Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Making the Pitch

In the throes of an extended road trip that runs along with the Tribe playing the top three teams in the NL Central, the Indians are looking to continue to keep pace in a division that looks more mediocre as each week passes.  Their series victory in St. Louis was paced by their starting pitchers as (stop me if you’ve seen or heard this recently) Masterson and Ubaldo limited their walks and found some level of effectiveness as the result of the Indians’ games was (unsurprisingly) dictated by how well the starters pitched.  Certainly, that’s not anything new…as much focus gets placed on (teeth gnashing, wailing, moaning, etc.) 1B and/or LF and the lack of production coming from those two spots.

While that may sound dismissive and disingenuous after spilling too much e-ink this past weekend on LF to make fun of, the fact of the matter is that the Indians will go only as far as their rotation will take them.   That’s not any great revelation, but it’s something that was put into much sharper focus over the weekend as the Indians’ Mark Shapiro sat down with Bill Lubinger of the PD to answer a great many questions, with the final takeaway on THIS team being one that shouldn’t surprise you…though it may.

By now, you’ve probably seen Shapiro’s Q & A from Sunday’s PD that hit on a myriad of topics.  While it is interesting that Shapiro (not the GM anymore) continues to be questioned on specific player transactions (here and elsewhere), the whole piece was pretty interesting.  If you haven’t seen it, there’s a lot that’s covered on attendance, revenues/profits, big vs. small markets, STO, Progressive Field going forward (and here’s a recent “review” of our fair park at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario), Ubaldo, “Fausto”, and the Dolans…and actually probably a little more.  While it doesn’t shed THAT much more light on some situations (as Shapiro has long been the master of talking a lot, but “saying” very little), there were some nuggets that caught my eye.

Certainly, I realize that some will focus on the STO relationship in light of the current explosion of TV revenue around the league and Shapiro essentially saying that the Indians are NOT happy with the current structure in MLB as it pertains to large and small market teams, as he claims that they fight most of their battles behind closed doors.  Many will probably question that, though it is interesting to remember this little back and forth between Larry Dolan and George Steinbrenner almost a decade ago (seriously…go read those linked stories and tell me who remembers that), with very little coming from it.  But most of Shapiro’s talking points are things that we’ve heard for a while…

Most interesting to me (as it pertains to the team on the field currently) was the answer to the final question posed by Lubinger:
PD: Besides staying healthy, what has to happen with this team to be playing in October?

MS: Starting pitching. Justin Masterson has to move closer to the guy he was last year -- not the guy -- but move closer, Ubaldo has got to continue to move closer to the guy that pitched [June 5 in Detroit] ... Zach McAllister comes up and becomes a contributing pitcher for us and maybe that’s it, I don’t know. But I’m a big believer that starting pitching puts you in a position to win games every night, and I’m a huge believer that if our starting pitching gives us a chance, our lineup is more than good enough, our manager gets the most our of our lineup, creates an environment where our players play hard, and our manager puts them in a position to be successful. ... If that happens, I think we’re going to be playing meaningful games here in September.

Again, Shapiro isn’t the GM anymore and the idea that Masterson and Ubaldo will likely determine how the season goes is no great revelation to anyone who’s been paying attention.  Certainly, nearly ALL of the focus goes to 1B or LF (guilty here this past weekend), but the team will only go as far as the rotation will take them…and, more succinctly, as far as Masterson and Ubaldo will take them.  That may terrify some (although both have looked good as of late…with the obvious caveat that they’ve looked good in small spurts before), but it really is true as the Indians are going to struggle to hang around – even in the absurdly flawed AL Central – with no production or consistency coming from the “top of their rotation”.

But that all kind of goes without saying…
The money line (and you may have noticed because I put it in bold) comes when he said, “Our lineup is more than good enough” and that he is a “Big believer that starting pitching puts you in a position to win games every night”.  So, as we all sit and wonder how much the Cubs would eat on Soriano’s contract (or where he would play and if he would even prosper here) and dream about Carlos Quentin as an Indian, here’s Shapiro saying that “our lineup is more than good enough”.

Maybe you disagree…and that’s certainly a position that is easy to support and/or defend, but think back to last July.  The Indians were in the hunt in the AL Central, with an offense that was sputtering and a rotation that had carried them through the first couple of months that was showing (as Harry Doyle would put it) “signs of fatigue”.  They went out and didn’t acquire Carlos Beltran (though most of that was Beltran’s doing) or the “impact bat” that many saw as the great need for the team.  Yes…they eventually went out and added Kosuke Fukudome and Jim Thome, but those were ancillary additions later in the season.  At the Trade Deadline, they traded in their biggest chips for what they thought was another “ace” to pair with Masterson at the top of the rotation.

While the idea that Ubaldo will resemble anything close to an “ace” seems laughable at times, the thought process (and Shapiro’s recent comments) do certainly give pause to the idea that the Indians are just going to look to add a bat and see if they can gain some traction in the AL Central.  If you’re looking at the (recent) past and what Shapiro says he’s a “big believer” in, you would have to believe that the Indians would be looking to upgrade their rotation, perhaps even more than they’d be looking to add that 1B or LF bat that has eluded them for what seems like a decade.

Certainly, getting Masterson AND Ubaldo back to some level of production close to Masterson’s 2011 and Ubaldo’s…well, anything BUT 2011 is vitally important to settling the “top” of the rotation.  Lowe (which was an acquisition EARLY in the off-season as they…wait for it…immediately looked to upgrade their rotation before anything else when 2011 ended) looks like a find, even if he’s going to struggle to find consistency.  He looks as advertised – a veteran innings-eater whose presence in the rotation and in the clubhouse could provide what Millwood did in 2005 (even if he’s unlikely to win the ERA title) in that Acta can put his name down for every 5th day and get a solid outing out of him. 

Beyond those three (to me, at least) it gets a little more interesting with Tomlin and Gomez currently in the rotation and with McAllister in AAA.  Interestingly, Shapiro named Tomlin as a “core” player (along with Kipnis, Santana, Brantley, Cabrera, and Choo on offense with Masterson, Pestano, and Perez on the pitching side) when asked by Lubinger to identify the “core” and, while I’ve been critical of the “Lil Cowboy” from time to time (once even evoking Jeremy Sowers as a comparable), Tomlin is a fine middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation starter.  While I’d probably say close to “back” of the rotation, he’s now thrown nearly 300 MLB IP and has a 4.45 career ERA with a 1.16 WHIP, improving his K rate this year to respectable levels.  Though I’m not sure that a pitcher like that counts as a “core” player as much as the other ones that Shapiro mentioned, Tomlin is certainly a useful piece who has averaged 165 IP (using both MLB and MiLB tallies) over the last three years and he’s not even eligible for arbitration until the end of NEXT year.

But even though McAllister was mentioned by Shapiro and Gomez has shown signs of being a useful piece, you can’t help but feel that the Indians might be looking to upgrade their starting rotation to stabilize it going forward, feeling that an arm may be more impactful than a bat down the stretch in the AL Central.  Gomez has been particularly inconsistent recently as he has a 5.75 ERA in his last 7 starts and had a 9.77 ERA in his last three starts prior to Monday’s game.  While you could say that Gomez’s start on Monday was a positive step (or at least a solid start), Acta certainly didn’t make it sound like that:
“It was OK…Barely 50 percent of his pitches for strikes. He really battled. He deserves some credit, because he didn’t have his slider today at all and he made some pitches in some situations where he had runners in scoring position — that helped himself out. I wouldn’t qualify it as a great start, but he deserves credit.”

What’s concerning is that since Gomez’s hot start (2.82 ERA after 5 starts), he’s walked more hitters (19) than he’s struck out (16) and he’s given up 5 HR in those last 7 starts, which include Monday.  Gomez now has the 3rd lowest K/9 among AL starters and unlike the two pitchers lower than him (Henderson Alvarez and Derek Lowe), he doesn’t have the big GB% necessary to make it work…yet, at least.  Obviously, he’s still young (24) as is McAllister (also 24), but both of those players don’t project to be much more than middle-to-back-of-the-rotation starters (at best) and a guy like Gomez is actually probably best utilized (at this point in his career) as more of a swing man.  Maybe they have confidence that Gomez or McAllister will get into a groove, but I would think that neither of those players would prevent them from looking to upgrade their rotation…and it doesn’t sound like the Carmona/Hernandez situation is any closer to resolution, despite the best efforts of the “lobbyist” hired by “Fausto’s” agents to make it look otherwise as what Al intimated a couple of weeks ago falls more in line with what Shapiro told Lubinger.

So if the Indians (or at least Shapiro) rightly thinks that the rotation holds the key to the season, if their young pitchers underwhelm, and if “Fausto” isn’t coming back anytime soon, wouldn’t it stand to reason that they may be active in looking to augment the roster, but maybe not with the “bat” that everyone seems to assume?

Certainly, they don’t have the trade chips that they did at this time last year (and you could make the argument that the Indians should have more aggressively targeted the since-traded Gio Gonzalez from the A’s, who was under team control through 2015 prior to his recent extension, last July over Ubaldo), but they could be active in looking for a starting pitcher from one of the few “sellers” come July, even if the Trade Market for starting pitchers (which every team wants) figures to be more than a little competitive and pretty thin.  Since I’ll rule out Cole Hamels outright (as I don’t think he gets traded), you have LHP Wandy Rodriguez at the top of the list.  On the positive side, he’s under club control through the 2014 season (just as Ubaldo was not a “rental”), though his price tag with that club control is high, due $14.5M next year and in 2014, with a $2.5M buyout.  He is certainly enticing, although I’m sure that the Astros would be looking to cash in their biggest trade chip as the rebuild continues in Houston, likely looking for the moon and the stars for Wandy with the Indians’ farm system boasting no moon and very few stars not named Lindor.  As is the case with Wandy, the cost for the Cubs’ duo of starting pitchers who may be made available (Garza and Dempster) could be prohibitive – in terms of what Theo and the boys would want for either – to the point that the Indians probably wouldn’t have the trade ammunition to make it work.

After that trio, you have a number of arms that you hear over and over this time every year, from Kevin Millwood to Erik Bedard (though I’m not sure the Pirates will be sellers) to Jeremy Guthrie.  At a certain point, you start to wonder if these guys are legitimate upgrades over the likes of McAllister, but there is one name that does stand out as a possible target to add to the rotation who could fit the Indians’ “need” in the rotation – Bartolo Colon.

Don’t laugh at the idea that an allegedly 39-year-old Colon wouldn’t perhaps be an upgrade to the Tribe rotation as he’s sitting on a 4.21 ERA (would be 2nd best among current Tribe starters), a 1.32 WHIP (would be 2nd best among current Tribe starters), and a 3.31 K/BB (would be best among current Tribe starters) for the A’s.  Obviously, I’d prefer a Brandon McCarthy if we’re picking through the bones of Oakland’s remains, but Colon’s numbers have been fairly consistent (and consistently good) since having a…um, procedure that rejuvenated his career prior to the 2011 season.

Frankly, if we’re following the modus operandi from the last few years that the team has contended and the Tribe is looking to get an old Indian back in every year that we look to be contending (Lofton in 2007, Jimmy last year), why not welcome Boogie back into the mix?

His price tag might be something that the Tribe could “afford” (and I’m talking about players to trade, not his actual salary) and don’t forget that the A’s have a couple of hitters that may be deemed expendable (like Jonny Gomes, who has always hit LHP well) by the A’s and attractive to the Tribe, so the Indians might be able to find a partner in the Bay Area.  While I’d (continue to) love to see Josh Reddick make his way to the North Coast, let’s keep on task here…

Actually, we’ll go for a quick aside because Yahoo’s Jeff Passan had a great early look at 2013 FA Class (which often includes the same players that are made available in trades mid-season), with the OF and SP (hey…we might need both of those)  in the upcoming class looking particularly strong.  Of course, since Passan wrote that, Andre Ethier signed a 5-year deal worth $85M with a vesting option for 2018 that could make the deal worth $100M, causing many to call it an overpay and making Scott Boras hope beyond hope that Mike Ilitch is still writing checks in Detroit for the day that Choo hits the open market.

Regardless (and back to the matter at hand), while EVERYTHING regarding a possible Indians’ addition (and it is still early) has focused on finding the power bat for 1B or LF, past actions and the words of the team president may point to the Indians going in another direction to augment the current club.  Certainly, if the Indians could find an arm in the way that the Tigers did last year when Fister was added (who did for the Tigers what Ubaldo was SUPPOSED to do for the Tribe), that would be the ideal, but even finding an upgrade for their rotation while allowing guys like Gomez and McAllister to slot into depth roles for the day when (not if) injuries affect the rotation may be what’s in the offing.

As much as the continued performances of Masterson and Ubaldo (most notably) are going to dictate where this season goes, it’s not difficult to see a rotation that “boasts” only one ERA+ above 100 (meaning better than league average) needing a boost.  Whether that “boost” takes precedence over anything that might be considered for the lineup, the fact that Shapiro feels that “our lineup is more than good enough” and considers himself a “big believer” in starting pitching may have tipped the organization’s hand in what they might be looking for in the next six weeks or so…and it isn’t something that fits neatly into the middle of the lineup.

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