Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Things Fall Apart – Regressive Field

After examining the roles that the volatile 2008 bullpen and the impact that injuries to the middle of the Indians’ lineup have played in the Tribe’s fall from grace this season after so much promise and hope existed on Opening Day, let’s turn the magnifying glass to the other segments of the Indians’ lineup that have contributed to the Tribe miring in the bottom half of most relevant offensive categories in the American League as August looms. While the loss of Martinez and Hafner to injury (after watching them inexplicably attempt to contribute despite their injuries) certainly haven’t helped the depth and consistency of the offense, the disappointing seasons of a few young players thought to be on the cusp of taking the next step or, at the very least, maintaining the level of success that they had already achieved, played as much of a role in the optimism for how the 2008 offense could come together.

While obvious concerns existed in the fact that Dellichaels was going to inappropriately given another shot at LF to start 2008 and that Asdrubal had all of 159 AB going into the season, the Indians seemed to have the contingency plans in place with depth that was assumed to be ML-quality in Buffalo with Francisco and Barfield and more assumed to be ready when Choo became healthy.

That is to say, if Dellichaels continued his rapid descent from relative mediocrity to downright embarrassment (and they did, posting a .222 BA / .285 OBP / .364 SLG / .649 OPS combined line until Michaels was DFA’d), the Indians figured to have Ben Francisco at the ready in Buffalo and The BLC coming off of Tommy John surgery to serve as insurance. As we all know, that depth came into play when the Indians didn’t wait too long as Michaels was sent packing on May 7th after only 21 games played (though one could certainly question why those 21 games were necessary for him to prove what he had in the two previous seasons, in that he is best served as a 4th outfielder) and The Ben Francisco Treat was promoted to take his place.

About a month later, Choo was called up from his rehab assignments to ostensibly take over for Dellucci in the OF as the LH bat in the equation. Dellucci continued to see playing time (though it was less than Choo as The Looch has logged 99 AB to Choo’s 120) mostly because of the absence of Hafner in the lineup, the need for a LH bat (as only Sizemore and Choo represent the only strictly LH bats on the active roster), and the fact that the DH spot needed to be filled by someone.

Essentially, then, as the Dellichaels experiment seems to be finally slowly pulling its fiery frame into the junk yard, the Indians’ depth has stepped forward to replace what was a question mark as younger, more promising players have emerged to position themselves for the foreseeable future.

By the same token, concern certainly existed at the beginning of the season that Asdrubal would struggle in what was thought to be his first full season, despite the fact that his promotion to the 2007 club served as an impetus for the offense to sprout wings and fly into the playoffs. With only 159 AB under his belt, the Indians likely thought that Cabrera’s glove would keep him in the lineup, so long as contributed something even close to mediocre numbers and if he were to fail, the Indians had Josh Barfield in Buffalo, who (hopefully) would able to refine his approach in Buffalo and renew his status as a legitimate MLB 2B by being able to work on his game and his plate discipline without the pressure of doing so in Cleveland.

Again, we all know how this played out with the Indians’ carrying Cabrera’s bat probably longer than they should have, considering he was sitting on a .184 BA / .282 OBP / .247 SLG / .529 OPS line when he was finally sent down to Buffalo in the middle of June. The reason, though, for the Indians sticking with Cabrera at 2B as long as they did was because the Josh Barfield Reclamation Project in Buffalo was not going well as he was sitting on a .255 BA / .297 OBP / .382 SLG / .679 OPS against AAA pitching (by far his worst line in his time in the minors, by the by), which wasn’t much better than how Barfield had fared in Cleveland in 2007 prior to Cabrera’s promotion that resulted in Barfield’s reduced playing time last year.

Had Barfield been thriving in Buffalo, his promotion to replace Cabrera would have likely come much earlier and, even when he was called up, it was done more with the idea to give Cabrera a chance to rediscover his swing in Buffalo than it was any kind of indication that Barfield was ready to return to Cleveland. But called up he was…for all of 6 AB, before a finger injury sent him to the DL and the 2B job went to what was behind Door #3 – one Mr. Jamey Carroll.

Carroll responded well to his ascension to the starting lineup, posting a line of .313 BA / .371 OBP / .402 SLG / .773 OPS with 15 RBI in the 29 games that he served as the club’s primary 2B (prior to Cabrera’s recent recall during the All-Star Break), spending most of that time as the team’s de facto #2 hitter, filling two holes at once. But Carroll certainly didn’t (and doesn’t) represent the long-term answer as well as he has played, as the most valuable factor of his game, his versatility, was compromised as he was asked to play every day.

Factoring in that the Indians went as deep as their third option at 2B while filling the void (predictably) created by the continued struggles of Dellichaels by promoting from internal depth, the contingency plans in place for 2B and LF went moderately well, considering that so many players were cycled through in the process and that (for a while, at least) the Indians lineup featured their 2B in the #2 hole and their LF in the #3 hole.

This brings us to the more disappointing portion of the lineup, getting into the regressions for Ryan Garko and Franklin Gutierrez that were not nearly as anticipated, both in terms of depth and breadth. Going into the season, both were thought to be key contributors as the promise that both showed in 2007 gave hope that they would progress to become key complementary players for the Indians, providing protection for the middle of the lineup and solidifying the depth of the batting order by producing from the bottom of the order.

All together now, “AS WE ALL NOW KNOW”…that just didn’t happen.
Both players not only regressed from their previous seasons, they fell off the proverbial cliff as each has looked helpless at the plate for weeks on end with the numbers to back it up.

Starting with Ryan Garko-my-God-how-could-he-not-get-an-extra-base-hit-in-97-consecutive-plate-appearances, consider what Garko has done in 2008 and how it compares to his previous two seasons:
2006 (Age 25)
.292 BA / .359 OBP / .470 SLG / .829 OPS with 7 HR, 45 RBI in 185 AB

2007 (Age 26)
.289 BA / .359 OBP / .483 SLG / .842 OPS with 21 HR, 61 RBI in 484 AB

2008 (Age 27)
.237 BA / .313 OBP / .346 SLG / .659 OPS with 7 HR, 45 RBI in 295 AB

After posting a frighteningly similar line for the 669 AB that Garko had for two years, Garko’s numbers have taken a shocking downturn at the age when players historically peak as players (check out the date and the author on that bit of statistical analysis) as a 27-year-old. Garko’s bread-and-butter throughout his minor-league career had always been his OBP as it dipped below .380 only once (which was the 2006 season, when he spent ½ of his season in Buffalo) above A ball. While Garko’s OBP dipped a bit from his farm numbers once he arrived topside, his .359 OBP for two consecutive seasons remained the most compelling reason that Garko had a spot in the everyday lineup.

Now that his OBP has dropped to inadequate levels (particularly for a 1B) and his SLG has dropped even more precipitously, his inclusion in the lineup has served as more of a drain than even those with lesser numbers. The reason that his struggles hurt worse than players like Cabrera or Dellichaels being that Garko was expected to contribute in the heart of the order in 2008 with the fact that he was batting 5th or 6th in the lineup into May (with both Martinez and Hafner struggling above him) and that he’s spent 27 games (2nd only to Victor’s 41 games) in the clean-up spot this year validating that assumption.

Going into the season, the thought was that the depth for Garko existed in the form of Casey Blake (who could be moved to 1B with Marte taking over 3B) and Kelly Shoppach (with Vic moving up the 1B line to take over for Garko), if not dipping into the minors with the likes of Michael Aubrey and Jordan Brown. Of course, we know that Martinez’s injury took Shoppach out of the equation and Marte being stapled to the bench took the idea that Blake would move across the diamond out of play. The Indians did call up Aubrey, albeit briefly, when the team headed to Cincinnati but he was ultimately sent down in the flurry of roster machinations of late May and early June as the DL filled up and the Buffalo shuttle seemed to be in constant motion.

With all of these extenuating factors, no second or third option presented itself to give Garko a break (until recently when the Indians FINALLY allowed Marte to come out of the doghouse long enough for Blake to regularly play at 1B) and Garko’s offensive output deteriorated further and further to the point that his current .666 OPS stands as the low-water mark for the season since the 2nd game and ranks him next to last, in terms of OPS for 1B in all of MLB with more than 275 plate appearances. This after a season that saw Garko finish with the 3rd highest OPS among qualified AL 1B, .003 points below Kevin Youkilis and ahead of both Paul Konerko and Justin Morneau in terms of OPS in 2007.

While few would have put Garko in that rarified air with the other top AL 1B going into the season, the thought that he would remain (at the very least) a steady contributor in the lineup has given way to the idea that 1B is 2009 could be filled by a variety of players with Garko moving down the ladder of likelihood for legitimately staking a claim to that spot for next year.

While Garko’s struggles belie what seemed to be a track record of a solid, if unspectacular, contributor, the performance of Franklin Gutierrez has been less mystifying and more downright disappointing. For as much as the thought that Garko “is what he is” and didn’t have much tangible upside beyond his consistency, Gutz has always had the aura of the 5-tool siren song surrounding him, providing mere glimpses of greatness without the consistency to attain sustainable success at the MLB level.

Throughout his minor league career, he showed a pronounced platoon split - thriving against LHP, but struggling against RHP - and was never able to show the power display that he put on as a 20-year-old in the Dodgers’ system, when he blasted 20 HR in 110 games in A ball. After coming to the Indians, his numbers steadily improved into the 2006 season, when he compiled an .872 OPS over 30 games in Buffalo, which earned him a chance in Cleveland once the parent club’s season hit the wall. In 2006, he played sporadically as a 23-year-old in Cleveland, posting a respectable, if unremarkable, line given his age and usage patterns:
.272 BA / .288 OBP / .360 SLG / .648 OPS with 1 HR, 8 RBI in 136 AB

He went into 2007 as the 4th OF, spelling the likes of The Trotter and Dellichaels in the corners until he was given an opportunity in June to see regular action and he responded with a prolonged glimpse over the next two months of what could be possible for the 24-year-old:
June 2007
.296 BA / .345 OBP / .537 SLG / .882 OPS

July 2007
.306 BA / .340 OBP / .551 SLG / .891 OPS
Had he finally turned the corner and added offensive consistency to the superb defensive ability that was seen night after night in RF?
Though he limped (relatively speaking) to the end of the year, posting a .755 OPS in August and a .729 OPS in September and October, the groundwork seemed to have been laid in the middle months of the season as his final 2007 line looked like that of a player poised to breakout.
.266 BA / .318 OBP / .472 SLG / .790 OPS with 13 HR, 36 RBI in 271 AB

His platoon splits were still lopsided (.920 OPS vs. LHP, .722 OPS vs. RHP), but even his struggles against RHP didn’t make him that much of presumed liability against RHP with the idea that his defensive glovework in RF would allow him to stay in the everyday lineup to crush LHP and (hopefully) improve against RHP.

This brings us to 2008, with Gutierrez being given the everyday RF job and the opportunity to develop at the bottom of the lineup. After a smashing debut to the season, in which he went 3 for 6 with 4 RBI in the first two games, Gutierrez slumped badly (understatement alert) over the next 40+ games, posting a .221 BA / .255 OBP / .305 SLG / .560 OPS with 9 extra base hits and 8 RBI over 140 plate appearances.

And into that abyss he has remained, as he sits on a line comparable to those 40+ games on the entire season:
.216 BA / .261 OBP / .322 SLG / .583 OPS with 3 HR, 18 RBI in 227 AB

He hasn’t hit RHP, which wasn’t entirely unexpected (though a .574 OPS against them is far worse than any number he’s ever put up), and now he suddenly can’t hit LHP (as his .632 OPS against them is nearly a 300 point drop from his performance against them last year) – all of which adds up to the RF with the lowest OPS in the MLB with more than 150 plate appearances as a RF. He slots in nearly a full 100 points lower than Brad Wilkerson, who was so bad for the Mariners that he was cut by them by the time that May had started, despite his $3M salary and more than 75 points lower than Jeff Francoeur, who was sent to AA for a quick trip in an attempt to rediscover any semblance of success a few weeks back.

As was the case with Cabrera, the thinking that Frank the Tank’s defensive prowess would allow the Indians to keep him in the lineup as he adjusted to MLB pitching and get used to the regularity of playing everyday for the Tribe reaches a breaking point. To have Gutierrez (who ranks 227th in OPS out of the 235 MLB players with more than 225 plate appearances) taking up a spot in the lineup is going to crush any type of consistent attack through the lineup, regardless of how much he excels as a defender. Throw in the fact that Garko ranks 208th in OPS among those same 235 MLB players with more than 225 plate appearances and you get the result that the Indians feature two of the worst offensive players, at RF and 1B no less, in baseball after thinking a mere four months ago that one or both would establish themselves as viable complimentary players for the team, able to cement their status as a fixture in the lineup by claiming their position as being definitively THEIRS.

Instead, however, both have spent the season throwing doubt on top of uncertainty for their futures with the team, much less in the everyday lineup. Whereas Garko and Gutierrez started the season with the opportunity to put their name in permanent marker on the lineup card for this year and beyond, both are left wondering where it all went wrong in 2008 and whether it can be fixed…while the Indians are left to wonder the same.

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