Sunday, July 01, 2012

Going Batty on A Lazy Sunday

After a nice vacation with the family, it’s time to get back in the saddle even if the Houston meltdown and the New York nonsense have certainly made the idea that the Indians are going to stick around in this race hard to believe.  Yes…the Indians have righted themselves in Baltimore (nothing quite like an Orioles’ pitching staff – regardless of recent vintage – to make us feel better about the offense…even for a little while), but regardless of the last few games in Baltimore, the past week or so has included a stretch – and an admittedly short one – in which all of the Indians’ warts that have been previously visible, but not unsightly, are suddenly shining brightly for all to say…and it was not a pretty sight.  With the offense being shut down by LHP after LHP (and Dana Eveland, though LH, does not earn the “pitcher” designation of other LHP) or being unable to piece together meaningful rallies, with the back-end-of-the-rotation looking horrible (with Jeanmar getting a one-way ticket to Columbus as a result…and Josh Tomlin sitting on an ERA that is higher than Gomez’s was when he was demoted), and with the front-end-of-the-bullpen making matters worse (and worse) in game after game, things have been looking rough on the ol’ Reservation.

A little over a week ago, I wrote that perhaps we should “enjoy the view from the top”, given the Indians being in first place with their upcoming schedule, which they’re now “enjoying”.  Admittedly, most of that was predicated on the idea that the pitching staff was the main culprit for the Indians not having a bigger cushion in the AL Central, dismissing some of the concern about the offense.  Don’t get me wrong here – those pitching concerns remain VERY real, with AC providing more context to it (in a great piece in which he correctly asserts that the Indians are just about average…and that might be “good” enough in the AL Central) in terms of what the pitching staff has cobbled together recently.  

As a quick aside here, despite going 6 innings for the Tribe yesterday, the Lil’ Cowboy now has a 5.85 ERA on the season and, dating back to June 1st of last year, has a 5.49 ERA in his last 29 starts spanning 172 IP.  In that timeframe since last year, he’s given up more earned runs (105) than notched strikeouts (99) and while that may be a function of the way that Tomlin operates as a pitcher, the fact that he’s closing in on a 6.00 ERA on the year as we enter July means that he may not be too far removed from a Jeanmarian demotion.  In Columbus, Corey Kluber (acquired for Westbrook a couple of years ago) has started to hit a groove as he’s posted a 2.28 ERA and 1.14 WHIP with 35 K and 11 BB in the 39 1/3 IP since the end of May, covering his last 6 starts.  Maybe Kluber is no upgrade over Tomlin at this point (although McAllister looks like an improvement – even if it doesn’t last – over what Gomez was doing), but the Indians need to find the right combination of starters to stick around in this AL Central as long as possible...even if it means finding an external addition.  With Masterson and Ubaldo both hitting their strides and Lowe falling off of a cliff, any improvement – even an incremental one in the rotation – should be explored.

Again though, that relates back to the pitching and I’m not interested in burning your eyes with screeds about the pitching staff on a regular basis…particularly when other issues exist on the team that need to be addressed if the Tribe is going to throw Pythagoras an Eephus pitch and fool everyone.  Obviously, the other concern with the current Tribe is the offense, as the issues are just as glaring and they were brought under the microscope at this time last week as the Indians lost the third game of the Astros’ series (as well as the series) while their divisional rival added a RH “bat” in Kevin Youkilis.

The loss of the Sunday game in Houston and the Youkilis “addition” to the White Sox could not have been worse – in terms of timing – for the Indians and their performance in the Bronx only hastened thoughts that this flawed team simply does not have enough to compete in even the AL Central.  Include the juxtaposition of the division-leading White Sox adding Youkilis and it was…well, a pretty trying week for most Tribe fans as the idea that the Indians could stick around – again, even in this AL Central – seemed farfetched.

While acknowledging that there are major issues with this Indians’team as presently constructed, let’s get to this idea that Youkilis to CHW represents much more than an incremental upgrade for the Pale Hose.  Other than making the White Sox (somehow) even less likable and though I’m not sure how many more times I can read that the trade is a “win-win” and that the White Sox are taking a smart gamble, let’s all acknowledge that Youkilis is still a useful player…not nearly as useful as he used to be – but still useful.  Whether he’s worth the baggage remains to be seen and the White Sox need ANY kind of upgrade at 3B and let’s all admit that, prudently used, Youkilis could have certainly helped the Indians as he HAS hit LHP this year…somewhat (.733 OPS overall in 2012) and could have spelled Kotchman at 1B and played some DH for Hafner.  But Youkilis was not the “answer” at all to what ails the Tribe.  Maybe nobody (with a shred of intelligence) was/is intimating that – and maybe that grand “answer” isn’t out there in only one uniform – but adding Kevin Youkilis was not going to chance the direction of the Indians’ season, just as it won’t for the South Siders.

Is he an incremental improvement for Chicago?
Of course, but consider that Jose Lopez has the EXACT same OPS vs. LHP (.733 OPS vs. LHP) that Youkilis does and you start to realize that a guy like Lopez – again, prudently used – can be just as effective for the Tribe.  Maybe that level of “effectiveness” underwhelms, but for as much as there as all of this talk about that BIG RH bat (with some incorrectly seeing Youkilis as that), what’s instructive to look at is the numbers for players this year…you know…against LHP.  With that in mind, to peruse the OPS vs. LHP leaderboard, you have the elite hitters that aren’t going to be available by any stretch of the imagination and you have some guys that are interesting – like Shane Victorino and Scott Hairston (though he may not be made available if the Mets stay in the NL East race) – that may not scream “BIG BAT”, but may be more in line of what the Indians could target. 

Now, don’t take that to mean that I don’t dream of what Carlos Quentin would look like in this lineup as I’ve been writing about it for a while now, with these words from about three weeks ago still holding up:
Certainly, he’s had injury issues in the past (he’s never played in more than 131 games in a season), so there would be cause for concern in the long-term for a now-29-year-old Quentin, but he would represent a pretty compelling option on the FA market after this season and being able to negotiate with him by acquiring him could cause the Indians to give up more than they’d usually be willing to give up for a two-month rental.

That last part is still the thing that stands out to me for Quentin as, despite Damon’s recent success, Quentin’s ability to “play” LF and spell Hafner as a DH makes him the perfect fit for this team for this year and the ability to perhaps negotiate an extension with him (as he does fit this current roster pretty perfectly going forward) into the “window” in which we currently find ourselves.  Of course, the Padres will have no shortage of suitors for his services and this is what B-Pro had to say in a recent piece looking at the players that may be made available in the next month or so:
Strengths: Quentin is arguably the best hitter on the list. What’s more definitive is that he possesses the most power. He is a threat to hit 20-plus home runs and 50-plus extra-base hits in any given season, regardless of park.
Weaknesses: Quentin is a below-average defender, even in a corner. His health is never assured, even for an American League team willing to rest him by using him as the designated hitter. There will be questions about how much of Quentin’s inflated walk rate stems from his the poor hitters that surround him in San Diego’s lineup. 

That part about him being “arguably the best hitter on the list”, means that the cost is only going to go up as July 31st gets closer (assuming Quentin keeps mashing)…and I’m not so sure the Indians have the currency (in terms of prospects, not money) to make that “purchase”.  In terms of other compelling option, if we’re believing what GM’s are saying now, both Willingham and Cuddyer (mentioned just because he was the other “bat” the Indians passed on giving a 3rd year to in the offseason) will be kept by their current teams…so, “cross them off the list then”.  With Thome heading to Baltimore and with the Dodgers trying to pry Carlos Lee out of Houston, it seems as if the Trading Season is already upon us, so it will be interesting to see how aggressive the Indians (and other teams) are with players like Quentin…among others.

Obviously, maybe the Indians find themselves on the outside of the Quentin “sweepstakes” (which figure to get rich) and they turn their attention to a guy like Shane Victorino (who isn’t going to be cheap either…though he isn’t exactly in good standing in Philly, as many feel he’s trying to pad his stats for his upcoming FA) in an attempt to add length to the lineup.  But – unfortunately for the Indians – a lot of it comes back to pointing at Quentin.  Maybe it is just pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but Quentin’s 1.121 OPS vs. LHP this year would put him 5th in all of MLB (if he had enough plate appearance) which means that more than being “just” a RH bat, he’s a RH bat that crushes LHP.  While guys like Al Soriano would unquestionably upgrade the Indians and his .801 OPS vs. LHP would put him above everyone on the Tribe not named Asdrubal, if you’re really looking for ONE player to be a game-changer against LHP, an incremental upgrade – while nice – may not be enough to make a justifiable difference. 

Now, what’s interesting about that number that Asdrubal has put up against LHP is to realize that his .876 OPS vs. LHP puts him 40th in all of MLB (just below a guy like Jonny Gomes…who has been mentioned here before) and well ahead of Mike Brantley, the 2nd highest qualified Indian on that list, at 109th with a .717 OPS.  Even more interesting than that is to look at what’s missing on this Indians team that SHOULD be there, in terms of production vs. LHP.  Not to continue to pile on Santana’s struggles here as I realize he’s been (recently) dealing with injuries, but here are the OPS vs. LHP leaders in MLB from just last year among players with more than 180 PA vs. LHP:
OPS vs. LHP – 2011 (min. 180 PA)
Pedroia - 1.010 OPS
Miggy - .990 OPS
Ortiz - .989 OPS
Votto - .987 OPS
Teixeira - .967 OPS
Santana - .964 OPS

Yeah, really…
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that other players that had fewer than 180 PA vs. LHP posted a higher OPS vs. LHP than that list, but Santana’s excellence against LHP last year should not be minimized here.  Certainly, you could say that the Indians expected Santana to perform at a level close to what he did last year vs. LHP and thought that The Axe Man and Asdrubal would have done most of the heavy lifting vs. LHP this year, but that just hasn’t happened for Santana.

How far have Santana’s numbers fallen this year?
Right now, he has a .576 OPS vs. LHP, or about a four-hundred point drop from where he was last year, falling him from 6th on the list shown above to currently sitting 174th among the 191 qualified MLB hitters vs. LHP.  Maybe his performance improves with Hafner returning (as the correlation between Hafner’s presence and Santana’s performance has already been identified), but for as much as we talk about adding that “bat” the lineup, that “bat” should already be there in Santana to anchor the batting order.  Now, don’t take that to mean that the Indians just need Santana to show up and everything will just be fine (as they need help outside of internal improvement) with the offense, but they DO need Santana to show up – notably against LHP – to legitimately consider even adding that bat and making a run in 2012.

Can Santana (who now has a lower OPS than Lou Marson…and not by a small amount) make the proper adjustments, get fully healthy, and put this offense on his back the way that he did down the stretch last year?

That may be a bigger question than we’d like to acknowledge and a bigger issue going forward than what/if they’re going to add, but these growing pains that Santana is currently experiencing are further exposing the known warts on this team.  While these growing pains are not unique to the Indians in terms of sabotaging an offense as “highly touted” youngsters in Kansas City and Seattle are not making the progress that many assumed for them, the Indians need one or more of the young players to take some MAJOR steps forward in the 2nd half of the season to make this offense viable on a regular basis.

Much of the Indians’ offensive “core” is still young (Asdrubal, Kipnis, Santana, and Brantley are all 26 or younger) and getting them to make those progressions and settling into consistent productiveness may be what paces the Indians’ 2nd half.  Of course, knowing that it takes repetition and experience to make those progressions and to get past those “growing pains” is what makes Lonnie Chisenhall’s injury all the more devastating as The Chiz’s .756 OPS on the season put him 5th on the team certainly gave us a taste of what he could have meant to this lineup this year.  Instead, the Indians will try to see if they can utilize Hannahan and Lopez for the 4 to 6 weeks that Lonnie figures to be on the shelf.  While that’s wildly disappointing from a 2012 perspective, what hurts even more is that he’ll miss those 4 to 6 weeks of MLB plate appearances, when in his last 8 games, he had more XBH (3) than K (1) in 26 plate appearances.

While the Indians’ offense will attempt to overcome losses both new (Lonnie) and getting old (Santana…as we once knew him), it will be interesting to see how the team performs in the early weeks of July.  The schedule-makers did them no favors and pitching issues still need to be sorted out, but how (or if) the offense is able to improve – and if any of that improvement comes externally – could determine how the 2012 season is remembered.


MTF said...

Another name to mull over for the bench job might be former Tribesman Franklin Gutierrez. He's always hit lefties pretty decently and is signed through next season. Of course, he's always hurt (and overpaid considering the lack of any durability). With his lack of durability he's got to be seen at this stage as a bench player. Considering these facts and the youngsters the M's want to see getting consistent playing time, perhaps they might pay quite a bit of his remaining contract. Another guy to potentially consider, anyway.

Adam said...

Great stuff Paul. I think we quickly forget how much more fun it is to be on the "buyer" side of the trade deadline than the "seller" which we experienced for so many excruiciating years. That being said, what in your estimation would it take as far as prospects to pry Quentin or Willingham from their respective teams? Do we even have the prospects in our system to entice such a deal?

Paul Cousineau said...

That's the big question, particularly if Quentin continues to hit and so many teams are close to contention, or even the Wild Card. A while back, there was that piece that I linked that suggested that the Padres would be looking for MLB-ready middle infield prospects (which we have), but I can't help but think that it will take more than a mixed bag of Cord Phelps and some high minors relievers to pry Quentin away.

Another factor is that the new CBA changed the compensation for lost FA, meaning that teams will be more inclined to trade these guys instead of holding on to them and netting draft picks for losing them to FA. That might be more applicable to guys like Gomes than Quentin, but it's still a factor.