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.


Prof said...

How much (if any) of this should be attributed to the pitching coach? I don't see a whole heck of a lot of "adjustments" being made.

Unknown said...

The moribund Twins are a trainwreck.

Adam said...

Paul, great column as usual. One thing I’d like to chime in on is that I don’t think McCallister has gotten a fair shake. I’d like to posit that right now to say that McCallister is not the 5th best pitcher in the organization at this very moment is lunacy. In his almost month long stint, the guy pitched great against the Tigers and really had only one bad outing against Seattle. He is also maybe the only guy on the whole team that did not get blown up by the White Sox (in fact he recorded a win against them – which pretty much seems impossible considering they beat us like a drum every game). He has also dominated for 1.5 years at Columbus and I contend he needs to fill a spot in the 5-man rotation ASAP. Unlike Masterson and Ubaldo he exhibits good control and attacks hitters, surely realizing that having poor command and issuing free passes is a direct path to certain death as we have seen game after game with our “Aces”. Whose spot does he take? I’m not sure, and frankly I don’t much care, as really only Lowe is deserving of keeping his spot in the rotation at this current point in the season. Whether Masty or Ubaldo end up “finding” their way to the DL or not I really don’t care as we are reaching a point in the season where we can ill afford to not have quality starts which guarantees a loss and also taxes the hell out of the bullpen. Basically, my point is get this guy in the rotation before its too late.

Cleveland Fan said...

I would have to agree with the fact that Mcalister deserves a long term chance in the rotation. The one who worries me the most in the rotation is Masterson. After last years "breakout" season it seems that everybody was just figuring on an automatic 18-20 wins. Based on WHAT? One good season, it rarely works that way for us. I really don't expect anything from Ul-bad-o, so I'm not surprised by what we are getting from him. Disappointed but, not surprised.