Sunday, April 24, 2011

Reveling in Relevance on A Lazy Sunday

With the Indians sitting on a two game losing “streak”, resulting from a bullpen meltdown and the staff ace looking like the lost soul that he was on Opening Day, the doubt has begun to creep in again, hasn’t it? When everything seems to be going so right (as it had for the first three weeks of the season), the ebb and the flow of an MLB season is an easy thing to forget in that any team is going to go through their hot streaks and their down stretches simply because of the length of the season and the nature of the game.

However, if we’re not supposed to get excited about the hot start because “it’s too early” (and it still is), the team struggling in a couple of games shouldn’t force any grand pronouncement that the bottom is about to fall out of any team at any one time. There’s plenty still to come and as the Easter eggs that were all over the house have been found and as the sugar rush of Easter morning is upon my boys, let’s take a quick break from the Easter holiday to get loose on a Lazy One…

By now you know that national analysts and publications are weighing en masse to the Tribe’s start, from Rob Neyer providing an appetizer of sorts to Jay Jaffe of B-Pro serving up something that can stick to your bones, going into the deep recesses of the Indians start while providing the best takeaway line at the end of his piece, writing that, “Given all of that, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Indians can contend, and at the very least, it appears they may be about to emerge from the doldrums. That alone would make this a positive season in Cleveland; anything else would be just gravy.”

That conclusion by Jaffe (which provides the proper context for the 2011 season) comes at the end of an article that is better than most of these pieces on the Indians, with the Cliffs’ Notes version of nearly all of these articles going something like this:
“Can the Indians keep this up?
They’re a great story given what’s happened to the Indians and Cleveland in the past few years and surely they’re in for some regression, but it’s possible that their starting pitching has turned a corner and their bullpen looks solid. There’s no way that the current offensive contributors can keep this up, but Choo and Santana aren’t hitting yet, so when they do, we’ll see how the Indians’ season takes shape. Certainly, they’re not this good, but the other teams in the AL Central are all flawed so MAYBE the Indians can stay in the pennant race.”

Doesn’t that read like every national piece that you’ve read on the Indians in the past week?
By no means am I saying that the analysis is faulty (though I would caution all of these writers to be careful out on that limb that the Indians won’t have a .650 winning percentage on the year), but it points to the idea that nobody really knows what’s coming for the Indians, as much as Keith Law may want to justify his pre-season feelings on the Erie Warriors with a healthy dose of cold water for the North Coast.

Their start has been a tremendous surprise on the North Coast, where nearly everything has gone right as the rest of the AL Central teams find themselves in unenviable positions. The attention that the Tribe received is appreciated, in that it represents a departure from what’s been seen in the past few years (and Selig says Pujols in StL is “good for baseball”, which I never heard about CC in Cleveland) about the Tribe, but no analyst or publication is certain about whether the Indians will simply represent a “nice” early season story or if the current team has staying power.

While it would be nice to point to the Indians having the second-best run differential in the AL, the third-best run differential in all of MLB and say “THERE…there is your proof that they’re going to sustain this”, it’s still throwing darts. According to Baseball Reference’s “Simple Rating System”, which takes run differential and strength of schedule into account, the Indians, the Indians have the best SRS in the young season and Baseball Prospectus gives them a 20% shot of making the playoffs (yeah, I just went there…in April), but is that anything more than just exciting at this point?

Truthfully, I don’t know and neither does anyone else…
That said, what was exciting this week was to open my current edition of Sports Illustrated (an island of unparalleled sports writing in the ocean with the 4-letter “name”) and see a piece on The BLC from Albert Chen. The entire story is worth your time as it explores Choo’s odyssey from South Korea, through the M’s farm system, past his Tommy John surgery in 2007 (boy, would he have looked nice on that 2007 Tribe team in FR), into his current status as a bona-fide superstar in MLB, if an oft-overlooked one.

Only once does Chen devolve into the “small-market, downtrodden franchise” narrative that has carried the day since the 2008 season and Chen’s authorship of the article reminded me of another time that Chen was tasked with telling the story of a team from the North Coast, one that represented a “surprise” to MLB during the 2005 season. You remember the piece…the one that accompanied this group of players, so full of wide-eyed talent (and you’ll notice that there are no pitchers there, despite the presence of two future Cy Young Award winners on the staff as that 2005 offense was bursting with potential) with their future in front of them.

Regardless, take a look at this little snippet from that and realize that this is from September of 2005:
With the majors’ 26th-highest payroll at $41.5 million ($14 million less than the famously low-budget A’s), the Indians have ascended to the wild-card lead so suddenly and unexpectedly that even their own fans, it seems, haven’t noticed. Although they are poised to advance to the postseason for the first time in four years, the Indians rank 25th in attendance. “It’s been the best sports season in Cleveland that no one saw,” one team official groaned last Friday night, when only 26,078 fans (half its capacity) turned out at Jacobs Field to see the Tribe beat 2004 AL Cy Young winner Johan Santana for the first time in 19 tries.
In June 2002, seven months after taking over a team that had won six AL Central titles in the last seven years, general manager Mark Shapiro set about dismantling it…Reporters criticized the rookie G.M. for tearing apart a perennial contender, and fans called radio talk shows comparing Shapiro to reviled former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell.

Fast-forward three years. The rebuilt Indians have risen as contenders again, not only for this year but well beyond.

That 2005 team had the “26th-highest payroll at $41.5 million” and it is worth noting here that the 2011 team has the…wait for it…26th-highest payroll in MLB at $49.1M. But that’s not the compelling point of the team, nor is the fact that Ben Broussard (who would be traded for…again, wait for it…Shin-Soo Choo) is quoted throughout the piece.

Rather, the interesting thing is that it takes a look at where the Indians came from in 2002 (when Colon was dealt) and how their GM was criticized for “tearing apart a perennial contender”. Then with the benefit of being able to “fast-forward three years”, Chen asserts that the “rebuilt Indians have risen as contenders again, not only for this year but well beyond”. Of course, we all know how that story ended with the Indians contending really only in that 2005 season, then again in 2007 as they were done in by slow starts, regressions from key players, injuries to key players, and a pipeline from the farm system that was producing only dust and cobwebs.

But it’s fascinating to read that piece again and realize how bright the future of the team seemed in those halcyon September days in 2005. Even more so how it provides some context to the current group of Indians, who just a season-and-a-half after the soul-crushing trade of their (second) ace, as the Indians are back on the national radar and playing at a surprisingly high level, particularly for such a young team.

It’s important to note that the 2005 piece was written in September and that the love for the Indians is coming merely in April, but that doesn’t make reading about that former SI cover boy, one Grady Sizemore, any less enjoyable whether the keystrokes are being delivered by Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, who wrote that, “What can be said unequivocally: Sizemore, longtime Cleveland Indians cynosure, onetime Sports Illustrated cover boy and sometime superstar, looks a lot more like the player who made more than 700 plate appearances four years in a row than the schlump of 2010 crippled by that stupid knee” or Pete Gammons, who writes of Sizemore that, “Because he is such an unusual person and player, and because the Indians and Cleveland deserve good fortune, everyone in the game roots for Sizemore to make it back.”

While you may have had to look up “cynosure” from the Passan piece and realize that the rest of the AL Central (if not the entire AL) may not be rooting for Sizemore “to make it back” given that he was a truly elite talent from 2005 to 2008, there’s no question that the good feelings are flowing in Cleveland, recent two-game “losing streak” considered.

Which brings us back to that 2005 piece from SI, as Chen wrote that, “The rebuilt Indians have risen as contenders again, not only for this year but well beyond” and while it may seem presumptive to assume the same about the current group of Indians, what the first month of the season has shown is that the current group of Indians is decidedly talented. Perhaps many of the players fall into the Ben Broussard/Jason Davis/Fernando Cabrera category eventually, but there seems to be enough young talent at the parent club (and just beneath it) to think that this first month of the 2011 season may be a harbinger of things to come for Cleveland, even if they won’t “come” THIS season.

Remember, that group of players from 2005 were almost the same team that was within one game of 1st place in the AL Central in mid-August of 2004, only to go 17-27 from that point forward, finishing 80-82. Perhaps a similar fate awaits the 2011 club, but looking at the current group, it’s hard not to look at how long everyone is under club control and see a bright future, even as Scott Boras plots The BLC’s exit from Cleveland…due to the fact that he’s under club control for this season AND next season AND the season after that.

Regardless, here’s a breakdown of Indians’ players and their LAST year of club control. For this little breakdown, I’m only including players currently on the parent club and those that likely figure into the long-term future of the team, regardless of the fact that they may remain under club control for the next few years, so…sorry, Justin Germano and Jack Hannahan. Also, I’m not including the veterans that are currently working off of one-year deals, and I’m going to assume that all available club options will be picked up, even if that may be unlikely in certain cases:
Under Club Control Through 2012
Grady Sizemore

Under Club Control Through 2013

Travis Hafner
SS Choo
Asdrubal Cabrera
Rafael Perez
Joe Smith

Under Club Control Through 2014
Fausto Carmona
Justin Masterson
Chris Perez

Under Club Control Through 2015

Tony Sipp
Matt LaPorta
Mitch Talbot
Lou Marson

Under Club Control Through 2016
Mike Brantley
Carlos Santana
Carlos Carrasco
Jason Donald
Josh Tomlin

Think back now to 2005 and how the future seemed limitless with that stable of players in the fold for the coming years. The same rationale should exist for this group of players, even if the first month of the season only serves as a tease for what could be and is more likely an indication what is probably coming in the future.

The Indians have no notable FA after this year as they do retain that club option on Sizemore and as I’ve written before, it’s possible that they pick up Sizemore’s option for 2012 in exchange for a couple of years added onto his current deal, just as I could see them extending Asdrubal or Masterson this year or after the season to keep their burgeoning “core” together longer, much in the same way that they inked the principal players of the mid-to-late-2000s (and CC, Lee, Victor, Sizemore, and Peralta were all signed to deals that bought out FA years before the Hafner and Westbrook deals) to keep a group of players together for an assumed extended run.

Certainly, Choo’s going year-to-year with Boras as his agent and, as has been addressed here before, if he’s willing to eschew the financial security of a long-term deal to be paid commensurately with his previous years’ production, the Indians should simply go with it and hope that Choo DOES earn quite a bit of money, because it means that he’s still producing at an elite level. To this point in the 2011 season, The BLC hasn’t done that this team is winning WITHOUT Choo and while a productive BLC certainly makes consistent winning easier to fathom, it does seem that the team may be talented enough around him to win games, with or without elite production from him.

But that’s a discussion for two full years from now and for now, Choo’s appearance in my mailbox means that the Indians are relevant again…and not just on the local sports scene. While the pieces will continue to come out regarding whether or not this Indians’ team is “for real”, complete with the “I told you so” rhetoric and “color me surprised” articles coming from all corners, perhaps it’s time to do something that we’re unaccustomed to doing on the North Coast – live in the moment.

Revel in the relevance of this Indians team and enjoy the evolution of another group of talented young players maturing and evolving as a group. Maybe there won’t be an SI photo shoot this September with a bunch of guys looking like they’re sitting in a Portrait Innovations and maybe this quick start does turn out to be a mere mirage. However, it’s just as possible that this is the beginning of something special and as much as a two game “losing streak” has some gripping and lowering expectations, the team that the Indians have been in the early season has not come about because of “flukes” or merely fortuitous bounces. The Indians have won games through solid fundamental baseball, strong starting pitching, a lockdown bullpen, and an effective lineup that has scored the 2nd most runs in the AL…without contributions from the middle of their lineup.

The 2011 season could go a number of ways and, with the Indians now having the attention of the nation and (hopefully) their own region, they still have a lot of baseball to prove that they’re not a fluke and that there is some gold in ‘dem ‘dere hills and not just pyrite that has everyone unnecessarily excited.
Regardless of the outcome, now comes the fun part…finding out.


karloso said...

Very nice piece, Paul!

In many of the past seasons, a small string of losses was a harbringer of things to come, largely because our bullpen was always living on the edge of medicocrity or worse, especially our closers.

We never had a closer that was consistently lights out as Chris Perez has been for the past 3/4 of a season equivalent. So, I would like to believe that the meltdown of our bullpen on Thursday was different.

There is no reason to think that this is the beginning of a string of bullpen failures, which I think in the end is the difference between a long slide down and an ability to stay afloat or make advances in the standings.


Jason said...

Great piece, as usual.

One thing that keeps bothering me is how they swept the Red Sox. The Sox basically gave them the second and third games of that series with a couple of gaffes. Of course, if the Sox were indeed worlds better than the Indians it wouldn't come down to a single poor decision of Varitek not tagging Buck or of a pinch runner falling while trying to get back to second. Nevertheless, I'm holding back my enthusiasm until I see them beat some of the better teams consistently.

What I am enjoying is the anticipation of every game. After the first two games I figured that the season was over, as did most of us. It's nice to have meaningful baseball as we look to May. I'm really looking forward to seeing where they stand on June 1.

Nick said...

That was a great read Paul. What wasn't a good read was the Gammons article. That guy is a stupid Boston muppet. Somehow, in an article about Grady, he manages to throw in a line about some Saux player (Kalish) that the majority of fans have no clue about. He also decides to throw in another cut on C-town and how it's "economically depressed." Hey Pete, things here could be better, but maybe do a google search before you write about things other than baseball. ESPN got rid of you because you are a Boston homer (which is typically a job requirement) and you have a radio face. Seems that he's still not over the tribe's sweep of his beloved Saux and loves to take shots at Grady and the city. The synopsis of the story: Grady is odd because he plays too hard and Cleveland sucks, and by the way the Saux have a guy like Grady. Please go away Pete. Thank you for letting me vent.