Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What the Pronk?

The Indians’ offense has, once again, become the hot-button issue in town (despite my buddy Dozer’s insistence to talk about 4th round picks and that Beau Bell is a “diamond in the rough”) and the disturbing trends that reared their ugly heads earlier in the season are seeing daylight again as the Indians’ main cogs of offense are underperforming and putting unnecessary pressure (and a bright spotlight) on the bottom of the order and the players designed to be complimentary parts of the roster.

Consider that the most RBI in the Tribe lineup has come from the #8 hole (19 RBI).
Next up? The #9 hole and, of course, the #2 hole with 16 RBI.
That’s right, the #3 hole (14 RBI), the #4 hole (11 RBI), and #5 hole (13 RBI) don’t even crack the top three run producing spots in the order to date.

What gives? We all know that Garko is hitless in his last 23 at-bats, that Peralta is maddeningly inconsistent, and that Victor has only 4 extra base hits (all 2B) in his 27 hits and is sitting on an OBP (.397) that almost matches his SLG (.417). Since when did Vic the Stick become Ichiro?

Let me throw an answer out there for you…and don’t stop me because you’ve heard this one before – it’s Pronk, or better yet, a lack of Pronk. Going into Tuesday’s game, Travis Hafner’s OPS sat at .667, slightly ahead of Julio Lugo (.663) and slightly behind David Eckstein (.673) as the Tribe approaches their 30th game. LUGO?!? ECKSTEIN?!?

Regardless of what Big Papi’s doing (.611 OPS, in case you were wondering), Hafner’s 2007 struggles look to be carrying over to 2008 and weighing down the lineup like an anchor. It’s true that the #2 hole remains a work in progress (though Dellucci has acquitted himself nicely against RHP), but the fact that Hafner is looking more timid at the plate than ever and is sabotaging rally after rally is killing the Indians’ offense.

Those situations that Pronk used to stride into like a WWE wrestler making his way to the squared circle have become a distant memory. Those pitches that Pronk used to (as Rick Manning so eloquently puts it) “spit at” are finding their way into the catcher’s mitt with a raised right hand of the umpire behind it or are barely making the infield grass.

What in the name of Bruce Banner is going on here?
Let’s start to examine the numbers, starting with Hafner’s “famous” eye that drove him to having an OPS over 1.000 in 2005 and 2006. Hafner’s BB rate is the lowest (11.1%) since 2003, peaking at 18.1% in his superb 2005 campaign. Conversely, his K rate is the highest it has been (at 27.1%) since that same 2003 season. So, the combination of walking less and striking out more means that he’s not seeing the ball as well, right? Well, actually the percentage of strikes that he’s swinging at (66%) and the overall pitches he’s swinging at (about 40%) have remained pretty steady since 2004 with him actually swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone this year than he ever has in his career, only swinging at 14.5% of pitches outside of the zone in 2008. He’s making worse contact on pitches outside of the strike zone (hitting only about 31% of the non-strikes he’s thrown) than he has in the past, but he’s chasing fewer pitches out of the zone, so that’s not too big of a concern.

Want a shocker? In his brief 2008 season, Hafner has the highest percentage of contact of strikes he swings at (88%), the highest percentage of contact when he swings (78%), and seeing the highest percentage of strikes (50%) of his career.

All of that tells us that he’s swinging at about the same rates that he’s always swung the bat, both in terms of swinging at strikes and making contact with strikes and is making better contact when he swings and, more importantly, when he swings at strikes…which he’s seeing more than he ever has.

But, in reality, those pitch and swing statistics (acquired via Hafner’s Fangraphs.com page) don’t get to the heart of the problem with Hafner, which has nothing to do with WHEN he’s swinging or how often he’s simply MAKING contact. To me, it comes down to HOW he’s swinging and HOW he’s making contact as the answer to both HOW’s right now bring to mind one word – weakly.

It looks like Hafner’s having difficulty recognizing pitches and, by the time he decides whether to swing or not, he’s either watching the ball fly by him or he’s waving at it, weakly grounding to points in the infield (the balls he’s hit in the infield is DRASTICALLY up from years past…about three times his 2006 totals). So maybe he is making contact with pitches and swinging at the right pitches…he’s just doing it with weak swings because of late recognition. His Home Run per Fly Ball percentage (how many fly balls he hits go for HR) is down to 12.5% from the likes of 24% in 2005 and 30% in 2006, so the lack of power, when he is making contact, is very disconcerting.

Whether his lack of power comes from him not making an early decision to swing at a ball and not getting much behind the swing or if the “shift” has caused him to overthink his approach as teams dare him to try to hit it down the LF line remains unsolved. Whatever the cause of his lack of power or putting the bat solidly on the ball, the Indians can’t continue to allow his struggles squash run-producing opportunities in the middle of the lineup. Perhaps a move down the lineup will take some pressure off of Hafner; of course, it could just as easily further damage his fading confidence.

At this point, though, the Indians need to remedy this offense and simply giving Andy Marte or Ben Francisco plate appearances isn’t going to serve as a saving balm. The only thing that will rescue this offense is the return of Pronk. Maybe a move down the lineup will release the inner Pronk that the Indians need to solidify their whole lineup. Until Pronk returns and the rest of the lineup can feed off of his productivity, the Indians’ offense will remain as toothless as their DH.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Lazy Sunday with a Pad of Butter

Because we’re on a roll…get it?
OK, enough Stu Scott, right?
Sorry, I’m having trouble containing myself after witnessing two victories over the Bronx Bombers in two nights, with seats for yesterday’s game basically IN the visitors’ dugout…but more on that later.
Let’s take a quick trip around a Lazy Sunday:

Baseball Prospectus is impressed with Cliff Lee’s start, and with pretty good reason. A person who would know tells me that Lee is throwing essentially fastball after fastball (Pluto says it’s 80% of the time), but is throwing it to the catcher’s mitt with alarming ease. For Lee’s next start, watch where the catcher’s mitt starts when Lee goes into the windup and observe how frequently Vic or ShopVac move even an inch…assuming, of course, that Warren Spahn keeps taking the ball for Cliff Lee’s starts.

Pluto also mentions that Sabathia’s mechanics were off and that hitters were able to pick up when his breaking ball was coming because of the delivery. Makes sense to me now as an explanation as to why he wasn’t throwing his breaking ball if he thought people knew it was coming, leading to the trickle-down effect of batters being able to sit there on his fastball and wait to square one up.

Shelly Ocker comes through with something rational and logical today, which makes me wonder if Pluto’s ghostwriting for him. Seriously, though, Ocker has a decent piece on how the Indians’ have taken advantage of revenue opportunities in a mid-sized market to retain their own players and stick to “The Plan”.

It seems that the two injured Tribe pitchers are taking longer than expected to recover. For one of them, I would like to see him back ASAP. For the other, I’m OK with him taking as long as he needs…then waiting 60 days. You can probably figure out which is which.

Speaking of Westbrook, he’s scheduled to appear on a streaming radio show online called “Country Fastball” at 6 PM tonight. Not sure if his injury will be covered, but most Cleveland sports events should be done by then, so it might be worth a listen.

In case you missed it, Atom Miller returned to the Bisons’ rotation in sparkling fashion last week. Truthfully, I could see Miller as a dark-horse candidate to take the next start after Laffey’s on Monday that’s not handled by C.C., Fausto, Lee, and Byrd. The Indians will have a lot of roster shuffling to do, and throwing the big RH in an MLB game may be in the cards for the Tribe. He, like Laffey and Sowers, is on the 40-man, so his option is already being used this year. Let’s see what the kid can do while Jake’s on the mend…why not? It certainly would be interesting to see him against some MLB hitters.

Finally for the LS, what does Pronk mean? Watch away…

Now, back to yesterday, when the DiaBride and I were lucky enough to take in the Victor-y from a dugout suite. To give you an idea of how close these are (and I had only been in one during a Ballpark Tour), check this:


You’re actually closer to the plate than the pitcher’s mound is…no zoom on these pics.
THAT is insanity.

Our seats were essentially behind where the Yankees’ on-deck circle was (which is about 10 feet closer to home than the actual “on-deck circle”), allowing us to be privy to Jeter telling A-Rod (standing on the top step) that Sowers was throwing a cutter in the 1st inning, and to hear every word uttered by the ballplayers as they stood on-deck. The highlight of the Yankees being on-deck in front of us? When Jeets and A-Snob had to move out of the “dirt” track as they waited to lead off an inning for the…Hot Dog Derby. The expression on their faces and the way they sllloooowwwllly moved out of the way of the approaching hot dogs made me hate them more.


We had a great view of the maelstrom that erupted when the ump blew the call at 2B, from Wedge flying out of the dugout as soon as the ump signaled an out, to the Atomic Wedgie running by a screaming Joel Skinner as Wedge waved Skins off, as if to say “I’ve got this”, to Wedge’s eventual glorious ejection.


The highlight, though obviously, came from Grady running right into our kitchen as he scored the go-ahead run and the ensuing celebration on the field.








Today is a perfect time for C.C. to re-establish himself as the de facto aCCe of this team and ensure a series sweep from the Spankees.
Hey, Hey, Hey, Let’s Go Tribe!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

If the Left One Doesn't Get Ya...

With all of the hullabaloo about the Indians’ hitters finally finding their bats and Cliff Lee turning into Sandy Koufax, the underappreciated performance of the back of the revamped bullpen (sans JoeBo) has been just as vital in the Tribe rattling off four in a row. In the Indians’ last 8 games, in which they are 6-2, the back end of the bullpen has started to gel with Betancourt finally closing games and Perez and Masa serving as his primary set-up men. With the demotion of Jensen Lewis (whose velocity still sits in what will heretofore be known as “BrodzoskiLand”), the Indians seem to have settled on The Two Rafaels and Mr. Death Ball to close out the 7th, 8th, and 9th in close games.

In the aforementioned 8 games, both Kobayashi and Betancourt have pitched extremely well, with Perez scuffling (albeit ridden hard and often by the Atomic Wedgie)…that is until last night. Going into last night’s game, the back end of the bullpen posted these performances in their previous 7 games:
Kobayashi – 3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K
Perez – 4 IP, 8 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 3 K
Betancourt – 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K

Then last night arrives, with the Indians clinging to a lead against that “vaunted” Yankee lineup with more than three innings to go to close out the game. What happened in the 5th inning and beyond last night may serve as the moment that the back end of the bullpen settled itself as Rafael Perez righted himself in a very large and in charge manner (2 1/3 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 1 K), getting an improbable 7 outs with a mere 23 pitches (17 of which were strikes) while allowing only one baserunner.

Following the Scarecrow, Senor Slo-Mo emerged to the sound of gavels hammering down and the crowd being commanded to “All Rise…Betancourt is in Session”. How did the Fist of Steel react to facing A-Rod, Matsui, and Posada with a two run lead? He threw 9 pitches (8 for strikes), retired A-Rod on a weak pop-out, whiffed Matsui, and got Posada to lift a fly ball that Sizemore nestled under for the 27th out.

From the time that Perez entered the game in the 5th, just after Matsui’s HR brought the game to a 5-4 lead for the Tribe, the Fist of Iron and the Fist of Steel threw all of 32 pitches to record 10 outs, allowing only one baserunner via the walk (who was promptly erased via the DP) against the “feared” (notice I use quotes) Yankees lineup.

The dominance from the two of them served as a reminder of how good the Indians’ bullpen was last year and how the fact that The Two Rafaels and Kobayashi have settled into their roles this early in the season (almost immediately after the nominal closer went down with “nothing left in the tank”) figures to play a huge role in the Indians’ defense of the AL Central. As a corollary, the fact that the 7th, 8th, and 9th inning roles have been claimed, the youngsters in the bullpen (namely Lewis and Mastny) can try to find their groove and slot themselves into the 6th inning man, when needed, in low-pressure situations or even allow the organization to audition even younger arms (Stevens, Newsom) for bigger roles on the parent club.

Last night served as a preview of the punches that the Indians’ bullpen possesses, with a Left-Right combination that can’t be matched by many teams.
If you see them coming, better step aside…

Friday, April 25, 2008

Welcome Back!

Let us not forget the last time the Yankees descended upon our fair city:



Meanwhile...


Bring It On...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Tomahawks with an Offensive Juggernaut

What should a struggling offensive team do to fix what ails them? Very simply, head to KC…as the Tribe tallied 24 runs in the first two games of the series to take their first series since the opening series against the ChiSox in Cleveland. With the DiaBride sitting in all of her “Casey Blake is a lot better than you think he is” glory, release the ‘Hawks:
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Let me first give credit where it is certainly due as Casey Blake went 6 for 8 with 6 RBI in the first 2 games of the series after going 10 for 56 (.179) with 10 RBI in the 17 games leading up to them. Now, I’m not going to say that Lacey Cake has exactly proven that he’s worth everyday AB with 2 games (as we all know that he’s prone to these types of games followed by stretches of mediocrity), but I’m off his back for a while.
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How wonderful was it to see our old aCCe back in the fold? Pounding the strike zone, throwing his slider with authority (who said he’s hurt?), and whiffing 11 during 6 dominant innings. Did he throw too many pitches (102 through 6 innings)? Probably, but if that’s what it takes for him to get back into the groove and get some confidence back in locating his fastball and mixing in his slider…throw away, Big Fella.
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It looks as if Jeremy Sowers will actually be making the start on Saturday against the Yankees, a decision that was likely only made after last night’s rain out that prevents Fausto from making his scheduled start on Monday. So, we’ll have Sowers on Saturday and Laffey on Monday (both against NYY in the hopes that two fresh arms from Buffalo won’t overly tax a bullpen that plays two tonight in KC and won’t have an off day until May 5th.
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Speaking of the bullpen, if you want an indication of which relievers The Atomic Wedgie is comfortable throwing in a tight game, look no further than last Sunday’s game, when only Masa Kobaysahi and the Fist of Iron (Perez) were used to relieve Byrd. Sure, Betancourt was up in case the team took the lead, but I didn’t see any other reliever even getting warm. Perez pitching two full innings (and eventually absorbing the loss) shows that Wedge has no faith in Lewis (he of the diminished velocity that still has to “ramp up” – bah), Julio, Mastny, or Breslow. Not having enough faith in nearly 60% of your bullpen to bring them in during a tight game does not bode well for the Tribe.

That progression of Perez, Masa, and Betancourt was further solidified in Game 1 of the doubleheader tonight as the game, particularly after Lewis was pulled after pitching only 2/3 of an inning in the 6th. I have no problem with Kobayashi moving up the ladder and Lewis moving down as their performances to date have dictated the flip-flop, but the Indians are going to need a 4th reliever to step up (as Perez, then Lewis did last year) if they’re going to be able to go any sort of distance in close games.
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Heading down to 3 of the 4 games against those hated Yankees this weekend, so let us all remember why THAAAAA Yankees Suck!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The First Domino

In a surprise move, a starting pitcher for the Tribe hit the DL today…but his name wasn’t Carsten. Jake Westbrook was placed on the 15-day DL with a rib cage strain – this just after going all 9 innings of Saturday’s game in Minnesota without a hint of any kind of injury. In his place, the Indians promoted The Ben Francisco Treat – but it’s not too likely they’ll be asking him to throw every 5th day, so follow the logic on this announcement and what it likely portends.

With Westbrook’s injury, Lee and Byrd obviously move up in the rotation and can pitch with their regular rest this week thanks to Monday’s off day. So the pitching schedule will look like this:
Tonight – Sabathia
Wednesday – Carmona
Thursday – Lee
Friday – Byrd

Saturday’s game against the Yankees (nationally televised, no less) is where the Indians will need a replacement starter for the rotation. As mentioned here previously, Aaron Laffey (who pitched last Saturday’s game for the Herd, the same day that Westbrook pitched against the Twins) has proven by his performance in Buffalo that he should be ready to step into the spot vacated by a starter (surprisingly Jake, not C.C.) due to injury.

Until Saturday, though, the Indians have time to determine what player is not long for the 25-man roster, being effectively replaced by The Frisco Kid today. In effect, instead of promoting Laffey today, the Indians get themselves another position player and (unless Francisco is sent down on Saturday, which I can’t even get my sometimes-circular logic to buy) have about four days to jettison a player on the 25-man roster, either via trade or being designated for assignment.

The two most logical candidates would be Jason Michaels (which was addressed here) and Andy Marte, who the team has shown no interest in playing to this point. If it is indeed Michaels, then I suppose being late to the party is better than never arriving at all. However, if it is Marte, then the Indians’ brass better have some hard data and reasoning as to why Marte was never given more than the 57 at-bat tryout that he went through a year ago before deeming him unworthy of sticking in an organization without many other viable 3B alternatives for this year, and certainly next year after being so universally highly thought of when being traded from Atlanta to Boston, then to Cleveland – all for MLB talent.

Is placing your 2nd best pitcher (thus far this year) on the DL the preferred method of shaking up the roster? Absolutely not, but if the injury brought all of the simmering ineffectiveness to the surface in terms of the team having to make a move, in addition to having the luxury of buying a couple of days to figure out who just drew the short straw, consider the first domino felled.

For now, we’ll hope that Westbrook’s injury doesn’t have the same effect that the oblique strains had on his 2007 season (or that of C.P. Lee last year) and wait, with bated breath, to see how (or is it if?) Francisco is ingratiated into the lineup as well as waiting for the news of which position player is on their way off of the 25-man prior to Laffey’s start Saturday against the Bronx Bombers.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Prognosis Negative

With the offense stuck in neutral and the bullpen still in preliminary stages of an evolution, what’s most frustrating about the last week for Indians’ fans? How about that the Tribe starters (not including the reigning Cy Young winner’s 1 start) have compiled the following numbers over the last 7 games:
49 IP (an average of 7 IP per start)
1.29 ERA
0.90 WHIP
36 K
6 BB
What is the Indians’ record in those 7 starts (again, I’m not including C.C.)?
3-4…with the starters included allowing less than a baserunner per inning, posting a 6 to 1 K to BB ratio, and averaging 7 innings per start.

Their 3 best starters’ respective rankings in the AL in terms of ERA thus far are #1 (Lee – 0.40), #5 (Carmona – 1.96), and #12 (Westbrook – 2.73). Additionally, Lee has the best WHIP in the AL, with Westbrook #12 among AL pitchers. From Lee, Westbrook, Carmona, and Byrd, the Indians have received 12 Quality Starts in their 15 starts….from the #2, #3, #4, and #5 spots in the rotation.

Obviously, the offense and the bullpen are letting this team down in terms of supporting the starting pitching, as they continue to come up short in the runs department or blowing the leads (or ties) handed to them by the starters, who are certainly not struggling.

Not struggling, that is, save one.
I’m going to link this article from Beyond the Box Score again because it comes to an interesting conclusion after proving that Sabathia is not throwing his slider, but takes the next step as to trying to determine why. With the caveat that Sabathia could just have no confidence in his slider and doesn’t want to throw it, Peter Bendix comes up with this:
As much as I hate to say it, there is one potential answer to this question. Let’s say you’re CC Sabathia, pitching in the last year before you are set to earn a bagillion dollars on the free agent market. Perhaps last season, perhaps in spring training, or perhaps in your first start of the season against the White Sox, you feel something strange in your arm or shoulder. Maybe it’s tingling. Maybe it’s pain. Maybe it’s just uncomfortable. But no matter what it is, you only feel it (or it’s exacerbated) when you throw an off-speed pitch. Like a slider. What do you do?
You stop throwing as many sliders. And other teams sit on your fastball. And if you can’t command the fastball (which may or may not have to do with that strange feeling in your arm), you walk guys and get hit hard.


Of course, this is the extreme case of projecting an injury on somebody and, since I’m not in the practice of trying to figure out what’s going on in Sabathia’s substantial head, it’s about as good as I’ve seen thus far in terms of an explanation as to why his velocity is unaffected, but opposing batters have been able to sit on his fastball, wait for it to meander over the plate, and hit it wherever they want.

If Sabathia is truly hurt (and I’m not saying he is, I’m only taking the next step from Bendix’s conclusion), where do the Indians go? As much as Sheldon Ocker would like to see C.C. work out his problems in the minors or the bullpen, it’s fairly obvious that a DL stint may be what’s best for everyone. If that is the case, I don’t think the Indians will blink before the decision to promote Aaron Laffey is made. Laffey’s posted a 3-1 record in Buffalo with a 3.13 ERA, a 1.26 WHIP, and a 3 to 1 K/BB ratio. He’s struck out 18 batters in 23 innings and, in his last two starts he’s posted a 1.38 ERA and a 0.77 WHIP. Moreso than Jeremy Sowers, Laffey has shown that AAA may be beneath him and that the 23-year-old (turned 23 on April 15th) is ready to, once again, contribute at the MLB level.

If Laffey if promoted, it would bring the 3rd groundball-inducing pitcher into the rotation (with Fausto and Jake) and brings up a greater question – namely, what in the name of the DiaBride is Casey Blake still doing starting every day at 3B?

I’ll get into the offensive struggles of Lacey Cake and his counterparts later, but for a moment consider Blake’s standing in MLB for “Zone Rating”, which is a defensive statistic that measures the percentage of balls fielded by a player in his typical defensive “zone”. Blake is getting to only 2/3 of the balls hit into his zone, BEHIND Fat Miguel Cabrera, whose range has become somewhat of a joke league-wide.

Meanwhile, Andy Marte, who has been voted the best defensive 3B in his league during his stint in the minors a few times (though he’s never shown much consistency in Cleveland) continues to languish, unused, on the bench. Perhaps Marte wouldn’t represent much of an upgrade over Blake overall, but isn’t his defensive upside enough to merit a chance against LHP, whom he’s had better success against throughout his career?
2007 – Buffalo (AAA)
.827 OPS vs. LH
.748 OPS vs. RH

2006 – Buffalo (AAA)
.894 OPS vs. LH
.730 OPS vs. RH

2005 – Richmond (AAA)
.936 OPS vs. LH
.848 OPS vs. RH

It doesn’t seem so, as Marte has yet to face a LHP this year while Casey LOBlake has posted a .143 BA / .200 OBP / .143 SLG / .343 OPS in the (admittedly small sample size alert) 15 plate appearances that Blake has had against LHP thus far this year. But really, amending the Marte-Blake situation (as obvious of a decision as this seems unless the Indians have ZERO interest in seeing what they have in Marte this year) is just the tip of the iceberg as the guy who’s batted #8 or #9 in the order (as Blake has) is not going to make or break your offense.

No, there’s plenty of blame to go around here when you take a moment to consider how each position (an easy way to compile Dellichaels’ stats) compare against the rest of the AL. I’ll use OPS as the barometer of production and how each position stacks up against the AL:
C - .807 OPS (4th of 14)
1B - .876 OPS (4th of 14)
2B - .558 OPS (11th of 14)
SS - .742 OPS (4th of 14)
3B - .527 OPS (13th of 14)
LF - .629 OPS (12th of 14)
CF -.740 OPS (7th of 14)
RF - .530 OPS (13th of 14)
DH - .713 OPS (7th of 14)

What does all of this tell us?
Well, what we already knew, in that the holes are at 2B, 3B, LF, and RF – all ranking in the bottom four. Of those vacuums, we know that the defense and youth of Frank the Tank and Asdrubal give them a bit of a longer leash, leaving us with the shocking conclusion that…wait for it…Blake and Michaels are playing terribly no matter how you look at the numbers.

Guess what though? While those two are painful to watch, they’re not the real problem as a closer at those numbers shows that the WHOLE lineup is struggling. Even Victor and Garko, the two players having the best offensive seasons thus far (even if Vic’s SLG is just .400!) aren’t outpacing their counterparts in the AL by any great measure. Grady and Pronk have middle-of-the-pack production from the #1 and #3 holes in the lineup and THEIR struggles are hurting the team much more than the fact that it feels like hitters #7, #8, and #9 often look like a free inning to opposing pitchers.

When your main cogs are not producing at any level of consistency offensively, the rest of the lineup (which is really complementary on most MLB teams) becomes exposed and draws the ire of the fans (see my above rant on Casey Blake’s inclusion in the lineup and my piece on Jason Michaels called “One Man’s Trash” for proof of that), merited or not. In reality, when Sizemore (whose OPS over his last 7 games is .540, nearly .240 points lower than Casey Blake’s OPS over the same timeframe) and Hafner (whose .593 OPS over the last 7 games is all of .013 points higher than Asdrubal) are struggling as they are, the whole offense is going to remain in neutral…or worse.

What can fix the offense?
You’d like to say patience, but that runs low when you see that Peralta’s posted an improbable .376 OPS over the last 7 games while sitting in the #5 hole, stranding runner after runner or when you consider that 35 of the 79 runs they’ve scored have come in 4 games, leaving them with an average of scoring 2.93 runs a game in the other 15 games they’ve played.

Improbably, despite those stats, the team stands at 7-12…and not worse.
Thanks to a starting staff (save one big part of the rotation) that has carried the team to this point, the Indians figure to remain in games until the right combination of players can be found to generate some offense.
Until then, however, get used to 2-1 losses in 10 innings.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Lazy CCunday (the C's are soft...so far)

As the Indians’ attempt to take the series in the Twin Cities today after, once again, being shut down by a pitcher that they’ve never seen before, let’s take a twirl around a Lazy Sunday:

Ken Rosenthal weighs in on the “What’s Wrong with C.C” conversation with a piece that was written PRIOR to his clunker against the Motor City Kitties on Wednesday. Jon Heyman from SI does the same. With the national media descending on this story and nobody from the big boys (ESPN, SI, Fox, etc) coming up with anything substantial, can they all just say that they don’t know what in the world has happened to the reigning Cy Younger and move on?

On the local C.C. front, Shelden Ocker comes through with another stellar effort of an article, this one on how the Indians should consider making changes to their roster and their handling of Sabathia (after four, admittedly bad, starts) before 40 games are played.
With four starts in the books, he actually wrote these words on the Hefty Lefty:
“Sabathia's past two starts have been so embarrassingly off the charts it's difficult to know where to begin resurrecting his career. If you're thinking Buffalo, forget it. Sabathia cannot be sent to Triple-A without his permission. Nor are Shapiro and Wedge likely to ask him to accept a demotion. Moreover, he is not about to be replaced by one of Buffalo's starters: Jeremy Sowers or Aaron Laffey. That would require moving someone off the roster.“

Then, after batting around all the recycled theories and writing what is shown above (which, to recap, intimates that the Indians should entertain sending the reigning Cy Young Award winner to the minors after four starts…which makes no sense, Ocker asserts, mainly because someone would have to be moved off of the roster) he comes back with this to finish the article that, “as dark as the near future looks for Sabathia, whatever he is doing wrong for whatever reason probably will be only a faded memory in a few weeks.”Another superb piece from Ocker, who comes up with no real hard facts on Sabathia, outlines what the Indians won’t do (for all of the wrong reasons), then concludes that C.C. will be fine.
Yikes.

But back to coherent thought and actual baseball knowledge and insight on C.C., according to the most in-depth analysis that I’ve seen about the Crooked Cap from Beyond the Box Score (if you click only one link today, make sure this is the one), it appears that he HAS been throwing his slider less, resulting in fewer swings-and-misses for the Big Fella. It goes back to what I said after the Oakland start (and backs it up in a way), but C.C. is pitching differently this year and because he hasn’t been able to command his fastball properly, his pitch mix is off and batters are just sitting, waiting on the fastball that they know he’ll throw with two strikes.

A final link on C.C., a terrific piece of satire from woodsmeister over at LGT (who also mans the Pronk Needs You site), who penned a “press release” from Indians fans saying, essentially, that Tribe fans would like to break off contract negotiations themselves so WE, as fans, can focus on baseball.

On to the LHP that has picked up the mantle for C.C., Jayson Stark thinks that C.P. Lee v.2008 may be “for real”. He’s sitting on a 0.40 ERA with a 0.44 WHIP and 20 K to his 2 BB in his three starts; so (after acknowledging that my eulogy for Cliff Lee’s career was premature) yeah, I’ll go with Stark’s conclusion. This early in the season, I’m more than happy to eat crow on Lee, whose numbers had deteriorated in two seasons to the point of wondering if he was still a viable MLB starter. With the command of his fastball back and with him getting ahead of hitters, allowing him to throw his breaking pitches…ahem…C.C., Lee looks to be returning to 2005 form with a level of improvement that boggles the mind.

In case you missed the ESPN broadcast of the Red Sox-Tribe game on Monday, it included some time with Mark Shapiro in the booth with the ESPN broadcast team, including Orel Hershiser and Steve Phillips. His inclusion for the 5th inning included a “Behind Closed Doors” segment that showed what Shapiro’s day consisted of, as well as showing (multiple times) the Indians’ “Big Board”, which lists all 30 MLB rosters, potential FA after this year, and their own organizational depth. Through the magic of DVR and “pause”, I was able to fancy some looks at how they have the potential FA after this year rated in terms of pitchers and infielders. I’ll get more into those as the season goes on, but I will tell you that C.C. still tops the LH starting pitcher list, just ahead of Randy Wolf. Those particular rankings interest me (that is, the potential FA) because it gives some insight as to what players may be on the Indians’ radar for a mid-season acquisition in the rent-a-player variety, but also to see where the starting pitchers not named Carsten Charles slot in, shedding some light on some other possible targets after this year for a rotation without C.C.

Back to Shapiro in the booth though, there was quite an exchange between Shapiro and former Mets’ GM and resident ESPN village idiot Steve Phillips that the brilliant Fire Joe Morgan perfectly breaks down and should make you feel awfully good regarding how decisions are made in the Cleveland Front Office.

Elsewhere, SI’s Jon Heyman says that the Indians are one of the six teams identified by “club executives” who may actually benefit from the rash of injuries in the early season, as the Tribe is a team recognized for having the deep bench necessary to help teams in this age of “more stringent” drug testing. Whether this means that relievers are going to be in short supply as the season wears on or if players are just going to be bothered by nagging injuries throughout the year, it sounds like people outside the organization see the likes of The Ben Francisco Treat, ShopVac, and Laffey as pieces that just don’t exist for many teams and could play a role in the dog days of summer.

You may notice that I don’t have a lot by way of the beat reporters comments here (for the record, Anthony Castrovince of indians.com is better than the rest of them combined) and really haven’t in a while. There is, in fact a reason for that.
Remember how during last year’s playoffs I mentioned that the beat reporters are fed “notes” from the team that usually shows up in the next day’s paper (something that t-bone confirmed from his days in Sports Information)? Well, here’s where you can find every game’s notes for every MLB team via the MLB Press Pass. Each game has about four pages of notes and contains more information than what is filtered into a beat reporter’s column.
You’re welcome.

On the topic of reporters, Jeff Pearlman (the reporter who famously wrote the John Rocker story in SI many years ago) tells a tale from the Locker Room over at Deadspin (not PG). It’s a fascinating look at the relationship between athletes and the reporters paid to cover them, essentially comparing it to different cliques of children in the schoolyard with very little in common and very little interest in one another. Interestingly, a few days after Pearlman wrote about his interaction with “Will the Thrill”, this exchange between Miguel Tejada and an ESPN “journalist” took place, which certainly isn’t going to help said relationship.

Hopefully, Paul Byrd has found a pharmacy in Minnesota that will fill his dentist’s prescription because it would be nice to leave the Land of 10,000 Lakes tied with the Twins, heading into KC, where the Tribe can make up more ground in the Central…slowly, but surely.

Friday, April 18, 2008

One Man’s Trash

Obviously one game a season does not make - but…boy, did that feel nice and HOPEFULLY will serve as the impetus for some sort of turnaround for this team, both in terms of pitching (the bullpen is still a work in progress and Indians’ Farm Guru Tony Lastoria tells me that Stomp Lewis was hitting 93 MPH last April in Akron, so throw the “his velocity has historically taken a while to warm up” explanation out the window when trying to explain why his MPH tops out at 87 MPH) and to get the hitters to stop pressing. But, as I began, one game doesn’t mean that all of the problems magically disappear, it just makes you feel better until the next game starts.

In the same vein, it’s time to acknowledge what we’ve all said for a while – that Jason Michaels has no place on this team – and start thinking of solutions to the “problem”. Now, for a moment, let’s all forget that Carson Kressley is currently posting a .139 BA / .195 OBP / .167 SLG / .362 OPS line with 5 RBI on the season (this INCLUDES his 2 for 3 night last night with 3 RBI) for the Indians, that he’s not overcoming his offensive deficiencies by playing an outstanding LF, and that he’s ostensibly blocking two youngsters with higher upsides from getting everyday AB for the Tribe…OK?

Remembering the famous “Garbage Barge” of 1987, rather than just moaning about our situation and hopelessness of it, let’s try to figure out a way to get Michaels off of our roster without resorting to the final option, which would be to simply cut him and eat his salary, which I’m not saying shouldn’t be done and very seriously think could happen very soon. But before simply throwing the flotsam overboard, let’s see if we can find a port that we can pull this pontoon into.

Remember, we’re talking about trying to unload a useless piece of our roster, so let’s put some spit on this rotten apple and try to shine him up real pretty so another team might find him useful.

Jason Michaels is, ideally, a RH outfielder who has experienced success against LHP in his career, has the ability to play all three OF positions, and possesses some speed on the basepaths (assuming he can get on). In reality, he is essentially a depth OF or a 4th OF who can augment a LH heavy OF or, at the very least, represent a pinch-hitting option from the right side of the dish and serve as a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch runner for a team.

Knowing then what he is, or what he should be, what teams may actually find have a use for a player like Michaels on their roster or could find some worth in Mr. Perfect?

As promised earlier in the week, let’s take a trip around MLB:
Mariners
Probably the best destination that I can come up with, mainly because the Mariners boast three LH OF (Raul Ibanez, Ichiro, Brad Wilkerson) with RH Willie Bloomquist and RH Greg Norton constituting the team’s OF depth.

Is Michaels an upgrade over Bloomquist or Norton against LHP to perhaps pinch-hit for Wilkerson against a nasty LHP?
Here are their career numbers vs. LHP:
Michaels - .294 BA / .376 OBP / .450 SLG / .826 OPS
Bloomquist - .266 BA / .322 OBP / .362 SLG / .684 OPS
Norton - .225 BA / .306 OBP / .334 SLG / .641 OPS

On the surface, Michaels would be a better option than the current back-up outfielders for the Mariners, particularly given his versatility (Norton can only play the corners and Bloomquist has played only 71 games in CF…about ½ of Michaels’ career 139 games in CF). Given the Mariners’ propensity for trading for our platoon players (Benuardo, who netted the BLC and Asdrubal) or players going nowhere with the Tribe (Jason Dangerously), why interrupt this time-honored tradition of useless Indians finding a new home in the Pacific Northwest? The only speed bump to the deal may be that Adam Jones was included as part of the Bedard deal and can’t find his way to the North Coast in exchange for Jason the Wet…I kid, I kid.

Padres
Anyone else think that Michaels needs to go back to the NL…you know, from whence he came? Maybe sunny San Diego is the place for him to maximize his “Sun-In” use. And, amazingly, Michaels may actually be better than their current starting LF, Scott Hairston, and the team has no real options past him to take AB away from him or provide insurance for him, particularly from the right side of the dish.

Hairston is a 28-year-old who played well for the Padres in his brief stint with the team last year, but (like Michaels) he is what he is. Even if Michaels is an upgrade over Justin Huber on the bench, maybe the San Diego Front Office feel that their second addition from the Indians in the past couple of years could improve the overall depth of their team or even provide insurance for their starting CF Jim Edmonds (age 38) or starting RF Brian Giles (age 37).

Giants
The OF not named Aaron Rowand and Randy Winn on their roster are Rajai Davis (R) , Dan Ortmeier (R), Fred Lewis (L), and John Bowker (L). Surely Jason Michaels would be seen as a better option than ONE of the two right-handed 27-year-old outfielders (Davis and Ortmeier) with 433 career at-bats BETWEEN them. While the amount of career at-bats certainly doesn’t count as the end-all indicator of a player’s value, Michaels had 494 AB in one SEASON.

Certainly the 32-year-old Michaels would fit in better with the Giants’ team concept of starting almost exclusively over-the-hill has-beens (5 of their 8 position players are over 30…and that doesn’t include the injured Omar) than Rajai Davis, who is “only” 27.

Blue Jays
With John McDonald AND Super Joe Inglett taking up two spots on Toronto’s roster, they’ve shown a predilection for offensively-challenged former Indians, so let’s throw another log on the fire. As of today, the Blue Jays’ LF options include Shannon Stewart, who hasn’t posted an OPS over .800 since 2004 and a 40-year-old Matt Stairs.

The 34-year-old Stewart’s game was, at one point, a high OBP and SB; but an OPS of .581 vs. LHP last year show that he’s simply no longer an everyday player. While Stairs had some success against LHP in 2007 (.818 OPS), he does have a .752 career OPS vs. LHP (remember, Michaels’ is .826) and at 40, it’s not as if Stairs is going to show marked improvement as he gets older (unless he’s on the Barry Bonds career arc).

Other possible options:
Mets
The only RH bats off of the Metropolitans’ bench are Damion Easley and Brady Clark. Is Michaels an upgrade over those two? Who knows, but with so many of their players being registered AARP members, if Michaels went to Queens it would constitute a “youth movement”.

Phillies
A return to the “Cradle of Liberty” didn’t make the main list as Jayson Werth is essentially a younger, more productive version of Michaels, making the need for Michaels in Philly not a real pressing one.

Rangers
They count Marlon Byrd as their RH option of the bench to augment the starting outfield of David Murphy (L), Josh Hamilton (L), and Milton Bradley (S). Marlon Byrd to me is just like Jason Michaels, so the Rangers would just be spinning their wheels here. However, since this “spinning their wheels” strategy seems to be their modus operandi, it can’t be ruled out.

Regardless of where he ends up, he’s not going to be in an Indians’ uniform for very much longer if he continues to play as he has. If the Indians can get something for him, all the better; if not, his perpetually wet hair will be missed…by very few.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Punched and Punchless

It takes quite a bit for me to leave my perch in the Mezzanine prior to the 27th out being squeezed at a Tribe game. But watching the reigning Cy Young winner giving up 9 ER in 4 IP while seeing a player (who may or may not be The Big Cat) who was traded by the pitching-starved Texas Rangers (for a AA outfielder named Michael Gonzalez in February of this year, by the by) give up 1 hit through 6 innings while mowing through a toothless Tribe lineup swinging early and often?

Yeah, that will get me out of my seat and en route to the Family Truckster. As I post this, the Indians are coming to bat in the bottom of the 9th and let’s just say that I’m opening my 2nd High Life at home.

If it were one aspect of the team, I would say that a problem and solution could easily be identified; but the starting pitching, the bullpen, and the offense have all played a part in this team looking complacent and, quite honestly, very bad. Night after night, opponents are working their way into situations to score runs as the Indians squander opportunity after opportunity. That formula...um, that does not translate to a lot of wins.

At the risk of throwing an irrational overreaction on the stovetop, it’s time for something to happen – whether it be a message sent to the players by way of a player being jettisoned or roles being changed to change the dynamic on this team…which is simply not working at this point.

Perhaps that means the buffet table gets flipped, perhaps that means that Jason Michaels finds a one-way ticket to Seattle (more on that in a couple of days) in his locker, perhaps that means that the 3B-LF situation is finally rectified to find out if Andy Marte figures into the future.

At this point, who the hell knows?

As serial poster minktrapper says, “what is the cut-off for saying, ‘hey, it’s early’”?
Judging by the effort and results that have been put forth by this team since departing for their West Coast trip, it’s coming up on the horizon a lot quicker than I’d like to acknowledge.
While I remain convinced that this team is talented and is scuffling, it’s getting more difficult to believe that brighter days are ahead with each passing game as this team is getting hard to watch.

Searching for Answers

Not too much to be happy about as the Red Sox scurry out of town, having swiped two games out from under the Indians’ noses thanks to the efforts (or lack thereof) of two different bullpens: “The Borowski Bullpen” and “The Non-Borowski Bullpen”. While the situation with Brodzoski (The Close) has caused much hand-wringing and rising blood pressure on the North Coast and elsewhere, I think that we’ve seen the last of the JoeBo. While a “strained triceps” sounds a lot like “we have no idea what happened to him other than that the guy who threw in the Speed Pitch booth for a Shell Gas card in the 7th inning had comparable velocity, so here’s an injury”, it’s obvious that Borowski has little to nothing left in the tank after years of “grinding it out” and bringing a “warrior mentality” to the mound. Ultimately, his lack of stuff and velocity caught up with him and, unless he’s magically able to suddenly find those missing 7 MPH on his fastball in rehab starts, or through rest, I can’t see a way that he makes it back to Cleveland in any capacity, much less a closer.

Of course, Borowski’s implosion has caused the argument to surface that the Indians should have addressed their tenuous closer situation in the off-season by not entering 2008 with Borowski as their assumed 9th inning option. I suppose there’s something to that, until you consider the options that were out there in terms of available relievers not already in the Tribe organization – Brad Lidge (really, is he a better option, particularly considering he’d be going from the NL to the AL?), Francisco Cordero (who got a 4-year, $46M contract), Eric Gagne (whose last appearance in the AL for Boston didn’t excite anyone outside of opposing batters?), Scott Linebrink, David Riske…you see where I’m going here? Obviously, Mo Rivera wasn’t leaving Gotham and teams aren’t exactly in the practice of putting effective relievers, much less closers, out on the trade market if they think that said reliever is going to remain effective.

So, with few better alternatives available outside of the organization, the Indians went into Spring Training sticking with the closer that led the AL in saves, as terrifying as many of them may have been, with the idea that the other relievers (namely the two Rafaels, the Fist of Iron and the Fist of Steel, because “if the left one doesn’t get you, then the right one will”) could be elevated to the closer role if Borowski struggled at any point.

Now, in Spring Training is where things get interesting and where this whole Borowski thing could have ostensibly been avoided with some preemptive measures. In the past few days, our crack Indians’ beat reporters have reported that Borowski actually injured himself on March 14th in Winter Haven and the Indians effectively hid his injury from the press and protected Borowski from any kind of radar gun that would have exposed the reduction in his velocity.

This, right here, is the moment that the Indians needed to act on this…in Spring Training. The Indians should have shelved Borowski, installed Betancourt as the de facto closer and allowed the rest of the bullpen to shake out through the last couple of weeks of Spring ball, perhaps ingratiating the likes of Perez and Lewis into the progression of relievers that we now see the Indians attempting to establish in the third week of the season.

With knowledge of Borowski’s injury and ineffectiveness that accompanied it, the plan should have had their relievers ready to start the season in these roles, right out of Winter Haven:
Betancourt - 9th
Perez and Lewis - 8th, depending upon who's coming up (LH or RH)
Kobayashi and Julio - 6th and 7th
Breslow - LOOGY
Mastny - Long relief
That’s what we’re looking at today, but instead of those roles being established in Winter Haven, these pitchers are going to have to acquit themselves to a new progression (now in the season, facing the likes of Manny and Youkilis in games that count), something that didn’t look to be a smooth operation last night as both Julio looked lost pitching with a lead and Perez and Lewis seemed uncomfortable in their trips to the mound.

Is anyone really surprised that Borowski’s arm gave out this year?
Not really, given numerous reports of looming arm trouble.

Did anyone expect it to be this early?
Only if you knew that he was hurt on March 14th….which, apparently, somebody (or somebodies) did without acting on it.

So right now, the Indians’ bullpen is forced into the mode of evolving on the fly and hoping that some semblance of a progression can be established before the bullpen sabotages multiple games for the team. The current bullpen (without Borowski) is talented, if generally unproven in the roles that they are thought to fill and there may be other options that present themselves if one of the current inhabitants of the bullpen continually…oh, I don’t know, walks two batters to start the 6th inning with a lead.

Atom Miller is still in Winter Haven but certainly could help at some point, so it will be interesting to see where Miller pitches when he finally makes the trip north to Buffalo. If he’s pitching out of the bullpen for the Bisons, he won’t stay down there much longer than to get used to the routine of a reliever as his arm certainly qualifies as an upgrade over the likes of Julio and Mastny.

Outside of that, the team could look at Aaron Laffey as a reliever (assuming that Cliff Lee and Paul Byrd pitch well out of the Cleveland rotation) if the bullpen casualties start mounting. Laffey, while obviously more valuable in the long-term as a starter, is a groundball pitcher who pounds the strike zone and has good K/BB rates, which could translate into becoming a solid contributor out of the bullpen.

Obviously, it’s a little early to start looking for replacements for relievers that are still beginning the process of settling into their new roles, but the fact that the pitchers are just now settling into their new roles (and not with two weeks left in Spring Training) is an error that the team will have overcome in the early season and hope that it can be overcome before the bullpen puts the team further behind the 8-ball than they are with the suddenly resurgent Tigers (only two games back of the Tribe despite numerous eulogies about 10 days ago) arriving tonight.

At this point, in terms of the bullpen, only one thing is a certainty in mid-April – the Brodzoski (The Close) Era is over in Cleveland, likely never to begin again, and the rest of the bullpen has little time to pull themselves into shape before the season starts circling the drain, sabotaged by a gas can-wielding bullpen.

Monday, April 14, 2008

"Seventy-Nine"

Fortunate enough to sit behind home plate for the Indians opener against the Red Sox, my brother and I enjoyed 8 innings of marvelous baseball at Progressive Field (or was it Fenway Park with all of those Boston fans drowning out Cleveland cheers all night)…you notice I said 8 innings.

One of the perks of sitting as close as we were (really, the best seats I’ve ever been in) was being privy to the exchange of banter between the scouts behind home plate, just to the left of us, checking their JUGS guns and charting pitches throughout the game. I mention this because, as the 9th inning dawned and Brodzoski (The Close) began his warm-up pitches to the “Rocky” theme music, both of our eyes were fixed on the scout with the JUGS behind home plate to see if we could get an indication as to where JoeBo’s velocity was.

After he threw his final warm-up pitch, the scout turned to the rest down the aisle and said (obvious to even the amateur lip-reader), “Seventy-Nine”, dropped his head and shook it.

My brother and I exchanged glances and looked to the Progressive Field radar reading for Borowski’s first offering to Julio Lugo – 81 MPH. I immediately said to him (and this is no lie), “at least we’ll have Grady leading off the bottom of the 9th”.

The ball struck Lugo’s bat and you know the rest of this story.


This one’s going to hurt for a while.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Lazy Sunday Looking for a Pair of Aces

Had you told me Friday afternoon that the Indians’ two aces would look more like a 2 and a 9 (off suit, to boot), I would have called you crazy. But a combined 6 2/3 IP between the two over the last two games, yielding 14 combined hits, 10 combined walks, and 10 combined earned runs have netted a combined 3.60 WHIP and a 16.20 ERA for C.C. and Fausto against that staggering offensive juggernaut, the Oakland Athletics.

I’m not going to dwell on those two (especially after the title of Saturday’s piece combined with the performances of Fausto and The Fist of Steel) in the best interests of my blood pressure; and, remember, I’m the one saying that it’s still early…but this team is playing with no sense of urgency, seeming to go through the motions, whether it be an inordinate amount of walks from the pitching staff or the hitters meekly making outs inning after inning.

Maybe we’re looking at 2006 again, when the players read and believed what was written about them following the 2005 season, believing the press clippings and thinking that they can show up and just win games by virtue of being the more talented team. You may remember that the Indians were 9 games behind the “surprising” Tigers in mid-May and 16 games out by mid-June?

It’s early, it’s early, I know.
But it can get late quick in these parts if someone doesn’t step up and put an end to this detachedness and disinterest emanating from the clubhouse. That someone is usually your best pitcher, who sets the “tone” for the rotation and the team every fifth game. Well, our two best pitchers just laid eggs – and I’m hoping the rest of the pitching staff and the team isn’t thinking that the trail that they’ve blazed over the laast two nights is the path to October…because it’s not.

With that off of my chest and realizing that I’m suddenly putting all of my eggs in Cliff Lee’s basket again on a Sunday to avoid a sweep, let’s take a Lazy Sunday:
Tim Brown of Yahoo.com has a piece that I’ve read probably 15 times as frustration mounted during these Oakland games to remind me that the Indians remain a talented team. It just doesn’t look that way right now.

As the Fausto contract hit the newswires this week, everyone was weighing in with Jim Ingraham offering the best synopsis of the situation.

Also on the Fausto front, Terry Pluto took some time to review the Indians’ philosophy and the players locked into Cleveland through 2010 (and yes the link is page 6 of 13 from Pluto’s article as the boys at cleveland.com remain oblivious as to how to properly include lists or tables on the web). Terry identifies the players working under contracts (with final option years indicated):
Betancourt – 2010
Carmona – 2014
Hafner – 2013
Lee – 2010
Martinez – 2010
Peralta – 2011
Sixemore – 2012
Westbrook – 2010
He fails to mention, though, the players that are still not even arbitration-eligible who COULD figure into the burgeoning “core” listed above.
Notably, those names (with their last year under club control as of today indicated) would be:
Cabrera – 2013
Garko – 2012
Gutierrez – 2012
Lewis – 2013
Perez – 2013
And that doesn’t include the players still in the pipeline who haven’t made an appearance topside yet. All in all, some nice planning by the Tribe brass…of course, considering that these guys can start playing like they ARE one of the top teams in MLB and stop playing just like they THINK they are one of the elite teams.

Tony Lastoria, who is actually IN Kinston (despite the fact that this remains a “hobby” for him and not his livelihood…I think) to watch the K-Tribe, continues to provide exhaustive coverage of the minors. His piece on Kelvin De La Cruz makes me want to check the Captains’ schedule to see what all of the hubbub is about.

Keeping it on the farm, I know it’s a little late to the party, but Indians’ prospect Jordan Brown (he of the consecutive MVP awards in Kinston and Akron) has started an online diary (though he’s only done this first post) which reminds us that these “prospects” that some people obsess over are little more than kids trying to fulfill their dream simply by doing the best they can.

Apropos of nothing having to do with the Indians, two fantastic articles appeared this week in two of my favorite places, Deadspin and Fire Joe Morgan…before clicking, though, be warned that these are not PG, or even PG-13 pieces.
First, Deadspin takes aim at the way that many sportswriters have become as detached as the players they cover, as the people who read their columns have no way to relate to the types of experiences that these guys write about. The column asserts that the sportswriter is no more of a “common man” than an athlete and the lack of shared experiences with their readers makes them no more of a peer of the reader than the players. It’s an interesting look at what people want to read and how they want their information presented to them.

Over at the brilliant FJM, they take an AOL writer to task for his article that “Baseball Stats Mania Rates a Zero”, which basically calls all statistics not called “Batting Average” and “Home Run” stupid and used only by nerds. As they always do, FJM breaks down the article sentence-by-sentence, pointedly exposing the writer while breaking down the old “this is what baseball should be because this is what baseball has always been” argument one glorious one-liner at a time. Whether or not you fully subscribe to the idea of Sabermetrics (and if you visit here often enough, my guess is you at least are aware of it), the breakdown and dismissal of the old, tired argument that people have trotted out for years (“I don’t need stats to tell me what my eyes see”) is absolutely terrific.

Just so we keep this section in threes (because…you know…everything in baseball happens in THREES…ba dum dum), here’s another great article from Deadspin who somehow got ESPN’s Kenny Mayne to sit down with them and answer their questions, despite ESPN purportedly instructing all of their employees to limit their references and recognition of the “blogosphere”.
In completely unrelated news, ESPN announced Kenny Mayne will now be hosting “Around the Horn”…I’m kidding…it hasn’t been announced yet.

With the weather outside feeling more like Cleveland and the Masters’ Final Round going up against Cliff Lee’s ascension to the “stopper” role on this team (yes, this is what I’m reduced to), enjoy a Lazy Sunday giving the “PREVIOUS” button on your remote a workout.
Thank goodness for DVR,

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Remain Calm...All is (Sort of) Well

As frustrating as it is to watch the reigning Cy Young Award winner’s WHIP creep closer to his weight (his current 2.32 WHIP, I believe, is still a little short of his tonnage), let’s take a quick step back and analyze how the Indians’ pitching staff, as a whole, is performing in the young season and what’s happening to our beloved aCCe.

At the risk of channeling my inner Kevin Bacon in “Animal House”, I’m really not all that panicked by the way the Tribe pitching staff has been going. Have there been some clunkers? Sure…JoeBo’s implosion in Anaheim certainly falls under that category. But, for the most part, the poor outings for the Indians have come from two sources – C.C. Sabathia and Paul Byrd.

Consider the numbers:
Sabathia and Byrd
0-4, 11.39 ERA, 2.34 WHIP in 21 1/3 IP

The Rest of the Indians’ Pitching Staff
4-2, 2.40 ERA, 1.09 WHIP in 50 IP

Those numbers for the rest of the Tribe staff INCLUDE a shaky start by the Fist of Steel (Betancourt), who has given up 3 ER after giving up 13 ALL of last year, and Brodzoski (The Close) sitting on an ERA of 19.29.

So, what does this tell us?
Well, that the Indians pitching staff has performed pretty well in the young season, save a few terrible starts and one terrible finish…and I know that’s like saying that Memphis had a great NCAA championship game except for a few lousy trips to the charity stripe. But, assuming that C.C. turns this thing around (don’t worry, I’m getting to that) and Wedge can settle on an effective ladder of relievers (whether or not that includes Borowski at the top step), the pitching remains the strength of the team in terms of quality and depth.

Now, back to our Un-Dynamic Duo and whether we can expect this mediocrity to continue throughout the year. In the case of Byrd, he’s openly admitted that he’s throwing batting practice as his 85 MPH pitches aren’t moving and aren’t being located. As much as I’d like to say that I could hit him (I can’t), MLB hitters are going to tee off on him as they have thus far in the early going.

For some reason, whenever I see someone visit the mound with Byrd, I’m half-expecting that scene from “The Naked Gun” and thinking that someone’s going to pull a Vaseline jar out from underneath his hat. Actually, maybe that’s what he’s been missing as he’s waited for MLB to rule on his HGH flap (he was given “amnesty” as MLB shows, once again, how weak their bite really is) – maybe he hasn’t been rubbing jalapeƱo on the inside of his nose for fear of upsetting Bud and the Boys as they considered whether or not to suspend him for ridiculously getting an HGH prescription at the dentist.

Perhaps now that the threat of a suspension is no longer looming, he’ll go back to putting sandpaper in his glove or putting snot on the ball…or doing whatever he does to remain effective. Because, if these struggles continue and he keeps setting the ball up on the tee, track record be damned, he’s not going to find himself in the rotation for too long.

Now a couple of notches up the rotation, we see our Hefty Lefty struggling with his command (9 BB in 14 IP this year after giving up 37 BB in 241 IP in all of 2007) and giving up base hits at an alarming rate, having given up 24 in those 14 innings. But, watching C.C. doesn’t show that he’s lost velocity or that he’s laboring as he has to start the season in years past. His pitch selection seems suspect as he’s mainly throwing fastballs and change-ups and not relying on his slider at all, so it could just be a matter of him harnessing his entire repertoire. Until he starts to keep the hitters off-balance, they’ll be more than happy to sit up there and sit on his fastball and stroke it to all fields.

Anyone remember the game a few years back, against these same A’s, when C.C. was getting absolutely crushed as Oakland tallied 8 hits in 2 1/3 IP off of him, eventually leading to a revelation that “the book” on C.C. was that a hitter could just sit “dead red” and wait for the fastball that Curt Schilling had (allegedly) so lovingly told him before this game to throw exclusively a few months earlier? Unfortunately, the version of Sabathia in 2008 so far looks closer to that “thrower” as opposed to the “pitcher” that he became in the latter half of 2006 and throughout the 2007 season.

The other variable in the short season to consider is opponents Batting Average against Sabathia for Balls put into Play or BABIP. It’s a statistic that measures how players do when they make contact with a ball…well, putting it into play. It takes into account groundouts, flyouts, etc. To give you proper context, Fausto Carmona (whose sinker puts a lot of balls into play on the ground that result in a lot of outs) has had batters hit .216 off of him thus far in 2008 for balls that they have put in play. That is an obscenely low number as it usually falls somewhere around .300 overall.
You get the idea, right?
Well, here are C.C.’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) for the past five years, including the early returns in 2008:
2008 - .438 BABIP
2007 - .314 BABIP
2006 - .298 BABIP
2005 - .292 BABIP
2004 - .286 BABIP

Opposing hitters are getting on base more than 40% of the time they’re putting the ball into play against the Crooked Cap, which could mean a couple of things. Either he’s not keeping the hitters off-balance (as noted above), allowing them to simply sit on a 92 MPH fastball and hit it where they want, or the times that hitters are making contact with Sabathia’s offerings, the balls are simply dropping or finding holes a shockingly high number of times.

At this point, I would venture to say it’s a combination of both – that hitters are making solid contact off of Sabathia AND when they’re making contact, they’re “hitting them where they ain’t”, if you will. While I think (no, I know) that the .438 BABIP simply won’t continue to be that high, I think that C.C. needs to perhaps work on his pitch variety to keep hitters guessing a little more to prevent the solid contact that opponents are having against him.

Is it between his ear or is it related somehow to his pending Free Agency?
I’m not going to pretend to know as I haven’t found the portal in the wall to spend some time in C.C.’s head; but, at this point, I’m not overly worried about him returning back to form as the shockingly high BABIP that opponents are posting against him will decrease and as long as he remembers that his “fastball-only” mentality resulted in some of the worst starts of his career.

As always, the caveat remains out there that the season is still very young, but the pitching staff, as a whole, has performed well save 40% of their rotation.
Half of that 40%, I’m not too worried about.
The other half? Well, I just sent a 5-gallon container of Crisco to Progressive Field, postmarked to the attention of one Paul Byrd…how’s that for an answer?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Faustastic Voyage Will Continue

Well, the reason for the 3 PM Press Conference down at Progressive Field has been revealed:
“The Indians have signed right-hander Fausto Carmona to a multiyear contract extension, ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney is reporting. The deal is guaranteed through 2011 with club options for 2012, 2013 and 2014. No monetary terms have been disclosed yet. The team will formally announce the extension at a 3 p.m. ET news conference.”

Club options until 2014! CLUB options that mean no guaranteed money past 2011!

Wowza, wowza…this is absolutely FANTASTIC news for Tribe fans as the Indians’ burgeoning ace (the one who has looked like an ace this year) is potentially locked down for the next 6 seasons PAST this year, with the guaranteed money only covering the next 3 years after this year.

Little risk, high reward while buying out the first TWO years of Carmona’s Free Agent years.
Much more on this later…I have to go order my Fausto jersey.
As an aside, you must think my closet is full of custom jerseys with as many as I purport myself to order. Unless you’re counting my Chris Spielman Browns’ jersey that my buddy “bought” for me for $10 after Spielman retired as a joke…it isn’t.

Addendum with correct salary numbers
It looks like the deal is worth $15M over this year and the next three years, representing the only guaranteed money in the deal with the overall contract numbers breaking down like this:
2008 - $1.25M
2009 - $2.75M
2010 - $4.9M
2011 - $6.1M
2012 - $7M club option (goes to $9M with escalators)
2013 - $9M club option (goes to $11M with escalators)
2014 - $12M club option (goes to $14M with escalators)

Tell me the downside of this contract for this for the Tribe?
If Carmona flames out or is injured (everyone find wood to knock on), they owe him exactly $15M over 4 years. Not a huge commitment, right?
If Carmona progresses as he has for the past two years, or even maintains a level of excellence close to it, the Indians hold the option every off-season until 2014 to exercise their option on him for (what is certain to be in 2012, much less 2014) a very affordable salary.

Obviously, you understand where Carmona’s coming from on this with the guaranteed money coming his way right away, particularly (and this sounds terrible to say, but it’s true) with what happened to his good friend Juan Lara in the off-season, showing that tomorrow is never guaranteed. But the level of control that the Indians achieved in this signing, having him under contract through his 30th birthday (he’ll turn 31 in December of 2014) is unbelievable.

Another stellar extension of a youngster by the Indians brass as the bright future of this team just got a little brighter with this news, particularly at the top end of the rotation…until 2014!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Eastbound Tomahawks

As the Indians head back east after a 2-4 road trip, it seems that the offensive kinks that plagued the Tribe throughout the Oakland series could be finally on their way to being worked out. However, sabotaged by a dreadful start by Byrd (his second) and a bullpen that is giving up runs from unlikely sources (Betancourt, Lewis) while getting solid contributions from unlikely sources (Julio, Kobayashi) with a dollop of Brodzoski (The Close) thrown in for good measure, the Indians dropped their second straight series despite what may be…head bowed and hands folded…the return of Pronk.

With an off day looming, let the Tomahawks fly:
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As the struggles of Dellichaels (combined .117 BA) have caused much hand-wringing on the North Coast, it’s time for the Atomic Wedgie to realize that playing BOTH of the players in the same lineup is not the solution to the problem. If both are going to be given the opportunity to work their way out of their funks while taking up one spot in the lineup – good luck, boys; but the inclusion of both in the lineup, presumably to rest Frank the Tank against RHP for…wait for it…Jason Michaels (he of the .690 OPS vs. RHP from 2005 to 2007) is just obtuse. Not only does Frank’s exclusion from the outfield worsen the overall team defense (Michaels’ phenomenal catch today considered), but in many ways, it hinders the growth and development of Gutz’s ability to hit RHP. We all know that Michaels can’t hit RHP…are we really THAT sure about Franky? I don’t think so, and Michaels replacing Gutz in RF for 2 of the first 9 games is inexcusable knowing what we know and with an eye towards developing Franklin Delano Gutierrez into an everyday player.
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While we’re on the topic of Dellichaels, allow me to reiterate my belief that Michaels is the player who is ostensibly blocking both Andy Marte and Ben Francisco from potentially making contributions to the parent club. If Michaels is not able to show signs of life by, say, the end of April, it’s time to institute the Blake/Dellucci platoon in LF and give Marte everyday AB at 3B. While some would argue that Francisco should be given the first shot, understand that the Indians have THIS SEASON to determine if Marte is the long-term solution at 3B. If thE decision has already been made that he is not, then put the kid out of his misery and allow him to not rot on the Cleveland bench. If it is still up for debate however, what better way is there for the Tribe to figure out what they have in him in April, May, and June in a lineup that he’s not expected to carry a large portion of the offense.

Let’s be honest, Blake has been a butcher at 3B (third error today, which completely changed the complexion of the game before Vlad’s jack) and while Marte has looked stiff in his brief time at 3B, he was thought to be a plus defender when he was acquired, so what’s the harm in telling him that 3B is his (allowing him to relax) and seeing what he can do for 40 games?
If he succeeds? Fantastic, problem solved.
If he fails, you have the answer on whether he fits or not the Tribe’s long term plans and you then make the call to Francisco (to at that point perhaps join Choo in the Tribe OF) to give him a chance.

To me, you give Marte the shot (unless the club has soured, which I feel would still be premature given his age) before the idea of Francisco getting AB in Cleveland is entertained.

By the by, I’ll try to work something up on the impending departure (I hope) of Carson Kressley from our lives at some point in the next week or so, unless he suddenly goes Roy Hobbs on us…so expect that in the next week.
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Do Masa Kobayashi’s eyebrows remind anyone else of the “Seinfeld” episode when Uncle Leo’s eyebrows get blown off and Elaine draws them on?
Dr. Resnick: No need to get angry. Calm down.
Uncle Leo: I am calm.
Dr. Resnick: Leo - I don't care for your demeanor.
Uncle Leo: Demeanor?
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I’d like to thank the MLB schedule makers (that could be the first time those words appeared in that order in the English language) for allowing me to catch up on HBO’s John Adams while the Tribe is out west. If you haven’t caught it, it is a sparkling interpretation of David McCullough’s superb biography of one of our Founding Fathers. Paul Giamatti (who the DiaBride couldn’t believe was the son of a former MLB commissioner) is terrific as the subject of the miniseries, which brings to life the struggles and triumphs of the American Revolution.
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After Travis Hafner got plunked by Justin Speier (or Just Inspire) in the 9th today, Hafner took a long look to the mound, glaring at the pitcher that he had so marvelously posterized the night before. As the stare went mound-bound, all I could think was that Pronk was back. That menacing, hulking entity that feasts on anything in the strike zone, eschews anything outside of it, and owns a little corner of the AL is back wearing #48.

Now if we could only get him to charge the mound after getting nicked by a pitcher and channel his inner Goldberg and just spear the poor sap on the bump…then I would make the proclamation of Pronk’s return from the mountaintops.
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Paul Byrd has looked absolutely DREADFUL in his first two starts in the young year, to the tune of a 2.32 WHIP, twice as many walks (4...I know it's early) as K’s (2), opponents hitting .361 off of him, and an 11.05 ERA. While complaining about his dentist’s favorite client, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was so quick to say that a replacement for Byrd may be soon in the offing while I’m so lax on the handling of LF and insistent on allowing Dellichaels to continue getting regular AB through the end of the month, regardless of “his” performance.

I think that the reason is that Paul Byrd (or any starter) can single-handedly sabotage an entire game by putting the team so far behind the 8-ball that victory seems unlikely (as he did today by giving up 6 ER in 3 IP), while a batter simply constitutes 1/9 of a lineup and (as dark of a hole as his spot in the lineup may look) there’s only so much damage that ONE batter can do.

It’s an obvious conclusion, that the pitcher of any said game affects the game moreso than any one position player, but it helped me rationalize my statement (when I finally got to see the game at a Max and Erma’s) to my brother that, “Aaron Laffey’s probably coming up soon.”

I suppose I’ll give Byrd the benefit of the doubt, but his leash just got a lot tighter after those first two starts in my book.
Is it fair?
No, but it’s the way I roll.

Tribe heads back to the North Coast to see if they can return the “favor” that the A’s gave them a couple of days ago in Oakland. Until then, the Jamey Carroll jersey is en route to me; please don’t think any less of me…I’m a sucker for scrap.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Perspective and Patience

With the Indians sneaking out of Oakland without “brooms” being mentioned, the last few games have been both frustrating and befuddling as the offense has seemingly been unable to overcome even a few games without Martinez anchoring the lineup. Blame it on the struggles of the rest of the middle of the lineup, notably Peralta (who has been moved back down the lineup after some games at #3), which has limited the runs as the Indians have not been able to string together hits or take advantage of the fact that Grady is getting on base almost ½ (OK, a .444 OBP…but still) of the time he steps to the plate.

Is the Indians’ offense frustrating to watch?
Absolutely…as the 2-1 victory on Sunday really was only made possible, offensively at least, by a muffed double play ball off of the bat of Asdrubal and the A’s decision to bypass Hafner to get to Garko (did you ever think you’d be pleased that an opposing team did that?), who is one of the only players, with Grady, putting up consistently good plate appearances.

The problem with Victor’s injury is that it has coincided with a few players stumbling out of the gate and the offense has simply not been able to overcome the combination of the injury and the slow starts. Specifically, the Indians have gotten little to no production from Peralta (who seems to have forgotten to bring a bat to the plate, preferring the fishing rod that he used throughout the 2006 season), Dellichaels (who is doing nothing to quiet the clamor for The Ben Francisco Treat to make the trip West on I-90, regardless of whether or not he truly represents an upgrade), Blake (who, as always, is what he is), or Shoppach (who, despite his defensive “prowess”, has ½ as many passed balls in 6 games as Victor had ALL of last year in 121 games behind the dish). The relative inadequacies of Frank the Tank and Asdrubal (in a lineup that isn’t getting production from much of anywhere except CF and 1B) are exaggerated without any other offensive support around the youngsters still adjusting to MLB.

But before anyone lifts the glass over the panic button, let’s put this in perspective of something that makes this a little more palatable – six games in the MLB season amounts to the equivalent of playing a little over one half of an NFL game in a 16-game season. So, if we’re talking equivalents, the 3rd quarter of the 1st game in the NFL season just started and, unless I’m missing the player that is single-handedly sabotaging the offense (as putrid as Dellichaels has been with a 1 for 20 start, “he” represents only 1/9th of the lineup and has reached base six times, via five walks and one double, in 6 games) in a Charlie Frye-esque manner, it is laughably early to start drawing conclusions or demanding action, as obvious as some of it may seem today.

The simple truth remains that the Indians are going to continue to stay in, and win, baseball games because of their strong starting pitching (hey, C.C., quit hitting “snooze”…these ones count) and the progression of relievers that looks to have picked up right there they left off last year (as long as Betancourt’s Saturday performance was only a hiccup). What that means is that the offense has some time to find its footing as the early season schedule is not as difficult as it may look (assuming that the Twins and Royals fall back in line with expectations), with the Tribe inexplicably not playing their 3rd game against the scuffling Tigers until June 6th.

Of course, if the calendar is about to flip to May, let’s make sure that Angela, Phyllis, Pam, and the rest of the Party Planning Committee is in the final stages of some Bon Voyage parties if lines are still showing up in the lineup:
Carson Kressley - .077 BA / .200 OBP / .154 SLG / .354 OPS
Casey Blake - .118 BA / .167 OBP / .176 SLG / .343 OPS
David Dellucci - .000 BA / .364 OBP / .000 SLG / .364 OPS

It’s been said here often, but the MLB season is a marathon not a sprint, and coming to snap decisions based on a small amount of games or plate appearances, as much as we’d like to at this point watching the Indians go meekly into the night, is short-sighted and dangerous (what happens if Dellichaels is jettisoned prematurely and Francisco struggles as a replacement…um, would we pray that the BLC is healthy or are we looking at the dawning of the Brad Snyder Era or the Trevor Crowe Era?) to the organizational depth that the club figures to lean on as the season progresses.

In the big picture, the Tribe sits at 3-3, keeping in line with the “formula” for 90+ wins (win 2 of 3 at home, go .500 on the road) with the offense effectively still in neutral. Are things going great in the early going or are they ideal? Certainly not, and the struggles of particular cogs of the offense (Hafner and Peralta) bear watching as well as keeping the leash tight on some parts that were thought to be possible weak links heading into the season (namely, Dellichaels) to see if they are able to finally assert themselves as viable MLB options.

3-3 is no great shakes, but it could be worse.
How, you ask?
As early as it is, starting the season 0-6 with an offense that was supposed to evoke memories of the 1927 Yankees, but is instead averaging 3 runs a game against the pitching staffs of the Royals and the White Sox…yeah, that’s worse.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

A Lazy Sunday of What the What?

After some girl named Dana Eveland outpitched the reigning Cy Young Award winner (do you think that C.C.’s career performance in Oakland is a part of Antonetti’s portfolio during contract negotiations, just to remind the Hefty Lefty how he’s fared "close to home"), let’s take a look around a Lazy Sunday as I begin my internal attempts to convince myself that Cliff Lee is just the man to get the Indians out of the loss ledger this afternoon:

Terry Pluto attempts to examine what went wrong with Travis Hafner’s 2007 campaign by taking a look at some numbers, something I tried to do last June. The short answer is that nobody knows how Hafner fell off the map, how his once-legendary eye at the plate regressed this horribly (9 K to 2 BB so far this year) or how he’s meekly throwing the bat at the ball to protect himself, resulting in soft grounders. With the obvious caveat that it’s early in the season, the Hafner we’ve seen so far seems to be closer to v. 2007 than any of the more successful models that preceded it.

And, really, the performance of Hafner thus far mirrors the struggles that the whole team is having at the plate through 5 games. They’ve struck out 41 times (more than 8 K per game), while drawing only 15 free passes. What’s more disconcerting is that in the game against Duchscherer, in particular, the team was watching third strikes whistle past them. We all know that this team is going to strike out (they averaged 7.41 K/9 in 2007), but the team has struggled to get hits against pitchers not exactly thought to be among the upper echelon of the AL (interestingly, the most success they had was against Buehrle).

But what else is going on with the offense?
Is the hole that Victor’s injury created in the middle of the lineup that huge?
Since Martinez’s injury in the 2nd inning of the Opener, the team has gone 30 for 150 for a team batting average of .200 while scoring only 15 runs in the 43 innings that Victor has been on the shelf.
Is the trickle-down effect of losing Victor that severe?
Is the lineup simply not deep enough to absorb the loss of one of their main cogs?
Personally, I don’t think so as I think that the offense simply has yet to get untracked, not helped by Hafner's aforementioned performance, Peralta’s struggles in the #3 hole, and Dellichaels throwing an 0 for 13 up against the board in the first five.

Let me say this again in case you haven’t picked up on it – it is VERY early, but maybe Wedge should start trying to find some AB for the likes of Andy Marte, for whom it is apparently “very difficult to find AB for”, what with Casey Blake ensconced at 3B. Marte’s absence through the first 5 has even led Pronk Needs You to put out an APB on the young Dominican. I’m not saying he needs to be playing every day, but inserting him into the lineup against some choice LHP (like, say, Dana Eveland) is at least going to show him that he’s not destined to collect splinters until he is simply given his outright release, which is the way it’s looking in the short term. Ryan Richards over at the LGT put it best, saying that “now we see what would have happened if Brandon Phillips had he made the team in 2006.”
Unfortunately, I think he's right.

Speaking of the LGT, Jay Levin has updated his Prospect listing, which takes a decidedly different approach to the usual, “here’s my list” philosophy of these things. I’m going to redo the sidebar to include a permanent link to this, as well as Tony Lastoria’s Top 50. I’ll sprinkle some minor-league stats websites so you can keep tabs on how the players on the lists are progressing in their minor league endeavors.

With the temperature outside threatening the 50-degree mark and the game not starting until 4:00 PM, it’s time to hit The Great Outdoors and get myself ready for the first pitching match-up of the season (Lee vs. Blanton) that I haven’t thought favored the Erie Warriors.