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.


Unknown said...

Great read Al. What do estimate to be Lindor's time frame before he's major league ready? And how does his projected 'greatness' effect Cabrera? I assume that this means that it's unlikely Cabrera will remain on the reservation past 2014. Obviously there is a lot of time between now and then, but what do you think?

Al Ciammaichella said...

I think he's a level per year type of guy. He's been so good that it's easy to forget how young he is, but there's really no reason to rush him. I think he spends all year at Lake County, then Carolina in 2013, Akron in 2014 and so on. That puts him in line for a big league call up in 2015, as a 21 year old(!). Crazy. Like you said, a lot can happen between now and then, but this kid has it between the ears in addition to his impressive physical talents. I really can't overstate how excited I am about Francisco Lindor.

Al Ciammaichella said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MTF said...

Thanks Al, especially for the clarity on the Hernandez situation. It sounds as if it's highly doubtful we will see him before late season, if at all this year.

Did your scout say anything about the Chiz? Now that he's in Cleveland our K numbers will start to rise but (hopefully) he will magically learn to take walks. If he does, Supermanahan might long regret his back/calf injury.

Great news about Lindor, though I confess I hope he gets a few weeks of Carolina league exposure at the end of the season.

Al Ciammaichella said...

No, Chiz was on the DL when he went through Columbus this year so we didn't talk about him. Looked awfully good today though! I'm optimistic that he'll be much improved this year, especially with pitch recognition/selection.

Cy Slapnicka said...

if fausto ever comes back to the tribe, wouldn't it be great if he came out to the mound to the intro music from mad men?

a big if, but if he came back and dominated, that intro music would be so eery and intimidating.

MTF said...

By the way, the "better enough" Indians would become truly "better" if we had a RH power threat and our starting pitching could collectively figure it out. Ty Willingham anyone? Youk?

MTF said...

Oops- brain fart, again. Sorry, I obviously meant Josh Willingham.

Clecago Joe said...

I think Carlos Quentin should be added to that list. In my opinion he is exactly what we need. Could play left or DH with Hafner out.

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