Sunday, April 29, 2007

Lazy Brady Sunday

In the midst of a positively splendid weekend on the North Coast (Joe Thomas AND Brady Quinn AND Eric Wright?!?), let’s head right into a Lazy Sunday that will not be too lazy at the Wigwam, considering it’s going to be 70 degrees and sunny and my backyard looks like the Amazon:

Paul Hoynes decides that it’s too early to judge the Barfield-Kouzmanoff deal. With 128 at-bats between them, that’s fairly obvious, no? He, of course, fails to mention that Barfield is getting to balls that Ronnie Belliard and Hector Luna couldn’t reach with Inspector Gadget’s arms.

Bud Shaw’s Sunday Spin provides it’s weekly proof that Shaw, among other PD writers, is incapable of adapting to the evolving sports writing medium. I’m not providing a link (that’s how pointless and unfunny it is, that I want no part of it), but it’s attempt to be “fresh”, “hip”, and “funny” to cozy up to that 18 to 34 demographic take a huge hit when one of the “jokes” (term used extremely loosely) involves Columbo, a show that debuted 36 years ago. Very pertinent, Bud…the Sunday readership’s bump HAS to be tied into the introduction of this column.
Resident curmudgeon Sheldon Ocker has found something else to complain about…platoons. He, apparently, didn’t have his “2nd shooter in the grassy knoll” piece done for press time.

Stephanie Storm has a nice minor-league synopsis, pointing out that 3B Wes Hodges (certainly a name to watch this year and going forward) has started out well for the Kinston Indians. Hodges was a 2nd round pick last year out of Georgia Tech who sat out all of last year rehabbing a stress fracture in his leg. He’s 22 and could move quickly through the organization if his line drive stroke plays well at his first few stops.

Jim Ingraham weighs in on the dichotomy of the Tribe being in 1st place, despite not playing their best baseball.

Andy Call believes the Indians have some roster shuffling to do with Cliff Lee and Andy Marte coming off injuries, leaving Carmona and the BLC (Big-League Choo to the uniformed) in limbo. I have to think that Carmona has a car rented for a trip East on I-90 back to Buffalo, but what’s wrong with keeping Choo in Cleveland while Marte figures out whatever he needs to in Buffalo? Blake has filled in admirably at 3B and Choo is playing well. Why mess with what seems to be working if Marte was clearly scuffling in the field and at the plate while with the parent club?

Finally, for some national perspective, Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune is on board with the idea that the Tribe has a legitimate chance at contention this year.

We’ll have to see what happens with the protested game yesterday (which was essentially akin to an umpire saying 3 innings after a ball hit the top of the fence that he had thought about it and changed his mind that it was a HR and not a 2B and would put a run up on the scoreboard…unprecedented), but the Indians are still sitting pretty.

Remember that the formula for success, broken down simply works like this:
Win 2 out of every 3 at home (win every series) to go 54-27
Play .500 ball on the road to go 40-41
Combine those records and you end up at 94-68

Sounds easy, right? Well, obviously it’s not or every team would follow the simple roadmap for making the playoffs.

On this Lazy Sunday, the Tribe sits at 7-3 at home and 6-5 on the road. It’s a simplistic way to follow the W-L record, but it also takes the roller-coaster ride mentality of living and dying with each game out of the equation.

Gotta go…my Brady Quinn Browns’ jersey just arrived.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Winning Any Which Way But Loose

Is it safe to go out on a limb yet and say that the Yankees series was simply a hiccup in a young season as the Tribe swept the short Rangers series without playing their best ball of the season? The Indians sit at 12-7 and are 1 game ahead of the Tigers in the AL Central, all of this with the team playing what is largely imperfect baseball.

They’ve won every series (that I can remember, or at least care to remember – they didn’t play in New York yet, right) this year and the numbers that the team has put up include nothing that jumps out as entirely successful. No aspect of the team has carried the others, as the team has figured out a way to win convincingly, win ugly, and win with smoke and mirrors.

It’s the starters, right?
While they do have 12 quality starts through the first 19 games, the Indians’ starters are only 6-5 with a pedestrian 4.89 ERA, a K to BB ratio of 2.6 to 1, and a WHIP of 1.44. Now, admittedly, a lot of those big numbers came from 3 starts (Carmona vs. CWS, Westbrook vs. NYY, Sowers vs. NYY) as 18 of the 68 ER came from those 3 games. So, that means that, in the other 16 games, the starters have given up 50 ER, or a little over 3 runs a start. Good, but not great. By the way, great would be the Oakland rotation sitting on a 2.07 ERA and a WHIP of 1.04 over 21 games. THAT is great.

Then it’s Pronk putting the team and the offense on his massive shoulders, right?
While Hafner has been incredibly hot as of late and is second in the AL in OPS and tied for 4th in HR, he still doesn’t rank in the top 10 in the AL in RBI. And, last I checked, games are still won when runs cross the plate. Seeing as how Victor is 2nd (tied for 23rd in the AL) and Peralta is 3rd on the team in RBI (tied for 39th in the AL), it’s not like this team is scoring runs in bunches. They’re no slouches as they stand at 2nd in the AL in runs scored (NYY – 6.3, CLE – 5.3, DET – 5.2, TB – 5.1, BOS – 5.1), but they certainly aren’t bashing teams like they were put together by C. Montgomery Burns.

Lord knows it’s not the fielding?
That’s for damn sure. Last in fielding percentage in the AL and 2nd in the AL in errors (despite having played 3 less games than the AL-leading Devil Rays) back up what we’ve all seen with our eyes. The defense is OK at its best, and painful at its worst.

It couldn’t be the bullpen, could it?
Actually, including the New York blow-up (6 of the 20 ER that the bullpen has let up) that sticks in everyone’s craw, the Tribe relievers are 6-2 with a 3.09 ERA, a K to BB ratio of 2.20, and a 1.18 WHIP and trail only the Tigers in the AL for saves. They have the best OPS against (.577) in the AL and have slotted nicely into their roles. Borowski has proven to be as advertised (not spectacular, but possesses a short memory and a penchant for getting out of jams) and Tom Mastny and Fernando Cabrera have been absolutely lights out. Throw in that Betancourt, Fultz, and (even) Hernandez have been solid and the biggest worry coming into the season has been a strength thus far.

The point of dissecting all of these parts of the whole equation is to prove that the Indians are sitting on top of the competitive AL Central having played what probably isn’t their best baseball.

For 2 years, the whole town has complained that the team has been unable to win close games, overcome mistakes to win a game, and have been unable to put lesser teams away as they should. So far this year, the Indians have done just that.

They sit at 12-7 with no obvious reason for the .632 winning percentage. If it’s difficult to pinpoint the reason for success and it’s easy to argue that each aspect of the team could improve (maybe not the bullpen), this team may be poised for that breakout season. That breakout season when everything falls into place, that the close games end in victory, and the team is able to get on a roll that lasts all season.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Faustian Dilemma

After last night’s brilliant display by Fausto, the Indians find themselves facing a quandary as Cliff Lee is scheduled to throw one more rehab start in Akron, and then be ready to return to his spot in the rotation.
But, with Carmona pitching as well as he is (2.63 ERA with a 1.10 WHIP in his last 2 starts), is that spot there to return to?

Carmona’s mastery of the Twins as he outpitched Johan Santana (ever think you’d see those words put together?) was all the more impressive because the sinker that he throws generally induces ground balls. Since the Twins have perfected the art of pounding the ball off of the Metrodome turf, it was entirely feasible that they would dink-and-dunk their way around the bases, beating out infield hits all night.

But the Twins couldn’t hit Carmona solidly and swung early and often, something they don’t generally do, limiting his pitch count and accentuating his effectiveness as he moved quickly through a Twins’ lineup obviously built for the old “hammer the ball into the turf and run like hell” strategy (Jason Tyner was leading off).

Carmona has now put together two consecutive outstanding starts, against the Yankees and the Twins no less, and would be 2-0 if not for the A-Rod massacre.

So, the question remains – when Lee returns from the DL, does Fausto stay in the rotation in lieu of another starter, does he transition to the bullpen, or does he return to Buffalo to stay on his 5-day pitching schedule and remain the “6th Starter” in case of another injury.

As well as he has pitched, the answer is fairly obvious – he will return to the Bison rotation and wait for his next chance. In Spring Training, a line of thinking developed that if Carmona thrived in the rotation while Byrd’s 2007 start mirrored his 2006 start (which is to say, he started 2007 awfully), Carmona would take Byrd’s spot in the rotation and Byrd would move to the bullpen to become the highest paid reliever in Tribe history. When Matt Miller went down and his dominance of RH batters was lost, the scenario seemed more likely as Byrd’s 2006 numbers vs. RH (.695 OPS) far outpaced that of his work against LH (.972 OPS).

While Carmona has certainly staked a claim in the rotation and made the argument to stay there, Byrd has done nothing to suggest that he should be precluded from the rotation. That’s not to say that this arrangement couldn’t happen at some point down the road; but right now, Byrd’s exclusion from the rotation isn’t happening.

Could Carmona help in the bullpen? Sure, but the bullpen has settled down nicely since the early season jitters and moving Carmona to the pen means that either Nasty Boy Mastny gets sent down, when he has done nothing to merit it, or the team attempts to get Jason Davis through waivers as he’s out of options. Not to mention that a move to the bullpen for Carmona means that he’ll get less frequent work and his ability to pitch 5+ innings will be compromised as the season progresses and his arm becomes more used to the routine of a reliever.

At this point, it makes more sense for the Indians to send Fausto to the Buffalo rotation to keep his arm stretched out and on a regular routine for when (not if) he’s needed at some point later this season to step into the rotation. Having him as the 6th starter gives the Indians unheard-of insurance in their rotation and depth that would be the envy of most of MLB.

The explanation to Carmona would be that he’s done nothing to justify a demotion, but that, by staying on a regular schedule and being only a phone call away that his day to contribute every 5th day will come.

What may get lost in all of this is that Fausto just turned 23 last December, meaning he’s only 6 months younger than Jeremy Sowers and a little less than a year older than hotshot phenom Atom Miller. If you get excited about the success or potential of either of those players, Carmona has to enter the discussion of top, ML-ready pitching prospects and rather prominently.

If Sowers’ wild success since his promotion last year merits unbridled enthusiasm and Miller’s AAA starts merit them airing on STO (which I finally saw on DVR…thank you STO…and showed a wicked fastball and slider from Miller), then Carmona deserves to be right in the mix of the talk of the rotation for 2007 and beyond.

Very simply, when it comes to starting pitching for today and tomorrow, nobody puts Fausto in a corner.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Early last week, I received an e-mail from Devin Clancy at USA Today’s SportsWeekly, as part of a season-long series that they’re running on bloggers from each team. The first Q & A featured the guys from Cardinals Diaspora and the second will feature…drumroll, please…yours truly.

It’s scheduled to hit newsstands tomorrow, so head out and spend the $1.50 for some in-depth coverage of MLB (and something else happening in the NFL this weekend) and see The DiaTriber’s first foray into the printed word. I know that some of you have subscriptions to SportsWeekly, so check it out. If not, pick one up…that is, if you can find one in NE Ohio.

Not being sure what they’ll use in the article, here’s a sampling of the Q & A:
What's the best move by management in recent memory?
Locking up Grady Sizemore, after less than 2 years of MLB service time, to a contract that runs through 2012. That 2012 club option pays him $8.5M…6 years from now! This for a player that became the 4th player in MLB history to hit 50 2B’s, 10 3B’s, and 25 HR (Lou Gehrig, Chuck Klein, and Ducky Medwick are the others) at the ripe old age of 23.

If you bought the team, who, if anyone, would you fire first?
The mascot Slider – a disgusting amalgamation of pink, yellow, and the Electric Slide. Apparently inspired by the Phillie Phanatic, he simply looks like a rejected character from Fraggle Rock that has either a case of nasty allergies or is unaware that Kleenex has been invented. Unless, of course, it’s suddenly revealed that Tribe legend Bob Feller is actually the man behind the mask.

Favorite current player and why?
Grady SuperSizemore (think Morgan Spurlock meets the Man of Steel), who basically pulls an Austin Powers – “Women want him, men want to be him.” He’s 24, a multimillionaire, one of the top10 players in all of MLB, and he looks like Vinnie Chase from Entourage. He runs into walls, he swats balls over the fence, he flies around the basepaths like he’s still running the option (he was recruited by Washington to play QB), and he’s basically the coolest guy in the room. A full-blown man crush is the next logical step.

All-time favorite player?
Pat Tabler, who as a 1B/DH, put his arm around a certain 10-year-old at Municipal Stadium during a fielding clinic put on by the “Little Indians’ Fan Club” as said 10-year-old stared open-mouthed at the glory that was the great Pat Tabler.

Do the Indians have a bitter rival or does it change based on which AL Central team is good at a given time?
Since realignment created the AL Central, the Indians chief rival has gone from Chicago to Minnesota to Chicago to whoever is in front. Ask Indians fans and they’ll tell you it’s the Yankees, although for Yankee fans, the Indians fall somewhere between the Blue Jays and Tigers. At least we beat them in that one-game playoff when Willie Mays Hayes scored from 2B on Jake Taylor’s bunt. Wait…that was just a movie?

What will it take for Cleveland to start another 454-sellout streak?
The Browns would have to move again and LeBron would have to move on. The sellout streak was a perfect storm of desperate Browns’ fans looking for a sports’ outlet and place to throw their money, the Cavs being in the midst of what is known as the “Shawn Kemp Era”, the opening of a new ballpark that quickly became “the place to be” in town, and the maturation of an unprecedented number of Hall of Fame caliber players (Ramirez, Thome, and Vizquel) and other luminaries (Belle, Baerga, and Lofton) on the same beer-league softball team.

How close is the team to getting there?
To consistently contending for multiple Central, AL, and WS Championships? Closer than people think. The young, talented core of Sizemore, Hafner, Sabathia, Sowers, etc. are all under control until at least the end of 2008. With solid prospects (like Atom Miller and Trevor Crowe) ready to step in as holes are identified, the team is built for the long haul. Much like the 1994 Tribe, this Indians team stands at the precipice of consistent contention in the AL. One can only hope that this time, the Indians can actually come away with the team’s first WS pennant since 1948.

Heading to the Jake tomorrow night for the first visit to the Mezzanine in 2007.

I’m looking forward to seeing Bob the Beer Guy, the guy with the headphones that keeps score, the guy that has missed only one game since the Jake opened, and all of my other summer camp friends.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Will the Real Indians Please Stand Up?

As has been noted, no Lazy Sunday yesterday as there was literally NOTHING of interest in the Sunday print columns. That is, unless of course, you're interested in Sheldon Ocker bickering with people from his mailbag about whether global warming is real or not.

When that's the best out there, well...

But, on to more important things:

Mr. Garko-my-God-did-you-see-how-far-he-hit-that? saved us all from the very distinct possibility of losing a series to the Devil Rays and looking bad doing it. For all intents and purposes, the Indians should have lost Sunday's game as they were dominted by James Shields (who?), continued their disturbing trends of mental mistakes on the basepaths and in the field, and plated 5 of their 6 runs via the HR.

The series, and the performance of the team thus far, raises an interesting question:
Are the Indians simply not playing their best baseball yet (their inability to generate runs in a rally, instead popping out and striking out with men on base is mystifying), and the fact that they've won 4 of their 5 series a sign that they are talented enough to overcome imperfect games to win?

Or is it that the Indians are a more acutely flawed team than we thought coming out of Spring Training? Is their reliance on HR (and waiting for Pronk to launch another majestic moonshot) and their miscues on the field of play a sign that this team is fundamentally unprepared to execute the simple, but necessary, aspects of the game that consistently win games?

Except for the Yankees' series, the rotation and (knocking firmly on wood) the bullpen have kept this team in games, regardless of what you think of Wedge's handling of the arms. Is this the design - to eke out these wins, generally playing bad baseball full of men left on base and fielding errors? Or is the offense and defense simply not clicking yet?

As I sat watching the Sunday game, as Westbrook was left in an inning too long, as Martinez completely missed two Mastny offerings (and looked bad doing it) after airmailing a ball into CF earlier in the game, as the Tribe flailed away at whatever Shields was dealing - the disgust of watching the same problems of last year had me boiling.

Then, Garko steps up to the plate in the 9th and wins it for the Indians...and all of the problems are forgotten, right?
No chance.

4 of the 9 regulars are hitting under .225 (Peralta, Blake, Marte, and Barfield), the team is hitting .212 with RISP, and the Indians are tied for the lead in the AL in errors (despite the fact they missed the ENTIRE Seattle series and have played 4 fewer games).

And, miraculously, they're still 8-7. Maybe it's by luck, maybe it's a sign that they can win when not clicking on all cylinders.
Whatever it is, this team needs to pull themselves out of whatever extended Spring Training they think they're still in, before they run into a team (like the Yankees) that will simply exploit their flaws and their mistakes. Otherwise, this team is going to sink quickly to the bottom of the standings and dig themselves a hole too deep to get out of once (or if) they can correct these problems and play complete, error-free, fundamentally sound games.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Swept Away

Heading into the Bronx this week, the Indians were coming off series victories against the White Sox (twice) and the Angels – two teams that have legitimate chances at an AL title. The starting pitching was leading the charge, the bullpen (though shaky at times) held on for 5 saves in 6 victories, and the offense produced enough runs to keep the Indians in the win column more often than not.

The Indians came into Yankee Stadium scheduled to face Chase Wright (a pitcher with 14 career IP at AA, 0 career IP at AAA), Kei Igawa (a Japanese import who looked dreadful in his 2 previous starts) and Darrell Rasner (a player actually released by the Nationals).

It seemed too easy.

The Tribe was catching the Yankees when they were short-handed and would be able to batter these poor youngsters around. Sure, the Yankees’ stacked offense would score runs, they always do. But Westbrook v. Wright? Sowers v. Igawa? By the time it came for Carmona to take the hill for the 3rd game, the Yankees’ bullpen would be so decimated that Yankees’ pitching coach Ron Guidry would have to eat innings before their Red Sox series.

Then, as a wise man once said, something happened on the way to heaven.

Or, everything happened.

Apparently, the Indians’ belief in Murphy’s Law is stronger than we all thought. If it wasn’t the starting pitching (Westbrook and Sowers combined to give up 14 runs in 4 1/3 innings), it was the defense (3 errors in Game 1 by Marte & Barfield, who both looked completely overwhelmed by their environment and actually sat out the next 2). If it wasn’t the situational hitting (how do 53 men left on base by the lineup in the 3 games strike you, with the biggest culprits being Blake with 9 or Peralta with 10), it was the closer (Borowski gave up 6 runs after getting 2 outs in the 9th with nobody on).

And, obviously, we all overlooked that 2 of the NYY starters were soft-tossing LHP the Indians had never seen before. Seriously, if I were playing the Tribe in a one-game playoff, I would call up some Single-A pitcher who was left-handed and didn’t throw over 83MPH. Some random 19-year-old might pitch himself a perfect game.

Say what you will about Borowski’s game-winning HR to Mr. April.
Say that they should have walked A-Rod, which only would have loaded the bases for HGHiambi.

The truth is, the Yankees did in the 9th inning what they did all series – they worked the count, they posted quality AB’s, they kept the inning alive with singles and walks, they batted like the professional hitters they are. Borowski was one strike away twice from ending the game. But close only counts in horseshoes and hand…ah, forget it.

The Indians blew a prime opportunity to announce their arrival as AL heavyweights, instead looking like overmatched, overwhelmed featherweights. Never has there been a series in recent memory that was so utterly disappointing, so unhealthy for the lining of my stomach, and so heartbreaking as the last three days have been.

No good feelings remain from this series – not the performances of Carmona, Cabrera, or Mastny. Perhaps the Indians decide to show up for some ball games after this debacle.
But right now, it’s hard to imagine.

Realizing that this is the 4th series of the season and the idea of a baseball season is never to get too high or too low (it’s a marathon, kids, not a sprint), the fact that the incapability of this team to put together a complete game that haunted them all of last season persists is positively horrifying.

It has me wishing I were simply waking up from a bad dream.
In reality, the Indians head to Tampa, tails firmly planted between their legs, trying to recapture some semblance of success that eluded them so completely in New York.

The Yankees’ series is in the rearview mirror, but the wounds are fresh…and oh so deep.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


With the Yankees welcoming the Featherheads to the Bronx, it’s as good a time as any to spit some vitriol regarding the Bronx Babies.

I hate the Yankees because their fans and their media view the rest of the league as their minor-league system. Ever sit with a Yankees fan when they say something like, “Sizemore’s a great player. He sure will be a great Yankee one day”?
To wit, reported this nugget today via the New York Post:
Later in the season, the Indians may decide lefty ace C.C. Sabathia will be too expensive to sign to a long-term deal and look to move him. The Yankees would have to be interested.

Wait, the mighty Yankees would be interested?!?
Boy, we should start exploring this trade RIGHT NOW!
We can’t miss a chance to deal C.C. to (head bowed in worshipful awe) the Yankees!

How lazy is this reporting? Did a NY beat writer look at which pitchers are doing well this season, not check to see that he’s under contract until the end of 2008(!), and “report” this nonsense – only to have the mindless Yankee fans nod along - “Yeah, I guess we’d take Sabathia.”

Couldn’t you replace the word “Yankees” in that sentence with just about any team in MLB? Who wouldn’t want a 26-year-old ace pitching the next two years under a reasonable contract? But, do the beat writers at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer write this garbage? No, because they don’t possess the insufferable arrogance of everything that surrounds the Yankee organization.

Speaking of arrogance, how badly would you like to wipe that smug little grin off of Jeter’s face? The DiaBride can hardly contain herself when Jeter comes up to the plate. Before she knew too much about baseball, she spotted him on TV.
DiaBride: “Who’s this hack? What’s he so happy about? Look at that smile. He’s so cocky. Who is that guy?”
Me (grinning ear to ear): “That’s Derek Jeter. He’s a great ballplayer (he is) who has done nothing but win the World Series since he got into the league.” (Note: this was about 2001.)
DiaBride: “I don’t care who he is. I think I hate him…no, I’m sure of it…I hate him.”

OK, maybe she didn’t say that last line…and maybe I just saw Tombstone again last week, but it went something like that.

But Jeter has his loyal fans, right?

Ever been to a Tribe-Yankees series at the Jake? I've never seen so many big-boned girls in one place as I do wearing Jeter jerseys. I think there’s a rule that only girls whose weight starts with a “2” can comfortably wear the “2”.

Speaking of Yankee “fans” (term used loosely) at the Jake, a few years ago I ended up yelling at some kid in an A-Rod jersey, asking him what borough he was from, then pointing out that Wadsworth and Brunswick are not technically boroughs of NYC. He shot back that A-Rod was better than Boone. REALLY?

The infuriating thing about Yankees fans at the Jake (outside of their obnoxiousness) is their sheer ignorance of baseball and their belief that counting World Championships ends arguments. 26? Really? So sorry, sir, I’ll go sit in the corner.

If somebody tells you that they’re a Yankees fan, ask them who plays 2B for them. If they can’t name Cano (who’s an excellent young player) and come back with something like, “Whoever it is, I’m sure he’s better than the Indians’ 2B”, just walk away.

It would be easy to destroy the idiotic bandwagoner with incessant mocking that how, with a payroll of over $189M, they are forced to throw Chase Wright and Darrell Rasner in a series, regardless of injuries. With that payroll, they should be able to afford a whole second MLB rotation in Scranton-Wilkes Barre.
Your mental health will thank you.

I’m all for recognizing the history of the game and the Yankees are a very large part of that history. But, the elitist obnoxiousness and insufferable arrogance that dominates so much of the “Yankee Mystique” these days has gone from respectable to ridiculous.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Another Snowy Sunday

Though I’m not sure whether the addition of a split-finger fastball just made Paul Byrd worth the $7M he’s making, but he first 2 appearances bode well for the rotation going forward if they can get solid starts from the back end of the rotation and Byrd.

It’s also very possible that Paul Byrd has been abducted in a manner reminiscent of The Last Starfighter and have replaced him with a Beta Unit android who is infinitely more effective than the actual Paul Byrd. I’m baffled by the effectiveness of the being wearing #36 thus far, so I’m just throwing it out there. I’m just saying…it’s possible.

Back to the matter at hand – there’s snow on the ground (again) and it’s Sunday. Cue the applause, kids, because it’s time for a Lazy Sunday!

Groundbreaking stuff from Sheldon Ocker, who (get this) thinks that early season games should be held in warm-weather cities or indoors! Welcome to the party, Sheldon. Most people came up with this conclusion a full week ago, and with much more reason and eloquence than you.

Terry Pluto examines Whiskey Sowers’ numbers since he came up and his numbers since the All-Star break of last year to now are awfully impressive.

Paul Hoynes mentions that the Indians have asked about acquiring deposed Astros’ closer Brad Lidge, though the Astros aren’t shopping their former stopper. It’s not a surprise and may lead to nothing, but it’s still nice to hear that Shapiro is just as uncertain about the effectiveness of the bullpen in the early season as we are. Lidge, or the Nationals’ Chad Cordero (who may get about 15 save opportunities for a historically bad team) or the Rangers’ Akinori Otsuka (now that Eric Gagne is off the DL) would all make the short list of experienced relievers that can fill the void created by Keith Foulke’s unexpected retirement.

You may be able add the Brewers’ Jose Capellan to the list, though he is certainly in a different stratosphere than the aforementioned relievers. It’s debatable that he would represent much of an upgrade, but expect Shapiro to be pro-active if things in the bullpen go wrong. He won’t simply fiddle while Rome burns this year.

Finally, here’s a fascinating look at the Jim Thome-Indians contract negotiations from Tony Lastoria. Be warned, however, if you still harbor resentment over Thome’s departure – this is not going to make your day.

After that, try not to throw anything at the TV when T-25 strides to the plate today.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jake and the Fat...Paycheck

With the overwhelmingly good news that Jake Westbrook signed a 3-year, $33M extension to keep him in an Indians’ uniform through the 2010 season, it’s time to examine the ramifications of locking the sinkerballing innings-eater into the Tribe rotation.

Three is the Key

Westbrook’s contract not only keeps him in Cleveland, but also does it with a contract that doesn’t contain the risks associated with a longer contract. The money involved ($11M annually) is in line with the going rate, so there’s no surprise there (if the $ surprises you, you haven’t been paying attention). The years, however, is what makes this contract look so good from so many angles.

The contracts given this past off-season became irresponsible as the guaranteed years mounted up. Jeff Suppan (4 years…not bad), Ted Lilly (4 years…not bad), Gil Meche (5 years…ugh), and Barry Zito (7 years…good God) all received contracts longer than Westbrook’s extension. The wisdom in limiting the number of guaranteed years is tied to the idea that pitchers, and the inherent risks of their profession, can have SO many things go wrong going forward that the risk of a long-term contract can be minimized by limiting the guaranteed years.

By limiting the extension to 3 years, the Indians don’t extend themselves out too far into the future, but lock up an innings-eater that’s averaged nearly 15 wins, with a 1.32 WHIP over the last 3 years. Comparable production for the next 4 years (2007 under his current contract, then the 3-year extension) is certainly worth the $11M per that the Indians will be paying.

By the way, I don’t mean to brag, I don’t mean to boast (though I’m smooth like warm butter on your breakfast toast), but this exact contract is what I said would be a prudent and sound move for the Indians going forward a little over a month ago.

A Sign of Things to Come?
Will the contingent that said that the Dolan ownership would NEVER EVER sign a player to an extension or pay a player more than $10M a year please issue their mea culpas, in writing, to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario? The truth is, that the payroll flexibility that the Indians have achieved allowed them to commit this money to Westbrook.

The signing of Westbrook’s importance also is tied into the fact that Westbrook is a current Indian, signed before he hit a FA market that was sure to reward him for his success. Sure, other teams can make splashy signings of other teams’ Free Agents that get a lot of headlines and pub on the Marketing Firm previously was known as ESPN, but to lock up a known quantity to an established (and emerging) core of talent is infinitely more prudent.

Does the Westbrook signing portend more signings to come? Perhaps, as the Indians have said that they’re going back to the table with Hafner’s people this weekend. It may or may not affect the C.C. talks, but let’s enjoy the fact that C.C. is here for another TWO seasons and that Westbrook will be locked into the #2 (or #3 or even #4, which shows the strength of the Indians’ starting pitchers) spot in the rotation through 2010.

Looking Ahead
The biggest news of the signing is the effect that it has on the Indians’ rotation for the next 4 seasons as it stabilizes a huge part of it. With Westbrook signed, it’s unlikely that the Indians pick up Byrd’s 2008 option worth $8M and can use that money for other portions of the roster. Taking that into account, the 2008 rotation looks like this:
If the Indians are able to extend C.C., that rotation stays intact until 2010.
Think about that for a moment…that’s 3 full seasons with that stacked rotation.
Assuming that Atom Miller is all he’s cracked up to be, that’s an absurdly good rotation.

If the Indians aren’t able to extend Sabathia, the 2009 rotation (assuming that Sowers and Miller continue on their current paths) looks more like this:
Carmona/Chuck Lofgren/TBD
Lots can happen between now and April of 2009, but that’s pretty solid as well. Obviously, adding Sabathia to that mix strengthens the rotation; but, even without him, the Indians still look strong.

As you can see, what the Westbrook signing does is start a trickle-down effect of allowing the Indians to fortify an evolving rotation that will serve as the backbone for this team. A team, now better prepared to continue their sustained run at the playoffs and…wait for it…some World Series pennants.

If you would have told me in December that the Indians would sign Westbrook to a 3 year extension this year, I would have been dancing on the ceiling.

Well, they did.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Song Remains the Same?

The Tribe took 2 of 3 from the Halos at “home” in Milwaukee, and are headed back to the Jake (with snow expected tonight in the Cleveland area) to take on the White Sox for the weekend “Home Opener”. Despite the fact that they took an early season series from the favorite in the AL West in a neutral site, the Angels’ series didn’t leave a great taste in my mouth. The offense had an extended period of time off (thanks for the win today Grady and Pronk) and showed the same inconsistency that plagued them last year, the bullpen looked shaky and made certain wins much less certain, and the infield defense looked no better than the sieve that it was last year.
The biggest concern, however, remains the bullpen.

Regardless of the arms in the bullpen, the handling of those arms is chief among those concerns. The Atomic Wedgie has shown his colors again in his stubbornness and favoritism regarding the use of his bullpen. Just like the Chicago series, in the two games that the Indians had a lead, Wedge pitched Betancourt, Hernandez, Fultz, and Borowski. In the Wednesday loss, Cabrera and Davis finally made their debut and Mastny came in to bail JD out of a jam (more on The Taxidermist later).

Apparently, the bullpen consists of an A-Team (for when the team has a lead) and a B-Team (for when innings need to be eaten). Realizing it’s only been 6 games, these classifications for the relievers seem to be pretty set in stone, as it looks unlikely we’ll be seeing any change in those teams. To wit, Hernandez has done nothing but fail and still gets trotted out in close games; while Mastny has been effective in his appearances, yet seems permanently relegated to mop-up duty. Wedge has always shown a propensity for riding his favorite horses (remember the end of the 2005 season when Cabrera, Betancourt, Howry, and Wickman were the only guys trotting in from the bullpen?), but to stick with ineffective relievers (Hernandez), while better options may exist (Cabrera looked GREAT and, again, Mastny has been nothing but effective this year). If these patterns continue, Wedge is going to sabotage the season pretty quickly and throw some gas on the “Wedgie can’t manage his way out of a paper bag” talk.

Now, Wedge can only play the hand that’s dealt him, but to even throw some of these guys out in lieu of having a shot at the game is terrifying to watch. Take Jason Dangerously, who made an inauspicious debut last night, showing off a new funky delivery and whiffing the first 2 batters only to completely fall apart once a runner hit 1B. Davis then proved completely incapable of getting a batter out, grooving straight fastballs, and eventually having to be bailed out by Mastny (who just throws strikes and gets batters out), burning an arm out of the bullpen in the process.

I know it’s only 2/3 of an inning, but it’s the same thing with Davis – inconsistency, inability to prevent runners already on base from scoring, and complete frustration. At a certain point with Davis, all of the talk about “electric stuff” and his potential to become Joe Nathan has to turn into the reality that he’s simply an ineffective reliever taking a roster spot away from a potentially useful arm in the bullpen. Allowing him to “knock the rust off” or try to harness his stuff while the Indians are in a position to contend, at any point in the season, is simple irresponsibility.

Wedge’s current favorite ineffective reliever, Hernandez, left today’s game with an unspecified “right leg injury”, giving hope to the thought that another reliever can take his spot in Wedgie’s bullpen rotation. Maybe Hernandez will hit the DL and can go on a rehab assignment to figure out what’s wrong with him. Or…maybe he’s 42 and the tank’s simply empty.

Watching the Angels lock-down bullpen (Pronk’s moonshot against Scot Shields notwithstanding) shows the importance of developing your own relievers to occupy the 8th and 9th innings. Watching the Tribe batter flail away at Francisco Rodriguez makes one dream of a Eddie Mujica or a Tom Mastny or a Fernando Cabrera developing into a top-notch closer to make the Indians forget about their bullpen difficulties. Once those homegrown pitchers are in the fold, they can be supplemented with pitchers like Justin Speier (or, if you will, Just Inspire) to finish off the bullpen that’s the envy of all of MLB.

Unfortunately, until one of these young arms develops (or is put into situations where they’re allowed to developed), the Indians will be forced to sign players like Hernandez or never-ending projects like JD to fill the time and bullpen spot in the interim. Of course, if Wedge doesn’t put talented arms like Mastny and Cabrera into games that are actually within reach, we may be forced to watch the newest retreads for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Win in Wisconsin

I know, I know…the Indians are playing home games in Milwaukee…just like the team in Major League did for the 1989 film…on the same day the collector’s edition of the DVD was released…canceling the “Wild Thing Vaughn Glasses Giveaway” originally scheduled for the Tuesday game at the Jake. Look, I’ve seen the house that served as the outside of Roger Dorn’s house in the movie (it’s on Lake Drive in Whitefish Bay), so I’m aware of the similarities. The irony is not lost on me, nor is the ridiculous fact that the Indians are playing “home” games in Miller Park against the Angels. The DiaBride, in fact, thinks it’s all been planned by Paramount to sell more DVD’s.

Moving on…
The situation represents a complete breakdown on so many levels, it’s almost not worth revisiting the situation (must…keep…blood pressure…in check) – but the cumulative effect of the cancellation of an early-season series, against a team not scheduled to come back to Cleveland are just too immense to ignore.

To say nothing of the shortsightedness of the whole scheduling process and the shoddy decisions made by many parties all weekend, the Indians and Mariners are now forced to forfeit their mutual off days later in the season to try to get 4 games in. They only have two mutual days off, so it will be interesting to see how MLB tries to accomplish this without the Players’ Union vetoing the plans. Interesting or not, the Indians are assured of having their rotation screwed up at some point this season and those precious off-days late in the season are now in serious jeopardy.

Hopefully, this situation results in some sort of rule for scheduling going forward; whether it be scheduling divisional rivals in early to mid-April (they play them enough with the unbalanced schedule) or playing games early in the season in warm-weather cities or cities with domes. If nothing is done as a response, it will simply be another poor decision on an increasingly long list of ways that MLB tries to sabotage a golden era of baseball by putting fans’ interests in the back seat.

All of that being said, there’s finally baseball being played and that’s a good thing…no, a great thing!
Finally being able to watch a full game (not during a workday or cancelled by snow), some thoughts on the game:

The Indians have decided to go with their all-blue batting helmets with the home white uniforms tonight and the result couldn’t look better. Why don’t the Indians just switch to all-blue hats and helmets at all times? Why the red bills at all? I’m a huge fan of the all-blues and as the game went on, it only grew on me.

The loss of Victor Martinez from the clean-up spot was immediately felt in Milwaukee as Grady stole 2nd, leaving 1st base open with Hafner up. Hafner walked on 4 straight pitches to bring Blake up. Casey (fighting to keep the C at the front of his name instead of the K, but not very well) watched 3 strikes go by without taking the bat off his shoulder. Dellucci ended the inning with a soft liner, leaving Sizemore and Pronk on. It didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things (and Blake hit a solo HR); but hopefully, that doesn’t become a familiar sight in Vic’s absence. Rick Manning mentioned that Mike Rose (who traveled with the team to Milwaukee in case Vic went on the DL) returned to Buffalo. Come back Victor, Pronk’s going to need you.

It was strange to see banner ads around Miller Park for an Indians-Angels game, advertising everything from UW-Milwaukee to FSN Wisconsin. Then, the scrolling ad behind home plate advertised that “Champagne of Bottled Beers” – Miller High Life. As a quick aside, a few years back on a trip to Milwaukee, the DiaBride, her brother, and yours truly decided to hit the Miller Brewery Tour at 10AM on a Saturday (in our defense, that’s 11AM Eastern Time) and ended up in the Miller Beer Garden sipping High Lifes. After a few “Champagnes”, we decided that it was the best beer we had ever tasted and that fresh, cold High Life is as good as it gets. Obviously, we walked out with multiple cases of High Life and have drank the champagne ever since when making trips to the shore of Lake Michigan. By the way, High Lifes in Milwaukee (where it’s fresh) and outside of Milwaukee are two completely different animals. If you’re outside Milwaukee, the way to maximize your High Life experience is to put the High Life bottles on ice to get them ice-cold, crack them open, and say hello to the Girl in the Moon as you put down the beer that was, for years, the flagship of the Miller Brewing Company. But, I digress.

Andy Marte has established that, if he’s thrown a ball up in the strike zone, he has a nice doubles stroke to LF. Down and away – that’s another story. But, watching Barfield run around the bases as Marte poked those doubles, for some reason, excites me more than it probably should.

That slo-mo and quick wave that the announcers were so amused by? Seen here at the Wisconsin Badger football games. As a visitor to Camp Randall, trust me, it’s quite a sight to see.

I know that Slider and John Adams made the trip, not as sure about Jason Davis or Fernando Cabrera. Seeing as how The Atomic Wedgie is still only pitching Hernandez (yikes), Fultz, Betancourt, and The Big Borowski – there’s an APB out for JD and Cabrera.

Nice to see that the Indians didn’t have the same hangover from the weekend as the Mariners (who were CRUSHED by the BoSox) as the team came out hitting on all cylinders. C.C. looked sharp, the offense was rolling along with contributions coming from everywhere in the lineup (Ervin Santana didn’t get through the 5th), and the fans in Milwaukee came out to support their adopted team. And…um…I love Kelly Shoppach.

Really, the players really don’t care where they are as long as they are playing, and Milwaukee is as good a place as any. Trust me, with the in-laws being from the home of Pabst, Miller, and Leinenkugel, Milwaukee is a pretty fun city with Miller Park being an excellent place to watch a game (if you can get past the feeling that you’re in the I-X Center when the roof is closed) – so the Indians will be fine.

If you made the trip to Milwaukee, be sure to visit The Holiday House, which my brother-in-law owns. The food is delicious (a little on the high-end), and the bar is excellent and full of choices. Ask for James, he’ll pour you a Spotted Cow (which is also available at Miller Park) to keep you happy.

Nearly 20,000 Milwaukeeans (plus Larry Dolan and Michael Redd spotted by the cameras) were there to watch the Tribe play the Angels. The question needs to be asked, “Would the Indians have drawn more in Cleveland in mid-April?”
Sadly, it’s doubtful.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Slide Snow

Lest anyone think that Opening Day was not an unmitigated disaster, weather-wise and otherwise, here's a slideshow from the serial poster T-Bone, sitting in those awful RF upper deck seats (note the snow angel from the fan that ran on the field during the first delay):

Much more on the news that the Indians will be playing in Milwaukee and the fallout from the decisions made that led us to this spot.

For now, we'll just wait for the snow to melt.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Snowy Sunday

I’m dreaming of a White Easter.

After shoveling the 10 inches that fell last night (on top of the 4 inches that fell yesterday), an abridged Lazy Sunday as Easter obligations are calling.

Most of the articles in papers today actually just revisit topics already addressed here yesterday – Vic’s injury, scheduling issues, etc. The only two of note come from the superb Terry Pluto on salary and the Home Opener. For more links, be sure to check the Ohio Sports Report.

Nothing happening on the Tribe front anyway as the Sunday twin bill has been cancelled and a Monday doubleheader has now been scheduled. Not that getting 2 games in on Monday is any more likely than getting 2 in today. Unless the M’s and the Tribe plan on getting in those other 2 games later when the teams have mutual days off, it’s looking like a snow-shortened season.

At least the Cavs, the Masters, The Sopranos, and Entourage will fill the day in lieu of some Winter baseball.

Nothing like LeBron, Tiger, Tony, and Johnny Drama to warm a dreadful April day.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Winter Wasteland




Use whatever adjective you want to describe yesterday’s debacle of a Home Opener. All of them apply.

The question of who deserves the blame for the mess that transpired at the Jake yesterday afternoon is the more pressing one.
The main culprits:
The MLB schedule makers
Saying nothing of scheduling multiple games in the Midwest/Northeast in early April (while Oakland plays the Angels), the scheduling a game against a non-divisional opponent to come in for their only series in Cleveland in early April is just irresponsible. Realizing that the Spring weather in Cleveland can never be predicted (it was 81 degrees on Tuesday, then 25 degrees on Thursday), at least schedule a series with a team that can easily be made up when the team visits again in June, July, or August. With yesterday’s cancellation, the Indians and Mariners had to try to squeeze four games into three days (they have a Monday night game also) with weather that actually figures to be WORSE than Friday’s. After waking up to seeing 6 inches of snow on the ground this morning, and news that the Saturday games are cancelled, it’s looking more and more like a 161 or even 158 game season unless the Mariners are going to come in for 1 game (or more) later in the season when both teams are off.

The Umpires
Truth is, yesterday’s game should have never even been started. But, once it was and they were told by the meteorologists that there was an hour and a half window to finish the game before the snow arrived for good for the night, there’s no way they should have stopped the game needing one strike for an official game. Say what you will about Hargrove and his politicking, you can’t blame him for complaining. But the umps should have told him, “Listen, we’re told that this is it – it’s going to be like this for the rest of the night. Let’s just try to get through the inning and see if we can make this thing go 5 innings so we don’t have to screw around for the next 3 days getting 36 innings in.” But, they kowtowed to Grover (probably that new goatee intimidated them) and called the game. Now, with news that Saturday’s games have been cancelled and Sunday will be a traditional doubleheader (and they have to squeeze those 36 innings into 2 days) – it makes their decision to not throw one more pitch all the more short-sighted.

The Indians
Some of the onus has to fall on the organization, which undoubtedly was pushing to have the Home Opener played in front of a full house. The way that those poor groundskeepers kept running out there with leaf-blowers to clear the grass, you have to think that there was a bit of grumbling from them about why the game wasn’t just called. Granted, the Home Opener is a day-long celebration; but at some point common sense has to enter the equation for fear that someone may get hurt (watching Grady track fly balls in CF through snow churned the ol’ stomach acid). That fear, ultimately, was realized.

Which brings us to the most disappointing news from Opening Day – Victor Martinez strained a quad and hit the 15-Day DL, no doubt brought on by the cold weather. This will likely prompt the Indians to call up Mike Rose to be their backup catcher while Shoppach will take over full-time duty. Rose was a FA pick-up in the off-season to provide Buffalo with a veteran catcher (Rose played 10 games for the Cardinals last year) and provide insurance in case an injury occurred.

More importantly, Martinez’s bat in the cleanup spot will be dreadfully missed as Pronk will now be protected by either Casey Blake or David Dellucci. So, basically, Pronk shouldn’t plan on seeing a strike until some point in late-April. It’s possible that Garko gets a look at C; but most reports are that his defense behind the plate is no better than his defense in the infield. If the Indians are comfortable enough to put Garko behind the plate (defensively), he can assume the cleanup spot that he performed admirably in last year when Pronk went down. Otherwise, the lineup just lost a good deal of protection for its premier hitter.

The cancellation of today’s games avoided the other possible roster shuffling as the Indians would have had to send Tom Mastny down to Buffalo to make room for Smoke ‘Em Brian Slocum so Slocum could have started the nightcap tonight. Then, Slocum would have been sent down for a reliever (likely Juan Lara) not born in Indonesia as MLB rules prohibit a team sending a player down to the minors, then recalling them back until a certain number of days has passed.

But, news that the Saturday games won’t be played avoided that mess. It’s likely that C.C. and Carmona will pitch the 2 games of the “true doubleheader” tomorrow, assuming that they can get it in. The snow is supposed to continue into Monday, so the whole scheduled series could be a wash without getting one game in.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for yesterday’s mistakes, but let’s hope that the powers that be look out for the best interests of the players when determining whether to play Sunday’s or Monday's games.

There’s already one casualty from yesterday. Let’s keep the body count at one for the weekend.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

The Opening Series a season does not make, but taking 2 of 3 from the White Sox in the Cell feels pretty good. The series was not without its worrisome moments, but winning series after series, particularly on the road, is how successful seasons are built.

The Sox series certainly had its high points and brought some concerns to the surface; so, first – the positives:

Grady Sizemore is on pace for 162 HR, which is certainly something to shoot for. Seriously, a fantastic start as long as it doesn’t develop into the old “Kenny Lofton Syndrome” that revolves around trying to put every ball over the RF fence. With Sizemore, that’s not a huge concern, but it bears watching. What is very positive about Grady’s performance thus far is that he is 4 for 5 with 2 HR against LHP this season after struggling last season to the tune of a .214 Batting Average and a .717 OPS with 54 K in 239 Plate Appearances against LHP.
Sizemore got some serious love from the boys at ESPN as Gammons reiterated his belief that The Super One will win the AL MVP, compared him to a young Chipper Jones, said that he projects to be a Derek Jeter-type player, and said that Grady may end up finding the cure for cancer before it’s all over. OK, I made that last one up; but the way that Sweet Pete was gushing about St. Grady, it wouldn’t have been that much of a divergence from his thoughts. Could we be on the precipice of seeing Sizemore establish himself as a top 5 player in MLB this season? The way that the first 3 games went, it certainly isn’t out of the question.

How does that 2nd spot in the lineup look so far? Nixon and Michaels have combined to go 8 for 13, 5 R, 2 RBI, 4 2B, 1 HR, and 15 TB in the first 3 games, not to mention the one ridiculous catch that nearly stopped my heart for good measure. With Sizemore and the early success of the 2 hole, Hafner and Martinez look primed for some serious run-producing opportunities.

The whole “Casey Blake in the 5 hole” experiment may not last as long as the Indians would have liked. He’s already left 13 runners on base in 3 games and teams will simply pitch around Hafner and Martinez if Blake can’t protect them in the lineup.

Speaking of protection in the lineup, has Jhonny Peralta v.2005 returned to provide that RH bat that we all thought would solidify this lineup going into the 2006 season? If so, Peralta’s bat from the right side would go a long way to stretching out the potency of the lineup and keeping pitchers honest with the Tribe heavy hitters.

Is it obvious yet what horses Eric Wedge is planning on riding in the bullpen? Betancourt and Hernandez have pitched in all 3 games and Borowski and Fultz have appeared in 2, with varying degrees of success. Tom Mastny is the only youngster to appear thus far as Jason Davis and Fernando Cabrera will apparently be fighting each other to not be the “mop-up guy” out of the bullpen.

Realizing that 3 games make up 1.8% of the season, the team looks just about as advertised after one series as it heads home. The offense is solid and is never out of a game, the starting pitching will keep the Tribe in games, and the bullpen remains the big question mark.

Oh, yeah. One more thing – I hate A.J. Pierzynski more than I thought I did. And I thought I hated him a lot.

Opening Day tomorrow, which some feel should be a citywide holiday, and with some merit. The folks down at the Jake for the Opener break down to a couple of categories:
The St. Patrick’s Day Crowd
These are the people looking for a reason to party and drink on a weekday afternoon, regardless of the occasion. The same group was down on West 6th a few weeks ago, chugging keg beer and doing Jagerbombs before noon to celebrate St. Paddy’s, regardless of their ethnicity. These people will arrive late and leave early, but they’ll cheer on their team while they’re there…their blood alcohol level will help them in that regard.

The One-Timers
These folks go to one game a year, the Home Opener, and can’t figure out who the 3B is or where Paul Byrd came from. They’ll complain that the Dolans are cheap and they won’t be able to figure out why Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome aren’t wearing the Wahoo. These “fans” will call themselves huge fans when the team starts winning as they fill up the bandwagon on their own.

The Diehards
No, not the people who get a free battery if they were alive when the Indians actually won a World Series; these are the people who brave the weather to sit and cheer for their team in good times and bad. They wear their headphones to listen to Hammy and keep their ears warm on an April afternoon. They come in their Indians’ hats, with their Indians’ jackets, covered by an Indians’ blanket, clutching their new media guides, and staying until the last out. They’ll visit Heritage Park and they’ll cheer for Ben Broussard or Richie Sexson (on the Mariners) for the “memories” of their good times as Indians.

If you fall into one of those categories and are heading to the game – enjoy! I’ll be sitting with the DiaperTribe (in his new outfit from the Team Shop picked up by the DiaBride tonight), discussing the strategy of hitting behind the runner.

Happy Opening Day!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Game is Afoot...On the Right Foot

If everything that Harry Doyle said can be applied to a baseball season, we’re in for a fun ride. Doyle memorably said that “A lotta people say you can tell how a season’s gonna go by the first hitter of the year. In the last 15 years, the Indians have never had the season lead-off hitter reach base” just prior to the old “hot shot toward the hole” by WMH.

As if on cue, Grady put his Clark Kentesque Spring behind him on the second pitch of the year, as SuperSizemore emerged from his phone booth to crush a Jose Contreras offering over the RF wall.

And…the rout was on.

Thanks to the glory of DVR, it was a blast to watch the Tribe pound out hit after hit against the villains from the South Side in the Season Opener. The Indians’ offense looked as it was supposed to look when the blueprint was drawn up in the off-season. Against a right-handed “ace” (term used loosely) from a divisional rival, the Indians threw lefty after lefty and put together quality plate appearances as they wore out Contreras in a hurry and forced Ozzie to use some of his bullpen innings early in the series.

C.C. took the lead and ran with it, pitching to contact and shortening a game no longer in doubt. The bullpen (notably Borowski) didn’t impress anyone, but giving the bullpen a 12-3 lead is one way to avoid a season sabotaged by a leaky pen. I still have a feeling that Shapiro has something up his sleeve to add to the bullpen (Nook Logan’s injury in Washington means a need for a CF and set-up man Jose Cappellan wanting out of Milwaukee may be two scenarios worth watching), but for now this whole “give the bullpen a 9-run cushion” plan looks sound.

I’m not sure why the two teams took a day off after the Opener, rather than playing three straight and allowing the Indians some travel time (from Chicago to Cleveland, I know) to get to the Jake for the Home Opener on Friday. But the schedule makers are an odd bunch (why don’t they start the season in cities that are generally warm in April or in domes is beyond me), so we’ll roll with the punches.

Lest we get too excited (the idea is to never get too high or too low this season), the Indians looked fantastic against the Sox and confidence remains high for the season. That could all change if the Tribe lays an egg on Wednesday – but for now, the Tribe’s looking good and things are good in the Wigwam.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Team On A Quest

With the Mets and Cardinals starting the season off tonight, the Indians’ opener in Chicago is only a day away (good Lord, how I’ve longed to see those words together) and it’s time to take a look at the Indians entering the 2007 season and where the season may go.

Calling to mind the brilliance of A Tribe Called Quest, let’s examine the possibilities of a 2007 Team On A Quest – Can I Kick It?

Starting Pitching
The obvious strength of the 2007 Tribe is clearly the starting pitching, particularly the quality at the top end of the rotation and the depth of the quality into the 7th and 8th starters (in Buffalo). The Indians have, arguably, the best one-through-five rotation in the AL to start the season with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers all inserting lesser pitchers due to injury or bullpen issues.

The rotation starts with C.C. Sabathia, who established himself as an elite pitcher in the 2nd half of 2006 and should continue his maturation as the complete ace that the Indians have always lacked (1/2 of the 2004 season doesn’t count for Bartolo Colon). Jake Westbrook, Jeremy Sowers, and Cliff Lee form a solid middle of the rotation led by Westbrook, who has earned his reputation as an innings-eater who always keeps the Tribe in games, regardless of the amount of hits he gives up. Sowers established himself as a thinking man’s lefty, in the vein of Jaime Moyer and Tom Glavine – a pitcher who doesn’t blow away anybody, but always gets out of tough innings and through games despite not possessing overpowering stuff. Lee, when he returns from an oblique strain, needs to re-establish his spot in the rotation as a solid LHP, capable of getting past the 5th inning while reducing the amount of HR allowed. If Lee is able to replicate the modicum of success that he had in 2005 and 2006, it will go a long way for the Indians to have 4 solid-to-excellent starters, a boast few teams can make.

The back end of the rotation consists of a veteran trying to prove he belongs and two youngsters trying to do the same. Paul Byrd’s 2006 was nothing short of disastrous. If not for crime on humanity that was Jason Johnson, Byrd would have taken much more heat for his struggles. If Byrd starts off slowly in 2007, the Indians may not be as reticent to let him work out his troubles in the rotation and let him slot into a spot in the bullpen. That luxury is due to the Indians having a couple of thoroughbreds in the stable, ready to join the race in Fausto Carmona and Adam Miller. Carmona will begin the season in the rotation and it’s feasible that, when Lee returns, he stays there if he finds early success. He clearly has the repertoire to succeed in MLB; the question of his mental readiness is what will determine if he logs some miles between Cleveland and Buffalo this year or stays on the parent club for good. Miller, the crown jewel of the farm, will start the year in Buffalo to refine his pitches and also for him to polish his changeup to add to his repertoire. By all accounts, though, he is not far away from pitching at the Jake at some point this year.

Down on the farm, the Indians have Brian Slocum (the 2nd round pick the same year that Jeremy Guthrie was the 1st rounder) in Buffalo as the 8th starter and the only other real option to pitch in Cleveland this year. Further down, the boys at Akron this year (led by Chuck Lofgren, followed by Scott Lewis, Jensen Lewis, and JD Martin) will begin to slot themselves as the next “wave” of arms to be ready for Cleveland by 2009 or 2010.

After the historically disastrous 2006 bullpen, Shapiro blew it apart and rebuilt the 2007 pen with Joe Borowski, Keith Foulke, Roberto Hernandez, and Aaron Fultz. The newcomers joined holdovers Rafael Betancourt, Fernando Cabrera, and Jason Davis. After the untimely retirement of Foulke, the door was opened for Matt Miller to make the team; Miller promptly did what Matt Miller does – pitched well then got hurt. Miller’s injury, in turn, opened the door for Tom Mastny to finish the construction of what still looks to be a very shaky pillar of the 2007 team.

The Foulke retirement affected the bullpen in that it threw the 8th inning role up for grabs, something that was the overwhelming problem in 2006. Unless Betancourt or Hernandez can step up immediately, the Indians may be running open auditions for the set-up role, with the hopes that Cabrera or Davis can harness their stuff to translate into some 8th inning success. Just as likely is that Mastny continues his success of last year and this Spring to pitch his way into the late innings.

Unfortunately, that’s the crapshoot of the bullpen from year to year. The possibilities are seemingly endless – Fultz could struggle and be replaced by Juan Lara, injuries could mount and Edward Mujica or Tony Sipp could play a integral role in the evolving bullpen, or the bullpen in its current incarnation could thrive and provide stability throughout the season.

Reports that Shapiro has continued to try to fortify the bullpen up to the beginning of the season lends credence to the idea that he’s not comfortable with the current back end of the bullpen, so a move could still be forthcoming. After all of the talk that the bullpen was rectified in the off-season, the truth is that the answer as to whether anything was fixed won’t come to light until probably the end of April. The hope is that the bullpen, if the problems persist, hasn’t done irreparable damage to the season.

The hope that the Indians will eventually be able to produce effective relievers from the minors, as the Twins seem to have perfected to complement Joe Nathan from year to year, still exists with youngsters Mastny, Cabrera, Mujica, Sipp, Lara, and even Rafael Perez. Until they are able to do so, they will be forced to cobble together a bullpen out of unknown quantities and inconsistent performers that litter the reliever environment.

Position Players

With the core of Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, and Victor Martinez, the Indians have different types of players as they try to complement those three – the veteran role players (Casey Blake, Trot Nixon, David Dellucci, and Jason Michaels), the core player looking to recapture his past success (Jhonny Peralta), and the talented youngsters they hope will develop into core players (Josh Barfield, Andy Marte, and to a lesser degree Ryan Garko).

The production of Sizemore, Hafner, and Martinez will have to remain the constant while the Indians sort out the best combination of complements to continue the success of the 2nd most productive offense of 2006. All are elite players at their respective positions who are likely to contribute numbers close to, or higher, than that of their phenomenal 2006 seasons. The three present the least question marks, though Martinez needs to improve his defense (with the help of his pitchers keeping some runners on, notably Byrd) to stay behind the dish. As a catcher, Martinez’s numbers are of the elite variety; at 1B, they are merely average.

Whether the Blake/Garko/Nixon becomes effective at 1B/RF will depend on the health of Nixon’s back and the effectiveness of Garko’s glove. If Nixon proves to be unprepared to help the team, Shin-Soo Choo waits in Buffalo to take his role in the convoluted platoon. If Garko proves to be a huge detriment to team defense in the field, Blake may be handed the full-time 1B job and one of the young RH OF (Ben Francisco or Franklin Gutierrez) will take his spot in the platoon.

Dellucci and Michaels have to prove that they can handle the difficulty of playing every other day, while Michaels has to hold off the likes of Francisco and Gutierrez (and soon, Trevor Crowe) as he needs to prove that his pre-2006 numbers vs. LHP provide more of the norm than his 2006 performance (.799 .OPS vs. LHP).

Peralta’s Spring performance has provided hope that he is closer to his 2005 form and has put his nightmarish 2006 in the rearview mirror. Watching a few preseason games on STO, Peralta appears slimmer and more agile in the field, diving for balls and developing a solid rapport with his DP partner Josh Barfield. If Peralta is, in fact, ready to contribute anything close to his 2005 stat line, it will go a long way towards the Indians establishing themselves as an offensive juggernaut.

Peralta’s DP partner, Barfield, will have to show that he can adjust to a new league and can continue the success of his rookie season with a year of videotape for pitchers to dissect, something Peralta was ill-prepared for. Barfield’s defensive prowess, speed, and youth should endear him quickly to Indians’ fans that still miss Roberto Alomar as he establishes himself as another core player for 2007 and beyond.

The hope for such maturation for Andy Marte may be a little early as he still only has 126 total days in MLB. While the talent is there, Marte’s impact may be most felt in the field in 2007 as he helps Peralta’s right side better than Aaron Boone ever did in 2006. Marte is likely to show flashes of an impact bat with power and tape-measure shots, but he needs to lay off low-and-away breaking pitches and improve his OBP and pitch selection to develop as a legitimate RH power bat that many thought he would become as recently as this time last year.

On the bench, Kelly Shoppach provides a defensive specialist at catcher who strikes out too much, but provides some depth to give Victor and his balky knees/ankles/hips/everything south of the equator a break. Mike Rouse figures to be strictly a defensive replacement in the infield, capable of giving the regular IF a break in late innings or on back-to-backs.

In Buffalo, the Indians have stocked a lineup of players ready to come up and contribute (with varying degrees of expected success) in the aforementioned Francisco and Gutierrez, Joe Inglett, Hector Luna, IF Keith Ginter, and C Mike Rose. Further down, Akron boasts organizational jewel Crowe, OF Brian Barton, C Wyatt Toregas, and SS Asdrubal Cabrera – some of whom could factor into the 2007 plans.

While the Indians are not without questions (bullpen, platoon effectiveness, Peralta’s bounceback), they are no different than any other team in the AL, all of whom have obvious warts. Among the credible contenders, whether it’s pitching health and depth (Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers, Twins), bullpen issues (Red Sox), or offensive firepower (Angels, A’s) – no team in the AL is head and shoulders above the rest.

So, the Indians, with their strong rotation and productive lineup have as much of a chance to represent the AL in the Fall Classic as any other club. Obviously, unforeseen injuries and unexpected emergences and drop-offs by certain players will play a role in how the 2007 season shakes out. But, this is how one man sees it all breaking:

AL East – Boston
AL Central – Cleveland
AL West – Oakland
AL Wild Card – Chicago

NL East – Philadelphia
NL Central – Milwaukee
NL West – Los Angeles
NL Wild Card – New York

ALDS – Cleveland over Oakland, Boston over Chicago
NLDS – Philadelphia over Milwaukee, New York over Los Angeles

ALCS – Cleveland over Boston
NLCS – New York over Philadelphia

World Series – Cleveland over New York

If it all breaks like that, sometime in late October or early November, Indians fans will rejoice worldwide and all will be right with the world.

One day away from the Season Opener, hope springs eternal.