Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Atomic Bomb Finally Drops

With news that should come as a surprise to no one, The Atomic Wedgie and his coaching staff have been dismissed. While they will continue to lead the team through the season finale in Boston and there will be much more to come, the Eric Wedge Era has come to a close in Cleveland.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Managing Expectations

As the calendar days pass away and the zero hour draws closer for the Indians’ manager, it’s finally not too early to talk about the direction that the Indians figure to take in their search for a new skipper of the Good Ship Tribe. A new manager is coming…but what kind of manager should the Indians be targeting – a “fresh set of eyes” to add to an organization grown stale, an experienced hand (perhaps even from the Indians’ past) to bring the group of young players assembled to a level of contention, or somebody from within who would be familiar with the group of said young players with the idea that he would further their development through familiarity and consistency?

Before getting into all of that, let’s firmly establish that the 2010 team that this new manager will be leading is not likely to contend in 2010. Yes, perhaps some things break right for them, but to introduce the new manager with any expectations that 2010 is anything more than a hopeful launching pad past next year is doing the new manager a major disservice by burdening unreasonable goals in front of him. The fact is that…yes, the Central is “winnable”, but that would hinge on the development of the young starting pitching in place for the immediate future.

Maybe we should start there, given that the lineup and bullpen seem (relatively) settled for the short term and the starting pitching would seem to be the indicator of the team’s success, or lack thereof for 2010 and beyond. With that in mind, perhaps there’s something to the idea of bringing aboard a new manager with a pedigree in pitching (regardless of what history says about pitching coaches’ inability to succeed as managers), particularly in the development in young arms.

I know, do we really want a pitching coach to be the manager, or wouldn’t the description above fall under the umbrella of what a…you know…pitching coach should do?

No question, but this organization has fallen short recently of developing home-grown arms that consistently succeed at the MLB level and if the expertise that can be brought to the young pitching staff comes from the manager’s chair as well as from that of the pitching coach, perhaps that’s what the organization needs to get back on track with their prudent (if ill-executed) plan to rely on starting pitching as the pillar of the team.

Obviously, if you’ve been paying attention, you know who fits the very profile that I’m describing as he’s the name that’s been constantly attached to the Indians’ managerial post from the time the embers grew hot under Wedge’s seat – John Farrell.

But wait, you say, doesn’t Farrell have a clause in his contract that precludes him from interviewing for a managerial position until after the 2010 season?
Technically, yes…but there’s this from the Boston Globe:
There’s been much-ado about a clause in Farrell’s contract that prohibits him from taking a managerial job before 2011, as first reported by Is it really a big deal? “All it does is create a compensation opportunity for the Red Sox,’’ said one league official. In other words it’s very much like a player with a no-trade clause. It’s negotiable. Farrell has been loyal to the Red Sox and reportedly agreed to have this clause included in his revamped deal that makes him, according to one industry source, the “highest-paid or tied with the highest-paid’’ pitching coach in baseball (with St. Louis’s Dave Duncan). Farrell is likely to stay. However, if Cleveland fires manager Eric Wedge, the Indians are likely to gauge interest by Farrell, who lives in Cleveland. The Cleveland option could be appealing to Farrell, who has had some serious family issues recently, and the Sox are not likely to stand in his way. As part of Farrell’s deal, the Sox are in a good position to receive a player as compensation if Farrell leaves. Sox GM Theo Epstein will not discuss Farrell’s deal, but he did indicate that no team has approached the Sox about employing one of their coaches

True – it says, “Farrell is likely to stay”…but…you’re telling me there’s a chance!

Obviously I’m kidding and not content to simply place all of my managerial eggs in one basket, although I do like the idea of a pitching coach of a successful team who is familiar with the Indians’ organization (former Farm Director), but a few years removed from being IN it with the idea that he would bring a “fresh” set of old eyes to a situation in need of more than a kick start.

However, this is not a one-horse race (I think) and if we’re not boxed into looking only at Farrell, what are the Indians really looking for?
Is it really just something different or somebody that’s not Eric Wedge?

The prevailing sense that fresh blood is needed to reinvigorate the team (and the fan base) seems to be the overwhelming sentiment here, particularly from a Front Office that may or may not be convinced that firing Wedge is the right strategic move. If that is the case, that logic would seem to preclude the promotion of current minor-league managers Torey Lovullo or Mike Sarbaugh, whose ascent to the captain’s wheel would basically be construed as the idea that nothing is wrong with the organization, per se, and that promoting from within is a way to continue on with business as usual at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario…just with a new name on the back of the manager’s jersey.

Given the comments of the Dolans and the groundswell of negativity currently surrounding the regime (some of it brought on by sticking with Wedge, and others, too long), I can’t imagine that anything resembling a continuation of the status quo is going to find much footing.

But it raises an interesting question as to why exactly a move is being made - is that the Dolans are simply trying to pacify the fan base?

If they are, maybe the hires for manager and the coaching staff would just be to add Sandy Alomar as Manager, Omar Vizquel as First Base Coach, Tony Pena as Bench Coach, Charles Nagy as Pitching Coach, and so on and so forth to see if people will buy tickets to cheer for Sandy when he comes out to change pitchers or cheer Omar when he runs out to the First Base Coach box.

Is the nostalgia for the 1990’s that great and that pervasive that anyone really thinks that the best candidates for the job are such because they played on an unquestionably great team in this town 15 years ago?

Is PR the greatest factor?
While it may be for some, putting names in the dugout from the 1990’s does not exactly bring the 1990’s back and, at a certain point, the novelty of it wears off as nostalgia and goodwill certainly factor in as tickets need to be sold and public perception plays a role here, but shouldn’t a track record of player development and finding a person perfectly suited for this particular situation play a role here?

To that end, finding the person perfectly suited for this particular situation, reader Richard Sheir has made the compelling argument to me that Mike Hargrove should be handed the reins to this runaway stagecoach, with the idea that the goodwill that his hiring would bring to the team would buy them some time to mature into a contender as Grover is both accustomed to the local media and adored by them, if for no other reason than the fact that he represents the halcyon days of the “Era of Champions”. His argument continues that Hargrove’s experience with shepherding the teams of the 1990’s from the developmental stage to their AL Central domination will give the Indians’ organization what it needs most from the fanbase – patience – with his track record of presiding over a winner in Cleveland allowing people to buy back into what the Indians are selling.

As I said, it’s about the best argument that I’ve seen for Hargrove being considered to take up his place again in the Indians’ dugout, but a question quickly arises. That is, if Grover is going to get the job, shouldn’t it be because he’s ready for such a challenge, based on the on-the-field circumstances as the first criteria with any goodwill and nostalgia being just icing on the cake? To me, the relevance of what Grover did AFTER he left Cleveland has more bearing on what he did in Cleveland as he was brought into both Baltimore and Seattle to accomplish what he did in Cleveland, and what he would be asked to do again in Cleveland, to develop a group of young players into a perennial contender.
That development did not occur in Baltimore or Seattle under Hargrove:
2000 Orioles: 74-88
2001 Orioles: 63-98
2002 Orioles: 67-95
2003 Orioles: 71-91

2005 Mariners: 69-93
2006 Mariners: 78-84
2007 Mariners: 45-33

Of course, the other relevant factor with Hargrove is the circumstances of him leaving he Mariners in 2007 in the middle of the season because of what he called “losing his fire”, which could be code for a myriad of reasons for him to step down. But in a game like baseball, where quitting in any fashion and for any reason is never forgotten (fair or not), Hargrove’s exit calls into question (again, fair or not) about his purported readiness to lead men once again and likely moves him out of reasonable contention for the managerial position…as does his 467-582 record since leaving the Indians, tasked with exactly the job that the Indians are looking to accomplish starting in 2010 at both of those stops.

Now, some of Grover’s struggles in Baltimore and Seattle can be traced to the players that he was hired to manage…but that double-edged sword can be wielded just as easily when you point to his success in Cleveland, when he was asked to handle a lineup full of likely Hall of Famers and potential Hall of Famers.

That gets down to the next point of looking for this new manager as you have to wonder what past results really indicate in terms of what can be expected from a manager. Who would have thought that the 2001 Indians’ organization would boast back-to-back World Series managers by the end of the decade in Terry Francona (Special Assistant to the GM in 2001) and 2001 Tribe Manager Charlie Manuel?

Certainly neither manager’s first stint indicated wild future success as Francona’s first stint as a manager in Philly ended disastrously, never finishing above .500 in four years and with Ol’ Cholly…well, I’m not going to say he “quit” as manager in Cleveland.

Is past MLB success a necessity to succeed again in the Bigs, or is it really just a matter of finding the right voice at the right time…with some great players to go along with the situation?

The landscape is filled with names that we’ve all heard of that have won in some fashion or another and find themselves on the outside looking in on the 30 spots to manage an MLB team. The names get thrown around every off-season, with additions made every year after the batch of after the season firings. We’re going to hear them in connection to any and all job openings – Bob Brenly, Clint Hurdle, Davey Johnson, Willie Randolph, Larry Bowa, Phil Garner, etc. There’s a list that even has Indians’ ties in one way or another – Buddy Bell, Buck Showalter, Grady Little, Tony Pena, Jim Riggleman, etc.

Any of those names legitimately get your blood moving?
All of them have had successes and failures and have managed MLB teams…but does that mean that any of them are ready to move into the Indians’ specific situation and succeed?

Nobody knows, just like nobody knows if that list of guys actually in coaching who have not been MLB managers, but have Indians’ ties falls under that umbrella of being the “right guy” for the job. Do the likes of Travis Fryman, Ellis Burks, Robby Thompson, Sal Fasano, Joey Cora, Chris Chambliss, or Dave Clark (all former Tribe players thought to be “manager material” at one point or another…without even mentioning Sandy and Omar) really get you excited? Throw out the necessity to be an ex-Indian and guys like Ron Roenicke (the Angels’ bench coach) jump out with the idea that the Indians can find the next Joe Maddon – somebody who is NOT that “yes” man, who does not represent a continuation of the status quo…the one that we “enjoyed” from June to today.

There you have 21 names that could be the next Indians’ manager or could just as easily never even hit the Indians’ radar. Unfortunately for us, there is not the “hot NFL assistant” coach pool in MLB, with the idea that particular coaches prove themselves ready for the next step through success of their particular unit, or former coaches sitting on the sidelines waiting for right opportunity. In baseball, it remains a crapshoot…where Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa remain the exceptions to the rule and not the rule.

With all of that in mind, if you’re asking me and twisting my arm for an answer, I’d like to see some combination of freshness and stability (if that’s even possible), by realizing the situation that this organization is in very clearly in that they have a good number of talented, but young, players who need to develop as a group to shorten the “re-build”, “re-load”, whatever timeframe. If you’ve been following along at all, I think it’s pretty obvious that the “freshness” that I speak of then goes along with the idea that Farrell represents the best option for manager in that he’s a known quantity in the Indians’ Front Office who has now spent a sufficient amount of time away from Cleveland in one of the most successful organizations to lend insight to his old stomping grounds. His familiarity with players from his days as Farm Director, and as an opposing pitching coach could lend invaluable insight as he could bring in new ideas without asserting himself too strongly into the organization, with the built-in respect from the Front Office that no other candidate would offer.

That “stability” could come from the coaching staff and, realizing that the construction of a coaching staff is often a manager’s task and the input of the organization in filling out a coaching staff remains to be seen, an important aspect of that development should come from filling out the coaching staff with guys like Mike Sarbaugh, who has proven himself to be effective with many of these young players (making the playoffs in 5 of his 6 years as a MiLB manager, winning his respective league in three of those years) and Scott Radinsky, who has plied his trade on young pitchers for a few years now, often fixing problems that the parent club has been unable to correct.

Beyond the likes of Sarbaugh and Radinsky and even Lovullo (Farrell’s teammate on the 1993 California Angels), he could bring new voices, if not new eyes, with people already in the organization like Ellis Burks or Travis Fryman lending their insight to players they’re familiar, but not exposed to on an everyday basis.
The way it breaks down looks something like this:
Manager – John Farrell
Bench Coach – Travis Fryman
Hitting Coach – Ellis Burks
Pitching Coach – Scott Radinsky
1B Coach – Mike Sarbaugh
3B Coach – Torey Lovullo
Bullpen Coach – Sal Fasano

Regardless of who the Indians’ manager figures to be (and if it’s true that Bud Black was their first choice in the winter of 2002, you see that the pattern could be there for them to hit on the pitching coach to become manager this time…assuming the price is right), 2010 is a rebuilding year that ideally serves as the jumping off point for the next stage of this franchise’s history. The young talent in place needs to developed by coaches used to handling and developing young talent and not adverse to the growing pains associated with that development.

With the idea that pitching is the key to the success of the next incarnation of the Indians and with the concept that Farrell’s long history with the Indians and recent history with the Red Sox make him ideally suited to helm the development of the Indians in 2010 and beyond.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Atomic Lazy Sunday

As the season has turned to the time for Clambakes and Oktoberfest from GLBC, the Indians’ season rolls right on and, as the final games wind down, the Indians’ season has little left of interest. When the season ends though…that’s a whole different story as reading the tea leaves long ago told us that the final game of 2009 would be The Atomic Wedgie’s last game as manager of the Erie Warriors. Not surprisingly, that very topic is the topic of the day (among others) as we roll off into a Lazy Sunday:

The eulogies have begun for The Atomic Wedgie, including this one from Shelly Ocker, with me lifting my season-long ban on linking Sheldon, just long enough for him to make the startling assertion that “regardless of whether Wedge returns next year, he will have made an impact in Cleveland. Only four managers have guided the Tribe longer than Wedge, who is fifth in wins (557) and is one of only four Cleveland skippers to win a postseason series.”

If you were looking for a legacy for Wedge, there it is from Ocker, being 5th in wins (failing to mention that he’s 4th in games managed) as an “impact” essentially because he was (and, yes…I’m using past tense already) manager for seven years. If Wedge’s fate is sealed (and even he seems resigned to that fact if you read his words here) and this is the best thing that Ocker can muster up in his eulogy (5th in wins without mentioning that he’s also 3rd in games lost…and only 24 losses behind Mike Hargrove, who managed nearly 200 more games), that’s not exactly the fondest farewell.

For a pretty good sense of why Wedge will find himself still drawing a paycheck, but not managing a big-league team in about 10 days, let’s refer to the Indians’ entry in Baseball Prospectus’ series of team obits, appropriately called “Kiss ‘Em Goodbye”:
The Indians have approached the last several seasons with an eye on contending. In three of those four years, though, they've stumbled out of the gate, dooming their chances of playing meaningful games after June. In the process, they've had to make deals, including shipping away the past two AL Cy Young winners. They've brought back some quality prospects, but it's clear that they're in no position to contend in 2010, mainly because they haven't had much success with their high draft picks in recent years. Given their penchant for underachieving on skipper Eric Wedge's watch, they're almost certainly better off with a new manager, too.

To that end (the “new manager” part that I admittedly bolded), AC comes correct and in full effect with a look as to why The Atomic Wedgie won’t be helming the good ship Tribe a week from now:
Though Shapiro has always backed Wedge publicly, the decision is ultimately believed to be in the hands of the Dolan ownership family. Team president Paul Dolan recently told reporters that Wedge's accomplishments over his full body of work in seven seasons at the helm are significant, but he also voiced dissatisfaction with the club's performance over the last two seasons and acknowledged that Wedge's popularity among fans is at a low point.
Though player development is a primary focus in the season's second half, the club's 3-16 record in September can't possibly serve to strengthen the job security of Wedge or his coaches. Wedge held a team meeting with his players in Minneapolis last week -- a rare move for a club out of contention this late in the season -- in which he stressed the importance of finishing strong. The Indians proceeded to lose their next seven games.

Obviously, since the time that was written, losses in their “next seven games” turned quickly into 11games and this creep to the finish, not surprisingly, has taken the air out of the argument (that AC alluded to above) that Shapiro may have had in keeping Wedge, as’s Jon Heyman asserts:
Eric Wedge's chances to keep the Indians managing job are decreasing by the day. The Indians have now lost 11 straight, so it should be no surprise that GM Mark Shapiro is now being pressured to fire Wedge, according to people familiar with the Cleveland situation.
Shapiro is believed to have had no intention to fire Wedge. But with the Indians having been outscored 71-30 in their 11-game slide, it's becoming increasingly difficult to make a compelling case to keep him as manager. His salary for 2010 is believed to be for $1.25 million, but the cash-strapped Indians saved about $15 million for next year with the trades of Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez.

Heyman ends the bit with his obligatory mention of John Farrell as a likely candidate to replace him, and I suppose it’s finally time to release a look at potential managerial candidates this week that go a little deeper than “bench coach experience a plus”.

Since most people have focused on John Farrell from Day 1 on this idea that Wedge wouldn’t be managing in 2010, perhaps now might be a good time to mention one name that will not appear on the list of prospective candidates that I’ll work up this week.

That name is…wait for it…John Farrell, who has a clause in his contract with the Red Sox that prevents him from interviewing for managerial positions until after the 2010 season, according to Ken Rosenthal:
The exact length and complete terms of Farrell's contract are not known, but he likely gave up his right to manage before 2011 in exchange for a like show of commitment by the Red Sox. Rival teams repeatedly have asked for permission to interview Farrell, sources said.

And…boom goes the dynamite.

Not sure if the Indians knew this and just never let it on or if this revelation by Rosenthal is just that – a startling revelation – or even if there’s an avenue around the clause. I suppose the pie-eyed optimist could say that his contract doesn’t mention anything about Farrell making a lateral move to another organization (like becoming a pitching coach for a certain former team of his), but I think it’s pretty safe to cross Farrell off the list of potential managers or coaches for the 2010 Tribe, given that a buy-out or an agreement with the Red Sox would have to be consummated.

Who does make that list? Stay tuned...
One name who may make that list (perhaps more as a potential coaching staff candidate than as a managerial candidate…though I have heard the argument for him to be the 2010 manager) is the subject of a very personal-interest story from’s Jeff Pearlman. Pearlman relays the amazing story of Sal Fasano as husband and father, recounting his struggle to provide for his family in light of health issues for his young son in an absolute must-read:
Two years ago, just when Fasano was thinking of finally retiring, his wife, Kerri, gave birth to the couple's third child, a boy named Santo. He was born with hypoplastic heart syndrome, a condition in which the left side of the heart is underdeveloped. “It was devastating, of course,” Sal says. “Your son is helpless, and there's not that much you can do.”

There was one thing Sal could do -- find a way to remain in the major leagues. Although baseball diehards who salivate over the perks of the game tend to speak of cathedral-like stadiums and million-dollar paychecks, of fancy travel and high-profile endorsements and red carpet fame, an element they tend to overlook is the major league health plan. If you are a ballplayer, and you spend so much as a second on a major league roster, you are entitled to a year of coverage that, says one major league executive, “takes care of pretty much everything you can think of.”

That's why, in 2007, Fasano was thrilled to spend 16 games with the Toronto Blue Jays. Last season, being called up by the Cleveland Indians in June was an answered prayer. “We need the coverage,” Fasano says, noting that, thus far, Santo has undergone two surgeries exceeding $1 million in costs. “Playing major league baseball is awesome. I love it, I enjoy it. But this is about my family first. About Santo.”

I don’t know how much a bullpen coach makes, but I would imagine that they’d be included in health coverage…so, is it time to start a grassroots movement for Sal Fasano to be a part of the Indians’ 2010 coaching staff?

Sticking with and changing gears a bit, here’s a look at the FA market this off-season (something the Indians shouldn’t be entertaining in the least, even if Paul Hoynes thinks they need a veteran catcher despite the fact that Toregas, Gimenez, and Marson have caught all of the principal options throughout their minor-league careers…not to mention the fact that Sal Fasano WILL be around) from Joe Sheehan, who concludes that, “if teams want to invest wisely, they should take this winter's free-agent budget and buy a 12-month CD. Next year's class could be a monster, with the possibility that Joe Mauer, Roy Halladay, Josh Beckett and Cliff Lee will be available.”

While the names listed above certainly wouldn’t legitimately be in the Indians’ crosshairs, the idea of adding a piece in 2011 (and NOT this off-season) certainly starts to make sense when you figure that the contract of Westbrook ($11M), Wood ($10.5M, assuming his option doesn’t vest), and maybe Peralta ($7M option for 2011 that certainly looks unlikely to be picked up) all figure to be coming off of the books after 2010, if not sooner, as the chance of any or all of those three being traded mid-season in 2010 is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Thus, if we’re not figuring that the Indians will make no ripples in the Free Agent pool this winter, what can we get excited about in terms of adding players to the organization? Well, as the Indians’ dropped in the standings down the homestretch, the one thing that did climb for them (and could continue to climb) is their spot in the 2010 MLB Draft.

With the Nationals and Pirates unquestionably locked into the top two picks, the Indians look, right now at least, to be somewhere between pick #3 and #5 (unless Wedge has one last parting shot for the organization and inexplicably goes on a hot streak to drop them) in next summer’s draft. While this type of conjecture is usually reserved for the end of a Browns’ season (and while I try to figure out who the Mel Kiper-equivalent of this MLB draft thing is), I actually went out and found a 2010 MLB Mock Draft…no, seriously.

Remembering that the Tigers and the Royals found their aces in the top 6 picks of the amateur draft, I’m going to start following LSU’s Anthony Ranuando, Ole Miss’ Drew Pomerantz, and UNC’s Matt Harvey.

OK, maybe I won’t, but until the imminent firing of Wedge actually takes place…yes, it’s come to that.
Until then, where’s that Oktoberfest?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Three Months Later

After regrettably spending Wednesday night at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario and seeing a listless, lifeless team that has unquestionably quit on a manager whose fate is already sealed, I thought that I would re-post something that I wrote here exactly 3 months prior to last night’s shellacking at the hands of the Motor City Kitties.

The piece was written after the Cubs series in mid-June and, while I’m often loathe to simply re-post past pieces, the fact that nearly everything that the piece contains (with the exception of the idea that CP Lee and Vic would still be around in 2010) still rings true is a stunning indictment of allowing the status quo to continue when the status quo is so obviously flawed…the fact that there’s really not much to say about this team that hasn’t been said for months being another reason for the re-post.

It should be noted that the Indians’ record is 31-47 (.397 winning percentage) from the time that this was originally posted (when the Indians were 29-42, a .408 winning percentage) and while the make-up of the team from that time to today is unquestionably different, the results are unfortunately not.

Regardless, it’s interesting to read with “new eyes” after witnessing what we have (particularly in the past month or so) and to think that this was the pervasive feeling a full three months ago and it’s somehow gone downhill since this:

The Blame Game – 6/23/09
As Eric Wedge apparently lives to manage another day and voices on each side of the debate as to whether he is to blame (or how much blame can be placed on him) for the mess of the 2009 season on top of the 2008 season, the question comes rattling from the rooftops – who is to blame for the mess that the Indians find themselves in?

While the fickle finger of fate has blame resting on shoulders as varied as Wedge, Shapiro, Wedge AND Shapiro, the Dolans, and Luis Isaac (OK, I made that last one up), why does this suddenly feel like the climax of “Reservoir Dogs” where everyone is staring down the barrel of a gun, voices in the room rising, and the knowledge overwhelming all of us that this isn’t going to end well?

Starting with the man who must be feeling cold steel on his forehead with the events of the past week, how culpable is Eric Wedge for the hole that the Indians find themselves in?

At the top, let’s forgo the notion that the Indians have “quit” on Wedge as their current 6-game losing streak at the hands of the Brewers and Cubs included two 2-run losses and three 1-run losses, so it’s not as if the players are simply going through the motions and getting blown out on a nightly basis. Rather, look at the manner in which they lost those games in that they were outscored by a slim margin and if you believe (as I do) that a manager earns his stripes by winning these close games as opposed to losing them as strategy often plays a factor in close games or extra-inning games, you start to see where the frustration with The Atomic Wedgie is starting to boil over.

All season long, the Indians have found themselves in winnable games only to see the bats go silent or the bullpen explode at the worst possible times, resulting in the demoralizing come-from-ahead loss that has colored the Tribe’s 2009 season. Put away for a moment that this is on the players and their lack of execution (which is certainly part of the equation) and realize that a manager’s main functions in MLB are to fill out a lineup card which divvies up AB, to set a rotation, and to decide which relievers come into the game at which time.

Sure, there’s are daily questions that come up in terms of managerial decisions (a favorite quote of mine is that every man thinks he can do two things better than anyone else on the planet – grill a steak and manage a baseball team), but a manager’s job in MLB is essentially to put his best players on the field and to give those players the best opportunity to succeed in a given situation.

For a moment, let’s remove ourselves from the emotional train wreck of the past week and take a longer overview of the Indians performance under Wedge as a manager by analyzing how he’s stacked against a formula that actually exists to predict how many games a team should win and should lose (please not the “should” and realize that this is not a hard-and-fast formula) by taking the number of runs scored by a team and the number of runs allowed by a team. Created by Bill James (and tweaked a few times), it’s called the Pythagorean Winning Percentage and it’s used to take “luck” out of the equation.

Now, if we’re taking luck out of the equation, I’d like a quick answer on why exactly a formula that generally is off by only a couple of wins and losses from year to year (with one or two outliers) has these results for the Indians for the past 5 years, which would be the years in which the Indians did contend in the AL Central or were thought to be among the contenders when the season started:
2009 Actual Record (rank among 30 MLB teams)
29-42 (29th of 30)
2009 Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage (rank among 30 MLB teams)
34-37 (19th of 30)

2008 Actual Record (rank among 30 MLB teams)
81-81 (17th of 30)
2008 Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage (rank among 30 MLB teams)
86-76 (14th of 30)

2007 Actual Record (rank among 30 MLB teams)
97-66 (1st of 30)
2007 Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage (rank among 30 MLB teams)
94-69 (3rd of 30)

2006 Actual Record (rank among 30 MLB teams)
78-84 (18th of 30)
2006 Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage (rank among 30 MLB teams)
90-72 (5th of 30)

2005 Actual Record (rank among 30 MLB teams)

93-69 (5th of 30)
2005 Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage (rank among 30 MLB teams)
97-65 (2nd of 30)

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 4 out of the last 5 years (I’m not anticipating a HUGE turnaround this year) that the Indians have underperformed their Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage, some of which happen to represent a pretty big disparity:
2009 – 5 more losses thus far
2008 – 5 more losses
2007 – 3 more wins
2006 – 12 more losses
2005 – 4 more losses

Obviously, the quick answer to why this is happening (without laying blame at any one person) is that a lousy bullpen can go a long way in losing a number of games that would otherwise be winnable, skewing the numbers to the negative.

But why is it, then, that Wedge keeps presiding over these horrific bullpens?

Is it really that the arms aren’t there to populate the bullpen to become effective as a unit or does usage of the available arms in the bullpen play a factor?

Want to know who the 4 best relievers are in the second best bullpen (ERA-wise) in MLB?
Mark Lowe – Age 26 – ERA+ 120
Miguel Batista – Age 38 – ERA+ 131
Sean White – Age 28 – ERA+ 234
David Aardsma – Age 27 – ERA+ 264

There’s the back end of the Seattle bullpen…are you telling me that those guys are that much more talented than the arms that have played a role in the Indians’ bullpen this year? Is it really just a case of getting guys who are cresting or is something more at play here?

I’m not going to pretend to know how to handle a pitching staff, but if the same guy is pulling the levers in the bullpen over a prolonged stretch and the pulling of those levers continually results in an explosion, isn’t there something to be questioned about the lever-puller, particularly when other teams are able to cobble together effective bullpens with cast-offs and young arms? I know that it’s probably unfair to simply say that Wedge is consistently pulling the wrong lever when it’s up to the players to execute, but unfortunately Wedge’s track record of handling usage for players (both pitchers and non-pitchers) has come under fire with the flame getting ever hotter this year.

Perhaps it’s the most recent issue, the handling of a particular OF being promoted earlier than expected this year only to sit on the bench while players whose track records where known and did not justify his prolonged absence from the lineup that has cast more doubt than ever before in terms of Wedge maximizing the talent available to him or, at the very least, putting his best talent on the field and putting them in the best possible situations for success. However, if we can throw doubt on the handling of LaPorta – which may be the tipping point in terms of the “attached-at-the-hip” relationship in terms of Shapiro making an option available to Wedge to improve the team and Wedge simply ignoring him for lesser players – doesn’t it suddenly (or maybe not so suddenly) become a questioning of every personnel move that he makes, where the focus of the magnifying glass grows hotter by the day?

And that’s where we stand now, unfortunately, as the news that a Wedge move may not come until after the season only allows this lost season to become an episode of “Cold Case” where we may not ever find out what happened and the longer the time gets between our last observance of any semblance of a season makes a recovery less likely. At a certain point, we just wish we could have it back.

Obviously, however, Wedge is not alone in his responsibility for the 2009 season and to simply lay the blame on his shoulders is folly. No, the issues go much deeper than that as Mark Shapiro is the man who oversaw the mishandling of personnel over the last few years, as Brendan Donnelly and Juan Rincon continued to see innings down the stretch last year and as Dave Dellucci arrived to the team this season to essentially take AB away from players that figured into the Indians’ future because Wedge apparently had more trust in a known quantity (even if not known for doing much good) than the development of players.

With the Indians, the buck ultimately stops at Shapiro’s desk as the Dolans have given him control of the baseball side of the team and, while maybe not always providing him with a payroll found in other larger markets, asked him to keep the product on the field competitive to a point that the playoffs was always a rational thought as each season began and to keep the flow of players coming to infuse the team with young talent.

To that end, Shapiro has not held up his end of the bargain, particularly this year where it was almost expected that the rotation would be a mishmash of players who would hopefully evolve into something effective by the time that Jake Westbrook returned. Or where it was expected that some of the players that were fighting to earn everyday AB to fall into the complementary roles that they should be finding themselves in.
Who among us counted Francisco and Garko as linchpins to the season?
How about Dellucci…Sowers?

Wasn’t the thought that if (that should be a big IF) the likes of Sowers, Francisco, Garko, and Pavano could hold on until the cavalry arrived from that the Indians could still compete in a very winnable division?

Regardless, the team wasn’t able to even hold ground in the Central and the player acquisition through the draft ultimately comes down as another culprit. Just as Shapiro is culpable for allowing Wedge to misuse and waste the players given to him, he bears just as much responsibility for “overseeing” John Mirabelli as he ran the draft from 2000 to 2007. As we sit here today, the pitcher drafted in those 8 years with the most wins (Sowers) for the Indians with 13 career wins also possesses a career ERA+ of 86 and the player drafted in those 8 years with the most HR (Garko) as an Indian with 48 now owns a .796 career OPS as a 28-year-old 1B.

There’s no question that mistakes have been made and as much as most of this was foreseen coming into the season (and exposed to the bone by injuries), the cupboard to me still doesn’t look as bare as most make it out to be. Pardon me while I put on these rose-colored glasses, but I don’t see the Indians suddenly entering a period of massive losing if only based on what the Indians lineup should look like at the end of July, with the current ages listed in parentheses below:
C – Martinez (30)
1B – LaPorta (24)
2B – Valbuena (23)
SS – Cabrera (23)
3B – Peralta (27)
LF – Brantley (22)
CF – Sizemore (26)
RF – Choo (26)
DH – Hafner (32)

Yes, the offense hasn’t been the problem this year and if you’ll remember, I was the one decrying the shortage in the bullpen and rotation as this season ground to a halt, but look again at that list above and see how the Indians have put themselves in this position, offensively at least.

The players acquired via trade include everyone listed above but Martinez and Peralta…every other piece of talent that the Indians should expect to be in their lineup some time after the All-Star Break came from elsewhere, and for whom?
Yes, CC and Colon…but also Broussard, Perez, Gutierrez, and Einar Diaz.
And, yes, the reason for that needed infusion of talent that was needed is directly related to a failure to acquire and develop young talent from within (which is precisely what we’re seeing bear out in the pitching staff), but if you’re talking about who’s acquiring that talent, you’re back to the GM whose moves to counteract problems (that truthfully shouldn’t have been problems in the first place) earn him some credit for the young talent on the offensive side of things. How he manages to do the same for the pitching side of things will likely determine his ultimate fate but the track record of overcoming obstacles (albeit self-inflicted obstacles) is there in terms of augmentation of the roster.

Ultimately, however, the culpability falls to Shapiro whose attitude of “trust us, we know what we’re doing” has come crashing around him as staying the course and sticking with people around him who seemingly do not know what they’re doing (or are some of the most historically unlucky people in history) have laid waste to the best laid plans.

If we’ve been told to trust, the statute of limitations on that has run out and the state of love and trust is moving to revolution as moves need to be made in this organization as the stability and the status quo that have run amok (and run in the wrong direction for too long) have taken us to the path that we now find ourselves upon.

Is it hopeless and are we readying ourselves for another 40 years in the desert?
I don’t think so, but a change in culture is needed and while that change may not go all the way to the top of the organization (yet), a message that the results of this season and last are unacceptable needs to be sent. If that means that Wedge is jettisoned, so be it with the idea that finding a suitable long-term replacement is not going to be as easy as simply picking up a phone in late June and seeing if Option #1 has some free time.

Change is needed and not just for change’s sake and every day that passes until a change (any change) is made makes the idea that 2010 becomes another rebuilding or re-loading year all the more obvious, where hopes and prayers take the place of known quantities and realities…because hopes and prayers are all we have now in the face of a very cold reality.

Now three months later, excuse me while I go get sick…and, of course, get ready to sit in the Mezz for Friday night’s game.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

When “Pathetic” Starts With an “A”

“The thrill is gone
It’s gone away from me
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away from me
Although I’ll still live on
But so lonely I’ll be”

--- BB King

As the end of the 2009 baseball season can’t come soon enough for Indians’ fans, there certainly seems to be a different aura around this final month of baseball than years past that fell into this same “lost season” category as 2009. It certainly seems that the cumulative effect of disappointing seasons in 2008 and 2009 have run the fanbase ragged and left most fans wondering if the season is still even going on.

Going back a few years, September baseball remained compelling (even if the season was essentially over) for baseball diehards, who remained relatively excited as the team played out the end of 2008 or 2004 or even 2003 (my inexplicable first year as an Indians season-ticket holder) as hope for the near future, or at least steps in the right direction, seemed to portend happier days ahead. While the assembled group that we’re watching finish up this season for the Tribe unquestionably has talent and merits excitement, even the most inspiring pieces and parts come with reminders of mistakes made and already carry a feeling of “what-could-have-been” with them.

Every LaPorta extra-base hit reminds us that he wasn’t in Cleveland in June, just as every fantastic play by Asdrubal at SS is a reminder that he inexplicably started the season at 2B, throwing the whole infield off kilter to start the season

Throw the new disappointments on top of the old ones and it’s nearly impossible not to view each start by Jeremy Sowers as a reminder that he was never able to translate the success of his 2006 into a permanent roster spot, or to allow every pitch thrown by Fausto Carmona to serve as a jarring reminder that 2007 may be further away for him than just two calendar years.

Even when trying to simply separate the day-to-day from the big picture, the fact that Kerry Wood’s BB rate has doubled from last year to this while his HR rate has tripled depresses enough. When you remember that he’s still wearing a $10.5M price tag for next year, the depression deepens.

Despite all of these reminders of frustration though, it seems like we’ve entered a new stage of viewing the Indians in this 2009 season. Anger, blame, and disappointment have passed (now a full six weeks past CP Lee and Vic being traded) and the whole bargaining process (you know the one that hyped up Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco being MLB- ready right now) has been exhausted…no, apathy has set in.

The sense that we just don’t care has coincided (maybe not so coincidentally) with this recent slide into the AL Central cellar and as the Browns’ season starts (at least the games are on TV, though will someone please let me know when they start “playing”) and the Cavaliers look to be poised for a deep run into the summer of 2010, the Indians have been pushed to the back of Northeast Ohio’s collective mind – even among those who found solace in positives from the second half of last year.

Perhaps not being able to find those silver linings among the clouds of gray that we’ve relied upon in years past is a result of the lesson that “past performance is not an indication of future results”, particularly in terms of projecting anything on the basis of August or September being our lesson learned and the wet blanket over the remainder of this season. Regardless (and maybe I’m alone…though I don’t think I am), the painful home stretch that’s occurring right now is doing nothing to elicit a buzz

Does this mean that all hope is lost for 2010?
Certainly not, as baseball remains a fickle muse and watching this team on a daily basis has been a reminder that the currently constructed team is a young team (even if it does contain talent) that is going to struggle to establish and maintain some level of consistency, with the idea that when that consistency is attained remains the great question.

The fact remains that the 2010 lineup is quickly coming into view, even if it’s not necessarily the one that leaves Goodyear, with the notion that the offense could represent one of the better offensive outputs once 2010 progresses (with Carl Santana not far off):
C – Marson
1B – LaPorta
2B – Valbuena
SS – Cabrera
3B – Peralta
LF – Brantley
CF – Sizemore
RF – Choo
DH – Hafner

Beyond the burgeoning offense, the bullpen has shown that the pieces may FINALLY be in place to cobble together an effective combination of relievers who have the capability to miss bats. Chris Perez looks like a future closer, just as Tony Sipp looks like a dominant late-inning LHP, as other arms may be emerging to allow the organization to fill a bullpen with internal options.

But the concerns about the rotation and the myriad of directions that every pitcher that figures into the rotation next year could take prevents any great optimism from emerging. While the offense and bullpen seem to have settled (or at least show signs of stability), the rotation remains the great mystery.

Realizing the importance of starting pitching (and particularly realizing that this whole “Plan” was designed to be built upon the bedrock of starting pitching), the optimism starts to die for this team. The fact is that I want to believe and I want to care about these meaningless September tilts…I really do.

But the reality that the atmosphere around the team is stagnant (a startling revelation when you consider the roster turnover of the season) is too pervasive to truly garner any excitement about the team that’s being trotted out there as the season winds down.

Is it related to the players or the disappointments associated with the past two years?
Maybe, as we’ve now been conditioned to bring our grain of salt with us…

Will the certain change in manager make a difference?
Probably, at least from a standpoint of perception that something is being done and that something will change. It’s likely that a long winter without nightly baseball games without looking at a disappointing team would help. Because at this point, as apathy persists and expectations hover in the depths, anything would help.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Lazy Sunday Playing Out the String

Losers of seven straight and now just one game ahead of the hapless Royals at the bottom of the AL Central, does anyone else find it amazing that this team continues to find itself sinking to new lows even now?

For a team that hasn’t shown signs of life with a stable full of rookies operating under a lame-duck manager, let’s take a quick trip around a Lazy Sunday before enjoying a beautiful Fall afternoon filled with football and outdoor activities and…maybe, just maybe some Indians’ baseball:

Starting off,’s Jon Heyman has a fairly succinct look at what occurred in 2009 for the Indians and what 2010 looks like. I’m not quite sure why he believes that, “They will still need to go out and get another innings eater after also sending Carl Pavano away in the purge, and the trades of Martinez and Lee should give them a few dollars to spend (it saved them $21 million between this year and next)”, but he presents a fair synopsis of where the Indians have been and where they may be going, concluding with the obligatory John Farrell for manager mention, which Paul Hoynes doesn’t seem to be on board with, asserting that bench coach experience may be at or near the top of Shapiro’s list of notable bullet points necessary on a new manager’s résumé.

Keeping it in the SI family, a couple of Tribesman make SI’s 2009 Overshadowed All-Stars team in the most recent print edition and it shouldn’t come as a surprise as to which two Ben Reiter picks:
SS: Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians The 23-year-old has blossomed in his first year as Cleveland's shortstop: He was hitting .313 with 63 RBIs and 16 steals through Sunday.
OF: Shin-Soo Choo, Indians He's emerged as an all-around threat in his first full season as a major league starter, hitting .299 with 15 homers and 19 steals.

In a season with few bright spots, the two former Mariners stand head-and-shoulders above the rest of the Indians’ players in terms of meeting and exceeding expectations on a team that didn’t have many players that hit either of those criteria.

On the topic of bright spots, and specifically The BLC,’s Jerry Crasnick put together a list listing “Under-the-radar OF who’ve emerged”, Choo-Choo-Choosing a certain South Korean RF for the list:
Shin-Soo Choo, Indians (.393 OBP, 16 homers, 19 steals)
Choo's numbers have actually dipped a bit from 2008, when he posted a 1.038 OPS after the All-Star break. But he deserves credit for sustaining it over the long haul this season, without a lot of help.
Choo's tools might not overwhelm you in a single viewing, but he's proficient in all facets of the game. He's developing into a 20-25 homer guy. He's improved against lefties. He's an instinctive baserunner, with 19 steals in 21 attempts. And he has 11 assists in right field to help offset seven errors.
He also plays with a quiet determination and toughness, and hangs in the box no matter who's pitching. Choo has been hit by a pitch 14 times, the fourth-highest total in the majors.
"Cleveland did a really good job of evaluating," an AL scout said. "They always felt he was going to be this type of guy. I'm not sure the industry as a whole had him evaluated that high."

Also making Crasnick’s list is Frank the Tank, whose defense in the CF expanses in the Emerald City have certainly put him on the national map, thanks in part to his seemingly-nightly inclusion in “Web Gems”. While Franky is still struggling against RHP this year, posting a .678 OPS vs. RHP (and with the caveat that I think I’d still make that trade today given Louie the Fifth’s potential), it’s tough to see the 26-year-old smooth-fielding CF run down balls in a uniform that doesn’t read “Cleveland”.
Anyone else find it strangely compelling that Frank and The BLC make this list wearing the laundry of the opposite organizations for whom they made their MLB debut?

Why do I start with all of this (relative) good news?
Well, frankly…we need it right now, particularly given what we’re seeing on a nightly basis and in the box scores and as easy as it is to simply pile on, I’m going to try my best to see this barely-filled cup as half-full, if only for a little bit of this beautiful Sunday morning.

Because, trust me…there’s plenty of sobering news with today’s contribution coming by way of John Fraase’s “Waves of Arms”, which has an interesting look at how the performance of the AL Central rotations stack up in terms of starts that last 7 innings with fewer than 3 earned runs allowed. It goes a step past the old “Quality Start” with the moniker of the “Nolan Standard” after Ranger’s exec Nolan Ryan:
In Texas, Ryan and his staff have upped the ante. They have added an inning and deemed a Quality Start an effort in which a pitcher goes at least 7 innings and allows 3 earned runs or fewer. The industry wide accepted 6/3 QS is fools gold.

John analyzes the Indians’ totals (35 of the 145 starts), who contributes to those totals, and how they stack up against the rest of the Central:
Lee and Pavano accounted for 21 of the 35 total starts. And neither managed to stick with the team beyond 22 starts. The so-called “core” of guys whom the Indians will have to choose from internally for the 2010 rotation are Jake Westbrook, Carrasco, Masterson, Laffey, Carmona, Sowers and Huff. This group (not including Jake) made just 12/87, or 13.8% of their starts, a Nolan Ryan standard quality outing.
Overall, the division in order from top to bottom goes like this:
Chicago: 47
Minnesota: 45
Detroit: 40
Kansas City 37
Cleveland 35

Realizing that pitching, and more specifically starting pitching, will determine how the 2010 season unfolds for the Tribe…this…this is not exactly anything on the bright or sunny side. It is fascinating research and sound conclusions, but it is not good (at all) for the 2010 Indians.

Of course we could always hope that the 2010 Tribe will be shined on by the same “Baseball Gods” that Joe Posnanski believes may have affected the Cardinals season this year:
The Baseball Gods have been good to St. Louis this year. The Cardinals came into the season with an ace who had not won a game in two years, a closer who not long ago was a middling starter, a starter who not long ago was a dominant closer, an outfielder at second base, a pitcher in centerfield and one superstar—the game's best player, really—who was coming off elbow surgery last October. They have since added a discarded legend, an unwanted middle infielder and a three-time National League All-Star who suffered a power outage in the American League. Picked to finish anywhere but first in the National League Central, the Cardinals probably will be the first team in baseball to clinch a division title, perhaps as soon as next week.

Then again, coaching and player development may have something to do with that and, not knowing whose going to be filling out the lineup cards (or doing any other sort of coaching for the Tribe next year), it all looks fairly unlikely to assume that type of “divine intervention”…particularly seeing what we’ve seen for the past few years.

From the JoePos file (and apropos of nothing Indians-related), he weighs in on the MVP “debate” and Ken Rosenthal’s assertion that the award shouldn’t just be handed to Joe Mauer…which it should.

Finally, Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus took a look at which player in each organization saw their stock rise the most this season:
Cleveland Indians: Some teams wondered if third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall was truly worthy of a first-round selection last year, but he responded to the challenge of a High-A assignment with a .276/.346/.492 line for Kinston before finishing the year at Double-A, and finishing among the organizational leaders with 22 homers and 92 runs driven in.
Runner-Up: The Indians always had high hopes for 21-year-old Venezuelan righty Jeanmar Gomez, and their patience finally began to pay off as he put up a 3.43 ERA at Double-A Akron while flashing two above-average pitchers with his fastball/breaking ball combination.

Speaking of prospects and the future (and, really…isn’t that where we’ve been for a while), if we’re looking for silver linings in this lost season, the recent performance of the parent club has now put them in position to draft 5th in next year’s amateur draft, with the 5th overall picks from 2005 to 2008 being Ryan Braun, Brandon Morrow, Matt Wieters, and Buster Posey, all of whom made their MLB debut less than two years after being drafted.

Is that “silver lining” a reach?
No question, but so is the idea that they won’t be drafting lower than 5th the way they’re playing these days.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tomahawks Coming Down the Stretch

Since most people have checked out on the 2009 season and the recent performance of the team has made it increasingly difficult for those that just love baseball to find a reason to care, let’s release a couple of tomahawks aimed squarely at 2010…which is all we have now:

In case you haven’t noticed, Matt LaPorta has posted a .292 BA / .303 OBP / .531 SLG / .834 OPS line since being promoted (ahem…two months too late) with 13 XBH (8 2B, 5 HR) in the 25 games he’s played since coming up from Columbus. While his BB total is confusingly low (only 2 BB in 99 plate appearances after averaging a BB about every 10 plate appearances in Columbus), there doesn’t seem to be much question that LaPorta fits into the 2010 mix somewhere on the field.

Why it took the team such a long time to allow him that opportunity will remain a great mystery, but his position for 2010 will hopefully become a little clearer through the off-season. That is, does LaPorta figure to start 2010 as the 1B or as the LF when the club breaks camp next Spring?

Ultimately, it could be a decision that isn’t affected as much by LaPorta’s defensive acumen as it is by where the organization wants Mike Brantley and Andy Marte to start the year in 2010. Brantley’s performance in AAA certainly looked like he needed more seasoning there to start 2010, though he has continued his high-OBP approach in Cleveland while filling in for Grady. Meanwhile, Marte has officially fallen off the radar as his 18 consecutive start streak (during which he posted an .861 OPS with 5 HR and 14 RBI) certainly looks to be over as Marte has now come to a screeching halt, as he’s started 3 of the last 8 games.

How much of that is a function of who’s filling out the lineup card and who legitimately figures into plans for next year is certainly an open-ended question. But, Brantley’s on-base ability and speed are putting me on the fence as to whether he should seriously be considered for LF out of Spring Training next year. If Brantley kind of “is what he is” for now (high OBP, non-existent power…with a BA not too far below his SLG), I’m more than willing to listen to the argument to see him on the parent club from Day 1 next year, moving LaPorta to 1B and Marte into a back-up 1B/3B role, allowing LaPorta and Peralta to spell Hafner at DH while providing a RH bat to what looks to be a very LH-heavy team next year.

Where does the conglomeration of LaPorta, Peralta, Brantley, and Marte fit for 2010?
In mid-September of this year, it’s anyone’s guess…but at least there are options.

Speaking of options, taking a look at how the 6 pitchers in the recent Indians’ rotation have fared, are you getting the idea that we’re getting a sneak peek at what the starting pitching is going to look like for 2010?

I don’t just mean the names associated with games started, I mean the performances and the lack of consistency from the young (and not so young anymore) starters that we’ve seen for the last month:

Consider the stretches we’ve seen from the Indians’ six starters over the past few stretches of starts for each going into Thursday’s game:
Justin Masterson’s last 2 starts
1.50 ERA, .685 OPS against
Justin Masterson’s 2 starts prior to that
6.17 ERA, .874 OPS against

Dave Huff’s last 3 starts
2.84 ERA, .564 OPS against
Dave Huff’s 3 starts prior to that
6.75 ERA, .994 OPS against

Jeremy Sowers’ last 3 starts
2.04 ERA, .678 OPS against
Jeremy Sowers’ 3 starts prior to that
5.68 ERA, .716 OPS against

Aaron Laffey’s last 4 starts
6.75 ERA, .998 OPS against
Aaron Laffey’s 4 starts prior to that
2.00 ERA, .665 OPS against

Fausto Carmona since being recalled
5.48 ERA, .859 OPS against

Carlos Carrasco since debut
9.64 ERA, 1.286 OPS against

Youth…inconsistency…let’s get ready for 2010!

Seriously though, that’s the biggest issue that the Tribe figures to face next year as these young pitchers could either excel or fall flat on their face from one start to the next and while that may answer questions going forward about these six (and Westbrook and Rondon, the other two that figure in the 2010 mix), it certainly is going to look like a mixed bag from game to game.

Finding answers to questions about all eight of the pitchers that figure prominently into the 2010 plans is something that I e-mailed back and forth with reader Kevin Holz about, who wondered if augmenting a questionable rotation with a FA might be a way to bridge the gap to 2011 readiness for contention.

They way that I look at it, we should have Westbrook, Carmona, Masterson, Laffey, Carrasco, Sowers (and who was that crazy person suggesting he should be the long man), Huff, and Rondon that all figure into the 2010 rotational mix that all have SERIOUS questions or issues surrounding them:
Westbrook – healthy...and if so, worth anything in a July trade?
Carmona – just what the hell happened and is 2007 Fausto ever coming back
Masterson – can he be a starter or is the bullpen the spot for him?
Laffey – middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation or a potential FOR pitcher?
Carrasco – will he ever reach that potential or will the frustration roll on?
Sowers – he is out of options…so here’s your long leash Jeremy
Huff – anything more than the back-end-of-the-rotation guy he looked like this year?
Rondon – how close is he?

That's eight guys that should factor into next year with answers needed for each one going forward. To me, I'd rather see those eight guys start all 162 games to figure out what we have and if we need anything for 2011 (which is when the team realistically could contend) instead of trying to pacify any portion of the fanbase with a re-tread signing that's going to take IP away from these guys and not be around if he does succeed.

Once some of those questions above start to find answers, then you figure out where outside help may be needed so the team can augment the team via FA or trade where the holes reveal themselves next year for that move for contention in 2011. In terms of examining the FA market for a starter this off-season (not even thinking about the payroll ramifications), there are just too many variables that can happen with the youngsters next year for me to think that they're going to steal IP from a young (and perhaps cheap) player in a year when they're likely another year away from contending.

After the sweep of the Indians by the Twins, anyone see that Minnesota’s record is now sitting at 74-72, 4 ½ games back of the AL-Central-leading, but faltering Tigers?

What was it that was said when the season started?
If the Indians can stay close to .500 until some of their young players arrive to supplement the lineup, the rotation, and the bullpen, maybe they can make one of their patented late-season pushes to perhaps even take the AL Central?
Memories…like the corners of my mind…misty water-colored memories…

Sorry, didn’t mean to go all Hector Savage on you there…
By no means am I saying that the Twins are going to catch the Motor City Kitties, but they’re in the conversation with a couple of weeks left in the schedule and the opportunity to make things a little more interesting down the stretch as they play Detroit in 7 of their final 16 games.

Finally, Tony Lastoria and I were happy to be joined by Jordan Brown for this week’s episode of “Smoke Signals”, which puts a window into the personal story involved while hitting on all of the high points that have been covered here and elsewhere and…well, everywhere.

If you have the time, it’s definitely worth your time…which is all we all have until this season mercifully comes to an end.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Failure to Launch

As the fickle finger of fate looks for a final resting spot to blame for the abyss the Indians find themselves in as the final remnants of the 2009 season circle the drain, the popular culprits are well-known and much-maligned. Whether the fault lies with the ownership, the Front Office, or the manager (or maybe some convoluted combination of all of them), how about taking a look at some of the figures in the background whose roles may not be well known, but whose influence on the team is unquestioned. I speak of…wait for it…the coaching staff.

For a moment, let’s ignore the issues with roster management and putting players in the best positions to succeed in terms of game usage (that would fall squarely on the shoulders of The Atomic Wedgie…also known as the man responsible for bringing us “Garko in the Outfield”, usually with Dave Huff on the mound, and making sure that Kelly Shoppach received more than 4 consecutive starts only once after the second half of his 2008 season, among other indiscretions) and focus on the only group of players unaffected by the massive overhaul of the roster, perhaps pleasing only the team’s seamstress in charge of sewing new names onto jerseys. Throughout this lost season, the coaches have remained intact and since the middle of 2005 have all enjoyed job security, with the notable of exception of Luis Isaac, jettisoned (despite the moaning and wailing from the assembled press corps) after presiding over a relief corps that had finished 11th or worse in the AL in ERA three times from 2004 to 2008.

The collective group of Carl Willis, Derek Shelton, Jeff Datz, Luis Rivera, and the newly minted Chuck Hernandez have all played a role in the mess that the Indians now find themselves in, and while the blame certainly gets heaped onto more-well-known shoulders, how much culpability lies with a coaching staff that has been charged with readying the team for the season and attempting to make adjustments for a team that has now egregiously disappointed for three of the last four years?

Of course, I’m not just talking about Luis Rivera’s ability to take rub shoulders while whispering sweet nothings into occupants of 1B or holding their batting gloves or body armor for them.

Nor do I care to delve into Joel Skinner’s “ability” to coach 3B and whether or not his reluctance to send Kenny Lofton home in Boston cost the Indians a chance to go to the Fall Classic.

I’m not even going to focus on the purported “contributions” of Jeff Datz – which (on the surface at least) seem to be limited to inspiring a couple of people to create a sign that says “DATZ AWESOME”…which is not to say that he’s not contributing as those words got me through some tough times.

Taking cheap shots like pointing out that Detroit’s new pitching coach Rick Knapp are among the “unsung heroes” of the season because he is stronger than the previous pitching coach (ahem, Chuck Hernandez) at “fixing pitchers’ mechanics”?
No interest…oh, wait.

Rather, what about the functions of a coach?
What about things like helping players progress to maximize their talent, or making adjustments to improve them as hitters, pitchers, or fielders, teaching players the idiosyncrasies of the game that occur during practice, but show up on the field of play to assist in the development of players on a team?
What about…you know, coaching?

I’m not going to pretend to be Tom Emanski or Charlie Lau here and point out what fundamentals are missing or what certain players are doing wrong and how the coaching staff has failed to make the proper adjustments to specific players as, frankly, people get paid a lot of money to figure that out. But those people that are paid a lot of money to figure that out now are sitting on a body of work in developing players for an organization that is as long as six or seven years to adequately give a feeling about how much they’re helping these players develop or their inability to do so.

Looking at the body of work then as Ryan Richards and Jay Levin have already pointed out, there is a growing sense that the coaching staff has trouble in assisting a player’s progress to maximize their talents or to allow them to develop to the point of putting finishing touches on them as they evolve as players. Certainly no player’s development is a nice, clean, linear path upwards, but one would think that the players that came into the organization, either through internal development or from outside of the organization, should show a level of improvement from year to year, even if bumps in the road are inevitable in any players’ progress.

Of course, some of this is certainly on the players and nobody’s raking the coaches over the coals about the lack of development of guys like The Looch and Masa, as often the coaching staff is left to play with the hand that’s been dealt to them. Nor is anyone saying that players that looked to be mediocre throughout their MiLB career, like The Ben Francisco Treat, should have suddenly morphed into perennial All-Stars.

But it’s not outside the realm of reason to suggest that players who had experienced success throughout the Minors at a young age, who succeed in their first taste of MLB, should progress to the point that they show at least a modicum of improvement from their initial successes.

But what about those players that arrive full of promise, only to not even sniff similar success or even the top of that plateau?
Fernando Cabrera
2004/2005 – Age 23/24
1.75 ERA (241 ERA+), 1.08 WHIP, 35 K, 12 BB in 36 IP over 19 games

5.19 ERA (87 ERA+), 1.40 WHIP, 71 K, 32 BB in 60 2/3 IP over 51 games

7.21 ERA (82 ERA+), 1.78 WHIP, 39 K, 22 BB in 33 23/ IP over 24 games

Jeremy Sowers
2006 – Age 23
3.57 ERA (127 ERA+), 1.19 WHIP, 35 K, 20 BB in 88 1/3 IP over 14 games

Since 2006
5.48 ERA (82 ERA+), 1.48 WHIP, 132 K, 103 BB in 295 2/3 IP over 54 games

Fausto Carmona

2006/2007 – Age 22/23
3.67 ERA (125 ERA+), 1.31 WHIP, 195 K, 92 BB in 289 2/3 IP over 70 games

5.92 ERA (76 ERA+), 1.70 WHIP, 121 K, 133 BB in 222 IP over 42 games

Jhonny Peralta
2005 – Age 23 (first full season)
.292 BA / .366 OBP / .520 SLG / .885 OPS – (137 OPS+)

Since 2005
.269 BA / .332 OBP / .425 SLG / .757 OPS – (96 OPS+)

“You’re just cherry-picking the failures, though…nobody’s been able to fix Cabrera and Sowers’ peripherals showed that this is who he is, even given his initial success”…right?

Sure, but what about the guys who experienced that initial success, then remained steady after their first exposure to MLB, continuing on that path?
They’ve improved, right?
Grady Sizemore
2005 – Age 22 (first full season)
.289 BA / .348 OBP / .484 SLG / .832 OPS – (123 OPS+)

Since 2005
.273 BA / .373 OBP / .489 SLG / .862 OPS – (123 OPS+)

Victor Martinez
2004 – Age 25 (first full season)
.283 BA / .359 OBP / .492 SLG / .851 OPS – (125 OPS+)

.304 BA / .375 OBP / .466 SLG / .841 OPS – (120 OPS+)

Where’s the growth?
Group Grady and Vic with Peralta’s failure to take that next step and suddenly you’re looking at three players thought to be the “core” of the “core”, in terms of position players who basically remained similar players (or worse) than the players they arrived as to Cleveland.

Certainly there are some players that unquestionably improved, like the Cy Young winners CP Lee and the (deposed) aCCe, just as there are success stories like that of Lacey Cake and Rocky Betancourt. However, if you’re looking for that player that broke into MLB with great success and continued to a steady ride up the ladder, you’re not going to find it with the Indians outside of CC Sabathia.

Maybe a player like Asdrubal or The BLC (or some of these younger players that we’re getting a look at, like Louie the Fifth or LaPorta or Brantley) break that mold, but success and continued progress shouldn’t be the exception to the rule when looking at a collective body of players that ascend to MLB.

Unfortunately, the severe regressions of players like Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis have become more of the norm than the exception for the Indians in recent years, where players have failed to take the “next step” predicted for them, often falling so far off of the map that their long-term future with the club goes from solid to spotty in short order. Talent has arrived topside for the Indians, but that talent has never evolved into top-shelf talent (with a few exceptions), leaving the Indians where they were in June, stuck with middling players on a middling team unable to compete in a middling division.

It all comes back to how much of a role you feel coaches have in terms of the performance of particular players of a team. That is to say, is success or failure attributable to them any more than it is to the players, or is the affect of coaching something that gets overstated in thinner times?

How much of it is coaching and how much of it is what they have to deal with?
Is the complaint valid about the lack of progress valid or is it akin to complaining out of a collective attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?

It’s often said that baseball is about adjustments, with hitters adjusting to pitchers and vice versa, followed by counter-adjustments from both parties in an endless dance. But if the adjustments being made never improve a player past the level of production that they attained in their first exposure to MLB, or saw that production drop – where does the onus of blame lie?

Are we to believe that these players have arrived to Cleveland as finished works of art, with the brushstrokes complete, with not much room for improvement? Or does the idea that these players still represent a largely empty canvas, where success at a young age portends more success through maturation and more brushstrokes still hold water?

How much of a difference does a coach make in the development of players (or lack thereof) and who’s ultimately to blame for the Indians’ failure?
Looking at the body of work before us, let’s take a broad brush stroke and just say everyone…

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Lazy Sunday with a Brown Not in Cleveland

While the North Coast is preoccupied with the OSU-USC game last night and the Browns’ opener against St. Brett (who apparently is coming back to the NFL…do I have that right?), let’s take the quick opportunity to use those two gridiron tilts as bookends for a Lazy Sunday:

On the reservation, the topic du jour certainly seems to be Jordan Brown – a soon-to-be-26-year-old – who did not receive a September call-up after an excellent season in AAA. After the initial surprise that Brown would not join his Clipper compatriots up I-71 for even a cursory call-up, Tribe Farm Director Ross Atkins explained the decision to Tony Lastoria, saying that “plate appearances is what it comes down to…with Andy Marte, Matt LaPorta and four catchers on the roster, there just weren't plate appearances for Jordan. That is the most important aspect of the decision.”

With that explanation, the decision not to call-up Brown made sense as Matt LaPorta unquestionably represents a part of the team’s future and Marte’s status going into next season certainly means that seeing Marte as often as possible left Brown on the outside looking in. Obviously, Brown (who, unlike Marte will not have any option issues if he is rostered in the off-season) could have been called up to see some limited action at 1B, LF, or DH, but the reasoning that the Indians needed to get AB for LaPorta and Marte as well as the Catchers on the roster (given the questions there for next year) held some water.

Of course, not everyone agreed with the logic that the Indians presented…most notably Brown himself, who told Paul Hoynes:
“They gave me plenty of reasons,” said Brown from his home in Tucson, Ariz. “They said there weren't enough at-bats for me. They said there was no role for me. They said they weren't a rewarding organization. They had their reasons. They made them very clear. I politely disagree with all their reasons.
“I respect their opinion,” said Brown. “They are my employer, but I'm 25, not 22. I'm so tired of hearing two words -- defensive liability. Last year, when I had a mediocre year and I was injured, they said I didn't hit for enough power. Well, 35 doubles and 15 homers is power.
“It's their organization. I have no hatred toward them, but I completely disagree with them.”
“Believe me, they won't be surprised [when they read this],” said Brown. “They know how I feel. It makes me wonder if I have a future with them.
“I understand that Marte is out of options and has to play every day. I know LaPorta came over in a blockbuster trade and is a year younger than me. They deserve it, but so do I.”

Brown’s feelings are not surprising (they’re probably more normal than not among MiLB players passed over in the development process, regardless of level), except if you consider that he voiced them to the beat reporter for printing in the Sunday paper surprising.

The non-call-up though, that wasn’t the problem…
The lineup cards over the three games in two days soon after against the Rangers was, as everything went crazy with this Brown situation as Chris Gimenez got the start at 1B in the second game of the twin-bill and unquestioned non-prospect Niuman Romero (called up allegedly for his ability to spell Valbuena and Cabrera in the middle IF) got the start the next afternoon as Marte sat for the second straight game.

And with that, the fur started flying with confusion and anger from frustrated fans, with even Terry Pluto weighing in on the Brown situation first with a column, then expanding on it with his “Terry’s Talkin’” (among other…ahem, “topics”)on one game having to do with a soon-to-be-26-year-old LF/1B/DH on a team with two of their top prospects who play LF and 1B and an ensconced DH…though not because of performance.

The Brown fiasco could be considered making a mountain out of a molehill, particularly given the fact that we’re talking about two games; but the filling out of the lineup card in those two games, particularly after the comments of Atkins to Lastoria just a day earlier reeked of insubordination and the final slap at logic by a lame-duck manager known to be on his way out, thumbing his nose (or worse) at a Front Office by playing the “available options”, regardless of organizational philosophy.

In a season wrought with roster mismanagement, lineup card head-scratchers (Ryan Garko…the LF, ladies and gentleman), and the growing sense that the Front Office and the Field Manager were no longer reading out of the same playbook, much less reading off the same page as they once did, the playing of Romero at 1B immediately after the Front Office went on the record to say that “there just weren’t plate appearances for Jordan” may be looked back on as The Atomic Wedgie’s Waterloo.

For an organization that stresses continuity (almost to a fault) and speaks with one voice (again, almost to a fault), the act of throwing a fellow member of the organization under the bus with an obviously calculated decision confirms that the Indians’ Front Office and the Indians’ manager are no longer attached at the hip – a fact that will hopefully make the decision to fire Wedge (and probably others) at the end of the season all the easier.

Because if you’ll remember, ownership is on the record that Shapiro isn’t going anywhere and that the coaching staff will come under review:
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.

With this Brown thing being the piece de resistance and a culmination of an awful year, The Atomic Wedgie may have just severed his remaining lifeline by distancing himself from the final group in Northeast Ohio that still seemed to be on his side – the Front Office.

As for the Brown situation, it was something that Tony Lastoria and I discussed (almost to the point of absurdity) on this week’s “Smoke Signals”, but if we’re talking about Brown the player strictly from a roster standpoint, I’ll stand by what I wrote back in early August:
It's also possible that the Indians could simply pass the mantle of "placeholder" at 1B to Jordan Brown, who has placed himself back on the map with a strong 2009, though his lack of power puts him on par with what Ryan Garko put forth for the last few years in Cleveland and both look to be similarly skilled players, based on their MiLB numbers:

Jordan Brown - MiLB numbers through age 25
.306 BA / .372 OBP / .469 SLG / .841 OPS in 2,022 plate appearances

Ryan Garko - MiLB numbers through age 25
.293 BA / .379 OBP / .488 SLG / .867 OPS in 1,637 plate appearance

Certainly not bad overall numbers for either player, but it's meant to illustrate what Jordan Brown likely is in terms of MLB projection - he's not unlike Garko as he hits for average, but not a lot of power from what is traditionally a power position at 1B. Perhaps his defense is a shade better, but looking at Brown as a long-term option feels a lot more like looking at a continuation with what we had in Garko. Maybe that's not a bad thing or one that isn't an acceptable option for a bit of 2010, but as this team evolves into its next combination of players, I'm looking for a little more than just a Garko-type player to be manning 1B.

That shouldn’t discount the fact that it’s not unreasonable to assume that Brown can have a viable MLB career, but if you assume that that Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley figure to serve as the LF and 1B (Brown’s two defensive positions) perhaps starting sooner rather than later, with Hafner signed through eternity, and you see why the Brown non-call-up was much ado about nothing…that is until The Atomic Wedgie sealed his fate.

One of the pro-Jordan Brown arguments is his bat-to-ball ability and his avoidance of the K in an organization full of players that stack up K totals. This week, Jeff Passan of Yahoo put forth a fascinating piece on whether or not the strikeout is as bad as it was once (or still is) thought to be, in terms of affecting the runs scored by an offense:
Yahoo! Sports analyzed the past full decade of games and found that in the greatest era of striking out baseball has seen – there were 316,274 from 1999 to 2008 – there is no connection between the number of times a team strikes out in a season and the number of runs it averages per game. The correlation coefficient between strikeouts and runs was .075, which means the relationship is so negligible there is no relationship.

Some high-scoring teams strike out a lot, and some low-scoring teams don’t, and vice versa. The most productive team of the past decade, the 1999 Indians, scored 6.23 runs per game even though they struck out 1,099 times, the ninth most in baseball that year – and 92nd most of the 300 teams in the study.

Was anyone else thinking about Mr. Show Pack and his future as an Indian when you were reading that?

Moving on, did anyone catch Joe Posnanski’s live blog of Friday’s game “pitting” the Royals against the Erie Warriors?
If you missed it, he uncorked some beauties on the topic of a particular Third Base Coach:
You are probably not watching this Royals game — and there’s really no reason you should be watching — but tie score, ninth inning, the Indians just had runners on first and second, one out, and Jhonny Peralta lined a single to left. I am not exaggerating if I say that David DeJesus had the ball BEFORE Cleveland’s Asdrubal Cabrera reached third base. I thought “There’s no way there’s sending him.”
Cleveland third base coach Joel Skinner sent him. Well, that’s just great — in the seventh game of the American League Championship Series, Skinner held up Kenny Lofton when the Red Sox would have almost certainly conceded the run (and would have had no chance to get him at the plate anyway). But this time, Skinner sent a guy to a certain out — and sure enough, DeJesus made a reasonable throw home and Cabrera was out by 15 feet. It was actually kind of funny — because of the way Miguel Olivo blocked the plate, Cabrera never got within five feet of the plate. And … we’re going to extra innings.
There really is a perverse joy in watching two bad teams play baseball.
Wow, bottom of the 11th inning in Cleveland … and almost precisely the same thing happened that happened in the ninth inning. Cleveland had a runner on second, Jhonnny Peralta hit a hard single to left, DeJesus got the ball just as the runner was getting to third, coach Joel Skinner sent the runner home. It was a little bit different this time because there were two outs and the runner was faster. But the results were the same — this time DeJesus made an excellent throw home, Olivo blocked the plate, and the runner never even touched home plate. We’re going to the 12th inning! At what point do fans get combat pay?

Anyone else get nauseous at any mention of the last couple of games in the 2007 ALCS, after which Fausto was never really the same and, according to Rob Neyer, may never be?

Elsewhere, with the minor-league seasons over or with the playoffs winding down (with Akron continuing to just roll up opponents), the next big thing to look forward to, in terms of prospects, is the Arizona Fall League, with Fangraphs doing a little write-up on some of the players that will fill out the Peoria Saguaros, the team that will contain the prospects the Indians are sending.

If you’re looking at the whole lineup, it certainly looks to be pretty stacked with interesting names – RHP Connor Graham (who came over in the Betancourt deal), RHP Josh Judy (a late-inning reliever for Akron this year), RHP Zach Putnam (the 2008 Draft Pick transitioned to the bullpen this year, fast-tracking him), RHP Carlton Smith, 2B Josh Rodriguez (attempting to re-establish himself in the potential Utility Role mix), SS Carlos Rivero (still young for his level in Akron and looking to build on a strong second half in which he posted a .797 OPS after the All-Star Break in AA at the age of 21), OF Nick Weglarz (looking to recover from some nagging injuries to get himself ready for AAA next year at the age of 22 after a 16-HR pre-All-Star Break tear in Akron this year) and C/1B Matt McBride, who was specifically addressed in the FanGraphs piece:
Matt McBride | C | Cleveland
The Indians organization is not 100% sure what it has with McBride, who missed most of 2008 with an injury. He creamed high-A pitching but was old for the league. Upon a promotion to double-A, his batting average and on-base percentage plummeted but he still showed good power potential and struck out just 11.8% of the time. His BABIP can be partially blamed for his average.

Speaking of prospects, Rob Neyer has an interesting look at how the Rookie of the Year balloting in the AL does not exactly contain the most compelling choices in recent memory, with Louie the Fifth getting a cursory mention. What’s interesting is that Neyer mentions that only 5 AL rookies have 300 plate appearances or more, something that in this new age of managed service time and avoidance of arbitration could become more commonplace as the meaningless Rookie of the Year award (quick…name the last 5 AL ROY) could carry even less weight in the near future.

Finally, some attention has been paid to the fact that Dave Huff became the Indians’ first 10-game winner last night, avoiding the first year without a double-digit winner since the illustrious troika of Scott Bailes, Phil Neikro, and Tom Candiotti all had…wait for it…7 wins on the infamous 1987 squad.

But how about this?
Grady Sizemore leads the club with 18 HR and as he’s obviously not going to be tallying anymore, the next closest active Indians are Hafner and Choo with 15 (Choo being the leader if we’re talking about people playing every day), meaning that the Indians could have their first year without a player to hit at least 20 HR since 1983 when Andre Thornton and Gorman Thomas each had 17.
Even the inimitable Jody Gerut had 22 in 2003…but hey, welcome to the 2009 season.

As for now, it’s time to attempt to ready myself for the Browns game while attempting to vilify Brett Favre in The DiaBride’s Wisconsin eyes…something that will certainly prove to be an exercise in futility.