Monday, March 31, 2008

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Lazy Sunday at the Precipice

Anyone else feel like the calendar just flipped to December 24th, with Opening Day merely a day away? With said Opener scheduled (the forecast looks a little wet, but not too cold) to start at 3:05 tomorrow, let’s leap headlong into a Lazy Sunday full of team previews and predictions from “All the News that’s Fit to Link”:

We’ll start out with the WWL’s Preview of the Tribe, with the Indians getting lots of love from the Boys in Bristol. Interestingly, the writers whom I have the most respect for (Olney Kurkjian, and Gammons…not shown on this page because it’s probably an Insider thing) all have the Tribe winning the Central.
Double huzzah for Steve Phillips not picking the Tribe to win the Central…despite having the “best LHP in MLB, Cliff Lee” (something Phillips said not 2 ½ years ago, to which Harold Reynolds correctly responded that he wasn’t even the best LHP on his TEAM) filling the 5th spot in the rotation.
For kicks, check out Stark’s Detroit preview and try to figure out how he has the Tigers finishing 1st in the Central with 92 wins and the Indians 2nd with 93 wins. He must know something that is being grumbled and rumbled about that allows the Tigers to finish first despite fewer wins.

If the Stark thing didn’t give you a chuckle, check this out to see how ESPN has no idea how to get a handle on this whole blogosphere idea and how to harness the opinions of the masses, putting forth their “fan preview”.

Lindy’s has an exhaustive look at the Tribe roster, including some sort of grading scale that I have no interest in learning…but the compilation of statistics is excellent.

Anthony Castrovince of has a nice, succinct season preview that I have to agree with on most, if not all, accounts.

Jay Levin of the LGT correctly identifies the potential pitfalls of the 2008 Tribe in the frighteningly titled, “Why We’ll Lose” with a phenomenal #10 reason. I promise to add “Why We’ll Win” (and, we will) as soon as it is posted...and here it is.

Ken Rosenthal picks Pronk as his AL Comeback Player of the Year…you can read for yourself which NL player he feels will be the best player traded at the deadline because that horse has been beaten to death, buried, exhumed, and beaten to death again.

Rosenthal also has a pretty unorthodox World Series pick and doesn’t go with the Tribe as he feels that the 2007 innings will take their toll on C.C. and Fausto and that the bullpen is unlikely to duplicate their success of a year ago. Certainly a valid concern, as are all of his points about every team having some flaws, but the Braves to win it all? At least Rosenthal has a sense of humor about it.

From the local fishwraps comes the PD’s preview, which they’ve been touting all week as an 18-page preview of the Tribe season. On my doorstep this morning, however, was an 18-page excuse for advertising multiple car dealerships, with a bit of baseball thrown in. I’ve wondered this before, but why do they compile all this stuff in one day…is it really to sell ad space for a special section to sell to Brunswick Auto Mart, Bob Serpentini, Lifestyle Furniture and the like? Maybe it just upsets me as it contains such a cursory look at the Indians, but perhaps that’s what Joe Six-Pack wants…if he can get a deal on a car in the process, all the better.

Off my soapbox, the PD preview does have some quality from the usual source (steady-as-a-rock Terry Pluto) and a surprising source (an excellent column from Bud Shaw), while Paul Hoynes identifies players that need to step up for the Tribe to win a World Series. How many players does he identify? Try 10, or 40% of the roster…can we just say that the whole team needs to step up with a straight face?
Finally, Hoynes hits up his AL and NL team capsules, with his Phillies capsule starting out that “If Manuel could find another starter or two for the rotation, behind #1 starter Freddy Garcia…” with a picture of Garcia to the left, to which I would direct Hoynes to the news that The Chief isn’t on the Phillies roster and went 1-5 with a 5.90 ERA for the Phils last year, who somehow went to the playoffs DESPITE Garcia’s absence.
Does this oversight completely throw anything that Hoynes writes about teams not named the Indians into question…or does it force the inclusion of anything that he writes about the Tribe as well? You can decide for yourself.

From the ABJ, Pat McManamon debunks the “window is rapidly closing on these Indians’” myth that has been making its rounds in some Tribe previews, most notably by Ben Reiter in Sports Illustrated.

A couple of cubicles away from Pat McManamon(I assume), Sheldon Ocker takes the opportunity of more eyes on his writing (due to Opening day being a day away) to once again cement his position as the President of Pettiness and the King of Condescension in his mailbag.
Another sparkling Season Preview (I’m not linking it, by the way) for Socker.

If you’re interested, “60 Minutes” is doing a feature tonight on the Godfather of Sabermetrics, Bill James, which (if you’re unfamiliar with it) will likely open your eyes to a movement and a line of thinking that’s embraced in the Tribe Front Office, among other places. The commercials during the NCAA tournament, though, about the piece being about “the man who helped the Red Sox win the World Series” just pour salt into a wound that was healing quite nicely.

Finally, my thoughts and prayers go out to the Diamondbacks’ Doug Davis, who has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Having an intimate knowledge of the prognosis, I’m hoping that his progression and recovery from the diagnosis is as good as the one that has been experienced by others.

It’s getting closer…tick, tick, tick.
I hope I can sleep tonight.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Speaking With The Enemy

In anticipation of Monday’s Opener against the White Sox, I had a nice exchange with Jim Margalus, who pens the very entertaining Sox Machine, where we asked 10 questions of each other about the other’s team. The questions I asked of him (in bold) about his White Sox and his responses (obviously, following the bolded questions) are both informative and unflinchingly honest:
Are the White Sox rebuilding or contending? Does anyone really know if this elevator is going up or down and are you truly comfortable with Kenny Williams pulling the levers?
I’m going to say they’re “retooling.” They didn’t do enough to contend, in my opinion, because 60 percent of the rotation is a mystery. On the other hand, they didn’t sell off their veterans, so they’re not rebuilding. They pretty much exchanged young players for slightly older (but still young) players who are under their control for the next five years or so, so “retooling” seems to work. Now, whether the tools are good enough to make the playoffs? I have serious doubts.

Is there an actual betting pool with an over/under date on when a wildly offensive comment by Ozzie Guillen becomes the lead story on PTI?
We’re still a ways away from it, I think. We just cashed in on the annual “I don’t deserve the Sox’s money” pool last week, so we are looking for a new game. But I think C.C. Sabathia will have his way with the Sox Opening Day, Ozzie will go too far out of his way to praise him, and we’ll check another item off his list.
Instead of a pool, we should just take bets on what specific group he trashes. For instance:
People from a specific South American country: 3-1
Homosexuals: 5-1
Women: 8-1
Mormons: 40-1
The Welsh: 75-1

The “homosexuals” one could be a bargain at that line, considering he’s offended them twice already. But on the other hand, he may have learned his lesson. A lot of interesting wrinkles to this game.

Did the White Sox give up too much in their acquisitions of two young quality OF in Carlos Quentin and Nick Swisher?
Swisher was a fair deal. The Sox really only gave up two pitchers (Ryan Sweeney is a non-factor), and one of them – Gio Gonzalez -- is an maximum-effort, undersized lefty who strikes out a ton but also gives up a lot of flyballs, which doesn’t play well in the Cell. Fautino De Los Santos is the real gem, but he hasn’t pitched above high-A. Meanwhile, the Sox get an OBP machine in Swisher who’s highly affordable for the next five years ($35 million).

The Quentin-Chris Carter deal will be fun to monitor. Quentin is a guy with massive production in the minors and injury problems in the majors. Carter hits the ball really, really hard and can take a walk, but has zero defensive value. He’s barely a first baseman. Too many unknowns to judge, but I think both teams got something out of it.

Both of them address the Sox’s crippling lack of OBP last year, which is a major step forward.

How do the AB’s break down for the suddenly crowded OF with Dye, Owens, Fields, Swisher, and Quentin fighting for time and Thome ensconced at DH? Does anyone REALLY think Swisher can play CF?
Swisher is the second choice for center, behind Jerry Owens. He wouldn’t be awful in a smaller outfield than Oakland’s for a game or two at a time. We lived through Rob Mackowiak’s misadventures, so we can live through Swisher’s, but if Brian Anderson is the fourth outfielder, we shouldn’t see that very often.

Dye isn’t moving from right, which is a shame because there isn’t a ball in play that he can’t turn into a triple. Owens will probably start in center and lead off, because Ozzie likes his leadoff hitters fast, with sketchy on-base skills and zero power.

Swisher’s in left, and Quentin will probably start in Triple-A because he’s looked rusty this spring while recovering from offseason non-throwing shoulder surgery. A month wouldn’t hurt him, and he’ll probably find time when either Thome (nagging back), Dye (nagging hamstrings/quads) and Owens (nagging groin) finds his way to the DL.

Does the landscape of the Farm System resemble scorched earth?
It’s more like a recently logged forest. The Sox have some interesting looking prospects in the low minors like Jose Martinez and Aaron Poreda, but they’re years away from contributing.

If given the opportunity, would YOU take a swing at A.J. Pierzynski?
Nah. He doesn’t have a discernable jaw or chin, so it wouldn’t be that satisfying.

Which young starter is going to step in behind Buehrle and Vazquez to settle the rotation…is there one?
John Danks is the guy to watch. He got smacked around in the second half last year, but he developed a cutter in the offseason, which is a pitch that has made Mark Buehrle tougher than he should be. And Danks has about 3-4 m.p.h. on him, so on paper, we should see a pretty hefty jump in his numbers and in-game stamina.

Gavin Floyd, on the other hand, will be a success if he gets his ERA under 5.00. He gives up too many homers, or rather has given up too many baserunners before that ton of homers, to get too excited.

How old was Jose Contreras during the Cuban Missle Crisis…16?
He’s only 36 in Cuban years. There have been some jokes around Sox camp that Alexei Ramirez is the first Cuban to actually look younger than his listed age (26). I’m guessing he’ll get carded if he goes out to Rush Street after games this season.

Will the additions of Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink settle the bullpen to finally get a lead to Fat Bobby Jenks?
God, I hope so. I had higher hopes for Dotel than Linebrink, because Dotel is a great Tommy John Surgery rebound candidate, and Linebrink’s peripherals have all trended in the wrong direction for the past three years. I thought the Linebrink deal was “paying for past performance” to the highest degree.

But Linebrink has survived in Arizona this spring, which is an awful place for pitchers to get a feel of their stuff. Dotel, on the other hand, has been smacked around. Both pitchers could get crushed for the exorbitant sum of $10 million combined. Last year has left enough scars to make me perpetually pessimistic about any reliever entering the game.

Will the White Sox finish higher than the Royals in the Central?
I think so. I certainly hope so. The Royals do have a lot of things in line with their 2003 aberration – new, optimistic manager, young pitching staff with upside, lineup that isn’t awful – so I wouldn’t be completely surprised if they made a jump. But I’ve settled on 79 wins as my prediction, and if that’s a last-place number, then the Central is better than anybody thought. If nothing else, I hope they finish ahead of the Twins.

A big thank you goes out as this is absolutely terrific remarks from Jim, particularly the line that A.J. lacks a discernable jaw or chin. My answers to his questions about our Tribe can be found at The Sox Machine here.

Also, in case you missed it, here’s an absolutely fantastic piece by Buster Olney on ESPN The Magazine’s cover boy for their 2008 Baseball Preview, the Hefty Lefty.

The Baseball Previews are on the newsstands, the boys at Yahoo (I thought I loved Jeff Passan before his linked comments on the AL Central, which are just spot on) are peering into their crystal ball, “games” are being played in Japan, 25-man rosters are essentially set…it’s close…very close.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In a Boy’s Dream

Given that this is the time that most season predictions are made and my abhorrence for writers and experts simply listing what order the teams will finish in, who will win what awards, blah, blah, blah - let’s go in a different direction and take a look at the 2008 season for your Cleveland Indians unfold before our very eyes:

April 2nd vs. Chicago
In just the second game of the year, Grady Sizemore belts 2 HR to start off his 2008 season in style, helping the Tribe take the first two games of the series. When it’s all said and done, Sizemore will finish with 35 HR and 39 SB, joining the 35-35 club (if there even is a 35-35 club) in the final game of the season by hitting his 35th jack against these same White Sox in Chicago. Sizemore’s 2008 will be viewed as his true “breakout” season, eclipsing his superb 2006 in terms of productivity and potential. The young CF will again capture the Gold Glove and finish 3rd in the AL MVP race, leaving Curtis Granderson (who struggles all season with finger problems) in his dust for the mantle of “Best CF in the AL”. Sizemore’s 2008, and subsequent years, make the question of “Grady or Grandy” between the two look in retrospect like a comparison of Travis Hafner and Ben Broussard, circa Spring Training 2004.

April 16th vs. Detroit
David Dellucci strikes out with the bases loaded in the 9th inning against Detroit closer Todd Jones, causing a split of the 2-game series as the Tribe falls to the Motor City Kitties. Early returns (an OPS under .650 through mid-May facing only RHP) on Dellucci are not encouraging, leading the traffic on the new fan-created website to explode. In an unrelated matter, Ben Francisco receives an invitation to receive a key to the city from Buffalo mayor Byron Brown.

April 19th vs. Minnesota
Pronk, with ol’ man Hafner in the stands at the Metrodome wearing his John Deere cap and overalls, hammers out 3 HR against Twins’ pitching. If the (very) early OPS over .900 hadn’t served notice that our old dear friend Pronk was back from a yearlong sabbatical, this particular afternoon in the Twin Cities verifies his return. The offensive explosion gets Hafner started on his way to a 33 HR, 125 RBI season with an OPS that hovers around .975 all year, providing an anchor for the Tribe lineup and putting any concerns about the Tribe’s DH possessing “old player skills” to bed.

April 24th
Dreadfully ineffective in his few appearances (even against LH hitters), newly acquired LHP Craig Breslow is released as the Indians cut ties with Aaron Fultz’s de facto replacement after Breslow incredibly has yet to retire a LH batter in 9 attempts. Breslow, conceding that his future may be brighter elsewhere, “falls back” on his molecular biophysics and biochemistry degree from Yale. In Breslow’s place as the second LHP out of the bullpen, the club promotes Rich Rundles, who started the season logging innings at the back end of the Buffalo bullpen. Rundles will be seen intermittently for the Tribe for the next two months, mainly in mop-up duty, until the Indians make a move to add a LHP from outside of the organization to fill the void created by their internal candidates’ limitations.

May 4th
Rafael Betancourt is placed on the DL with a “tired arm” after a win against the Royals during which he labors to retire the bottom of the Kansas City order in the 8th. The injury results in Jensen Lewis, Rafael Perez, and Masa Kobayashi taking turns setting up JoeBo as Senor Slo-Mo rests his weary wing. As the relievers sort themselves out appearance by appearance, Perez struggles to retire RH batters in the 8th inning, while Kobayashi finds a fair amount of success despite allowing an uncomfortable amount of baserunners in his outings. The revelation is Jensen Lewis, with his fastball touching the low-90s again and deceiving batters with his herky-jerky motion, who shines in his newly found role as primary set-up man, posting a WHIP under 1.00 and averaging nearly two K’s per inning. When Betancourt returns, he will be slotted in the 7th inning role to become comfortable again, but won’t move any further back in the bullpen until mid-July.

May 11th vs. Toronto
Franklin Gutierrez is slotted into the #2 hole as the RH bat to separate Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner after a brief and unsuccessful rotation of Michaels (whose performance, to this point, has merited a “meh”) and Dellucci (whose performance to date falls into the “ugh” category). Batting 2nd, Gutz gets on base three times against Blue Jay hurlers, scoring all three times to help the Tribe eke out the Jays by a final tally of 6-5. Frank the Tank parlays his early success against both LHP and RHP into a permanent spot at the top of the lineup, en route to posting a 20 HR / 20 SB season while seemingly getting to every ball lofted towards RF and conjuring up images of Vlad Guerrero (in his prime) gunning down baserunners at will.

May 17th vs. Cincinnati
Jorge Julio (who makes the 25-man roster out of Spring Training ahead of Tom Mastny after being added to the spot on the 40-man roster vacated by Aaron Fultz on the last day in Winter Haven) runs his scoreless streak to 18 innings, pitching the 6th inning in an 8-7 victory over the Reds. Julio will work his way up the ladder of Wedge’s progression of relievers until mid-June when Julio faces off with his old teammates from Colorado. With Colorado hitters aware of Julio tipping his pitches, he is blasted to the tune of 5 ER in 1/3 of an inning. His confidence shattered and with opposing teams having the tape of the Rockies’ game on file, Julio slips precipitously down the bullpen ladder until he is replaced by RHP Jeff Stevens when rosters expand. Stevens will perform admirably for the Tribe in his few appearances late in the season, but will be distracted by the audible murmuring from the fans at Progressive Field, hearing the words “Brandon” and “Phillips” over and over again every time he toes the rubber.

May 23rd
As the team returns to Cleveland in 2nd place in the Central, David Dellucci is placed on the DL (while sitting on a sub-.240 batting average with no power to speak of) with the hamstring problems that have plagued him throughout the season. Ironically (or maybe not so ironically), Dellucci’s trip to the DL coincides almost exactly with Shin-Soo Choo’s readiness to emerge from his rehab stints in Akron and Buffalo to assume the role of LH portion of the newly named LF platoon, Michoo…Gesundheit. Dellucci will remain on the DL for the remainder of the season and will be released by the club after the 2008 season as the hamstring injury he suffered in 2007 robs him of any remaining speed or power.

June 3rd vs. Texas
After another absolutely horrific start, this time against the Rangers (2 IP, 9 R, 8 ER, 10 H, 5 BB, 0 K), Cliff Lee is placed on revocable waivers for the purposes of sending him to Buffalo as his freefall as a viable MLB starter simply can not find a bottom in an Indians’ uniform. The pitching-starved St. Louis Cardinals place a waiver claim on Lee, beginning trade negotiations between the two clubs to allow Lee to join the National League Central.

June 5th vs. Texas
Andy Marte drives in 4 RBI on a hot summer night, continuing the success he experienced during a hot month of May. The Atomic Wedgie announces that Marte has “forced himself into the lineup” by posting an OPS of .825 with 6 HR in his limited at-bats to date as he seems to finally be on his way to establishing himself as a viable everyday 3B. Marte’s ascension to the regular 3B job sends Casey Blake to LF to join the BLC in a platoon now affectionately known as Blachoo. With Blake locked into LF, the Indians finalize the player exchange that has been discussed for the last few days, resulting in Lee, Jason Michaels, and minor league IF Jared Goedert being traded to the Cardinals for minor league C Bryan Anderson, RHP Anthony Reyes (immediately sent to Buffalo in an attempt to resuscitate his now-floundering career), and LH reliever Tyler Johnson, who promptly puts a firm hold on the role of second LHP out of the bullpen. The Ben Francisco Treat is recalled from Buffalo to replace Michaels on the roster to fill the role as the 4th OF, cutting short the ceremony being held in Dunn Tire Park to retire Francisco’s jersey just as the Canisius Pep Band begins playing the Rice-A-Roni Theme Song.

June 6th vs. Detroit
A ball off of the bat of Magglio Ordonez strikes C.C. Sabathia’s left hand as he reaches his bare hand in an attempt to field the ball. Though X-Rays and MRI’s reveal no breaks or structural damage to the hand, Sabathia has enough trouble gripping the ball properly that he is placed on the DL for a stint that robs him of five starts as he rests and rehabs the injury. After his 2nd rehab start in Akron (which is cut short as the left hand remains tender), Sabathia orders his agents to return to the contract table with Indians’ Assistant GM Chris Antonetti with the directive to “get something done…NOW”. As the two parties come close to an agreement, Sabathia’s 3rd rehab start in Akron results in C.C. pitching 3 innings of shutout ball, needing only 30 pitches to do so. Buoyed by the confidence of the start and with his hand apparently fully healed, Sabathia instructs his agents to once again back away from the negotiating table with the alleged agreed-upon deal destined to live only in lore.

June 8th vs. Detroit
Aaron Laffey, in his first start since replacing Cliff Lee as the 5th starter goes eight strong innings against the potent Detroit lineup, inducing five double plays and walking only 1 of the notoriously patient Tiger hitters. Jensen Lewis comes on to work a 1-2-3 ninth inning in a non-save situation to secure the 6-1 victory, pulling the Indians to within two games of the AL Central-leading Tigers.

June 17th vs. Colorado
In his second start in place of C.C., Atom Miller pitches a complete game shutout against the Rox, the most notable of four sparkling outings for the young fireballing Texan. Matt Holliday is quoted that Miller’s stuff is some of the best he’s seen all year and that the sky is the limit for young Atom. A mere week and a half later, Miller’s final outing is cut short by tenderness in his right elbow which eventually leads to the decision in September that the Tommy John surgery that has looked inevitable for Miller is finally the only option, setting his development with the Indians back another 18 months.

June 26th vs. San Francisco
Jake Westbrook goes all nine innings against the Giants, giving up an astonishing 14 hits…but only one run, perhaps aided by the seemingly impossible 8 GIDP that the geriatric Giants put on the board. Amazingly, the outing constitutes one of Westbrook’s worst of the season as he goes a long way to establishing himself as a viable #2 pitcher, posting a sub-3.75 ERA and an improved K rate. Westbrook will finish the season 2nd on the team in victories with a new career high of 17 victories, second only to Fausto Carmona’s repeat of 19 wins and just ahead of Sabathia’s injury-shortened total of 16.

July 6th vs. Minnesota
Asdrubal Cabrera, subbing for a resting Peralta at SS, turns an unassisted Triple Play against the Twins. An obviously excited Mike Hegan, announcing the play from the booth for WTAM, finds himself rushed to the hospital immediately following the game with what Doctors term an “accelerated heartbeat”. When asked about the play, Cabrera comments that “at least I’m contributing in the field”, a self-deprecating reference to Cabrera’s sophomore “slump” that has seen him hover around the .260 mark with reduced OBP and OPS from his 2007 totals. The numbers steadily improve throughout the course of the season as he adjusts to MLB pitching and, even at their lowest points, look positively Ruthian compared to Josh Barfield’s 2007 contribution from 2B.

July 13th vs. Tampa Bay
After three consecutive blown saves against the Rays and with the All-Star Break looming, Eric Wedge announces that The Big Borowski will share closing opportunities with new super set-up man Jensen Lewis. It proves to be the first step towards the realignment of the Tribe bullpen for the stretch run, with Lewis closing, Betancourt (healthy again and effective) setting him up, and Masa Kobayashi and Rafael Perez sharing 7th inning duties. Borowski eventually finds himself relegated to middle relief, fighting for appearances with RHP Jorge Julio and LHP Tyler Henderson.

July 15th vs. National League
Victor Martinez strokes a HR in the All-Star Game, clinching the game and World Series home field advantage for the AL, surprising many who have watched Vic’s power numbers take a sharp downturn as he enters at the All-Star Break with only 4 HR. While his other statistics have remained in line with his steady-as-a-rock 2007, Victor cannot seem to put many balls over the fence. Victor, when pressed too many innings behind the dish in in 2008 are having an effect on his legs, refuses to blame Wedge’s apparent hesitance to use Kelly Shoppach with the regularity that he had a year before for his drastically diminished power deflecting questions from reporters by pointing out that he holds the team lead in doubles.

July 31st
Amidst a flurry of rumors that send Braves 1B Mark Teixiera to Cleveland for a package allegedly involving Ryan Garko, Chuck Lofgren, Wes Hodges, and Nick Weglarz, the Indians decide not to adopt the “rent-a-slugger” strategy by passing on Teixiera, scheduled to hit the FA market after the season, to their lineup. As the Rumor Mill keeps spinning, reports that Oakland GM Billy Beane is seen around A’s offices wearing a shirt reading “Asdrubal or Bust” offer a glimpse into the apparent sticking point in the Indians’ attempts to fortify their bullpen with Oakland closer Huston Street. Moments away from the Trade Deadline passing, the A’s agree to a deal with the Tigers sending Street to the Motor City in exchange for 3B Brandon Inge (with the Tigers agreeing to pay nearly all of the money owed to Inge over the final 2 ½ years left on his contract), RHP Yorman Bazardo, minor league SS Cale Iorg. Tigers’ GM Dave Dombrowski defends the further strip-mining of the Detroit farm system in favor of his “win-now” approach by stating that “can’t miss” 19-year-old RHP Rick Porcello remains in the Tigers’ organization. Dombrowski omits the fact that Porcello will be pitching to Lance Parrish, resigned by the Tigers to “flesh out” their minor league roster despite recently turning 50, and that Porcello will be asked to play CF on his days off.

August 8th vs. Toronto
Perhaps distracted by his name constantly coming up in trade talks, Garko goes 0 for 4, pushing his month-long slump into dangerous territory as continues to struggle to produce extra-base hits, with an OBP almost impossibly higher (.335) than his SLG (.360), as Jordan Brown continues his quest in Buffalo for a third straight MVP season. Garko is moved further down in the order as the ever-steady Jhonny Peralta, quietly on his way to a 25 HR, 85 RBI season with an OPS of .850, is moved permanently into the #5 hole to protect Victor. The move turns out to have the same effect as Peralta’s move to the #3 hole in 2005 as the offense finds its groove, allowing the team to win 15 of their next 18 games, finally moving ahead of the aging-before-our-very eyes Tigers fill their DL with guaranteed annual salaries.

August 15th vs. Los Angeles of Anaheim in Orange County situated in the State of California
In the 3rd inning, Mike Scoscia calls home plate umpire John Hirschbeck’s attention to the right hip of Paul Byrd which, according to Scoscia, is the location for the foreign substance that Byrd is using on the ball in his start against the Angels. As Byrd’s former manager, Scoscia denies that he has knowledge of this being part of Byrd’s routine and simply states, “look, the guy had nothing left in the tank when he left here after 2005…suddenly, three years later he’s sitting on an ERA under 4.00 with 12 wins…c’mon, something’s gotta give.” Hirschbeck finds what he calls a “sticky paste” on Byrd’s right hip, later identified by MLB officials as Fixodent. Byrd claims that his dentist made the recommendation to him to counteract the hip pain that he inexplicably saw the dentist about. When asked why the Fixodent was mixed with a grey dye to make it blend in with his road uniform, Byrd comments that “those were the dentist’s orders…who am I to question my dentist if he tells me something is going to help me.” MLB officials, while disappointed by Byrd’s actions, make no official ruling on the incident despite Byrd’s ejection from the game, citing a lack of evidence. After the incident, Byrd's effectiveness wanes as he limps to the end of the season, finishing with an ERA of 4.87.

August 21st vs. Kansas City
In a bizarre turn of events, Eric Wedge is rushed to MetroHealth hospital after his face is inexplicably frozen in the middle of one of his facial tics when Jeff Datz slaps the manager on the back after a Kelly Shoppach game-winning HR. While his face doesn’t freeze in the same horrifying manner as the two little girls from “One Crazy Summer”, it is enough to keep Wedge in the hospital, away from any cameras, while doctors run tests to determine what exactly has happened to Wedge’s face. While delivering Wedge’s breakfast a few mornings later, MetroHealth employee Jamal Whitney tells Wedge that the same thing happened to his cousin Ray Ray on Christmas morning. “It’s real easy to fix”, says Jamal before slapping the Tribe skipper on the back, unfreezing Wedge’s previously distorted face. Hearing of the news, The New England Journal of Medicine dispatches a staff writer to interview Wedge and head trainer Lonnie Soloff with the intention of attempting to explain the unusual sequence by following the team for a few days. The piece is never written though as the writer, a graduate of UMass, is no longer able to be in the presence of the rest of the Cleveland writers after being asked for the 75th time in two days by Plain Dealer writer Bill Livingston if he knew that Julius Erving was also a UMass graduate.

August 30th vs. Seattle
Casey Blake, settling nicely into his dual role as ½ of the LF platoon and as the super-utility player at 3B and 1B, falls a single short of hitting for the cycle in an 11-4 win over the Mariners. Blake’s HR constitutes his 15th of the season as he and Shin-Soo Choo have combined to form a formidable platoon arrangement. The Indians entertain the idea of acquiring former Indian Brian Giles from San Diego, who is available after clearing revocable waivers, to replace Choo as the LH portion of the LF platoon, but The BLC’s resounding success against RHP (posting an OPS near .900 against RHP) and his play while patrolling LF, which earns him the nickname “The Korean Cannon” from the unimaginative beat writers, gives the Tribe pause as they decide to “ride the horses that got them here”. Due to the success of Blachoo in LF and Frank the Tank in RF, The Ben Francisco Treat languishes on the bench. Francisco’s continued omission from the everyday lineup causes the second-most debated position battle in Cleveland just behind another bonfire of a debate that will be doused in gasoline after Derek Anderson throws 4 INT in a Browns’ victory during their first game on September 7th.

September 11th vs. Baltimore
In an unprecedented move, the Orioles take a page out of Little League baseball and ask if any of the Indians can suit up for their team as it seems that a group of 15 Orioles players thought that their 4-game series with Cleveland only consisted of 3 games and decided to charter a boat to go fishing on the Chesapeake Bay on what they thought to be an off-day before the Twins arrived in town. As the MLB checks the official rulebook on what the Orioles can do (delaying the game a full 90 minutes), disaster is averted when the Orioles players, contacted on their boat, arrive to Camden Yards in time to finally take the field for a 18-3 rout at the hands of the Erie Warriors. Ironically, the slip-up by the players coincides with the annual “Free the Birds” demonstration, when frustrated Baltimore fans walk out of a game en masse to protest Peter Angelos’ ownership and mismanagement of the franchise.

September 17th vs. Minnesota
Using another sterling performance from Fausto, dropping his season ERA to 2.98, the Indians clinch the AL Central with a win over the Twins coupled with a Tigers’ loss. The Tigers’ September record slips to 5-10 after being swept in Arlington by the Rangers, putting into jeopardy the Wild Card berth that seemed to be a more formality a few short weeks before. Commenting on Carmona’s outing, Michael Cuddyer says that he had just received a text from Torii Hunter after Hunter sees the game highlights on “Baseball Tonight” sending his sympathy and telling Cuddyer which bar to go to in an attempt to “drink Carmona out of your head”.

September 24th vs. Boston
In a thrilling battle, the Red Sox edge the Indians 2-0 to ensure themselves of the best record in the AL, ostensibly winning home field advantage for the playoffs. Josh Beckett pitches a complete game shutout for the BoSox, netting him his 23rd win of the season as he outduels C.C. Sabathia, who also goes the distance in a losing effort. The one unearned run allowed by Sabathia pushes his final ERA total to 3.17, dropping him to 4th in the AL, behind Seattle’s Erik Bedard, Carmona, and Beckett. After the game, when asked by Boston reporters if the game was a preview of a potential ALCS rematch for the Tribe and Sawx, Beckett replies, “sure, and I’ll shut them out every time I face them just like I did today.” The Indians contact Beckett’s ex-girlfriend Alyssa Milano about potentially throwing out the first pitch in the ALCS, if it should come to that.

September 28th vs. Chicago
Putting a nice bookend to the start of the season, Grady Sizemore swats another HR against the White Sox, running his season total to 35. The 7th inning HR puts the 9-2 game out of reach for the White Sox, who find themselves in 4th place in the AL Central, besting only the Minnesota Twins in the standings and looking up at the (gasp) Kansas City Royals. The victory for the Indians marks the 95th time the team has tallied a W on the season as they prepare themselves for their looming ALDS match-up against the AL Wild Card Toronto Blue Jays.

ALDS Game 3 vs. Toronto
Jake Westbrook goes the distance to clinch a series sweep against the Blue Jays, following the lead of Game 1 starter Fausto Carmona and Game 2 starter C.C. Sabathia as the Tribe starters log an astonishing 25 innings, surrendering only 3 runs in the series. The Indians’ hitters, frustrated by the talented Blue Jay rotation as well as the bullpen fortified by the late-season acquisitions of RHP David Weathers and LHP Damaso Marte, are able to cobble together 7 total runs in the three games – enough to sweep the Blue Jays and wait for the winner of the Red Sox-Mariners match-up.

ALCS Game 1 vs. Boston
The Red Sox, fresh off a 3-1 series win in which they finally got to Seattle Cy Young Award winner Erik Bedard in the 9th inning of Game 4 after Bedard strung together 17 scoreless innings to that point to clinch the series, play host to the rested Tribe. FOX executives are already hyping up the potential Red Sox-Cubs World Series as the Cubs head to Arizona for Game 1 of the NLCS. As the game starts, it becomes apparent that the Indians are still haunted by the ALCS of 2007 watching the Red Sox race out to a 4-1 lead in the 7th. With Josh Beckett cruising, Terry Francona pulls him to play match-up baseball until the lead can be handed to Papelbon. In the bottom of the 8th, Franklin Gutierrez plates two with a triple to RF, tying the game. A wild pitch is uncorked by Manny Delcarmen, allowing Gutz to race home with the go-ahead run as the Indians steal Game 1, thanks to Game 1 starter Carmona and the bullpen snuffing out multiple Red Sox rallies. Beckett stews after the game, saying he could have thrown all nine and given the Red Sox an early series lead.

ALCS Game 4 vs. Boston
With the Indians up 2-1 and Aaron Laffey getting the nod over Paul Byrd for Game 4, the Indians find themselves on the short end of a 5-4 game heading into the bottom of the 9th inning. Leading off the 9th, Casey Blake laces a liner to LF for a single. Grady Sizemore, torching Red Sox pitching to this point, is unable to advance the runner as he strikes out. Franklin Gutierrez lofts a high fly ball to the LF corner, which Manny Ramirez slides for, making the impossible circus catch. Blake, standing on 1st at the time of the catch, is able to barely beat Ramirez’s throw to the outfield to stand at second base with two outs. Papelbon runs the count full on Hafner, perhaps with the idea of walking Hafner to get to Martinez, then offers up the payoff pitch, which Hafner blasts into right center. Blake, off with contact, hits third base as Jacoby Ellsbury relays the ball to Dustin Pedroia. As Blake rounds third, waved home emphatically by Joel Skinner, he pulls up slightly grabbing the back of his leg. With Blake slowed, Pedroia’s relay to Jason Varitek beats Blake, who attempts to slide under the tag despite what is later confirmed as a strained hamstring that will ostensibly finish his season. Varitek’s block of the plate is perfect and Blake is called out as Pedroia rushes to gloat over an obviously injured Blake. In the postgame press conference, Wedge defends Skinner’s decision to send Blake to tie the game with Martinez due up next, saying “stop…go…with Skins, he’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t”.

ALCS Game 7 vs. Boston
After another win in a game started by Fausto and another loss in a game started by C.C., the Indians head into Game 7 with Jake Westbrook slated to face Josh Beckett, pitching his third game of the series on short rest. Wedge’s lineup card contains a surprise as Ben Francisco is slated to face Beckett in place of the injured Blake and Choo, who would generally face the RHP Beckett. Wedge’s inclusion of Francisco in the lineup proves to be providential as the Frisco Kid steps to the plate in the 9th, facing Papelbon with Peralta on second base, with the Tribe down 1-0 in what has been a superb pitcher’s duel between Westbrook and Beckett. Francisco strokes a belt-high 2-0 fastball deep into the Boston night over the Green Monster and into Red Sox lore, joining Bucky Bleepin’ Dent and Aaron Bleepin’ Boone as enemies of Red Sox Nation. The Indians immediately put out requests for clay models of the bronze Ben Francisco statue that will find a home in the plaza. The Red Sox, however, refuse to give up – suddenly getting to Westbrook as their grounders find the holes. With the bases loaded and one out, Wedge finally makes the call to the bullpen to summon Jensen Lewis to face Manny Ramirez, striding from the on-deck circle as Fenway shakes. With the infield in, Manny blasts the first pitch down the LF line, over the Monster…but just foul. Lewis settles down to even the count at 2-2 when Manny laces a shot between SS and 3B. In what many fans will recall as the only time that they see him dive for a ball to his right, Jhonny Peralta snags the ball out of mid-air, races to his feet and fires it to Victor Martinez, who whips the ball to Ryan Garko at first to complete the series-ending double play. In a silent Fenway Park, the Indians celebrate their first berth to the World Series in 11 years and watch the ALCS MVP trophy be awarded to Jake Westbrook.

World Series Game 1 vs. Arizona
Juan Lara throws out the 1st pitch in Game 1 of the World Series, then retires to the Dolan’s private box, where he watches his best friend Fausto Carmona twirl 8 innings of shutout baseball, scattering 4 hits while striking out 8 against the young and impatient Diamondbacks’ lineup. Despite Carmona only throwing 70 pitches in the 4-0 win, Wedge allows Jensen Lewis to pitch the 9th inning, explaining that he wanted Lewis to get out any extra adrenaline he may have for the Series in a non-save situation. The game is notable not only for the Tribe victory, but also for the FOX announcers’ insistence on mentioning the two Championship Series losers, the Red Sox and Cubs, at every possible moment during the contest. While neither overtly mentions the recent column from Bill Simmons, just posted on that the Red Sox and Cubs should play each other despite the results of the ALCS and NLCS because “that’s what America wants to see”, it is obvious that Joe Buck and Tim McCarver have been instructed by the FOX bigwigs (beside themselves that they have an Arizona-Cleveland match-up when a Red Sox-Cubs battle was so close) to try to keep the nation interested by talking about the Tribe and Snakes as infrequently as possible during the series.

World Series Game 6 vs. Arizona
With Fausto and Westbrook continuing their dominance of the post-season (each is 1-0 in the ALDS, 2-0 in the ALCS, and 1-0 in the WS for a total of 8 Tribe victories) and the Indians nearly stealing Game 5 from Arizona thanks to Paul Byrd contributing five innings of shutout baseball after relieving an obviously nervous Aaron Laffey, but with a late Tribe rally coming up just short, the Indians hand the Game 6 ball to C.C. Sabathia. Sabathia’s 2008 postseason has mirrored his 2007 playoff success, which is to say there has been little success at all as he has yet to start a game that the Indians have won since the Tribe took Game 2 of the ALDS against the Blue Jays. Sabathia, squaring off against Arizona’s Dan Haren, goes 7 strong innings, finally getting a lead to The Fist of Iron (Rafael Perez), The Fist of Steel (Rafael Betancourt), and The Fist of Fury (Jensen Lewis) who lock down the Diamondback hitters, preserving the trophy-clinching 6-2 lead. Jensen Lewis becomes the latest in a now-suddenly long line of young relievers to record the final out of a World Series game (joining Jenks, Wainwright, Papelbon) as the Indians storm out of the dugout led by Sabathia (in what will be his last moments in an Tribe uniform) to mob Lewis and World Series MVP Grady Sizemore, who squeezed the final out of the season off of the bat of Chris Young in shallow center field.
The Indians and their fans, after 60 years of waiting, celebrate their World Series win.

Celebration on Public Square
Finally, with all of the champagne sprayed and the ghosts exorcised, the World Champion Indians return to Cleveland to mobs of people meeting them at the airport. A celebration and parade kicks off in downtown Cleveland, where this glorious sight can be seen (photoshop courtesy of reader Joshua Whitman):

A boy can dream…can’t he?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Who Does Number Two Work For?

One of the more interesting developments in Winter Haven is Eric Wedge’s announcement that Asdrubal Cabrera is not necessarily slated to fill the #2 spot in the lineup out of Spring Training, despite the Indians going 24-6 when he batted after Grady Sizemore down the stretch in 2007. Without an obvious replacement for him in the 2-hole on the roster, what gives?

Allow me for a moment to enter my Time Machine and go back to Spring Training in 2006. The Indians, fresh off a 93-win season, felt that their lineup was set for the 2006 season, based mainly upon the offense sprouting wings when Jhonny Peralta was inserted into the #3 spot in the lineup in 2005. After spending most of 2005 in the bottom half of the lineup, Peralta was placed in the 3-hole on July 23rd and the Tribe proceeded to a 43-14 record over their next 57, placing them firmly in the race for the AL Central, before choking away the final 6 games of the 2005 season with a 1-5 record. Regardless of the end result, Peralta thrived in his new spot in the lineup, stroking 12 HR with 40 RBI over his 63 games there, posting a .887 OPS from the #3 spot.

Heading into 2006, Peralta was handed (and rightfully so) his spot in the lineup with the thought that the Indians had found their RH complement to sit behind Grady and in front of Hafner in the lineup, with Victor providing the back-end protection for Pronk. But Peralta stumbled out of the gate (whether his vision truly had anything to do with remains a mystery), posting a .239 BA and a .699 OPS out of the #3 hole for the 71 games he found his name occupying that spot in the lineup card. On July 6th, with the Tribe scuffling at 39-45, a staggering 17 ½ games back of Detroit, Peralta was moved out of the #3 spot, replaced by (get this) Ronnie Belliard for a short time, and edged back down to the bottom half of the order that he finds himself to this day.

In hindsight, did the Indians make a critical error out of Spring Training 2006 by handing Peralta a spot in the middle of the lineup? Certainly not, as many simply assumed that Peralta had established himself as a middle-of-the-order hitter in 2005, with his phenomenal success as a 23-year-old (with an OPS of .886) who would continue to mature and improve while anchoring the Tribe lineup.

But the Indians must see parallels between the situation involving Peralta and the #3 hole, circa Spring 2006, and Cabrera in the #2 hole this Spring. Enough parallels, apparently, that they feel that the axiom that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” applies to the construction of their lineup entering 2008.

Are they valid?
Time will tell if the adjustments that the league made to Peralta between his breakout year and 2006 are waiting for Asdrubal when he enters the batter’s box this year and whether the Indians, sensing this adjustment period, have decided to let Asdrubal make his trips around MLB (with extensive video on him now in the can) at the bottom of the order as opposed to the spot between Grady and Pronk. If Cabrera struggles out of the gate, the concerns will be validated as he won’t figure to be the reason that Grady doesn’t see any decent pitches as would pitchers simply pitch around him to get to Asdrubal. However, if Cabrera proves to be as adept at handling the lumber in 2008 as he did in 2007, he will eventually find his way back up to the top of the order.

But “eventually” is the key word there as the Indians, if they are truly hesitant to start Asdrubal at the top of the order, will have to find a suitable hitter to sit between Grady and Pronk until Cabrera is able to fully prove himself as a legitimate #2 hitter to the Tribe brass.

So, what other internal options are the Indians looking at?
Obviously Grady (#1), Hafner (#3), Victor (#4), Garko (#5 or #6), Peralta (#5 or #6), Blake (bottom of the order, as per Wedge), and Cabrera (see above) are out, we find ourselves looking to the corners with Dellichaels and Frank the Tank being the only options to start the season as the #2 hitter.

Where have I seen this before?
Oh yeah, that’s right – out of Spring Training last year, the #2 hole was thought to be occupied by Michaels and Nixon. OK, OK, everyone put that memory back into the recesses of your mind that have been blacked out, along with that night that you and your buddy decided that finishing a bottle of Jagrmeister was a good idea before hitting the bars.

But back to the matter at hand – at the risk of identifying the obvious, the most important attributes for a #2 hitter are a high OBP, the ability to work the count resulting in a high number of pitches per at-bat to allow the meat of the lineup to see the pitchers’ repertoire, and (to a lesser degree) speed to prevent the inning-killing GIDP and to be able to score from 1st (and certainly 2nd) on a gapper by the #3 or #4 hitters. Unique to the Indians’ situation, the importance of breaking up Sizemore and Hafner (both LH) also plays a role, particularly late in the game when a LH reliever would have the opportunity to face three straight LH, unless you really expect to see the likes of Andy Marte pinch-hitting in the 8th or 9th for Dellucci…and given Wedge’s quotes on Marte this Spring, I don’t.

Looking again at those desired attributes, then it begs the question – who (knowing that Cabrera is not a candidate from Day One) best fits the bill on the Tribe roster? You’re not going to like this, but it’s probably Casey Blake, who while he doesn’t have the high OBP you would hope for, at least doesn’t have a huge disparity against LHP (career .342 OBP vs. LHP) and RHP (career .328 OBP vs. RHP) that some other players do, did see more pitches per plate appearance than anyone on the team last year (tied for 10th most in the AL at 4.17, eking out Grady’s 4.15), and has decent speed (though his 14 GIDP in 2007 were second only to Victor, whose high number of 23 is explained by his similarities to a glacier). The fact that he’s RH and wouldn’t force the lineup to be juggled late in the game takes up another spot in the “positive” ledger. But we know that Blake is slated to hit at the bottom of the lineup as The Atomic Wedgie likes his “pop” down there.

So we’re back to where we started with Dellichaels and Franklin Delano Gutierrez as the candidates. Realizing that Michaels won’t face RHP and Dellucci won’t face LHP while Gutierrez’s numbers prior to 2007 are minimal, here is how the players stack up in the important categories:
Michaels 2007 (vs. LHP) – .359
Michaels career (vs. LHP) – .382

Dellucci 2007 (vs. RHP) – .306
Dellucci career (vs. RHP) – .355

Gutierrez 2007 (vs. LHP) – .366
Gutierrez 2007 (vs. RHP) – .292

Michaels 2007 – 3.85
Michaels career – 3.98

Dellucci 2007 – 3.99
Dellucci career – 3.91

Gutierrez 2007 – 4.02

In case you were wondering, Asdrubal posted a .354 OBP vs. LHP and a .353 OBP vs. RHP while seeing 3.80 pitches per plate appearance a year ago. But for the moment, forget about him, he’s NOT an option out of the gate, remember?

As much as his speed, ability to see pitches, and right-handedness may help Frank’s case, I can’t imagine that they would slot him up there if there’s truly a reticence to put Cabrera, a more obvious choice, there out of Spring Training. The Indians also probably have some concern about Gutz’s OBP vs. RHP in 2007, despite him posting overall OBP of .384 in Buffalo prior to his call-up last year after posting an overall OBP of .373 in 2006. It is true that his 2006 split in Buffalo was significant, if not drastic (.413 OBP vs. LHP, .362 OBP vs. RHP) but as Gutierrez adapts (hopefully) to MLB hitting as he has had a strong Spring (.417 OBP and, most importantly, “only” 6 K in 38 plate appearances) he could certainly be a candidate to move up the ladder of the lineup.

But that move of Frank the Tank to #2 doesn’t seem immediately imminent as it would seem that the Indians (while they haven’t come out and said it yet) figure to be starting the season with Dellichaels as the #2 hitter. Seeing as how Dellucci (assuming this forearm injury allows him to break camp with the team) is the only real option to face RHP at the #2 spot, one would have to assume that the two-headed monster of Michaels and Dellucci are going to be given the first crack at the second spot in the lineup, for better or worse.

If, however, either (or both) of the players prove to be ineffective at the top of the lineup by, say, the middle of May, don’t be surprised if the Indians take a hard look at the numbers of both Asdrubal AND Franklin to determine who is having the most success against LHP and RHP while seeing a good amount of pitches per plate appearance. If both are struggling to find their footing (knocking firmly on wood) in their first full MLB season, don’t be shocked if Mr. Fill-In-The-Cracks himself, Casey Blake inches his way up the lineup. If that comes to pass, however, that would mean that 1/3 of the lineup is underperforming (Dellichaels, Asdrubal, and Frank) and bigger changes than simply moving Casey up the lineup would likely be afoot.

Personally, I’d play it in the exact opposite manner, giving Asdrubal every opportunity to seize the spot that he so definitively laid claim to down the stretch in 2007.
Give Cabrera the nod out of Winter Haven to plant himself as the de facto #2 hitter – if he falters, let the second chance fall to Dellichaels or Gutierrez; but forcing Cabrera (unless the Indians know something that we don’t regarding “the book” around the league on their young 2B) to earn the role of the #2 hitter all over again seems like punishing one player for the shortcomings of another in a similar situation, two years after the fact.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Lazy Easter Sunday

On a glorious Easter morning (albeit the second in a row with snow on the ground outside the Wigwam), let’s delve right into a Lazy Sunday before the breakfast strata emerges from the stove:

Actually, before getting into anything Tribe-related, let’s see how long it takes Bill Livingston’s latest article (I’m not linking it if that’s what you’re looking for) on LeBron to mention Dr. J. “The arc of Julius Erving’s career…” Five words…and two of them are his name! I was suckered in by Livy’s piece being above the fold on the front page of the Sports page but didn’t make it past those five words.
How many times have I had to read about the fact that Livingston covered Erving in Philly?
And how many times does the article only slightly even have anything to do with LeBron or something that is moderately current?
At this point, the only way that you could be avoiding Livingston’s pieces more than I do would be to actually throw the paper in the trash as soon as you see his picture or his name. Outside of that, I avoid his pieces more than you.

Back to sense and sensibility, Terry Pluto thinks that Cliff Lee definitively won the 5th starter job with a fine performance yesterday against the Metropolitans. I’d say that after his start against the Tigers a while back, nothing short of catching a cab by himself, in full uniform, back to Winter Haven was going to prevent the Tribe from giving Sir Lee the first shot at the 5th spot.

Pluto then addresses the “JoeBo in an inadequate closer” argument and identifies the possible closer options outside of Borowski, namely Senor Slo-Mo and the Pakistani lawyer pictured above, who may or may not have spent some time picking beans in Guatemala (or is he the one that was in the barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois). Call it a hunch, but I have a feeling that none of those three are going to be closing games when August and September roll around and it won’t be because the Indians aren’t in the hunt. Will the eventual closer emerge from internal candidates or from…I don’t know…the Bay Area?
More on that thought later this week when I post a piece I’ve been working on that is a quasi-preview of the season.

If you’ve missed Tony Lastoria’s trip to Winter Haven and even have a passing interest in Tribe minor-leaguers, pour yourself another cup of coffee before hitting this link. Exhaustive, informative, and unbelievable the depth that Lastoria goes into the bushes.

On the topic of the bushes, Matt Whitney was returned to the Indians after being a short-sighted Rule 5 selection by Jim Bowden of the Nationals given Whitney’s inexperience and advanced age. Whitney, according to most reports, will head to Akron to play in Canal Park. Now here’s where the intrigue enters the room – Whitney is by and large a 1B, as is Michael Aubrey (also slated for Akron) with Jordan Brown manning 1B in Buffalo as the organization has decided not to continue any experiment with Brown in LF. Topside, the club has Garko and, to a lesser extent, Victor to handle 1B duties. Realizing that any of the youngsters can DH in the minors (while being blocked by a North Dakotan in Cleveland on that path), it wouldn’t surprise me at all if one of these players is moved as a piece to a deal at some point this season. At the very least, knowing that the Nationals’ covet Whitney, there’s a prospective trade partner right there…and that’s just the obvious one.
By the way, the other Rule 5 pick off of the Tribe roster, Brian Barton, looks like he’s going to stick in St. Louie, which is fine by me. Barton was another marginal OF prospect who probably projects as little more than a nice 4th OF…something the Tribe system is teeming with.

To answer the question, “Wherefore Art Thou, Jody Gerut”, Ken Rosenthal finds the one-time Tribesman.

If it wasn’t so amusing to see Socker speak on a topic he has no business even projecting, I wouldn’t link what he thinks the Indians’ lineup might look like…in 2013! Leave to Ocker to pick the year when Sizemore is a potential Free Agent, just to stir the pot as if the line “the odds are that C.C. Sabathia, for example, will be gone on the wings of free agency next winter, thanks to the deep pockets of the New York Yankees” isn’t enough of a pessimistic broad brush stroke for you.
Isn’t it amazing that Indians’ fans have an inferiority complex with a side of paranoia ingrained into our psyche with rays of sunshine like Ocker feeding us our news for 15 years too long?

Plenty of content that I have been working on set to go this week so stay tuned in as Opening Day inches ever closer.

Finally, despite a bracket blow-up last night, I’m still feeling good about my UCLA over UNC pick because, man, that A.J Soprano can ball.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Despite no grass being visible on this first day of spring (thanks to another snow dump last night on the North Coast), there is no question that the three week stretch that we are embarking on remains a highlight of the sports calendar every year. Between the NCAA Tournament, the final Spring Training games, the anticipation of Opening Day, and that final realization that a long winter has reached its conclusion as the first pitch of the MLB season pounds into the catcher’s mitt – it just doesn’t get much better than this.

Beginning with a Gaelic Storm concert in Milwaukee and despite spending a better part of St. Patrick’s Day in the Milwaukee airport (which Kevin Smith memorably identified as a place of eternal condemnation in “Dogma”) and traveling with a 15 month-old, this past week got off to a rousing start full of pints of Guinness (albeit from a can) and corned beef sandwiches that I’ve only been able to truly find in greasy diners in Cleveland. Continuing with a Dayton win over Cleveland State (sorry Viking fans…all 12 of you); the momentum is rolling to get into the throes of some solid sports.

Now we get into the three weeks and change that caused countless missed days of school for me as a child with various “maladies” as my Mom was never able to piece together the consistency of their frequency (on the Thursday and Friday of the opening round of March Madness) until about 9th grade. After that point, of course, the marvelous educators at St. Ignatius (well, some of them, at least) were not above bringing TV’s into the classroom to watch games under the guise of showing some educational video that was cued up in the VCR, with the remote in the teacher’s hand, finger on “PLAY” prepared for the rare chance that an administrator heard cheering and attempted to enter the room.

Players like Bryce Drew, Miles Simon, Tate George, Tyus Edney, and Rumeal Robinson figure to enter the lexicon of any sports fan as March Madness descends on the country like no other sporting event during the year, with people who think they know something about hoops (my final – UCLA over UNC…I know, careful on that limb, right?) and people who make no claims of being experts in College Basketball (the DiaBride’s final – Wisconsin over Arizona) filling out brackets for office pools with, truthfully, everyone having about the same chance of hitting more than they miss.

But the Madness is just the beginning…
The day after the Sweet Sixteen is whittled to the Final Four, Opening Day arrives to signal that the conjecture and projections are finally done and REAL baseball takes center stage. Whether snow will accompany the first pitch (more snow is expected this Saturday) on March 31st is arbitrary because the games mean something and wins and losses actually count in the standings as the drive to defend the AL Central begins in earnest.
But, there’s plenty of time to continue to delve into that and next week promises to be chock full of pieces to get everyone properly amped up for the MLB season.

Back to this stretch of blocks on the calendar, though, as the NCAA Final occurs as Tribe travels from Oakland to Anaheim (how nice is it to talk about regular season games in concrete terms in the very near future?) on Monday, April 7th. And just when you thought that the bliss was coming to an end, the PGA’s best tee off at Augusta three days later for the Opening Round of The Masters. This story may be old hat for longtime readers, but The Masters will always remind me of taking Thursday and Friday classes off at University of Dayton with my buddy Russ so we could watch golf on TV. Perhaps a few cold ones were cracked at that time (proving, obviously, that college kids need little reason to drink); but to this day, Russ calls me on the Thursday of The Masters weekend to catch up, serving as a great opening to watching the “majesty of Augusta” all weekend, culminating with the bestowal of the Green Jacket on Sunday.

All told, not a bad little three week stretch.
What makes it all better though?
Yesterday, with the obvious idea that this string of sports was coming and the MLB season was in view, I floated out the notion to The DiaBride that the reception on our 48” TV (non-HD) just wasn’t up to snuff after spending the weekend at my in-laws’ house watching their HD TV.
Her response?
“That sounds good, let’s do some research and get a new one.”
The sweetest time of the year, sports-wise, just got a little sweeter.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Depth Charges

Though very little mystery remains for what the Indians’ 25-man roster figures to look like out of Spring Training, much of the talk and debate coming out of Winter Haven has centered around Ben Francisco’s bid to make the club as well as the very real concern that David Dellucci may not be able to rebound from a dreadful and injury-marred 2007 campaign. If results in Spring Training are the overriding factor in who makes the team out of Winter Haven, there really is no comparison between the two:
Francisco (38 AB)
.368 BA / .419 OBP / .605 SLG / 1.024 OPS, 2 HR, 8 RBI
Dellucci (31 AB)
.129 BA / .229 OBP / .258 SLG / .487 OPS, 1 HR, 1 RBI

But, quite simply, that isn’t how this thing works as Spring performance falls somewhere down the list of factors determining actual roster construction, behind committed salary and remaining least. Debate all you like about whether The Ben Francisco Treat should start the season in Buffalo or Cleveland, but barring an unforeseen move, he’s slated to be a Bison as 2008 begins.

The assumed destination of these two players, however, underscores an organizational philosophy that has become apparent over the past few off-seasons, carrying over to Spring Training and culminating in the ultimate construction of the Opening Day roster. The philosophy involves the propensity of the team to break camp with veteran players (whether they are already in the organization or are added in the off-season) with more of a proven track record than to hand spots to young players and hope for the best in their development. That, in turn, sends younger players to Buffalo to start the season in the hopes that their individual performance in the International League forces the Indians to take notice as well as the youngster’s hope (whether any player would admit this or not) that the veteran that is perceived to be “taking their spot” either struggles or is moved, thereby creating a spot for them on the parent club.

The wisdom of this philosophy could certainly be debated (Grady Sizemore making the team in 2004 ONLY after Juan Gonzalez’s hamstrings turned to dust immediately jumps to mind as a poor move in hindsight) for putting the best team on the field from Opening Day, but the strategy is one that worked to perfection last year as young players (Gutierrez, Cabrera, Perez, Lewis) were able to continue developing in the minors and were ready to contribute when it became apparent that the veteran players who started the season on the roster simply didn’t have anything left in the tank (Nixon, Hernandez) or, for some reason or another, simply weren’t viable MLB players in 2007 (Lee, Barfield).

The overarching strategy in place would seem to be that the Indians identify positions where no viable in-house candidate is an established MLB player (or at least has a semi-substantial MLB track record) and buy some insurance, if you will, that their prospects may not pan out immediately by adding a veteran player (generally eschewed by Shapiro critics as “bargain-bin shopping”) to presumably start the season in Cleveland. The most obvious example of this came last off-season as the Indians added Trot Nixon, Keith Foulke, Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez, and Aaron Fultz instead of allowing an open competition of sorts commence for a roster spot from the likes of Gutierrez, Choo, Francisco, Davis, Fernando Cabrera, Perez, and others. The Indians arrived in Winter Haven with the veterans basically assured of a spot on the roster (so long as they didn’t retire), while the youngsters came into camp with little hope of breaking camp with the Tribe and pretty aware that they’d be starting the season in Buffalo. Interestingly, the one instance in which they attempted to break camp last year with an as-yet-unproven youngster in Andy Marte was done only because Casey Blake’s versatility provided the insurance from the veteran side of the ledger.

But back to the philosophy – if the veterans pan out (even in relative terms), the Indians have filled a roster spot without much risk and with little financial commitment. Borowski, for as much consternation as his saves and performance may cause, is a perfect example of the idea of a veteran player stepping into a role and settling a unit when no obvious in-house candidates existed (really, at the beginning of 2007, how comfortable would you have been with Betancourt closing, and who was setting him up…CaBBrera…Jason Dangerously?) and allowing young players to develop in the minors, ready to step in as the season progresses. The veteran additions don’t cause a run on the Tribe ticket line, but if their addition amounts to filling out the roster with complementary players and filling in cracks, even a few months of effectiveness (read Fultz, Aaron) buys the organization more time to evaluate and promote their own.

Some of these veterans turn into marginal placeholders who draw the ire of fans (and likely front office members) while they continue to be Trotted (pun intended) out in the everyday lineup. And while this philosophy is seen by some as “blocking” prospects or giving at-bats to players not in the club’s long-term plans instead of players who may comprise a portion of future lineups, a by-product of beginning prospects that the club is not 100% certain about in Buffalo is that it allows the younger players to develop a routine in Buffalo with the hopes of getting into a groove away from the “bright lights” of Cleveland.

But more important than just giving the veterans one last chance at resurrecting or redeeming their MLB careers or allowing the young players more time to develop is the depth that it creates throughout the organization in case of injuries or ineffectiveness. Imagine for a moment that the Indians didn’t bring in the veteran arms of last off-season and decided to start the season with a bullpen that was meant to include Edward Mujica, Jason Davis, Fernando Cabrera, Tony Sipp (pre-injury), Rafael Perez, and maybe even a Atom Miller. What happens when ineffectiveness (Mujica, Davis, Cabrera) or injury (Sipp) rear their ugly heads? The result is players like Matt Miller, Mike Koplove, Jeff Harris, Jason Stanford, and Brian Sikorski start to log MAJOR innings as the young talents like Jensen Lewis and Jeff Stevens start to separate themselves from the pack and plant the seed of their helping the parent club at some point.

Which brings us back to this year and the soup du jour (that’s the soup of the day…which sounds good…I think I’ll have that) about marginal veterans (Dellucci, Michaels, and Lee) impeding the progress of talent (Francisco and Laffey) that is potentially ready to contribute. However, organizational depth is a major reason why the Indians were able to contend down the stretch in 2008 and why they were able to overcome injuries in the starting rotation to capture the AL Central title last year. That depth figures to remain as 2008 starts with the likes of Laffey, Sowers, and Francisco all a phone call away, with the BLC slated to emerge from the DL in May, with players like Jordan Brown, Jeff Stevens, and Reid Santos perhaps playing the role of the cavalry for the parent club as the year progresses.

Isn’t it interesting how all of the beat writers are trying to predict who is going to help this year? Isn’t it nice that the question is whether they’ll perform well enough in Buffalo or Akron to merit a call-up, as opposed to hoping that they can find success immediately in Cleveland?

With the Indians figuring to contend this year, don’t expect them to go with young player over a veteran off the bat (no matter how obvious a compromise may seem), not only to give the veteran a chance to re-prove himself, but also to retain that desired depth. However, with the same concept of year-long contention in mind, don’t expect players like Cliff Lee, Aaron Fultz, David Dellucci, or Jason Michaels to be on very long leashes as they need to prove that 2007 was the aberration (Fultz and Michaels to a lesser extent) and not the beginning of a downward trend. If a player like Lee or Dellucci is able to pretend that the calendar reads 2005 again (Lee went 18-5 with a 1.22 WHIP while Dellucci hit 29 HR with an .879 OPS) and is able to re-establish themselves as a viable complementary piece – great. But, if they don’t…that organizational depth will start to inch closer to the surface with the likes of Laffey and Francisco ready to step in for their veteran counterparts.

The Youth Movement is still underway for the Indians, there’s just not room for any more of it on the flight from Winter Haven to Cleveland…for now.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Lazy Sunday with Bill Shakespeare

Coming to you LIVE from my father-in-law’s home office in The Land of Bucky Badger, where cheese is for breakfast and beer is for lunch and dinner (or maybe it just seems that way, not that I'm complaining), let’s take a trip around “All the News that’s Fit to Link” with another Lazy Lazy:

Right off the bat, I’ll eat some humble pie and point out that a poem about the Indians was penned by some hack for AOL Fanhouse. In case you missed it, here it is in all of its glory:
Up three games to one, Cleveland was ready to cheer
When suddenly the teams' eyes evoked headlights and a deer
But Grady and Victor and an award-winning Lefty
(One whose frame would qualify as quite Hefty)
Have all of us wondering if '08 is finally "Next Year"

I have to be honest, the only thing I could think of, after being told the format and the idea of poetry, when coming up with this was the Chris Farley character Matt Foley raising his horn-rimmed glasses at David Spade after hearing that Spade’s character wanted to be a writer.
“We-e-e-elll.. la-de-freakin'-da! We've got ourselves a writer here! Hey, Dad, I can't see real that Bill Shakespeare over there?”
I suppose you can call me Bill after that attempt at a limerick.

Moving on…though it certainly constitutes a Spring Training “puff piece”, this article by Anthony Castrovince on Travis Hafner reveals that Hafner’s 2007 season was clouded by some family health concerns and the distraction of his contract. But that’s just the baseball-relevant paragraph in the piece, which also lifts the curtain on the man known as Pronk. You know, the guy who was the Mathlete in High School, is not quite sure of the difference between a wrench and a screwdriver, is deathly afraid of needles, and whose goal in 2006 was to wear the same pair of camouflage pants to the park every day.
That guy, right?
I’m not sure why, but every time I read something like this about Hafner (it all started with his admission that he finished in the Top Ten of his High School class…of 8) that I just can’t help but like the guy, regardless of his performance on the field. Without sounding like a myopic fan who think that they could relate to professional athletes (which simply isn’t true anymore as the chasm between average people and the modern professional athlete grows daily), I wouldn’t mind sitting down with this guy over a couple of bottles of The Champagne of Bottled Beers…maybe we could talk about how we both think that needles are scary and somewhat unneccesary.

From the department of “Unsurprising News”, Tom Mastny has apparently locked up the final bullpen spot, for all intents and purposes.

Terry Pluto examines the attendance disparity between the Tigers and the Indians for the past few years and hits on his positives from Winter Haven (Hafner, The Frisco Kid, Gutz, Cabrera, and Barfield) and the negatives (Fultz, Laffey, and Marte). Interestingly, in the games prior to Pluto’s column Marte essentially made the 25-man roster as he seems to be heating up, with 3 HR in the past two days, which includes a 2 HR, 6 RBI outing against the Astros. Despite what Jim Ingraham thinks, here’s hoping that Marte is able to parlay the success into a consistency that would force his way into the lineup.

Finally, here’s an absolutely hilarious first-person view of what a trip to Winter Haven by some hard-living folks in their 20’s (I assume), which comes from the LGT’s resident improvisational actor, afh4. The impossible-to-erase image of Tribe bullpen coach Luis Isaac bellying up to a hotel bar in Winter Haven wearing a Kangol hat has me already making plans to linger around the Tribe bullpen this summer sporting my (as yet unpurchased) Kangol hat, trying to catch Luis' eye.

That’s about it.
I’m going to have to get going as I just got an instant message from some guy named “gorilla suit theo” asking me if I’ve been keeping my pitching wing loose and if my passport’s in order. It seems he has some room on a charter flight to Japan and is looking for someone interested in “taking the pill” in something happening over there.
Sounds intriguing - I’ll keep everyone abreast of the situation as it develops.

Now, everyone, go back to watching basketball.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Yo, Brodzoski!

A certain sense of obligation has driven me to provide a screenshot of something that was referenced here in the latest installment of Lazy Sunday. The set-up for this is that a link was provided to Paul Hoynes’ “Sunday Notes” column in the PD with the first reader comment posted being shown below:
The obligation to post this comes from the knowledge that, for some reason, won’t have the link or the page up forever as they “archive” their content – making it available…for a price.

Now, let’s all get past the inane idea that the Indians would somehow be better if what (I think) this person is suggesting would come to pass. Replacing Joe Borowski on the roster with Scott Elarton will not happen and nor should the thought even be entertained by any rational person.

But like I said, let’s look past that. And I’m not even that thrown off by the misspellings, despite all three players’ names being butchered, as they happen to all of us and Spell-Check can only take you so far (the suggestion for Elarton from Spell-Check is Elation) in any endeavor in writing.

No, my favorite part of this missive is that the author misspelled Borowski’s name drastically, somehow realized this and decided to identify who was being referred to by pointing out Borowski’s role on the team. However, instead of (The Closer) it became simply (The Close). So, in case you couldn’t figure out that Brodzoski was Borowski, perhaps (The Close) would clear it up for you.

As serial poster R.M. Jennings points out, I think it’s fairly obvious that another name has been added to Borowski’s stable of nicknames. Throw Brodzoski (The Close) right on the pile with JoeBo and The Big Borowski and revel in the ineptitude that is the average poster.

By the way, if you see a guy wearing one of these two jerseys at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario this year, be sure to say hello to me.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Taking the Fifth

As Spring Training marches on in Winter Haven, unless you’re a huge fan of Danny Sandoval or have already ordered your Beau Mills (or Beaux Moulins, to you Francophiles out there) jersey in anticipation of Mills’ 2009 debut, really not much has happened. In light of other injuries that have cropped up in other camps (knocking firmly on wood), a quiet camp for a team thought to be a contender with a roster more or less set when the planes touched down in Florida is not necessarily a bad thing.

That being said, the camp is not completely devoid of “Training Camp Battles”, with the most compelling being the fight for the 5th starter spot, pitting the prohibitive favorite Cliff Lee against youngsters Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey. Now, by simple virtue of this being a contest to see who any 5th starter is, it certainly was not expected to be a “Clash of the Titans” by any stretch of the imagination, but even in the world of meaningless Spring Training stats, the results for the 3 combatants have been prior to Lee’s promising outing today against the Tigers…how can I put this nicely…uninspiring:

Cliff Lee
March 4th vs. CIN – 1.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
March 7th vs. NYM – 2/3 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 0 K
March 11th vs. DET – 3.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K
Totals – 4 2/3 IP, 3.86 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, 3.86 BB/9, 5.78 K/9

Jeremy Sowers
March 1st vs. DET – 1.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K
March 4th vs. CIN – 1.0 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 1 K
March 9th vs. WAS – 2.0 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
Totals – 4.0 IP, 18.00 ERA, 3.00 WHIP, 2.25 BB/9, 4.50 K/9

Aaron Laffey
March 1st vs. DET – 1.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K
March 4th vs. CIN – 2/3 IP, 3 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 1 K
March 8th vs. WAS – 2 1/3 IP, 1 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 5 BB, 2 K
Totals – 4.0 IP, 18.00 ERA, 3.50 WHIP, 20.25 BB/9, 6.75 K/9

Fully realizing that the statistics are based on a ridiculously infinitesimal sample size (we’re basing this on results from numbers of PITCHES, not innings), let’s just say that if this was a horse race between these three, the only people that would be excited in the grandstand would be the executives from the Glue Factory. Perhaps that’s harsh, but you’d like to think that one of these players would see the opportunity presented to them and would be making every attempt to take advantage of their chance to break camp with the AL Central Champs instead of moping back to Buffalo.

Sir Lee (no, he hasn’t been knighted, but saying the name out loud will catch you up on his apparent disposition) finally was able to put together the first truly decent appearance Tuesday put forth by the trio as he was able to work three scoreless innings against a Tigers’ lineup that included Granderson, Polanco, and Renteria. The most encouraging aspect of the outing is that Lee posted a few strikeouts, hopefully serving notice that he was able to locate his fastball, thus allowing him to throw his secondary breaking pitches. The problem that we saw last year with Lee as he unraveled was that he couldn’t locate his fastball, resulting in his inability to get ahead in the count. Whether or not Lee, who has often been painted as churlish and resistant to coaching or suggestion, truly has been able to rectify the problem will go a long way to determining his future with the franchise.

There’s no question that Lee’s standing with the organization has fallen quite a bit from how he was viewed after the 2005 season to today (as his comparable pitchers have drifted into the “journeyman pitcher” category with Darren Oliver, Pete Schourek, Curt Young, and Rick Helling all making dubious appearances) as every one of his statistics (notably, ERA+, WHIP, and K/9) has trended in the wrong direction for three years now. I’m fairly certain that this pattern of regression is not what the organization had in mind when they came to terms on a multi-year deal with him in August of 2006, particularly in terms of how lightly he seems to be regarded by some who see his ceiling as a 5th starter.

But, how lightly is Lee regarded these days – enough for the Indians to exercise his final option coming out of Spring Training?
That’s right, kids, Cliff Lee still (somehow) still has one option remaining, but not without some caveats as he’d have to clear revocable waivers (as he did last year to be sent to Buffalo), much like players dealt after the July 31st Trading Deadline every year. Of course, even if Lee did head to Buffalo from Winter Haven, the Indians would still owe him the guaranteed money on his contract ($3.75M this year) and his trade value (if eventually moving him was thought to be the “end game” with Lee) would plummet further – if that were even possible.

The second item to consider for a Lee demotion is that assuming Lee breaks camp with the team, at some point in mid-June, he will have accumulated a full five years of MLB service time, giving him the option of refusing any assignment to the minors, which he would most certainly exercise if it came to that. All told, the Lee situation is not an ideal one for the organization, who either needs to take their chances that he can straighten things out before June in MLB or swallow hard and sign hefty paychecks for a pitcher toiling (and likely unhappy) in AAA.

In one of the other “corners”, Sowers came into camp, allegedly with a few extra MPH on his fastball and the lessons of taking some lumps in 2007 fresh in his head. Sowers has never been (and will never be) a dominant pitcher, but he has looked eminently hittable again this Spring, giving up hits in bunches. On the positive side, he seems to be taking the Indians’ organizational philosophy of “throwing strikes” to heart (32 pitches thrown, 27 strikes), walking only 1 batter in 4 innings. But if “throwing strikes” equates to putting a ball on a tee for the batter (4 hits allowed in one inning vs. Cincinnati, 7 hits allowed in two innings vs. Washington), then the best that Sowers can hope for is that the struck ball is going to find a fielder’s glove more frequently than an open space of grass. Beyond that, he’s just putting the ball out there to put it in play without the benefit of being a sinkerballer like Carmona or Westbrook, whose “pitch to contact” approach at least is designed to generate ground ball outs.

For whatever reason (perhaps I’ll chalk it up to the overplayed “cerebral” card), Sowers seems to be a pitcher who relies on momentum and confidence as much as anything in his repertoire. In 2006, he found himself on an incredible roll, going 5 or more innings in 13 of his 14 starts and had the chutzpah to post a 3.57 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP despite an underwhelming K rate (3.56 K/9). But given the ball every five days to start the 2007 season, Sowers went into freefall after his two initial starts. From his 3rd start (2 2/3 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 1 BB, 1 K vs. NYY) through his next nine, Sowers gave up less than 3 ER only twice. Once the train got off the tracks for Sowers, it didn’t seem that anything could stop it as he gave up four or more runs in 5 of his 7 starts from the beginning of May until his eventual demotion in Buffalo.

If, in fact, Sowers is reliant on pitching with brimming confidence, I wouldn’t expect his Spring Training performances to catapult him into a stretch reminiscent of the 2nd half of the 2006 season. It remains more than likely that the Indians will send Sowers to Buffalo to start the season in an attempt to get him rolling along and “pitching with confidence” (whatever that means). And perhaps that’s the best approach with Sowers and his apparently fragile psyche – to allow him to build up some confidence and momentum in Buffalo in the hopes that he can parlay that success to MLB innings. At this point, though, starting Sowers in Cleveland (with the likelihood that he would get knocked around a few times to start the season) may actually hinder his development.

As 2007 ended and Aaron Laffey surveyed the scene before him, he must have felt pretty good about his chances of starting 2008 in the Tribe rotation. The still 22-year-old contributed 9 starts to a contending team coming down the stretch posting a respectable 4.56 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP while striking out twice the number of batters than he walked in his brief stint with the team. He established himself as another sinkerballer on the team, inducing three times as many ground ball outs as fly ball outs and allowing only 2 HR in nearly 50 IP.

His performance didn’t cause any phones in Cooperstown to ring, but it was a more than respectable debut for a player that started the season in the Akron rotation. And, perhaps most importantly, the numbers that he had accumulated in the minors in 2007 (low HR rate, low BB rate, favorable K/BB ratio) continued into his stretch in Cleveland.

Truthfully, if you were to ask me what I thought was going to happen this Spring, my answer would have been that Laffey would have continued his success, making him impossible to ignore. But Laffey’s Spring has started like he’s a completely different pitcher than the one that we saw last year in Cleveland. He has struggled with his command, walking 9 batters in 4 innings, and is averaging over 14 pitches an inning, a unusually high amount of pitches for someone who generally induces contact and ground balls.

It could be that Laffey heard the talk over the off-season that his modest K rate was the drawback to an otherwise impressive resume, particularly for a player his age. Maybe he read the press clippings and is trying to be too fine with his pitches, resulting in too many walks as he’s actually given up more walks than hits. What is most intriguing about this early performance is that many people feel that Laffey, because of his reputation as a strike-thrower and his ability to keep the ball in the ballpark, would eventually slot into a relief role. Early returns from this Spring would contradict that line of that, as well as the line of thought that Laffey will start the season anywhere but Buffalo.

All told, it looks pretty obvious that Lee will break camp as the 5th starter (unless some unforeseen trade suddenly materializes) and Sowers and Laffey will start the season in the Buffalo rotation. However, don’t be surprised when starts for Sowers and Laffey in Buffalo coincide (or fall right around) days that Lee pitches for the Tribe. The Indians are likely to let it play out this way – break camp with Lee with the understanding that he’s on a pretty tight leash that he’ll have to sort things out before his MLB service time hits 5 full years (which, again, would allow him to refuse a demotion). Meanwhile, Sowers and Laffey will pitch for the Herd on the same day as Lee is pitching for the Tribe (or one to two days removed) so they’d be ready (and on proper days’ rest) to step in for Lee, if necessary.

While all of this is based on EXTREMELY small sample sizes, it is unfortunately all we have to go on in this alleged “open competition”. And with limited time remaining in Spring Training plus the necessary rest between appearances eating up a good portion of these players’ time, how many more appearances are truly expected from each player? Not too many, with only 17 more days full of games, which means that Lee will probably get 3 more outings and Sowers and Laffey will likely get 4 more apiece.

The horses are still technically out on the track, but the smart money’s on Clifton Phifer Lee.