Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tiny Tomahawks

With The DiaBride and I heading off to a weekend wedding in Key West (sans children) and with the Indians just missing a chance to go 4-5 on their West Coast swing (and why does “just missing a chance” feel like a phrase that’s going to be in heavy rotation this year), I’m going to hold off on any heavy lifting this late in the week if only so I’m not tying up my hands (which I’m preparing to be ready to both be carrying drinks all weekend) with any big Tomahawks.

Thus, I’ll let you ruminate on just a couple of little Tommies…

…Justerson has allowed 25 hits or walks in the 46 times that a LH hitter has faced him (with 6 of those hits being for extra-bases) and is scheduled to face the Twins on Saturday afternoon…the same team that began his sudden demise after his first two “strong” starts of the season.
Enjoy that one while I sip my gin-rocks on the beach…

…Jason Donald is now sitting on an OPS of .940 in Columbus, behind some guy named Santana (1.093 OPS) and lil’ Jose Constanza (1.027 OPS…Trevor who?) and is likely angling for a promotion to Cleveland at some point, perhaps around Memorial Day. He will OBVIOUSLY be the biggest name promoted around that time…why, who is this Santana kid?

…Lou Marson nearly doubled his OPS in the last two games of the Angels’ series (yes…from .250 on Tuesday morning to .464 on Thursday morning) meaning that the calls for Carlos Santana’s promotion should abate for 30 seconds or so…

…If the lingering effects of Matt MaTola’s hip and toe surgeries mean that he’s still not ready to play every day and he’s struggling like he is (last among regulars on the team in OPS not named Marson…who’s suddenly on MaTola’s heels), at what point do the Indians consider putting him on the DL, then allowing him to come back fully healthy instead of the current plan of play infrequently and struggle while doing so? With Kearns playing like he has (SURPRISE!) and the team “committed” to giving Rusty Branyan consistent AB, what’s the harm in letting MaTola take a break for a while, build some confidence in a rehab stint and come back full force? There’s something to be said for letting a young player fight through his struggles and adjust to MLB pitching, but that assumes that the player is fully healthy…something that MaTola is obviously not.

…Travis Hafner has been sitting against LHP with Acta explaining the decision thusly, “in sports and in life, you try to put people in a position where they can have success.” Hafner is guaranteed to be paid by the Indians through the 2012 season and the manager is saying (in April of 2010) that putting him in the batter’s box against LHP is not putting him in a position where he can have success.
This…this might get awfully ugly.

…After having to pass on an invite to be in the new Tribe Social Deck (AKA “Mom’s Basement) on Opening Day, I’m pleased to pass on news that I’ll be in this newly created space for bloggers and Twitterers and Facebookers (which I guess I am all three, even if First Mate t-bone runs the last two applications) for the game on May 7th against the Tigers. The “Basement” is in Left Field (near the Home Run Porch), so if you’re attending the game, stop by and say hello to yours truly and t-bone, who will be handling the “social media” portion of the arrangement.

Finally, speaking of the esteemed t-bone, with me flying back to the North Coast (regrettably) on Sunday, t-bone has agreed to captain the Good Ship Lazy Sunday in my absence. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go pack my white linen pants and flip-flops.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Jhonny Crash

The offense has been bad, worse than bad…painful to watch, excruciatingly dismal to dissect and depression-inducing to think about. The disappointment goes up and down the lineup, from the struggles of Sizemore and Cabrera to the growing dread (if it isn’t already realized dread) that all of the positive talk about the health of Hafner was just that…talk, from the inability of ANY of the young players to adjust and flourish to the acknowledgement that Austin Kearns in the clean-up spot may actually be a good idea.

We laughed away at the aging and punchless White Sox lineup (which has now scored 12 more runs in 19 games than the Indians) while The BLC carried the offensive burden in the short-lived “winning streak” and now attempt to believe that this team HAS to get better, to rationalize that the talent in the lineup SHOULD be performing at a higher level. However, the facts remain the facts (even if it is in the early going of the season) as the Indians’ offense has prevented the team from taking advantage of some unlikely-to-continue starting pitching and getting out to that “hot start” that was so important.

While the disappointment with some of the players is tempered by either their youth or their recent performance, one stands out as the poster boy for all that is wrong with the Indians’ lineup – Jhonny Peralta.

Long gone is the idea that Peralta would thrive under the guidance of Manny Acta, out from under Eric Wedge’s thumb. It seems foolish in hindsight to think that Peralta, with a full off-season under his belt to be ready to be the “3B of the Present” would somehow morph back into the player that barnstormed his way to a 24 HR season as a 23-year-old shortstop, back when his potential seemed limitless.

From Peralta bursting on the scene back in 2005, we’ve seen Peralta swing up and down throughout the course of the season with the end result often disappointing, but with those flashes of his former self that let the imagination think that Peralta could return to the origins of his success once more.

Now, as the calendar threatens to flip to May a full 5 years removed from Peralta’s breakout 2005, no such illusion exists – Jhonny Peralta has regressed into a player undeserving of regular AB, both by his performance at the plate and in the field. Throughout the decline, Peralta has pouted about a move from SS to 3B, questioned the manner in which he was informed of said decision, and floundered even in his “hot streaks” to the point that waiting for the conclusion of his “cold stretches” simply is no longer justifiable.

At the age of 28, Peralta has not only hit his plateau…he’s coming down the other side of the mesa. Of course, everyone who has watched Peralta since the beginning of the 2009 season knows this – as he continues to flail away at pitches low and away while watching ground balls pass under his glove, all while remaining seemingly oblivious to calls for his head (or worse) – but to truly understand how Peralta’s performance at the plate since the beginning of 2009 has completely bottomed out, let’s look for the proper context.

Since the beginning of the 2009 season, Jhonny Peralta has stepped to the plate 715 times, and in those 715 plate appearances, he has compiled this line:
.247 BA / .316 OBP / .366 SLG / .682 OPS

Horrible…putrid…embarrassing, this we know…
Just wait…of the 70 players in MLB that have accumulated 700 or more Plate Appearances since the beginning of the 2009 season (meaning that they have ostensibly remained in the lineup for a year and a month for better or worse and have not battled injury), here is where Peralta ranks in MLB:
BA - .247 – 68th of 70
OBP - .316 – 65th of 70
SLG - .366 – 70th of 70
OPS - .682 – 70th of 70

That’s right…Peralta has the lowest OPS among all hitters in MLB with 700 or more plate appearances since the beginning of 2009 as well as the lowest SLG (this for a player who slugged .520 when he was 23) – lower than that of Michael Bourn, Ryan Theriot, Rafael Furcal, and so on and so forth.

To throw more dirt on his grave, let’s lower the minimum plate appearances to 550 to see all of the names that Peralta has “outperformed” at the plate (in terms of OPS) since the beginning of 2009, among the 158 MLB players who qualify:
152. Jhonny Peralta - .682
153. Randy Winn - .660
154. David Eckstein - .656
155. Yuniesky Betancourt - .653
156. Edgar Renteria - .645
157. Jason Kendall - .644
158. Kaz Matsui - .638

If you want context as to how horrible Peralta has been since the beginning of last year, there it is…there are the 6 names (that double as answers to jokes as cocktail parties) that Peralta has exceeded at the plate. The player among those 6 with the highest number of plate appearances is David Eckstein, who has a full 70 fewer plate appearances than Peralta.

While Peralta continues to be trotted out every day, with the illusory hopes that he’s “turning the corner” or believing that “Jhonny’s starting to go the other way…which means that he’s not far away” ringing as hollow as ever, the question has to be asked – how long do the Indians keep him in their lineup?

The obvious answer is whether they think that Peralta will improve at some point to increase his trade value, which is currently non-existent. I don’t think that it’s a closely guarded secret that Peralta’s club option for 2011 was unlikely to be exercised and that he was probably going to be traded at some point in the 2010 season, in which contention was unlikely…and that was before the first month of 2010.

Peralta’s slow start however, has put the team in an interesting position in that the only way to be able to net anything from flipping Peralta (be it in May, June, or July) is to continue to give him AB in the hopes that his track record of “heating up” in May rings true. Just looking at Peralta’s career numbers (and did you know that Peralta has 3,526 career plate appearances), let’s remember the insane swings that Peralta’s performance takes year in and year out, inexplicably by month:
OPS by month
March/April - .668
May - .848
June - .730
July - .831
August - .759
September/October - .687

Can they drive up his non-existent trade value by hoping (against reason) that Peralta can get hot in May or June and fool some desperate team to become interested in his services, even if it means simply flipping him and what remains on his salary for a low-level prospect?

At this point, that’s actually the best-case-scenario as the idea that Peralta’s regressed past the point of usefulness to the team (particularly at his salary in his final year) is gaining momentum. To that end, some have clamored (well…“clamored” may be a strong word…perhaps “suggested”) for Andy Marte to take over at 3B and for the Indians to send Peralta out to pasture. While that seems like an idea rooted essentially in making Jhonny disappear from our existence, let’s remember what Andy Marte’s career numbers as a Cleveland Indian in 690 plate appearances look like:
.222 BA / .279 OBP / .365 SLG / .644 OPS

Are those totals spaced out over 5 seasons of inconsistent AB?
Absolutely and the descent of Andy Marte from top prospect to “persona non grata” in The Atomic Wedgie Era to clearing waivers at the beginning of the 2009 season comes close to matching Peralta’s decline in terms of performance and frustration. But let’s remember again what Peralta has done with consistent AB since the beginning of 2009:
.247 BA / .316 OBP / .366 SLG / .681 OPS

Compared to what Marte’s put forth in his MLB career, is there evidence to suggest that Marte would improve upon Peralta’s offense?
Not definitively, and he could certainly be worse and just as frustrating as Peralta, simply replacing him as the whipping boy du jour in a town largely in need of one.

Ultimately, the Indians find themselves with two similarly flawed RH 3B and Marte’s time to play 3B on a regular basis is going to come soon enough (assuming either Grudz or Valbuena don’t inherit 3B) when Peralta is moved at some point in the next two to three months. That timeframe for which Peralta will move on is very real as Peralta’s tenure with the Indians is getting shorter by the day and his performance amazingly is not going to change the fact that he’s not long for a Tribe uniform as it would only affect where he ends up next.

That is, if Peralta appreciably improves in the month of May or June or (gasp) both, the Indians should look to move him to the first bidder for whatever the return may be. However, if Peralta does not improve by the middle of June or so (I know, a fun 6 to 8 weeks await if he’s still struggling), the Indians should not use the “he’s earned his chance to start every day” of the idea that a “long leash” is justified any more in the handling and usage of Peralta because being the worst hitter in MLB over his last 715 plate appearances being played every day constitutes a pretty long leash.

Given the precarious position that the Indians find themselves in, wishing for Peralta to improve, if only to improve his trade value and forced to play him regularly in an effort to somehow force that improvement, a breaking point still exists. If Peralta is still unable to find success even with the consistent AB being handed to him, there will be a point when the Indians simply cut ties with him or relegate him to the role of a wildly overpaid RH bat off of the bench until his contract expires.

That day may not be coming as soon as some would hope, but make no mistake…it is coming.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Lucky Lazy Sunday

As the rain falls on the North Coast and spirits are high for Larry Asante and Clifton Geathers in a town that loves the “potential of prospects” in all sports, let’s get headed off on a Lazy Sunday as the Indians roll on in their West Coast trip and somehow miraculously find themselves just a game under .500 despite competing with a non-existent offense with multiple black holes in the lineup and a bullpen still being sorted out.

As was stated above, the team is back to within one game of .500 after Saturday’s victory n an April in which they’ll play 15 of their 22 games on the road. While most of those road games are forthcoming, there’s no question that the Indians, warts and all, are playing a style of baseball that not many foresaw when the season began. The team is 8-9 and while for some teams an early “good start” is a fallacy (the Pirates are 7-10 despite being outscored by their opponents by a total of 61 runs in those 17 games), the Indians have allowed 13 more runs than they’ve scored for the 3rd best run differential in the division.

With the Twins looking like the class of the division (and I just didn’t see their collection of what looked liked fringy starters coming out of the gate like this or the bullpen making up for the loss of Nathan and others), the Indians find themselves in an interesting spot as it’s likely that Minnesota will start to run away and hide with this division as the weeks and months drag on. However, the rest of the division looks on par with what the Indians have put forth and with the idea that Carmona may be back to some degree (more on that in a bit) and with the offensive stalwarts looking more like warts, the Indians could have an interesting summer in front of them.

For the early part of the season, all expectations have been blown out of the water (other than the bullpen being a…well, a work in progress) as the offense has fizzled while the starting pitching has sizzled.
How long that may last, however, is where we’ll set our sights for a Lazy One…

Going into Sunday’s game, the Indians have 4 starters with ERA’s at or under 3.00 with the most promising performance coming from the man who once brushed the midges aside as merely a nuisance to the task at hand. After Saturday’s win, Fausto Carmona finds himself with a 2.96 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP having given up 3 extra-base hits in 27 1/3 innings pitched…yes, 3 extra-base hits allowed in the equivalent of 3 full games.

On the topic of Carmona, Jayson Stark has a little bit in his Rumblings and Grumblings piece from a scout who had some thoughts on the player we all hope will be ¡Fausto! once again:
Much better rhythm, much better balance. Throwing way more strikes than at any time last year. I don't see quite the same hard sinker as before. He’s got less movement than he used to. But of the 12 balls I saw get put in play, eight were ground balls. So he's getting the same results.

The words of that scout have certainly rung true for anyone who’s watched Carmona this year as his pace is more measured and his avoidance of the “big hit” has been tantamount to his success. That success that he’s experience thus far is due partly to the influence of a certain $850K veteran catcher who was used to seeing Carmona (both Good Fausto and Bad Fausto) as an opposing hitter, Redmond explains thusly:
“I think I faced him every time he pitched against Minnesota last year,” Redmond said. “You could see the things he was doing, not that it did me much good when I came to the plate. But at times, I would see him lose his aggressiveness. He would throw too many breaking balls. That’s doing the hitter a favor.”
“Maybe now I’m calling the game the way I thought he should be pitching when I was with the Twins,” Redmond said.

Perhaps too much is being made of this “personal catcher” thing (and I should note that there are already rumblings in Beantown to move Fausto’s former “personal catcher” out from behind the dish because of his arm and have him perhaps replace Ortiz as the DH) and everyone is so quick to heap praise upon Redmond, but Carmona looks like a completely different pitcher than he has for the past 2 years. Even if he’s not quite throwing “the same hard sinker as before”, Carmona even a few notches below his 2007 self still has more upside than nearly any other arm in the organization.

If it feels like Carmona is taking up much of my time and keystrokes this early in the season and that the hope that Fausto is coming back has been beaten to death, it’s simply because it has. However, the reason is justified (in my mind, at least) by the fact that even if Fausto v.2007 doesn’t come back (and he might be), a top-to-middle-of-the-rotation starter under club control for the foreseeable future is still the most valuable commodity in baseball, particularly to the Indians, who will likely bid Jake Westbrook farewell at some point and are left to sort through the young arms behind Fausto as they attempt to cobble together a starting rotation.

Lest anyone forget, the guaranteed years of Carmona’s contract expire at the end of next year (during which he’ll be paid $6.1M) with the Indians holding club options for 2012 (for $7M), 2013 (for $9M) and for 2014 (for $12M). None of that money is guaranteed past the end of next year, meaning that the Indians are only tied to Carmona from year to year after the 2011 season through the 2014 season, if they choose to be. If Carmona is back to being the dominant pitcher that he was in 2007 (or is even in the same area code as that pitcher) those options, which not so long ago looked laughably expensive, suddenly become bargains for the pitcher who inarguably possesses the most talented arm in the organization.

Since he’s been on the North Coast for such a long time and has gone through the peaks and valleys as a pitcher since he arrived, it’s easy to forget that Carmona is still 26 and won’t be 27 until December of 2010, meaning that he’s actually 2 months younger than the pitcher that has been Unleashing his own brand of Fury on the AL, Mr. Mitch Talbot.

Speaking of Mitch-A-Palooza, Fangraphs had a piece earlier in the week on The Fury called “Mr. Never Misses a Bat”, intimating that Talbot’s early success was a mirage and that his inability to…well, miss bats foretold of Talbot coming back down to earth (perhaps with a thud) at some point. While the piece felt a little premature at the time (given that it was after two starts and was written before he went 6 1/3 innings in Minnesota giving up only 1 run), it does bring up some salient points on Talbot, who’s only getting swings and misses on 2.3% of his pitches and has an unusually low BABIP of .192, 2nd lowest in the AL, meaning that Talbot could be certainly walking that fine line between success and blow-ups.

While it is fun to run numbers and say that, in the last 17 innings that Talbot has thrown, from the 5th inning in his season debut in Detroit through Thursday’s start, his cumulative numbers are a 0.53 ERA and a 0.64 WHIP, it does also fall into the “if you take out the 4 runs he let up in 4 random innings, he’s a GREAT pitcher” trap of statistical illusion.

Regardless of that being the case or not, Talbot’s early success has been the great revelation on the Indians and (while I muscle down this crow that’s on my plate) if the Indians are able to get that production from the player that is ostensibly their 5th starter in a rebuilding year, Talbot’s performance ranks as the most pleasant surprise of the early going. As Terry Pluto points out, “Mitch Talbot doesn’t get rattled when he has a bad inning. He throws strikes, pitches out of jams and the right-hander has done a nice job vs. lefties (.4-of-27, .148)” and while the proof is in the pudding thus far as evidenced by his total line, there are some red flags with Talbot.

To that end, the piece from Fangraphs lingers, not because the analysis in their piece is so insightful or hard-hitting (it isn’t), but rather because it causes an unflattering light to be cast upon the strong start of the Indians’ rotation in the early going. Since I mentioned that Mitch Talbot had posted an unusually low BABIP of .192, I might as well air all of the dirty laundry all at once:
BABIP – 2010
Huff - .174
Talbot - .192
Carmona - .219

If you’re not familiar with BABIP (or Batting Average on Balls in Play), here’s a great primer on BABIP from Big League Stew at Yahoo!, with the thrust of the metric being explained very well (and very simply) thusly:
Why BABIP works: A well-known sabermetrician named Voros McCracken has demonstrated that pitchers have relatively high control over strikeouts, homers, and walks, but have relatively little control over balls in play. If a ball stays in play, the only things determining whether it will fall for a hit or turn into an out are the defense and random chance. This implies that the “pitching to contact” approach is either a myth or a byproduct of a stellar defense.

How BABIP works for pitchers: For pitchers, BABIP tends to converge around .290 or .300. A pitcher whose BABIP is significantly higher than .300 will either wash out of the league or see it come down. Meanwhile, a pitcher whose BABIP is significantly lower than .300 will see it rise. There’s generally not that much variance: Greg Maddux’s career BABIP against was .286 while Jose Lima’s was .301

The point is that whether a pitcher is Greg Maddux or Jose Lima, the Batting Average for Balls in Play ends up around .300 over the course of a season or multiple seasons. Take a look again at the BABIP numbers for the three Indians’ starters who have experienced the most success to date on the season and realize that Huff’s is the lowest among starters in the AL, while Talbot’s is second lowest, with Carmona coming in as the 7th lowest in the AL among starters.

Just for some context here, I will point out that the lowest BABIP among starters in the AL last year was enjoyed by Jarrod Washburn at .257, the same Jarrod Washburn who remains a Free Agent today because many teams see his “success” in the 2009 season as a mirage, partly because of his…wait for it…unsustainably low BABIP last season.

Certainly there are explanations as to how a particular pitcher can “enjoy” a preternaturally low BABIP, but much of it has to do with either playing in front of an elite defense (as Washburn did last year in Seattle)…which doesn’t apply to the Indians, or by limiting the amount of hard-hit balls. If you want to use the idea that line drives are hard-hit balls, the assumption translates nicely for the future success of Carmona, but not so much for the other two:
Line-Drive Percentage (ranking among AL starters)
Carmona – 9.5% (4th lowest in AL)
Talbot – 16.9% (20th lowest in AL)
Huff – 19.7% (30th lowest in AL)

Of course, limiting damage done or minimizing the balls that are put into play to singles has helped all three as they rank in the top 20 in SLG against, but it comes back to that BABIP for me as the idea that these percentages average themselves out over the course of the season leads me to believe that the same balls that are being put in play that are becoming outs for these pitchers will eventually become “seeing-eye singles” or worse. If this was the Modus Operandi for any of these guys throughout their career (that they’ve always had low BABIP), some hope might be held up that they represent an exception to the rule, but looking at the numbers for these guys in their past does not bear that out:
Huff – 2009 BABIP in MLB - .325
Huff – Career BABIP in MiLB - .276

Talbot – Career BABIP in MiLB - .330

With those two, it gives off the idea that Huff likely isn’t as bad as he his numbers for last year would indicate, but also that his early success is going to be balanced out by some rough outings, if only by virtue of more of that BABIP creeping up over the course of the season. The same can be said of Talbot, whose Minor League BABIP is actually extraordinarily high, meaning that his underwhelming MiLB numbers probably left him a tad underrated. However, that idea that his 2010 is likely going to suffer the same pitfalls as Huff’s as more of these hits fall will begin to play out at some point. Regardless, for both of these pitchers in their mid-20s getting their first (or second) exposure to MLB hitting, the results are still largely positive.

Which brings us back to Carmona and why his 2010 feels different than the other two as in 2007, Carmona’s BABIP was .281 (it was .297 in 2008 and .330 in 2009), meaning that his “stuff” was never simply immune to nearly 30% of the balls that were put into play that year turning into hits. After Saturday’s gem, Carmona’s BABIP sits at .219 (and it actually went up after the brilliant start in Oakland) and is sure to rise, but his low line-drive percentage and low SLG against show that hitters are not squaring up Carmona’s offerings, much in the same way that they were unable to in 2007.

Baseball Prospectus’ John Perrotto passes along word from a scout that Carmona’s “sinker isn’t quite as good as it was when he won 19 games (in 2007), but he’s throwing the ball a lot better than the last couple of years”, so perhaps there is something to Carmona simply being the beneficiary of luck in the early going more than putting his success on the shoulders of any catcher or coach, but the way that his recent outings have gone suggest that he’s keeping hitters off-balance, which results in the weak grounders and pop-ups that we’ve seen in the early going.

As a quick aside, is there just one scout who feeds guys like Stark and Perrotto these one sentence blurbs or can do different scouts see the same exact thing and word it nearly identically to two different national writers?

Back to the rotation and the idea that there’s going to be some regression coming, this is not meant to rain on anyone’s parade regarding the early success of the Indians’ rotation as I’m not saying that the BABIP is unsustainable (well, I kind of am…), but these pitchers, who are being told to pitch to contact, are simply finding fortune in terms of having the balls hit against them being hit at a defender. The rest of the numbers on Carmona foretell a different story than Huff and Talbot, who may simply be the beneficiaries of “luck” (or whatever you want to call it) in the first month of the season.

Whether there is something deeper at play here or if the Indians have figured out a way to circumvent what looks to be an irrefutable truth in the laws of pitching remains to be seen. If they haven’t, I would expect Huff and Talbot to come back to Earth a little bit as their BABIP figures to rise while Carmona is much less likely to see his performance change radically because of his ability to induce soft contact.

Regardless of how they’ve done it, the Indians’ starters have led the charge toward .500 as the offense has scuffled and, since the assumption remains that some of the members of the rotation may regress in the coming weeks which makes it all the more important for the lineup to find some offensive spark and for the bullpen to settle into some semblance of a progression of usage if the Indians have any inclination of hanging around the AL Central race this summer.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tomahawks...or Toothpicks?

While the attention of most of the North Coast is locked into some games up in the Windy City or a now-three-day affair in Gotham, the Indians’ season rolls on in earnest. The hills and valleys of following…“maturing” have revealed themselves as the highs feel pretty good but the lows take much out of the fun of watching an “evolving” team. For the most part, the offense has remained MIA in the early going while the pitching has come back to Earth to some degree, so while I place an order for my custom Mitch Talbot jersey that simply says “THE FURY” on the back, now would be as good a time as any to get some Tomahawks in the air…

Remember that whole 7-game tear that The BLC went on to earn him AL Player of the Week honors?
The absurdly productive week included 7 games, 29 plate appearances, 12 hits, 3 doubles, 4 HR, 12 RBI, and 7 BB as Choo took the listing Indians’ offense on his back for a week or so. Needless to say, that stretch has been the lone bright spot on the offense…but do you want some context as to how dark has the offense been?

If you take the offensive numbers for the first 15 games (so this includes the offensive “outburst” from Thursday’s game) and exclude that 7-game stretch from just Choo, here’s the line for the rest of Indians’ team on the season:
.206 BA / .286 OBP / .303 SLG / .589 OPS with 29 extra-base hits in 15 games

Again, that’s taking out the numbers for Choo in that 7-game tear (which is massaging the numbers a little, I know), but that’s over nearly 10% of the games of the season for 8 ½ players in the lineup. The cumulative numbers don’t get much better even if you throw Choo’s 7-game numbers back in there, but without Choo’s little burst against the Tigers, Rangers, and White Sox (which resulted in 4 of the 7 wins to date), the Indians’ offense has been historically bad.

I’m not going to rehash the numbers for each individual player, frankly because they’re nauseating. Everybody on the team is struggling, with Hafner being the only player (other than the aforementioned Choo) with an OPS over .700 heading into Thursday’s tilt and he was sitting on a .734 OPS. Going into Thursday’s game, the team had 4 of the 9 players with the most plate appearances on the team posting an OPS of .552 or lower and only three players had slugging percentages over .400 with those same three players (Choo, Kearns, and Hafner) being the only hitters with OBP over .315.

While following this team in the early going has felt like watching a baby attempt to walk, where even the falls are met with encouragement and the moderate successes are met with wild enthusiasm, seeing the struggles of the offense to date have been disappointing and more than frustrating.

Simply put, nobody on the team is hitting with any consistency and while Acta is trying to juggle the lineup in an attempt to jostle something (or someone) into production, it will certainly be interesting to see how this all shakes out once (or is it “if”) these April doldrums are overcome. Peralta has moved all around the lineup (and sometimes out of it), all while remaining seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’s become the poster boy for the struggles of the team in the early going (and not just in the eyes of the fans, I would guess), without sniffing success despite the statistical oddity that he leads the AL in pitches per plate appearance. Meanwhile, as young players like Tofu Lou, LaPorta – or, as some have taken to call him, “Matt MaTola” (taking the lead from Ozzie Guillen who couldn’t remember Gator4God’s name), a name that could stick…at least until his OPS touches .700 – and the recently demoted Mike Brantley have experienced more than just a difficult time adjusting to regular (or even semi-regular) AB in MLB, the offense has been painful to watch.

The famine is widespread and growing as the Indians’ offense, thought to be the strength of the team, has been scuffling…to put it charitably. Now that Rusty Branyan has returned, the amalgamations of the lineup look to vary even more as Austin Kearns and MaTola (and perhaps Hafner) will start moving around and sitting to accommodate Rusty’s “presence” in the lineup four days a week. Truthfully, as for the whole ingratiation of Rusty Branyan into the mix and how it affect Kearns and MaTola, I’m not even that concerned with it other than wanting to see MaTola in the lineup as frequently as his body (hip and toe, notably) allows because if you’re looking for that RH hitter that even has a ounce of a chance to be the homegrown middle-of-the-order hitter that’s going to break up the LH monotony that resides in the Indians’ lineup, it’s Matty MaTola…not to be confused with Mariah Carey’s record producer ex-hushand.

Maybe Carlos Santana (who is thankfully merely day-to-day after fouling a ball off his leg) comes up to the parent club in June and is able to balance out the handedness lineup a little bit as he is a switch-hitter, but the assumption that Santana is not going to go through his growing pains is what led some (OK…me) to believe that this young(ish) Indians’ offense would race out of the gates, based on talent and not experience. If you’ll remember, Matt Wieters was similarly lauded as a top prospect (and probably more so than Santana) and was called up on May 29th (and do you notice that date) and proceeded to post a line of .288 BA / .340 OBP / .412 SLG / .753 OPS with 15 doubles and 9 HR in 96 games. A fantastic line for a 23-year-old catcher, but not exactly a player ready to carry a baseball team or even reside in the middle of an MLB lineup.

Thus, while expectations for Santana will unquestionably be high right out of the gate (in late May or early June), just remember that success is not immediate for most young players – something the Indians are finding out while they attempt ascertain what’s wrong with their older players. Maybe Santana is the exception to that rule, but it’s more likely that he follows that rule. So while he may be viewed as the savior to a floundering offense, it’s much more likely that the offense will continue to flounder (Santana or not) until the likes of Sizemore and Cabrera attain some success with the hope that Hafner, Branyan, and Peralta (the latter two for trade value) can contribute something close to what they have in the past. If MaTola, Valbuena (or Donald), and eventually Santana can begin to adjust to MLB pitching and perform at a level even close to league-average, the future begins to look brighter for the team, but that remains in the future.

For now, the Indians will attempt to bring some semblance of an offensive “attack” with them as they continue their road trip (though the Athletics boast the lowest ERA in the AL) and hope that the players whose track record suggests that they should be better than this start performing. Maybe Thursday’s balanced output where every player on the team reached base is the first step in the right direction (and did you notice how Peralta’s “planned off day” turned into a XX), but until the Indians can put together a string of even moderately successful efforts at the plate, the struggles will continue.

If you missed the Jeff Passan piece on “Unalignment” at Yahoo!, it’s an interesting take on attempting to find a middle ground between the current divisional situation and the “floating realignment” that was suggested a while back. Passan’s proposal essentially boils down to eliminating the divisions within the leagues and to simply create two leagues in which all 14 to 16 teams compete for the top 4 spots to make the playoffs:
Short of a salary cap, to which the players’ union will never agree, bringing socialism to alignment is the clearest way. Treat every team as equally as possible when it comes to scheduling, travel and pathway to the postseason.
AL teams would play everyone in the league 11 times a year, with 19 interleague games. Those in the NL would play eight teams 10 games each and seven teams nine games each, plus the 19 interleague contests. If a team goes somewhere twice one year, it would host that team twice the next season. The interleague games would rotate yearly. And if baseball prefers 15 teams in each league, it could move Milwaukee (or another willing participant) to the AL and use a schedule with at least one interleague game every day instead of confining them to two blocks a year.

This proposal has some interesting aspects, though it doesn’t really address the growing chasm in revenue that is widening in MLB. I like the idea of every team in the AL playing everyone in the league 11 times a year, etc. and always thought that the unbalanced schedule was contrived and the Interleague “rivalries” felt artificial. Playing a balanced schedule and eliminating Interleague Play does go a long way in determining which teams are the best in the league, but is the point of the proposal really just to fix the “Tampa Bay problem” as Passan calls it?

Whether the “little engine that could” is from Tampa or Cleveland or Baltimore in any given year, eliminating divisions doesn’t amend the overarching problem and more likely just opens up the two divisions to become even more top heavy than they already are. After reading this and other proposals on “floating realignment”, why does it always just feel like the league is content to re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic?

Perhaps there is no stopping this runaway freight train that is the growing disparity in revenue streams in MLB (and that is the issue here, regardless of how’s Joe Sheehan says that the 162-game schedule evens things out), but these ideas that seem to acknowledge that there is no better solution than to just live with the current arrangement and give 25 or so of the teams in MLB a chance every couple years to make the playoffs is not an endearing trend.

As long as all of Northeast Ohio is talking draft, I thought it would be interesting to pass along a piece wherein The Hardball Times had a little Q & A with Andy Seiler of MLB Bonus Baby on the upcoming June draft. While I’m not going to pretend to know anything about these guys, Seiler has the Indians (picking 5th) taking Chris Sale in his mock draft.

This is brought up not to determine who Chris Sale is or if he’s going to be a #5 pick well-spent or even to initiate that discussion, but rather to segue into a fascinating piece that was recently written for the print version of SI on the Braves’ Jason Heyward. While you may not be aware of this, the now-20-year-old Heyward was chosen with the #14 pick in the 2007 MLB Draft, one spot after the Indians chose Akron 1B/DH Beau Mills. While the issue with Heyward wasn’t signing bonus demands (Mills’ signing bonus was $1.575M, Heyward’s was $1.7M), there were other factors at play regarding the scouting and handling of Heyward, as Tom Verducci relays the story up to and including draft day:
There was still one more team to pick before Atlanta: Cleveland. The Braves weren’t too worried about the Indians because they had not seen much of the Cleveland scouts around Heyward. “We just didn’t see him swing the bat enough to feel comfortable taking him that high,” says one Indians official. “When we saw him, he walked a lot.”
The Indians took Beau Mills, a college corner infielder and son of current Astros manager Brad Mills. Atlanta’s subterfuge campaign had worked.

While you attempt to keep down whatever you’ve eaten last, if you’re wondering what Verducci meant when he wrote that “Atlanta’s subterfuge campaign had worked”, here’s how the handlers for Heyward, an Atlanta native, limited his workouts for all teams not named the Braves:
Eugene Heyward believes he knows why other teams were not as high on his son as the Braves: Baldwin and the team quietly downplayed his ability and visibility. They sandbagged the competition. “Roy Clark was a very shrewd man,” Eugene says. “They wouldn’t update his size information. I believe Jason went to a [showcase event] and was listed at 6’1”, 198. Jason was 6’1”, 198 maybe two months in his life. The Braves did an excellent job. They lowballed his size.
Says Goetz, “He wouldn’t hit on the field before a game. He usually hit in the cage. Most teams in that [high school] league were not going to pitch to him. So big league teams would send their scouting directors to see him, and he’d hit in the cage, walk three times and ground out in the game, and they’d walk away with a lot of questions.”

With Beau Mills struggling (again) out of the gate in Akron, slipping closer to non-prospect status (if he isn’t already there), and Heyward now sitting on an OPS of .999 after his first 14 games with 4 HR, I find it interesting to look at the whole story in an attempt to understand how Mills finds himself scuffling in Akron as a 23-year-old while Heyward blisters his way through MLB as a 20-year-old.

This is not an attempt to exonerate the Indians’ Front Office from what looks like a mistake (that would be the drafting of Mills, not necessarily passing on Heyward), but…now you know…the rest of the story…

Now, if you will excuse me for a moment…I’m going to go find out who Joe Haden is.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


With the news that SS Choo has been named AL Player of the Week in recognition of him ostensibly putting the Indians’ offense on his back en route back to the .500 mark, perhaps it is time to finally acknowledge that Choo no longer projects as an elite hitter because he has arrived as one with his performance since returning to the team in the 2008 season.

If you think back to the 2008 season, as the season went into the tank and CC found his way to the Cream City, the bright spots of the offense came in the form of brilliant 2nd halves of the season for The BLC (and have you noticed how the PD and FOX8 have started referring to him as “Big League Choo”) and Kelly Shoppach. Each player ranked in the top 10 in OPS in the AL after the All-Star Break among players with more than 200 plate appearances, with Choo only being outpaced by Teixiera and Melvin Mora.

While Shoppach’s productiveness slowed (whether by his own volition or through his usage patterns) in 2009, Choo kept on chugging along at a steady clip as he was the only player in the AL to hit .300 with 20 HR and 20 SB last year. While those represent fairly overblown statistics, take a look at the line that Choo has compiled since his return from the DL in 2008, through Monday:
.305 BA / .400 OBP / .519 SLG / .919 OPS with 69 2B and 38 HR in 1,107 PA

Pretty impressive, right?
Sure, but they become even more so when placed in the context of the rest of MLB, using OPS+ as the ranking statistic for all players from 2008-2010 with at least 1,100 plate appearances:
1) Albert Pujols – 189
2) Manny Ramirez – 162
3) Adrian Gonzalez – 153
4) Joe Mauer – 153
5) Lance Berkman – 150
6) Alex Rodriguez – 149
7) Prince Fielder – 147
8) Mark Teixeira – 147
9) The BLC – 146
10) Chipper Jones – 145
11) Hanley Ramirez – 145
12) Kevin Youkilis – 142
13) Ryan Braun – 140
14) Matt Holliday – 140
15) Chase Utley – 139

No…seriously, players listed below this grouping of 15 include Miggy Cabrera, Justin Morneau, Ryan Howard, Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, and Grady Sizemore (still clocking in at #33 despite an injury-marred 2009 season). Since returning to the Indians in 2008, Choo has posted the 9th highest OPS+ in MLB and ranks 8th in OBP in that same timeframe, behind only household names Pujols, Mauer, Chipper, Manny, Berkman, Hanley, and Holliday ahead of both A-Rod and Youkilis.

We’re past flash-in-the-pan territory as 1,100 plate appearances since the beginning of 2008 would certainly put forth the idea that this is who Choo is, a late bloomer who has blossomed into a truly elite hitter at the age of 26. Obviously, Choo’s performance has been impressive, but just to illustrate how impressive (and more sudden) it has been against the rest of the names on that list, take a look at how many MLB plate appearances each player in the Top 10 of OPS+ had prior to the 2008 season:
Pujols – 4,741 PA
Manny – 8,352 PA
A. Gonzalez – 1,557 PA
Mauer – 1,755 PA
Berkman – 5,127 PA
A-Rod – 8,482 PA
Fielder – 1,391 PA
Teixiera – 3,246 PA
Choo – 220 PA
Chipper – 8,143 PA

How does that old “Sesame Street” song go…which of these things is not like the others?
If you think that’s where Choo stands out as the outlier, in terms of success with less experience, how about this comparison among the same 10 when it comes to…wait for it…salaries for 2010:
Pujols – $16M
Manny – $20M
A. Gonzalez – $4.75M
Mauer – $12.5M
Berkman – $14.5M
A-Rod – $32M
Fielder – $10.5M
Teixiera – $20M
Big League Choo – $461K
Chipper – $13M

The 2nd lowest salary on this list belongs to the eminently “affordable” Adrian Gonzalez, who will earn more than ten times what Choo will be paid this year. And…here’s where the hand-wringing begins and the name of Scott Boras is whispered about, right?

No question, but first let’s just all take a look at the absurd notion that two Yankees are on that list, with $52M being paid to those two players this year, allowing me to point your eyes to this absolute must-read from Joe Posnanski on the disparity of MLB revenues.

Getting back to Choo and the salary issue, there was the wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth when Choo hired Boras as his agent. However, let’s all remember that the only aspect of Choo’s contract status that his new agent really changes is that he’s unlikely to sign a long-term deal that would simply buy up his arbitration years (which end after the 2013 season) or buy out any of his Free Agent years. In fact, Anthony Castrovince has a piece up that puts forth that the Indians “approached him (Choo) and his new agent, Scott Boras, about a contract extension” as the “club attempted to sign him through 2014 with an option for 2015.”

While Choo and Boras rejected those overtures, let’s not forget perhaps the most important part of the equation here as Choo is still under contract with the Indians through the 2013 season (assuming this Military Service issue is rectified) and in July of that 2013 season, SS Choo will turn 31 years old.

Starting this coming off-season through the off-season prior to the 2013 season, the Indians may find themselves embroiled in arbitration hearings or exchanging numbers with Boras, attempting to find contractual middle ground to avoid said arbitration hearings. Even if Choo does go to arbitration every year until Choo’s contract is up (and if he’s going to, let’s see him earn that high arbitration number that Boras is going to throw out there), the Indians hold his rights until he’s 31 years old.

While Indians’ fans are quick to tab Choo as the next Indian to take the fast train out of town, realize that he’s the Indians’ property for all of this season, next season, in 2012, and in 2013. Perhaps the Indians try to extend him again (as they already did) or buy out some of his arbitration years at set dollar amounts (as Boras did with another one of his clients, Prince Fielder, a few years back), but the idea of locking him up much further out than 2013 may not be a prudent avenue to travel for a team like the Indians.

Why is not prudent?
Again, Choo will be 31 when his contract expires and does anyone remember another late blooming slugger among the league’s elite hitters that was extended by the Indians as he was entering his 30’s?

Lest anyone forget, Travis Hafner signed his current contract when he was 30, coming off of a 3-year stretch in which he compiled an OPS+ of 170 and a line of .308 BA / .419 OBP / .611 SLG / 1.030 OPS from 2004 to 2006 and while there is certainly a difference in positional value (a RF vs. a DH), let’s not be too eager to assume that Choo’s production is going to continue into his early-to-mid-30’s, much less his late 30’s.

Looking past the idea that every player is not going to fall off the proverbial cliff like Hafner did, teams like the Indians aren’t going to become consistent winners by paying players salaries dictated by the market when they’re 31 and over in this current economic system in MLB. Rather, the way that they’re going to stay competitive is by benefiting from having as many players as possible like Choo – young(ish), productive, under club control, and cheap – on the roster.

That’s not to say that Choo becomes less useful once he enters his arbitration years, as production at the level at which Choo has provided it for the equivalent of two seasons now will still be a bargain (relatively speaking) as he goes through the arbitration process for the next three off-seasons. Rather, the reminder on Choo’s age and the Indians’ current…um, standing in MLB should be recalled as the Indians traveled down the “lock-up-our-own-players” at market prices back in 2007 with Hafner and Westbrook (29-years-old when he signed his extension) and the last two years have borne out how that strategy plays out in a market like Cleveland.

Manny Acta may be right in a sense when he says that Indians’ fans should “enjoy him while he’s here” in regards to appreciating The BLC when he’s donning a Cleveland uniform as the idea of signing him past the expiration of his current contract may not be in the Indians’ best interests. Don’t confuse the two discussions of the Indians locking in Choo’s arbitration years (the preferred path) as opposed to signing him past 2013 (not so much), just realize that him being under contract through 2013 doesn’t preclude anyone from “enjoying him” and marveling at the transformation that he’s made from a middling OF prospect in the Mariners’ system to an elite middle-of-the-rotation order just hitting his prime in Cleveland. However, that enjoyment shouldn’t result in any sort of idea that the Indians’ best chances of competing in 2014 include Choo because, as we’ve learned all too regularly, past and even current performance does not guarantee future results.

So, enjoy the current performance and even some of the future results because it’s not going away anytime soon, just don’t fall under the spell of the idea that locking up a 31-year-old Shin-Soo Choo until he’s 36 or 37 is the best path for the Indians to travel when, not if, the negotiations between the Indians and Boras become contentious and public.

Even when they do and with that subtext always simmering below the surface every time Choo excels over the course of nearly the next four years, “enjoy” The BLC not “while he’s here” but instead, because he’s here.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Lazy Sunday with Signs Pointing Up

As the North Coast rejoices a Game 1 victory by the Cavaliers, let’s take the opportunity to take the walk through the wintry winds over to the other friendly confines in at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario to hit on the suddenly-hot Cleveland Indians. After dropping 5 in a row, the Indians find themselves riding the wave of a 3-game winning streak in a pattern that may not be too unfamiliar this season as the Indians have the early look of a team that will be riding the razor’s edge in a number of games, that is assuming that this starting pitching (knocking firmly on wood) holds up.
And with that, let’s get going on a Lazy One…

When the season started, if you would have told me that after 11 games, the Indians would be getting solid starts up and down the rotation, I would have declared the first two weeks of the season a rousing success, regardless of won-loss record. Reason being that, without question, the weak link of the 2010 Indians looked to be the rotation and the lack of any sure-fire solid MLB pitcher, going 9-deep in the organization.

Suddenly, the Indians find themselves sitting on a rotation that already boasts 2 complete games, with 4 starting pitchers with ERA below 3.21 and with WHIP’s under 1.36 and with positive signs abounding…in the rotation at least. Despite the Indians sitting at 5-6 after 11 games, the fact that the rotation has shown signs of permanence and consistency unquestionably merits some optimism, even if it is wildly early and since things can still turn on a dime on this rotation.

Perhaps I can be accused of taking a Pollyanna outlook, or if you prefer Billy Mumphrey and his cock-eyed optimism (I’ve been accused of worse), but the starting rotation has more bright spots than anyone would have predicted just two weeks ago as those bright spots have been surprises both pleasant and surprising.

First and foremost, the performance of Dave Huff in his first MLB complete game lowered his season totals to a 1.80 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP with 6 K, 3 BB in 15 IP. Forget the crazy idea that Huff “won the most games for the Indians” last year as some sort of justification that anyone saw this coming. Just realize that his first two starts might finally be serving notice that Huff is separating himself from the bevy of “soft-tossing LHP” that he’s often lumped in with (and that have become the poster boys for where the organization now finds itself) as some thought he would back when he was mowing through hitters in AA & AAA in 2008?

Anyone feeling a little better about the future of Dave Huff after Thursday, to the point that “the idea is that Dave Huff could realistically project to be what most of us saw Cliff Lee as back in 2004 and 2005 – a middle-of-the-rotation LHP who can contribute (at a low salary for a while) quality innings to a still-maturing club” is not as revolutionary as it may have seemed when it was written just 2 months ago.

Only two starts…I know and the likelihood of Huff hitting some road bumps along the way this season is all but guaranteed, but let’s do a quick comparison of the arsenal of pitches and the speed of those pitches that have been thrown by Huff in the early season against the pitches (and applicable speeds) for CP Lee back in 2004:
Dave Huff – 67% strike percentage (140 strikes in 208 pitches)
Pitch Type – Percentage of Overall Pitches – Average Speed
Fastball - 71.6%, average speed - 90.7 MPH
Slider - 9.8%, average speed - 83.0 MPH
Cutter - N/A
Curveball - 1.0%, average speed - 81.0 MPH
Changeup – 17.6%, average speed – 82.4 MPH

Cliff Lee 2004 – 62% strike percentage (1,985 strikes in 3,171 pitches)
Pitch Type – Percentage of Overall Pitches – Average Speed
Fastball - 70.3%, average speed - 89.4 MPH
Slider - 7.9%, average speed - 84.1 MPH
Cutter - 5.2%, average speed - 86.3 MPH
Curveball - 9.1%, average speed - 74.1 MPH
Changeup - 7.4%, average speed - 82.4 MPH

While there’s an obvious difference is repertoire as Huff does not throw the cutter that Lee throws about 5% of the time, the speeds of the fastballs and the changeups (that account for 83% to 89% of each pitchers’ offerings) are very similar and (most importantly) the strike percentage is very similar. Huff, like Lee before him, relies on the command of his pitches and, most notably, his fastball to locate his pitches and set up his change-up and slider just as Lee uses his fastball to set up his change-up, cutter, and curve. As Terry Pluto writes in his “Terry’s Talkin’” column, Huff’s success in the Minors was largely attributable to him “getting ahead (often inside) with his fastball, then getting the lefties out with sliders away. It’s something that he struggled with last season, but has regained in 2010”, which sounds eerily similar to Lee’s approach to pitching, spotting his fastball early in the count to set up his off-speed offerings and his cutter.

Perhaps it is an unfair comparison to burden Huff with after two starts in light of the as-yet-unexplained happened to Lee after the 2007 season that vaulted him into the upper echelon of MLB pitchers, but it has been asserted that Huff may (pitching optimally, as he did on Thursday) represent a “Poor Man’s Cliff Lee”. With that in mind, I would venture to say that what we’re looking at is the evolution and maturation of a pitcher not all that dissimilar from what many people thought Cliff Lee would evolve after the 2004 season.

It is worth noting that Lee did not throw his first MLB Complete Game until his 63rd MLB start in July of 2005 (Huff’s on Thursday was in his 25th start) and that Lee was still largely a work-in-progress up to and including the 2007 season. That being said, if Dave Huff can use 2010 to assert himself as a legitimate starting option for this team for the next 4-5 years (at least) in the middle-of-the-rotation the way that Lee did in 2004 and 2005, the questions become fewer for this team past 2010.

That (to me at least) is the most important trend of the young season as the formerly preposterous expectation that two to (gasp) three of the Indians’ starters in 2010 would find enough success to cement their spot (relatively speaking) in the rotations past this year seems to be finding some positive answers, even if it is premature. Coming into the season, if you had to rank the starting pitchers that the Indians would have liked to have seen succeed in 2010, it probably would have gone Carmona (obviously), Huff, Masterson (with Huff ahead of him because of the fall-back option of Justin going to the bullpen), Mitch Talbot, and finally Jake Westbrook because of 2010 being Westbrook’s final year under contract with the club.

With Mitch Talbot suddenly and quite unexpectedly unleashing the fury on an unsuspecting (and, quite frankly, bad) White Sox lineup on Friday night, it is not a stretch to say that those hopes are coming to fruition to some degree as the Indians’ best four starters to date are all 26 or younger and are all potentially under club control through the 2014 season. While early-season numbers should be taken as just that, Huff, Carmona, Masterson, and Talbot are pitching favorably not just compared to expectations, but also in the context of AL starters (of which the different sites use different criteria) when you consider where they rank in some important categories:
Huff – 217 (13th of 70)
Masterson – 160 (21st of 70)
Carmona – 121 (36th of 70)
Talbot – 121 (37th of 70)
That’s 80% of the rotation among the top half of starters in the AL in the early going, according to ERA+ at least…

Carmona - 3.3 (25th of 61)
Huff - 2.9 (27th of 61)
Talbot – 2.4 (33rd of 61)
Masterson - 1.6 (40th of 61)

OPS Against
Huff - .487 (6th of 71)
Carmona - .543 (13th of 71)
Talbot - .704 (30th of 71)
Masterson - .756 (41st of 71)

Interestingly, want to know which pitcher had the highest ERA+ for the Indians last year (excluding Lee) among pitchers who started more than 20 games?
Jeremy Sowers, with an ERA+ of 80…

Want to know which pitcher had the highest VORP for the Indians last year (again, excluding Lee) among pitchers who started more than 20 games?
Sowers again, who complied a full-season total of 8.1…

How about OPS Against with the same criteria?
Sowers one more time, at .773…

Even with the small sample size considered and the knowledge that those numbers are going to fluctuate all season, there’s room for optimism here in the starting rotation (and more here from Adam Van Arsdale of LGT in a larger organizational sense if you need a pick-me-up), which is particularly encouraging in spots on the roster that were thought to be the major concern for 2010 and beyond.

One of those reasons for optimism in the early going (and keeping it in the rotation) has been the performance of Justin Masterson, but the optimism for Masterson is tempered for me when examining a little more closely what he has done this year in his first two starts.

He’s been a hot topic around these Interwebs, as Fangraphs initially heaped praise onto Masterson for his overall line to date, then came back with a much more rational look at his season by bringing the disparate split issue (that Jon Steiner dissected in a great piece at WFNY) into the equation.

Not that this is breaking any new ground, but that split issue (which has been his weakness throughout his MLB career) is the one to watch and, in case you were wondering, after Wednesday’s start (and with the small sample size alert triggered), here’s what Masterson’s splits look like for 2010:
Against RHP
.194 BA / .242 OBP / .290 SLG / .533 OPS with 14 K, 1 BB in 33 plate appearances

Against LHP
.500 BA / .533 OBP / .714 SLG / 1.248 OPS with 0 K, 1 BB in 16 plate appearances

This was all covered in Thursday’s B-List (along with much more on Masterson), when my cohort Steve Buffum stated that “this is a pitcher who can survive in the majors, and it’s not impossible for Masterson to develop something that is more effective against left-handed hitters” believing that “he’s really more of a mid-rotation innings guy than anything else” which “for a 25-year-old guy in his second year of real major-league starting, that’s a pretty valuable commodity”.

That’s entirely believable and true that Masterson is very much a “valuable commodity” and if there was ever a season to give Masterson that long leash to develop into “something that is more effective against left-handed hitters” in the starting rotation. That being said, I’m more inclined to fall in line with what Ryan Richards of “Let’s Go Tribe” wrote about the disparate splits following Masterson’s start on Wednesday:
MLB managers can read the splits as well as a blogger can, and you better believe they'll be throwing as many left-handed hitters as they have available against Masterson until he can prove he can get them out.

It’s true that not many teams can simply throw an entire lineup of LH hitters out there (except for the Indians, that is), but Masterson has faced the White Sox with their LH hitters (AJ, Teahen, Pierre, and Kotsay) not exactly evoking memories of Murderer’s Row and the Rangers, who have Hamilton, Borbon, and Davis as LH hitters…all of whom torched Masterson. If and when he runs into some teams that can “throw as many left-handed hitters as they have available”, it will be interesting to see how his performance is affected and how opinions of him change or are strengthened. Just to name a few teams that would be sure to give Masterson fits, the Twins boast Mauer, Morneau, Span, Hudson, Thome and Kubel (that’s 6 guys) who can all bat LH just as the Yankees can throw LH hitters like Teixeira, Granderson, Swisher, Posada, Johnson, Gardner and Cano (that’s 7 guys) at Masterson.

While some teams are RH-heavy (falling into Masterson’s wheelhouse), if opposing managers start stacking their lineups against Masterson, it’s going to be interesting to see how he performs when he faces a LH-heavy lineup with no respite from a RH bat and how the Indians react in terms of perhaps managing his usage against particular teams so as to protect him against said LH-heavy lineups. The first test of that very notion figures to come on Tuesday against the LH-heavy Twins, so Masterson’s performance in that game may be more telling, in terms of his future, than how he has pitched in his first 2 games.

Regardless of where Masterson ends up, suffice it to say that the three pitchers (I’m holding off on lumping Talbot here, though if the Indians can get a Quality Start from him as their 5th starter even once every three games, he’ll creep into the discussion) in the current rotation that figure into this pitching staff most obviously going forward have been the ones that have been doing the heavy lifting for the team in the early going and if anything positive can be said about the first week-and-a-half of the season (outside of praising The BLC), it is that the young(ish) arms in the rotation have been a pleasant surprise to date.

With those arms inexplicably leading the charge in the early going, the Indians enter today’s game with a chance to sweep a division rival, get to .500, and create some momentum for their next series against the division-leading Twins, whose issues in the bullpen (with Mijares hitting the DL and with Neshek perhaps right behind him to join Nathan) may only be just beginning.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tomahawks from One Amongst Few

Now arriving back from my traditional Game #2, the one historically populated people who go to baseball games because they love baseball and not so they can drink on a random weekday while wondering who Mike Brantley is, it is now time to realize how many people are going to be heading to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario for the 2010 season.

While 10,071 was the announced attendance, it actually represents the amount of tickets given out, because I would put the number of folks down there (who saw The DiaTot correctly answer a question on the Jumbotron to upgrade our seats to behind home plate from the RF Lower Reserved) closer to 3,000 or 4,000.

Thus after spending some time in our new season seats…yes, it’s true that we’ve moved us down from the Mezz for a nominal price increase PLUS (as I don’t know if you’ve heard that the Indians are struggling to sell seats) 4 free Opening Day seats (which went to a friend). We’re now in the same section as the Batter’s Eye Bar…er…”RIDGID Jobsite” (no, seriously) between where Messrs Sizemore and Choo ply their craft. With that clarification out of the way, get those Tommies in the air…

As frustrating as the first week of the season has been (and it has been frustrating as the Indians have looked very simply like a bad team), realize that the Indians play 15 of their 22 games in April on the road, so if the Indians can tread water in April (which may be a tall order), they could be setting themselves up well, despite what is likely to be a losing record. While a losing record in April feels inevitable and as these games remain painful to watch, it has to be asked in the early going - is getting a healthy and (more importantly) effective Fausto Carmona back more important than winning these games in April, or really throughout the course of the season?

It goes without saying (though it has been said over and over again), but the most important player on the Indians’ roster is Fausto Carmona because he has the potential to fill a hole that no other player on the roster projects to filling – that of a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter. The roster is flush with talented position players around the diamond, the bullpen is full of young talent (at least it seemed that way), and the arms seem to be there to fill out the back-end-of-the-rotation on the cheap for a couple of years with enough time to separate the wheat from the chaff.

However, there is no player in the Indians’ system (above Kinston, at least) who legitimately projects as an arm that could sit at the front end of the rotation and not be miscast in that role. No player, that is…except Carmona.

While Carmona’s fall from grace is well-documented and frankly too depressing for me to rehash, his performance in his first two starts of the 2010 season (after a great Spring Training) is the most positive sign thus far in a season in need of positive signs. The walks remain a problem (obviously, though I do think that some of his first start’s walks were the result of a tight strike zone), but the HUGE difference in Carmona from 2008 & 2009 to this year has been his “ability” to limit damage done when hitters do put the ball in play.

Not only is he not allowing many hits (he’s given up 6 in 14 IP), the hits that he’s given up are largely singles. Other than the Konerko HR and the Nellie Cruz 3B, Carmona’s given up only 4 singles in 14 IP, meaning that he’s limiting the damage that was inflicted on him so horribly for the past two years by not allowing the opposition to tee off on his “get-me-over” offerings, because he’s not throwing his “get-me-over” pitches anymore.

Again, this is just in two starts and 14 innings, but opposing hitters have posted a Slugging Percentage of .244 against Carmona, good for 18th best in MLB among starters in the early season, at least after Monday’s game.

Why is this an enormous development?
Opponents’ Slugging Percentage vs. Carmona
2007 - .352
2008 (pre-DL) - .324
2008 (post-DL) - .437
2009 - .465
2010 - .244

Not only is he limiting hits, but he’s limiting the damage done due to those hits. Remember, he’s given up 6 hits in 14 innings thus far this year after allowing 1.2 hits PER INNING in 2009 and more than a hit (1.04) an inning in 2008. As a result, even with the walks (which, let’s be honest, remain a concern) his WHIP on the season is a sparkling 1.14 (20th in AL among starters) after posting a cumulative WHIP of 1.70 for 2008 and 2009.

Some of this may be due to luck, as his otherworldly BABIP of .127 is the 2nd lowest in the AL and it should be noted vociferously and forcefully that the 6.43 BB/9 is unquestionably still concerning, but Carmona looks like a completely different pitcher than we’ve seen the last two years. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that he’s close to recapturing his 2007 success, he’s made strides in that direction and, for this team and for the future of this organization; there can be no brighter spot in the early going, regardless of wins and losses.

While there is much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over the early performance of the bullpen, I thought it would be interesting to note (for the sake of perspective) how the bullpen compares to the rest of the league, at least after Monday’s meltdown:
4.70 ERA – 17th in MLB
.753 OPS against – 18th in MLB
1.57 WHIP – 22nd in MLB
0.84 K/BB – last in MLB, this despite having a 6.26 K/9, “good” for 22nd in MLB

Not dreadful, but it certainly shows that bullpen struggles are not (for once) unique to Cleveland. Coming out of Spring Training, most knew that the bullpen was going to take a while to sort out, particularly with Kerry Wood still shelved, but the issue is much greater here as the performance of past bullpens have shown that the benefit of the doubt is not warranted:
ERA by year (rank in MLB)
2009 – 4.66 ERA (27th in MLB)
2008 – 5.13 ERA (29th in MLB)
2007 – 3.75 ERA (6th in MLB)
2006 – 4.73 ERA (25th in MLB)

Yes, we all know about the excellence of the 2007 bullpen and the 2005 bullpen, which was best in MLB, because that was 5 seasons ago and if anyone’s still resting on those laurels…well, they shouldn’t be. In the body of work spanning the last 4 years, the track record of the organization has not just an inability to put together a league-average effective bullpen, we’re talking about an continued incapability to put a bullpen together that ranks even in the upper ¾ of the league.

Sure it’s still early and maybe this all shakes out with positive results, but what’s most frustrating is that the Indians put this ENORMOUS emphasis on getting out of the gate quickly. When Acta was hired and throughout Spring Training, he continually stated that he would set his 25-man roster with some time left in camp so the team would be ready, with semi-defined roles, once the games started to count.

Despite that, bullpen usage and roles has been…well, muddled so far. If you were to ask me which pitcher would come in for a particular hitter or in a particular situation, odds are that I'd be wrong. That’s not to project that I am this all-knowing bullpen expert, but rather to point out that each and every pitcher on the staff has been used in different roles and in different situations already in the early season.

Obviously, specific situations dictate who comes in when and Acta is still trying to figure out who he can trust in which situation (though I thought that Spring Training was supposed to answer some of that); but just take a look at the irregularity in which these pitchers (with the exception of Chris Perez, whose role has been only in the 9th inning…or the last inning of a game) are being used, in terms of pitching with a lead or with the team behind as well as when in the game they’re throwing, up to an including Wednesday’s game:
Laffey – 4 games, 5 IP, 6 H, 2 BB, 2 ER, 1 K
Came on in a mop-up role to get out of a starter-induced jam, came on to start the 7th in a game with a lead, came on to face one LH batter in the middle of the 7th, and finally came in to start the 7th inning for a multiple inning relief appearance with the team behind

Lewis – 4 games, 4 2/3 IP, 2 H, 3 BB, 1 ER, 5 K
Pitched the 7th inning with the team losing, pitched the 9th and 10th innings of a tie game, pitched the 8th inning with the team behind, and pitched the 6th inning with a lead.

Wright – 3 games, 4 1/3 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 3 ER, 2 K

Began the 6th inning with a lead, threw two innings (7th & 8th) with the team behind, and pitched his way out of a jam in the 9th inning in a tie game then gave up the scoring run in the 10th inning.

Sipp – 5 games, 3 2/3 IP, 2 H, 4 BB, 2 ER, 6 K

Began the 8th inning with the team losing, was the second reliever to throw in the 6th inning of a game with the lead, pitched the 6th inning with the team losing, entered a tie game in the 9th inning to get out of a jam created by another reliever, and pitched the 9th inning of a game with the team behind

Smith – 5 games, 3 1/3 IP, 1 H, 3 BB, 1 ER, 3 K
Came in with the lead in the 8th inning, then the 7th inning (losing the lead), pitched with the team behind in the 7th inning, came in with with a lead in the 7th inning, and finally came in for one batter in the 8th with the team behind

R. Perez – 2 games, 2 IP, 5 H, 1 BB, 2 ER, 2 K
Began the 8th inning with the team behind, then threw the 8th inning with a lead

What can be gleaned from the usage patterns so far?
Not much…other than that the Indians don’t have any idea which relievers can be counted on to protect leads or that project into defined roles in the early season. That, above all else, is what strikes terror into my heart when thinking about the early going of this season, particularly given the…um, uncertainty of so much of the starting pitching staff, performance to date considered.

While trying to figure out how these relievers are going to shake out and bemoaning the fact that the Indians have been unable to put together an effective bullpen (save the troika of Betancourt, R. Perez, and Lewis in 2007) in the past five years, I was struck by this little bit from Ken Rosenthal as he explained how big RHP Tyson Ross (1.69 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 1 save in 5 1/3 IP) found his way into the Oakland bullpen:
Ross, a second-round pick out of Cal in 2008, cracked the A’s Opening Day roster after making only nine appearances at Class AA last season. Most club officials opposed the move, but general manager Billy Beane basically asked, “Why not?” Ross throws 91-95 mph, occasionally touching 97, and his slider is tough on right-handed hitters.

The A’s still view Ross, 23, as a starter, and likely will return him to the minors after Wuertz and Devine return. Then again, as a shutdown long man, he could amount to yet another weapon for a bullpen that already is quite deep.

Realizing that the season is terribly young and that the bullpen needs some time to shake itself out, after reading this, the question at least needs to be uttered – is it time to change the philosophy on how the Indians construct their bullpen from Day 1?

Is it time to start setting up more of an open competition in Spring Training where the guys who are throwing the best in Goodyear have a legitimate shot at making the team out of Arizona?

We’ve seen the names that could factor into the bullpen at some point through the course of the year - Josh Tomlin (Columbus), Jess Todd (Columbus), Josh Judy (to join Columbus soon), Steven Wright (Columbus), Erik Stiller (Akron), Zach Putnam (Akron), and CC Lee (Akron), among others – but is it time to develop a new strategy for allowing this bullpen to come out of the gate quick that actually presents guys like this an opportunity out of Goodyear if they’re the most impressive arms in camp?

Maybe I’m just unnecessarily throwing things out there (and Judy was prominently covered this Spring after a solid stint in the Arizona Fall League) and need to exhibit some patience with the guys in the MLB bullpen who have been touted as back-end options throughout their Minor League career (like CF Perez or TonĂ© Sipp or Joe Smiff), but watching these guys go in and out of these games with no confidence and no cadence leads me to believe that Spring Training presented an opportunity that was missed to define some roles and to put the best relievers in the position to contribute early on.

I know that Axl has always told me that I just need a little patience (and I was the one extolling the virtues of one Jamey Wright), but this inability to present an even moderately effective and settled bullpen has gone past the point of lunacy. Again, maybe this is just an overreaction and perhaps the bullpen settles into some semblance of an effective order soon; but right now, the bullpen looks to be an Achilles’ heel…again.

Hating to be the bearer of bad news like I do (and realizing that it’s not even technically the middle of April yet), I’m loathe to point out that Mike Brantley has 29 plate appearances with 5 hits (one of them for extra bases), 2 walks, and 7 strikeouts in the young season. Yes, he LOOKS good up there and he’s giving the team some “professional” at-bats (whatever that means), but after Monday's game, the guy had an OPS+ of 8…remember 100 means league average, meaning he’s 92% worse than that of the average Big Leaguer to this point in the season. Of the 217 players in MLB with 25 or more plate appearance through Monday, Brantley’s performance at the plate puts him 206th.

At this point, one of two things is true – Mike Brantley simply needs more time to adjust to MLB pitching, or Mike Brantley needs more time in AAA to get ready for MLB pitching. With Rusty Branyan coming back in a couple of weeks and realizing that the seriousness of the Grady back injury could affect all of this, the obvious odd man out if Branyan comes back (still an “if” in my book) is Brantley.

Not that I don’t want to see Brantley fight through this adjustment period, just that I don’t think he’ll be given the chance to do so…at least not yet.

Since much of the focus in the early going has been on when uber-prospect Carlos Santana will be replacing Lou Marson (1 for 16 with 4 strikeouts and some passed balls, as you may have heard), I thought I would direct you to a piece from Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports on service time management:
The thrust is simple: If a team parks a player in the minor leagues for at least 20 days to begin the season, it can delay his free agency by one year. Teams looking to save money go a step further and keep players down for about two months, which prevents them from gaining the Super 2 status that gives the top 17 percent of any service class an extra year of salary arbitration.
To burn a year of service time – to pull a Lincecum – is practically a fireable offense for a GM.
Because right now baseball’s rules force the players to earn less money and the owners to field sub-optimal teams. General managers make excuses to fans, players act like it’s OK and the vacuum inside which teams should operate – keep the best 25 players for that clubhouse – doesn’t exist.
“If we were in that vacuum, it would be a no-brainer,” Braves GM Frank Wren said. “All of them would be up.”

While I expect Santana to spend more than 20 days in AAA (the two month stint in Columbus seems more likely), here’s hoping that Passan is right in that this suppression of service time for monetary savings and player control down the road is something that is an easy decision in the next Collective Bargaining negotiations after 2011.

Remember when Manny Acta said of Luis Valbuena’s intended usage for 2010 that “we’re not in the business of developing 24-year-old platoon players”?

Through 7 games, Valbuena has 2 plate appearances against LHP, resulting in one K and one BB. Mark Grudzielanek has 3 plate appearances against LHP and 4 plate appearances against RHP. Valbuena has 25 plate appearances against RHP.
This situation…this bears some watching.

How about Jason Donald?
Through the first 5 games, Donald has gone 9 for 20 with 3 doubles and it is worth noting that the RH Donald has gone 8 for 17 against RHP. Donald’s career Minor League OPS vs. RHP is .796, and his career Minor League OPS against LHP is .821, meaning that the pronounced platoon split that Valbuena has shown in his Minor League career (.808 OPS vs. RHP, .630 OPS vs. LHP) is not an issue for Donald, who has split time between 2B and SS thus far in Columbus.

This has been written here before, but don’t be surprised if Jason Donald is the Indians’ everyday 2B at some point in 2010 with a possible short-term landing spot for Luis Valbuena possibly being a fill-in at 3B (he played 3B in 5 of his 23 games in Columbus last year) for the day when Jhonny Peralta is no longer a member of the Cleveland Indians.

The Indians attempt to avoid their second straight series sweep in an afternoon tilt against the Rangers in a season that feels like it could be a long one…in mid-April.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Lazy Sunday Digging Deep

After enjoying watching some Saturday baseball under the sun (and I’d like to know why this doesn’t happen more often) from Detroit and attempting to get out of the house so multiple realtors can bring through some (hopefully) interested parties, let’s get loose on a Lazy Sunday with a day full of Tribe day baseball and the final round of some golf tournament on tap.

And with that, we’re off…
Following the series in Chicago, enthusiasm was bubbling over about the way the Indians looked in that they looked like a different team out of the gate and not just because the names are not as well known and the expectations are appreciably lower. While the first two games in Detroit have tempered some of the enthusiasm with some sloppy fielding on Friday and Mitch Talbot looking like a pitcher that had thrown 9 MLB innings in his life, those positive vibes still remain…for me at least.

As soul-crushing as the last two years have been (and more on that later), I’m actually enjoying watching this team play, watching this team compete, and watching this team play with the sense of urgency that seemed to have been missing (whether it was or not) in years past. To me, the way that the team has played has been the most encouraging sign as the days when we were reminded over and over again to not take April losses at more than face value look to be over and the declarations that the season is a marathon and not a sprint don’t count as excuses for sloppy April baseball. That sense of urgency is evident, and for a young team with some talented players, it’s a combination that’s been pleasing on the eyes.

While the effort has been pleasing on the eyes, it’s no secret that there are some early-season disappointments, regardless of the amount of games having been played. In the first 5 games, the offense (seen as the strength of the team) has struggled as they’ve only outpaced the Royals in terms of runs scored in the first week or so of the season while averaging over 9 strikeouts a game…yes, 9 K per game as a team.

Twenty-six PLAYERS in the AL have more HR (2) than the Indians’ team (1) through 5 games and the entire lineup has struggled to get untracked in the early going, most notably The BLC, who has gone 2 for 18 (both singles) with 9 K in 5 games. Of course, that’s not to say that this is what should be expected from the Indians or from Choo, about whom a scout recently told Baseball Prospectus’ John Perrotto that “he’s been getting better every year and I really think this is the year he blossoms into a superstar. He has a lot of tools and he’s learned how to use them all.”

The offense should come around given the talent on hand, with LaPorta and Brantley (who was the subject of a fascinating prospect comparison with one Andy Marte at B-Pro) looking like they belong, and the most frustrating aspect of its inability to find a groove early in the season is that the absence of an offense has wasted the inexplicable fast start of the pitching staff, which has not given up more than 5 runs in any of the first 5 games.

While not completely widespread, there is encouragement from the starters AND the bullpen as Dave Huff looked the pitcher that blazed his way through the Minors in 2008 and not the pitcher that struggled mightily with inconsistency in his first complete on the big league roster in 2009. While the radar gun in Detroit may have overstated his velocity (and remember the 2006 playoffs when the Tigers’ relievers seemed to all be throwing in the triple digits), his performance cannot be overlooked as his command looked to tight enough that he could separate himself from the bevy of LHP that the Indians have recently found themselves with.

Though Huff’s start was probably the most promising, the most important dose of cautious optimism comes when looking at Fausto Carmona’s start on Wednesday. As Terry Pluto writes (in a piece that mentions a certain little site):
That was a different Fausto Carmona pitching in a cold White Sox park on Wednesday night. It was a Carmona who didn’t panic when a few calls went against him, a Carmona who didn’t look defeated when he gave up a home run. It was a Carmona who found a way to get through six innings, allowing three runs without his best stuff -- and getting stronger as the game progressed.
New pitching coach Tim Belcher and personal catcher Mike Redmond are forcing Carmona to throw more sliders and changeups because that forces him to slow down his motion -- and creates better control. Carmona's top fastball was 94 mph, but he averaged between 92-93.

With Carmona not getting the benefit of the doubt on Wednesday night (and Masterson wasn’t done any favors by the umps on Thursday), Pluto’s absolutely right in his assertion that it was a “different Fausto Carmona”, not undone by a couple of bad calls or throwing “get-me-over” fastballs in an attempt to (unsuccessfully) avoid piling up walks, only to be done in by extra-base hits. Carmona looked infinitely more composed and did not give in to the tight strike zone, changing speeds and relying on his slider (which he was throwing for strikes) when the home-plate umpire was not giving Carmona the low strike on his sinker. Whether anything can truly be gleaned from one start in April, Carmona showed a resolve that has been absent since the 2007 ALDS and battled through adversity in the way that he did in his break-out season that he’s hoping to prove was not the aberration.

Encouraging signs may abound on parts of the roster, although some perspective is needed as the Indians have faced off against two flawed AL Central rivals in the White Sox and the Tigers, who have failed to impress in any of the early-season battles. Sure, the bullpens for each team look solid (Fat Bobby Jenks excluded), but the White Sox and Tigers don’t look appreciably better than the “rebuilding” Indians in the short-term. As the White Sox offense looks atrocious, and could be even worse if they see one of their principals (read – Quentin, Carlos) miss an appreciable amount of time to an injury, while the Tigers line-up looks like a mish-mash of young and old with arms in the rotation that fall under the “wing and a prayer” category. If you had any thought that the Central was going to be surprisingly solid, you should have your answer after watching three of the teams play…even if it is just for a week.

Given that we’ve only seen 5 games, the question needs to be asked – could the Indians compete in a tremendously weak division if the offense can come around and the positives from the first week from the pitching staff project out going forward?

Sure, anything’s possible, but for whatever reason I find myself hesitant to buy into the idea that the team is better than we thought they would be and reticent to fully throw my heart and soul behind this current incarnation. Maybe it has something to do with it just being 5 games or maybe it has something to do with the idea that the game’s inherent lack of a competitive balance, but I’m having trouble investing myself fully in this young team, as exciting and as talent-laden as it may be. With the Home Opener at your doorstep (not mine, as I’ll be at Game #2 as usual, having pushed away the overtures to join the St. Patrick’s Day crowd to be with my people on a Wednesday night with 4,000 of my closest friends), this hesitance to get myself too vested in these guys is too hard to ignore.

To that end, Jay Levin of Let’s Go Tribe had a tremendous quasi-season preview that asked the question that nobody wants to ask in this age of competitive unbalance and standing at the precipice of what looks like a season to build on…at best:
So where does this leave us, as Indians fans heading into the 2010 season? Are we facing a season like 2003 or 2004? I don’t think so. I think we’re looking at 1992, coming off a truly awful season, with a bunch of promising talent in the farm system. Only this time, there is no new stadium around the corner, and there is no economic boom on the horizon. The Indians will not be hip in a few years; if we’re lucky, they’ll be edgy. Just as surely as Jobu can’t hit a curveball, there is no revenue salvation coming in the next few years. We will not have a top-five payroll, probably not even top ten.

So it’s gut-check time, my friends. We may well have two 76-win seasons coming our way now, but they won’t be followed by a jump that brings us within 10% of the Yankees payroll. If we win, it’ll only be because the moves our new GM made worked out really well, and that may or may not happen.

Are you ready for that? Ready to love Indians baseball, just because it’s Indians baseball?

While I know that answer for myself, it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile the horrific manner in which the 2008 and 2009 seasons ended and the decisions forced upon the Indians by an uneven playing field in MLB. After getting so close in 2007 and with a bright future purportedly of the team, we’re suddenly thrust into what could be a never-ending cycle that Rob Neyer of summed up very nicely in a piece praising Mr. “See You Soon”, Carlos Santana:
“The Indians are essentially playing one game: Prospect Acquisition. Get enough of them, and they can compete in a weak division every year. Don’t get enough, and just hope to get lucky every few years. At this point they’re doing well with hitters, but the jury’s still out (way out) with pitchers. And they have to hit on both.”

Reading that, I realized that this “hope” and this “luck” is where the Indians sit in MLB, among the great majority of the teams that are looking for the perfect storm that sat over the corner of Carnegie and Ontario in the mid-1990s and the one that the Twins are hoping to see blow over the Twin Cities with their new ballpark and with young talent. With the Indians possessing as much young talent as any other team in all of baseball, and with the wounds of 2008 an 2009 still so fresh and deep, a feeling has descended upon Indians’ fans. I don’t know if it necessarily constitutes apathy or indifference as much as it represents a cautious approach to become emotionally invested in a group of players, knowing the fate that is coming down the pike in a couple of years.

Longtime serial poster Cy Slapnicka summed up this feeling very well recently in the comments section:
I don’t know the team anymore (mostly) and am not nearly as excited in years past at getting to know them. It’s not like the early to mid 2000s or early 90s for me. I’ve grown tired of this process and clearly understand it is due to a bunch of millionaires (and billionaires) not being able to share and play together. In the past I saw organizational decisions as organizational BASEBALL decisions. Now I understand they are mostly financial decisions infused with SOME baseball logic. I almost lost my mind when we traded Baerga…I defended it when we traded Victor.

I can only assume I’m not alone. Baseball can't afford to lose fans like me. I regularly attend games, I buy their merchandise, I sign up for the baseball TV package, I follow the team year round. This is the first year where I really feel like this. And as each small to mid-market team goes through their rebuilding cycle, more will join my ranks. And by the time MLB gets their act together, we may have found other things to do with our summers.

This is very well-said and its one of the reasons that I find myself lacking the enthusiasm that I did in the early 90s or back in 2004 (when I actually began my tenure as a season-ticket holder, coming off of the 2003 season because I saw promise on the team), in that even if the light of the tunnel is visible for this team as it undergoes a “rebuild/reload/whatever”, I know that there’s a brick wall lurking somewhere out there. That brick wall lies somewhere past the light at the end of the tunnel and it waits for me, hoping to see my face plastered against it once again as it was when CC made his way to Milwaukee or when CP Lee and Victor found themselves in another uniform last July. The current arrangement in MLB creates that brick wall for me, waiting in the shadows until my hopes are built up just so and ready to dash them away again.

Perhaps something changes in MLB before this current batch of Indians’ matures and approaches Free Agency (though I’m not looking forward to the day when I explain to The DiaTot that Grady’s not an Indian anymore), but the recent tone taken by the large-market teams doesn’t present a lot of hope. That all being said, there’s a fascinating read from Bob Nightengale at USA Today (found in a roundabout way via a link from Vince at ’64 and Counting on how Dick Jacobs had to be talked out of joining the AL East) on the competitive imbalance in MLB that has been the hot topic all off-season here.

Nightengale hits on both sides of the argument, but the most interesting parts of the article come in the form of quotes and, more notably, the source of those quotes:
Brewers’ Owner Mark Attanasio – “I get it that the Yankees are good for baseball, and they’ve done a great job getting new revenues with their ballpark. But we have to make sure the playing field is level, and it’s not. The gap is getting bigger and bigger. How would you like to be Tampa Bay and have New York and Boston in your division? How do you compete with that?”

Rays’ President Matt Silverman
– “I’m glad people are talking about it, because we live it. The Yankees and Red Sox can put a product on the field every year that’s competitive. We can’t realistically compete for the playoffs 10 years in a row.”

Orioles’ President Andy McPhail – “There’s no baseball executive that thinks things should all be even, but when payrolls are three times yours, it can become insurmountable.”

Braves’ SP Tim Hudson – “The frustrating part is that when you’re on a small-market (team) and the players get good, you get traded once you make the big money. You can have that one good year once in a while, but for the next four or five years, you’re going to get your brains beat in.”

Rockies’ GM Dan O’Dowd
– “You can’t really make any short-term decisions. You don’t have to have a $200 million payroll to win the World Series, but to sustain success, your scouting and development has to be exceptional.”

Player Agent Ron Shapiro – “I know the cycle is difficult to overcome in small markets, but if it can happen in Minnesota, it can happen anywhere.”

Maybe the lines are finally be drawn in the sand by the small-and-mid market teams, no longer willing to play the role of the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotters of the East Coast.

Maybe real changes will come about (and I’m still waiting for someone to tell me why this isn’t a good jumping off point) in the next collective bargaining agreement.

Truthfully, I’m not holding out much hope for that to happen and knowing that I’ll eventually be answering questions from the now-3-month old “new” DiaperTribe about Choo (who The DiaTot claims is the baby’s favorite player because he says his name when he sneezes) until Scott Boras takes him away to Los Angeles or some other large market city, I’ll get sucked into this current and burgeoning incarnation of the Indians with hope springing eternal every Spring and enjoying baseball with my family because it is just that…baseball with my family.

Alas, it is the lot that I have drawn in life as an Indians’ fan standing at the bottom of another hill to climb with the 2010 season ahead of me, knowing that there’s a cliff out there somewhere to fall off of before I reach the summit.

But I keep climbing, against all odds and against all logic that the Indians and MLB will right this ship heading for the rocks. The only reason that I know as to why is something that was inexplicably drilled into my head before the age of 10 – “Indians Fever…Be a Believer”…and I am, and I always will be, sometimes leading with my heart instead of my head and ready to buy into the idea that if a couple of things break right for the Indians in a given year, all will be right with the world and the Indians will find themselves on the top.

After all, I am an Indians’ fan…