but Corey Kluber (acquired for Westbrook in what seems like a trade from a decade ago) and Scotty Barnes (netted for Ryan Garko) are two other starters in AAA who are averaging more than a K an inning while limiting opposing hitters to an OPS under .700.  Neither of those guys scream “big-time pitching prospect” (though Barnes has always intrigued me), but let’s remember that Tomlin and Gomez have graduated to MLB and surprised in their brief time there.

Last year, the Indians rotation led from the back and, if the early returns provide a glimpse, we may be seeing it again with the hope that the “front” (Masterson and…have to say it, Ubaldo) can rebound to their former selves (or some semblance of their former selves) to continue to set the pace in the AL Central.

For whatever reason, every team “features” a whipping boy for fans and critics alike to rail against.  While vitriol is inexplicably always reserved for the 24th or 25th man on the roster (as I’m not sure I understand what hating Aaron Cunningham accomplishes and have NO problem with this team carrying Dan Wheeler – a veteran reliever with a track record who was here merely to mop up and absorb innings in losses – for 6 weeks), Casey Kotchman finds himself firmly in the crosshairs of most Tribe fans, who have deluded themselves to believe that a player who was unquestionably not the “answer” last year (and who still isn’t the “answer” this year…and has 1 XBH and a .557 OPS in his last 10 games) represents an upgrade, merely because he ISN’T Casey Kotchman.

However, if you go into this realizing what Casey Kotchman is (and isn’t), what he’s done is pretty much what we’ve expected – he’s played stellar defense and will have hot and cold stretches at the plate with the cold stretches likely to cause the hand-wringing and moaning that we experienced in April.  However, Kotchman has a .759 OPS in May (nestled between Choo and Santana for the month to date) and – while that won’t make anyone begin making a bronze casting for Cooperstown – it certainly brings him into the level of acceptable or respectable production.  What his recent run at the plate has done is raise his season totals to the point that he’s creeping ever closer to a .600 OPS.  And while that’s said with the tongue firmly in cheek, check out where he now ranks among MLB 1B in OPS, above Eric Hosmer, Justin Smoak, Gaby Sanchez (who, admittedly was on my “wish list” this off-season), Al Pujols and Ike Davis.  Unfortunately, that perspective is what gets lost too often as people rail against this player or that player as Kotchman’s 3 HR mean that he has more than Adrian Gonzalez, Carlos Lee (another player that everyone wanted to target this off-season), and the aforementioned Pujols and Gaby Sanchez.

Don’t take this to mean that I’m comfortable just putting Casey Kotchman out there at 1B for the rest of the season…it’s an attempt to provide some context to the situation.  That is, Kotchman is who we knew who was, is getting paid $3M (the Tribe signed Branyan to a $1.5M deal in 2010 and traded him in late June of that year) for the season, and once (or if) a better alternative presents itself, I’m all for upgrading the roster by improving at 1B.  That doesn’t mean that Kotchman would go the way of Branyan or any of the other Tribe 1B of the past (meaning that he wouldn’t automatically become a Mariner) as his defense is a special skill, but that alternative hasn’t presented itself and – almost, but not entirely, independent of Kotchman’s performance at the plate – he should stay there until it does.

With that said, it is fun around this time of the year to play the “would this guy be available” game and while I’ve seen or heard the Josh Willingham and Kevin Youkilis conjecture (and here is Buster Olney thinking that Youkilis may not be long for Boston) dating back to last off-season, there was something in a recent article on B-Pro that caught my eye.  The article focused on where the Padres are going (which is nowhere) and how San Diego may become a trading post, and perhaps very soon.  In the piece Geoff Young (who is the founder of Ducksnorts, a Padres’ blog) goes in-depth into the Padres’ roster, providing some insight into some different players that may be made available if the Padres’ season continues to circle the drain.

Carlos Quentin, LF (29): The man that Josh Byrnes let get away in Arizona, formerly represented by Jeff Moorad (he almost owned the Padres, sort of, for a few years... until one day he didn’t) started the season on the disabled list and is currently rehabbing in the minors. There was speculation when the Padres traded for Quentin that they might try to lock him up long-term, but given his spotty health record and the fact that Petco Park isn’t the ideal place for a slow, slugging outfielder (Ryan Ludwick sends his regards), this may not be the best option. As with Huston Street, though, he needs to get healthy before any moves are made.
I don’t expect Street or Quentin to fetch much. If I were the Padres, I’d be looking for more middle-infield depth in the high minors; failing that, I’d take a shot on guys at lower levels with live arms who maybe haven’t translated stuff into results.

When Quentin was moved in the off-season from the South Side to San Diego, it felt like the type of move that the Indians should have been in on, even if their…um, relationship with the White Sox Front Office (one minor trade since 1994) probably prevented it.

Realizing that Quentin is hurt (and his “repaired” right knee may not be all that healthy if it flares up when he gets into his batting stance) and that he may or may not even be on the field until June, unless Johnny Damon can break out of his “Spring Training mode” with a flurry, the Indians could be looking to upgrade in LF…again.  Maybe the Tribe is thinking that Sizemore’s return will push the suddenly rejuvenated Brantley to LF, but if Young is right that the Padres would target “middle-infield depth in the high minors”, that’s something that the Indians could actually offer in the form of Cord Phelps or even the recently-demoted Jason Donald.  As the author says, he doesn’t expect “Quentin to fetch much”, but he could become a nice option in LF or at DH for the 2nd half of the season…assuming health, of course.

Regardless of what’s to come or how the Indians attempt to find another band-aid in LF or 1B (or if they even are able to), let’s go back to what was written this past weekend and realize that this is fun.  This is fun to follow a 1st place team and fun to target other teams’ players as possibilities for Trading Deadline reinforcements.  While it isn’t ALWAYS fun, it is hard to remember what Carlos Santana once famously said…“this is the baseball”.