Sunday, August 30, 2009

Lazy Sunday Rolling Right Along

While most of the North Coast feels more comfortable with the Brady Quinn jersey in their closet, I’m spending the morning thinking about another player trying to lay claim on a starting job – the guy whose numbers in the 9 games since he’s been inserted everyday into the starting lineup (.444 BA / .473 OBP / .777 SLG / 1.250 OPS with 3 HR and 12 RBI in 36 AB) – have certainly placed Andy Marte into the mix for 2010 because if judgments are going to made based on small doses that Marte is AAAA fodder, how about weighting the same small samples in the other direction?

While Marte’s success has certainly come as a nice surprise, let’s not let it overshadow the contributions of Matt LaPorta, who over that same 9-game stretch has posted a .343 BA / .333 OBP / .657 SLG / .990 OPS with 3 HR and 10 RBI in 35 AB while proving that his glove can, in fact, play in LF (as evidenced by the diving catch last night that you may have missed) if that’s where he eventually ends up.

But with the Wonder Twin power coming from a somewhat unlikely duo at the bottom of the lineup (perhaps begrudgingly) let’s get rolling into a Lazy Sunday:

While the focus on the North Coast for the remainder of this season is on 2010 and beyond (with Carlos Carrasco being scheduled for Tuesday’s start for the parent club) in terms of watching players like LaPorta contribute with more on the way, ’64 and Counting’s Vince Grzegorek lays out some worst-case scenarios for playoff time for Indians’ fans that have to do with some of the ex-Indians who turned into LaPorta and Carrasco, among others:
Ranked on a scale of “Better Not Happen Because I Might Punch My TV And Thusly Be Unable to Watch the Cav” to “Wouldn't Care.”
1. Victor Martinez Hits a Game-Winning Homer in ALCS or Later at Fenway
Mainly because the Red Sox "nation" is unbearable to begin with, and to see them celebrating wildly while Martinez circles the bases and slowly (remember, this is still Vic we're talking about) approaches the awaiting mob of Papelbon and Ortiz and Youkilis at home would be simply disgusting.
2. Cliff Lee vs. C.C. Sabathia, Game 1 of the World Series, Yankee Stadium.
Gut punch. Only possible way to describe this scenario.

As those very plausible scenarios have you grabbing for the antacid, let’s segue that right into the Cliff Lee interview that appeared in the PD this week. Much of the attention that has been paid to the interview focuses on Lee’s comments regarding fan support, or lack thereof (with a terrific retort by Dennis Manoloff) over the past two years:
DW: Do you feel bad for the fans who see the core of their team traded, fans who wonder, 'Why can't Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez still be around in 2010, to try to make another run at it?'
CL: Uh, it would help if the fans showed up and came to the games. That's why the team didn't make money, because the fans weren't there, supporting the team. That's what happens when the fans don't support --
DW: But you guys weren't winning.
CL: Right. It goes hand-in-hand, though. It definitely goes hand-in-hand. Yeah, I feel sorry for them. I wish we were all still there, that we had won the World Series in '07, come back and won it again last year and were going to win it this year. That's not reality. That's not...It's a business. It's a total business.

While this is seen by many as the most compelling exchange in the interview on the most provocative topic (and my well-stated feelings on that situation, which I don’t have time to look through the “archives” for are summed up better than I probably ever did in Castrovince’s mailbox last week), the portion of the interview that I found most fascinating was the talk of contracts and the story regarding negotiations on a possible extension in Spring Training of this year:
DW: After the trades, Indians President Paul Dolan said you were not going to re-sign with the Indians after 2010. Did Dolan present it accurately?
CL: They told my agent that when we got to spring training this year, we'll talk about an extension. We get there, the first half of spring goes by...nothing. We get down toward the end, they call me in the office and tell me, 'Never mind. We've changed our minds.'
At that point, I told them: 'For me, now's the time. After this year, I'm going to be one year from free agency, and you're going to have to pick up my option if I'm pitching well. Otherwise, I'm a free agent. It doesn't make sense to do it one year out when I just watched what CC did.'
DW: Sabathia, of course, was traded to Milwaukee in 2008 and signed with the Yankees over the winter.
CL: Free agency is where you want to get as a player. That's where you get strength and have control of a situation. Obviously, the closer you get to that, the less likely an extension would be. That's kind of what I told them.

As an addendum to that little recount before going any further, here’s a relevant bit of information on that topic from Jayson Stark in his latest Rumblings and Grumblings regarding Lee’s signability after the 2010 season, given the Phillies’ policy to limiting three years guaranteed in contracts to pitchers:
Lee, however, will be a free agent heading into his 32-year-old season. And the buzz already is that his agent, Darek Braunecker, is looking for a deal beyond the Phillies' customary parameters.

“Darek Braunecker is going to try to kill it with this guy,” said an official of one team that looked into Lee before the trade deadline. “There's no doubt in my mind. He'll be looking for $100 million. And I don't blame him.

“But you know what? From the Phillies' standpoint, if you get this guy for a year and a half and he's motivated as hell and he's absolutely dominant and then he leaves and you get two picks, wouldn't you rather be that team than the team that has to give him $100 million. I would. Maybe you'd rather have 2½ years than 1½ years. But you don't want six years, because those are the deals that get scary.”

While Lee’s telling of the Spring Training episode certainly paints the Indians in a light in which they suddenly changed their mind in terms of sitting down at the negotiating table, how relevant is the fact that OTHER teams are aware that his agent is “going to try to kill it with this guy…looking for $100M”?

Let’s remember where we were in Spring Training with Cliff Lee, with him coming off of a monumentally successful 2008 campaign, but less than two years from being sent to the Minors due to his struggles. When 2009 started, Lee was a 30-year-old with a 4.16 career ERA and a career as a whole that looked more like Aaron Harang or Charles Nagy than Sandy Koufax. That’s not to discount the fact that Lee has evolved very quickly into an utterly dominant starter; rather, it’s to put the conversation of whether the Indians should have even entertained the notion of extending CP Lee into some context and into the proper timeframe.

Throw in this idea that Lee’s agent probably didn’t hide his feelings that Lee was likely to hit the FA market after the 2010 season, with Lee telling Manoloff, “free agency is where you want to get as a player. That's where you get strength and have control of a situation. Obviously, the closer you get to that, the less likely an extension would be. That's kind of what I told them” and the water becomes a little clearer. If Lee and his agent are known by other teams’ executives to be looking for a deal that would likely cover 6 years and pay $100M for a pitcher that will be 32 when that deal kicks in, why would the Indians even entertain that notion if their best offer to Sabathia was a 4-year, $72M extension to a younger player with a longer and better track record than that of Lee?

Should the Indians have entertained signing Lee at the price of what he’s looking for – an average of about $16M for the seasons in which he will be ages 32 to 37?
Certainly not, but the exec in Stark’s piece said, “From the Phillies' standpoint, if you get this guy for a year and a half and he's motivated as hell and he's absolutely dominant and then he leaves and you get two picks, wouldn't you rather be that team than the team that has to give him $100 million. I would. Maybe you'd rather have 2½ years than 1½ years. But you don't want six years, because those are the deals that get scary.”

So it gets back to whether the Indians should have been the team to capitalize on that year and a half being “motivated as hell” and “dominant” or whether the idea that the window of contention was on its way down for the Indians (with or without CP Lee) and change was needed.

If you believe some of the numbers that were relayed to Terry Pluto by Paul Dolan (that the team was going to lose $20M this year before the trades and were likely to lose $30M next season if the trades weren’t made), it certainly looks like the trades were financially motivated, not even getting into the notion that extending Lee was entertained at any point. Thus, when the decision was made to act quickly, it was done with an eye to not only keep some of that money but with an eye towards also to creating that next window of opportunity because of a surprising lack of talent on the horizon. As Dolan tells Pluto regarding marketing the team in 2010, “it still would have been a challenge because we could not have improved the team, and been in even bigger trouble in 2011 because we would not have added any of the young talent that we did in these deals.”

Why that “bigger trouble” was coming is the MUCH bigger question in the equation as to why the pipeline ran dry, but the “window of opportunity” concept is one that Ken Rosenthal gets into when discussing the quandary that the Rays face with Carl Crawford and whether to trade him this off-season or take another run at the AL East next year and how it relates to the “window” for the current Rays team:
The psychology of team building is different in the low-rent district of the AL East. The Rays, like the Blue Jays and Orioles, operate with virtually no margin for error.

“You've got to pick and choose your windows,” an executive from one of those clubs says. “And when you pick one, you've got to nail it. You can't miss.”

The defending AL champion Rays, who visit the Tigers this weekend…already are peeking out of a window that is rapidly closing.

While wrapping your head around the notion from Rosenthal that the Rays (yes, the ones that burst on the scene just last year with so much promise ahead of them) are “peeking out of a window that is rapidly closing”, let us all thank heaven that the Indians find themselves in a better situation than the three teams that Rosenthal references, if only for the fact that the Tribe doesn’t reside in the AL East.

Couple that piece by Rosenthal with the news that the Rays traded 25-year-old Scott Kazimir to the Angels with Rob Neyer putting the Kazimir move in context in terms of team expectations and the inevitable fan backlash:
The Rays don't play their games on paper, though, and I'm surprised they would make this deal. Yes, maybe the performance hit they're taking is negligible. But try explaining that to the fans, particularly when the guy you're dealing is arguably the franchise's all-time pitcher. Would Kazmir really have been worth less on the trade market this winter, or next spring, or next July?

What is it again that we’ve been saying about these small “windows of opportunity” for the majority of MLB teams and how they have to manage assets on their team without regard for fan reaction to not go into an extended organizational tailspin with no bottom in sight, like the one in Kansas City that Joe Posnanski speaks of…at length.

Suddenly, we have this “Brave New World” question facing teams like the Indians – what is the best way to compete and contend in a league in which the margin of error is razor thin, is it better to allow your own talent to run its course (as the Royals are doing) or is it more prudent to remain pro-active with a roster, to inject talent into a system at the expense of known quantities (as the Indians are doing, among others with teams like the Rays nearing that point of critical mass)…even if that talent is far away from contributing at a MLB level?
Obviously, that’s another topic for another day – but it certainly is something to ponder on a rainy Sunday.

Finally (and apropos of nothing), from the Department of Probably Interesting to Me and Nobody Else, how about this article on the New Era company who is the exclusive manufacturer for MLB hats, which mentions that the Rochester, NY-based company’s first contract with an MLB team was with the Cleveland Indians in 1934.

It provides more information that you would ever really need to know about hats and as a recovering hat-aholic (back in the day when the “Three-Bar Game Hats” were all the rage, before they became standard issue as part of the fraternity dress code) who hasn’t worn a hat regularly in quite a while (despite the fact that The DiaBride sweetly tells me on summer days to wear one to “block the sun from your head where your hair doesn’t anymore”), I find the whole thing quite fascinating…even if New Era is responsible for some of the off-color and giant logo monstrosities that you see around these days.

As for now, it’s time to get that Marte jersey on order to hang next to my Quinn jersey in the closet because The Dominican Dandy is back…for now, at least.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tomahawks – Past, Present, & Future

As the inevitable second-half push continues and Kerry Wood is getting perilously close to being on pace to vest that third year option (on pace for 53 games finished with the option vesting at 55 games finished), let’s release some tomahawks of what might have been, what is, and what could be

In case you haven’t noticed, the Erie Warriors have now won 8 of the last 11 series, only losing series to the Angels twice and the Rangers once in that span that includes 4 series “wins” against AL Central opponents, besting Minnesota twice and Detroit and Kansas City once each in recent series.

Why is this relevant?
You may have blocked out this unhappy memory, but the Indians started the season out winning only 6 of their first 21 series to start the season, culminating in that travesty in Wrigley, after which their record stood at 29-42 (10 games out of the AL Central) on June 22nd. But that didn’t even count as their low-water mark of the season as the Tribe would sit at 36-57, an embarrassing 21 games under .500 (only losing 3 ½ games in the AL Central standings despite going 7-15) on July 20th, nearly a full month after the season was essentially lost under the summer sun on the North Side of Chicago.

Since that low-water mark of 36-57 however, the Indians have somehow rallied (as they always do) with two of their best players and some complementary players at the beginning of the season competing elsewhere and have posted a 20-13 in their last 33 games (.606 winning percentage) to pull as close to .500 as they’ve been since late June…still a whopping 14 games under .500.

Realizing that this is all terribly painful to read, watching the events in the Mile High City forces this to be re-visited. That is, Colorado manager Clint Hurdle was fired on May 30th, with the Rockies sitting at 20-28, a shocking 12 ½ games out of the NL West race. As you may have noticed, the word “Rocktober” has apparently entered the general lexicon once more, since they Rockies have gone 52-27 since that time, playing at a nearly impossible .658 clip over nearly ½ of an MLB season to pull within 3 games of the NL West, taking a lead in the NL Wild Card race in the process.

Yes, this is likely the exception to any and all rules having to do with managerial changes, but let’s just say this recent hot streak by the Indians could have started…oh, I don’t know…after that series in Chicago with the Indians starting this stretch of .600 baseball starting in late-June instead of late-July. Instead of the 27-28 that they’ve gone since exiting the “friendly confines” of 1060 West Addison Street, (taking great leaps in assumption, I know) the Indians would be sitting on a record of 33-22 in those 55 games, which would have put their cumulative record at 62-64 or ½ a game behind the Twins and White Sox in the standings and 5 games back of the AL Central leading Tigers.

By no means am I suggesting that this WOULD have happened as the team is the team is the team and the bullpen revival has certainly assisted in this stretch of good baseball, but the remote chance that this hot streak could have started a month earlier was taken out of play when the Indians decided to “stay the course” and, as a result, the Indians’ careers of CP Lee and El Capitan were ended, as was much hope that 2010 represented any more than a transitional year. Maybe that’s putting too much credence into the spark that a managerial change can cause (and certainly not every team does what the Rockies have done or managers would drop like flies every May and June), but the opportunity to turn the page was lost.

Certainly, it can be argued that the performance of the team over the last three weeks (with what looks to be pretty much the 2010 roster) portends good things for the Indians, if they can ride this wave of momentum into April of next year. But I’ve learned my lesson (the hard way…a couple of times) on that to know not to base expectations on second half performance. Unfortunately, I know because the Jensen Lewis down the stretch in 2008 was not necessarily what should have been reasonably expected from him in 2009, just as the current stretch of success from Chris Perez, Tony Sipp, and Matt LaPorta may not have too much bearing on what expectations should be for 2010 for each player.

That all being said, and looking out at the future from these rose-colored glasses, there are promising signs…

While this probably feels like old news, the continued development of Louis V.B. continues to be one of the great revelations of the 2009 season, particularly given his age and his advancement. Realizing that I’ve used this same comparison to point out how special Asdrubal’s season truly is in context, realize that there are only 18 players in MLB that are 23 or younger that have appeared as many plate appearances as Luis Valbuena (Asdrubal is obviously one of them) this season.

The only players among those that have posted a higher OPS to date than Valbuena are guys that you may have heard of – Pablo Sandoval, Justin Upton, Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutcheon, Billy Butler, Gordon Beckham, the aforementioned Asdrubal, Adam Jones, Dexter Fowler, Everth Cabrera, and Colby Rasmus.

Most of those players have shown themselves to be impact MLB players at a wildly young age or their names dot the pre-season top prospect lists.

While Valbuena’s moderate platoon split is should not go unmentioned (career OPS of .710 vs. LHP, career OPS of .813 vs. RHP), take a look at these comparisons when between what looks to be the double-play combo of the future against a familiar double-play combo of the past when all four players were playing out their seasons at the age of 23:
Luis Valbuena – Age 23 - .732 OPS
29 extra-base hits in 280 PA

Asdrubal Cabrera – Age 23 - .812 OPS
41 extra-base hits in 455 PA

Carlos Baerga – Age 23 - .809 OPS
53 extra-base hits in 716 PA

Omar Vizquel – Age 23 - .593 OPS
7 extra-base hits in 285 PA

Beginning to see how special the two of those players could be for the Indians going forward?

Combined with Sizemore in CF and Santana presumed to be knocking down the door in 2010 as the catcher, strength up the middle may finally come into play again for the Indians, boasting exceptional players (both offensively and defensively) up the middle.

Does anyone else continue to be blown away that the Indians netted Chris Perez from the Cardinals for a few months of Mark DeRosa, with Jess Todd to boot?

While this has been covered elsewhere, look at what hitters have done against the 23-year-old Perez in his last 16 appearances:
.118 BA / .182 OBP / .157 SLG / .339 OPS with 20 K and 4 BB in 16 1/3 IP

To put Perez’s youth in perspective, he’s 5 months younger than the closer in Akron and 4 months older than the closer in Lake County. While that may be more of an indictment of those two minor-leaguers as organizational depth than anything else, Perez is accomplishing exactly what the Cardinals thought he would when they made him a 1st Round Pick as he looks to be on track as a potential future closer.

As long as we’re lauding our new bullpen, how about what opposing hitters have done against LHP Tony “Don’t Give Up The” Sipp over his last 11 appearances:
.156 BA / .182 OBP / .281 SLG / .463 OPS with 10 K and 1 BB in 9 2/3 IP

Yes, I know that things can fall apart rather quickly for young relievers (Jensen Lewis and Rafael Perez, wherefore art thou), but Christopher Ralph (Mercedes) Perez and Sipp look to be moving comfortably into the role of set-up men, along with Joe Smith as the designated ROOGY, with a greater level of talent beneath them on the bullpen ladder.

Staying in the small-sample size department, how about this comparison:
Matt LaPorta since first game after being recalled on August 19th
.346 BA / .333 OBP / .654 SLG / .987 OPS with 6 XBH in 27 plate appearances in 7 games started

Ryan Garko since trade to San Francisco on July 27th
.235 BA / .295 OBP / .358 SLG / .653 OPS with 5 XBH in 88 plate appearances in 21 games started

Ben Francisco since trade to Philadelphia on July 29th
.220 BA / .267 OBP / .463 SLG / .730 OPS with 6 XBH in 45 plate appearances in 8 games started

Just to take one more swing at the dead horse at my feet – why didn’t LaPorta come up earlier to play everyday, even if it meant Garko and Francisco moving to part-time roles back in June?

Going back to the idea that the team that we’re seeing likely makes up the 2010 roster, this off-season is likely to be one of crickets and minor moves, particularly if you figure that the Indians already made their moves for 2010 about a month ago and this year and next represents the time to let those moves play out. Of course, that’s not to say that some moves aren’t coming – most notably, Shoppach (for better or worse) looks to be headed elsewhere for someone else to pay that arbitration number with Marson/Toregas/Gimenez in the fold and Santana presumed to be knocking at the door and a decision on whether Peralta would look like “Second Half Jhonny” with a full off-season knowing where he’s playing on the field needs to be made – but in a 2010 season in which contention is a possibility and certainly not a foregone conclusion, can we put a moratorium on the “where we should dip into Free Agency would be…” talk as the pieces seem to be in place both at or near the MLB level to fill every spot on the team. It may not be filled with a sure thing, but you want some “additions” made to this current crop of talented youngsters coming up?

Looking at the list of potential Free Agents and realizing that the assumed pay grade of the guys who would figure into the Indians’ radar trends closer to Brad Penny than John Lackey, does anyone really want to see innings taken away from a potential stalwart in the rotation (yes, maybe that “stalwart” status takes a year or more to develop) by a reclamation project?
Haven’t we played this game before?

You want some “additions”?
OK, here’s my wish list for “additions” for 2010:
Fausto Carmona – closer to 2007 form than 2008/1st half of 2009 form
Travis Hafner – playing every day
Jake Westbrook – healthy for a full season
Grady Sizemore – 100% healthy all season

You’ll notice that there are no names on that “wish list” that aren’t currently under contract for 2010 or well past 2010.
Know why?
This team is getting closer (but is by no means undoubtedly close) to contention in 2010; if we’re all surprised by a run at contention in 2010…great. But I don’t have a problem making that run with a payroll that hovers around $60M to $65M, even if it means that placeholders like Andy Marte, Jordan Brown, or Trevor Crowe holding down a position on an everyday basis for the likes of Mike Brantley, Nick Weglarz, or Lonnie Chisenahall later in 2010 or in 2011.

If you think the team needs some “veteran presence”, how about Wood, Westbrook, Hafner, and Sizemore leading the way for the youngsters in the bullpen, the rotation, and the lineup?

Ultimately, I’m all for the idea that this collection of players we’re seeing today is the beginning of the team that is supposed to lead us into the next run. Knowing that there’s more beneath this group of players within the system, let’s figure out what we have internally before wasting time and money on someone who doesn’t factor in when the real contention is supposed to start.

Is that too much to ask for this off-season, besides a new manager for 2010?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Playing Favorites

While the title of this piece may immediately convey a pending denunciation (again) on the lineup stylings of The Atomic Wedgie, it is not intended to shed light upon why Ben Francisco and Chris Gimenez took playing time away from Matt LaPorta in 2009 or why the manager of a MLB team offers deafening praise for a young(ish) 1B/3B who has experienced some much-needed success after a few years of wandering the desert.

No, this isn’t meant to throw another shovel of dirt into a grave that should have been sufficiently covered back in June, at least not today…OK, maybe a little of that intro found some gray area on the topic.

Rather, there’s been an interesting conversation at home as The DiaBride is having some difficulty picking a new “favorite player” since all of hers are essentially now elsewhere and in the mind of the 2 ½-year-old Indians’ fan who sleeps well thanks to the comfort provided by a Grady Sizemore blanket under the watchful eye of a Grady bobblehead, EVERYONE needs to have a favorite player. Surprising as it may be, the issue has actually caused quite a bit of debate around the house over the past few weeks, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the feelings of my beautiful bride are not unlike that of many Indians’ fans in the wake of the massive overhaul of the roster in 2009.

To her, who moved to Cleveland in 2000, this incarnation of the Indians is the only one that she’s known as a fan and these players are the ones to which she has obviously formed an emotional attachment to. While I don’t remember what it was like when my beloved Pat Tabler was traded to the KC Royals for Bud Black, the last month has been jarring for her in the way that fans a generation above us re-tell the story of Rocky Colavito getting traded or, to a lesser extent, the disappointment that was felt when Carlos Baerga made his way to NYC (in a move that was softened by the Tribe’s continued success and Baerga’s freefall as a player after the trade) back in late July of 1996.

Without breaking any new ground, the decision-making “process” forced upon her by our son confirms a very simple truth when it comes to following a team – people like to have their favorite players and when their favorite players find themselves playing for other teams (generally regardless of the circumstances), the boat is rocked and apathy and/or anger is often the result. I remember my uncle canceling his season tickets after the 2000 season when the team let Sandy Alomar, Jr. walk away in Free Agency and me arguing with him at Christmas about it, telling him that Sandy was a 34-year-old catcher with a lot of wear on his tires, not worth a roster spot for a team that looked to be far away from contention. He told me that I didn’t understand because I had removed the emotional aspect of it – that to him, Sandy as an Indian represented that run in the 1990’s and his arrival in the Joe Carter trade signified the beginning of the renaissance that marked his best days as an Indians’ fan. He said that a team without Alomar didn’t feel like the winning Indians’ teams that were unlike the other ones that he had known in so many previous years.

No matter how much we went around and around on it, he stuck to his guns and proclaimed that his team, without his favorite player, wouldn’t get his money for season tickets. It was his line in the sand and while it seems ridiculous now (Alomar posted a .663 OPS as a part-time catcher for a little more than 5 seasons after that), I was reminded of it when The DiaBride waffled and continued to waffle on her new favorite player.

For some background on this as to why a new favorite is needed, she proclaimed Cliff Lee to be her favorite player back when liking Cliff Lee was not the cool thing to do…and I don’t mean 2007. I mean in 2003, when he had a late-season call-up and she made some comment that “he looks so serious out there, and I think that’s good for a pitcher…I like him.” Like him to the point that she wanted a Cliff Lee jersey, bearing the #34 that he wore at the time, purchasing it half-way through 2004. When 2005 arrived along with Kevin Millwood donning the #34 and C.P. Lee switching to #31, she became self-conscious about wearing the “wrong number” and decided to pick out Favorite Player 1a.

After much spirited debate and consideration, I remember her walking out of the Team Shop in 2005 with a #41 Martinez jersey (because “he’s always having fun and smiling”) came at the expense of what I presumed to be the favorite going into the store, a #1 Blake jersey, which didn’t quite make it to the sales clerk despite the fact that Blake “just goes out and does his job, even as everyone hates him”. If you’re following the names involved so far, 2008 was not an easy time for her fandom, what with Blake getting moved and CC (who she liked but thought too many people liked him) making his way to her native Milwaukee.

But 2009?
That’s been a whole other story as her two favorite players (as well as Garko, who she once saw picking up trash in the dugout after a game on TV, immediately vaulting him into that rare stratosphere of favorites) were traded in the course of three days and the anger took over, leading to proclamations that she was done with the Indians and done with baseball.

Back to the story though, as a 2 ½-year-old does not easily compute that someone could possibly not like the Indians and certainly could not grasp how someone could not like baseball. Thus, the questions continued as to who her favorite player was now that “Bicker on ‘nother team”. While she placated the Boy Wonder with the old “still thinking about it” lines, I told her one night that this wasn’t going to go away until she picked a player.

When I asked her then, who her favorite player was (if only to help the little man’s quest out), the answer that came from her echoed what I think a lot of Indians are feeling (and still feel), essentially calling into question why she should root for the Indians, why she should pay more than just a passing interest in a particular player or players if (as I explained to her) the reality in which the Indians operated was going to see players get moved regularly, often before the end of their line as productive players.

As hard as the idea of backing Asdrubal or The BLC was pushed, she backed away from it, not wanting to stick her hand even close to the fire with the memory of getting burned so fresh in her mind. I showed her the text from my buddy t-bone that the Indians had painted over the Lee and Martinez murals at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario with those of Cabrera and Choo in support of my lobbying, but the result was the opposite of the intent as she grew more dissatisfied that the Indians could so callously turn the corner on the players that had given her so much enjoyment as a fan.

She didn’t want to hear about payroll disparity in baseball or pick her player because she’d be able to root for them for a finite amount of time, she wanted something…someone to believe in again, and the current crop of options underwhelmed her.

After much prodding and a brief foray into “Crowe as favorite player” territory (which my son quickly dismissed, exclaiming correctly “but Mommy, nobody likes Crowe”), she settled on Chris Gimenez, if only because she thinks that his last name doesn’t look like it sounds and because we saw him at a function at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo at which he could not have been a friendlier, more engaging person.

Despite the “choice” though, the bitterness and sadness remains as she sarcastically asks me (the one who has “removed the emotional aspect of it” in my uncle’s words years ago) how long I’ll be able to wear the Grady throwback that she got me last year because he’s surely the next to go. At that time, even I wonder if I’ll be able to wear the Sizemore jersey without the tinge of sadness all the way through the 2012 season, the last season his current deal runs through. After that, does it become as much of a memory as the Lee and Martinez jerseys currently are?

It gets to the greater point of how the separation of the name on the front of the jersey from the name on the back is much easier in one’s head than it is within one’s heart. As fans, we want to cheer for a particular player or group of players, not a faceless group of talent that merely dons our favorite laundry. From the standpoint of kids just learning to love the Indians and for people who want (no…who need) that familiar face to cheer for, the effects of the trades of 2009 are cataclysmic and force an examination of how emotionally attached one wants to become with this new crop of names and faces that we’re starting to see.

My wife argues that she shouldn’t start to like guys like Louie V.B. or Matt LaPorta (and it’s not because she says that she can’t say “LaPorta” without thinking “Porta-Potty”) because she doesn’t want that day to come when they stop wearing an Indians’ uniform and this whole charade continues in earnest.

While that line of thinking certainly has some merit – particularly given the still-gaping wound for fans that the departure of Lee and Martinez, among others, caused – it has become a reality of baseball in this day and age. Like it or not, these players are fungible assets whose value is tied more closely to production, salary, and contract status than it is to likeability, personality, or popularity among the masses.

It’s not a pleasant reality and it’s not one that I remember having to face as a young fan, particularly in the 1990’s. But it’s one that I’m going to have to come to grips with relatively soon, because the conversation with a son who will be 5-year-old son in 2012 who sleeps under the protection of “His Grady” every night is a conversation that I’m going to have to ready myself for.

Until that day though, maybe I’ll start telling my wife and son about this Weglarz kid…

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Lazy Sunday Bearing Arms

With most everyone’s attention turned to the Browns these days and polishing that trophy for “The GLC”, we’ll take a quick departure into a modified Lazy Sunday as the original intent of this piece has always been to link pertinent stories from the Sunday paper about the Indians. That has evolved though, as the pieces now don’t often lead to much insight or discussion unless you’re interested in reading Bud Shaw regrettably continue his evolution into Norman Chad Lite (no link provided) or read Paul Hoynes’ list of potential managerial candidates for 2010 (which is…um, not a good sign for The Atomic Wedgie), which feels a little premature even for someone like me who felt that Wedge should have been fired after the very series in Chicago that Hoynes mentions.

Usually, a piece by Terry Pluto garners some discussion but today’s about the 2010 rotation (among other topics) feels like old news here and Anthony Castrovince’s Inbox from the past week about attendance and payroll as well as Pat McManamon’s even-handed piece separating myth from reality in terms of payroll feels like a topic that deserves a little more attention than a cursory glance and minimal comment in a Lazy One.

Thus, let’s go a little off the board as an intro to what I think is a more important discussion with a piece forwarded along to me by sharp-eyed reader Richard Sheir on Chris Perez and Jess Todd, from a Cardinals’ perspective. The piece bemoans the loss of Chris Perez as a future closer (looking at the ridiculous numbers he’s put up as an Indian as proof) and wonders if Perez is flourishing because he’s out from under the direction of STL Pitching Coach Dave Duncan, the same direction that led many to be skeptical of the deal as Duncan and LaRussa are generally loathe to give up on any pitching talent, often coaxing more out of a particular arm (see Piniero, Joel) than anyone else.

While I can’t really speak for whether Perez’s success is a direct result of being out of St. Louis or a new approach, it did get me thinking about the return that the Indians received for a few months of Mark DeRosa and the effect (particularly when combined with the other acquisitions) that it could have on the Indians’ pitching staffs going forward. The thought would be that Chris Perez and Jesse Ray Todd already have found themselves in the Indians’ bullpen and while Todd has been inconsistent thus far, both are 23-year-old arms with a repertoire that seems to fit in the bullpen – what with Perez’s high-90’s fastball and wicked slider and JR Todd looking like Jensen Lewis with his herky-jerky motion, but with some actual movement on his pitches and some velocity, separating him from Lewis’ arsenal – and each has had success in the minors as a reliever.

Knowing what we’ve seen in the past few years regarding the construction of a bullpen, how does locking down 2 of the 7 (or 8 if you’re going with the Indians’ current curious strategy) for the next 5 years sound in terms of a return for DeRosa?

Seeing Perez perform over the last few weeks, does anyone else get the feeling that him finishing a game or two down the stretch may be a nice solution to the potential problem that Kerry Wood is still on pace to finish 52 games this season, with 39 finished in 122 games, with his 2011 option vesting if he closes 55 in a lost season during which he’s been ineffective?

Yes, bullpen arms are volatile, but it gets to the greater point if the Indians are able to FINALLY fill the bullpen out with young arms like Perez, Todd, Sipp, and Smith while hoping for a return to form in the short-term for Rafael Perez, Jen Lewis, and Wood. That greater point is that suddenly the Indians have the luxury of letting their OWN players project into the bullpen (with success never guaranteed) for 2010 and thus allowing some of the young arms to not be rushed through the system to serve as the premature cavalry.

This is important because with the haul of arms that the Indians received in their – what are we calling it now, rebuild…reload…re-stock…whatever, you know what I’m talking about – recent moves finally seems to have stocked multiple layers of the organization with pitching that is now able to develop as a group and perhaps accomplish what the first group of arms in “The Plan v.1.0” was never able to do, which would be to fill holes created through attrition, injury, Free Agency or otherwise at the MLB level and fill out the pitching staff with more than just organizational filler. Rather, the “layers” (you’ll notice I’m backing away from the “waves”) of arms are filled with potential impact arms. Sure, some of them are high-risk/high-reward, but after last year and this year, is that necessarily a bad thing?

To put it in tangible terms, let’s look at these “layers” below the MLB level to start 2010, and if you’re wondering…here’s my best guess at the pitching staff for 2010 as it stands today:
Jake Westbrook
Justin Masterson
Aaron Laffey
Fausto Carmona
Carlos Carrasco
Jeremy Sowers
Jensen Lewis
Rafael Perez
Jess Todd
Joe Smith
Tony Sipp
Chris Perez
Kerry Wood

Remember, I have Sowers as the long man necessary due to the fact that so many middle-of-the-game innings may be needed to be eaten due to Westbrook returning from his injury, Masterson still converting from the bullpen, Carmona still potentially wandering the desert, and the youth of Laffey and Carrasco – who I’m putting in there as the “winner” of the 5th rotation spot for 2010…yes, on August 23rd of 2009.

If you assume that the 12-man pitching staff looks something like that (and can we please log a formal petition that a veteran starter or veteran reliever is unnecessary in a 2010, during which contention is unlikely even though the organization won’t come out and say it), the addition of the arms in “The Great Sell-Off of 2009” to the players who legitimately are considered home-grown prospects that were already in the Tribe organization puts some meat on the bones of an organization in which impact pitching was a rarity. Regardless, here’s what I’m referring to as the “layers” of pitching in the pipeline below MLB with their ages for the 2010 season listed thusly:

1st Layer
Hector Rondon - 22
Dave Huff – 25
Jeanmar Gomez – 22
Zach Putnam – 22
Connor Graham – 24

2nd Layer

Scott Barnes – 22
Bryan Price – 23
Nick Hagadone – 24
Eric Berger – 24

3rd Layer
Jason Knapp – 19
Alex White - 21
Alexander Perez – 20
TJ House – 20

That’s a short list that doesn’t include guys like Scott Lewis, Chuck Lofgren, Steven Wright, Ryan Edell, Josh Tomlin, Frank Herrmann, or plenty others who all have some merit as possible MLB pitchers but truthfully fall more into the category of “depth” than they do “impact”. As for the names that did make it that fall closer to “impact”, I threw Alex White in there based on the fact that he wasn’t in the organization and will likely be in the Top 10 for the Tribe this year and guys like Jeanmar Gomez, Zach Putnam, Eric Berger, Alexander Perez and TJ House because of their success in 2009.

Why do I make such an assumption to only list those players?
Here’s how the pitchers (who all now find themselves in the Indians’ organization) were ranked at the beginning of the 2009 season by Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus:
Carlos Carrasco - #1 Philadelphia Prospect entering 2009 (4-Star Prospect)
Chris Perez - #3 St. Louis Prospect entering 2009 (4-Star Prospect)
Jess Todd - #5 St. Louis Prospect entering 2009 (3-Star Prospect)
Hector Rondon - #6 Cleveland Prospect entering 2009 (3-Star Prospect)
Dave Huff - #7 Cleveland Prospect entering 2009 (3-Star Prospect)
Nick Hagadone - #8 Boston Prospect entering 2009 (3-Star Prospect)
Connor Graham - #8 Colorado Prospect entering 2009 (3-Star Prospect)
Jason Knapp - #10 Philadelphia Prospect entering 2009 (3-Star Prospect)
Bryan Price - #10 Boston Prospect entering 2009 (3-Star Prospect)

Looking at that list, the Indians went from having 2 pitching prospects with 3 or more stars to 9 and that doesn’t include guys like Justin Masterson or Laffey, who are not too far removed, age-wise, from some of the names on this list.

Yes, there are other guys in there that could be added to that “layer” list, but that’s not the point of this – the point is if you were to take out the multitude of arms that came into the organization via trades, it looks like a pretty bare-bones crew or one that may have one impact guy that was in the organization when 2009 started, but was filled out by organizational depth beyond that. Now, what the Indians possess is top-end pitching talent at a number of different levels where the onus of expectations isn’t placed on one particular player’s shoulder (or arm or finger), which is a sharp departure from years past when the Indians pitching prospects consisted of Atom Miller and…um, well the guys that we’ve seen the last two years who seem to fall under that “organizational depth” category instead of being a legitimate impact arm.

For instance, if you’ll remember, the Indians have 2 of the top 18 pitching prospects (according to this) in MLB in Rondon and Carrasco and unlike years past, if something were to (knocking firmly on wood) happen to one of them, the Indians wouldn’t find themselves staring at a vast chasm of talent to the next impact arm. Prior to the trades, who was the next legitimately exciting arm in the organization in terms of front-of-the-rotation stuff…Alexander Perez?

How do these arms ultimately shake out, in terms of who remains a starter and who projects as a reliever?
We’re not going to know that answer for a while, but the presence of some legitimately talented power arms that already figure into the 2010 pitching staff (like Perez and Todd) allow for a longer amount of time for discernment. The importance of these “layers” though is also that the idea that the Indians simply cannot have too many potential impact arms may have finally found a foothold. That importance comes into play when you realize that not all of these guys are going to pan out…they’re just not. Whether one of them is done in by an injury or difficulty adjusting to a new level or a new role, all of these names look great on paper as arms to dream on, but the idea becomes if the Indians can get one or maybe two of the names in each of these “layers” to legitimately contribute, it becomes a successful development of arms.

If you believe that “There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect” or TINSTAAPP, because too many things go wrong between Point A (which could be wild success in AA as a 21-year-old) and Point B (which would ultimately be production in MLB), you see that the supplementation of the top arms in the Indians’ system almost takes an approach that attempts to take the attrition rate out of the equation by lining up that many more arms.

Again, think back to the projection for Atom Miller to come in and step in as a front-of-the-rotation starter then as a potential closer. Even after Miller’s injuries started, he remained the Indians’ top pitching prospect because the difference between his potential and every other pitcher’s was so vast that Miller (injuries considered) represented the true impact arm while the rest of the guys looked like middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation fodder or maybe middle relievers. Now, think about what we’re looking at with the arms that came up with Miller and how they’re performing in MLB…as middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation fodder or maybe middle relievers.

Now, what the Indians have attempted to do is line up not only a Miller-type impact arm in each of these layers (like Hagadone and Knapp in the lower layers), but also to make sure that the pieces that figure to mature and project with them simply aren’t guys who throw in the low-90’s and get by on “control” and “command”, instead stocking up on guys like Bryan Price and Alex White, whose eventual role may not yet be determined, but whose floor as a potential late-inning option represents a higher floor than the players we watched come up with Miller.

After you get past that notion of the “layers”, the question becomes how quickly these arms all move in the organization as the position players are all but set going forward if you consider that 3B, 1B, and LF look to be the only question marks come 2010 (assuming Marson is the de-facto catcher in 2010 until Santana arrives) and some combination of Peralta, LaPorta, and Marte can hold down those positions until Brantley is ready to take over LF and The Chizzle is ready to take over 3B.

How quickly these arms should move brings up an interesting piece brought to my attention by Jay Levin at Let’s Go Tribe that came from the noted Nate Silver from the Spring of 2007, taking a look at the development of young pitchers and how prudent it is to continue the “development” of true high-impact arms:
…Although there are a few categories of pitching prospects — particularly guys with good stuff, high strikeout rates and highish walk rates (think Homer Bailey) — that tend to improve more often than not, in general there is no systematic pattern of improvement after the age of 21 or so. Sometimes guys get better, of course, and sometimes they do so in a hurry — but you can’t take a young pitcher in a vacuum and expect him to improve the same way that you can for a hitting prospect. Mark Rogers (to pick on some low-hanging fruit) will probably never get his command sorted out, Yusemiro Petit will never add enough ticks to his fastball to become a useful major league starter, Gavin Floyd will never learn how to keep the ball down, and so forth. All of these things are possible — but they’re not very likely.

The flip side, as Gary also alludes to, is that young pitchers often take less time to become dominant big league performers. Pitching, somewhat contrary to the mad genius reputation of pitchers like Greg Maddux, is more of a purely physical skill and less of a learned behavior than hitting is. Pitchers like Francisco Liriano and Jered Weaver and Cole Hamels — these guys weren’t just holding their own last year, they were among the very best pitchers in baseball. Someone like Hamels — or Tim Lincecum or Philip Hughes — might very well be as effective today as he’s ever going to be, before he’s had a chance for injuries and mileage to accumulate. Keeping those guys down on the farm is not conservative — it’s a downright irresponsible way to run a ballclub.

It’s a fascinating way to look at the handling of young arms and while I’m not suggesting that the next Tim Licnecum or Cole Hamels is in the Indians’ organization, you have to wonder if the kid gloves are going to come off with these arms like Hagadone and Knapp, particularly given the fact that Atom Miller (who was likely ready to contribute to the parent club in 2006 or at least in 2007 based on his talent) has yet to pitch in MLB.

The arms (whether they be “layers” or “waves” or whatever) look to be in the Indians’ organization to complement the position players in place and just below the surface. How closely the two groups adjust and mature as essential pieces of the team will likely determine whether The Plan v.2.0 becomes a success or Shapiro’s Last Stand.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Trumpeting a Return with Tomahawks

The dog days have descended upon us (or have they been here for about two months now) and the baseball season is starting down the back stretch all 30 MLB teams. In Cleveland, 2009 is grinding (pun intended) to a slow, painful halt as the Indians finally start to look like they should have about two months ago.

And with that, release the ’hawks:

Hold on, this can’t be right…the long-awaited and inexplicably-delayed has finally happened – Matt LaPorta has been called up to join the Tribe? Posting an OPS of .917 in AAA, playing two of the positions among the weakest on the parent club finally proved to be enough to see LaPorta in Cleveland with one full week left in August?

Now…we do the Dance of Joy.

But before we all get too excited, here’s a quick reminder on how frequently LaPorta was played in his 24 game stint in May – 12 starts rendering 49 plate appearances. Again, as a quick reminder, the three players who prevented LaPorta from playing everyday at either 1B, LF, or DH have now ALL found themselves completely out of the organization a mere two months later. To grind (pun intended) salt into that wound, consider that those same players “blocking” LaPorta from playing every single day (as the Indians’ top prospect and the bounty for CC) in May are now either playing part-time for NL teams or are out of baseball altogether.

Why is it necessary to dredge up this nonsense?
Here’s what Castro wrote regarding Wedge’s comments on LaPorta:
Matt LaPorta will see “regular time” in the outfield and at first base, according to Eric Wedge. Where LaPorta’s future ultimately lies is still a matter of mystery, as both left field and first base appear wide open for the outset of 2010.

“Regular time” doesn’t look quite like “every day, without fail at some position” which is the exact phrasing that Wedge should have used.
Why should it have been used?
Because the Indians’ credibility and consistency in this matter is beyond untenable, as AC summarizes:
Wedge said the Indians had planned to get LaPorta up here before September, regardless of Crowe's injury, because pre-September at-bats are considered more meaningful than September at-bats. That's all well and good, but it's Aug. 19. I'm not sure when this pre-September promotion was going to take place, but clearly those meaningful at-bats would have been in short supply.

Is this complaining about a few hundred AB for a player that will (hopefully) see plenty of them in an Indians’ uniform?
Probably, but LaPorta (who will wear #7 now, by the by, so break out the duct tape for the back of those Lofton jerseys) should have been called up to play every day the first time he was on the club and the promotion of Gimenez, Crowe, and Marte to all essentially play LaPorta’s positions were nothing short of a continuation of the absurdity that has arisen from the whole situation.

Speaking of absurdity, wasn’t one of the two given reasons as to why LaPorta wasn’t up here when Francisco was traded because Grady needed a back-up in CF and Crowe was that back-up?

Who got DL’d again to create a roster spot for LaPorta…oh, that’ right, the back-up CF whose presence on the roster allegedly debunked the idea that The GateKeeper (scroll down in the link for the explanation) would be better served in Cleveland than in Columbus.

Has the handling of one player (much less a top prospect) been butchered more completely than this whole LaPorta thing?

Doesn’t it feel like the microcosm of a season in which either the Indians Front Office and Coaching Staff simply aren’t on the same page or are asleep at the wheel on this stuff?

Regardless, there are 43 games remaining on the Indians schedule and we’ll soon find out if “regular” playing time means 21 to 22 games, 32 to 33 games, or the whole shooting match. It also bears mentioning that just 11 of those 43 remaining games will come with those aforementioned “more meaningful pre-September” at-bats being even available for LaPorta.

And the wheel of confusion spins on…

How confusing has that wheel been?
Consider that Luis Valbuena was called up to Cleveland on the same day as LaPorta and started only 8 of the first 16 games for the Indians, as he sat on the bench with LaPorta without regular playing time.

Then something happened that may or may not have affected his playing time…remember that collision at Home Plate with Miguel Olivo on May 19th? Since that game, Louie VB has started 56 of the 77 games they’ve played despite posting a .681 OPS for the first month of that stretch. He was struggling for sure, but he has now seemingly made the necessary adjustments to being a regular in MLB and since July 11th has now posted an OPS of .851 with 12 extra-base hits in the 23 games he’s started in that stretch.

Did something change in the mind of the manager with that collision that resulted in Valbuena’s chin receiving two stitches?
We may never know, though it would seem that Carroll, the logical player to take time away from Valbuena at 2B after Cabrera made the switch, has been more productive than most on the Indians and certainly could have been used as a reason to send Valbuena back down for more “seasoning” to “earn” a trip back to Cleveland.

For whatever reason though, Carroll remained in the Utility role while Valbuena emerged as a legitimately exciting 23-year-old who has out-OPSed the reigning AL MVP since the All-Star Break. Valbuena rewarded the Indians for their unique patience and now has more extra-base hits than Trevor Crowe, Chris Gimenez, Andy Marte, and Wyatt Toregas combined since the All-Star Break.

Why did he stay and LaPorta did not when the Indians’ season was in jeopardy of circling the drain, then as the season sank deeper and deeper into the depths of the chasm that the Indians now find themselves?

It’s a question that will hopefully find an answer in Wedge’s exit interview…as in “exit” from his managerial post.

I’m no expert in resume writing, but can somebody please tell Jamey Carroll to update his to include the fact that he’s now currently 15th in the AL in OBP among players with 200 or more plate appearances?

Oh…and putting that he has played 6 of the 9 positions on the diamond would help to.

Last thing…tell him to include a wallet picture of him with it.
I mean, how could a team NOT want this “Little Engine That Could” for the stretch run?

Finally, while taking pleasure in the misfortune of others is not a regular practice of mine, watching the Indians’ roster turnover continue and reach biblical proportions, consider this from Rany Jazayerli on the Royals, only team below our moribund Indians in the standing, and their season to date:
… The Royals are 46-72, chugging towards the worst record in baseball, and we can’t even point to all the rookies on the roster as both an excuse for that performance and a hope that the performance will improve in the future. Consider this: it’s August 18th, and NOT ONE ROYAL HAS MADE HIS MAJOR LEAGUE DEBUT THIS SEASON. That’s a stat you might expect from a contending team with a huge payroll and stars at every position. That’s not something you expect from a last-place team that is supposedly building for the future.

I guess The Process – I capitalize it out of respect – involves not just losing, but losing with a bunch of veterans while keeping promising minor leaguers like Kila Ka’aihue and Chris Hayes right where they are. Unless The Process includes “purposely tanking this season to get first dibs on Bryce Harper”, color me confused.

Let’s hope that which Jazayerli adroitly describes as “losing with a bunch of veterans while keeping promising minor leaguers…right where they are” is a practice that has found its end at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

If you’re wondering, the Indians have seven players (Crowe, Gimenez, LaPorta, Toregas, Huff, Sipp, and Todd) who have made their MLB debut in 2009 (with more likely to come, the most notable being Carrasco and/or Rondon) and while that doesn’t mean that those seven players are all significant pieces to the puzzle being constructed, it at least means that the Indians can start the evaluation process now instead of at a date to be determined.

For one in particular (and the one of those seven on the list who is most highly regarded), it’s an evaluation process that should be about 200 AB in…

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Holes to Heaven

“There were so many fewer questions…when stars were still just the holes to heaven” – Jack Johnson

Being out of the collective Tribe loop this past weekend while visiting the in-laws in Wisconsin, I succeeded (somewhat) in removing myself from the day-to-day minutiae of the Indians. Sure, I caught the highlights of each game on TV and pounded out a Lazy Sunday; but for the most part, I just enjoyed the sunshine and the company in Milwaukee – happy to hear the news that the Indians won, but by no means searching out the game recaps or the box scores much more than giving them a cursory look in the morning.

You know what?
It was pretty fun, just to see that the Indians were winning games from afar and not worrying too much about the absurdity of Jamey Carroll playing RF or getting worked up over a lack of command from Justin Masterson…remember, I said I was “somewhat” successful.

Realizing this, it brought me to an interesting thought on a NINE-hour ride back to Cleveland on Monday (it normally takes 6 ½ hours) and that is – is relative ignorance bliss when it comes to following a baseball team or does reveling in the details through total immersion increase a fan’s overall enjoyment?

Obviously, if you’re talking about following a bad and frustrating baseball team like the Indians this year and last, merely catching the scores from a distance (which is what most fans do once NFL Training Camp opens if the Indians are out of it in mid-June) is a pretty easy answer. But when a team gels at the right time and makes that run, like the Indians did in 2007, does taking that longer ride through the ups and downs of the coaster mean that you’re any more invested than someone who just enjoys baseball for just the entertainment aspect of it, hopping on the bandwagon at the appropriate time?

It’s a question that we ask ourselves as fans at the beginning of each season – how emotionally invested to this team am I going to be?

Is it better to have a working knowledge of Trevor Crowe’s track record in the Minors and realize that he doesn’t project as much more than Ben Francisco, or is it preferable to watch him “swing a hot bat” for a couple of weeks and irrationally inflate hope?

Is it more satisfying to simply get miffed about an inane aspect of the game, like the lack of bunting from an Eric Wedge team or is anything greater gained (other than increasing frustration levels) by knowing about Wedge’s underperformance from Pythagorean expectation, his inability to translate a good second half to a hot start, or his obtuseness in terms of playing time (or lack thereof) for particular players?

Which is more fun to know about Alex White – that he’s a “top-5 talent” who just got $2.25M from the Indians with an arm to dream on and leaving it at that or searching out this scouting report on him, which states that White is an extremely risky pick by the Indians, with a big league arm, but with control issues and mechanical shortcomings?

What maximizes enjoyment in this realm of fandom?
I think back to the “Era of Champions” in the mid-1990’s, which represented the first taste that most Indians’ fans got of winning and of winning consistently and how fun that ride was. While it was happening, I’m sure that people were likely more rabid in terms of their fanhood, if only because it was so wildly enjoyable to watch one of the greatest lineups in recent memory fight off the losses with such regularity. But I know that I didn’t sit and worry about Kenny Lofton’s service time or anybody’s options getting unnecessarily vested, or what the Indians were going to do with their pitching rotation two years down the line with the farm system devoid of quality starters ready to step into the Tribe’s five.

In hindsight, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride – maybe because I was a high-school kid more interested in other things – but also because the wealth of information that now exists at my fingertips was simply not there. I watched the games and read the paper and consumed everything that I thought existed having to do with the Indians, and it was a blast.

Now, in this age of instant access and analysis, with information coming out of our ears in terms of baseball statistics and opinion, one doesn’t have to work real hard to become a better informed fan by going above and beyond those tools that we all used to ride that mid-90’s train. But getting elbow deep in the stuff reveals the dichotomy of being a fan in terms of being entertained by a diversion for enjoyment while attempting to know as much as possible about that entertainment.

By no means am I suggesting that people who know what Zach Putnam’s K/9 rate in Akron is makes them any more of a fan than the person who goes to every game and dons the uniform of their favorite player, sticking with the team through thick and thin. The two methods get to the same destination, cheering for the team you’ve always loved in the hopes that the players that they’ve cast their lot with succeed to the point of perennial contention. But it gets back to the fundamental question, which is whether the enjoyment of a sport or of a team is raised exponentially through increased knowledge and analysis.

If you’re reading this, you likely know where I ultimately stand on this…and again, if you’re reading this, you’re probably standing right next to me. To me, I like to see the logic (or lack thereof) behind a move or a decision made by the Indians and analyze it to the point that I can come to grips with at least the thought process behind the move, coming to a conclusion after looking at the different aspects.

Ultimately, the Indians remain enjoyable to me, something that interests me and entertains me and while my thirst for more information, more knowledge, and more educated opinion on the Indians remains generally unquenched, it never removes that unbridled joy that I felt in the mid-90s or in 2007, it only enhances it…it just makes waiting for that unbridled joy to occur again a little more painful.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Lazy Sunday from the Cream City

In the land of beer and cheese (and Milwaukee Irish Fest this weekend…which basically falls lock-step with those first two), it’s time to drop a Lazy Sunday from the father-in-law’s home office before the next round of drinks starts. I think today is the day for Schlitz (1960’s formula, anyone?), so let’s just get this going so I can attempt to deflect the embarrassment of being a Browns’ fan on a day like Wisconsin, no less.

And with that, we’re off:
The frustration in playing time and lineup construction that has plagued the 2009 season continues as the thought that the second half of 2009 should be spent gearing up for 2010 and making clean determinations on certain players while working out the MLB-adjustment periods for others has gone right out of the window.

While it would seem that the Indians should be divvying up plate appearances to players who naturally figure into 2010 (LaPorta) or those they need to make final decisions on because of a lack of options (Marte, Shoppach), we find these patterns with the appropriate timeframe shown, as well as other pertinent information:
Chris Gimenez – Age 26 – Career MiLB .844 OPS - 2 options remaining after this year
12 games started out of last 17 games

Trevor Crowe – Age 25 – Career MiLB .760 OPS - 2 options remaining after this year
12 games started out of 14 possible since promotion

Wyatt Toregas – Age 26 – Career MiLB .739 OPS - 2 options remaining after this year
5 games started out of 13 possible since promotion

Matt LaPorta – Age 24 – Career MiLB .947 OPS - 2 options remaining after this year
0 games started out of …oh, wait…that’s right.

Andy Marte – Age 25 – Career MiLB .838 OPS - 0 options remaining after this year
10 games started out of 16 games since promotion

Kelly Shoppach – Age 29 – Career MLB .783 OPS - 0 options remaining after this year
7 games started out of 14 possible since trade of Victor Martinez

Tell me again – which players fit obviously into the future and which ones do the Indians need to make decisions as to whether they are part of 2010 plans before the end of the season?

Toregas has played nearly as frequently as Shoppach and both Gimenez and Crowe have played significantly more games than Marte while LaPorta...well, harrumph, harrumph.

Now, there certainly exists the possibility that Tony Lastoria asserted on this weekend’s edition of “Smoke Signals” – that the Indians are finding out what they have in Gimenez, Crowe, and Toregas to figure out if they fit into the future of the team on the 40-man roster and not just the 25-man roster going forward. That may be the case, though if it is, you would think that the Indians would STILL be able to find some opportunities for Marte at least, as I think the determination that Show Pack doesn’t fit into the long-term plans and Wedge’s inconsistency in playing him this season crushed ANY trade value he might have. Playing time seems to be there to make some further evaluations on these players, seeing as how the “no-way-he’s-in-the-2010-plans” Jamey Carroll has now started 6 of the last 13 games, including a start in RF last night. If this roster is supposed to be SO versatile, the exclusion of Marte for any given day just looks like some sort of misguided mission on the part of the manager.

A mission that unfortunately has become all too common and all too transparent as the Indians’ lineup card has become a rotation full of only misplaced punchlines for too long.

While we’re analyzing why the Tribe finds themselves where they do in the standings, how about taking a look at a piece that Joe Posnanski did on the worst contracts in MLB…you may recognize a couple:
9. Travis Hafner (Cleveland Indians)
He has three years at $13 million per left on his four-year deal … and a buyout on top. The reason this is not higher on the list is you can certainly understand why the Indians made the deal. Hafner had led the American League in OPS+ twice. He was coming off a year when he hit .308/.439/.649 — tough to argue with those numbers.
BUT … they gave him the contract in the middle of the 2007 season, when he turned 30, when his numbers had already started to take a precipitous fall, when he had not shown an ability to stay healthy (he had never even played 150 games in a season when they gave him the deal). PLUS, he’s a big, slow guy who literally cannot play a single defensive position … he has not put on a glove for a big league game since 2007. Hafner has shown a little spark of offensive life this year, but he has so many injury problems, and he’s 32 years old, and this contract surely will only look worse as time goes on.

8. Kerry Wood (Cleveland Indians)

He signed before this season for 2 years at $11 million per and there’s a reasonable chance it will kick in and become a three-year deal. He has been terrible this year but that’s not even the problem … Why would you spend all that money to sign a 31-turning-32-year-old pitcher with a long line of injury problems who has never pitched in the American League and has had one decent year as a closer? Mark Shapiro seems to me a bright guy who has done some good things … but this was a head-scratcher to me.

Obviously, there was some logic at the time of these deals – which Pos hits on with Hafner, but doesn’t acknowledge that Wood was supposed to settle the bullpen as a quantity that the Indians have lacked since Joe Table as a lock-down closer…and hasn’t that worked out great. But does everyone remember the declaration that the Indians moved Lee and Victor because they weren’t going to add any payroll this off-season?
Want to know why any addition of payroll was unlikely?
Committed Payroll for 2010
Hafner - $11.5M
Westbrook - $11M
Wood - $10.5M
That’s $33M, which is likely to be about half of the Indians’ payroll for 2010 for players that the Indians have no idea as to what to expect from them in 2010.

While those are frightening numbers to “look forward” to, since those players signed those contracts, what do the Indians have to show for them?
Hafner Performance since signing contract on 7/11/07
.250 BA / .348 OBP / .425 SLG / .773 OPS with 26 HR in 651 AB over 185 games
To put that in perspective, the Indians have played in 355 games since Hafner signed this deal…he has played in 52% of those games, with the results in those games not exactly approaching Pronkian levels.

Westbrook Performance since signing contract in April of 2007
7-11, 4.10 ERA, 112 ERA+, and 1.361 WHIP in 186 2/3 IP over 30 starts
Again, just to put that in perspective, the Indians have played in 440 games since Jake signed this deal…he has started 6% of those games.

Wood Performance since signing contract on 12/13/08
15 saves, 4.72 ERA, 96 ERA+, 1.38 WHIP in 40 IP over 43 games
Tied for second in MLB in Blown Saves among closers with 5 (only Brad Lidge has more) to go against his 15 saves, his 4.72 ERA is 104th among 117 MLB relievers with more than 40 IP on the year.

There’s the performance of the past year or past few years that the Indians have received from the players that figure to take up ½ of their payroll.
Still wondering why 2008 and 2009 have turned into these unmitigated disasters?

Yes, a dry well in terms of impact players coming through the system and injuries caused a good number of heartache for Indians’ fans in the past two years; but when the Indians (or any other team playing in a market similar to Cleveland) takes gambles on deals like these three, missing on one can be debilitating to the health of a franchise…what about three?

Back to the 2010 payroll, the only other players that are will be receiving money above minimum or arbitration-level dollars are Sizemore ($5.767M), Carmona ($4.9M), and Peralta ($4.85M). The total amount guaranteed to those 6 players (adding in Hafner, Jake, and Wood) comes to $48M, and that’s assuming that Peralta is sticking around. By the same token, the player that figures to get the biggest raise via arbitration, Kelly Show Pack, certainly seems to be on his way out of the Indians’ plans as he’s playing LESS with Martinez no longer in front of him at the catching position.

If Peralta does come back next year and those 6 players make up $48M in what is likely to be a payroll in the low-to-mid-$60M range, how do the Indians fill the other 19 spots on the roster?

MLB minimum is right around $400K, so 19 x $400K = $7.6M.
And that doesn’t take into account some of the guys that may be approached about a Sizemore-type deal (Cabrera and Choo), causing their salary to rise slightly with the security of a long-term deal that would buy perhaps out a year of Free Agency. Nor does it take into account some of the players who may be arbitration-eligible (like Marte, Perez, Smith, and Sowers) when the end of the season comes up and service time is tallied.

That brings us back to the farm system, the feeder that was supposed to already be running at full capacity and only now, infused with arms from the deals of the past 6 weeks or so, looks to be rounding into an organization full of promise, and much of it at the upper levels. To that end, Indians’ minor-league guru Tony Lastoria took some time to sit down with the guys at Project Prospect to comment on varied topics throughout the Indians’ farm system.

Staying with Project Prospect, here are their updated ratings of minor-leaguers from August 1st…as pointed out by serial poster Trebek. That would be 5 Indians’ farmhands among the top 25 with Santana (#2), LaPorta (#10), Rondon (#15), Carrasco (#18) and Weglarz (#20) on the list, all of whom figure to be in AAA or higher next year. Actually, that’s 5 of the top 20, which is pretty absurd.

Back to the prospect “haul” over the last couple of months, you can now count’s Jon Heymann as someone who has turned the corner on the prospects that the Tribe received:
The more I look, the more I like the Indians' sale. Nine of the 11 prospects they acquired in trades are pitchers, all are under 24, nine were ranked among the trading teams' top-10 prospects, and five are rated in the top-100 prospects in baseball by Baseball America.

Watching the Rangers come to town and seeing a 21-year-old Neftali Feliz absolutely blow through Indians batters (and I’m not picking on the Indians as he now has 13 K in 6 2/3 IP), does everyone realize that Feliz was the extremely young, high-ceiling arm the Rangers got from the Braves in the Teixeira deal in 2007?

When he joined the Texas organization, he was a 19-year-old playing in Rookie ball with a power arm to dream on, racking up the K’s. Oh, that was in the middle of 2007…and now a little more than two years later, he’s hammering his way through the American League?
Jason Knapp, are you paying attention here?

While that is in jest (at least a little), it does call to mind what can happen when a team hits a bulls-eye on a guy like Feliz in terms of adding that impact talent to an organization that can develop quickly and pay dividends in short order, something that Terry Pluto alludes to in a piece touching on the young arms.

Now, if we could only find a way to have that type of talent come up through our own ranks and not rely on trades with other organizations to net such talent…oh, and then actually giving playing time to said talent at the MLB level.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The A-Tomahawk Wedgie

On the heels of a 13-7 run that still has the Indians 10 games back in the Central going into Thursday afternoon’s tilt (when the Expected Won-Loss Record puts the Indians at a pace that is 6 games better…or 2 games back in the Expected Won-Loss Record in the AL Central), let’s release some Tomahawks with perhaps a conclusion to the disparity to the continued underperformance of the Indians and, of course, hope for 2010:

While it seems like the fate of The Atomic Wedgie should have been decided long ago – like after the Cubs’ series for example when a change looked to be more than justifiable, based on an underperforming team under his watchful eye for a longer period of time than just the first couple of months of 2009…or, maybe when we realized that even if the second half of 2009 resulted in some momentum wasn’t likely to carry over to 2010, using past Wedge-led teams as a guide Wedge question – it certainly seems like there’s a lot of people hanging out on the “Fire Wedge” wagon in recent days.

Now, with the Indians in full-court press mode trying to justify the trades of the last couple of weeks, there seems to be a strong intimation that one of the folks hanging out on the “Fire Wedge” wagon may actually have a little more pull than you and me.

While out in front of most every camera or microphone to talk about the future of the Indians, Paul Dolan had this little back-and-forth with WTAM’s Mike Trivisonno on Tuesday regarding the future of Mark Shapiro and Eric Wedge beyond 2009:
Paul Dolan – It’s not possible that Mark will be gone, we are not looking for a new General Manager. There’s absolutely no way, in my view, that Mark is in any way in jeopardy of losing his job this season. Eric and his staff is different, you know, we will look at it, continue to look at it; they’ve done a lot of good things while we’re here, but we’ve also underachieved in the last couple of years. We need to know why and we also understand that the fans are looking for something different – we have to take that into account and we have to understand what the alternatives are too.

WTAM’s Mike Trivisonno – I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but after you gave the explanation about Eric Wedge…if that was me, I wouldn’t feel very secure. That’s the feeling I got from your explanation there, that’s all I’m saying. I don’t know how accurate my feelings are.

Paul Dolan – I can’t comment any further on that, I just will say that Eric has done a very good job here and he’s a very good manager. Whether he’s the right manager for the Cleveland Indians in the future is a determination that we will make in the near future.

WTAM’s Mike Trivisonno – But it does seem like you have way more confidence in Shapiro than you do Wedge, am I safe in saying that?

Paul Dolan – You’re certainly safe in saying that Mark is part of our organization in the future…I can’t, I can’t really quantify that or qualify that any further.

Allow me to let that sink in for a moment…
If you listen to this portion of the interview, which can be heard here, the words don’t quite do justice to the fact that Dolan either could not or would not come out and say that Eric Wedge is managing out the string on his tenure with the Cleveland Indians.

Couple that with this beauty and we’re getting somewhere:
“Eric and his staff have achieved a lot in their time here," Dolan said. "I think fans tend to forget that. When he took over in '03, he took over what was, in essence, an expansion franchise. In a relatively short period of time, he turned it into a competitive team. He and others deserve a lot of credit for that. Despite that, we have not been successful the last few years with a team that should have been successful. We have to understand why that is. We also have to understand that sometimes fans want or need to hear a different voice. We have to balance that.”
Again, I bolded the most important sentence.

This audio doesn’t really offer too much more in terms of language from that quote, but it does take the quote above from earlier in the week from and puts a voice to it. If you listen to the tone and what isn’t being said here, it’s pretty obvious that the Dolans are going to have a significant voice in terms of whether Eric Wedge is going to make it through the off-season, with the obviousness of their feelings coming across in front of our eyes and ears.

Going back to that idea that the Indians have been unable to sustain that “momentum” of a second-half push from year to year under Wedge, how about this knowledge?
Pre-All Star Break Pitching
5.40 ERA, 1.54 WHIP .806 OPS against in 785 2/3 innings over 89 games (35-54)

Post-All Star Break Pitching
3.82 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, .714 OPS against in 219 IP over 24 games (14-10)

Yes, it’s a much smaller sample size after the Midsummer Classic, but why do the Indians do this to us every year?

Watching this team turn it around with a lot of these young arms succeeding, when all hope was supposed to be lost, feeds my irrational optimism for this team, even going so far as to look at these individual numbers in the Post-All Star Break timeframe going into Thursday’s game:
Aaron Laffey – 1.99 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 19 K, 11 BB in 31 2/3 IP
Justin Masterson – 1.29 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8 K, 2 BB in 7 IP
Jeremy Sowers – 1.80 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8 K, 8 BB in 20 IP
Fausto Carmona – 2.65 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 6 K, 10 BB in 17 IP
Dave Huff – 6.75 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 12 K, 7 BB in 30 2/3 IP

Kerry Wood – 2.89 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 12 K, 2 BB in 9 1/3 IP
Chris Perez – 0.00 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 10 K, 4 BB in 8 2/3 IP
Joe Smith – 0.00 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 4 K, 0 BB in 6 1/3 IP
Tony Sipp – 6.48 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 10 K, 3 BB in 8 1/3 IP
Jensen Lewis – 3.60 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 5 K, 1 BB in 5 IP
Jess Todd – 5.40 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 2 K, 1 BB in 3 1/3 IP
Rafael Perez – 16.20 ERA, 3.60 WHIP, 0 K, 2 BB in 1 2/3 IP

From the department of irrational exuberance, if this is the rotation and bullpen for 2010 (and…it isn’t), here are the numbers for these 12 pitchers in the last 24 games:
Starters – 3.38 ERA, 1.36 WHIP
Relievers – 3.38 ERA, 1.15 WHIP

Yeah, I know…you can have these rose-colored glasses as soon as I’m done with them.

Speaking of what the rotation in 2010 is supposed to look like, did anyone else take the news that Jake Westbrook was being shut down again and that he wouldn’t pitch in 2009 and wonder if the Indians had some foreknowledge on this in terms of making decisions about what 2010 held?

That is to say, when the Indians were trying to determine if contention was possible in 2010 when deciding what to do with Clifton Phifer and Vic, how concerned were the Indians about Westbrook being able to get back into the groove in 2009 with the idea that he could be starting 2010 as a still unknown quantity?

With Westbrook’s return being delayed (again), you have to wonder what the Indians realistically expect from him in 2010 and if it had any bearing (among other factors) in their decision to move Lee and Martinez last week.

While the delay of Westbrook’s return to the rotation certainly casts more doubt on an already tenuous 2010 rotation, how about the fact that Aaron Laffey is now 9th in ERA among players with more than 70 IP in the AL and 14th in FIP (Justin Masterson is now 10th in FIP with the same criteria), with the idea that a spot in the 2010 rotation is essentially his?

Who else might end up there to join what looks to be a grouping of Westbrook (assuming health), Carmona, Masterson, and Laffey?

How about Carlos Carrasco, the much-maligned name (in that his name isn’t Kyle Drabek or Tommy Hanson or Clayton Kershaw or Clay Buchholz) that was the “close-to-MLB-ready” arm in the CP Lee deal?

Yes, Carlos Carrasco (no, not this guy who played Ortiz in “Speed”…the other one) only has three starts in the Indians organization, but how do the last two strike you?
August 6th vs. Buffalo
7 2/3 IP, 5 ER, 5 H, 2 BB, 5 K
What’s so great about that?
Well, 4 of those 5 ER of those runs came in the 8th inning as Columbus manager Torey Lovullo sent Carrasco out to start the 8th for the first time in his 2009 season, meaning that his first 7 innings are about as good as you can ask for, considering that Carrasco had allowed 2 hits 1 BB, and 1 ER with all of those 5 K coming in the first 7 frames.

He followed it up with this beauty:
August 11th vs. Indianapolis
8 IP, 1 ER, 4 H, 0 BB, 10 K

Let’s magically take away that 8th inning against the Bisons (yes, I know…whole body of work) and Carrasco’s last two outings look like this:
15 IP, 2 ER, 6 H, 1 BB, 15 K

With Westbrook out of the mix (and the 40-man roster sitting at 34, with a Swindler now in the house), a call-up for Carrasco prior to the roster expansion on September 1st is far from out of the question, with the idea that a spot in the 2010 rotation may come down to some sort of competition between Carrasco, Sowers, Huff, and Rondon.

Carrasco will get his shot for the parent club this year to make a first impression as he begins to make his case for a 2010 rotation spot in a rotation that could get very interesting (particularly given Carmona’s performance since returning) next year…although “interesting” could be train-wreck-can’t-look-away as easily as it can be pleasant.

Regardless, one thing sounds like a building certainty – it doesn’t look or sound like The Atomic Wedgie will be presiding over said 2010 rotation or much else in 2010 pertaining to the Cleveland Indians…not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

As the Dust Settles – R-O-L-A-I-D-S Edition

Having looked at the position players and the rotation going forward in this Brave New World at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, it’s time to take a look at what has apparently become the most important part of the Indians’ success (or lack thereof) in the last five years...I speak, of course, of the bullpen. How is it, you ask, that the bullpen has apparently become the most important aspect of the Indians since 2005?

Take a look at how the cumulative ERA of the bullpen relates to how the team finishes, in comparative terms to the rest of MLB
Bullpen ERA – 2.80 (1st of 30)
Team Record – 93-69 (6th of 30)

Bullpen ERA – 4.73 (25th of 30)
Team Record – 78-84 (18th of 30)

Bullpen ERA – 3.75 (6th of 30)
Team Record – 97-66 (1st of 30)

Bullpen ERA – 5.13 (29th of 30)
Team Record – 81-81 (17th of 30)

Bullpen ERA – 5.08 (29th of 30)
Team Record – 48-63 (25th of 30)

Great bullpen, great final record.
Bad bullpen…I know this is oversimplifying things more than a little while pouring salt into an open wound and certainly isn’t breaking any new ground, but with these results in behind the Indians, where does that leave the Indians, attempting to learn from the mistakes of their past?

The Indians have tried the veteran retread route (with success in 2005 with Howry and Sauerbeck, among others…and nearly complete failure in every instance since then), they’ve succeeded with the riding the hot hand route in 2007, they’ve been burned by the idea that past success means anything in 2008, and they’ve failed with the idea that a “lock-down” closer settles a bullpen in 2009.

Anyone coming up with any other ideas?
Apparently the Indians think they may have, as the recent trades of veterans has resulted in an influx of power arms, all seemingly boasting a fastball-slider mix, in an attempt to finally build a self-sufficient bullpen, not dependent on relative unknowns or reclamation projects.

Given the volatile nature of relievers, not knowing what can legitimately be expected from day to day, much less year to year with some of these guys, the Indians are attempting to build a brand new mousetrap in their bullpen strategy. Not necessarily a better mousetrap (because how can they be asserted with any degree of certainty at this point given what we’ve seen in the past few years), but one that represents a stark contrast from what they’ve attempted to cobble together in the past, with only two years of success to show for it out of the last five.

Before getting into what they look to be assembling for 2010 and beyond, let’s think back a few short months ago when the bullpen was thought to be a strength of this team. And as somebody who thought that Perez and Lewis would be perfect 7th and 8th inning complements to Wood all year, allow me to bring back the promise of the bullpen that broke camp in Goodyear with the Indians:
Kerry Wood
Rafael Perez
Jensen Lewis
Rafael Betancourt
Joe Smith
Masa Kobayashi
Zach Jackson.

The thought was with Wood locking it down, Lewis and Perez maturing into legit set-up guys after 2007 and 2008, Betancourt returning to some form of even his pre-2007 form and Joe Smith to serve as the ROOGY, the last two spots could be augmented from within when (not if) Masa and Zachson got their walking papers. That depth, if you’ll remember, was thought to be Tony Sipp, John Meloan, Rich Rundles, Juan Salas, and the cast of off-the-scrap-heap arms like Vinnie Chulk, Matt Herges, Greg Aquino, Tomo Ohka, Jack Cassel, and Kirk Saarloos.

You can mock that last group of names all you’d like, but it was pretty much assumed that if the Indians made it to Matt Herges (still second on the team in ERA+ among relievers, behind only Betancourt) on this list, so much had gone wrong in front of him that the season would likely be lost at that point anyway.

Unfortunately, we all now know of the deep regressions of Perez and Lewis, the injuries to Smith and Betancourt, and the wild inconsistency of Wood deep-sixed the season as a result of being asked to shoulder too many innings because of a thin rotation as well as seemingly all of them floundering in whatever situation their manager put them in.

But with an eye cast towards 2010 (as I don’t think I can bear to look back at the first half of the 2009 bullpen) and with players like Betancourt and Masa no longer options for this team going forward, what does the 2010 bullpen look like, even from this far away?
If I had to venture a quick guess, it would look like this:
C. Perez
R. Perez

If you want to put Sowers and Zachson in there as potential long men because they’re out of options, that’s fine; but the list should also include the likes of recent starters-turned-relievers Zach Putnam, Steven Wright, Frank Herrmann, as well as some of the newer acquisitions like Bryan Price or Connor Graham.

Looks OK to me, watching these guys shake themselves out over the past couple of months, right?
I guess, but remember what the overwhelming consensus was going into this past year in terms of the bullpen.

Looking at that list though, there does seem to be a sharp departure from the “put the ball in play and hope for the best” crowd and a shift to strikeout pitchers, with “stuff” (even if control issues come as a by-product) who ideally minimize damage by not giving up too many walks and preventing HR.

Let’s make that the starting point on some of these guys – high K rates while minimizing BB and HR – something that looks to be a relatively sound base camp if you look at the K/9 leaders (min – 40 IP, all as a reliever) for this year, the K/BB leaders for 2009 (min – 40 IP, all as a reliever), as well as the lowest HR/9 leaders for the year (min – 40 IP, all as a reliever), at least if you’re looking at some of the names on those linked lists.

When the names that dot the top of the K/9 list are Broxton, Nathan, and Aardsma (this year at least), you know that there is some merit here in terms of a pitchers’ repertoire being as such to stack up the K. The top of the K/BB list is Rivera, Qualls, Nathan, and Street, who have 110 saves between them this year and 7 of the top 25 on the HR/9have 24 saves or more. Thus, these three numbers seem like a decent place to examine what exactly the Indians are looking to go into 2010 with.

For most of these guys, I included both MLB and MiLB numbers as many are young enough that their MLB service clock really just started ticking. For the old man in the bullpen (whose service clock is starting to resemble a gold watch at the ripe old age of 32), I only included his time as a reliever the last two years:

Kerry Wood – Age 32
MLB (2008/2009 only) - 10.9 K/9, 3.49 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9

Chris Perez – Age 23
MLB – 9.9 K/9, 2.05 K/BB, 1.0 HR/9
MiLB – 12.0 K/9, 2.01 K/BB, 0.6 HR/9

Tony Sipp – Age 25
MLB – 9.9 K/9, 1.38 K/BB, 1.8 HR/9
MiLB – 11.7 K/9, 3.78 K/BB, 0.7 HR/9

Joe Smith – Age 25
MLB – 8.2 K/9, 1.86 K/BB, 0.6 HR/9
MiLB – 9.8 K/9, 2.68 K/BB, 0.2 HR/9

Jensen Lewis – Age 25
MLB – 8.1 K/9, 2.30 K/BB, 1.2 HR/9
MiLB – 9.2 K/9, 3.62 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9

Rafael Perez – Age 27
MLB – 9.4 K/9, 2.88 K/BB, 0.9 HR/9
MiLB – 7.2 K/9, 2.57 K/BB, 0.5 HR/9

As for the guys who have little to no MLB numbers, here’s what they’ve done this year in MiLB, including only this year as all of the following are making the transition from starter to reliever for the first time in their careers:
Jess Todd – Age 23
2009 AAA – 11.2 K/9, 5.08 K/BB, 0.5 HR/9

Steven Wright – Age 24
2009 AAA/AA – 7.5 K/9, 2.92 K/BB, 0.2 HR/9

Frank Herrmann – Age 25
2009 AAA/AA – 5.58 K/9, 3.08 K/BB, 0.2 HR/9

Zach Putnam – Age 21
2009 AA – 8.6 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 0.4 HR/9

Yes, I could include Sowers and Zachson, who are both out of options after this year and could fill the role of the long man for the team, but they don’t exactly fit what looks to be this “new mold” of relievers that the Indians are targeting – these power arms that rack up the K’s, but also have the control issues that will often accompany young power arms still looking for consistency in the bullpen.

Two guys that fit the role more obviously would be two of their most recent acquisitions, who remain starters…if only for now:
Connor Graham – Age 23
2009 AA/High A – 9.8 K/9, 1.94 K/BB, 0.3 HR/9

Bryan Price – Age 22
2009 High A – 8.8 K/9, 3.12 K/BB, 0.6 HR/9

What does all of that mean?
Does it mean that Chris Perez or Tony Sipp can be legitimate set-up guys as early as next year with the idea that either can ascend to the closer role?
Is it possible that one of these young converted (or soon-to-be-converted) starters adjusts quickly to the bullpen and surprises everyone by entering the fray?

After the precipitous fall from grace for Rafael Perez just as one example, who looked nearly bulletproof in the bullpen for about 2 ½ years (2.89 ERA, 156 ERA+, 1.09 WHIP from 2006 to 2008), I’m done trying to predict what’s going to happen with relievers. I’d like to convey how much I like Jesse Ray Todd, but I fear that it will serve as the kiss of death that felled Fernando Cabrera, Edward Mujica, and Tom Mastny in years past.

Will this group of young players fare any better than guys like that, once so full of promise, even only with the idea that they could fill out the bullpen as competent middle relievers for a time?

Honestly, I’m too busy keeping my eye on the number of games finished by Kerry Wood to really have a strong opinion on most of those guys, an opinion that will likely end up being wrong.

As for that vesting option that guarantees Kerry Wood’s $11M option in 2011 if he finishes 55 games either this year or next when he’s currently on pace to finish 53 games with the pace increasing (he’s finished 5 of the last 12 games with only a blown save last Friday preventing that number from being 6 of the last 12) in an unquestionably lost season?
Yeah, that one…

Beyond watching that and being ready to scream bloody murder if Wood comes in to finish his 55th game with the Indians, it does seem that the Indians have loaded up on power arms (Hurricane Perez and Todd, closest to MLB-ready, and more beneath them) in these trades to go along with some of the more promising pieces that looked to be in place when the season started, whether 2009 has affirmed that promise (Sipp and Smith) or cast serious doubt on it (Scarecrow Perez and Lewis).

Beyond that grouping, it would seem that the Indians should have more palatable in-house options sitting in AAA or AA, whether they be the players who were converted from being starters this year (Putnam, Wright, etc.) or guys that could make that transition next year (Graham, Price, etc.) to the bullpen. Regardless of who figures in as that depth, it would seem that the days of looking for “lightning in a bottle” in terms of trying to ply some effectiveness out of a off-the-scrap-heap option may be mercifully coming to an end, as the system now looks to be stocked up and down with power arms.

Certainly a number of the power arms are high risk/high reward type guys, but if this is the new mousetrap that the Indians are constructing in an attempt to remedy the disease of ineffectiveness of the past few incarnations, I’m all for it. Looking up and down the list of potential relievers and watching these guys work over the past few weeks, I’m starting to become cautiously optimistic about the future of the bullpen in that it finally seems to be a point of focus at all levels.

“Cautiously optimistic” though is a few rungs down from where my feelings stood on the 2009 bullpen…and we all know how that ended up.