Sunday, September 04, 2011

A Lazy Sunday Looking for Full Strength

Labor Day is nearly upon us and – due to a Miggy Cabrera walk-off – the Indians find themselves alone in 2nd in the AL Central. After the Tribe finishes up today’s tilt against the Royals today, they play their next 7 games against the Tigers and the White Sox, beginning a stretch of games in which they will play 14 of their final 25 games against Detroit and Chicago. While we all ready ourselves for our Labor Day “festivities” (and finding Bells’ Third Coast Beer late last week began my “celebrations” early), the Indians ready themselves for the final stretch of games that will – stop me if you’ve heard this before – definitively decide how 2011 will be remembered in terms of whether the Indians can somehow win this division or if they end up falling short, due to either the continued torrid pace by the Tigers, the White Sox pulling off one of their patented runs, or if the Indians are done in by their own inadequacies or, more likely, injuries.
With that, let’s get loose on a Lazy One…

This is not news in any corner, but with the Indians doing their best to insert themselves back into this AL Central race (with the Tigers doing their best to run away and hide as they now have the 4th best record in the AL, taking advantage of their schedule), they stand at the precipice of being able to really make some hay in this divisional race as they welcome the Tigers to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. While most people remember what happened the last time the two teams faced off (the lost weekend in Detroit, Ubaldo blowing up, Fukudome out at home, all beginning the tumble that carried into the Seattle series), let’s remember that the last time the two faced off in Cleveland that the Tribe had the opportunity to sweep the Tigers, with the final game being pitched by the monster that is Justin Verlander preventing the Indians from sweeping the Tigers back then.

Unfortunately for the Tribe, Verlander figures to pitch on Wednesday (against Cleveland’s own Justin Credible), but the Indians have started to right themselves since the Mariners’ series and are simply not going away. As things continue to fall apart on the South Side, both on the field and off (which makes me sad, because I always felt that the Williams/Guillen combo was what kept the HUGE-payroll White Sox from owning the Central) and with the sense that at some point, the issues between the Front Office and manager HAVE to filter down to affect the performance of the Pale Hose (although we’ve been thinking that for years now), there is a possibility that the Central race could come into very clear view as the Tribe heads off to Chicago after the Tigers leave and this unbalanced schedule really throws its weight around, allowing each team to essentially control its own destiny.

But that’s still what’s coming…what’s already happened is that we’re still on board on this ride, about to hit Labor Day with the Tribe not just relevant in the divisional race, but with the opportunity to take advantage of what lies ahead of them. It’s been said by everyone with even a passing interest in this team, but this team is a year ahead of schedule and the fact that they are where they are is not just exciting…it’s fun.

With the Tigers about to arrive into town, the anticipation is palpable and the butterflies are already fluttering for most. There is a pervasive nervousness of not knowing what waits around the next turn which, after the last few Septembers, reminds us all what a pennant race feels like, with every game under the microscope and with wins and losses magnified in the context of scoreboard-watching.

Of course, with the final month staring the Indians in the face, the biggest question facing them has little to do with whether the Tigers are able to continue their torrid pace or if the White Sox will (finally) implode in upon themselves as the Indians’ more pressing concern is whether Manny Acta actually will have enough warm bodies to choose from to fill out a lineup card on a nightly basis.

As Asdrubal Cabrera fouled a ball off of his knee on Friday, there was an overwhelming sense of dread as he hobbled around and the idea that he was about to join the already-cluttered DL was hard to ignore. Of course, Asdrubal would hit a HR in that AB (the deciding run in the game) in a simple at-bat that seems more telling about the Indians’ season than anyone could imagine – fearing for the worst and being surprised by the best.

Now, it is true that Asdrubal would leave the field in the bottom of the inning with X-rays coming back negative as we all wait with bated breath as to how Asdrubal’s injury affects his long-term availability because – let’s be honest about this – there’s just not many more hits that this team could take and still legitimately expect them to continue to pull themselves off of the mat. With news that Asdrubal’s injury will only render him “day to day”, to look up and down the Indians’ current lineup is astonishing in terms of who is NOT in it.

While that’s not telling any trade secrets, realize that the Indians have 6 players with an OPS over .725 on the year and with Asdrubal nursing that knee injury, they could have 5 of those 6 players out of the lineup as the Indians attempt to make a move in the division if he’s forced to miss more than just a couple of games with lingering soreness. Certainly, Asdrubal (whose 54 XBH are 2nd only to Troy Tulowitzki among SS) could continue to be that offensive linchpin (although this leg thing stinks of the “lingering injury” that isn’t enough to DL him but will affect his effectiveness) and Santana (and it is here that I point out that The Axe Man has a .861 OPS since mid-June with 14 HR in his last 66 games) have largely carried the offense by being the only two (real) contributors who haven’t been injured all season, but consider the list of names on the Indians that have an OPS+ over 100 that have more than 75 PA on the year:
Indians Players with OPS+ over 100 – More than 75 PA
Kipnis – 160 OPS+
Hafner – 127 OPS+
Asdrubal – 123 OPS+
Santana – 121 OPS+
Donald – 116 OPS+
Sizemore – 112 OPS+
Choo – 107 OPS+
Fukudome – 105 OPS+

While Donald and Fukudome have been pleasant surprises since arriving from Columbus and Chicago, with Cabrera’s injury putting his health closer to that of the existing quartet of the walking wounded, it’s going to be difficult to see this team legitimately staring down, much less making a move on, the Tigers or the White Sox with so many of their effective regulars out. At this point, the only hope that the Indians may have is to get healthy…and to get healthy in a hurry.

How much Thome’s “back” will allow him to contribute now that he’s “back” in Cleveland (see what I did there) remains to be seen, but until some of the other principal offensive threats come back, Thome’s presence in the lineup 2 out of every 3 days isn’t going to be enough to carry the offense. He may sell tickets (on the weekends only…apparently) and his return has certainly resulted in some great articles on him (with AC coming through again, putting his return into a nice context with the impending FA in small markets), but Thome is a 41-year-old part-time player at this point in his career and as much as it would cement his legacy as an Indian if he were to do anything close to putting this team on his back…at his age, he shouldn’t be putting anything on that back.

Obviously, this being Cleveland, we have been teased by hope in recent days that Kipnis might be coming back for the Tigers series and with news that Hafner may be back at some point this season still (and I’ll be fascinated to see how the Indians handle the DH load between Thome and Hafner if this happens), while Grady’s rehab stint carries on down I-77 as this glimmer of hope that those three may return soon offers some idea that the Indians just need to hang on until the recovery room empties out and the Indians get back close to anything resembling “full strength”.

For the Indians to even pretend like they’re at “full strength”, they’re going to need Asdrubal’s leg injury to not be of the “lingering” variety, get Kipnis AND Sizemore back this week, then Choo (whose 15-day DL stint is retroactive to Aug. 28th) to come back when he’s eligible and Hafner back (in some capacity) to give the offense some teeth. That may be fairly obvious, but until you actually see the decimation to their lineup in terms of their best players simply not being available. As much as Hannahan is a treat to watch in the field and is easy to root for and as Donald’s hustle and gap power make him likeable while seeing Chisenhall’s potential (and potential shortcomings), the Indians aren’t going to be able to stay within sniffing distance of 1st place without some good news on the health front.

Perhaps it could be said that this team HAS hung around against all odds, but winning games and treading water against the Royals and A’s is not the same as going against the (relative) heavyweights in their own division that they’re preparing themselves to square off against. So now the question becomes whether this team could actually get healthy as the face off against the Tigers and White Sox and, perhaps more importantly, will these guys that are scheduled to return (Kipnis, Sizemore, Choo, Hafner, and even Cabrera) are going to be anything close to 100% effective. As we’ve seen in recent weeks (and years), getting an offensive player back and getting a fully-healthy offensive player back (who is able to contribute) are two entirely different notions.

As the Indians enter the most important part of their schedule (and that’s only the 7th or 8th time that’s been written…since the All-Star Break), the question becomes whether these players will come back, whether they’ll truly be healthy, and (even if they are) if it will be too late?

Obviously, every team in MLB goes through their injury issues, but for the Indians, his injury issue is one that isn’t going away anytime soon…and I’m not just talking about this year as the report that Cookie Carrasco may be heading for Tommy John surgery made the rounds late last week. While the initial report came from a Venezuelan newspaper and had a bit of “I heard from a friend who…heard from a friend who…heard it from another” to it, the name that was cited in the paper as the source was actually Hector Rondon, Carrasco’s fellow countryman who has just started throwing again after undergoing TJ surgery himself in April of 2010.

The Indians are denying the report as “premature”, but if Carrasco was told that he’s likely to have TJ surgery, wouldn’t it make sense for him to call a teammate and fellow Venezuelan in Rondon who had just undergone the surgery to pick his brain about the procedure and the recovery?

That may be projecting and just guessing, but the fear that Carrasco’s arm injury was more serious that it was being reported was hard to ignore the SECOND time he went on the DL about a month ago. If true, this is terrible news for the Indians (and not just because Carrasco was part of the Lee deal) as losing a young, talented pitcher to any surgery is tough to swallow. There is a reason that TINSTAAPP is a known acronym (to some at least) and before all of the “damaged goods” stuff starts with Knapp and now Carrasco on the shelf, let’s all realize that Carrasco has thrown 388 innings since joining the Indians’ organization, so it’s not as if his arm was just waiting to go “SPROING” from the time he arrived to Cleveland.

At first glance, Carrasco’s injury doesn’t overly affect the final month of the 2011 season, although I’d rather have the Cookie we had in June for this stretch run than any of the gaggle of Columbus arms that figure to fill out 40% of the rotation until (or is it if) Tomlin return. Instead, if Carrasco does head to Birmingham to have the surgery, it REALLY affects the 2012 team in terms of rotational depth and puts quite a bit of pressure on Tomlin (and let’s hope his “right elbow soreness” doesn’t result in similar news any time soon) and the Huff/Gomez/McAllister troika to fill out the back-end of the rotation and provide depth with White and Pomeranz no longer in the organization. Perhaps Rondon can recover quickly to become a legitimate option (and it’s hard to remember that he was a top prospect in this organization heading into last year) again or that Scott Barnes continues to assert himself as a legitimate option for the rotation (remember, he hurt his knee, not his arm) next year, providing some quality depth for the Tribe in 2012. But the possibility of Carrasco being lost for all of 2012 is sobering injury news in a year that has been full of sobering injury news.

Whether the Indians can overcome their mounting injuries (immediate or long-term) to continue to stay relevant in the AL Central race today and tomorrow is a question that can only be answered on the field and, with the Tribe set to face off against the Tigers and White Sox in the next week, the answers about their ability to stick around in the divisional race “today” figure to start coming.

They’re attempting to win this thing with a strong top-of-the-rotation, a lineup put together with chicken wire and gum, and a bullpen that somehow seems to be holding this whole thing together. For a town like Cleveland, it’s an endearing group of players trying to win against all of the odds that are becoming increasingly stacked against them. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the ride’s been fun…let’s just hope that there isn’t any kind of sinking feeling over the next week and more related to being on this ride that’s been full of so many ups and downs all season long.


sjwebber28 said...

Great article as always Paul, how these Tribe "comeback kids" are still in it, amazes me. You hit the nail on the head in the last paragraph, when you described this team with the top of the rotation strength, the glue that is the bullpen and the lineup that more resembles a AAA team. Here we are on Monday, September 5th talking about the Tribe still being relevant, which is a complete surprise for everyone. We should all know by this time Wednesday whether the last 25 games will matter, since we'll facing Verlander that day and we could either be 4.5, 6.5, or 8.5 down at that point. It will be an interesting week!

Halifax said...


this team doesn't have the offensive punch to mount the kind of run to overcome a 7.5 game deficit, even if the Tigers fade -- which looks less and less like a possibility every day.

I'm happy for Victor, who has really made the Tigers scary protecting Cabrera in the lineup.

acblack said...

well it looks like our worst fears came true, carrasco won't be available until LATE 2012.. this is probably way too early to be thinking about BUT: could/would/should the indians consider looking for some pitching help via free agency in the offseason if their 'window of contention' is realistically supposed to start next year?