Thursday, July 31, 2008

Coming to You (Sort of) Live

As promised, here is the first of the links to view your humble host on “More Sports and Les Levine” with Todd Dery from Wednesday night. Because the show lasts for an hour, it had to be broken up into segments for uploading onto YouTube, some of which are still forthcoming. The only one that was small enough to fit on YouTube was actually the last segment.
So, the last shall be first, as they say, and I'll post the rest of them as they become available, so check back periodically for updates.

I'm the guy in the blue shirt pictured above, if you weren't, without further ado:

Once all of the segments are posted, this will make more sense - but it should be pointed out that my comments on the show regarding Kelly Shoppach were made PRIOR to his 5 extra-base hit night, so I’d like to thank Mr. ShowPack for making me look good on that one. Also, my comments on Manny Ramirez being a Cleveland Indian in 2009 from the show stand for any discussions having to do with Manny that are sure to rear their ugly head over the next 6 months.
So, let's not even get into that...

Whilst we wait for the rest of the YouTube links to be posted, some housecleaning as the Trading Deadline came and went as Manny followed Casey to La La Land, Jason Bay joined the Sawx, Ken Griffey will apparently be patrolling CF for the White Sox (an OF of he, Dye, and Quentin should provide some high comedy), and Pudge went to the Bronx (which was addressed in the show) for Farnsworth.
And Paul Byrd (not unexpectedly) remained an Indian.

In the world of the Tribe, the fiery bullpen (more on the leaky pen in the a post next week regarding offseason inactivity that’s still being worked on) and some shoddy hitting with runners in scoring position that kept me up too late ruined an otherwise wonderful Wednesday before Fausto looked more like the Fausto we all know and love Thursday afternoon.

As as aside on the TV appearance, the funniest thing that came from it was a phone call that night from my sister in Stow, who has 2 young kids. My sister said the kids freaked out when they saw my mug on TV and started waving at the TV, saying hello to me.

My nephew then turned to my sister and said, "Why isn't Uncle Paul saying anything back to us?" To which my sister responded that I was actually on TV on not on a webcam (kids these days...sheesh).
Both kids then peered around the TV to see if I was behind it and asked, "he's IN the TV?"

My sister was then forced to explain to her two youngsters how TV works as their uncle (while not acknowledging them) prattled on endlessly about baseball in the background.

Stay tuned for more of the segments as I'll post them as they become available.

Here is Part 1, but make sure to fast-forward for about 45 seconds to get to the goods. The sound is a little off (again, if anyone out there knows better how to execute this type of thing, a show of hands would work), but here it is:

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Evaluating Tomahawks

After spending last night in the Mezz and thinking alternately that some team must want Paul Byrd (Hello? Is this thing on? Bueller…Bueller…) and that Eddie Mujica’s splitter is going to vault him into the back end of the 2009 bullpen, it’s time to release some ‘hawks:

Since the final 3 months of the seasons have already been identified as a mere extension of Spring Training as players try to slot themselves into the mix for 2009, let’s take a look at how some of the position players attempting to make an impression have fared in the month of July:
Kelly Shoppach
.286 BA / .355 OBP / .554 SLG / .908 OPS with 4 HR and 11 RBI in 56 AB

Ryan Garko
.228 BA / .228 OBP / .386 SLG / .614 OPS with 2 HR and 10 RBI in 57 AB

Asdrubal Cabrera
.207 BA / .281 OBP / .345 SLG / .626 OPS with 1 HR and 2 RBI in 29 AB

Andy Marte
.245 BA / .298 OBP / .453 SLG / .751 OPS with 3 HR and 5 RBI in 53 AB

.230 BA / .304 OBP / .426 SLG / .731 OPS with 2 HR and 8 RBI in 61 AB

Franklin Gutz
.184 BA / .200 OBP / .367 SLG / .567 OPS with 1 HR and 2 RBI in 49 AB

The Ben Francisco Treat
.239 BA / .313 OBP / .394 SLG / .707 OPS with 2 HR and 9 RBI in 71 AB

Despite the small sample sizes, most of those numbers are pretty unsightly (and I’ll try to post those at the end of August and September to keep tabs on these “position battles”), but how about the way that Kelly Shoppach has busted through an open door, taking full advantage of the opportunity presented to him by sitting on the 2nd highest OPS among AL catchers with more than 200 plate appearances, behind only Joe Mauer and ahead of…well, everybody else. Victor’s move up the 1B line when he returns (if Shoppach is not deemed to be of the Coco Crisp mold – that is, more valuable to a team that doesn’t play in Cleveland – this offseason) would not be too surprising as Shoppach has laid a claim to a chance to be the Indians everyday C in 2009.

As an aside on the man known to some as ShopVac, my brother-in-law in LA pronounces Kelly’s last name as if it were written as “Show Pack”…and I don’t have the heart to correct him.

Something to consider going into next year regarding these players as well is that players who still will have at least one more option intact are Josh Barfield (allegedly ready to come back in the next week or so), Garko, Cabrera, and Francisco. When decisions are made next Spring, don’t be surprised if some of those options play a role in who breaks camp with the parent club and who gets slotted as “depth”.

Speaking of extended auditions, the Indians’ brass has essentially come out and said that 3 spots in the bullpen will be filled by the artists formerly known as the Fist of Iron and the Fist of Steel (Perez and Betancourt), as well as Kobayashi figuring in somewhere. It would seem that the other 4 spots in the bullpen figure to be filled both internally and from outside the organization, with the internal candidates already in Cleveland posting these numbers in July:
Edward Mujica
0.00 ERA, 0.44 WHIP, 7 K, 0 BB, 4 H in 9 IP

Jensen Lewis
9.00 ERA, 2.25 WHIP, 7 K, 3 BB, 15 H in 8 IP

Tom Mastny
11.37 ERA, 1.89 WHIP, 6 K, 5 BB, 7 H in 6 1/3 IP

The real revelation here has been Eddie Moo, who has the second best OPS against in the month of July for pitchers in the AL with 9 IP or more, besting the likes of Bobby Jenks and Joe Nathan. Small sample size…hot streak…the cautionary tale of Fernando Cabrera…I know all of these things, but I’m still allowed to get excited about the potential of Mujica as a late-inning option that emerges as the season winds down.

Looking at those other two, let’s be happy that the likes of Jeff Stevens, Zach Jackson (the LHP in the CC deal who has let up 9 H and 3 BB while striking out 12 in the 16 2/3 IP since he arrived in Buffalo), Jon Meloan (who pitched a scoreless inning of relief in AAA in his debut) should be viable options for 2009 (or even this year), as well as some arms lower in the system that may project into the 2009 mix.

I know that the USA Olympic baseball team plays a few exhibition games against the Canadian team as a warm-up for the real deal in Beijing. While I could care less about the Olympics as a whole, does anyone know if any of those USA-Canada games are scheduled to be televised?

I haven’t been able to find anything as of yet, but would LOVE to see Matt The Door, Jeff “Even” Stevens, Nick Weglarz, and Akron reliever TJ Burton in action for their respective teams. I mean, LaPorta, Stevens, AND Weglarz on the same field?
Forget Michael Phelps…this I have to see!

Much has been said and written about whether Paul Byrd is the next FA-to-be that will take flight (pun intended) to another location before the year is out. While the “Trading Deadline” is July 31st (at least that’s what ESPN tells us), most people in the know are saying that Byrd is more likely to be moved AFTER that deadline in the month of August.

How can this be?
Well, it’s a complicated situation pertaining to a process known as revocable waivers, and is probably best explained by looking at the actual text from the current MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement. In a nutshell, if the Indians aren’t able to find a suitable trade partner for Byrd prior to the July 31st Trading Deadline, when teams will likely be looking for bigger names to supplement their rotation, the Indians can place him on said revocable waivers after that date, a move most teams would expect to happen as more players are exposed to this process than you would think.

If a waiver claim is placed by a particular team, the Indians can either pull him back (not likely), work out a trade of Byrd to that team, or let that team assume his salary (about $2.75M) for the rest of the year. As Byrd is a Free Agent at the end of the year, very little risk exists for him to be placed on revocable waivers because even if he clears those revocable waivers (that is every team has a chance to claim him and passes), the Indians can then either trade him to ANY team or simply bring him back to the Indians to close out the season in Cleveland.

It’s really a no-lose proposition for the Indians where they can find a potential trade partner for Byrd as the Indians would be pretty compelled to move Byrd (if he was claimed) for the final two months of the season. If they’re unable to consummate any deal for him by Thursday, and are motivated to move him with the idea that any return (whether it be a player or money) is better than simply letting him stay with the team for the remainder of the season, revocable waivers is the process by which to do so…assuming that a team that feels that Byrd would upgrade their rotation is out there.

Then again, with reports that players like Jarrod Washburn, Bronson Arroyo, Derek Lowe, and A.J. Burnett are all either not going to be made available or will only be made available for a pretty penny, a player like Byrd could hold enough value that a contending team thinks that adding him to the back end of their rotation will provide enough of an upgrade for them to justify moving him prior to Thursday’s deadline.

Don’t be discouraged or frustrated, then, if Paul Byrd is still receiving his mail at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario on August 1st or view it as an “opportunity lost” as this process is the reason why many are stating that the likelihood of him being moved AFTER the July 31st “Trading Deadline” is actually higher than it is for him to be traded prior to it.

Finally, it does look like the show tomorrow night is happening from 6 PM to 7 PM with yours truly coming live into your living room on your Time Warner channel 23 as Todd Dery and I assume the controls for Les Levine on his call-in show. It looks as if there is a way to get the hour of “Must-See-TV” on the Interwebs as, obviously, many people who spend time with me here don’t get Time Warner…or aren’t even in Cleveland.

So whether you lay your head in Chicago, Charlotte, Toledo, New York, or anywhere else, there should be a way for you to witness a television first (of some sort or another) within a day or two of the show.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Casey Sunday

Having already touched on the principals of the trade that sent Casey to the Left Coast for what looks like a close-to-MLB-ready reliever who specializes in strikeouts at the age of 23 and a catcher whose line as a 22-year-old in A-ball is about as good as you’re going to see for a player in the minors, let us all give thanks for what was just acquired…for (as much as it pained The DiaBride this morning to see the picture of her beloved Casey in Dodger Blue) Casey Blake.
Better yet, for 2 months of Casey Blake!

I was thinking a decent AA prospect that projected to be a fringe MLB player would be an awfully good return for 2 months of Casey Blake…and now this?

I get that Ned Colletti is not exactly highly-thought-of in some circles (one of those circles…um…does not like this trade, while being EXTREMELY informative on the players coming to the Tribe organization), but a guy who projects as back-of-the-bullpen arm, perhaps as early as 2009 and a catcher who walks more than he strikes out while leading the minors in RBI and Runs…for good old Casey Blake?

Don’t get me wrong, Casey has value as a player and his 2008 season has been a ray of light in an otherwise dark year, but Casey’s value is tied to his versatility to play multiple positions and his (sudden) ability to hit with RISP this year. If he’s slotted in as the everyday 3B and regresses to any sort of career mean in terms of his overall hitting numbers, how does this represent an upgrade over what the Dodgers have…all while blocking two young players who figure into their plans beyond this year?

But who am I to question or complain at this point?
Let’s all thank Casey for his contributions to the team, hope that Shapiro saying that he would like to bring back Blake next year (when he’s going to get too much money from someone who will only look at his 2008 season while ignoring that he’ll be 35 or his pre-2008 numbers) is just lip service, and focus on getting Jon “Bones” Meloan (last name pronounced like the trombonist for the “Blues Brothers”, which is where “Bones” comes from) back to the bullpen in the hopes that he is able to recapture the success (and K rate) that he had there in 2006 and 2007 in the minors and slot Carlos Santana down in Kinston, with an eye towards possibly getting him up to Akron (along with Mills and Weglarz) at some point perhaps this season.

Suddenly this farm system that looked bereft of upper-level talent and legitimate hitting prospects mere months ago is looking fuller with each passing day while Dodger fans are left to wonder what in the world just happened. Obviously, it took moving CC and Blake to restock the cupboard, but seeing as how neither figured to be in a Tribe uniform after this year regardless of where the Indians finished their 2008 season, this is certainly making the best of a bad situation.

It will be interesting to see if the acquisition of Carlos Sanatana affects the Indians’ decision on the much-ballyhooed PTBNL in the CC deal as reports that minor-league C Jonathon LuCroy was an option on that “list” of players for the Indians to choose from. While Santana and LuCroy are about the same age and have both excelled at the same level of the minors (though Santana has better numbers in an admittedly more offense-friendly league), I wonder if this acquisition puts LuCroy out of the running for the PTBNL. It’s been mentioned that Santana could be moved back to 3B (he, like Victor, is a converted infielder behind the dish) and having as many catchers in the system that can hit is never a bad thing. But I have to think that this puts LuCroy down the list, perhaps below Brantley (my preference right now) and Green, on the PTBNL ladder.

The real winner in the Blake deal, in the short term at least, is Andy Marte as NO even somewhat legitimate reason exists for him not to be in the everyday lineup. Unfortunately, with the number of games remaining being such a small percentage of the season, I’m not sure how much we’re going to learn about Marte or what numbers he would have to put up to stake a claim on 3B for himself.

If he goes out there and struggles, there’s no way they go into 2009 with him as the everyday 3B…because they could have done that back in May or June without much of a problem. If he thrives down the stretch (and by that I mean he would just have to crush everything to get back into good graces), I think he’d be an option at 3B for 2009 with no guarantee that his name would be written in permanent ink on a 2009 lineup card.

To a lesser degree, this trade benefits Ryan Garko as Gark has the opportunity now to salvage what looks like a lost season for him. His situation is different than Marte’s because of the body of work that he has already established in MLB (Garko has 979 MLB AB to Marte’s 378) and the fact that he has achieved some modicum of success prior to 2008 means that a solid final two months of the season could put Garko right back into the mix for 1B for 2009, whereas that ship may have already sailed for Marte. Of course, if Garko doesn’t turn it around to close out 2009, he could just be greasing his way out of the regular 1B spot for the coming years.

Both players will be given the opportunity to force their way into the plans for 2009 and beyond with Blake not taking AB away from anyone…that is, unless Michael Aubrey or Victor come to play some 1B or the Indians decide to see if Peralta can play 3B now instead of waiting for Winter Ball for a verdict.

For more information on the two prospects en route to the Tribe organization for Lacey Cake, here’s a write-up over at which gets me more excited about these two players and curious as to how the Indians were able to turn 2 months of Casey Blake into this. Additionally, Joe Sheehan at Baseball Prospectus manages to make me only more excited by echoing what I’m feeling about this deal and the return that the Tribe was able to secure for Blake.

As usual, the only local writer weighing in on the trade with any semblance of perspective or insight is Terry Pluto, who hits all the high points of the trade and touches on the Tribe’s ability to acquire good talent from other organizations while struggling to do so in the draft.

On the other trade front, the Indians acquired RHP Anthony Reyes from St. Louis for minor league RH reliever Luis Perdomo. Most casual baseball fans will remember Reyes from his World Series performance against the Tigers, but Reyes has fallen on hard times since those days.
In AAA, Reyes has found success:
2.79 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 33 K, 11 BB in 38 2/3 IP over 6 stars
3.25 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 47 K, 21 BB in 52 2/3 IP over 11 starts

But get him up to St. Louis and watch out:
6.04 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 74 K, 43 BB in 107 1/3 IP over 20 starts
4.91 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 10 K, 3 BB in 14 2/3 IP in 10 games (no starts)

Reports of Reyes butting heads with St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan have existed since early in his 2007 season (when, by the by, he went 2-14 for the Birds) with Duncan wanting Reyes to rely on his sinker and Reyes wanting to be more of a power pitcher. By all accounts, Reyes needed a fresh start in a new organization and, at the age of 26, he’ll get one with the Tribe.

Interestingly, Reyes is out of options after this year so the Indians will not have the luxury of stashing him in AAA in 2009 to see if they can refine his mechanics or approach or whatever happened to him as he went further and further down the ladder of viable starters in the StL. Reyes is an intriguing pick-up in that he was a very highly-thought-of prospect who likely needed a change of scenery to see if he can find any of that past promise or success elsewhere.

The Indians will likely get him to Cleveland at some point to start a few games this year (perhaps if Byrd is moved in the month of August) with the idea that he’ll compete for a starting role next year as it’s likely that the Tribe hope to fill two spots in the back end of their rotation from Reyes and their LH stable of pitchers (Laffey, Sowers, Huff), none of whom are any kind of sure thing…even Laffey these days.

The cost for seeing if Reyes is salvageable comes in 24-year-old RH reliever Luis Perdomo, who started the season in Kinston before being promoted to Akron. He posted great numbers in Kinston (0.92 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 43 K, 17 BB, 18 saves), but as a 24-year-old in A ball he almost had to if he had any hope of staying on the prospect radar. He had only appeared in 9 games in Akron when the trade was made to send him to the Cards, whiffing 17 (while walking 7) in the 15 1/3 IP he had seen in AA.

According to Tony Lastoria’s preseason preview of the Indians Top Prospects, Perdomo came in at #42 with the thought being that Perdomo projected as a “middle-of-the-bullpen” arm. At his age (Jenny Lewis, Mujica, and Stevens are also 24) and the fact that he has so many more levels that he would have to succeed at to be a viable ML option, Perdomo is an interesting power arm who the Cardinals must have coveted more than the Indians, seeing as how Perdomo wasn’t moved up more quickly than he has been, given his age and the success he’s experienced.

I think the important thing to remember on these acquisitions (and players leaving) is to consider the age of said players. Where some could look at Perdomo’s numbers and say, “why would we trade this guy if we need bullpen help”, it must be remembered that Perdomo has been playing in leagues with players two years younger than him, while the likes of Bones Meloan and Rob Bryson (the young power reliever from the CC deal) have thrived while being some of the younger players in their respective leagues.

All of that being said, the 2008 season just got a little more interesting to watch as the development of Meloan and Santana will go lock-step in following what Matt The Door and Rob Bryson are doing while the “PTBNL Watch” goes on. More talented bodies have arrived on the farm, it’s now up to the Indians to separate the wheat from the chaff to allow 2009 to be a year of potential contention and not just a springboard for 2010 and beyond.

Finally, it appears that I will be making my much-anticipated (by the DiaBride, at least) debut on TV as site friend Todd Dery, who runs the Dump Casey Blake website (wish granted, by the way, with a name change already made), is sitting in for Les Levine on his Time Warner show. Todd asked me to be his guest on the show on Wednesday night, which airs from 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM.

I suppose if you finally want to see the “man behind the curtain”, tune in to mock me mercilessly from the comfort of your couch.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Casey Goes to Hollywood?

Jayson Stark is reporting that Casey Blake is heading to the LA Dodgers in a deal that would net the Indians two minor leaguers, RHP Jon Meloan (pictured to the right) and C Carlos Santana. Meloan is playing for the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate in Las Vegas, while Santana plays in A-ball for Inland Empire.

Much more on this as the parties are firmed up, but here’s a little bit on each prospect that is reported by Stark to be coming to the Indians’ organization:
RHP Jon Meloan (Age 23)
2008 (AAA)

5-10, 4.97 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, 99 K, 60 BB in 21 games (20 starts)
If those numbers look bad, they are - but examining his B-Ref page tells a different story as Meloan, until this year, worked out of the bullpen exclusively with phenomenal results:
2007 (in AA and AAA)
2.03 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 91 K, 27 BB in 66 2/3 IP over 49 games
2006 (in A and AA)
1.90 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 91 K, 16 BB in 52 IP over 21 games

That K rate and K/BB ratio is INSANE and I have no clue as to why the Dodgers would convert Meloan to a starter after so much success in the bullpen and only 9 previous starts in his 84 career minor league games entering 2008. He reportedly has a fastball that sits around 92-94 and has touched 97 with a curveball as his secondary pitch.

C Carlos Santana (Age 22)
2008 (single-A)

.323 BA / .431 OBP / .563 SLG / .994 OPS with 14 HR, 96 RBI, and 34 doubles in 99 games
He leads the California League (which is about at the same level as Kinston in the Tribe farm system) in RBI and OPS. He has 69 BB to 59 K on the year and has tallied 3 triples and 7 SB and plays one hell of a guitar…oh, it’s a different one…my bad. THIS one was actually a 3B/OF who was converted to C by the Dodgers two years ago, something the LA organization did with their current C Russell Martin, who was a 3B when he was inked by the club.

At first glance, it looks like the Indians fortified their bullpen depth with a hard-thrower with a history of strikeouts (something we haven’t seen out of an Indians’ pen in some time) who may be ready to contribute this year, while essentially trying to replace C Max Ramirez in the system (he was dealt for K-Love, if you remember) with a low-level hitting C for Blake.

Much more as details emerge and the muddied waters clear a bit going forward.
Right now, I have to go figure out how I'm going to break this one to the DiaBride.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Things Fall Apart – Regressive Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When Dreams Become Nightmares

With the final portions of the “Things Fall Apart” series still in formation, I thought I would be remiss if I didn’t link a piece that I wrote for, which is an attempt to basically put a bow on the whole “position battle” thing and comments on the movement to trade Jhonny. Since most of the issues have been addressed in this space, I didn’t feel that it merited running here as it would just be repetitious for most who read the last few Lazy Sundays.

What I do feel is worth re-running – if only for the fact that the Indians are playing on the Left Coast, I’m locked up in writing pieces not ready for public consumption yet, and that I think it is fascinating to see where we’ve come in a little under 100 games – is the season “preview” that I did called “In A Boy’s Dream”.

I’ve re-read this piece probably five times in the last week or so and can’t believe how close I came on some things (Grady going 35-35, Victor not having any power, Garko’s OBP and SLG hovering around the same number, Betancourt’s struggles, Peralta’s hitting line, an unassisted triple play by Asdrubal) and how SO FAR off base I was on other things (Jensen Lewis as the closer, Frank the Tank going 20-20, Cliff Lee being traded mid-season, the Mariners winning the AL West) just a few short months ago.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing, so be gentle when remembering what one hack thought four short months ago, knowing that nothing has been edited for the benefit of making me look better:

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?

Excuse me while I go throw up.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Lazy Sunday Looking Forward

After watching Jeremy Sowers show some promise (no, I didn’t watch it…thanks, FOX!) yesterday in what are inexplicably probably my favorite Tribe uniforms of all time, it’s time to get going on a Lazy One:
Starting off with a piece that appeared on Friday, Terry Pluto has his thoughts on what the Indians’ lineup should look like for the second half of the season. Some of it is fairly obvious (and Pluto admits as much), but to me the evaluation of position players as this season winds down breaks into two groups fighting for 2009 jobs.
I look at it this way – the only givens (assuming no trades are made) for 2009 in the Tribe lineup would be Grady in CF, Hafner (if healthy) at DH, and Victor, Peralta, Cabrera, and Francisco (with the caveat that he finishes the year well and The BLC sticks around as insurance) with positions as yet to be determined.

Their positions and the remaining positions, then, are going to be determined by a few convoluted “position battles” to see what pieces fit where for 2009 and where help from the outside may be needed (other than LaPorta’s eventual ascension to the middle of the lineup).
I got into one last week that had to do with the C/1B/LF “battle”, but to repost what I said last week -
“If Shoppach keeps hitting at the pace he is, he becomes the de facto C, with Vic at 1B and LaPorta in LF.
If Garko can come close to his 2007 (finding his 2006 isn’t happening), Vic stays behind the dish and LaPorta goes to LF.
If Chootierrez AND The Ben Francisco Treat show enough to merit them taking up BOTH corners of the OF (and I think that The Frisco Kid has claimed one spot for 2009 with his play this year), Vic dons the tools of ignorance once again and LaPorta mans 1B.”

The other “battle” is essentially to determine what ¾ of the infield looks like next year with the Indians having to determine what they have in Josh Barfield and Andy Marte in the last half of 2008. As it stands now, I think that the 2009 infield composition really comes down to whether either (or both, ha!) are legitimate options to play every day in 2009. Depending on what we see with Barfield and Marte, then Jhonny and Asdrubal fall into line accordingly at positions dictated by the performance of Barfield and Marte in 2008 and what can reasonably be expected for either in 2009.

If Barfield plays well enough to merit a look at 2B for 2009, Asdrubal and Peralta make up the left side of the infield (though Jhonny’s bat is not quite as valuable as a 3B) next year. If Marte establishes himself as a viable candidate for 2009 (and, really, I can’t even put numbers down that makes this happen), Jhonny stays at SS and Asdrubal stays at 2B.

If both Barfield and Marte excel…well, I suppose you cross that bridge if it presents itself. If they both fail, then you look for the piece that holds either 2B or 3B (Orlando Hudson, Mark Grudzielanek, Mark Ellis, etc.) that bridges the gap to Akron 3B Wes Hodges for 2010 without blocking him, with the flexibility of Peralta and Cabrera falling in line accordingly.

Sheldon Ocker has a similar piece to Pluto of what should be done, etc…with similar conclusions, in Sunday’s paper. He also touches on the Jhonny Peralta trade rumors that seem to be floating out there (after saying that he doesn’t think that Peralta can play 3B, which is a factor that needs to be determined heading into 2009 for reasons listed above) with Cabrera playing SS in Buffalo.

I’ve avoided the whole “Trade Jhonny” thing for the most part (outside of the Dodgers connect-the-dots insinuations), but it bears addressing as if you’re really considering trading Peralta, you have to get AT LEAST one position player who is ready to contribute now who is at least as many years away from Free Agency as Jhonny is. Moving Peralta is not unloading an unnecessary piece of the Indians’ team, particularly given his age, his production (albeit streaky), and his contract. Despite his flaws, Jhonny is an offensive presence in an Indians’ lineup that is short of them at the moment and for the immediate future.

A quick reminder on Jhonny’s remaining contract:
2009: $3.65M
2010: $4.85M
2011: $7.00M club option
You’re telling me that you’re going to find comparable production for those salaries over the next three years? Unless you’re filling a gaping hole with a comparably productive player ready to step right away who is further away from FA working under such a club-friendly contract, I don’t know how you can justify moving him, given his hitting and affordability.

It also bears mentioning that Peralta is YOUNGER than both Francisco and Garko, who are still trying to establish themselves as viable MLB players (something Jhonny has done) and is 7 months older than Barfield, who is also quite an unknown quantity.

While he may not be the ideal SS in many people’s minds due to his defensive deficiencies, he is a known quantity offensively at a young age, working under an affordable contract for the next three years. If you’re looking to move him, a player who is as equally established, under the same club control timeline is the baseline to deal with. Throw in the fact that moving him means that all four IF spots for 2009 will consist of players trying to establish themselves and I’m not sure why we’re looking this gift horse in the mouth.

Elsewhere, it looks like Jeff Stevens and Matt LaPorta have made the US Olympic team, which will keep them busy until August or so. Maybe both can parlay some international success into some North Coast success as the leaves start to turn come September, as long as it does not throw the 40-man decisions off or unnecessarily affect their service time.

While I’m not sure who this “LaPorta” guy is who made the US Team (if you don’t know I’m kidding, welcome to the site), here’s a fantastic piece on Jeff Stevens, the PTBNL in the infamous deal involving “The Franchise”. My favorite part of it is Buffalo pitching coach Scott Radinsky’s quote on Stevens’ even-keeled temperament, which may suit him one day in the back end of the Tribe bullpen. Quoth Radinsky, "He can go out there and get his [butt] kicked and give up a tying run, but he's fine. He'll go back out there today and strike out the side. He's got that ingredient you just don't teach, and he's got 'it.'”

“Even Stevens”, anyone?
By the way, the “Seinfeld” episode is the reference there, the one where things always even out for him, not the Disney Channel tween show that Google reports is the most oft-referenced “Even Stevens”.

Outside of Cleveland, another starter finds himself in need of some new return address labels, as Joe Blanton is headed to the Phillies for a package built around 2B Adrian Cardenas. This is not very relevant here as Blanton and CC occupy completely different planes in the MLB Starting Pitching Pecking Order and the Indians damn well better have gotten better players for CC, right?

Absolutely, but let’s put Cardenas (the centerpiece of the return for the Athletics) in perspective by way of names you may have heard of fairly recently (and seeing how all they’re in the Florida State League with Cardenas) with some 2008 numbers from A-ball:
Adrian Cardenas (Age 20)
.309 BA / .374 OBP / .444 SLG / .818 OPS
Taylor Green (Age 21)
.288 BA / .370 OBP / .421 SLG / .791 OPS
Matthew LuCroy (Age 22)
.319 BA / .374 OBP / .500 SLG / .874 OPS
Where is the line sitting currently for the PTBNL, and when do we find out the official list of (gasp) 4?

Speaking of prospects, serial FanPoster APV over at the LGT did a nice mid-season update on Jay Levin’s definitive preseason list of “Prospects that Matter”, which can be found at the sidebar at any time for a quick refresher or for enlightenment.

Back to the unending topic that is the CC deal, Ken Rosenthal is sticking to his guns that Dodgers’ owner Frank McCourt vetoed a deal for Sabathia, despite McCourt’s denial of such claims. Interestingly, in the same piece he mentions that the Brewers may be trading JJ Hardy because Alcides Escobar (a SS whose name was thrown around in the CC rumors) is “untouchable” as a trade target.

Apropos of nothing having to do with this season, one of my favorite writers, Joe Posnanski, begins his rundown of AL stadiums no longer in use with his homage to the ballpark of his youth – Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

Finally, after professing my love for the throwback jerseys that the Tribe wore against the Padres (on the night K2 hit the granny off them to win it…ahem), I was told that they sold the jerseys at the Team Shop. After hitting the team shop, I learned that the smallest size they carry “in-stock” is a 56, which would be like me swimming in a pool of polyester…what with my current suit size at 38R (you think I joke when I say I tip ‘em at $1.50 soaking wet).

But the jerseys that the Indians wore yesterday…Sowers at the top and The BLC below…MY GOD! If someone can tell me where to score one of these jerseys…well, I just don’t know what I’d do.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Things Fall Apart - The Missing Links

Since the notion that the bullpen is at least partially responsible for the 2008 abomination of a season that we’ve been subjected to, let’s get into another primary reason for the collapse of the Indians – the injuries to the middle of their lineup with Victor and Hafner on the shelf. There’s not too many ways to sugarcoat what the inconsistent and inept Indians’ offense looked like as the season officially started circling the drain. As frustrating as the lineup is to see when it’s posted, as infuriating as it is to watch the team struggle throughout the course of the game, and as maddening as it is to examine in the final box score, something often gets lost in the mix because of the passage of time since the end of May and mid-June when the middle of the Indians’ lineup hit the DL. Not to simplify things too much, but what gets lost is that the Indians, without Martinez and Hafner anchoring the middle of the lineup, are simply not a consistently good offensive team…and won’t be as long as they remain on the shelf.

Whatever the reason for those two to not hit the DL earlier than they did given the team's oft-stated reliance on them and the idea that getting them at 100% sooner rather than later once an injury is identified would seem to be obvious to anyone, what’s done is done this year and neither look to be close to returning to the lineup anytime too soon. With those two out for the foreseeable future, the way that the Indians’ lineup is constructed, it’s just too much for the Indians to overcome to put anything together that looks remotely like a consistent offense. The simple fact is that the Indians, whether you like it or not, have been built to rely on those two to provide the thunder in their lineup, and I know that I’ve posted similar stats to these, but bear with me as they’re listed again to prove a point.

The Indians’ RBI totals from Victor and Hafner and the percentage of RBI that those two contribute in terms of the whole team for the last few years are as follows:
Victor - 93 RBI
Hafner - 117 RBI
Indians’ Total - 839 RBI
210 RBI of 839 (25.0% of total)

Victor - 114 RBI
Hafner - 100 RBI
Indians’ Total - 784 RBI
214 of 784 RBI (27.3% of total)

Victor - 21 RBI
Hafner - 22 RBI
43 of 413 RBI (10.4% of total)

Don’t mistake this as crying over what is missing in the lineup, but rather to illustrate how much these two mean to the Indians’ lineup and to put it in perspective in terms of what losing that kind of production means in the greater context. Obviously, the RBI totals this year are skewed by the fact that the players have played about ½ of the season with Vic participating in 54 games and Hafner having played in 46 games prior to each hitting the DL.

The problem is that their replacements at C and DH (and, truthfully, Shoppach has hit very well as the starting C, leading AL Catchers in RBI totals with 14, and HR with 4, for the month of June) have only contributed another 43 RBI to the team total in their absence, meaning that the C and DH positions have contributed 86 RBI in 94 games, when the team is designed to rely on production from those two positions with Martinez and Hafner filling those positons.

Again, I know that I've brought this up before - but let me present it in a bit of a different light that gets to the crux of the situation. Since emotion tends to get wrapped up in the frustration of watching an Indians' lineup without Victor and Hafner and it becomes easy to simply come to the conclusion that the offense is going nowhere, consider the production of a few middle-of-the-lineup hitters that are known to even casual baseball fans on another team that tends to similarly rely pretty heavily on those two players in terms of RBI production:
Utley - 102 RBI
Howard - 149 RBI
Phillies’ Total - 823 RBI
251 of 823 RBI (30.1% of total)

Utley - 103 RBI
Howard - 136 RBI
Phillies’ Total - 850 RBI
239 of 850 RBI (28.1% of total)

Utley - 65 RBI
Howard - 68 RBI
Phillies’ Total - 403 RBI
153 of 461 of RBI (33.2% of total)

Before going off on the fact that I’m comparing Victor and Hafner to Howard to Utley, realize that I’m painfully aware of the superiority of Utley and Howard when it comes to pitting the duos against each other, both in terms of overall excellence and run production. The comparison is directed more at the fact that both the Indians and Phillies are generally reliant on two exceptional run-producers in the middle of the lineup, with a superb leadoff hitter in front of them, and complimentary pieces to scratch and claw for runs elsewhere in the lineup. This is by no means a proclamation that the Phillies have all of the answers in terms of constructing an offense (though the last time they finished below 3rd in the NL in runs scored was 2003), but rather to put what the loss of the two biggest run-producers in a lineup designed to lean on them into proper context.

The Phillies rely very heavily on Utley and Howard to drive runs in and if both were to miss significant portions of the 2008 season and were ineffective due to injuries prior to them missing time, the Phillies would be left to figure out how Pedro Feliz, Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino, and the platoon of Jayson Werth and Geoff Jenkins were going to drive Jimmy Rollins in to stay in the race for the NL East. Needless to say, there would be little Brotherly Love as the fans in Philly would be subjected to a lineup without their #3 and #4 hitters.

Don’t like the Phillies’ comparison?
How about the Twins?
Take Mauer and Morneau (who have 109 of the team’s 443 RBI for 24.6% of the season output) out of the middle of the Twins’ lineup and what run-producers do you have?
Michael Cuddyer…Jason Kubel…Delmon Young?

Sound familiar as we sit and wonder how Casey Blake (who has 5 less RBI than Pat the Bat, by the by), The Ben Francisco Treat, Jhonny Lasik, Garko-my-God-don’t-you-wish-that-he-could-hit-that, and The BLC are going to drive Grady Sizemore in to consistently win some games in the AL Central?

The fact that Victor and Hafner have been non-existent in the lineup (even when they were there…at whatever percentage of themselves they were while injured, that is) has forced the aforementioned lesser players on the roster into spots that they shouldn’t be subjected to - namely that they're being asked to anchor the lineup when, as hitters, they are better suited as the complimentary pieces that they are supposed to be.

Few teams in MLB can survive without their #3 and #4 hitters and the Indians, designed to be built around strong starting pitching and a lineup reliant on a few exceptional and reliably productive players, just are not one of them. With that in mind as we look towards 2009, before we simply say that the Indians are doomed to settle into a stretch of a decade-long slump based on the play of the 2008 team (particularly their offense), let’s remember that the #3 and #4 hitter are missing on a team designed to rely on their #3 and #4 hitter to drive runs in. What we’re seeing now is a group of players designed to be complements to those middle-of-the-order hitters put into spots in the lineup that they’re not supposed to be occupying, being asked to carry an offensive load too heavy for them to shoulder.

Whether you agree with the organizational philosophy to rely on the production of the few, that’s the way this Indians’ team has been built and the absence of those few from the lineup for a prolonged period of time is not something that the rest of the roster can consistently make up for, no matter how much Grady is producing or if Jhonny or Casey are on one of their “hot” streaks. And that organizational philosophy is what makes the health of Martinez and Hafner for 2009 tantamount to things that “should be done” or “need to be determined” by the organization as the string of 2008 is played out.

Without a healthy Martinez and Hafner anchoring the middle of the lineup, the 2008 Indians’ offense has been “exposed” (if you want to call it that, though it isn’t like it was a dirty little secret) as reliant on those two, in the middle of the order, driving in runs. In their absence, the Indians become an inconsistent offensive team…one that hopefully doesn’t show up when the 2009 season dawns.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Things Fall Apart - The Leaky Pen

In the indefatigable search for what has gone wrong with this Indians’ season, once so full of hope, a few immediate reasons have as much carry as a Josh Hamilton bomb into the New York night – most notably the bullpen, injuries to key players, the effects of organizational inactivity in the off-season, and the regression of certain non-injured offensive players. With the All-Star Break upon us, I thought it would be a good idea to start this series by examining a portion of the team that has so obviously contributed to the dreadfulness of the 2008 season – YOUR 2008 Hellpen.

Before getting too deep into this, let’s take a quick walk down memory lane and look at the members of the 2007 Indians’ Postseason Bullpen…you remember, the one that contributed to the ALDS defeat of the Bronx Bombers and nearly beat the eventual Champions in the Fall Classic:
Joe Borowski
Rafael Betancourt
Rafael Perez
Jensen Lewis
Tom Mastny
Aaron Laffey
Aaron Fultz

Some familiar names, no?
Inconceivably, the players that locked down the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th innings of the 2007 season, allowing the Tribe to run away with the AL Central and make a strong push in the playoffs, are essentially the same culprits that completely blew up (to a man) in the 2008 season, throwing gas on the smoldering flames of the Indians’ season, greasing the team’s descent from the top of the division to the cellar, seemingly armed only with kerosene-soaked meatballs.

If these are the same players, how did such a severe drop across the board occur so completely? I know that bullpens are volatile entities, full of players who are relievers for a reason (whether their career as a starter stalled or their mastery of pitches ended with two), but to see what happened in 2007 compared to what we’ve been subjected to boggles the mind. And maybe that’s where we should start with this thing, to compare the stats from last year’s bullpen that allowed the team to close out the AL Central in style to this year’s incarnation, which is ingloriously looking UP at the KC Royals in mid-July.

The rankings in parentheses are where the bullpens of each year ranked among the 14 AL teams:
2007 – 3.73 (4th of 14)
2008 – 5.13 (14th of 14)

2007 – 1.33 (5th of 14)
2008 - 1.51 (13th of 14)

Batting Average Against
2007 - .254 (7th of 14)
2008 - .277 (14th of 14)

OPS Against
2007 - .707 (4th of 14)
2008 - .796 (14th of 14)

2007 – 2.51 (1st of 14)
2008 – 1.91 (9th of 14)

2007 – 17 (4th least of 14)
2008 – 19 (2nd most of 14)

2007 – 49 (most of 14)
2008 – 15 (least of 14)

Save Percentage
2007 – 78% - 49 of 63 (2nd of 14)
2008 – 52% - 15 of 29 (14th of 14)

Going from the top half (or in the case of K/BB and saves, from the top) in 2007 to near or at the absolute bottom of the AL in EVERY relevant category a year later doesn’t qualify as getting knocked down a few notches or seeing a slight regression.
No, no…it is something far more horrible and drastic.

Looking at those numbers give credence to the feeling that watching the 2008 bullpen devolve into the bloody mess that they find themselves in has been reminiscent of watching a horrifying downhill ski crash as a momentary loss of balance quickly becomes a hurtling mass of limbs akimbo and uncontrollable momentum – and not going in the right direction. The rapid, and irreversible, descent of the bullpen down the side of the mountain started with a few hiccups as the season began that turned into some head-over-heel cartwheels as the relievers blew lead after lead, gaining steam and carnage as the season wore on. As the season began to circle the drain, the names became different, but the same terrifying results were “achieved” as the season careened out of control, before (hopefully) crashing into the orange net of the 0-8 AL Central road trip.

Who could have seen this coming, given the perceived depth and excellence that carried the 2007 bullpen? How did the thought that the relief corps would be a strength of the team as Opening Day dawned devolve to the point that it became a fair assessment to say that the 2008 bullpen may have essentially sabotaged the 2008 season?

Certainly, the feeling that Brodzoski (The Close) was due for a precipitous fall from (relative) grace was pretty widely held among the Friends of the Feather, but the players who spent 2007 setting him up figured to step up into his shoes to rescue the progression of the bullpen. It seemed that there were plenty of talented arms ready to step up to choose from. Among Senor Slo-Mo and The Scarecrow, and with the impressive showing by Jen Lewis down the stretch in 2007, the arms seemed to be there to make up for the surefire drop-off for JoeBo. The Indians, perhaps sensing that The Big Borowski would not last the season, augmented what looked like a strength of their team in the bullpen with their only FA signing of any merit by inking Japanese closer Masa Kobayashi to make up for any drop-off that might occur to one part of the bullpen or, at least, eat some innings until some of the main contributors could right the ship.

Surely, with all of those arms that had experienced enough success in 2007, the 2008 bullpen could at least come close to the success of the prior year…maybe not with the same exact arms in the same exact roles, but the pieces were there, right?

Unfortunately, we all know the answer to that question after 94 games.
The bullpen has fallen flat on its collective face, unable to close out games (with Borowski only tallying 4 of the 14 Blown Saves) or keep the Indians in close games to allow late-inning victories (the team is 18-48 when tied at some point from the 6th inning on) or provide any kind of support to a beleaguered starting rotation.

What happened here?
We all know about Brodzoski (The Close)’s fall from grace, so I’m not about to kick a man when he’s down (particularly considering that his lousy 2008 wasn’t exactly unexpected), so let’s focus on the players that were thought to be relievers that would step up to be the main cogs for this year’s bullpen, comparing their 2007 to their 2008:
2007 – 1.48 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 8.88 K/BB ratio, .183 BAA, .485 OPS Against
2008 – 6.00 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 3.00 K/BB ratio, .289 BAA, .835 OPS Against

2007 – 1.78 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 4.13 K/BB ratio, .187 BAA, .530 OPS Against
2008 – 3.16 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 2.69 K/BB ratio, .253 BAA, .683 OPS Against

2007 – 2.15 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 3.40 K/BB ratio, .234 BAA, .611 OPS Against
2008 – 4.73 ERA, 1.64 WHIP, 1.47 K/BB ratio, .281 BAA, .830 OPS Against

Those aren’t regressions – they are swan dives off the cliffs of Acapulco from the three most promising pitchers as 2007 closed out, the players who held the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings in check for opponents for the Indians last year. Every player the Indians counted on “taking that next step” in their development saw serious drop-offs in their efficacy (even Perez who, despite “succeeding” more than the other two, has posted two months with an ERA under 1.50 and two months with an ERA over 4.00), for whatever reason, which left the bullpen without anybody who could get batters out consistently…at least anybody we were seeing toe the rubber.

And that, to me, is where this thing should have been headed off at the pass before it got too out of hand for the team. The players who were main cogs in the Indians’ bullpen in 2007 showed awfully early that they weren’t going to replicate their success this year. Borowski and Lewis had no velocity and Betancourt had given up his 4th HR by May 4th after giving up 4 all of last year. But trotted out they were (if they weren’t “DL’d” or eventually demoted), in similar situation after similar situation, to fail miserably and to find themselves deeper and deeper in the abyss of ineptitude.

Perhaps no better alternatives existed, but the patterns went unchanged for months…and so did the results. Not to harp on Betancourt (though he is, essentially, the poster child for the stark difference between 2007 and 2008), as he has no control over when he pitches and in what situations, but of Betancourt’s 42 appearances, exactly 4 have come before the 7th inning. I’m all for letting a guy “work it out” on his own, but not to the detriment of the team, for goodness sakes. Certainly, quality arms (or at least arms that were effective in 2008) have been in short supply, but continuing to run an obviously struggling pitcher out there (insert your favorite 2008 Borowski moment here) is so counterproductive that it borders on insanity. Knowing that bullpen management and finding the right progression of relievers is one thing that a manager can control (though he can do little once they take the ball), the notion that Betancourt and Borowski continued to pitch the 8th and 9th innings into the month of July when neither pitcher’s ERA had been below 5.00 since April 25th shows a stubbornness and an inflexibility in bullpen management that certainly didn’t help the bullpen pull itself out of the doldrums. By the time the Indians gave some other arms (Elarton, Mastny, Mujica, etc.) chances at regular work in meaningful games, the season was already lost.

So now we’re left to cobble together the bullpen for the rest of the season trying to find out if Jen Lewis can recapture the magic of the last half of 2007, which Rafael Betancourt is the real one, and if any of these young arms (Mujica and, further down, Jeffrey Stevens and a potentially healthy Tony Sipp) can help out the 2009 bullpen that looks more devoid of a legitimate closing option (and an obvious one at that) than it has since the days of Steve Karsay.

And if any of those things come to pass, what guarantee is there that the success in the second half of 2008 of any reliever will result in success in 2009? Go ask Fernando Cabrera (the one with the post-All-Star break ERA of 1.35 in 2005, averaging nearly a K an inning only to follow it up with a pre-All-Star break ERA of 6.46 the very next year) how momentum of one season carries over to the next for a reliever.

The bullpen is, and always will be, a crapshoot from year to year where a player can go from dominant to dormant in the matter of a single season. While that is true, to watch the Indians’ relievers, almost as a group, go from the dizzying heights of 2007 to the lowly depths of 2008 has been nothing short of remarkable…and by “remarkable”, I mean worthy of a remark.
That remark, however, is not something I normally let pass through my lips.